Will Paid Reviews Bite Amazon Back?

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At least one entrepreneur sells positive book reviews to Amazon authors. How an apparently unreliable customer-review system might finally eat itself.

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Reuters

If you were trying to discredit Amazon's new self-publishing model aimed at eliminating conventional publishers as obsolete "gatekeepers," relying instead on crowdsourced reviews, what would you do?

Here's a thought: Why not work from within? Praise is the coin of the realm on Amazon and other Web 2.0 sites. An unscrupulous opponent of the Amazon model might be tempted to write fake customer reactions. He or she could spike them with hype so absurd that it reminds consumers that all such reviews are questionable.

And indeed, the system has produced its own saboteurs, if unintentional ones. According to the New York Times, an entrepreneur named Todd Jason Rutherford is making a small fortune in the shilling-by-review of self-published Amazon titles. Rationalizing his business as "marketing" rather than evaluation, but evidently not disclosing the payments in reviews, Mr. Rutherford has found a new way to exploit the crowdsourced model:

Traditional journalism jobs may be dwindling, but the Internet offers many new possibilities for writers. As soon as the orders started pouring in, Mr. Rutherford realized that he could not produce all the reviews himself.

How little, he wondered, could he pay freelance reviewers and still satisfy the authors? He figured on $15. He advertised on Craigslist and received 75 responses within 24 hours.

Potential reviewers were told that if they felt they could not give a book a five-star review, they should say so and would still be paid half their fee, Mr. Rutherford said. As you might guess, this hardly ever happened.

Of course for contributors honest enough to read entire self-published books, $15 is hardly a minimum wage anywhere in the world. Some self-published authors are willing to pay fees exceeding their likely writing income in the short run in the hope of future recognition. One computer programmer and novelist, according to the Times, has already spent $20,000 so far. And he isn't inhibited about letting his name be published. There's no such thing as bad publicity.

Mr. Rutherford's service appears to be at least modestly profitable. The Times says that he was "soon making" $28,000 a month when he launched his service, a decent start even if it's gross receipts before paying $15 per review. What's next, blurbs generated by scanning and application of computer algorithms?

Mr. Rutherford acknowledges that the credibility of web evaluations has been damaged:

He is now suspicious of all online reviews -- of books or anything else. "When there are 20 positive and one negative, I'm going to go with the negative," he said. "I'm jaded."

Amazon has a dilemma. So far the system has been working, but what happens when players out themselves? Even last year, detractors were calling it Spamazon. Could there be a tipping point of credibility?

This isn't just a hypothetical question. Prominent figures in writing and politics have already denounced Amazon's overall strategy. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), for example, has written in the Wall Street Journal, after the Department of Justice suit against Apple and publishers for alleged price fixing:

If publishers, authors and consumers are at the mercy of a single retailer that controls 90% of the market and can set rock-bottom prices, we will all suffer. Choice is critical in any market, but that is particularly true in cultural markets like books. The prospect that a single firm would control access to books should give any reader pause.

Amazon's model relies on reader judgment as a substitute for the traditionally vigorous competition among publishers, writers, retailers, and critics. Of course there is favoritism and bias in that system, but also lively rivalry, in which best-sellers from Gone with the Wind to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone have ultimately been recognized after multiple rejections. Paid choruses of praise like Mr. Rutherford's make the established system, flawed though it often is, appear a more reliable alternative.

Policing reviews could take time and alienate some customers, both self-published authors and reviewers, but to let reviews continue unregulated might alienate far more of them. Mr. Rutherford may unintentionally turn out to be a more powerful advocate of the despised gatekeepers and their authors than even Senator Schumer.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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