Some of her followers are pretty scary.
Self-publishing author Sandy Nathan, who calls reviewers stupid and tells them how to review, who buys reviews and perhaps Amazon up-votes on fiverr, is a Vine Voice preferred reviewer on Amazon.
"Vine Voice" reviewers are selected by Amazon and invited into the program. The invitation is based at least in part on the reviewer's ranking, especially on how "helpful" their reviews are. At least that's what Amazon says; the actual process of selection remains . . . mysterious.
Amazon Vine invites the most trusted reviewers on Amazon to post opinions about new and pre-release items to help their fellow customers make informed purchase decisions. Amazon invites customers to become Vine Voices based on their reviewer rank, which is a reflection of the quality and helpfulness of their reviews as judged by other Amazon customers. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/vine/help)
Since it's very possible Sandy Nathan was buying "helpful" votes from fiverr sellers, was she essentially buying her way into the Vine program? (Nathan has, apparently, been a Vine Voice reviewer since 2012, so it's not likely she used fiverr votes to get into the program, but it's possible.)
That "Vine Voice" label, along with other marks of Amazon reviewer status such as numerical ranking, implies a certain stamp of approval by Amazon that the review and the reviewer are somehow a little more credible than the average "Kindle Customer" or other screen name chosen by the reviewer. After all, "Vine Voice" reviewers are chosen by Amazon, One can't apply to be a Vine Voice reviewer; there are no auditions.
Even if the review written isn't of a Vine product, the review still shows the reviewer's tag of "Vine Voice."
I found Sandy Nathan's above review quite by accident last night. After the news of Amazon's lawsuit against a supplier of fake product reviews was announced a few days ago, I went to check on some of the fiverr reviewers I'd tagged months ago. Many had been removed from Goodreads, but none, not a single one, had ever been removed from Amazon. I wasn't the only person reporting them, but still, nothing happened.
So last night I just went to the Amazon.com page and keyed in the name of an author I knew had been buying fiverr reviews and who was himself a fiverr reviewer, Michael Beas. You can see my Booklikes report on Mr. Beas's relationship with fiverr here.
The first of Mr. Beas's books to come up on Amazon was Reflections: Prayers from the heart of a 14 year old boy. As I skimmed down through the reviews written for this book last summer and fall, I recognized a lot of the old familiar fiverr account names: Chloe H, R. Coker, Stan Law (who bought lots and lots and lots of fiverr reviews). I wasn't shocked to see Sandy Nathan's name, because I already knew she was affiliated with fiverr as a buyer of reviews and other stuff, and because I knew she wrote in a shall we say spiritual vein.
What did surprise me, however, was that "Vine Voice" seal of Amazon approval attached to her name.
In the wake of the recent lawsuit filed by Amazon against a company that sold "fake" product reviews, there's been additional attention given to Amazon's own policies on reviewing.
Two specific policies appear to apply to the Sandy Nathan "Vine Voice" situation. I'll address the second one first, since it's more relative to what I've already posted.
Paid Reviews – We do not permit reviews or votes on the helpfulness of reviews that are posted in exchange for compensation of any kind, including payment (whether in the form of money or gift certificates), bonus content, entry to a contest or sweepstakes, discounts on future purchases, extra product, or other gifts.
The sole exception to this rule is when a free or discounted copy of a physical product is provided to a customer up front. In this case, if you offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you must clearly state that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. If you receive a free or discounted product in exchange for your review, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that fact. Reviews from the Amazon Vine program are already labeled, so additional disclosure is not necessary.
Reviews from the Amazon Vine program are designated by a green line (which I can't personally verify because I didn't take the time to go looking for a verified Vine Voice green lined review), but all reviews by a Vine Voicer receive that tag. How many Amazon review readers are aware of the distinction?
Furthermore, however, if Amazon does not permit helpful votes to be purchased, what is their mechanism for verifying that? How is anyone supposed to know that any given reviewer -- Vine Voice or not -- has achieved their ranking via legitimate votes or via purchased votes?
It should be noted, also, that fiverr.com has apparently cracked down somewhat on Gigs(r) openly offering such votes for sale, whether they are "like" votes on Facebook or Twitter or other sites, as they violate the Terms of Service on those sites. No one has any way of knowing, of course, how many such votes anyone has already purchased. Again, it is possible that Sandy Nathan purchased the votes that put her into the Vine Program and gave her reviews the added weight of credibility.
But there is another part of the Amazon review guidelines that applies to this situation.
- Promotional Reviews – In order to preserve the integrity of Customer Reviews, we do not permit artists, authors, developers, manufacturers, publishers, sellers or vendors to write Customer Reviews for their own products or services, to post negative reviews on competing products or services, or to vote on the helpfulness of reviews. For the same reason, family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items.
As an author, Sandy Nathan is not permitted by Amazon to post a negative review of a competing product. Although Amazon used to specify that authors could not post negative reviews of other books in their own genre, the parameters were never spelled out. Could an author of historical romances write negative reviews of contemporary romances? Could an author of academic non-fiction write negative reviews of popular fiction?
As a Vine Voice reviewer, however, Nathan is supposed to be scrupulously honest. Well, we should all be at least reasonably honest, but for those bearing the Vine Voice tag, you would think a higher level of honesty on reviews was in order. Of course it is quite possible that Sandy Nathan reviewed Michael Beas's because it's in the same sortof spiritual category that she writes in, but she's required by the Amazon guideline posted above to give a positive review . . . or none at all. She can't, if she wants to abide by the review guidelines, be honest. And yet honesty is required of Vine Voicers.
Amazon has filed suit against a supplier of paid, fake reviews. It looks like maybe Amazon should either stop throwing stones from their own glass house, or sue themselves.
(Edited the title to better reflect the facts.)
Amazon has filed suit against the alleged operator of several sites that offer Amazon sellers the ability to purchase fake 4- and 5-star customer reviews of their products.
The suit, the first of its kind from the Seattle company, was filed in King County Superior Court against a California man, Jay Gentile, identified in Amazon’s filings as the operator of sites including buyazonreviews.com, buyamazonreviews.com, bayreviews.net and buyreviewsnow.com. The site also targets unidentified “John Does” also believed to be involved in the scheme.
The case is part of a broader effort by the company to crack down on fake reviews.
“While small in number, these reviews threaten to undermine the trust that customers, and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers, place in Amazon, thereby tarnishing Amazon’s brand,” the suit says. “Amazon strictly prohibits any attempt to manipulate customer reviews and actively polices its website to remove false, misleading, and inauthentic reviews.
I don't have a gif for ROFLSHIAWMP.
It began innocently enough, with the "purchase" of a Kindle freebie, Parris Afton Bonds' Dream Time. I write historical romances, and Ms. Bonds is a contemporary of mine. I'm not wealthy, and the book was offered free. Why wouldn't I take it?
But the reviews seemed odd, both on Amazon and on Goodreads. All 5-star, all posted at the same time. The reviewers seemed to be reviewing the same books, and those books were wildly dissimilar.
I notified Goodreads Support of my suspicions, and several of the reviewers' accounts disappeared. Apparently Goodreads confirmed my suspicions that these were not legitimate consumers' accounts.
Amazon did nothing.
Another Goodreads member spotted that the profile of one of the Amazon reviewers had a link to a fiverr account. And that's when the Great Hunt began.
More and more and more Goodreads reviewers are being outed (quietly, very quietly) as paid reviewers. They are nothing less than writers of commercial advertisements in the pay of the authors.
When we turn on the TV or boot up the computer, we know we're going to see advertisements. Some of us utilize software to block the ads, but we know they're there nonetheless. Whether it's a banner across the top of BookLikes or a spot ad on any other site, we know that they are paid advertisements.
Paid advertisements are different from consumer reviews. We know an advertisement is going to speak favorably about the product or service being advertised, because the purpose of the ad is to get us to buy the product or service.
That's why in the US it is illegal to disguise a commercial advertisement as consumer review. That's why in the US it is illegal not to disclose that the reviewer has been compensated. Consumers have the right, in the US, to know whether or not what they're reading is a commercial advertisement or a consumer review.
The task of identifying the commercial reviewers on Goodreads is almost never-ending. Although most are connected with the fiverr "gig" site, some have turned up as independents. One of those independents -- she runs her own media/PR firm -- was responsible for over 2,500 commercial ratings and reviews.
It's depressing and it's discouraging.
One fiverr account just returned a few days ago in its fifth Goodreads incarnation.
At least two fiverr users -- one a seller, one a buyer -- have come to my Booklikes blog to defend their actions. Both have subsequently removed their posts.
Other readers have joined me in the task. It's daunting.
Today it led me to two places I wish I hadn't gone.
The first was the Goodreads profile page of a self-publishing author who has established a publishing company that only publishes her books. There's nothing wrong with this, and it really isn't even particularly deceptive. If you go to the publisher's website, you see that they only publish her titles.
What was disturbing, however, was that I identified this author through the name of her publisher because that publisher is a customer of fiverr.com. And yes, I linked specific reviews to specific fiverr accounts. The author is buying 5-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.
But it got worse, much worse.
The author's blog, posted on her Goodreads profile page, was a several-pages-long (of the TL;DR variety) harangue on bad reviews. Although ostensibly a guide to authors on how to recognize the different kinds of bad reviews, it comes across much more as a tirade against reviewers who dare to write any kind of bad review -- unless of course, it's the "good" kind of bad review that benefits the author.
This blogpost was published on Goodreads on 23 July 2014. The author's books have 5-star reviews from confirmed fiverr sellers on Amazon, including Michael Beas, dated July 2014.
And I can't go to her Goodreads page or even her personal blog and call her out for a lying sack of hypocrisy.
I was sick after that discovery. Just plain sick. And getting sicker.
I also learned that she's apparently using another outside -- that is, non-fiverr -- promotions company to write glowing reviews for her books on Goodreads. The person writing those reviews is also a Goodreads author, but she hasn't claimed her author account and blithely gives her own book 5-stars as if she is an independent reader.
The connections go on, and on, and on. That author/publicist enlisted her mother -- who is also her business partner -- to write a 5-star review for her book on Amazon.
Do you begin to see how incestuous this all is?
I reported the author who hadn't claimed her author account, but I haven't reported the first author, the one who is buying reviews from fiverr and from PR firms and the dear goddess only knows who all else; and then after she's done that she has the unmitigated gall to chew out honest reviewers???????????????
What I found next was the frosting on the cupcake for the day.
I tracked down another fiverr seller to her Goodreads account and discovered that, like Michael Beas, she is also a Goodreads author. I carefully documented all the evidence, put it in an email to Goodreads Support, and walked away from the computer. To take a shower.
When I came back, the lid had started to blow off the other kind of fake review: A gigantic circle jerk of mutually masturbating authors on Goodreads. One of their members (pun most definitely intended) has decided to attack a reviewer.
And we can't say anything.
I feel very much the outsider on this site, mainly because I'm not really reviewing many books. And that appears to be one of BookLikes' enormous strengths: Serious and top-quality reader reviews of quality books.
For some reason or other, I keep finding myself mired in the muck. And so it is with this . . . book.
It looks like a book. It's on Amazon and priced like a book. ($2.99 U.S., though I don't know about other places.) It's on Goodreads and listed as a book.
Oh yes, and it has reviews like a book. Lots and lots and lots of reviews on Amazon. A few on Goodreads. Mostly 5 star reviews. And most of the reviews suggest that the reviewers read . . . a book.
But it's only two chapters.
If you buy those two chapters -- for $2.99 -- you'll get free updates when other chapters are written. The next two, according to the author's post on Goodreads dated 3 July 2014, are being edited. (Some reviews,however, suggest that maybe you'll have to buy additional installments. It's not really clear.)
How many more will there be? Hell if I know. When will they be finished? Good question.
Why would someone do this?
Well the obvious answer seems to be "to make money."
The author states he has a Kickstarter campaign, and that these two chapters are the Kickstarter Sampler. What does that mean? Does it mean he's written this much and now he wants people to donate to his Kickstarter fund so he can write the rest of the book? Is this the way it's done now? You get people to pay you to do something before you've done it, and then you sell it to other people after you've done it?
But what if you're selling it to other people before you've done it?
And what if you're paying other people to tell your potential customers that what you haven't done is already great, so they should buy it even though you haven't done it?
Most of the reviews posted to The Sword of Agrippa on Amazon are from paid reviewers. I can't post that information on Amazon or Goodreads. I can only post it here and hope that some of the information trickles back to the other reviews. I feel guilty doing that. I feel as if I'm abusing the innocence and integrity of BookLikes.
Then again, at least BookLikes has some integrity.
Several of the 5-star reviews posted to The Sword of Agrippa on Amazon are from reviewers whose Goodreads accounts have already been deleted because they've been identified as fiverr sellers. Most of the other reviews are from accounts I've learned to recognize as sellers on fiverr. Few if any of the reviews are from genuine readers.
What would a genuine reader base a review on, anyway?
Does it make any difference that readers can maybe see through the fakery and therefore they didn't buy it or read it?
How bad is the fakery?
One reviewer writes "Just as i was about to put the book down, I couldn't! The deeper i got into the book the better it got. It started to become clearer and i was able to enjoy it."
How deep can you get into a book that you only have the first two chapters of?
Another describes the story as "...engaging and moves at a pace that neither hurries you along nor bores you with a slow speed. It flows so perfectly and keeps you drifting from page to page in one fluent motion." How can you tell how "fluent" the story is if there isn't any more of the story?
Another reviewer who "really enjoyed this book" praises it as "A visionary scientist's dream journeys into other worlds and times. The author does a good job immersing the reader in a rich and imaginative world that is well written."
A fourth claims, "To conclude, a stunning book and a reading experience that I'm unlikely to forget for a long time."
"To conclude?" But there is no conclusion! The conclusion hasn't been written! It may never be written! Then again, I guess one is unlikely to forget that which one hasn't experienced.
Some of the Amazon reviewers do state that what's being sold is only the beginning of the book, not the whole thing, but clearly others are at least allowing shoppers to infer that the book is complete. Is it just me, or is that slightly on the deceptive side?
It isn't enough that we have fake reviews all over the place. Now we have fake reviews for fake books, too?
I strongly suspect that no one is buying this. No one is buying any of these crappy, crappy, over-hyped, lied-about, fake reviewed books. No one is posting the negative reviews that shriek "What the fuck was that? I paid $2.99 for two fucking chapters?"
Maybe I should let it go. Maybe I should give up and let the fiverr shills and the sleazy book promoters post all their lying 5-star reviews. Maybe I should let the people who think they're going to make a lot of money writing absolute garbage put their shitty books up on Amazon and Smashwords. Maybe I should let the readers buy the crap and think they're reading great literature because "Whoozywatsits" and "MerryMary" and "Shop Doc" on Amazon all gave it five stars. (I made those names up. Anybody need a clever screen name to hide behind? I'll sell you one cheap. Free even. I love making up names.)
But I can't walk away from it. That's not who and what I am. I'm sure there are people laughing at my passion, and yeah, it kinda hurts a little to realize that. But I'd rather be laughed at than sneered at.
No book? No stars.