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Reflections on Bogus Blurbs, Unreal Reviews, and Manufactured Bestsellers – Guest Article by Peter Bowerman

bowermanblog1Part 2 of a 3 Part Series – Part 1: How to Turn One Book Into a Full-Time Living | Part 3: Reflections on Bogus Blurbs, Unreal Reviews, and Manufactured Bestsellers

Got an email recently from an old fraternity brother that read, in part:

I have a small favor to ask, A good friend of mine has written a book, and Amazon is running a contest to determine the winner in its category. It would really help him out if you’d write a good review on Amazon (here’s the link: ____). The more good reviews he gets, the better his chances of winning. I know he’d really appreciate it.

The author’s original note followed, expressing his no-doubt sincere appreciation: “Thank you SO much for doing this!” So earnest. So grateful. So ethically-challenged.

Winning’s what it’s all about, right? Here was someone asking us to help a friend by writing a gushing review of his book – minus the inconvenience of actually having to read said book. After all, we’re all busy people, y’know…

Particularly troubling was that neither felt any qualms about sending a note to a huge list of folks asking them to do something dishonest. There was this presumption of understanding: being dishonest is so commonplace, it’s not even considered dishonesty anymore.

This is similar, incidentally, to the requests I get to “blurb” someone’s upcoming book, and all they send is the table of contents and introduction (more and more the prevailing M.O.). One person actually sent me only the table of contents from a previous edition, looking for a blurb for the updated version, and was mystified at my refusal. Everyone does it, y’see. Not this everyone.

Sure, few people will read a review copy cover to cover. But shouldn’t we start from the assumption that they will, and work towards the middle, as opposed to the other way around? The unspoken nudge-nudge, wink-wink message, of course, is “Fellow Author, wouldn’t you like to get your name, book title, and Web site in print in my book?” Just a friendly quid pro quo. To paraphrase Tina Turner, “What’s truth got to do with it?”

Manufactured Bestsellers

Speaking of which, how about the ridiculous campaigns to “Become an Amazon #1 Best Seller!” You know the drill. By offering up free ebooks, bonus reports and multiple copies of the book (all via mass emails with frantic urgings to forward to as many lists as possible), authors try to get as many people as possible to buy their books on one specific day. Given Amazon’s cryptic rankings system, a brief spurt (even one not yielding huge sales in real terms) can launch a book into the Top 10 or even to #1 for, literally, a few minutes. Voila! “#1 Amazon Best Seller!” bragging rights.

I say what these authors are really trying to do is buy their way to a better book. After all, if a book becomes a #1 (or even a top 10) Amazon bestseller, it must mean it’s a good book, right? Of course, it doesn’t work that way, any more than giving a kid an A for C or D schoolwork will transform that work from mediocre to excellent.

Here’s an analogy: Say there’s this competition in your town for “#1 Restaurant in the City!” honors. And say it’s based on traffic – actual diners – over a certain period of time. One restaurant with mediocre food goes all out, offering free appetizers, free drinks, half-price entrees and free desserts. The unsurprising result? Based on the thundering hordes it attracts, it earns the #1 designation.

Now. Would anyone who knew how they’d accomplished this feat give much credence to that #1 designation? Not a chance. And you can bet the restaurant wouldn’t go out of its way to explain either. The whole power of the accolade is in people not knowing how it came about. (Ditto for the Amazon bestsellers.) People unaware of the dubious strategy who heard about the win, would logically — though erroneously – conclude that it related to the quality of the food.

Which brings me to the crux of all these examples – public perception. In my perhaps hopelessly old-fashioned perspective, it all comes down to our responsibility to the reader of that book review, blurb or “#1 Best Seller!” designation.

As a reader, when I see a glowing review or blurb (and know nothing about how it was earned), I’ll assume – call me crazy – it’s because, well, it’s a really good book. Not because of some tortured short-term process of intense lobbying and outright bribery to create the illusion of bestseller status.

Best Advice: Write a GOOD Book

Sadly, we’re now living in The Age of Expediency. How you get somewhere is far less important than simply getting there. Tricks, gimmicks, and cutting corners are all acceptable strategies.

Yet, there’s one comfort: mediocre books, regardless of the games their authors play, never have long lifespans. They’ll never benefit from the invaluable word-of-mouth publicity that accrues to truly solid titles, never earn heartfelt kudos from those whose words really matter, never hope to garner serious industry recognition.

So, do yourself a favor: if you’re looking for long-term success, start with a really good book. You’ll dramatically simplify your marketing tasks while eliminating the need to prop up a title that can’t stand on its own. And you’ll sleep better at night.


Want to get published, and make a living from it? Check out a free report “How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living” at www.wellfedsp.com, home of author Peter Bowerman’s 2007 award-winner, The Well-Fed Self-Publisher (and powerful companion marketing kit, The Well-Fed SP Biz-in-a-Box). Bowerman is the self-published author of the award-winning Well-Fed Writer titles(www.wellfedwriter.com). Over 52,000 copies of his first two books have earned him a full-time living for over seven years.

Photo used with permission


{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Amy

    Well said from Well-Fed! Thanks for explaining what goes on behind the scenes of the ratings game, as in the Amazon example.
    Love Peter’s Well-Fed books…extremely well-written, practical and helpful, while injecting humor throughout. (Yes, I READ the books!)

  • I would never write a review for a book I have not read, but I do have two other policies: that I will never write a purely negative review (I will simply decline to review) and I will try to seek primarily the positive in any review I do write, whether I know the author or not.

  • There’s also the ethical issue of being asked to blurb a fellow author being published by the same publishing house.

    I had that happen with my publisher on a few occasions, and once I simply had to decline because the ms was awful. That said, I was leery that declining to blurb too many times might have an adverse effect on my ability to sell them further books.

    The publisher has since closed down their fiction line, so the point is moot where I’m concerned 🙂

  • More to the point, my dear friend had her book published recently. If she asked for a review, I couldn’t give one. It’s a good story, but the typos and grammar mistakes killed the experience for me (I’m a little anal about printed material being damn close to perfect). If the book hadn’t been littered with numerous mistakes, I’d have given it a 3-star rating anyway. Great story, but some flaws, such as making the main character out to be a saint.

    I love her, but I’d have to turn her down lest I lose a friend. I’m not lying for anyone.

    Lori’s last blog post..A Catnip Person

  • It’s the big Internet Popularity Contest. It’s the competition posting on Yahoo!’s review system that my hair stylist is a hack who ruins hair and scalps. It’s realtors posting bad reviews about their competitors. It’s Chinese restaurants being slaughtered by competitors who post about rats in the kitchen. It’s unethical. It sucks.

    I have never written a review for something I haven’t used or read. I won’t. It’s unethical. It’s lying to the very public from which I’m trying to gain trust. Uh, no. Next!

    Lori’s last blog post..A Catnip Person

  • I’m afraid, especially when it comes to fiction, I have to side with Henry here. There are some truly mediocre writers becoming bestsellers–or formerly great writers who became mediocre after achieving bestseller status (yet still maintaining same).

    Fortunately, this isn’t true of all bestselling authors. A few of them are actually great. However, hitting the top of the bestseller list is more often due to good marketing and luck than great writing, IMHO.

    Debbi’s last blog post..Quotation for the Week of May 17

  • While I agree, I have to admit to doing these types of favors for my friends. Thanks for making me feel dirty.

    I’m only kidding. Thank you for getting me thinking about this topic.

    I can’t believe that authors send just a table of contents to reviewers, though. That seems utterly brave or stupid to me.

    Mark Adams’s last blog post..Twitter as a marketing tool (or why I had to unfollow Tim O’Reilly)

  • I think we are in the same place as social security fraud here. Do you really want to design a whole system around the 5% who abuse it, or around the 95% who play things more or less by the rules?

    We are also in the area of ‘normative effects’. For atavistic reasons, most animals copy what other animals do if they seem to thrive on doing it. “He drank from the water and he is still alive” translates to “That water is safe”. Similarly, “He took this piece of advice and made a million” translates to “Perhaps I should copy that”.

    In reality, almost nothing actually happens as it is claimed to happen. I used to work for a company that introduced the Six Sigma quality process. The CEO wanted his Six Sigma initiative to be a success, equalled if you had a successful Six Sigma project you would get rewarded, equalled any project which was successful was rapidly attached to Six Sigma, even though the whole project had been completed long before Six Sigma was ever heard of. This happens constantly in business – a failure is an orphan; a success has many parents.


    Don’t worry about the people who cheat the system. Somebody always will. Either there are a lot of people out there who are continuously duped and very upset about it (unlikely) or they don’t care. They just want to be seen reading what everybody else is seen reading (most avid readers don’t finish most books they start nowadays either).

    If you write a good book, you are one of thousands of people who have written good books this year. Very few people read several thousand books in a year. Word of mouth will undoubtedly help, but this benefits first and foremost the enthusiastic networker. Unfortunately, many good writers prefer to stare at computer screens fabricating fantasy people than to connect with real people.

    Most best sellers are targeted at specific categories. Celebrity books sell well, as do books about people’s hobbies and pastimes (e.g. pets). TV and film spin-offs sell well. In general, non-fiction sells better than fiction. Within fiction, some 75% of sales go to romance, with another big chunk going to high-action thrillers, often nowadays ‘written’ by dead people (Tom Clancy, John Grisham etc.) and other people who don’t actually write them either (e.g. James Patterson).

    Really good books will challenge people’s expectations and are therefore more likely to be slow burners than runaway successes.

    For me, the real fun of writing a book is first writing it, then reading it. You have just the written the type of book you want to read (in most cases). I would suggest that for 97% of authors, that is what we should hang on to – we have achieved something (even if the book is terrible it still takes a lot of guts and staying power to finish it), we have created an eternal monument to ourselves which can be passed down the generations, we have hopefully enjoyed reading what we have written, we have equally hopefully enjoyed writing what we have written, and it will be a topic of conversation when we see friends.

    Now, if you want to sell books, pick your topic carefully, write within the expectations of that topic, network furiously, promote like a presidential hopeful, and cheat, cheat, cheat. Nobody will ever hear that you have cheated and, even if they do, all they will want to know is how you did it so that they can copy you.

    Better still, get a real job producing hackwork. That really does get paid.

    Take your pick!

  • Well said, Peter. I think a lot of new authors get suckered by these “bestseller” campaigns, they sound very seductive. But have you ever looked at the Bookscan numbers or Amazon Sales Ranks of these books? The vast majority sell very poorly.

    The truth is, you can sell a lot more books over the long term by simply engaging with your readers — on blogs like this, on social networks. And it’s all free!

    Free advertising works better than paid advertising. And it’s a lot cheaper, too.

    Steve Weber’s last blog post..Amazon cuts social-networking features for authors, customers

  • Lou Paun

    You are SO right!

  • Hmmn, problem with this is there are plenty of books that have longevity in the Amazon ranks that aren’t very GOOD. I agree there’s an ethical quandary with trying to cook the books, but good is relative.

    Henry’s last blog post..On Demand Titles Surpassing Traditionally Published Books

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