Fake E-Book Reviews: A Legal Guide to Understanding & Navigating

Business.com / Legal / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

We review the legality of fake Amazon e-book reviews and ancillary practices. How to spot one and what not to do.

Can you trust book reviews on Amazon anymore?

Are the majority of them literary criticisms akin to cubic zirconias? Knock-off Birkin Bags?

A lot of people are asking the question, and for good reason, because fake e-book reviews have become as common as Reddit rants. But all that may soon change since Amazon is taking steps to curtail “e-book catfishing.” 

As such, it seems an opportune time to review the legality of fake Amazon e-book reviews, and ancillary practices.

What Is E-Book Catfishing and Astroturfing?

First things first: what is e-book catfishing? Basically, it’s the practice of contracting a low-paid author, who agrees to relinquish copyrights, to pen a book.

Under the typical modus operandi, the catfisher publishes the work on Amazon.com, using a fictional author biography, and then buys fake reviews from marketplaces like Fiverr or specialized fake review commissaries.

Why do people use fake e-book reviews? The answer is self-explanatory:

  1. The better an e-book’s reviews, the more likely people are to buy, and the more money the book will make.
  2. The more reviews an e-book has, the more visible it is in the Amazon marketplace.
  3. Sometimes, ne'er-do-wells pelt rival authors with bad reviews in an attempt to drive traffic their way.

But as you might guess, a whole lot of people are perturbed by fake e-book reviews. Many authors understandably think the practice amounts to cheating. And readers aren’t too jazzed about the practice either because nobody wants to spend hard earned money on sub-par offerings.

Related Article: When Bad Reviews Hit: Should You Call Legal or PR?

Is It Illegal to Use a Ghost Writer?

Before we dive into the legality v. illegality of fake e-book reviews, it’s important to make a clarification. Some people mistakenly believe that using ghost writers is, in-and-of itself, against the law and Amazon’s terms of use.

Not true. It is 100 percent legal to commission a work of writing from another party. (How do you think all those reality stars get book deals?) Just be sure you have a valid, signed contract that expressly states your exclusive copyrights to the drafts and finished product. Having a non-disclosure never hurt either.

Is It Illegal to Contract Fake Reviews for an E-Book?

There are no two ways about it: paying people to write fake e-book reviews is against the law and Amazon’s terms of service. And the e-tailer takes the issue seriously.

According to Julie Law, an Amazon spokesperson: “Amazon has a zero tolerance policy for content that is designed to manipulate or mislead customers. We have built mechanisms, both manual and automated over the years that detect, remove or prevent reviews which violate guidelines. And we continue to take action against those who violate our policies prohibiting review manipulation.” 

That’s right, Amazon uses a “phony post” algorithm. The company has also initiated lawsuits against businesses and individuals who offer phony review services.

Related Article: Are Hashtags Intellectual Property?

Is It Illegal to Swap Reviews With Other Authors?

What better way to garner great reviews than to network, right? After all, there is an ocean of self-publishers out there, all fighting to be seen; to be discovered. Why not engage in a little, “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” right?

You may want to re-think that, because the FTC and Amazon aren’t too keen on author review swaps. In their eyes, such an exchange can be seen as “materially beneficial” to both parties.

And according to the e-tailer’s terms, writing reviews “on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product,” is against the rules.

“But, I don’t get paid to swap reviews,” you protest. Sure, you may not directly receive money in exchange for positive reviews, but bartering is a form of financial interest.

Now, please don’t read this wrong. If you belong to an author group, and genuinely like the work of a co-participant, by all means, tell the world. But, to avoid any unwanted attention from the FTC, in your review, include a disclaimer indicating your relationship to the author.

Doing so may save you a legal headache. And perhaps more pressing, disclosing your relationship to the author appears to be required by Amazon’s terms of service agreement. 

Common Traits of Fake Reviews

Sometimes, it’s easy to spot a fake review. The first thing people usually look for is a “verified purchase” badge. But, more and more, the label means less and less. Why?

Because positive review peddlers have devised ways for fake reviewers to earn “verified purchase” status. Typically, they include the price of the e-book in the review payment. Done and done.

So, what should you look for? What are the tell-tale signs that a review may be as phony as a three-dollar-bill? 

  1. Biographical Tidbits. Typically, genuine reviews focus on aspects of a book, not the reviewer’s life. (Memoirs are an exception; people tend to get personal in assessments of true stories.)
  2. Generalized Statements. Often, folks writing fake reviews, haven’t read the work. As such, it’s difficult for them to pinpoint specific aspects of the book. Instead, they make sweeping statements like, “It’s the best [insert topic] book I’ve ever read!”
  3. Timing. If an e-book is released on January 1st at midnight, and by 2:00 am has garnered hundreds of reviews, you can be fairly certain that a lot of those reviews are fake. Sure, authors do give advanced copies of their works to critics before the official release date, in the hopes of having a sprinkling of feedback right off the bat. But, if there are hundreds of them, be wary.

Related Article: What to Do if a Major Corporation Steals Your Trademark

Now, this list is not exhaustive; neither is it absolute. Genuine reviewers may very well include biographical information in their posts (heck, I just did the other day).

People who tremendously enjoy an e-book may shout-type a generalized statement in praise. And, of course, an author may give out hundreds of advanced copies to make a significant splash on the first day of public launch.

Nevertheless, it’s sometimes wise to exercise a skeptical eye and keep these points in mind, when on the hunt for fake e-book reviews, especially for non-fiction, instructional or “how-to” books.

Is it illegal to get friends and family to write reviews for your e-book?
Just as it’s risky to swap e-book reviews with fellow authors, enlisting friends and family to do the same is also dicey. According to Amazon, such reviews may be contrary to the spirit of the site.

Again, it’s perfectly fine to lavish praise on your child’s, friend’s or distant cousin’s self-published magnum opus, but if you do, be sure to disclose your connection to the author.

Chat With a Lawyer About a Fake E-Book Situation 

In short, if you’re an Amazon seller or marketer facing a legal hardship that involves the e-tailing site, we can help. A lawyer can guide you through the above issues, or another unlisted online business concern.

If your income is dependent, or partially dependent, on Amazon sales, it’s always wise to nip a legal issue in the bud, or better yet, make sure one doesn’t happen by setting up your store properly the first time around.

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