Friday, September 7, 2012

When Scam Artists Call Themselves Writers

By now, if you're a writer, you have probably heard about the big John Locke/paid Amazon reviews scandal. If you haven't, I'll provide a link below so you can get the ugly details. But the gist of the story is this:

Sad Story of a Con Artist Writer

A self-published writer cares more about making money than anything else that should matter to a writer—like finding a legitimate audience, delivering a book that people are glad to have spent money on, and earning your street cred by honest work. So, he hires a fake review writing (aka false advertising) company to write something like a billion reviews of his book for Amazon, so it looks like a billion different people have read and loved it, rather than one sad guy who never read the book but is willing to lie to make money.

If you've got an e-reader,
I've got a deal for you...
Things go so swimmingly that said self-published author manages to sell a million copies of his crappy book in five months. (Or at least he claims he did.) So he writes a how-to book about how to sell a million copies of your book (crappy or not) in five months. He shares all the tricks he used to garner success. Except, of course, for the fact that he gamed the system and conned people left and right. Thus, he is able to con again, this time running his scam on tons of would-be writers who dream of making it big and would probably also buy the Brooklyn Bridge if you offered it to them for a small, bargain-basement price.

Eventually, though, this author is caught in the act, and he's raked through the news media coals. (Which is what he deserves.) The fake review writing company he hired is also caught in the act, and soon shuts its doors for good. (I hope.) The rest of us are left debating, as usual, what this means to those of us who actually care about writing good books and earning our followers legitimately.

What I Have to Say About All This Mess
Here's the culprit, John Locke

You can say what you want to about how unfair the book business is. You'd be right; it's patently unfair. Many writers never make a living off their writing. Good writers may make money for a while and then, all of a sudden, they fall off the success wagon and can't get back on. Great books don't get accepted by publishers because they don't fit a clear sales category, so no one knows how to sell it. (By the way, I think that's a legitimate concern, though it's also reasonable to say that people can't know they want a new kind of book unless you show it to them.)

You can say what you want about traditional publishers being evil gatekeepers who won't buy your work unless you're the keymaster (thanks, Ghostbusters, for the pop culture allusion). You can refer to authors who write for traditional publishers as fools, house slaves, or whatever else you want. You can refer to authors who self-publish as hacks and accuse them of weakening the whole book market with their lousy, unedited writing. You can say the whole system is a mess, and you'd be right. It is. I don't know what the whole answer is to the mess.

But the one thing I can say is that it is unethical and immoral to use the world of writing for your con games. Yes, I know it happens. Yes, it happens in all endeavors that involve money. Yes, buyer beware. But still... You don't get to call yourself a writer when what you really are is a scam artist. Not with me. I won't put up with that. It's one thing for all the writers out there to work their asses (butts, if you prefer) off to make a following for themselves. It's one thing to tweet, Facebook, blog, and otherwise brag and advertise your work. That may make you obnoxious sometimes, but it doesn't make you dishonest.

It's the dishonesty that's unacceptable. If you sell a million books by buying a lot of them for the reviewers you've hired, you haven't really sold a million books. You've created a false appearance of selling that much. If you sell books based on hundreds of phony reviews you've bought, and consumers buy your books on the basis of those phony reviews, you haven't sold books. You have stolen money from unsuspecting people. You are a thief. Call yourself a thief and write a how-to book titled, How I Conned Amazon and Millions of People into Buying My Crappy Book: And You Can Too!

Bottom Line

The bottom line is this: I know this kind of thing happens all the time. But I'm angry anyway. When some jackass (con artist or idiot, if you prefer) decides to pull a scam on readers, it hurts all the innocent people in the writing community, because it makes readers more suspicious and less willing to try the work of a stranger. It's hard enough to get your name out there and to sell your work, isn't it? John Locke and people like him have just made it a hundred times harder for all of us. To borrow from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, we ought to tar and feather the creeps and run them out of town on a rail.

Reference Material

To read more about what people were saying about John Locke before he got caught:
LA Times article questioning the value of Locke's achievements back in 2011
Novel Publicity's interview with John Locke, so you can read his personal blah-blah-blah

To read more about what people are saying now that Locke and his review company have been exposed:
Porter Anderson excoriates Locke, with lots of backup material
NY Times crucifies the jerk who ran the phony review business

To read someone else's ideas on writing a bestseller, because John Locke isn't the only person who has talked about this (I know you're surprised):
A review of Hit Lit by James Hall (I haven't read it, can't endorse it, but it's out there)

What do you think? If you have ideas for solutions to problems like this, I'd love to hear about it. This is one of the things that concerns me about the loss of book stores and the glut of self-published writing on Amazon. Consumers have to work so much harder to find good books. Will they eventually stop trying?

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. I agree. However, I think the system worked to weed out the bad seed. I think the problem is that people want the easy road. They want the "How to Sell a Million copies in 2 days" dream rather than "How to build a lifetime audience of depth through years of work". It seems to be the same with pyramid schemes and get rich quick schemes. There will always be someone to pray on those that want the fast road to success.

    1. Hi, Eric. You're right, some people want the easy road. It's disturbing to realize they think writing is an easy road to begin with, because I find personally that it's a lot of work, a demanding field to be in. Sad, isn't it?

  2. As unfortunate as this is, it sounds like it could be a good lesson for people who want to be consumers of the online self-published market: just because someone has lots of reviews and/or claims to have sold lots of copies doesn't mean this is necessarily true. Make purchases based on whether something interests you or it's been personally recommended, not solely on the reviews or the fact that it looks popular.

    1. It's definitely buyer beware out there. I agree with you on that. What I think is so unfortunate is that buyers (like me) find it harder to make their own decision about a book that's only for sale online. You can't pick it up and thumb through an ebook the way you can with a hard copy. Readers often rely on reviews as a substitute for that, which it what makes any form of dishonest reviews such a problem.

  3. Wow! I hadn't heard about any of this yet. It is very sad. Indies like me need to have the bits of encouragement that others are achieving in this business in order to keep working to chase those dreams ourselves. To have someone lie to us all like this really is just awful and very discouraging. Thankfully everything done in secret will be revealed in the Light...right?


    1. Oh, yeah, Jimmy. Read up on it. It's awful news. This situation hurts indie writers who are relying on an honest marketplace, which helps readers be more likely to buy something new. If buyers are burned too much, they're not going to take risks on new writers anymore. And this whole situation hurts every writer who depended on Locke for what he claimed was his honest advice for successful sales and marketing. This guy ripped off everybody. I'd like to see him give his earnings back to his customers. And yes, things done in secret do get revealed, which is very good for all of us!

  4. Next year, there will probably be no self-published books on the top 100 of Kindle. Like the early days of any market. The first stories got a lot of people moving to find their fortune.

    Writers are already skeptical. One of their success idols was a paid review scam. Another was heavily promoted by Amazon in the press to push their self-publishing model. And we had that list with 15 top books that were "of self-published origin" which included all books in the 50 Shades series and other traditionally published books.

    We invite readers to go through the slush pile. How unfortunate. First they will mistrust the price point. Then self-publishing all together.

    Think about economies of scale. A single reader that works for a publishing house cuts the really bad books quite effectively for the specific house. Why shouldn't we cut the really bad stuff before serving it to the audience? Because we might loose the 0.1% that are very good books and get cut? That writer should persist, like every other good writer did. That's the key to success. Not all readers are idiots. Put all books on the shelves and online, and people will eventually stop buying anything from anyone they haven't heard before, effectively reinforcing a best seller market with a handful of markets in each genre. 99% noise and bargain pricing. Consumers expect a certain standard of quality.


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