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The Close-Read: “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy”

Jeff O'Neal

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

I’m not sure if David Streitfeld’s New York Times article, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” is a bombshell revelation, but it caught me by surprise. Authors paying for reviews, reviewers writing about books they haven’t read, juicy dirt on some big-name self-published authors—basically a big old mess that says a lot about the state of publishing today. It’s worth looking at some of it in detail. (Excerpts from the article are in italics. My comments are in regular type below each excerpt)


[Rutherford] could churn out press releases all day long, trying to be noticed, but there is only so much space for the umpteenth vampire novel or yet another self-improvement manifesto or one more homespun recollection of times gone by. There were not enough reviewers to go around.

I think one major point that has been lost in the review-for-cash uproar is this basic fact: there is not enough editorial attention for all of the self-publishing that is happening right now. Everything that happens in this story flows from that: too many books, not enough people to talk about them so that they get anything like exposure. I think traditional publishing should make a louder case for this aspect of their business: we know how to do this stuff and have the professional connections to make it happen.


Instead of trying to cajole others to review a client’s work, why not cut out the middleman and write the review himself? Then it would say exactly what the client wanted — that it was a terrific book. A shattering novel. A classic memoir. Will change your life. Lyrical and gripping, Stunning and compelling. Or words to that effect.

Thinking of editorial coverage as transactional (you give me something, I give you something back) undermines the utility of that coverage for readers, who depend upon authenticity in reviews and other writing about books. The only reason reviews matter at all is because of the implicit “unbiased third party” understanding of reviews.


Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online; they are used for resorts, dermatologists, neighborhood restaurants, high-fashion boutiques, churches, parks, astrologers and healers — not to mention products like garbage pails, tweezers, spa slippers and cases for tablet computers. In many situations, these reviews are supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique.

Also interesting to note that this guy wasn’t trying to fake traditional reviews, but the everyday user reviews. Couple of reasons for this: the barrier to entry is lower (hard to get a gig at the NYT to fake reviews from) and the expectation of quality was lower (a three sentence review on Amazon that eschews punctuation is quite familiar).


2008 research showed that 60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars.

Wow…80% of Amazon product reviews are 4 or 5 stars. Unless I have just been pulling the bad apples, I find it hard to believe that 80% of the available products on Amazon are that good. This leads me to wonder about the veracity of air conditioner reviews and HDMI cable reviews and so on. I wonder if Amazon recognizes this as a problem.


Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake.

Good lord. Can we just go back to “word of mouth”? I wonder at what point consumers will start to distrust “user reviews” for this very reason? If I know that one-third of the reviews are fake, at what point do I throw out the whole barrel?


A reader hears about a book because an author is promoting it, and then checks it out on Amazon. The reader sees favorable reviews and is reassured that he is not wasting his time.

I think there is some truth to this generalized pattern, but keep an eye on the “on Amazon” part of this. If there were a viable competitor for self-published authors to distribute their work, would this pay-for-review thing have worked? If there are 2-3 outlets, is faking reviews on all of them feasible? It reminds me of the virus problem on Windows—one of the major reasons viruses are such a problem for Microsoft is that it is just so dominant, reaching at one point more than 90% of computer users. So if you were going to run a computer scam, the platform to run it on was obvious.


“These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.”

Channeling Inigo Montoya: “That word, I no think it means what you think it means.” There is no such thing, for the majority of readers, as a “marketing review.” We have another word for that: advertisement.


In 2006, before Amazon supercharged electronic publishing with the Kindle, 51,237 self-published titles appeared as physical books, according to the data company Bowker. Last year, Bowker estimates that more than 300,000 self-published titles were issued in either print or digital form.

600% increase in 5 years. This just blows me away.


A computer programmer and novelist based in Illinois, Mr. Hughes, 48, says he has spent about $20,000 on review services. “I’d like to say I view it as an education,” he wrote in an e-mail. His goal, not yet accomplished, is to make that difficult leap from “being an author” to “being a recognized author.”

Man, that is some coin to drop on fake reviews. I wonder, why not spend it on regular old advertising? Not as effective? More expensive? Few options for an individual author trying to advertise their work?


Amazon declined to comment.

Classy, Amazon. Really classy. If your belly is full of worms, you gotta see the doctor.


One thing that made a difference is not mentioned in “How I Sold One Million E-Books.” That October, Mr. Locke commissioned Mr. Rutherford to order reviews for him, becoming one of the fledging service’s best customers. “I will start with 50 for $1,000, and if it works and if you feel you have enough readers available, I would be glad to order many more,” he wrote in an Oct. 13 e-mail to Mr. Rutherford.  “I’m ready to roll.”

Honestly, I am madder at the authors for doing this than I am at this Rutherford fella who supplied the reviews. What a violation of your readers’ trust to scam them into buying your stuff.


In a phone interview from his office in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Locke confirmed the transaction. “I wouldn’t hesitate to buy reviews from people that were honest,” he said.

I don’t even understand what this means. All I hear is “We have always been at war with Eastasia.”


Mr. Rutherford, who says he is a little miffed that the novelist never gave him proper credit, is more definitive.

Credit for scamming people into buying the books? Unreal.


The collapse was hastened by a young Oregon woman, Ashly Lorenzana, who gave Mr. Rutherford and perhaps their only bad review.

Amazing that one person brought this thing down. That’s what happens to a house of cards, though. One little flick and the thing comes raining down.


He says he regrets his venture into what he called “artificially embellished reviews” but argues that the market will take care of the problem of insincere overenthusiasm. “Objective consumers who purchase a book based on positive reviews will end up posting negative reviews if the work is not good,” he said.

So say all criminals: “Hey man, things would have been just fine if no one found out what I was doing.” Seriously though, at what point is misrepresenting yourself fraud? If if it doesn’t fit a legal definition, Rutherford, his reviewers, and authors who bought reviews from him essentially defrauded readers.