Protect Yourself from Bogus Reviewers
Just as online anonymity inspires some individuals to post comments they’d never utter in person, Internet technology encourages baser tendencies toward theft. Email and the Internet allow people to pretend to be what they are not. The ease and virtually cost-free nature of email also spurs many to ask for free goods—including review copies of books—with the intention of fencing them.
Bogus book reviewers work their devilry for different reasons. Some may be bibliophiles with a habit to support. Many are probably interested in reselling review copies on sites such as Amazon or eBay for pure profit. Whether or not your organization is big enough to shrug off the lost revenue, it’s important to be careful when sending out freebies.
Whenever you get a book request from someone who claims to be a reviewer but is unknown to you, go to the Web site of the publication the reviewer supposedly writes for and check the masthead. Since impostors don’t usually claim to be on staff—they’re freelancers or contributors, they say—also search the site to see if the reviewer’s byline has appeared recently (or at all). Even if this search turns up nothing, you may not be dealing with a fraud; maybe the site’s archives aren’t comprehensive or its search engine is just lousy.
Your next stop should be Google or whatever search engine you favor. Try various search terms and combinations. If you don’t come up with a likely fit—same name, other book reviews, published writing on similar topics—you may need to take your sleuthing to the next level.
Ask; They’ll Tell
At this point, I like to email requesters and ask for material showing that they’re active reviewers for bona fide media outlets. There’s nothing disingenuous about this. As part of my ongoing work to publicize our books, I need to get to know unfamiliar reviewers and the media that publish their work. Most writers are happy to have someone take an interest in what they’re doing and have no objection to sharing other reviews they’ve written and background on themselves. And I’m candid in explaining that, as a small independent publisher, I need to be careful about sending out free copies to just anyone. Real reviewers understand and respect this. There’s no need to come out of the gate with a combative or accusatory tone; be friendly and interested. Make it clear that you are screening as a regular part of your job and that you’re not on a witch hunt.
Most of the time, the scammers simply don’t respond to my probing email, so I don’t send the requested review copies, and I usually don’t hear from those people again. Or they may reply with half-baked stories about being in between jobs or about to launch their own sites where they’ll feature book reviews or offer some other explanation that doesn’t quite remove all doubt from my mind.
When that happens, the next step is to get a third party to weigh in. If you know someone at a publication that your possible impostor supposedly contributes to, get in touch and ask your contact to confirm this person’s identity. If you don’t have a relationship with someone at the publication, try calling or emailing an editor and explaining your situation. I have yet to encounter an editor who’s been put out by such an inquiry. Indeed, most of them appreciate help in protecting the integrity of their publications, even if it turns out that the book reviewer is completely legit.
I usually send an email that says something like, “We recently received a request for a copy of The Cult of iPod from Joe Jones, who said he writes book reviews for your magazine, and we were hoping you could confirm this for us. Unfortunately, we’ve run across some individuals misrepresenting themselves in order to get free books, so your assistance in verifying Joe’s work is much appreciated.”
Of course, you can’t catch every fake reviewer who tries to victimize your company, but you can do a few things on an ongoing basis to minimize the risk.
First, be conscientious about tracking book requests. Anyone who often requests review copies, never writes a review, and fails to respond to follow-up attempts should raise a red flag. Even if this person is a working journalist, the copies you’re sending are not helping promote your books, and you’ll have to decide for yourself at what point to kick the journalist off the gravy train.
I often use a version of the email that I send to editors, but instead of introducing myself and asking for more information, I say something like, “We appreciate your continued interest in our books, but you haven’t reviewed the last three we sent, so I wanted to double-check what your specific coverage areas are and whether there’s something else we can do to help make reviews happen.” And then you can explain again why you need to be selective with your company’s resources.
There will always be impostors posing as reviewers and trying to scam free books. As soon as you’ve gotten rid of one, another will be waiting in the wings. Perhaps there’s something we, as independent publishers, can do to share information and consolidate our responses. Otherwise, the impostors will continue to circulate from publicist to publicist, making off with undeserved goodies when they can and moving on to untried targets when they can’t.
Patricia Witkin is the communications manager for No Starch Press, an independent computer book publisher that specializes in “geek entertainment”—books on technology with a focus on Open Source, security, hacking, programming, and alternative operating systems. For more information, visit www.nostarch.com.