Unethical Scumbags

Remember the good old days when ethical behavior mattered? Now we have guys like Todd Rutherford, who take pride in unethical and dishonest conduct…in his case, being paid thousands of dollars to write fake, positive Amazon reviews for authors… and scores of talentless authors so desperate for acclaim they will pay to delude themselves and swindle readers. The New York Times wrote about Rutherford’s lucrative scam today. Here’s an excerpt:

Suddenly it hit him. Instead of trying to cajole others to review a client’s work, why not cut out the middleman and write the review himself? Then it would say exactly what the client wanted — that it was a terrific book. A shattering novel. A classic memoir. Will change your life. Lyrical and gripping, Stunning and compelling. Or words to that effect.

In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site,GettingBookReviews.com. At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.

There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.

A polite fellow with a rakish goatee and an entrepreneurial bent, Mr. Rutherford has been on the edges of publishing for most of his career. Before working for the self-publishing house, he owned a distributor of inspirational books. Before that, he was sales manager for a religious publishing house. Nothing ever quite worked out as well as he hoped. With the reviews business, though, “it was like I hit the mother lode.”

I think Amazon and Barnes & Noble should remove all the reader reviews for any author who has paid Rutherford, or any scumbags like him, for purchased praise.

In the article, author Roland Hughes, who is eager to become a “recognized author,” admits to paying for the positive reviews of his novel INFINITE EXPOSURE. So I left him this review on Amazon and Barnes & Noble for free:

I have not read this book which, according to an interview with Hughes in today’s New York Times, means I have a lot in common with the reviewers here… at least the ones who’ve praised the book. Hughes admits to buying positive reviews in his quest to become “a recognized author.” Here’s some advice. Actually write a good book. You do not gain readers, or recognition, by swindling readers into buying your books with fake praise. It’s unethical and shows a startling lack of respect for your reader…not to mention yourself. You can have this review for free.

But the big shocker is that “bestselling” author John Locke admits to buying as many as 300 fake reviews to bolster the popularity of his 99 cent detective novels.

Mr. Locke is unwilling to say that paying for reviews made a big difference. “Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful,” he said. “But it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience.”

Apparently, it worked for him. He’s sold a million books on Amazon and scored a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster. It should be interesting to see if he suffers any blowback for his highly unethical conduct. At the minimum, Amazon should delete all of his favorable reviews, since so many of them are now suspect.

25 thoughts on “Unethical Scumbags”

  1. I’ve heard of getting friends and family to write positive reviews on Amazon (which I’ve never done, though I have to admit I’ve thought about it,) but I’ve never heard of actually paying for it. Wow. Just when I thought I’ve heard of everything…

  2. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me. I’d be curious to know whether or not the attention starved individuals that paid for this actually got their money’s worth in recognition.
    I doubt it.

  3. My dad is always telling me that some book he heard about MUST be good, because it has 150 five star reviews on Amazon. I’ve always responded that you never know if the author wrote several of his own reviews, or begged his friends and relatives to do so, but I never dreamed people were PAYING for them. I’m going to send this link to my dad — hopefully he’ll be more skeptical from now on! I’ve long thought that reputable book blogs and recommendations from friends are far better sources than Amazon reviews, and I believe that more than ever now.

  4. I don’t have the words to describe my contempt. I’m one of those self-published writers trying to make a go of this, and while most of my books only have a few reviews, they’re honest ones; I think one of my titles has zero reviews but I haven’t checked lately.
    Locke wrote a book about how to sell a million books; I wonder if he included a section on paying for reviews. I should have known something was up because he really isn’t that good and I don’t think his amateur prose justified all the raves. I recall wondering what he was doing that I wasn’t. Now I know.
    You know what? All of the garbage coming out about self-pubbing makes me want to scrub the effort and go back to sending out query letters by the bushel. Seriously. I don’t want to me lumped in with these stooges.

  5. I’ve never heard of paying for reviews either, but I see how it can be a boon for unethical writers. And who knew that Kirkus charges for its reviews? (“Kirkus would review “Sex” for $425, a price that made her balk.”)

  6. My favorite quote in the article was from one of the writers who hired Rutherford: “You’re taking a chance putting your writing out there–a huge chance. You want validation that it’s not a joke.” Apparently, for her, a review that she paid for, that was probably written by someone who had not even read her book, is sufficient validation–because it told her what she wanted to be told.
    I think you have there the clue that explains how Rutherford’s customers justify their actions to themselves (I mean, apart from the pragmatic justification that good reviews=sales). Each one knows that he or she has written a masterpiece, and it is only some conspiracy among the elite that prevents traditional reviewers admitting this. A five-star review is thus by definition truer than a one-star review, however the former was obtained.
    I wonder how long it will be before someone tries to defend Rutherford and his like by pointing out that traditional reviewers are also paid for their reviews,and then asking what is the difference?
    My uncertain hope is that this is, in the long run, a self-negating trend. If every self-published book gets hundreds of five-star reviews, eventually readers will catch on that those stars do not mean anything.

  7. It seems like with every new technology there’s new ways for them to be exploited, but the good guys will close the loopholes, one by one, until it’s not possible to act unethically any more, in this area. Now that the practice is exposed, I’d hate to be going through what the exposed writers are going through. Crime is never worth it.

  8. For me, the most interesting quote in the article is this, from one of the writers who used Rutherford’s service: “You’re taking a chance by putting your writing out there–a huge chance. You want validation that it’s not a joke.” Apparently for her, a review written by someone who probably had not even read the book, who was praising it only because he had been paid to do so–that counted as validation.
    This is the vital clue as to how the people who employed Rutherford must have justified it to themselves (beyond the practical justification of rave reviews=sales). They knew that they had written masterpieces, and that only a conspiracy among the elite prevented traditional reviewers from acknowledging this. To them, a five-star review is inherently more truthful than a one-star review, however the former was obtained.
    I wonder how long it will be before someone points out that traditional reviewers are also paid for their work, and then asks what is the difference between that and what Rutherford did.
    My uncertain hope is that this is a self-negating trend. If every self-published book garners hundreds of five-star reviewers, presumably readers will realize that those stars do not mean anything. I, for one, intend to dismiss all praise for McGRAVE and THE DEAD MAN, on the assumption that you paid for it (I hope you got your co-authors to chip in).

  9. I was going to email you this article, but figured you’d seen it as soon as I did… what’s interesting is how the guy’s business cratered after being exposed, which is probably the only reason he agreed to be interviewed… the website of his former biz (linked to many times in the article) isn’t even up anymore…
    One wonders why he even agreed to this story…

  10. As an aside, one of the weasels in question did some ghost writing for former Brit commando Andy McNab. I really enjoyed a couple titles in that McNab series and wish I could find the name of the guy who did the novel set in Southern France.

  11. This was funny:
    “TODD RUTHERFORD was 7 years old when he first understood the nature of supply and demand. He was with a bunch of other boys, one of whom showed off a copy of Playboy to giggles and intense interest. Todd bought the magazine for $5, tore out the racy pictures and resold them to his chums for a buck apiece. He made $20 before his father shut him down a few hours later.”

  12. What are we, kids here? The process by which books are selected for reviews in august journals such as the NY Times is hardly an impartial, incorruptible one. Favoritism, logrolling, and indirect bribery — the amount of ad space a publisher bought in the book review determined how many of their books were reviewed, lavish book launch parties and junkets, wining and dining editors or reviewers — are all employed.
    Look at the tongue bath the Times gave Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Rave reviews, interview, etc. Ya think that happens by accident? Or how about when a certain book suddenly gets prominent, positive reviews in nearly all the major review venues. Don’t try to convince me that the stars just happened to align the right way and all the book review editors all thought the book was great, not to mention how they also all decided to feature the same book simultaneously.
    The playing field’s never been remotely level. It’s next to impossible to get your book reviewed in a major periodical if your publisher isn’t making a major push, and impossible if you’re self-published.
    Here’s an illuminating comment on the article about this subject in today’s edition of Salon.com:
    “SaintperleSalon Core Member
    Monday, Aug 27, 2012 11:11 AM PDT
    Ah yes, and access to actual reviews has always been such an honorable system.
    John Muir (of the Volkswagen Idiot book and the publishing company he financed from that) told me he’d asked a New York Times editor why they never were willing to review any of the John Muir Publications books, and he was told that they wouldn’t review any publisher who didn’t buy advertising.
    So much for the — ahh, alas and alack breast beating over how we have lost our integrity.”
    It isn’t just “talentless authors so desperate for acclaim” who self-publish who can’t get so much as one review in even a third-tier newspaper. Most publishers do nothing to promote most o the books they publish unless they paid a six-figure advance or more to acquire them. (see M. J. Rose’s excelent article here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/25809014/Published-or-Printed)
    My biography of Dennis Hopper received not one review in even one metropolitan newspaper, magazine or major website, because my publisher would rather spend her money flying to Paris to celebrate her birthday with her boyfriend instead of hiring someone to send ARCs to the appropriate venues and follow-up the mailings. Even after I scored the feature story in the LA Times you kindly linked to, she never considered hiring a publicist. And my situation is hardly atypical.
    In such a situation, I can’t really blame anybody for using a pay-for-review scheme.

  13. I would think that Amazon had “terms of use” for it’s reviews. Still, it’s probably not easy to figure what legitimate and what isn’t.
    To tell the truth, bad reviews are more likely to stop me from buying a book than good reviews influencing me.

  14. Wow. That’s kinda nuts. But in a world where (supposedly) 60% of professional athletes juice, I’m really not surprised. I guess “paid for reviews” are the writer’s PEDs. 🙂

  15. I write book reviews for two different services, (Kirkus is one of them) and you should know that reviewers are told specifically NOT to write an all-positive review, but instead to read the book and really evaluate it as a piece of writing, which I personally do with every single book I am given. All the books that I review are self published, and just in case you wondered, 98 percent of them are complete crap. They’re poorly plotted, have prose that is riddled with mistakes, and usually have characters that are thinly-disguised representations of the author him or herself (ie a Mary Sue or a Marty Stu in fan fiction parlance). I take my work seriously, and I don’t get paid even a quarter of what these services charge the author. I am always honest, and I always read the book once through and then go back and put sticky notes on the pages that merit special attention. I’m a journalist with 27 years of experience and a bibliophile with an MA in Writing, so again, not just an amateur. I think that what the guy in the article did was reprehensible, and I sincerely hope that he ceases ripping off authors, but don’t lump all reviewers in with him. I’ve also done reviews for newspapers and magazines where I was not paid in anything but a free book. There is a place for paid reviews, as long as they are done by honest writers who are charged with reading the book and evaluating it, on both good and bad points.

  16. Rutherford said in NT Times comments now there are services that will diwnvote and give 1 star reviews to the competition. Ugh!

  17. The best kind of review for me is the neighbor yelling to me from way across the street, “I’m reading your book now. I love it!” Would rather have word-of-mouth than anything written online.

  18. DeAnn wrote: “There is a place for paid reviews, as long as they are done by honest writers who are charged with reading the book and evaluating it, on both good and bad points.”
    Yes, if the reviewer is not being paid by the author or the publisher to review their books. That practice is unethical, a conflict-of-interest, and inherently deceptive…unless the review begins with the words “The author or publisher paid me to write this review for their book” so the bias disclosed.

  19. Peter L. Winkler:
    That John Muir story is interesting. I don’t want to seem like I’m calling anyone a liar, but I do wonder about something:
    Pretty much all the John Muir publications I know of were “how-to” manuals, like the VW book. Does it make sense for the NYT to review that kind of book? What is the reviewer going to say? “Yes, I dropped the engine from my VW CamperWagen in my apartment, and the instructions in ‘How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive’ were very clear and well written.”?
    (They published a book on Subaru repair that contained one of the best lines I’ve ever read, in the section on removing your Subaru’s engine: “Condition: you need to remove your Subaru’s engine. Or, you want to impress Jodie Foster.”)

  20. Lee, thanks for spreading the word about scammer Todd Rutherford. I wrote about the fake reviews controversy and Rutherford on my blog yesterday. I market and promote authors and I tell them NEVER, EVER pay for book reviews. Unfortunately, one of my former clients was duped by him (before we started working together). Rutherford was trying to pass himself off as a book publicist and let’s just say based on the crappy releases he wrote, he has no clue and should NOT be in the publishing industry. The sad part is that the NYT article has really hurt the ethical and hard-working self-published writers. I don’t have a lot of respect for the writers who took the easy way out by buying favorable reviews. Not to mention, I can’t respect the freelance writer he hired to write the reviews. She knew exactly what she was doing – anything for a quick buck.
    Mr. Rutherford was outed by Publisher’s Weekly yesterday. According to the article, Rutherford sent Publisher’s Weekly a press release last weekend announcing that he was making a “big splash” in the NYT article. He clearly is delusional, but Publisher’s Weekly set him straight. His comments on the site are a joke. He is in a state of denial, and is making up excuses right and left for his unethical actions. The publishing industry (and writers) aren’t going to touch him with a ten foot pole.

  21. The other practice which seems very common in the self-published crowd but leaves a slightly bad taste in my mouth is for authors to review each other’s books. This seems to be almost as dishonest to me.

  22. I don’t think we’re kids here – professional reviewers get paid and they are frequently wined, dined and more. It’s the illusion that the Amazon reviews were written by “just folks” who gosh-darn-it really liked the book! that rankles.
    Now I’m even more grateful to the people who took the time to review my books on Amazon!


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