We want to thank the millions who have visited Zon Alert and Fiverr Report, and the countless thousands who have thanked us for exposing Fiverr and working with Amazon to bring them down. Our work would not have been possible without our founder Harvey Chute. Harvey was devastated by the widespread fraud he saw while operating KBoards.com. He wanted this to be his legacy and we’ve worked to ensure that happened. As the criminal investigations continue against those named here, our work is not done.
Our investigation into Hugh Howey continues. “Hugh Howey” self-published his first book as Hugh Howey in 2009. The effort was a complete failure, though highly rated by Howey’s fake accounts and bought mostly by friends and relatives badgered into buying.
With sales in the single digits, Howey kept writing, using his fake accounts to sing his own praises wherever anyone would listen. Despite his fakery and deceptive practices, his zombie fiction and other early works published between 2009 and 2011 remained complete failures. Read by few, with no one but Hugh Howey himself talking about them.
Increasingly bitter and angry, Hugh Howey used his fakes to target other authors, especially ones who seemed successful. In particular, Howey seemed to be set off by anyone talking about their sales or success. Oddly his diatribes were mostly about how the authors were self-published, fakes or frauds, which was strange coming from Howey who was all of those things.
Untangling the webs of Howey’s fakes wasn’t easy and even though we’ve put months into the research we doubt we’ve found even a fraction of the total. One of the most interesting finds was that some of the fake accounts pre-date his first self-publishing efforts.
By 2011, Hugh Howey had completed Wool. Instead of publishing the book as a single work, Howey broke the book into 5 parts: Wool 1, Wool 2, Wool 3, Wool 4 and Wool 5. When Howey self-published Wool 1, pretending as if it was a short story, his deceptive practices and fakery went into over drive. Instead of a few fakes singing his praises, there was a chorus of many. This happened almost as soon as, and in some cases even before, the release of Wool 1.
Wool 1 is about 50 pages. In Wool 1, the so-called sheriff of a post-apocalypse missile-silo town climbs a set of stairs, decides to go outside (which is of course forbidden) where he finds what readers believe is his dead wife. There are no real characters. There’s no real action. There’s not much of anything really. And yet, Howey had his fakes out in mass singing his praises endlessly.
Howey self-published Wool 1, Wool 2, Wool 3, Wool 4 and Wool 5 in rapid succession. Offering each for .99, before making Wool 1 permanently free and creating a so-called Wool omnibus.
Go read the early fake reviews of Wool 1, Wool 2, Wool 3, Wool 4 and Wool 5. They’re hilarious. While you’re reading the fake reviews, note how no one complains about Howey chopping 1 book into 5 parts and just about every fake reviewer talks about the parts as if they are complete works when they’re not.
Conning readers into believing Wool was 5 complete works was part of the hustle. It was the whole reason for the so-called omnibus.
At some sites, Howey listed a page count for individual parts as if the parts were hundreds of pages long. This was another way to con readers into buying what they thought were full-length works.
Here’s where things get even more wacky with Hugh Howey buying his way onto bestseller lists multiple times, as we discussed in earlier postings. Not just that but Howey then hired public relations teams to create media frenzies around Wool.
The linchpin of the PR strategy revolved around how Hugh Howey is the messiah of the new self-publishing movement, how he’s a Kindle superstar who “sold” a million copies of Wool.
Nothing in the PR frenzy Howey manufactures talks about how he chopped 1 book into 5 pieces or how it’s actually the pieces that together “sold” a million copies. Nothing in the PR frenzy talks about how many copies of Wool 1 were counted as “sold” but were really given away as part of Wool 1 being permanently free.
The real numbers tell the real story and for the time they looked something like this:
Wool 1 – 400,000
Wool 2 – 200,000
Wool 3 – 150,000
Wool 4 – 100,000
Wool 5 – 100,000
Wool Omnibus – 45,000
Shift 1 – 80,000
Shift 2 – 60,000
Shift 3 – 40,000
Shift Omnibus – 27,000
It’s hard to determine precisely how many copies of Wool 1 were given away in this time, though based on other books that rose as high in the free rankings it’s easily 2/3 to 3/4 of the “solds”. What you also can tell from these early numbers is a lot of readers were getting sucked in by the fakery and the manufactured PR frenzy, but fewer and fewer readers were continuing with the Wool saga.
If Hugh Howey’s scams and schemes had collapsed under him back then, Zon Alert and Fiverr Report likely wouldn’t have uncovered his fraud. But his fraud continued unchecked and continues still.
From corporate publishers with schemes to create the next Harry Potter by generating avalanches of “support” for authors and books to small-time book hustlers writing their own reviews, the online world is overrun with fraud and fakery. Online review systems are broken and untrustworthy. Amazon’s own internal memos state up to 60% of the reviews on its sites are disgenuine. 60% is a large number but based on our extensive research we believe the actual number is significantly higher.
When we started researching online rating and review fraud, Zon Alert and Fiverr Report bloggers didn’t know what we were getting into. Our initial investigation lead us to criminal crime author Carolyn Arnold and a large cabals of authors committing online fraud by faking ratings and reviews. This investigation lead us in turn to Melissa Foster and an even larger cabals of authors committing not only rating and review fraud but also driving multilevel fraudulent schemes of many types. Frauds that revolved around fake awards, fake fans or street teams, authors buying their way onto bestseller lists, organized efforts to damage the careers of other authors, organized review-for-favor schemes, consumers lured with promises of gifts and gratuities if only they reviewed certain authors’ works, authors swapping reviews with each other like bubble gum, and many other types of organized review-writing schemes.
In our investigations we identified numerous cheating authors and named them in this blog. Caught red-handed the cheating authors tried to discredit this blog and its members. Some outed for hundreds of fake reviews made claims they were innocent as they didn’t have hundreds of reviews at Amazon, knowing full well the scope of their fraud extended to many sites beyond Amazon. Knowing also some, and in cases many, of the fake reviews weren’t used to support their own books but to cause harm to others.
The list of cheats quickly grew to encompass not only authors but also friends and relations who knowingly participated. Our infamous list of badly behaving unethical authors grew to include
A M Hargrove
A Meredith Walters
B V Larson
C C Cole
Cheryl Kaye Tardif
D A Graystone
D Ryan Leask
David A Wells
E L Lindley
Frederick Lee Brooke
H M Ward
J A Hunsinger
J A Konrath
J S Scott
Joanna Lee Doster
K J Bennett
L J Kentowski
Linda S Prather
M R Mathias
M Todd Gallowglas
Michael G Manning
Pamela Fagan Hutchins
R J Palacio
Stephanie Lisa Tara
T R Harris
As we kept digging we kept uncovering more and more cheating authors including hustlers like C J Ellisson, Martin Crosbie, A J Cosmo, Samantha Chase, Elle Casey, Jennifer Blake, K D Emerson, Rachel Yu, Michael Yu, Eve Carter, Helen Hanson, Lily Lexington, Michael Baisden, Sharlene Alexander, Monique Martin, Gerald Hawksley, David Dalglish, CC MacKenzie, Rosalind James and Alexia Purdy. Some of which are small-time cheats, while others are huge fraudsters earning tens of thousands a month through deceptive practices, unethical behavior and outright fakery.
Not to mention even bigger cheats: B V Larson, Hugh Howey, H M Ward, John Locke, Melissa Foster, Amanda Hocking, et al.
The research left us disillusioned and angry. We believe the rating and reviews systems are so broken the only way to fix them is for all online ratings and reviews to be removed or for every site to have a widely displayed disclaimer that reader ratings and reviews cannot be relied upon to determine the quality or merchantability of any product. We won’t be holding our breath for such things to happen and you shouldn’t either. Instead, you should report the aforementioned fraudsters wherever their fake reviews appear and demand justice.
We’re pleased that Amazon and other sites have taken action, purging thousands of fake ratings and reviews from Hugh Howey’s books over the past few months. These purges do not go far enough, however. Hugh Howey has perpetrated a massive fraud. A fraud that is likely the largest in the history of publishing. A fraud is so massive and elaborate Hugh Howey makes “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey look like a beloved saint.
As our reporting of Howey’s fraud grew traction, we noticed many of these early fake accounts began to quietly disappear. 387 disappeared over a two-month period in fact, largely we suspect due to Hugh Howey himself deleting the fake accounts to cover his tracks. To date, nearly a thousand such accounts have quietly disappeared in all. The more recent purges seem to be due to sites like Amazon identifying the fraud we’ve pointed out and taking action. Google Hugh Howey Fraud Zon Alert to see others who have joined our efforts to expose this fraudster.
The fact is Hugh Howey defrauded people the world over. His multilevel scams and schemes go back to his earliest works of Zombie fiction, most of which have been pulled from Amazon and other stores in recent months. Fortunately, Zon Alert researched, analyzed and catalogued every review of those works before Hugh Howey was able to completely cover his tracks.
Based on our analysis, every review of those early works was created using fake accounts. Fake accounts set up for the sole purpose of promoting Hugh Howey. Not only did the fake accounts write multiple reviews of Hugh Howey’s self-published works, they also mentioned Hugh Howey in other reviews they wrote, in Listmania lists, in So You’d Like to guides and on customer discussion forums.
It was from those reviews that we, along with the Amazon insider on our team, were able to track and identify hundreds of similar fake accounts used by Hugh Howey to promote his self-published works and act as his own fan club.
During a period of time from early 2009 to mid 2012, Hugh Howey created fake accounts daily until he had amassed thousands of accounts. To date, Zon Alert has identified over 3,500 accounts created during this time period and used to promote Hugh Howey. Not just at Amazon or Goodreads but at sites across the net. If there is a site where people talk about books Hugh Howey and his fake accounts were there to talk up his books.
These accounts numbering in the thousands pre-date any actual or legitimate following of Wool and yet they were all talking up and promoting Hugh Howey. Point of fact:
Wool 1 was published July 30, 2011
Wool 2 was published Nov 30, 2011
Wool 3 was published Dec 4, 2011
Wool 4 was published Dec 25, 2011
Wool 5 was published Jan 14, 2012
Wool Omnibus was published Jan 25, 2012
And yet fake accounts were talking up Hugh Howey from early 2011 on and the numbers grew until they encompassed nearly all of the fake accounts Hugh Howey set up by December 2011.
The scale of the fraud suggests Hugh Howey didn’t act alone and likely enlisted his wife and others in the scheme. In analyzing the writing styles used, there seems to be a few regular tropes like the teen who doesn’t use proper grammar, the soccer mom whose kids loved it too, the bibliophile who supposedly reads a hundred books a year but has never read anything so great. Underneath the standard tropes though what’s being said is clearly orchestrated, organized and planned. Often it’s the same message, just with slightly different wording, even when what are supposedly a few different people are espousing the virtues of Howey.
Something else we encountered but didn’t understand until recently was how Howey’s fake accounts were used to attack other authors. At first we thought this was just something that happened randomly but as we tracked the accounts and the attacks a larger pattern emerged.
A pattern of reinforcing his self-manufactured negativity was the most involving. Certain accounts were used to write bad reviews of the authors’ books. Others were used to reinforce the negativity. They added negative comments or discussions that were in turn voted up or reinforced by yet more Hugh Howey accounts.
A standard treatment was to use his multiple accounts to write reviews complaining about bad grammar, spelling mistakes and such about how poorly written a book was. Next, he’d use other accounts to make comments or discussions thanking the unhappy reviewers for saving them from buying the book.
Essentially, it was open season on any author who could possibly be considered a Howey competitor and just as often any author Howey seemed to dislike for whatever reason.
It’s time this fraud ended. Google Hugh Howey Fraud Zon Alert and send the results to sites where Hugh Howey continues to operative his scams and schemes.
ResultSource is one of many companies offering to help authors buy their way onto New York Times and USA Today Bestseller lists. ResultSource was outed by The Wall Street Journal in The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike,
How Are Some Authors Landing On Best-Seller Lists? They’re Buying Their Way.
After you read The Wall Street Journal article google “authors buying their way onto bestseller lists” for an even more eye-opening experience. As also told by The Wall Street Journal, a growing number of author frauds are buying their way onto the New York Times Bestseler List and USA Today Bestseller List, including Hugh Howey and Melissa Foster.
Soren Kaplan purchased about 2,500 books through ResultSource, paying about $22 a book, including shipping, for a total of about $55,000, to buy his way onto the bestseller lists. He also paid a few of $20,000 to $30,000 to ResultSource for a total cost of $75,000 to $85,000.
Unlike Soren Kaplan, Joseph Michelli and other authors mentioned in the article, who aren’t wizards at gaming the system and easily got caught when their sales skyrocketed and then plunged, Melissa Foster and Hugh Howey know how to game the system and play every angle.
Hugh Howey was the first to play this game when he starting buying his way onto bestseller lists in 2009. Unlike Soren Kaplan who did a one-time $75,000 – $85,000 book buying campaign for his own $22 books, Hugh Howey priced his books at .99 and had his paid buyers buy them primarily through Amazon.com. This ensured Hugh Howey would quickly become a Kindle Superstar and an author Amazon was sure to start hyping.
As with all things Hugh Howey, there were multiple levels to his fraudulent scheme. He knew not to do a one-time buy or to use only one ResultSource-like company. Instead, he purchased the services of multiple “bestseller marketing service” companies and he used their services multiple times to create steady streams of sales. Meanwhile, he also created demand for his books by buying thousands of paid endorsements, mostly in the form of reviews.
Ultimately, Hugh Howey’s $50,000 buying spree translated into 500,000 sales for the first installment in his Wool series and a movie deal that is sure to make him a multi-millionaire.
In November 2013, Melissa Foster began following in Hugh Howey’s footsteps. Playing the game to not get caught she started buying the services of multiple “bestseller marketing service” companies. Like Hugh Howey, Melissa Foster also buys paid endorsements, mostly in the form of reviews, to help create demand.
By February 2014, Melissa Foster hit pay dirt when her schemes landed her on both the New York Times Bestseler List and USA Today Bestseller List.
How long will scammers like Hugh Howey and Melissa Foster keep at it? Until real readers get fed up and take action.
Excellent news. Two of our member bloggers have a preliminary publishing agreement for a book on our investigation of the publishing underworld. The book is tentatively titled “Team of Eight: Our 2-Year Investigation Into the Dark Side of Publishing.” They’ll be working for a few months to develop the first three chapters of the book for publication.
The acquisition editor writes in the acceptance letter: “I’m as appalled by this behavior as you are and I congratulate you on your dedication to revealing truth. Your photocopies of emails between authors and [the company you worked at], particularly the brazen nature of M. Foster’s emails, leaves no doubt they knew what they were doing was wrong.”
We’ve previously published extracts from Melissa Foster’s correspondence:
“Chasing Amanda got to #10 on Amazon’s Bestselling Kindle list. Thank reviewers for buying yesterday.”
“Wow, what a few weeks this has been! Can I get 50 more?”
“not all the reviews for Amazon … Goodreads reviewers should rate, add my other books”
“how great it felt to have over 2000 ratings for Goodreads”
“I’m gearing up for a blog tour. … I need more reviews.”
“Can reviewers vote in the Amazon breakthrough novel award?”
“Tremendous gratitude for the Chasing Amanda reviews … now on Amazon’s Top (100) Rated Fiction list!”
We are pleased also to report we’ve acquired the complete client list and email archive of the defunct http://www.GettingBookReviews.com. As we begin to analyze the purchases and correspondence in the next few months, we hopefully will be able to identify and correlate more of the accounts used on various sites for paid promotion. What we know so far from a preliminary review of data is over 2100 different buyers bought what appears to be more than 30,000 reviews collectively.
In a rather odd turn, Hugh Howey, who was merely listed here as a review buyer in the official September 12 Fiverr Report on Melissa Foster but made no other mention of, has gone on a weeks’ long tirade professing his innocence. Bizarre behavior for someone who is supposedly innocent, especially as he’s using his ongoing tirade as a promotional vehicle to get family, friends, and other supporters to flood Amazon with favorable reviews.
In discussions on various sites, Howey and his author friends even claim Zon Alert members wrote fake reviews of his books on Amazon. Odder still is that there are no such reviews on Amazon. However, there is plenty of fakery:
Wool has 6084 glowing reviews out of 6251. A supposed 97.3% approval rating, which no real book has. Since his hundreds of posts and tweets/posts from friends about his innocence, the book has received 130 glowing reviews.
Shift has 722 glowing reviews out of 747. A supposed 96.6% approval rating. Since his hundreds of posts and tweets/posts from friends about his innocence, the book has received 42 glowing reviews.
Dust has 871 glowing reviews out of 879. A supposed 99.1% approval rating. Since his hundreds of posts and tweets/posts from friends about his innocence, the book has received 241 glowing reviews.
To view the mind-blowing audacity of Hugh Howey, go to Amazon and examine reviews from September 13 to present. You’ll find the 413 reviews we’re talking about. While at Amazon, look at reviews written before this avalanche because that’s where you’ll find the bulk of the abuse Hugh Howey is trying to bury.
Howey has even gone so far as to swear his innocence on the life of his dead dog. Could anyone be any more guilty?
As if using his dead dog to play on other’s sympathy wasn’t low enough, Howey tells his blog readers in the same entry about how he was bullied as a child in middle school and on on, leaving Zon Alert members to wonder how low he’ll go in an attempt to get sympathy and attention.
If you read the entry in Howey’s blog do be sure to examine who the commenters are. The comments coming from real people are often Howey’s author friends. There’s even a comment from none other than Melissa Foster.
Howey’s behavior and weeks’ long tirade is way over the top for someone was merely mentioned as a review buyer. As Shakespeare meant when he said “Me thinks he doth protest too much,” the guy’s guilty as hell. We suspect the reviews purchased from Fiverr are only the beginning and we’ll continue to look for the truth until we find it.
Of the authors at the center of “review” schemes, Melissa Foster was one of the most egregious. Melissa Foster’s scams revolved around questionable awards, questionable reviews, and questionable promotion tactics involving friends, family, and other authors.
Melissa Foster is the poster child for fake writing awards. Legitimate awards are highly selective and recognized throughout the publishing industry. Legitimate awards have strict rules and careful oversight. At the least, authors must be nominated by their publishers, bookstores, library staff. Books are only eligible for the year they were published and only in a specific category/genre. Legitimate awards launch careers and establish author leaders in the industry.
Illegitimate awards come from companies that are neither highly selective nor recognized throughout the publishing industry. Illegitimate awards don’t have strict rules or careful oversight. Illegitimate awards allow anyone willing to pay their entry fees to enter. They allow authors to enter a book in many categories and as many times as they like and for as many years as they like. If an author enters books over and over for as many years and in many categories as Foster did, a win is almost assured. In fact, entering the same books over and over in multiple categories over many years assured Melissa Foster of multiple wins.
Awards she couldn’t win through this method? Melissa Foster appears to have recruited author friends and others to volunteer as judges. When Melissa Foster won, Melissa Foster then acted as a judge in a different year to return the favor. She became so adept at the scheme she even tried to start her own awards program in 2011.
One of the many illegitimate awards Melissa Foster has won is the Beach Book award. Beach Book award is run by an outfit out of California that allows an author to enter as many books as they want for as many years as they want as long as they pay $50 for each book entered. The same company runs 17 identical award programs with different names:
Green Book award
Hollywood Book award
San Francisco Book award
Beach Book award
Paris Book award
New York Book award
New England Book award
DIY Book award
London Book award
Halloween Book award
Los Angeles Book award
Great Northwest Book award
Great Southwest Book award
Great Southeast Book award
Southern California Book award
Animals, Animals, Animals Book award
Great Midwest Book award
There’s even this multiple entry form that allowed Melissa Foster to enter her book in all 17 award programs at the same time
Other illegitimate awards of Melissa Foster allowed her to enter as many books as she wanted for as many years as she wanted in as many categories as she could afford to pay for each time. One book entered in 7 categories? Sure. One book entered each year until it was a winner? Sure. Didn’t win, get a friend to volunteer judge to win next time. Sure.
How many illegitimate awards does Melissa Foster have? 12 at last count – and the aforementioned company isn’t even the worst of the fake awards.
The worst fake awards? That honor goes to Reader’s Favorite an award Melissa Foster has 5 – YES FIVE – medals from.
Reader’s Favorite allows authors to enter as many books for as many years as they want. Each entered book can be registered in up to four categories. The fee for entering one book in four categories: $284.
Reader’s Favorite has awards in 100 categories:
Children – Animals
Children – Concept
Children – Educational
Children – Fable
Children – Fantasy/Sci-Fi
Children – General
Children – Grade K-3rd
Children – Grade 4th-6th
Children – Non Fiction
Children – Picture/Pop up
Children – Preschool
Children – Preteen
Young Adult – Coming of Age
Young Adult – Fantasy/Sci-Fi
Young Adult – General
Young Adult – Horror
Young Adult – Mystery
Young Adult – Non Fiction
Christian – Amish
Christian – Biblical Counseling
Christian – Devotion/Study
Christian – Fantasy/Sci-Fi
Christian – Fiction
Christian – General
Christian – Historical Fiction
Christian – Living
Christian – Non Fiction
Fiction – Action
Fiction – Adventure
Fiction – Animals
Fiction – Anthology
Fiction – Chick Lit
Fiction – Cultural
Fiction – Drama
Fiction – Fantasy
Fiction – General
Fiction – Historical
Fiction – Horror
Fiction – Humor
Fiction – Intrigue
Fiction – Mystery – General
Fiction – Mystery – Historical
Fiction – Mystery – Sleuth
Fiction – Paranormal
Fiction – Realistic
Fiction – Science Fiction
Fiction – Southern
Fiction – Sports
Fiction – Supernatural
Fiction – Suspense
Fiction – Tall Tale
Fiction – Thriller – General
Fiction – Thriller – Terrorist
Fiction – Urban
Fiction – Western
Fiction – Womens
Non Fiction – Animals
Non Fiction – Autobiography
Non Fiction – Biography
Non Fiction – Business/Finance
Non Fiction – Cook Book
Non Fiction – Cultural
Non Fiction – Drama
Non Fiction – Education
Non Fiction – Genealogy
Non Fiction – General
Non Fiction – Gov/Politics
Non Fiction – Grief
Non Fiction – Health – Fitness
Non Fiction – Health – Medical
Non Fiction – Historical
Non Fiction – Hobby
Non Fiction – Home/Crafts
Non Fiction – Humor
Non Fiction – Inspirational
Non Fiction – Memoir
Non Fiction – Military
Non Fiction – Motivational
Non Fiction – Music/Ent.
Non Fiction – Occupational
Non Fiction – Parenting
Non Fiction – Relationships
Non Fiction – Religion/Phil.
Non Fiction – Retirement
Non Fiction – Self Help
Non Fiction – Sports
Non Fiction – True Crime
Romance – Christian
Romance – Contemporary
Romance – Fantasy/Sci-Fi
Romance – General
Romance – Historical
Romance – Suspense
Short Story – Fiction
Short Story – Non Fiction
Poetry – General
Poetry – Inspirational
Poetry – Love/Romance
In each of the 100 categories, Reader’s Favorite has four winners each calendar year: Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Honorable mention. Reader’s Favorite also gives out awards to so-called finalists, so there’s a Finalist award as well.
Based on the number of winners and finalists in award years 2009 to 2012 it was easy to determine how many books were entered in most categories.
If a category had two entries. There were two finalists and eventually two so-called winners: a gold and a silver.
If a category had three entries. There were three finalists and eventually three so-called winners: a gold, a silver, and a bronze.
If a category had four entries. There were four finalists and eventually four so-called winners: a gold, a silver, a bronze, and a honorable mention.
If a category had five entries. There were five finalists and eventually five so-called winners: a gold, a silver, a bronze, a honorable mention, and a finalist medal winner.
If a category had six entries. There were six finalists and eventually six so-called winners: a gold, a silver, a bronze, a honorable mention, and two finalist medal winners.
If a category had seven entries. There were seven finalists and eventually seven so-called winners: a gold, a silver, a bronze, a honorable mention, and three finalist medal winners.
If a category had eight entries. There were eight finalists and eventually eight so-called winners: a gold, a silver, a bronze, a honorable mention, and four finalist medal winners.
Awards seemed to top out with 8 so-called winners. In fact, in our research of the award years 2009 to 2012 we couldn’t find any book that was entered that wasn’t a gold, silver, bronze, honorable mention, or finalist medal winner.
Talk about incentive to keep entering year after year. No wonder Melissa Foster kept entering her books in this contest year after year.
The blogging team at Zon Alert has a real award for Melissa Foster. It’s the only real award she’s earned and deserved. It’s the 2013 Biggest Fake Gold Award.
When we started our research into paid reviews, we severely underestimated how widespread the problem was. Paid reviews are on Amazon, Goodreads, Angie’s List, and elsewhere.
Paid reviews are reviews authors and others offering goods or services pay to receive. Payment can be in cash, goods or services. Paid reviews bought with cash are the most common. Less common are reviews bought with an exchange of goods and services. Often with paid reviews there is an unspoken understanding the purchased reviews will be supportive, even if somewhat critical.
Paid reviews differ from legitimate review sources that charge fees in several important ways. With legitimate review sources, such as Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly, someone pays a fee to have a recognized source read and review the good or service and gets one and only one review from that recognized source. The review comes specifically from that source and doesn’t appear to be a review from a consumer. The review may be good or bad.
With paid review companies, the buyer can purchase as many reviews as they want. If the buyer wants 50 reviews, they can buy 50 reviews. Every review will appear to have been written by a consumer who purchased the product or service. Some companies, such as Fiverr where one of our member bloggers worked undercover for two years, allow people to buy reviews for as little as $5. For an extra fee the company will ensure the reviewers buy the product and are verified.
In our research, we expected to find a few companies offering such services but we found there were dozens. Our marketing expert also found professional marketing companies were ensuring products and services were reviewed as part of their marketing packages. This was where we found that practice of payment in goods and services to be especially prevalent. The most common form of non-cash payment was the gift card where consumers were paid in gift cards for writing reviews.
We found authors giving gift cards to readers for the same purpose. Readers were given gift cards to purchase an author’s book, accompanied by either a direct or implied request to review the book.
In a similar vein, we found many authors offering kindles to readers for reviews and ratings. During our research, we tracked groups of authors who had monthly or weekly kindle giveaways for readers who wrote reviews and rated their books. During the tracked period, some of these authors garnered hundreds of ratings and reviews from this highly unethical practice.
Trolls were one of many unexpected things we learned about in our research into unethical tactics and fake reviews. In the context of online discussions, a troll isn’t a mythical monster or a child’s creation rather a troll is someone with ill intentions.
Trolls make outrageous claims. Trolls start online fights by saying hurtful things. Trolls attack others with words. Trolls do this to get a reaction. The stronger the reaction, the better, as far as trolls are concerned. Trolls do this because they want to get people angry. Trolls want to cause damage. Trolls want to cause harm.
With regard to books and authors, trolls often are the ones writing spurious commentary and reviews. Trolls do this to take down certain authors while promoting others. Trolls are plentiful at Amazon and Goodreads. They’re also present at Angie’s List.
It might surprise you to learn there are professional trolls. Professional trolls come in a few different varieties. Some work in marketing where their goal is to push a brand, book or author while devaluing another brand, book or author. Our resident marketing expert spent over a year tracking professional trolls before she stumbled upon the worst of the worst in professional trolling: hacker trolls.
Hacker trolls are different from most other trolls. They’re around to cause severe damage, promote extreme agendas, and do absolute harm while gaining recognition for their exploits. The more harm they cause, the higher the likelihood they will be accepted at certain closed sites and chat rooms where hacker trolls exchange stories, build their reps by detailing their exploits, and exchange tactics and ideas.
A clear warning: Stay away from dedicated hacker trolls. These trolls destroy lives and livelihoods for enjoyment.