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: Fiverr.com 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.