Can we talk about Kindle eBooks, Amazon and Astroturfing?

For Christmas this year I received my fist Kindle, a Paperwhite. It’s a really nice device and I fell in love with using it very quickly. I bought a few things with a gift card I also received, but I happen to be an Amazon Prime member and was eager to test out the Prime Lending Library I had never been able to take advantage of.

After perusing Amazon’s list of top reviewed sci-fi book I decided to take a shot on one that looked fairly interesting and had an average rating of around 4.2/5 Stars. It was called Extinction Point, written by Paul Jones. It was execrable. One of the worst books I’ve ever read. Terribly dull, filled with unneeded descriptive text and explanations for the most banal activities. There is basically one character who is alone for the whole book. The prose is laughably trite. And worst of all, there is no attempt at any kind of satisfying ending. Sure, the subtitle is “Book 1”, but it’s like if Fellowship of the Ring had ended before Frodo got to Bree. That’s how little happens in this book. It is utterly without any redeeming quality.

That’s why it seemed so strange to me that the book had 200+ 4 and 5 star reviews. When I looked into it a bit deep I realized a few things. First, this was a self published book. It never occurred to me to check when I clicked the “borrow” button on my Kindle. Second, the vast majority of the positive reviews come from accounts with no other review history. Third, the “most helpful” review from one of Amazon’s “Top Ten” product reviewers also happens to run the “#1 Free Kindle Book Blog”. Going down the rabbit hole of top Amazon reviewers, it seems like a lot of those people are pretty scummy, exchanging favors, and possibly monetary consideration, for their endorsements. Finally, I discovered this: where hundreds of people are selling positive eBook reviews for $5 each.

So mystery solved, eh? Astro-turfing. Turns out it only costs about $1000 to get any self published book into Amazon’s list of top rated books for any given genre with 200+ reviews. That’s not a lot of money, especially compared to the vanity publishing that use to happen with physical books, only now you can make a bunch of money back with your placement among the top books on the top retailer with the top eReader on the market. Right now if you go to Amazon and sort sci-fi kindle books by average review you won’t get a list of the great works from Heinlein, Asimov, Dick or Gibson. You’ll see a list of self-published junk with a lonely volume of Orwell sandwiched in the middle.

I had hoped there might be something Amazon could do to root out this kind of abuse, but they almost feel complicit in the way they encourage “top reviewers”, have created specific imprints to publish paperback versions of top selling self-published eBooks, and the way they promote those imprints with misleading links (for example, a link on the main Kindle eBook page for me claims to take you to a list of top rated sci-fi, but actually takes you to a list of top-rated sci-fi books under their 47North self-published imprint. Furthermore, as I went looking for other potential books to borrow from the Prime Lending Library, I realized the vast majority of those available are self-published books. They claim something like 180K in their library, but best I can tell maybe 200 are the New York Times best sellers they promote, while the rest of the catalog is filled out with all this self published junk.

For all I know there are some talented self-publishing authors out there, but this knowledge has permanently poisoned the well for me. I’m not paying for any kindle books without real publishers attached, nor will I waste my monthly Prime book on anything self-published. Self publishing should be a cool thing, an opportunity to level the playing field for new authors, but the current situation has just turned it into a haven for scammers and hacks.

I am a huge fan of how ePublishing has empowered a whole new generation of writers. However, I am forced to confess that it has come at a cost to the readers. While there are diamonds in the rough, there is often just too much rough to sort through in order to find those diamonds.

One of the advantages of the Kindle is that you can read a sample before committing to purchase. I highly encourage you to take advantage of that because you can usually identify the dreck within a few pages.

I have had a kindle for 2 years and have enjoyed as many self published books as books by well know authors.

Like anything it can be hit and miss and reviews need to be taken as part of it but I am always very wary of books that gush too much, I always read the worst as well as the best reviews and if there are pretty much no bad reviews it’s a red flag.

Normally I take a chance if it’s a cheap book, I would always read all of a book but now with cheap prices and self published stuff if a book is rubbish I dump it and move on, it’s not like it’s cost me £8 ($10) but instead less than a cup of coffee.

I would say your risk is certainly higher with self-published authors - there’s no screening process there - but you’re also typically risking less money, and I have found some absolute gems that way. Hugh Howey’s Wool series, for example, is some of the best SF I’ve read in quite some time. And while your tastes may or may not run towards YA-oriented urban fantasy, I was quite fond of Zachary Rawlins’ Academy series (2 books so far and counting), and B. Justin Shier’s Zero series.

I use Goodreads reviews as a guide for books along with Amazon.

There’s a lot of execrable stuff whether self-published or not. And it gets good amazon reviews as well (James Patterson springs to mind). You’ve got to look at what people are saying, not just the star rating (and also what the negatives are – for me, if the negatives are things like “tries too hard to be literary,” that’s a plus. If the 5-star reviews say “gets right to the point, doesn’t waste a lot of time on characters,” then that’s a minus.)

Having said that, I’m pretty wary of self-published books with 100s of good reviews. Odds are just against them being real, when even books with a real publisher often don’t get that many reviews. I look at things that, frex, people here and on other sites are saying, I look at samples, and so on.

One other thing about the kindle lending library – AFAIK, a lot of the self-published material is old mid-list books that were published for real, but the authors have gotten the electronic rights now. Again, not necessarily a guarantee of them being good…

As with most stuff on Amazon, always read the 1 star reviews. People who hate something tend to be a lot more specific and it’s much easier to align yourself with or against those people than it is to parse the 5 star reviews for meaningful content.

To their credit, Amazon closes accounts (and deletes all the reviews of a closed account), if it looks like a fake account, probably if nothing is purchased in a year or so. I’ve had non-tech friends get Amazon accounts and then watched their review disappear from my book after some time. :(

I hear what you’re saying, and don’t disagree that some of what you’re finding is disreputable, but some of it is just old fashioned marketing. It’s hard to believe a book series is a rip off. I mean, I get that you didn’t like the book you read. That’s perfectly legitimate and it probably was a real stinker. But if it was book 1 in a series, it’s hard to imagine the author set out to rob you by writing it. He wants you to read book 2 and 3 and so forth. You’re not going to because you don’t like the work, but that’s much different than an author out to rip you off. Amazon has one of the most liberal return policies around, so had you bought the book instead of borrow, you still would only be out your time, but you’d be a little wiser about the reviews, most of which are marketing material, not actual customer reviews.

Also, what is Astroturfing?

It’s a phrase used to describe, in the political arena, “Grassroots” groups that are actually corporate- or PAC-funded. Since they’re not really grassroots, they’re astroturf.

The tip about the one star reviews is really handy. The two and three star reviews can be handy as well. Also, pay attention to “Print Length” note in the details. A significant fraction of the cheaper items are installment type items.

Reading the sample is the best way to get a feeling for a book after looking over the reviews. I also thinking cultivating some professional reviewers can help.

I read the bad and good reviews on Amazon. The ones that simply gush are useless - I look for intelligent reviews that explain why they feel a certain way about the product. Fake reviews are not fair game in my opinion - it’s an attempt to mislead you. My advice is to bring it up to Amazon and complain that these are bought reviews. If it means anything, I gave your review a thumbs up - if it gets enough it will be featured as the most helpful negative review.

hahah. That’s funny! Makes sense, too. Thanks for clearing that up.

Welcome to the jungle, I’ve had my kindle for 2 years too, and boy have I bought some crappy sci-fi stuff.

The top list is terrible, it is beyond bad and worthless as a guide to what’s what.
I’ve mostly resorted to the net to find my books, as I remember vividly buying myself a book with like 250 4-5 star reviews…

After reading about 100 pages of the book, I understood it was trite crap that I could not possible endure more of, then I went to the reviews on amazon…

And amongst all the glorious reviews, was one 1 star review where the author was wondering if the world had gone insane, cause the book was so bad it was beyond even critique.

Exactly. Read the sample first. There are bad self-published books and there are bad traditionally published books. In a bookstore I’d read the first couple of pages before buying so with ebooks I read the sample. I currently have about 15 samples on my Nook. I’ve read through eight of them so far and only found one I was somewhat interested in purchasing. Most of these come from established publishers.

Read the sample first and save yourself some money (or in the OP’s case, his free monthly lend).

So… what you’re telling me is i should tell my brother-in-law to astroturf his self-published book? ^^.

I didn’t self publish, but I asked all my friends and family to review my book on Amazon. I gave away copies to bloggers I thought would review it. I asked other writers I know to blurb it. No shame in any of that. It’s what a publisher expects you to do, and if you’re self publishing it should on your list of things to do to promote your book.

I’d draw the line at hudreds of paid-in-advance “reviews” and look skeptically at any publisher that tried to do similar tactics. But soliciting Amazon reviews isn’t a bad strategy at all.

I always check the number of one star reviews. A great book will have a lot of 4 or 5 star reviews, maybe some 3 stars and almost no 1 or 2 star reviews. But if a book gets 300 five star reviews and 100 1 star reviews and it’s not a book that potentially controversial (for example political in nature) then that’s a good clue that perhaps something is wrong.