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.

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