Monday, August 27, 2012

The Dirty Little Secret of Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Amazon and Barnes & Noble (among others) share a dirty little secret: they do not much care if book reviews posted on their websites are legitimate or not.  They are in the business of selling books, pure and simple, and if the reviews cannot be considered offensive in language or content, the booksellers are happy to use them to sell more books to more suckers.

I have long been irritated by reviews written by authors of their own books (and not just self-published authors are guilty of this).  Several authors have been outed for doing exactly that when they lose their tempers with legitimate reviewers who make negative comments about their books.  In the process of trashing those reviews, and those reviewers, the "authors" often reveal more than they intend to reveal.  Just as bad, in my opinion, are all the reviews being posted by author spouses, parents, siblings,  and best friends. At least those are easy to spot on Amazon by clicking on the "See all my reviews" spot located near the reviewer's name.  Almost always, the suspect review has been written by someone so amazed by this particular book they were moved to write a book review for the very first time in their lives.  And apparently, they are still so stunned they have not written one since.  That must be one spectacular book.

But here is something that tops everything.  There is actually a jackass out there that makes as much as $28,000 per month writing fake book reviews for fake authors who are desperate to fool the reading public about the quality of their books.  Ethics be damned.  These con artists don't care about quality or legitimate respect (of course, neither do writers of the James Patterson school of writing).  The New York Times features a long article about this practice and the previously mentioned jackass.  Interestingly, the man's website, one called GettingBookReviews, seems to have gone undercover for the moment.  I can only imagine the number of derisive comments that must have been delivered to the site today before it crashed or was yanked by its owner.  Here's a sample of what is in the article:
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.
There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.
A polite fellow with a rakish goatee and an entrepreneurial bent, Mr. Rutherford has been on the edges of publishing for most of his career. Before working for the self-publishing house, he owned a distributor of inspirational books. Before that, he was sales manager for a religious publishing house. Nothing ever quite worked out as well as he hoped. With the reviews business, though, “it was like I hit the mother lode."
This is a long article.  It is worth your time because of what it exposes, including the pictures of the jackass-in-chief and one of his worthless minions.  These people have no shame.

So Todd Jason Rutherford became the James Patterson of book reviews, hiring others to write the countless number of reviews he could not possibly do on his own.  The difference is that Patterson does not try to hide the fact that he has become as much a brand name as an author - he slaps the name of his co-writers (in smaller print, of course) on the book-jacket alongside his own.  Rutherford, on the other hand, is paid to write lies or exaggerations that he hopes will pass for the truth.

Why does this bother me?  Because I spend countless hours trying to spread the word about good books and good writing.  I do it because I fear for the future of quality publishing and hope that my efforts help some tiny bit in ensuring that good books don't get lost in the gigantic haystack of trash being published today.  I read every single word - including dedications and acknowledgements - of the novels I review.  I even, at the very least, scan all the footnotes of the nonfiction books that I write about.  Someone like Rutherford cheapens the whole process and makes my efforts worthless because his personal lack of ethics makes all online reviews suspect.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble should, but they will not, of course, delete the reviews of books whose authors have openly admitted to paying for reviews.  I know that my Don Quixote approach to all of this will not make a bit of difference but I had to say it, and I hope others will join me in asking the online booksellers to do everything they can to stop this practice.  P.T. Barnum was right.  There is a sucker born every minute.  But stealing from him is still not right.

So now Todd Jason Rutherford has the gall to say that he is suspicious of ALL online reviews.  Thanks, Jackass.


  1. If those of us who feel strongly about this all write AMazon,B&N, and the others, perhaps... just perhaps... some gatekeeper system will emerge that will let reviewers like you reclaim your position. I know how seriously you take reviewing, Sam, and I am grateful for your dedication. Please dont stop. We'll get through this.

  2. Someone has to keep tilting at those windmills, Sam, and you do it so well.

    Your post has got me to wondering if I have been taken in by any of the fake reviews on Amazon. I'd like to think not, as I am arrogant enough to think I can tell something about the reviewer when I read what they have written.

    I've always been suspicious of reviews, but not because I knew some of the reviews were paid for fakes, but because it seemed clear to me that some people had no taste in reading material.

    Now when reading reviews, I'm going to be trying to figure out if it is legitimate or not.

  3. You're right - this sucks. I've been using Amazon to write reviews since I was literally a child, and though I use their site less these days (because of all sorts of evilness...), it's still frustrating to think that any of my time spent trying to write good reviews may now be considered obsolete or not legitimate. It's upsetting, it's unfair, and it's angering.

    But I'm not sure how either Amazon or B&N can determine which reviews are legitimate and which aren't. Sometimes people fall passionately for certain books... will these reviews seem fake? Will people stop trusting reviews at all?

  4. Libby, thanks for the encouragement. Somehow, I don't think Amazon and B&N will bother to self-police themselves when it comes to all those fake reviews. And that's shameful.

  5. Thanks so much, Susan for the kind words.

    I doubt you've been suckered by one of the fakes because I'm willing to bet that anyone that reads as much as we all do is too good at reading between the lines to be fooled so easily. The way they churn out those fakes, they are pretty shabbily written.

  6. Biblio, we feel exactly the same about all those fake reviews and the degenerates who write them. It looks like coming out from under his rock has forced this fool to shut down for now. Let's hope it's permanent, but he is likely to come back under some fake identity for himself and his site. Loser that he is.

  7. This guy is a real unethical idiot. I'm glad the story came out and exposed something that involves many more people than just this one guy. I ignore the reviews on Amazon and B&N because so many of them are so over the top that you can tell they are "fake".

  8. The stink over the fake reviews seems to have greatly quieted, Kathleen...wonder why? Could there be too many guilty authors to out without embarrassing the entire publishing industry? I sure hope not.