Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Promotion: Where's The Line?

Book Promotion: Where's The Line?

Buying Reviews
The world recently learnt that successful indie author John Locke bought reviews for his novels. Locke was confident in his writing ability so he stipulated reviewers were to give their honest opinion, but the fact remains he paid for reviews, something which goes against Amazon policy and at least one law.

A couple months after commissioning the reviews, sales of John Locke's novels took off. Coincidence? Perhaps. It was in December, a time book sales explode, but even so it seems as though Locke's decision to pay for reviews may have been a significant factor in his success.

My first reaction was astonishment. I had read Locke's book, How I Sold 1 Million Ebooks in 5 Months and his emphasis was on building a community and, as any indie author knows, building a community takes time and a lot of hard work. In The New York Times article which exposed Locke's business practises, I read this:
Mr. Locke is unwilling to say that paying for reviews made a big difference. “Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful,” he said. “But it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience.” [Emphasis mine]
Indeed.

Then I remembered, indie authors have been offered the opportunity to pay for reviews for a while now, and from no less a name than Kirkus.

Kirkus charges $425 for a standard review, $575 for their express service. They guarantee the review will be approximately 250 to 350 words.

From the Kirkus website:
Kirkus Indie will send you the review via email, at which point you may choose to keep it private or publish it on our website (at no extra charge). If you choose to keep it private, it will never see the light of day. If you decide to publish the review on our site, you may use it any way you choose—on the back cover of your book, in marketing collateral, on your website or in a letter to an agent or publisher.

If you choose to publish your review on our website, we will also distribute it to our licensees, including Google, BN.com, Ingram, Baker & Taylor and more. On top of that, our editors will consider it for publication in Kirkus Reviews magazine, which is read by librarians, booksellers, publishers, agents, journalists and entertainment executives. Your review may also be selected to be featured in our email newsletter, which is distributed to more than 50,000 industry professionals and consumers.
So Kirkus gets a minimum of $425 per review and the author has the opportunity to bury the review if they don't like it.

My question: Why is it okay for Kirkus to sell reviews?

Sockpuppet Accounts
Recently Stephen Leather told the Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival, and so the world, that he uses sockpuppet accounts. I'll let wikipedia explain what a sockpuppet account is:
A sockpuppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception. The term—a reference to the manipulation of a simple hand puppet made from a sock—originally referred to a false identity assumed by a member of an internet community who spoke to, or about himself while pretending to be another person. The term now includes other uses of misleading online identities, such as those created to praise, defend or support a third party or organization, or to circumvent a suspension or ban from a website. A significant difference between the use of a pseudonym and the creation of a sockpuppet is that the sockpuppet poses as an independent third-party unaffiliated with the puppeteer. (Wikipedia, Sockpuppet (Internet))
For instance, let's say Matilda has published a book--whether herself or through a traditional publisher--Keeping Hummingbirds Happy and she creates an accont on Amazon under an assumed name, Hummingbird1. This is a sockpuppet account. Using this account she will give her book a good review. Of course one positive review is unlikely to make much of a difference so she creates Hummingbird2, Hmmingbird3, and so on.

I would like to stress that Stephen Leather never publicly said he had made a sockpuppet account on Amazon. He admitted to having one on Twitter, which is a very different thing. Stephen Leather is a fellow indie author and I have no wish to attack him.

That said, what startled me about Stephen Leather's admission (well, that he admitted it at a writers' conference in front of dozens of people surprised the heck out of me!) was that he apparently thought everyone had sockpuppet accounts. Here's how it went:
Stephen Leather: I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans…

Steve Mosby: So you use sockpuppet accounts basically?

SL: I think everyone does. Everyone does. Or I have friends who are sockpuppets, who might be real, but they might pick a fight with me.

SM: Are your readers aware of this, or…?

SL: Well, I think that everyone … well, are the readers aware of it? No … But they’re not buying it because of the sockpuppet. What you’re trying to do is create a buzz. And it’s very hard, one person, surrounded by a hundred thousand other writers, to create a buzz. I mean, that’s one of the things that publishers do. They create a buzz. One person on their own, difficult to create a buzz. If you’ve got ten friends, and they’ve got friends, and you can get them all as one creating a buzz, then hopefully you’ll be all right.
If readers aren't buying one's books because of ones sockpuppet account(s), then why go to all the bother of setting them up? Sure, to create buzz, but if there's no connection between 'buzz' and booksales, why do it?

Does it work? Do paid reviews and sockpuppet accounts help sell books?
I would imagine the answer is yes, they do. Or at least the folks who pay for the reviews and spend the time to set up the sockpuppet accounts believe they do.

But I think the real question isn't whether these techniques help sell books, but whether an author's time is best spent buying reviews, setting up sockpuppet accounts or writing new work.

How many books do you think Stephen Leather would have been able to write if he hadn't been busy with sockpuppet accounts? Does the amount of money that SL made due to his sockpuppet accounts exceed the amount of money he would have made on sales of new books?

It is, of course, impossible to know. I think the best way of selling books is to write more books. I know how much time it takes me to maintain my @woodwardkaren Twitter account, I can't imagine maintaining two. I would have no time for writing! If a person has a real twitter account, a couple of fake twitter accounts and three or four fake Amazon accounts, when are they going to find the time to write?

You've heard the old saying: Are you a man or a mouse? Here's mine: Are you a writer or a sockpuppet? We are our choices. Let's write.

Other articles you might like:
- John Locke Paid For Book Reviews
- Fifty Shades of Alice In Wonderland: Sales Peak At $1,000 Per Day
- Hugh Howey, Bestselling Author Of Wool, On The Key To Writing Success

Links to articles (off site):
- Anonymous Author Shares Fiverr Experience
- The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy
- Publishing's Drug Problem
- Fake Reviews: Amazon's Rotten Core

Photo credit: johndal

12 comments:

  1. I've seen this a few times, and it always struck me as shady. That said, I can understand a desperate newbie wanting to get his or her name out there, but I think there are more ethical ways to get it done.

    I'll solicit reviews when I publish my work, but I won't pay for them.

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    1. It's a difficult topic. I think that, in the end, success depends on ones writing. And, of course, there's nothing wrong with soliciting reviews and networking with other writers. Besides, it makes the journey more interesting.

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  2. This is a great post Karen. I'm not sure where (or how) you would draw the line with this sort of thing. I know of services that charge a fee to distribute books to reviewers, but they claim the reviews are impartial. That seems reasonable and not much different than Kirkus or even the New York Times. I think it's pretty well known that big publishers spend big money courting influential reviewers, so is that different? Do we all just accept that capitalism works that way, and buyer beware? Some of the best known blogs and forums out there got popular by setting up shill accounts and starting fake conversations, waiting for real people to join in.

    It does seem to be crossing an ethical line when you specifically pay for reviews, especially if you expect those reviews to be good. On the other hand, the Beatles used to pay people to scream and faint at their concerts, and the Beach Boys got their first recording contract by cheating a radio contest(each band member took turns calling in and requesting the Beach Boys, using fake voices all night long). Does this make the Beatles or the Beach Boys any less as musicians? If they hadn't done this, would they have toiled in obscurity and given up their dreams for day jobs?

    I think it says something for John Lock and the Beatles too, that they became so successful. It's hard to believe their success stems only from gamesmanship. It makes me wonder if I should have some sockpuppet accounts of my own LOL. I don't of course, but it makes me wonder...

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    1. "the Beatles used to pay people to scream and faint at their concerts," I did not know that!

      Thank you for your comment Jamie, as always, you've given me something to think about. I tend to believe--perhaps for no other reason than I want the world to be this way!--that (using Stephen Leather's work as an example) Stephen Leather's books would have been popular without him using sockpuppet accounts.

      Perhaps his work wouldn't have been as popular as soon, perhaps he wouldn't have made quite the amount of money he is making, but I do believe his books would rise to the top because ... well, I think they're good. He's a good writer and he tells a good story. On top of that he has obviously sent the books out for line editing and his covers are fantastic.

      But I do realize there are many terrific authors out there who aren't doing as well as SL and it is tempting to think they'd do better using these grey/black hat techniques.

      What we as a community need to do is find alternatives. I've been kicking around the idea of starting a community review site where authors review each others work. It would be completely free. It's just ... I think there's a real need for honest reviews.

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  3. You're right, it seems like there should be something helpful out there, and yet unbiased. The problem with using other writers is that some readers tend to consider those reviews biased, which is based on something that may or may not be happening depending on who you ask. I usually refrain from reviewing other writers' work for fear of being categorically dismissed by people who assume that Indie writers are "trading reviews."

    I definitely think it's unethical to pay someone for a 5-star review (for example) but after that things turn gray. Does throwing a big party and wining and dining a NYT reviewer count as legitimate? How does that compare with making a sock puppet account or paying a review service?

    Ultimately, the Beatles and John Locke got where they did not just by being great artists, but by being shrewd businessmen as well. To them, maybe this is just part of the theatrics.

    More rock roll trivia: Did you know Led Zeppelin used to renegotiate their contracts just minutes before a show, while tens of thousands of fans were screaming for them and the promoters had the choice to either buckle to their wishes or face a riot? Ouch. :-) Yeah, I'm a rocker. It goes with the guitar.

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    1. Too funny! I guess that's the definition of having someone over a barrel. I _love_ classic rock, it's one of the reasons I like the TV Show Supernatural. Here's a story I heard, I forget which rock band it was, but they stipulated in their contract that the band had to have some sort of candy, M&Ms or something like that, but that there could be no red ones in the bowl. When asked why they'd done this, the lead singer answered: We wanted to know how closely they'd red the contract. If there were red M&M's in the bowl, we knew we were in trouble.

      Anyway, that's my only rock & roll story.

      Good point about authors trading reviews. I guess I'll have to put my thinking cap back on. Thanks for the comments Jamie!

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  4. Haha, yeah that was Van Halen. Big supernatural fan here, too! My son and I have been restoring a '66 Chevy Impala (if that doesn't make sense google a pic lol). I may post some pics when we're done. Thanks for the chat, Karen.

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    1. That's co cool! I LOVE that car. Please do post pictures.

      Supernatural filmed down the street from a friend of mine. The shot took place at 1:30 am, but I was SO tempted to take the bus and watch. Heh.

      Thank you! Good times. ;)

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  5. Actually, I'm in the process of approaching the problem from the other end - not an unbiased place for authors to get reviews, because that's been shown to just not work, but a place for authors to actually plan and execute their book campaign. There are already lots of places for good reviews. Goodreads is an excellent source. However, authors are foolish to think that good reviews necessarily add more sales. They might to the casual browser, but what you as an author really want are relationships with readers who love your work. You can't accomplish that with old world marketing. You have to use the web to build those relationships--it's a difficult process because it takes time and consistency. That's something a lot of authors don't want to invest--so we're creating a central hub with applications that will help make marketing your book easier. Not a place to automate spam and buy book reviews, but a place to help you as an author go to the right places at the right time to make your book campaign the best it can be. If you're interested, I can send you the link to our email signup.

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    1. Shawn, thanks for your comment, sounds like a great idea. Anything that would help indie authors market their books would be a valuable addition to the community. Best of luck!

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  6. Wow! This was a really good piece! Thanks so much for writing it. I've been wondering how to promote my work and you've given me a great deal to think about. :) Well done, Karen!

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    1. Thanks Robert! I honestly do think that publishing new work is the best way to promote your old work. That and making judicious use of Amazon Select.

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Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies to anyone this inconveniences, I wish I didn't have to do it. I do appreciate each and every comment.