A recent forum post on the subject of fake testimonials caught my eye. It reported that the best-selling crime writer, R J Ellory had been writing his own positive reviews at Amazon, using fake accounts created for the purpose.
The post went on to announce that the writer had also been using those same accounts to knock the competition.
My first thoughts were that it was probably not true, but, according to the Daily Telegraph, it is indeed true.
The Telegraph reports:
He admitted he had used fake identities to write about his own work on the Amazon book site, giving himself five star ratings. He gave his rivals bad reviews and low ratings using the same pseudonyms.
Ellory, one of Britain’s leading authors who has won a variety of awards including Crime Novel of the Year 2010, was compelled to apologise afterJeremy Duns, a British spy author now based in Sweden, aired the accusations on Twitter.
The 47 year-old’s apology, in a statement to The Daily Telegraph, came amid a storm of condemnation from the literary world over the “unfair” and “misleading” practice, known as “sock puppeting”. – Telegraph
It absolutely amazes me to think that someone as successful as this man should feel the need to resort to such underhanded tactics. As my own students will know, I always counsel against using fake testimonials. For one thing, I think you can usually see right through them.
There are many people who seem to think they can write them convincingly, but as this case shows, even a top writer couldn’t manage to keep up his charade. Ellory has admitted a ‘lapse of judgement’ and, again according to the Telegraph, apologised to the writing community for his actions:
“The recent reviews – both positive and negative – that have been posted on my amazon accounts are my responsibility and my responsibility alone,” he said.
“I wholeheartedly regret the lapse of judgment that allowed personal opinions to be disseminated in this way and I would like to apologise to my readers and the writing community.”
But, in addition to the sheer stupidity of his actions, there is also the question of ethics. Personally, I would not be able to live with myself if I had ever resorted to this kind of thing. That’s why my testimonials are usually good but not glowing.
Here is a testimonial for my book Fergus and Me:
This is a great book of memories on growing up and how our school years influence and form us. Being from the USA, some of the words were different but easy to grasp. It is always eye opening to hear some stories about WWII and what it was like afterwards in a country that lived through bombings. But that is not the main idea of the story, it is about friendship, growing up and lessons learned.
I like how the author told his story with a positive attitude. If you had a best friend from you school days, then you will enjoy this book.
As I read, I often thought of my brothers and their escapades in and out of school while growing up in the 50 and 60’s. – MsJudyD
And here is another testimonial for the same book from the Amazon UK store:
A quick read, which I couldnt put down. Very reminiscent of my childhood. I did not quite associate the reference as Fergus was mentioned very little after the first chapter. However I really enjoyed the book and it left me wanting to hear more. Hopefully a sequel to come. – Mezzie
They are genuine testimonials from real people.
In reply to the forum post mentioned above, another contributor made the point that Tim Ferris had apparently stacked the deck in his own favour when he released the book The 4 Hour Body, by incentivising people to produce positive Amazon reviews. This is, by no means, the same thing as producing fake testimonials. But it has certainly made me think about the matter a lot further. For my book, The Deepest Desire of Your Heart (full disclosure) I gave away a few review copies and received good testimonials, some of which I decided to use.
Of course, we all want positive testimonials from real people because, to a large extent, that is what sells books. So any marketer worth his salt will, quite naturally, address the question of how to go about obtaining them. As I suggested, there is a huge difference between writing fake testimonials and incentivising someone to write a positive review, but nevertheless, even by offering a free copy, are we entirely guiltless?
It is an interesting question. Personally, I think that as long as you are not asking for a positive review i.e. the review is genuine, from a real person and contains their own thoughts, then there is nothing wrong with giving away review copies of a book or product. At the forum that contained the post that prompted this article, they have a shopping area in which people are sometimes given review copies of material. Other people know this and are often very interested in the reviews. However, the system still gets abused by people who create fake accounts.
You would have thought that Amazon would have cracked the matter of fake accounts by now. It may not yet be possible to completely ensure that accounts are always connected to real people – the perennial online problem, of course – but it should certainly not be quite so easy for someone to create a whole bunch of accounts and use them for the sole purposes of self promotion. So, come on guys: we all love the web and digital media, but let’s get our act together.