So you can read my books

Monday, August 27, 2012


David Streitfeld of THE NEW YORK TIMES has heralded the new Tom Sawyer of self-publishing:

Todd Rutherford -

When he was 7, he bought a copy of PLAYBOY from a chum, turned around, selling one picture from the magazine to others for a dollar each! His father soon stopped that scheme.

Now, Amazon and Google has stopped his latest one.

What scheme?

Instead of trying to cajole others to review a client’s work, why not cut out the middleman and write the review himself? Then it would say exactly what the client wanted — that it was a terrific book. A shattering novel. A classic memoir. Will change your life. Lyrical and gripping, Stunning and compelling. Or words to that effect.

In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.

Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.

Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth.

They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet.

The Federal Trade Commission has issued guidelines stating that all online endorsements need to make clear

when there is a financial relationship, but enforcement has been minimal and there has been a lot of confusion in the blogosphere over how this affects traditional book reviews.

Twenty percent of Amazon’s top-selling e-books are self-published. They do not get to the top without adulation, lots and lots of it.

I can attest to that since my own ebooks are suffering from the bends!

Mr. Rutherford’s insight was that reviews had lost their traditional function.

They were no longer there to evaluate the book or even to describe it but simply to vouch for its credibility,

the way doctors put their diplomas on examination room walls.

A reader hears about a book because an author is promoting it, and then checks it out on Amazon. The reader sees favorable reviews and is reassured that he is not wasting his time.

Amazon's reviews conjure a strange world:

For example, here’s a derisive notice, recently posted on Amazon:

“I was utterly bored.”

A second reader offered this: “Mediocre.”

A third: “This isn’t good prose.”

All three were offering their opinions of “The Great Gatsby.”

Quite a few reviews of the book, the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic that’s among the greatest American novels of the last century, deem it somewhere between so-so and poor.

Back to our modern Tom Sawyer:

As soon as the orders started pouring in, Mr. Rutherford realized that he could not produce all the reviews himself.

How little, he wondered, could he pay freelance reviewers and still satisfy the authors? He figured on $15. He advertised on Craigslist and received 75 responses within 24 hours.

Potential reviewers were told that if they felt they could not give a book a five-star review, they should say so and would still be paid half their fee, Mr. Rutherford said. As you might guess, this hardly ever happened.

Amazon and other e-commerce sites have policies against paying for reviews. But Mr. Rutherford did not spend much time worrying about that. “I was just a pure capitalist,” he said. Amazon declined to comment.

Mr. Rutherford’s busiest reviewer was Brittany Walters-Bearden, now 24, a freelancer who had just returned to the United States from a stint in South Africa.

She had recently married a former professional wrestler, and the newlyweds had run out of money and were living in a hotel in Las Vegas when she saw the job posting.

Ms. Walters-Bearden had the energy of youth and an upbeat attitude.

“A lot of the books were trying to prove creationism,” she said. “I was like, I don’t know where I stand, but they make a solid case.”

For a 50-word review, she said she could find “enough information on the Internet so that I didn’t need to read anything, really.” For a 300-word review, she said, “I spent about 15 minutes reading the book.” She wrote three of each every week as well as press releases. In a few months, she earned $12,500.

Even the famous John Locke, author who sold a million ebooks, used Mr. Rutherford:

One thing that made a difference is not mentioned in “How I Sold One Million E-Books.” That October, Mr. Locke commissioned Mr. Rutherford to order reviews for him, becoming one of the fledging service’s best customers. “I will start with 50 for $1,000, and if it works and if you feel you have enough readers available, I would be glad to order many more,” he wrote in an Oct. 13 e-mail to Mr. Rutherford. “I’m ready to roll.”

Mr. Locke was secure enough in his talents to say that he did not care what the reviews said. “If someone doesn’t like my book,” he instructed, “they should feel free to say so.” He also asked that the reviewers make their book purchases directly from Amazon, which would then show up as an “Amazon verified purchase” and increase the review’s credibility.

In a phone interview from his office in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Locke confirmed the transaction. “I wouldn’t hesitate to buy reviews from people that were honest,” he said. Even before using, he experimented with buying attention through reviews. “I reached out every way I knew to people to try to get them to read my books.”

Many of the 300 reviews he bought through GettingBookReviews were highly favorable, although it’s impossible to say whether this was because the reviewers genuinely liked the books, or because of their well-developed tendency toward approval, or some combination of the two.

Mr. Locke is unwilling to say that paying for reviews made a big difference. “Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful,” he said. “But it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience.”

Mr. Rutherford, who says he is a little miffed that the novelist never gave him proper credit, is more definitive. “It played a role, for sure,” he said. “All those reviews said to potential readers, ‘You’ll like it, too.’ ”

{Read the entire article in THE NEW YORK TIMES. It is a mind-blower}


What do all of you think about this?

It is not looking good for the city, so I leave you with ...


  1. Many people do have a price at which principles go out the door.

    Then how much validity do these reviews have? How many reviews are honest on the backs of books and how many are paybacks or bought?

    It's still a subjective taste. It seems to me 'you can get anything you want' for the right amount of cash.

  2. Book reviews should be honest. Bad. Good. or indifferent. No one should have to pay for a GOOD review. Either the book was good or not. I've bought items, books, movies because of a great review only to find it sucked.


  3. D.G.:
    I'm wondering if the famous John Locke did this, just how many "good" reviews Amanda Hocking bought?

    Do we who play by the rules of honesty and fair play have any chance at all?

    Thanks for your insightful comments, Roland

    I always knew that some of the reviews were biased. But I had no idea you could buy FIFTY good reviews at a pop!

    Like you, I have misled by a majority of good reviews, only to be disappointed. Now, I am beginning to understand why.

    The ghost of Mark Twain is sitting beside just laughing up a storm. Sigh. :-)

  4. Not surprising, to be honest. The world is a cesspool of capitalism and those with deep pockets always come out on top.

  5. I knew this happened, because I've seen ads from review mills, but I had no idea how high up the food chain it went. And as DG says in the comments, now we don't know how many other indie superstars got there by buying reviews. This devalues the real reader review, which means readers AND authors lose.

  6. Michael:
    I fear you are right. My study of the American Robber Barons and other Movers & Shakers in financial history suggest you are correct in your accessment.

    Yes, I am surprised as you how high up the "prose" chain this can be proven to have gone. Forget THE HUNGER GAMES. It has become THE HYPE GAMES. And I am afraid you are right that this scandal will now make us doubt ALL postive reviews and believe only the negative ones! Authors and Readers both lose!!

  7. This is despicable. But given how much indie authors (any author for that matter) stake their ego's on reviews, I can see why they would pay to get their names at the top of the lists with paid reviews. As the one girl said, it takes nothing to read a few pages here and there and use that to show the book was read. Lots of buzz words that can be used for reviews.

    Its a shame how everything is for sale these days.


  8. What do I think of it?

    Well, I'll tell ya if you send me $99.00....

    OK -- just kidding!

    Frankly, I find this repugnant and reprehensible, but I am unfortunately not surprised. When it comes to finding new ways to cheat and coerce cash out of people, humans are extraordinarily creative.

    I'd love to see this lead to some sort of way to verify reviews, although frankly, I can't see Amazon or any on-line retailer being willing to shell out a whole lot of money to do so until it begins to seriously affect their own reputation.

    And personally, I'll tend to rely much more on the opinions and 'reviews' of people I know and trust rather than on whatever I might read from an unknown online reviewer.

    But then I always have anyways.

  9. I came to find your RFW post and ended up stopping to read this as I had heard about it before.

    I'm one of those people who tend to read the bad reviews on Amazon first and then browse the good ones and look at the difference in numbers between 1 and 5 star reviews. That and a sample download tells me all I need to know.

    Every time you look around there's something else that turns publishing on its ear, but then, it's the same with most things. Sadly, this just makes the concept of working hard for anything seem like a joke.

  10. Donna:
    Sadly, I believe this is more about money than about ego. Sure, I want you to like my book, but $100 is $100! The more plausible, positive reviews a book has, the more likely others will gamble buying it. The higher up Amazon's lists it goes, increasing both exposure and sales until it reaches the coveted top ten.

    Again not ego but laziness. The first 10 books on the best sellers list comprise the first page. And the first page is what most of the browsers only scan.

    People can't buy what they don't know about. Sad.

    LOL. Sadly, it is all about exposure. And like with my reply to Donna, the more positive reviews the higher sales tend to go which prompts word of mouth. And word of mouth is what turns our unnoticed ebook into a good seller.

    Victor thanks you for looking for his tango with death. :-)

    Like you, I tend to read the negative reviews first. In fact, I once BOUGHT a book due to the insensitive, personally insulting review so that I could read it for myself and post a fair one -- which I did, and it was a positive one. The critic had just been mean-spirited and cruel.

    Like you, I am beginning to feel that hard work and quality writing have little to do with book success these days. Sigh.

    Thanks for caring enough to visit and then chat awhile. May your book sales be high, Roland