Monday, February 27, 2012

The wrong words. The wrongest words of all

(Edited to add, 11 Sept 2012 -- Dear STGRB Bullies:  I have no idea what you're looking for here, but feel free to look.  I won't go to your site, so I have no idea how much of my blog post you've copied.  Maybe it's enough to warrant a warning about copyright infringement?  Hmm, something you might what to think about.

(While you're here, however, you might want to take a look at some of my other posts.  I have no reviews on this blog, and very few comments directed at specific authors, but you should be able to figure out pretty quickly that I do not like, not at all, poorly written books and I really don't like authors, self- or traditionally-published, who make fools of themselves defending poorly written books.  I myself am in both publishing camps, so I have no reason to favor one over the other, but I absolutely loathe traditional publishers.  I've been screwed by four of them, and one of the four is continuing to do so.  I'm one of the most enthusiastic champions of self-publishing you're likely to find anywhere on the Internet, but I will offer no support for writers who publish crappy books and I will condemn very vehemently any writer who criticizes, attacks, or in any way attempts to silence legitimate reviewers of books.  Got that?)

I really didn't think this issue of copyright infringement/plagiarism would resurface so quickly, but it has.  It's being covered extensively at Dear Author and SBTB.

There is, in my humble opinion, never any excuse for stealing another writer's words and claiming them as one's own.  Never.  And because there's no excuse for it, there can be no forgiveness, at least from me.

But plagiarism isn't the only form of deceit being practiced these days in the publishing world.

It used to be, in the world of romance novel publishing, there were a couple of magazines devoted to reviewing romance novels.  The major literary review outlets -- Publishers Weekly, most prominently -- wouldn't touch them, so we writers were left with Romantic Times, Affaire de Coeur, and  a few others.  When the mall stores like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton were riding high, they had newsletters, and then the online review sites started up.  The commercial reviewers, of course, were more interested in selling books and kept the reviews almost universally positive.  The review sites could be more critical, but there was a personality behind them that provided some sense of reliability.

Now, with the advent of reader-posted reviews, how does the reader determine which reviews are honest?

Dear Author did a blog about an author who was sockpuppeting 5-star reviews for his own book and was caught impersonating himself in a forum discussion on Amazon.  What was eventually revealed was that the author was actually paying for commissioned reviews but then supplying the reviews!

Let me back up a bit and explain some of this.  At one point a couple of years ago, I registered with an outfit called Textbroker.  The way they work is that you sign up for the assignments posted on their website, you write the text, send it to them, and if the product meets their (and their client's) approval you get paid.  I'm assuming Textbroker is reasonably legitimate -- I'm still getting updates and newsletters from them -- but they're the facilitator in a deal like this.  (Edited to add: Textbroker is not involved, as far as I know, in the Mainak Dhar situation.  They may be involved in others.  I don't track them at all.)

So if I were an author who wanted a bunch of 5-star reviews for my book on Amazon (or anywhere else for that matters), I'd contract with Textbroker for, say, 25 reviews of 50 words each, to be posted with 5-star ratings, and I'd pay Textbroker $5 each for those reviews.

This would cost me $125.  Textbroker would post the assignment and wait for their subcontractors to sign up for it.  Textbroker takes a cut, say $1 each, and the other $4 would go to each of the 25 writers who wrote the reviews.  They'd get paid when the reviews went live.   According to the discussion on Amazon regarding the book in question, the author also stipulated that each reviewer had to buy a copy of the book out of the payment.  But there was evidence presented that the author also wrote the reviews, and the "reviewers" were merely supplying their name and ISP address for the author to hide behind.  When the reviews went live on Amazon (or wherever else they were being posted) no one would be able to trace them back to the author.  They'd look for all intents and purposes as legitimate, independent, unbiased reviews.

Except that they weren't.

The idea that this is no worse than a TV commercial in which actors are paid to pretend to be real people facing bankruptcy or suffering from painful joints or enjoying an enhanced sex life because they bought the right brand of pancake mix is possibly justified to a certain extent.  On the other hand, we all know that the actors are just actors and that they've been paid to pretend their knees hurt or their house is about to go into foreclosure.  We know that they've been given a script written by the purveyors of the product or service.

There's no such transparency with book reviews.  There's no way of knowing who's an honest and independent and unbiased reviewer and who's a paid shill and who's the author's spouse.

As Jane wrote on the Dear Author blog, it's sometimes difficult for the average reader to determine which reviews are sincere and which . . . aren't.  She suggested that things to look for are reviewers who only have one review or whose reviews are always 5-star.  I started with her advice and I decided to do a little sleuthing myself.

I decided to compare the reviews for five more or less random books.  These were my criteria as I began trolling the Amazon lists for likely subjects --

1.  Historical romance, at least 200 pages.
2.  Self-published digitally in the past 12 months, no reissues of print publication.
3.  No more than 99-cents, preferably free.
4.  At least three 5-star reviews.
5.  At least three 1-star reviews.
6.  Not discussed on any of the discussion sites/blogs I frequent.

I thought it would take only a few minutes to find five books fitting that description but in fact it was rather difficult.  For example, Beverly Kendall's All's Fair in Love and Seduction was only an estimated 136 pages.  Denise Domning's A Love for All Seasons had been published years ago and only had two reviews.  Charlotte Hawkins' My Lady Gisborne had no 1-star reviews

After an hour of combing through the Amazon listings, I finally settled on the following five, having adjusted my requirements slightly:

All's Fair in Love and Seduction by Beverly Kendall
Daughter of Deceit by Carrie James Haynes
My Lord Wicked by Cheryl Bolen
Eulogy's Secret by Grace Elliot
Seeing the Elephant by Leah Banicki

Here's what I discovered:

All's Fair in Love and Seduction
5-Star -- 9
4-Star -- 9
3-Star -- 1
2-Star -- 1
1-Star -- 3

Daughter of Deceit
5-Star -- 13
4-Star -- 3
3-Star -- 3
2-Star -- 7
1-Star -- 10

My Lord Wicked
5-Star -- 6
4-Star -- 0
3-Star -- 6
2-Star -- 0
1-Star -- 1

Eulogy's Secret
5-Star -- 10
4-Star -- 8
3-Star -- 0
2-Star -- 0
1-Star -- 0

Seeing the Elephant
5-Star -- 8
4-Star -- 7
3-Star -- 2
2-Star -- 8
1-Star -- 10

Authors Kendall and Bolen are not newcomers, and so I wasn't surprised to see a variety of voices in the reviews.  As I made a further analysis, I was able to see that many of their reviewers had multiple reviews under their belts.  Some of their reviewers had also reviewed some of these authors' other books.  I felt that for the most part, the reviews of these two books were honest, sincere personal opinions of people who had read at least part of the book.  There may have been some 5- and 4-star reviews by friends, but there were also independent reviews.  IMHO, of course.

Grace Elliot's Eulogy's Secret had only 4- and 5-star reviews, so I was a bit more skeptical.  However, two things made me trust these reviews.  First, many of the reviewers had significant portfolios of reviews to check.  Second, and perhaps more important, these reviews went beyond the mere gushing praise of "I loved this book from the first page and everyone who loves romance will love it too!"  I got the distinct impression that at least most, if not all, of the reviewers were independent of the author and had read most, if not all, of the book and liked it.

And that leaves Daughter of Deceit and Seeing the Elephant.  :sigh:  Where to begin.

Let's start with Seeing the Elephant because I think it demonstrates a real problem for readers navigating the now published books that used to be relegated to print publishers' and agents' slush piles, 99% of which was never contracted and therefore never printed.  If anyone read these books other than the authors and the first readers in the mail room, it was only friends, family, a critique partner or two, and maybe some contest judges.  Now, however, these books are not only out for public viewing, they are for sale.  Authors are expecting readers to pay for the privilege of reading them; it used to be the other way around.

There's a huge disparity in the review ratings for Seeing the Elephant, with eight 5-star and ten 1-star reviews.  All of the 1- and 2-star reviews lament horrible grammar, especially shifts in verb tenses.  The author -- and in one case her husband -- replied to several of these critical reviews by announcing that she had engaged an editor and errors would be fixed.  In at least one of those responses dated 2 November 2011, she states that a revised version has been uploaded, but in others she says she's working with the editor and expects the revised version to be ready after "the first of the year."  So at some point the author herself acknowledges that the book as it was uploaded to Amazon in May 2011 was not, in fact, ready for publication.  She acknowledges that it needs editorial assistance.

Then how does that square with all those 5-star reviews that saw nothing wrong with it?

Well, to begin with, one of those 5-star reviews is from the author's husband.  Another is from the author herself.  Not hiding behind a pseudonym or a sock puppet.  Just right out there.  And I guess the fact that they're not hiding who they are makes it somehow okay?  I mean, I'm at a loss here.  But they are certainly not impartial independent readers with no stake in the game.  Doesn't the person looking for a book to buy generally assume that the reviewers are reasonably unbiased?  There are, in fact, some reviewers on Eulogy's Secret who explicitly state that they do not know the author and have no connection with her.  (Edited to add:  I noticed on doing some additional surfing that Sharon Ihle, under her own name, posted a 5-star review for her digital reprint of Dakota Dream,  the text of the review being an attributed reprint from the original Romantic Times review by Kathe Robin.)

Somehow or other I doubt the same can be said for all of the other six 5-star reviewers of Seeing the Elephant.  Leaving out Jeff and Leah Banicki, of the other six, four of them have only reviewed one book -- Seeing the Elephant.  Their reviews are very short, only a couple of lines, and really say nothing about the book except that it's good.

However, to be fair, many of the 1- and 2-star reviews were also very short, and eight were by people who had no other reviews on file with Amazon.  The distinction here is that all the low-score reviews cited the horrible writing style, poor grammar, shifts of tense, etc., as their reasons for not liking or not even being able to read more than a few pages of the book.  To many of them, author Banicki responded that she appreciated their comments and was going to engage an editor to help her revise the book. 

In other words, she knew they were telling the truth.  She did not try to defend her work against them, nor cite the glowing reviews with 5 stars, which suggests even she didn't believe those 5-star reviews.  Was it because she knew the reviewers were friends or family who were just being nice?  I don't know.  I can speculate, but I don't know for sure.

So. . . .
Daughter of Deceit by Carrie James Haynes features an elegant, evocative, gothicky cover photo by Konrad Bak.  Yes, folks, I cruise through Dreamstime, too.

Of the 13 reviewers who gave Daughter of Deceit 5-star reviews, six have no other reviews on file.  Five of the remaining seven have other reviews, but only of other books by Haynes, either under that name or writing as Jerri Hines.  The remaining two reviewers, identified as "Ruby W." and "RCardello," have reviewed other books, but they have given all of them 5 stars.   "Ruby W." reviewed four of Haynes/Hines' books, giving all of them 5 stars. 

Interestingly enough, Ruby and "RCardello" also reviewed books by Annette Blair, and of course gave them 5 stars also.

According to Jerri Hines' blog both Annette Blair and Ruth Cardello are friends of hers. 

And while there's nothing wrong with friends helping friends, it does appear to me -- if not to anyone else -- that only friends and family members of Carrie James Haynes/Jerri Hines are giving Daughter of Deceit 5 star reviews.  (Edited to add: One of the 5-star reviewers of Daughter of Deceit is identified as "Ramona."  Another of Haynes' novels is dedicated to her mother, whose name is Ramona.)

So let's move on to the 4-star reviews.  The three reviewers in this group have only reviewed a total of eight books between them, and four of the eight are Haynes/Hines titles.  Again, this is beginning to look suspiciously incestuous, especially when on 20 February she announced that she asked a friend "...specifically to give my book a great review, not just a good review but a great one" to test a theory that she had a "stalker" reviewer who was posting a negative review in response whenever a positive review was posted.  There are three 5-star reviews posted to Daughter of Deceit on the 20th, 21st, and 22nd of February.  All three are by reviewers with no previous reviews on Amazon.  Is one of them the review Haynes requested from a friend?

She concludes that blog post by writing "If I'm wrong, then we'll know I'm paranoid. We'll see. Should know within the next couple of hours... "

There were subsequently a number of 2- and 1-star reviews posted, but Haynes has not blogged since then.

In contrast to the 4- and 5-star reviewers, those who gave Daughter of Deceit the lowest marks in the 1- and 2-star reviews had a much more extensive background of reviewing, with four out of the 17 having 20 or more prior reviews.  There were seven, however, for whom this was their first and so far only review.  Those with more reviews, however, also had a wider range of ratings, which tended to indicate that they were giving honest reports rather than just blanket rave reviews.

The content of the negative reviews was also different from the 5-star.  The positive reviews were all quite brief, pretty much saying they loved the story.  Some gave a few details of the plot, but not much.  The negative reviews were also for the most part very short, with all citing the bad writing -- grammatical errors, usage mistakes, and so on -- for their low rating.  Many readers said they could not read more than a small portion of the book due to the distraction of the poor writing.

One reviewer provided a surprisingly extensive analysis, and for her/his pains was rewarded with follow-up from one of the 4-star reviewers, accusing her/him of not reading the whole book (which is not a requirement to post a review anyway) and of disliking the book because it had a gay character.

The replies to the negative reviews can be informative, and this was true of Seeing the Elephant as well, where the author and/or her husband posted about the revised version either being available or soon to be available.

Both authors have admitted their books needed additional editing, but neither has apologized to readers for putting up unedited, poorly written manuscripts and expecting people to pay for them.  Haynes believes there may be someone stalking her book to post negative reviews, and apparently she thinks it's because she has a gay character.  According to her blog, she's a conservative Christian, and that is a demographic that has had some difficulties dealing with the LGBTQI population.  Is it possible Haynes is working through an issue that has come home to her?  Yes, I'm sure it's possible.  And maybe it's difficult for her, so she's chosen the arena of her novel to explore it.

But none of the critical reviewers have made any mention of the gay character; it's the 5-star reviewers who seem to have the need to add the minor spoiler that oh, by the way, the major secondary character Charles is gay.  I'm sure, therefore, it is just a really strange coincidence that two of the 5-star reviewers of Daughter of Deceit style themselves as "CharlyG." and "Charlie G."  (sarcasm off)

Preliminary conclusion, then:  Is it lying to have your friends give your book favorable reviews?  Personally, I think it is.  I think the reader who is being asked to hand over cash for the privilege of reading a book has a right to know if the reviewers have any kind of vested interest in the success of the book or have any reason to be biased in their opinion.  Personally, in my opinion, not a single one of the 5-star reviewers of Daughter of Deceit or Seeing the Elephant is an unbiased reviewer.  I think some of the other reviewers, even with 5-star reviews, of the other books are at least somewhat impartial.

Furthermore, I think this is a problem that's going to haunt the self-published authors for a long time.  There are no gatekeepers any more.  None.  Except maybe the review websites.  I recommend readers find those, find a few they trust, and be very wary of those accolades on Amazon.

Lying is wrong.  Claiming someone else's words as your own in a case of plagiarism or copyright infringement is wrong, morally and sometimes legally.  But giving someone else your words and telling them to claim them as their own for your financial benefit as in the case of Mainak Dhar or as I strongly suspect is the case of Daughter of Deceit and Seeing the Elephant, is wrong, too.  Really, really wrong.

More on this subject later.


  1. Found a link on DA to this very interesting analysis.

    I have discovered the hard way that I cannot rely on Amazon reviews, but put my trust in my GoodReads friends opinions (even though, obviously, our preferences are different from time to time).

    "Betrayal" by Mayandree Michel is a book where I felt that "good reviews tricked me". I posted a scathing review on GoodReads and the author actually wrote to me and asked me to remove passages quoted from the book as I "did not have her permission". I have since found out that I did not need a permit, but could not be asked to argue.

    Nowadays I am very suspicious when an author grade his/her own book with 5 stars on GoodReads ("I wrote it and I LOVE it").

    1. Hi, Helly!

      Thanks for dropping by.

      I'm not on GoodReads, though I occasionally check out what people are saying over there. I may have to take a closer look.

      The reaction of some authors borders on the extreme, as your example indicates. They just can't bear the criticism of their writing. This appears to be the case with Haynes/Hines, who has to know that virtually all her 5-star reviews are from friends/relatives. But I guess that blinds one, too.

      I think Jane is going to post another link to this report, so we'll see what, if any, discussion this provokes over on Dear Author.

      Visit me again soon!

  2. Wandering over from the DA link. I happened to download a copy of Seeing the Elephant last week, because it was being offered free on ARe and because the time period fascinates me. I couldn't get through the first few pages. All the editorial issues mentioned in the one- and two-star reviews were still present as of last week. If the author has worked with an editor to fix her issues (as she and her husband claim was happening last fall), I have seen no evidence of it.

  3. You'd be surprised how rampant this problem is on Amazon. I'd say at least 60-80% of the self-published ebooks on Amazon have sockpuppet reviews.

    I've seen where authors have tried to get around the whole "self review" bit by claiming that they're posting reviews from other sites. They rarely post the negative reviews they received from other sites and even if they do, will give themselves 5 stars regardless of what the book content is. I've seen a lot of authors quote their reviews way out of context as well.

    If you widened your parameters you'd find many, many more authors that do this. It's quite common to find authors in the various forums that talk about swapping reviews They might never openly state that it'll be a swapping of 4-5 star reviews, but the implication is almost always there. Even when people claim that they're going to be "honest" they always tend to leave overwhelmingly positive reviews.

    It's the type of thing that would be scandalous if it were arranged by publishing companies, but somehow everyone overlooks this and poo-poohs it when it comes to self-published books. And there are some terrible SP books that have glowing recommendations that they don't deserve.

    1. I'm not surprised at how wide-spread the practice is, and really, it's understandable given the circumstances. Anyone can publish anything, so why not get friends and relatives to hype it? That's why I wanted to limit my sample to books that had both high and low ratings. I figured the low ratings were much more likely to come from readers who were not connected to the author and that their reviews would provide some balance to the high ratings.