Reflections on Bogus Blurbs, Unreal Reviews, and Manufactured Bestsellers
by Peter Bowerman
Got an email recently from a college fraternity brother of mine that read, in part:
I have a small favor to ask. A good friend of mine, ____, has written a book, and Amazon is currently running a contest to determine the winner in its category. It would really help him out if you could go over to Amazon and write a good review of the book (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 was below in the same thread; he expressed his no doubt sincere appreciation: “Thank you SO much for doing this!” So earnest. So grateful. So ethically challenged.
If enough people write good reviews, he can win. And winning is what it’s all about. Right? Here was someone sending out a legitimate-sounding request to help a friend, asking us all to write a gushing review of this guy’s book (and providing the link to do so), minus the inconvenience of actually having to read said book. After all, we’re all busy people, y’know . . .
What’s particularly troubling about this is that both my friend and his friend felt nary a qualm about sending a note to a huge list of folks asking them to do something that’s just not right. There was this presumption of understanding: being dishonest is so accepted and 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 the person sends 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, I understand that few people will read a review copy cover to cover, and that’s fine. But shouldn’t we start from the assumption that they will, and work toward a middle position? As opposed to starting from the other end, as these folks have (i.e., that no one will)? The unspoken nudge-nudge, wink-wink message in all this, 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?”
What’s Really Happening Here?
Speaking of which, I just have to shake my head when I see these ridiculous campaigns to “Become an Amazon #1 Best Seller!” You know the drill. During a one- or two-day period, using a veritable cornucopia of inducements—free e-books, bonus reports, multiple copies of the book itself, and so forth—authors try to entice as many people as possible into buying their books. All via mass emails with frantic urgings to forward to as many lists as possible—and all with the goal of “#1 Amazon Best Seller!” bragging rights.
Philosophically speaking (indulge me here), I assert that what these authors are really trying to do is delude themselves and others into thinking they’ve written better books than in fact they have. After all, they figure, 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 make the kid truly believe it’s deserved.
Here’s an analogy: Say there’s this competition in your town for the designation of “#1 Restaurant in the City!” And say it’s based on traffic—actual diners—over a certain period. One restaurant with mediocre food goes all out, offering free appetizers, free drinks, half-price entrees, and free desserts. The predictable end result? The restaurant packs ’em in, and based on the thundering hordes it attracts, it earns the #1 designation.
Now. Would anyone who knew how the restaurant actually 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. In this case, 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 three of these examples—the public perception. In my perhaps hopelessly old-fashioned mind, 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—call me crazy—I actually like to think there’s a foundation for it.
If I see that a book was a #1 bestseller on Amazon (and know nothing about how it got that designation), I naturally assume that it earned that moniker because, well, it was 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. That’s what these authors want you to think: #1 Bestseller = Good book.
My Pick as the Secret of Success
Sadly, we’re now living in the Age of Expediency. How you get somewhere is far less important than simply getting there, period. Tricks, gimmicks, and cutting corners are all acceptable strategies for achieving commercial success.
Yet, all that said, 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.
Peter Bowerman is a professional copywriter, a self-publishing coach, and the self-published author of the Well-Fed Writer titles, which have 52,000 copies in print. He has chronicled his self-publishing success in the award-winning 2007 title The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living. For more details, visit wellfedsp.com.