First off, sorry in advance for the long post. There’s a lot of wheels turning here. But thanks for being here, and being interested in this topic. Here we go.
The implications of “Fake” and “Bought” words are huge. I mean fraud, fake, funded, and bought.
Even while using pseudonyms, as authors we’re obligated to keep it real, because we sell book products and operate under the commercial law.
We write and operate in a world of pseudonyms, as authors, and that seems to be something we’re all comfortable with. Not everyone is who they really seem sometimes or they might not be using their real name. There’s already a sense of false operation just with that, and it’s a loose type of gravel we tread on carefully. We keep things legal and as “real” as we can with LLCs and such. Well, for the most part. So when we add influencer fraud, fake reviews, and funded or “bought” rank statuses, it just escalates the level of discomfort we feel in this already “unreal” community.
Like, who IS this person really and how DARE they jack the system?! Let’s grab our pitchforks, community! And we, as a collective, deal with the transgressor appropriately with plenty of public notice and scrutiny. Sometimes, it’s warranted. Other times, I question things.
Either way, we as published authors tend to band together fiercely when it comes to wrongdoings within our community, and the perpetrator is swiftly dealt with. Especially when it comes to fraud. And reviews. And jacked Amazon tricks. And everything else in-between that we as a community justify as inappropriate or against the rules.
And I want to approach this issue with the understanding that I’m not writing this with any malicious intent, but rather, an educational post so you can understand what to look for before buying someone’s book (specifically in the nonfiction market) or before working with them (like, paying them money for coaching, a course, etc.). The author in question audited below promotes herself as a coach, and we suspect, is using a fraudulently-obtained bestseller rank and inflated fake followers to prove herself as being authentic to the community. Note, there has been no disclosure made to the public on her website that she bought followers and that around 80% of her platform is fake. If someone was going to be transparent with their audience and not mislead them in any way, I would expect someone to make that information known.
But who are we kidding? Someone who has bought followers isn’t going to tell anyone. And they certainly are not going to be honest about it. I’m not here to call names, be a bully, encourage any behavior against this author like sabotaging her book product with 1-star reviews, as our community is unfortunately known to do. I’m not into that. What I am into, though, is authentic representation in business, abiding by Amazon rules and not inflating social media accounts out of vanity.
I want to preface this post with the understanding of two main things.
1) Influencer fraud is an entirely real thing, one that could land you in court or even jail for misrepresentation and even contractual or criminal fraud. It’s especially true when contracts are involved – ones you’ve signed indicating that the numbers you’re representing are real.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of influencer fraud, it’s where you “buy” your followers or use bot accounts to bolster your social media presence, making yourself look more important and special than you really are. These days it’s easy to find an unscrupulous vendor offering 2000-50000 followers for mere dollars. It’s a dangerous game to play when you have a book on the market and are representing, to billions of people, that you have some sort of status or influence, solely based on your numbers and engagements. People DO factor these things into buying decisions, and feel cheated when you’re not being completely honest with them.
Whenever you are selling something via social media you open yourself for charges of fraud and misrepresentation, not to mention public backlash, when you have fake followers. They’re easy to audit most of the time, but some audits do cost money, and generally, that’s usually a deterrent from performing them for the vast majority of the public.
It’s especially prevalent on platforms like Instagram, where influencers can charge anywhere between $50-20000 for a post. If a blogger/Instagrammer is found to have inflated their account with fake followers (hence, why businesses should audit them beforehand), the blogger/Instagrammer can be hauled into court. I follow this issue in the blogger world a lot because influencer marketing is such a hot topic in my network of bloggers. It’s something we watch carefully and with great scrutiny. So when I see this happening in the author domain, it’s especially troubling, because we do place a certain level of reliance on authenticity in representing our social media accounts with a sense of ethics.
2) Bolstering your accounts with fake followers, bought reviews for your books, “bought” bestseller status, and claiming to be an influencer or expert on something has real consequences and impacts those connected to you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into authors that feel “less than” in comparison to others because of the numbers of social media followers, and supposed sales of books. These are real emotions we’re talking about. By making yourself appear to be more important or successful than you actually are, you actually do impact those connected to you. Depression. Envy. Miserableness. These are all feelings that authors I’ve worked closely with have felt as a result of the impact of “fakeness”. It’s a horrible thing to allow these feelings to rise inside of us. It’s even more horrible when we find out that all of those emotions and energy spent on those feelings were for nothing, because the author lied… about, well, everything.
An Author’s Web Presence Put to the Test – The Audit
A friend of mine and I recently stumbled upon an author in the nonfiction market whose online profiles are over 80% fake. 80% of the Instagram followers were fake bots from Brazil or Turkey. 75% of the Twitter followers were from Istanbul. Facebook followers were in the 33,000 range. In one year. Sure, ok. That’s believable <insert huge sarcasm here>.
We dove in deeper, looking into the book reviews (all 5-star, mysteriously). We counted, if I recall correctly, 5-6 that included reviews where the author’s book was the only one reviewed by the reviewer.
In addition, 10 more didn’t pass a couple of online “Amazon Review Test” apps that we discovered. These particular reviews had other books reviewed by the same account, but interestingly enough, all included similar less-popular books in the same genre. These are clearly bought reviews, no doubt. It was as if the same reviewers were being used for the same not-widely-known authors. Like a little circle of fraudulent reviewers.
The author we looked at had been given (notice I didn’t say earned?) a bestseller status badge, which she notably screen-printed for future bragging rights, for a less popular small genre back in January 2017. Since then, the book has stayed at a steady near 1,000,000 in rank status. Does this seem suspicious? With around 15-20 reviews that are suspect out of the total 24 total, you have to think… this author clearly “bought” the bestseller rank in a little genre and with fake reviews and fake followers. The author is now using the status as “bestselling author” to sell her services. Perhaps she realized that creating a book and marketing it ethically and not fraudulently is harder work than she thought, and decided to venture into book mockup services and life coaching.
We dug even deeper. We looked at the author’s “publisher”, Synergebooks. 98% of its 27k followers on Twitter are fake (at the time of publication, this number was accurate). Look at them. Most of the accounts have 4 followers and barely have pictures in the profiles.
So I have to say… what in the fresh hell is going on here? Why all the fakeness? To appear bigger and more legit than you are? Seriously.
In the nonfiction market, provided that the information isn’t out-of-date or irrelevant to current technology, a good book typically sells high at first, but then stays fairly constant, making sales daily. Kindle copies of this author’s book just are not selling. And haven’t since March 2017. So that tells us it’s just not “that” successful of a book, just looking at the numbers. Sure, it may have gotten the bestseller status within 3 days of going to market, but after that it quickly fizzled. All of the hoopla died out and it wasn’t that popular.
And, I will say this is all “allegedly” true, but the evidence is somewhat damning. So I’ll let you arrive at your own conclusion.
What’s the Real Focus? Initial Sales and Status? Or a Long-Term Sales Strategy?
I have met authors whose focus has been entirely on getting the bestseller status on Amazon. Yes, I know getting that orange badge on Amazon is a great thing – it can really make your author career take off if marketed well. But to be honest, prepping for a book launch and marketing a book is often a lot of work. There are a lot of steps involved in launching a book and marketing it well. These bestseller-driven freshmen first-book launch types of people are problematic (yeah, I probably didn’t say that right, but you get the idea). Rarely do they ever become bestsellers because in the course of working with these types of people, they’re willing to take shortcuts and skip the more essential investments, such as a good book cover, professional editing, establishing an ARC team or a pre-launch reader group. Because, you know, effort and time. Money.
What’s the real focus? Is the freshman author focusing solely on sales and rank status or a long-term solution? The one thing I’ve noticed that is interesting is the lack of “friends” within the author community. The people that tend to do this are the solo types that want one person to dive in and make everything magically work, instead of focusing their efforts on establishing friendships within the community. Lone wolves. It just doesn’t work that way in our market. We’re such a tight knit group of people I can’t even imagine a book being successful without either the support of our community or some MAJOR financial backing in the form of ads and press agents.
Some books are destined to be held down out of the spotlight just like the concept of natural selection. Some will survive, most will not. And typically, those seeking the bestseller rank right out of the gate are more than likely destined to fail to some extent. I have seen a few make it. But not without the help of this incredible community of people.
So you have to consider what their agenda really is, and whether or not you’re going to be the scapegoat for when their book fails. I’ll pass.
Powerful Community of Authors
But knowing that paid reviews are a bad thing doesn’t seem to stop them. Nor does inflating their accounts. They’re not willing to put in the time and effort – they just want instant gratification.
Newsflash time. This powerful community of authors can smell fake reviews and fraudulently “bought” bestseller statuses and sniff it out straight away, and all the author has achieved is looking like is a fraud. I mean, we’re a community of public lynch artists when it comes to book and author fraud. There’s so much of it – and I think we’re just all a little tired of it, so week by week, we just keep getting angrier and angrier, even more frustrated, even, when Amazon allows it to happen.
So how easy is it to slip through the cracks and get bestseller status before the community of authors figures it out? Well, take the book we looked into. The rank was most likely “bought” with fake purchases from a myriad of accounts. It’s easily done with a little time and planning using prepaid cards from various billing addresses and IPs – just buy from each account a ton of digital goods and such over $50 and bam. They have multiple Amazon accounts to buy their way to the top of a little genre. And, combine that with a small genre, some Fiverr reviewers (this was still happening in early 2017), and voila, you have a bestseller. How valid is that status, really? Is it even worth anything anymore, knowing that these tiny genres can be easily tapped for rank? I think it is more meaningful in the bigger genres like romance and fantasy, but in smaller genres it’s pretty widely known it’s not that hard to ring that bestseller bell.
What angers me the most, though, is the combination of fake followers, influencer fraud and bought Amazon ranks. It screams “my whole persona is fake”. There may have been real buyers making purchases, not suspecting that the author’s entire platform was over 80% fake. That the reviews they most likely relied on were largely fake. It’s fraud. In the nonfiction market, it’s especially important to have authenticity, as these are things that people rely on to determine whether the author really knows what they’re talking about in deciding whether to buy their book. this is something that infuriates me to no end. How would you feel if someone you admired online was totally fake – had no real “influence” at all – and got you to buy some expensive course or outfit? And some brand paid them for that ad. And you actually had more followers on Instagram than they did. Mad, right?
I’m an author, too. I know how hard it is to sell books. I get it. And I’m not going to help anyone defraud the system just to get an orange banner.
I’m not going to join any buying clubs, help anyone garnish reviews through unscrupulous means, extract email addresses using scraping, or anything else. It hurts everyone. These behaviors only send the algorithm incredibly weird data, instead of letting people make regular buying decisions based on “natural” behaviors. I’m not going to buy reviews, followers, claim to be an influencer unless my numbers show differently, or buy anyone followers just to get their social media accounts reflecting high numbers. All of these things are fraudulent, and I think it’s time we as an author community start evaluating social media accounts, too – not just reviews and rank status – because there’s so much that is fake. Is so-and-so really “making a living” as a writer? Is so-and-so really an expert on a certain subject matter? What is their email list truly like?
The minute someone comes to me for social media help and indicates that their primary goal is to get their first book (AKA the freshmen novel) out as a bestseller, I run the other way. Like, fast and with purpose! The focus on more critical things just isn’t there, and that’s, unfortunately, something I’ve decided I can’t be involved in. It’s the equivalent of putting the horse before the cart. It’s a fruitless activity to put so much focus on social media marketing when the underlying systems (like website, branding, message, email newsletter, reader teams) are out of sync.
My Own Focus & Method
I’ve never been afraid to say “Welp, that didn’t work. LOL”. If you don’t try, test, try again, test again, and go a little crazy in the process, you’re not a real blogger or author. Or a marketer willing to test things out before making a huge investment of both time and money. I’d like to think an element of humility and willing to accept failure at something goes a long way rather than an “I know everything” kind of attitude. I like to be honest with my clients. Like “you know, I’m not sure about this or that, but based on what I see over here it may work – no hurt in trying”.
When I published my first book, “Learn Pinterest Strategy”, I didn’t focus on bestseller status – or even reviews. (Honestly, I just didn’t care.) I didn’t use a reader team or issue ARCs. I simply wanted to publish, educate, and have the market tell me whether or not I had a book that was worth investing in. I went on to write the second book (100+ Ways to Re-Purpose Your Content), then the third (How to Make Money with Your Writing), and then my fourth (50 Ways to Improve Your Website). I focused on building my focus areas and niche first, as well as my email list. I used Pinterest (because I had researched so much on email list building and wrote the book on it). And that worked for me. As I’m approaching book five, I know that I’m ready to put time and effort into a reader team and use BookFunnel. Whenever I send out an email, it’s like a payday. What may work for me may not for you. I’ve always said that each author platform is unique, so you’re going to want to try some things out before adopting what everyone else “seems” to be doing.
And I’m not saying this is the ONLY way to go about establishing your author platform. What I am saying, though, is, sometimes it’s a good idea to get your bearings first before you focus so heavily on ranks and status. Get your feet wet. Develop some influence naturally. You know, put in some time investment and see what works best for you. Get some friends in the author world who will share your book. Make friends. Real ones. Not bought ones.
I’ve entirely stopped accepting freshmen authors (first-time authors) as social media clients, and here’s why. Seldom do they have other parts of their platform mastered. And they’re often on a tight budget. Running ads on Amazon is usually out of the question financially. Getting a BookBub probably won’t work because they don’t have any reviews prepared in advance or even a reader team to help with the day of the launch. Seldom do they have an impressive website or online presence. They’re not willing to put in the time and effort into managing their brand. They just want to shoot up to the top (like many influencer fraudsters desire), get the sales and that special little orange banner, and are willing to do all sorts of questionable things to get it. I’m happy to do website overhauls, branding, and such – even book covers for them, but unless they have those things figured out or have hundreds of genuine reviews on an existing book product, I’m not touching those kinds of author social media accounts.
I’m more than happy to take on author clients that have demonstrated market success though. That tells me some original investment has been made, and it’s a product worth spending time on. And if that’s you, bring it! I’d love to see how I can help.
Things I evaluate when taking on new social media clients with limited success: How is your Pinterest presence (long-term reader solution)? Do you have your author newsletter set up correctly? What hashtags are most relevant to your audience? What have you done socially to pre-launch your book? Have you mentioned your upcoming book enough in your blog? Where is your blog? Wait… you don’t have ANY readers? Define your ideal reader? What are your branding colors? What keywords best work for your genre and book?
If they haven’t figured this out yet, but just want the bestseller status, they are barking up the wrong tree. They haven’t figured out the basics of A, B and C yet, and are trying to tackle M & N.
Give Me a Small Account to Grow Instead of One That is Fake Any Day of the Week
I work with authors and their social media accounts on a daily basis, and I have to be honest with everyone on something. I’d rather have you have a tiny account with sad, pathetic numbers than one with 10000 fake followers. Why? Engagement rates. The algorithms care – and are heavily weighted regarding engagement to determine whether to show your next Instagram, Twitter or Facebook post to people. If you have lower engagement rates, that just makes the job of marketing your book harder; trying to get your book in front of more people that are relevant to your target market. I’d much rather my clients be considered ethical and hard-working, excellent authors focused on quality rather than on numbers.
I’ll be including the link to my friend’s research and discovery, so you can see the analysis report that she paid to have done on this author’s Instagram account, Twitter account and other social media accounts, along with reports showing fraudulent reviews on Amazon. I think it’ll be educational for you to see what to look for so you can spot fraudulent influencers and bought bestseller ranks.
Until then, I want you to be able to weigh in on this objectively. Obviously, almost all of us in the author market believe that fake, Fiverr-issued, for example, reviews are fraudulent and wrong. Do you think fake social media followers in the author market is a form of fraud… as there have been court cases involving influencer fraud? When shopping in the nonfiction market, do you ever check out the social media numbers of the author to see if they’re really an expert before you buy their book? I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on this.
Also published on Medium.