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Concerns about self-publishing, paid reviews, and sales rank tricks.




This post addresses some of the things that bother me. Since I'm a self-published author myself, you may call me a hypocrite. Yes, I know the rant is long, but please read on. If you end up finding the post interesting, please feel free to repost elsewhere with a link back to this post. If there is a discussion (and I hope there is one), I would like to keep it all in one place. 

In recent years, we have witnessed an unprecedented surge in self-publishing. For authors, this publishing revolution means a lot more than just one additional option to reach an audience. Many authors have struggled for years to find the right publisher, sending out hundreds of queries and accumulating an equal number of rejections, which arrived, more often than not, as unhelpful form letters. Yet the authors persisted, hoping to catch a break somewhere along the way. To be honest, publishers look for marketability, and profit is their bottom line. The small, independent presses that are more likely to publish less commercial material release only a handful of books each year, yet receive thousands of submissions. Thus, to many authors, self-publishing became a viable option.

To readers, self-publishing offers a never-before-seen choice of genres and styles. As a reader, I can now find books dealing with obscure subjects, twisted tales of any sort, cookbooks from countries I never knew existed, and the list goes on and on.

Then, there is the other side to self-publishing - the traditionally published author whose titles were out-of-print, and the reader who is looking for older works by a favorite author. In this instance, self-publishing is most certainly a viable option, and readers are quite receptive of this. 

Before e-books, when POD (print on demand) first became publicly available, many unscrupulous companies that offered self-publishing packages to frustrated authors arrived with it. Many of them charged hundreds and even thousands of dollars, made the author purchase a bulk of the books, and asked for a list of family members. I won't mention names, but if you were in this business more than five years ago, you can probably think of at least one.
Nevertheless, there were also companies that were honest about what they could do for an author, charged only minimum fees, and are still around today.

At the advent of POD, an author had to typeset the book, design a cover, and pay a fee to access a distribution network. Sure, there were some that did not care, but most did. After all, it was a chance to finally offer a book to the public, to hold one's written words in a book form.

Then came the e-book, and everything changed. An author today can create a digital file, use a stock photo, and publish a 'book' on Amazon in a matter of hours. And not only Amazon, but also just about every major book retailer worldwide. Hail the e-book revolution!

Not so fast.

With e-books arrived a new breed of 'authors'. I use the word authors with caution, and I use it only reluctantly. So, let's call them e-authors. E-authors publish only e-books. "Print is dead!" The shout rings over the digital landscape.
No, print is not dead. Print sells less because it costs more, does not arrive instantly, and cannot be read with the click of a button.

As a reader, you have your own reasons to choose either e-books or print books, and the reasons and choices are yours alone. No questions asked. I, for one, cannot read e-books. I need a paper book in my hand; the feel of pages between my fingers is magical, and there is nothing that can replace it.

Allow me to go back to e-authors. As is true in any business, there are good apples and bad apples. However, since e-publishing does not require an up-front investment, is almost instantaneous, and does not have any sort of "quality control", an author can easily rush to click the "publish" button. Looking at reviews and previews, one can easily find books that were not proofread, edited, or even formatted properly.

Of course this does not mean that all e-books are inferior and formulaic, even though one can easily find discussions about book that were just that. There are many e-authors who take pride in their work and put out quality products. The biggest issues I see with e-books, especially genre e-books, are lack of proofreading and factual inaccuracy. The stories themselves may be great, but the execution could be improved if the author spent more time editing.

So, what is a reader to do? Until recently, readers could rely on two sources - sales rank and reviews. Sales rank (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, et cetera) can tell the reader whether a particular book is selling well. Reviews, whether professional or readers' reviews, can tell the reader what others thought of a book. In an ideal world, those two alone should be sufficient to weed out the inferior books.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a flawed world full of flawed characters. The e-book revolution brought with it a new industry - an industry catering to authors. There are now companies that offer paid reviews, as well as companies that manipulate sales ranks. This, as one poster recently mentioned, prompts the question: Is there anything real anymore?

In an era where an author with a few hundred dollars to spend has the ability to manipulate the sales rank of their title AND purchase dozens of five-star reviews, where does that leave the reader?

Personally, I have absolutely no respect for any author who engages in any such activity. I find it dishonest, unscrupulous, and dishonorable. Let's call it as it is: Fake reviews are not worth shit! How can anyone pay for praise and call himself an author is something I will never understand. Yet, looking on Internet forums, one can find authors who not only engage in these activities, but they even boast about it. I can't even begin to tell you how many threads I see daily where authors swap purchases, reviews, Facebook "likes", Tweets, et cetera. And then, to top it off, I get emails from companies trying to sell me their service of "purchase swaps" to boost my Amazon sales rank.

These companies came on the heels of the e-book revolution. Sure, in our consumer-driven world, if there is a market, someone will step-up to offer the service. But is there really a need for such a service? Are the authors who pay for these services truly unscrupulous, or are they just unsuspecting sheep lured by the wolf?

To answer this question, we have to take into consideration the current state of our culture. Mass media has taken hold of the public, feeding us a constant stream of junk that is no more than a popularity contest. On any network, we are barraged with celebrity news, and useless facts about select few who, for some reason, demand constant attention. Opening your Internet browser yields the same results. The last generation has grown up in with information at their fingertips, yet the information is often being used in a meaningless way. The media have created a culture of instant gratification, of entitlement, and of obsession with fame. Emerging authors, more often than not, are trying to compete for attention with established authors. With self-publishing, money is almost always the issue, and professional marketing firms charge more than most budgets allow for. When you have self-publishing success stories openly admitting to purchasing reviews, and not being chastised for it, the newcomers also think this is an acceptable business model.

Thus, the failed circle continues. Emerging authors expect to be noticed. When they are not (and how could they with hundreds of thousands of new titles released each year), they look for other options, for the little something that will help to get them the attention. That's when these companies step in, stroking egos with positive reviews, and promising sales with their trading tricks. And the emerging author? Well, it is easy to fall into the trap.   

So, is there anything real anymore? There is. There are authors who, although self-published, take their craft seriously. There are authors who take pride in what they do. They may not have high sales ranking, may only have a handful of reviews, and not sell a lot of books. But I can almost guarantee you that they sleep well at night.

I have found many self-published authors who write serious, beautiful books that would not have been published otherwise. Their work is often timeless and not whatever the latest craze dictates. They have been publishing for years, submitting to magazines and e-zines, and posting honest reviews of others' books. Although, to tell the truth, I spoke with a lot of authors who stopped reviewing altogether because of the backlash they received for being honest.

So, dear readers and authors, here we are at the end of my little rant. I feel sorry for my fellow readers, because the task of knowing what is real and what is not real is not going to get any easier. Please, don't disregard self-published titles - but do your research. My fellow authors, please take comfort in knowing that you are doing the right thing. Let's be honest - a self-published author cannot make a living off writing alone. Sure there are exceptions, but not many. I can neither tell you what to do, nor have I any right to tell you what to do. Just know that writing is a passion, not a popularity contest.

I hope this post will spark a discussion. I hope this post will make emerging authors think twice before paying a company to buy 'reputation'. I hope this post will resonate with readers who have either positive or negative experience with new authors. At the same time, I know that this post will offend someone. Well, it is what it is.

Readers, has your experiences encouraged you or discouraged you to purchase self-published books?

Authors, how do you feel about the unscrupulous practices taking place?

And overall, what do you like/dislike about the current state of self-publishing? What would you change? 

Thank you for considering my words.

A disclaimer: I am a self-published author. I started with Lulu in 2006 and moved to CreateSpace in 2012. My books are available both in print and as e-books. Even though I enjoy self-publishing, I also have a folder full of rejection letters (mostly form letters) dating back ten years. The only 'social media' I engage in is Goodreads, where I post honest reviews and comments. 

An example of a site offering paid reviews:

An article in NY Times:

An example of purchase swaps: