9/23 Update: Someone contacted Fiverr about a breach of privacy regarding the “quotes” featured in the accusation (which were the only real piece of “evidence” in the entire report). Fiverr confirmed the accuser never worked for their company.


I’m loath to give it any traffic, but you may have heard of a so-called scandal making the rounds: the “Fiverr Report,” which claims to blow the lid off a number of bestselling indie authors who’ve bought fake reviews.

Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s total nonsense.

It’s easy to believe a lot of the big indies got where they are through fraud. Hell, early success John Locke admitted to buying reviews, and if you followed the rabbit trail on his fakes, it led to a lot of other self-published authors. Of course, few of the authors indicated in that scandal were big-time or even midlist indies. Most of the people who appeared to have used the same service as Locke fell into a far different category of author: people who had published one or two or three books, typically in paperback, and had bought a handful of reviews (1-10) to try to increase their nonexistent sales.

This was the pattern because authors who are already selling tons of books don’t need to purchase reviews. The authors fingered in this “report” sell thousands—if not tens of thousands—of books every single month. When you’re moving that many books, your reviews arrive in a steady flow. (For reference, I find I receive about 1 review for every 100 sales. Reviews come in faster when a book has few or none, and start to slow down once you’ve got a whole bunch.)

Sure, these authors could have bought their reviews at the beginning, using them to launch themselves into outer space; in that case, the fake reviews would since be buried/diluted by the real ones that came with all those new sales. But there are at least a couple problems here.

First, I am a crazy author-stalker. I look at dozens of Kindle titles a day. I watch the bestseller lists, the popularity lists, and I keep up with the books and new releases of countless sci-fi and fantasy authors I find interesting. I’m pretty familiar with the careers of at least eight of the authors on this list, and while I can’t say with 100% certainty that none of them has ever bought a review, I know at least some of them haven’t. I’ve watched one of these authors from the very beginning of his career. Literally days after he first published. A flood of fake reviews simply never showed up. If some of the accusations are false, it casts doubt on the whole thing.

Second, the report claims these authors have bought at least 500+ reviews. Several of these authors hardly have 500 reviews across their titles. The math just doesn’t add up. Not given how many copies they’ve sold.

Last, the (probable) author of the report has been outed on KBoards. He isn’t mentioned by name, and I don’t know the evidence to support the accusation, but the author in question is infamous in certain circles. He actually has left hundreds of fake reviews on his books. They’re not there anymore—because Amazon stripped them all, and actually made it impossible for people to leave new reviews on the books—but let’s just say it’s plausible.

In summary, these people wouldn’t need to leave fake reviews, because they’re already tremendously successful. It’s hypothetically possible they could have bought batches of reviews early on when they weren’t selling well, but I know for a fact that isn’t true of some of them. Meanwhile, there’s indications the accusations are being made by another indie with an axe to grind.

No actual evidence is presented. Instead, the report presents several “quotes,” without sources, and then seems to have picked a bunch of popular authors with highly-rated books. And the averages on some of those books could look kind of funny. How is it that a book like the Wool Omnibus can have a 4.7 rating on 6235 reviews while a mega-popular author like Stephen King only has a 4.0 rating across 3382 reviews on Under the Dome?

Part of the answer is the Sequel Effect. The Wool Omnibus may have a 4.7 average, but the main lead-in to the series—Wool the short story—only has a 4.4 average. The difference may seem slight, but a 4.4 is actually far more achievable than a 4.7. My novel Breakers has a 4.4 average on Amazon, for instance. What’s happening here, then, is a lot of people are picking up Wool, but only the ones who like it are then moving on to the Omnibus, whereas people who didn’t like Wool, and are more likely to give it a poor rating, never move any further into the series. And later books are buffered even more. This is why a book like A Modern Witch, first in the series, has a 4.3 average, while the last book in the series has an incredible 4.9 on nearly 500 reviews.

The Sequel Effect isn’t the only factor in why indie authors can pull great ratings compared to big-timers like Stephen King. This is more speculative, but I think self-published authors are often far more engaged with their fans. We speak directly to our readers on Facebook, through email, on forums. This leads to a more active, enthusiastic fanbase, one that may be more likely to have positive feelings about the authors’ books. There’s nothing sleazy about this. It’s just a natural outgrowth of authors who are touched about the fact there are actually people out there—lots and lots of them!—who want to read our silly books.

I think the pace of indie publication may have something to do with it, too. I think there’s an unquantifiable amount of goodwill generated when you put out a new book in your readers’ favorite series every 1-4 months. Thought experiment: Currently, A Feast for Crows has a 3.5 average on about 2500 reviews. A Dance with Dragons sits at 3.6 and 4500.

But many of the reviews flat-out state they’re frustrated with having to wait so long between books. AFFC was published in 2005, five years after the previous novel. ADWD came out six years after that. How much long-simmering resentment toward these books would there be if they’d been published every 5-6 months instead of every 5-6 years? I think a great many readers would be far more forgiving of George R.R. Martin flying off track and spinning his wheels if they knew there would at least be a new sequel later in the year.

Anyway, much like A Song of Ice and Fire, this post has gotten far off-course. The fact is that, while I don’t know with 100% certainty that none of the accused authors are guilty of having bought reviews at some point in the past, the report is clearly a sham. If any of the accused actually has bought reviews, their presence on this list is purely coincidental. It is best to assume that none of the named authors has done anything wrong.

It’s easy to believe accusations like this. Self-published authors have bought reviews in the past. Heck, somebody’s probably buying some right now. Meanwhile, indie book ratings can defy belief.

But a successful indie has less motivation to buy reviews than the author you’ve never heard of. And there are multiple reasons that self-published books wind up with better ratings than traditionally published beloved bestsellers. In the case of accusations like this, you can’t go on the basis that a book’s rating just “feels” wrong. You need evidence. Documentation. Screenshots. A trail of behavior.

This report has none of that. It’s a few undocumented quotes followed by a bunch of completely unsupported claims. It’s not worth the time of day.

Now let’s see how long it takes before Salon runs a report on the rampant cheating in the indie world.

Ever since the John Locke paid reviews scandal came to light, indie author granddad Joe Konrath has bent over backwards to defend Locke and other authors who’ve abused the review system. In his first commentary on the issue, he points out that since many techniques used to sell books aren’t 100% pure, no one has any right to judge Locke for buying hundreds of fake reviews. Next up, he proposed that we would all sell out, cheat, and lie to help our friends or further our career, so really, in our own ways, we’re all little Lockes at heart. Anyway, there’s no proof that buying all those reviews helped Locke at all, so who was hurt, really?

From there, Konrath argued that leaving one-star reviews is “shitty” and “mean,” but since millions of other people do it all the time, what’s the big deal that author RJ Ellory left anonymous one-stars on his competitors’ books? He might be a dick, but the system is filled with millions of dicks! Also, reviews are about free speech. So even when an author violates the policies of a company’s own website–and attempts to deceive readers into thinking his one-star reviews have been left by other readers with no stake in the game–this is no different from any other one-star, and anyway, “It’s wrong to not allow people to speak their mind.”

Next up, Konrath posited that some fake reviews are a good thing. Satirical reviews of wolf t-shirts and tanks are creative and funny, and if we wipe out all the fakes, we’ll lose these treasures, too. Being against fake reviews is being in favor of censorship.

As always, he drew false equivalencies, conflating an innocent or murky issue with a blatantly wrong one, then declaring they’re all one and the same. There’s no difference between leaving a satirical review, leaving a review on a friend’s book you genuinely enjoyed, and, say, calculatedly lying to customers in order to get them to buy your books. If you’re against one case, you’re against them all. Either that or you’re a hypocrite. Oh, and you’re anti-freedom, too.

All this time, he condemned the “moral panic” he saw brewing around fake reviews, warning that it would lead to mob lynchings and witch hunts. If you’re against fake reviews, you’ll wind up hurting the innocent.

Recently, Amazon started deleting whole bunches of reviews. Some of these disappeared reviews were tainted, some were pure, and others were somewhere in between. The other day, Konrath took this as proof he was right. Who was to blame for the loss of many innocent, truthful reviews? Losses that dismayed both reviewers, who lost their voices, opinions they worked hard to provide, and authors, whose books now have lower ratings than they used to? (Then again, if, as Konrath claims, reviews don’t matter, why is that an issue?)

Not the authors who bought fake reviews or used sockpuppets to harm others.

Not Amazon, for casting such a broad, flawed net that many genuine reviews were caught up in it as well.

Nope. Instead, fault lies with those who complained about these problems, especially the low-hanging fruit of ad hoc (and, I’ll concede, self-righteous) groups like No Sock Puppets Here Please.

As usual, Konrath deflects blame from those who deserve it–the authors who created this whole mess–and splashes it over everyone else instead. For the record, I don’t think Konrath’s an idiot. I’m also wary of witch hunts, and I think he raised some interesting points about the shades of gray involved in selling books. Too bad he used those points not to ask “Where do we draw the line?”, but rather to declare, “Oh my god, there are no lines at all!”

I’m sure he believes everything he says. That he’s acting as the lone voice of reason amidst a hysterical mob of moral crusaders. The problem is that he’s wrong. Authors abused the system. In response, the system cracked down. Innocents got hurt. The lesson here isn’t that it’s wrong to complain about cheating. The lesson is that it’s wrong to cheat. Even when the harm isn’t immediately clear, it has a way of coming back to hurt those who’ve been playing fair, too.

ETA: For the record, in my research for this post, I discovered Amazon has been sweeping up big batches of shady reviews since at least late June. The Locke stuff broke in late August. So is this purge of reviews a direct result of people complaining about John Locke and his review-tainting cohorts? At best, the answer is “partly”; possibly, the answer is “not at all.” Amazon cares very deeply about the integrity of their review system. Because they know reviews sell books. Did the supposed “witch hunt” accelerate or heighten the review-deletion process? Possibly. But it is indisputable that this review-deletion was going on months before anybody started calling for heads on a platter.


Meanwhile, some clarity has been shed on exactly why Amazon is deleting so many honest reviews. The best summary of the situation I’ve found is in a post in the Amazon forums.

The gist is this. Reviews aren’t being removed because of some mysterious new policy, but rather because Amazon has decided to more strictly enforce (and possibly has reinterpreted?) its preexisting policies–probably in response to the Locke scandal. The poster (Peter Durward Harris) mentions two ways reviews are in violation: those given in exchange for any form of compensation, including gifted books, and those given by people who have a direct financial stake or are in direct competition with the book.

What’s the matter with gifting books to reviewers? Isn’t that in line with Amazon’s policy that you can’t provide any form of compensation except a free book? Well, it’s tricky. One way to interpret this is that when you gift someone a book, you have essentially sent them a gift card for the value of that book–and the receiver of the gift card doesn’t have to actually spend it on the book. The gifted book is a form of compensation, funds provided to purchase a book, which Amazon does not allow.

The second area–no reviews from those with a financial stake in the product, including competitors–is being enforced with similar semantic strictness. Harris’ post mentions that a graphic designer was informed that she’s not allowed to review books she’s done covers for. Meanwhile, many authors who’ve left reviews on other books have since had those reviews yanked.

Harris doesn’t mention the phenomenon of “linked accounts,” which appears to be the third violation Amazon is targeting, and may actually be a new policy. In my last post, I mentioned that reviews area being deleted if they are found to have (unspecified) connections to the writer or to other reviewers, which may include things like connecting to Amazon through the same IP address.

What we’re seeing here is an enforcement of rules that errs on the side of suspicion. Reviews that fall into a gray area, or those with the potential for abuse, are being axed without regard for how “pure” they may actually be. Amazon appears to be pretty serious about preserving the integrity of their reviews, even if it comes at the cost of many that did nothing wrong. If it has the appearance or potential of wrongdoing, it’s a target for deletion.

I’m not sure exactly how strictly these areas are being cracked down on. Lots of reviews based on gifted books are still out there. A quick update after further examination–Amazon might be touchier when it comes to giving gift cards rather than gift books; in any event, the removal of reviews based on a gift/gift card seems to be reserved for specific abusers. Lots of reviews left by authors are still out there. Customer service responses indicate it’s okay to review books as an author, but that malicious and/or fake reviews are against guidelines–yet many legit author-penned reviews have been deleted. My best guess is they’ve ginned up some programs to flag reviews that exhibit certain suspicious signs, then flagged reviews are checked and deleted (or left alone) manually. It remains highly confusing. The only thing that’s clear is that enforcement is selective, inconsistent, and imperfect.

I haven’t seen any real punishments handed down from on high, at least. Reviews just.. disappear. If you email Amazon to ask why, they’ll give you a vague explanation; if you try to repost your review, you may receive an email warning you not to try again or face the risk of having your reviewing privileges curtailed or revoked. It’s all kind of weird, largely because it’s still not all that clear, but at least the streets of Amazon aren’t running red with the blood of unwitting reviewers.

But perfectly innocent reviewers and authors have lost reviews. It’s frustrated many; possibly, it’s discouraged reviewers from reviewing, and could well have hurt the sales of authors who’ve done nothing wrong. That’s the fallout from John Locke, Stephen Leather, and RJ Ellory’s wrongdoing. (For the record, I consider Leather’s small-scale sockpuppetry far less insidious than Locke’s purchase of hundreds of fake reviews.) So I suppose Konrath’s right about one thing–if no one had cared, no one would have been hurt.

But people do care. Because reviews matter, if only to those who give them and those who receive them. I don’t blame those who complained. I blame those who knowingly acted to compromise the system.

Over the last few days, quite a few reviews have disappeared from books on Amazon. Link to a discussion on Kindleboards here.

I was alerted to this by someone who had reviewed Breakers and was upset to see their review had been pulled. This is a fellow KB author, but I don’t know them. I’m not sure we’ve ever spoken directly before. They grabbed the book while it was free–they probably saw it mentioned on KB–read it, enjoyed it, reviewed it. Legit, yes? Does any part of that sound remotely shady? Five months later, their review was pulled without warning.

Followup emails indicated Amazon had pulled their review because their account was related to another Amazon account that had reviewed the book. The reviewer says this isn’t true. Obviously, I have no way to confirm this, but I don’t see what this person would possibly have to gain by lying. So what’s the deal?

For a little more insight, see this post. In short, an Amazon customer recently had her account terminated and her Kindle wiped. When she tried to find out why, she was told her account was linked to another account that had violated Amazon policies. The customer replied that this wasn’t true–that she had no idea what Amazon was talking about–but they insisted. From their email:

“While we are unable to provide detailed information on how we link related accounts, please know that we have reviewed your account on the basis of the information provided and regret to inform you that it will not be reopened.”

And that’s where it ended.

The KB thread speculates Amazon is tracking IP addresses. This is a potentially reasonable way to catch sockpuppet reviewers. Most fakers probably aren’t driving to a different coffee shop each time they want to post a new five-star review of their own book.

The problem, of course, is that IP addresses aren’t Social Security numbers. A given address can wind up assigned to different people at different times. If, say, someone is accessing their account from the workplace, that IP address may wind up matching a coworker who’s also using their own account. Same thing might happen if someone ever checks their account from a coffee shop, a library, or, as I did back when I was too poor for internet, the neighbor’s unprotected router. ISPs don’t always assign you a static address, either, meaning if you only ever check your account from your home internet, you could still wind up “linked” to the accounts of strangers.

Caveat time–I don’t know with perfect certainty that ISP matching is how Amazon traces links to different accounts. I am reasonably certain, however, they don’t have a private eye installed in your closet. So they must be pulling links from whatever digital data they do have. So much of Amazon’s processes are automated that I assume the process of sniffing out linked accounts is based on an algorithm of some kind, too. Some of the consequences–such as the termination of accounts–is, in all likelihood, processed and approved by a real human, but that hardly makes them immune to error, if the woman with the axed account is telling the truth.

I don’t know this sudden purging of reviews (I’ve now lost three) is a direct response to the John Locke scandal, either. I suppose the timing could be coincidental. Just for fun, Locke’s Saving Rachel currently has 481 reviews. I don’t know how many, if any, have already been deleted.

What we do know–or what I think I know–is that Amazon’s review-deletion system is far from perfect, catching not just the sockfish they’re after, but plenty of innocent dolphins, too. Additionally, their review policies aren’t exactly crystal clear, either. If there is the remotest chance of people getting in trouble for leaving a review that breaks the rules, those rules need to be very, very straightforward.

Looking at the reviews that are getting deleted, though, it appears that Amazon is targeting at least two classes of them. First, multiple reviews on a single product from people who appear to be related to each other. One opinion per household, please. My fiancee is probably going to be annoyed to learn she no longer gets a say, but since her vote doesn’t count anyway, I guess the point is moot. Second, reviews from other authors may be getting erased. Of the three I’ve lost, two have been from other authors. A fair number of the people reporting on the KB thread have noticed a similar trend.

I can see how both types of these reviews are more prone to abuse, but that hardly means they’re all sketchy. On the other hand, Amazon’s store, Amazon’s rules.

This post is more about awareness than anger or action. Be aware that Amazon is deleting some reviews. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, and the deletion of a review doesn’t necessarily mean it was fake or shady. If you’re an author, I don’t know whether Amazon frowns on leaving reviews of other books, but I’d say it’s worth looking into at this point. (ETA: Reading Amazon’s response to deleted reviews in this blog post, I’m betting reviews by authors are being specifically targeted. Still needs more confirmation, though.)

My three deleted reviews to date–two five-stars and one one-star, for the record, so my rating has actually gone up–have been yanked from a book that had 73 reviews before all this began. Other than being annoyed that three reviewers no longer get to have their say about my work, I don’t really care. 70 reviews is still a lot, and like I said, my overall rating has actually improved by a very small fraction.

But many reviews are being lost from books that don’t have many to spare in the first place. I really sympathize with those authors. Getting off the ground is really hard, and losing reviews just makes it that much harder. I hope Amazon sets down the axe and picks up a scalpel.

Well, not quite. But the fine man over at Free Book Reviews did give The White Tree a very, very nice writeup. Seriously, the first sentence of the review proper includes the word “masterpiece” and that’s not preceded by the words “not a,” anti-“, or “what in Bizarro World would be considered a.” Give it a read.

It’s been a while now since I finished or reread The White Tree and it’s been very cool to see the odd review roll in and remind me of what’s between the covers. Like that main characters Dante and Blays get into and perform an awful lot of trouble. The review puts it better than I could when it says, in reference to the two, “not all heroes have to always do the right thing to do the right thing.”

One of the main things I wanted to do with that book was write an epic fantasy where the heroes are very rarely faced with obvious choices between good and evil, leaving them to make a lot of decisions that are questionable, amoral, or outright wrong–but without making them antiheroes, exactly. I’m hardly the first one to do that, but it’s still gratifying to read about someone else getting the same kick out of that as I did.

Incidentally, The White Tree‘s still available at Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble.

The trap of doing a lot of writing is that, to make time for it, it’s a logical conclusion to start reading less. This isn’t the most brilliant strategy. It’s like trying to fuel your car by building a bunch of new cars.

So I’ve been trying to read more short stories lately. Aided by my birthday Kindle, in the last couple weeks I’ve read M-Brane SF #24. I’ve gotten my first exposure to Charles Stross in “Overtime.” I read The Aether Age. Mostly through Twitter links, I’ve picked up a few scattered stories from sites like Lightspeed. Oh, and after getting a subscription for Christmas, I received my first issue of Asimov’s; so far I’ve read John Kessel’s “Clean,” which I liked, and Neal Barrett, Jr.’s “Where,” which I didn’t–too underexplained, too little happening. (Though Barrett’s distinctive enough that I know I’ve encountered his work elsewhere and thought it was great.)

I’m aided in my quest to resume reading by Rise Reviews, a new site dedicated to coverage of stories from magazines and anthologies that don’t qualify as an SFWA professionally-paying market (i.e., they pay less than 5 cents/word). A strong review led me to Nadia Bulkin’s “Lucky You” in Ideomancer.

I’m glad I checked it out–it’s a cool, eminently readable piece about an immortal living through the modern age, the apocalypse, the quiet afterward, and the slow accumulation of change. I’m somewhat ambivalent about its fantastic underpinnings, but it worked. I liked it. I liked it well enough to click over to Bulkin’s bibliography, which I hope to follow up on as soon as I finish up my weekly deadlines (and get settled into a new freelance gig I just picked up–who knew, there are more opportunities in big cities).

A lot of short stories, I’m not too hot on them, or I admire the author’s craftsmanship but am not inspired to search out their other work. Rise Reviews pointed me in the right direction. For me, at least, they’ve already justified their existence: there’s good fiction out there beyond the pro zines. Sometimes, you just need a little help to find it.

My story, “Steve Kendrick’s Disease” (M-Brane #5), made Tangent Online’s 2009 Recommended Reading List.

Time to do the Porky Pig strut.

That’s how I choose to interpret their very favorable review of my story “Steve Kendrick’s Disease” in M-Brane #5, anyway. It’s a brief piece (reviewer Steve Fahnestalk covers all 8 jillion stories in the issue), but he had some extremely nice things to say, including one thing that really got me: “I should have guessed by the opening that it would be good.” “SKD” has what might be my favorite opening line I ever wrote–tonally, it encapsulates what I want to end up known for as an SFF author–and to see him point out that line is supremely cool.

Honestly though, it’s supremely cool to be reviewed anywhere, especially someplace as large and established as Tangent. Of the four stories I have available online, I’ve only googled down one other extremely brief (but also favorable) review. Feels pretty great to see somebody saying positive things about me out there.

Fahnestalk opens his review with an interesting preamble on prozines, semi-prozines, fanzines, etc. He couldn’t track down M-Brane‘s payment rates, but concluded that, based on the quality of the contents, it deserves to be called a prozine. Heh! Editor Christopher Fletcher’s going to be pumped when he reads that–it’s been his goal from a few months in.

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