PROBLEM-SOLVING APPLICATION CASE (PSAC)
Writing the Book (Review) on Conflict of Interest
If you’re not getting glowing online reviews for your product, maybe you could buy them. One entrepreneur tried that business model in the realm of self-publishing, and for a while, it worked out fine.
Pay for Play in Online Book Reviews An article in the New York Times featured someone who had been selling online book reviews to the authors who wanted them. Besides confirming the worst suspicions of many, the story raises issues of ethics and trust in online reviews. GettingBookReviews.com. Todd Rutherford was doing press releases for hire for self-published authors. Authors wanted the press releases to increase the likelihood that their books would get more attention, whether in published or consumer reviews. In 2010 Rutherford realized he could help his clients more directly by simply writing the reviews himself under assumed names. And so he advertised that very service. He launched GettingBookReviews.com (the site is no longer active), blatantly setting out his terms. A single fivestar review would be written and posted for only $99. And soon he offered bulk discounts—20 reviews for only $499, 50 reviews for $999. In some ways it’s a wonder he lasted as long as he did. His house of cards tumbled with increased notoriety driven by one unhappy customer—but not before he had published some 4,500 online reviews. By the time the 2012 article in the New York Times came out, Rutherford had folded his tent and moved on. Last heard, he was selling RVs in Oklahoma.71
Puffery Is Legal Advertising in general, and the book business in particular, has always relied on puffery, of inflating the positive aspects of their products. A good example is the book jacket blurbs a publisher will often solicit from authors it publishes to support books from other authors on its roster. Moreover, it is not uncommon for the friends or associates of an author to help, often by posting positive reviews. These actions are not illegal. The reviews are clearly sourced, and the individuals who write them are entitled to their opinions. (While it may be more ethical for the reviewers to note their relationship to the author, it is not a legal requirement.)
Opinion Spamming Is Not
Bing Liu is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies data mining and more specifically the abuse of online reviews. He defines opinion spamming as the illegal effort behind everything from fake reviews to bogus blogs and websites. “Positive opinions can result in significant financial gains and/or [renown] for businesses, organizations and individuals,” Liu writes on his faculty website. “This, unfortunately, gives strong incentives for opinion spamming.”72
As to online book reviews,
it is illegal for a reviewer to receive compensation for a positive review and then post it on most sites, including Amazon.com. Comparatively new slang terms for authors who post reviews pretending to be someone else are “sock puppets” or “sock monkeys.” That these terms exist suggests such behavior is common. The successful and award-winning British author R. J. wouldn’t seem to need such help, but in 2012 he was called out by fellow author Jeremy Duns for multiple reviews (posted under fictional names, of course) on Amazon.com. ABC News broke the story, after the website Gawker published Duns’ complaints on his Twitter feed. The scandal was then written up in The Huffington Post. “ writes 5-star reviews of his own work on Amazon. Long, purple tributes to his own magnificent genius,” Duns tweeted. “RJ also writes shoddy, sh—-y sniping reviews of other authors’ work on Amazon, under an assumed identity.”73
The Importance of Trust Can trust be restored in online reviews? May be, but not soon. Liu estimates that about a third of all online reviews are false. He notes that the need to be able to identify bogus reviews will only increase. One of his research areas is the creation of algorithms to help identify false reviews. He’s skeptical that without computer help one could tell the difference. In the current environment, consumers should train themselves to be skeptical, and where possible balance online reviews with trusted third-party resources. This is easier in the electronic product area than in the world of e-books but not impossible. One can also envisage a future where it is clear that the results of opinion spamming create their own deterrent. “Once someone finds out you paid a book reviewer, your reputation is toast,” writes Angelo Hoy, owner/operator of the Writers Weekly website.74
Her site offers its own e-book for authors on e-marketing their books by legal means.
Apply the 3-Stop Problem-