It’s hard enough to get good book reviews, which you typically need to successfully advertise and promote a book. After all, potential buyers feel more receptive to buying a book if it already has at least 5 to 10 reviews with 5 stars, or at least an average of 4.5-stars.
But what if you get bad reviews? That can be a real sales killer, and now some scammers are taking advantage of that problem to threaten to post bad reviews. Initially, this threat is to post these bad reviews on Goodreads, where it’s easy to set up accounts and make recommendations. But the scam can work on Amazon, too.
The way it works is like a typical extortion or blackmail scheme. You have to pay up, or terrible things will happen — in this case a series of terrible one-star reviews with short derogatory comments, like “terrible book,” “not worth reading,” “poorly written,” or “a big mess.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t a scam you can avoid by being watchful for a series of signs of a scam, so you don’t respond or say “no,” as I described in The Big Con, about a nefarious book-to- film scam. This is a scam that sucked in over a dozen victims by promising film riches but used imposter executive from real companies to convince book authors to spend more and more money on writing materials and a marketing campaign that went nowhere. This review scam is also not like a personal identity, real estate, consumer or merchant scam, which you can protect yourself against if you know the signs, as described in I Was Scammed, which features what to look for and how to avoid these scams.
Instead, this extortion scam is like confronting a robber or kidnapper who has invaded your house and is telling you that you need to pay money, or you will be robbed or captured.
Here’s how it works once you have published a book and it’s listed on Goodreads. The scam can similarly work for any book published on Amazon. As described by Megan McClusky in an August 9, 2021 Time article: “How Extortion Scams and Review Bombing Trolls Turned Goodreads into Many Authors’ Worse Nightmare,” Goodreads has created an easily gamed system, after it was launched in 2007 and developed into “the world’s largest online book community.” The extortion scam works, because Goodreads ratings help books get sold, and publishers use the community to increase the awareness for their books. It has also become one of the primarily tools on the internet for lesser-known authors to gain attention to their books.
So given this set-up, it’s like each book is laid out on a killing field with little protection. Essentially, an author or publisher can be subjected to “review bombing,” whereby an individual scammer or group of scammers threaten to undermine the book’s rating by posting a series of one-star ratings and negative reviews.
Unfortunately, Goodreads’ review guidelines make it easy for the scammers to do this, since, according to its guidelines, each book can be reviewed once it appears on the site. So enter the scammers. One tactic is to review bomb an author’s book with 1-star ratings and then ask for a ransom to remove them or to stop more bad reviews from coming. The other approach is to call or send the author a threatening email requesting a payment, and if it isn’t received, negative reviews will follow — and then they do.
For example, in her article, McClusky cites several victims, such as one indie author of a romance novel and a collection of short stories, who received an all-caps ransom email. It demanded that she either pay for good reviews or her books would be inundated with negative ones, and the scammer further threatened: “WE’LL RUIN YOUR AUTHOR CAREER,” After the author didn’t pay and reported the scammer’s email to Goodreads, a few hours later she saw the stars drop on her books as she began getting a flurry of 1-star reviews.
How did she become a target? One way is that she posted information about her forthcoming book in a Goodreads community group and sent PDF copies to individuals who claimed to be reviewers. Fortunately, after she described the threat, numerous fellow authors posted positive reviews to drive her ratings up again, and given the attention to her case, Goodreads removed the bad reviews. Thus, her book was effectively rescued from the review bombers.
But in other cases, authors who haven’t paid up have been victimized again and again by scammers who have created dozens or even hundreds of new accounts for posting hundreds or more fake one-star review on author victims.
For example, Victoria Strauss, who writes about scams that target writers on the popular WriterBeware site, describes getting an email from a writer who was targeted by an extortion scam on Goodreads. The scammers said the writer had to buy their paid review offer, or they would post a blizzard of one-star reviews. In their initial email, they even claimed their review service was “cheap,” or the author would get “shitty comments” and one-star reviews, and neither Goodreaders or her followers could save her from the scammers. Then they made good on their threat by bombing her books with 1-star reviews, though Goodreads did come to her rescue. They removed the reviews and the profiler that posted them, though the company is not always responsive when authors complain.
The other strategy which the scammers sometimes use is to first post a series of 1-star reviews on the author’s books. Then, a scammer contacts the writer claiming that they will get rid of the bad reviews for a fee. For example, one author cited by Strauss got an offer from a woman claiming to have noticed all her bad reviews, but for $200, she could help the author get rid of them.
This review bombing has become a growing problem because of the way Goodreads has set up its system for getting reviews and the way it responds to attacks. This set up and response has made authors especially vulnerable to becoming victims. One reason is that it can be difficult for authors who have been review bombed to get Goodreads to quickly remove the fake ratings and bad reviews. Another reason is that Goodreads doesn’t require individuals creating an account to verify their email address. As a result, as Patrick S. Tomlinson, the author of sci-fi novels, told McClusky, the scammers “can make a dozen fake accounts a day, and then go on and just completely bomb out the reviews and ratings” of whatever book or author they want.
Unfortunately, the scammers know how Goodreads operates, so they feel relatively protected and impervious to any retribution, which emboldens them to threaten authors that they have to pay up or else. For example, one author who didn’t pay and reported the scam to Goodreads got this threatening message, which read in part:
“REPORT US AS MUCH AS YOU WANT, IDIOTS!!! WE WILL BE BACK WITH MORE. NOTHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN WITH YOUR REPORTING AS WE USE FAKE IPS AND EMAILS…BOTTOM LINE. THE ATTACK IS NOT GONNA STOP UNLESS YOU PAY UP AND GET RID OF ME. BUY THE PAID REVIEW OFFERS IF YOU WANT RESPITE FROM US…YOU CAN NEVER WIN WITH US AS WE HAVE PLENTY OF FAKE ACCOUNTS HERE AND TELL IT TO YOUR AUTHOR BUDDIES TOO. WE DON’T CARE. WE KNOW YOU HAVE MONEY BUT YOU JUST DON’T WANNT PAY. WE WILL EITHER MAKE YOU PAY…WE DON’T BLUFF AS YOU HAVE SEEN ALREADY. UP YOURS F*CKING FREELOADERS.
TOMORROW’S AGENDA. ONE EGREGIOUS REVIEW AND MULTIPLE ONE STARS.”
In effect, the scammers feel untouchable because of the anonymity provided by the digital world and the difficulty Goodreads has in getting rid of the explosion of bad reviews from multiple accounts. Perhaps it might help if Goodreads required email verification in setting up accounts and could more actively respond to take down bad reviews. But this can be a daunting task, given the growing number of scammers and the kind of community spirit that has made the Goodreads’ platform so popular and could be dimmed by more controls — the classic problem of balancing freedom with order.
By contrast, it’s a little more difficult for scammers to review bomb authors on Amazon, since users must have a registered account with a verified email and phone number, and they have to have spent at least $50 on Amazon in the past 12 months using a valid credit or debit card. Even so, a scammer or team of scammers could invest in setting up a few accounts and making the required purchases in order to make even more money from the targeted authors.
What can you do to protect yourself? One regrettable approach might be to pay up if the amount requested is not too much, given the hassle that might occur if you don’t, along with the damage to sales. Or perhaps you might negotiate the price to get down the amount requested, possibly emphasizing your difficulty to pay the initial amount requested. Then, perhaps they might leave you alone. It’s the kind of response some individuals, companies, and governments make when confronted by pirates or criminals taking hostages.
On the other hand, if you don’t pay, prepare yourself to appeal to Goodreads or Amazon and make the best case you can for why these are fake reviews; perhaps send the companies copies of the emails you have received from the scammers, and be prepared to repeatedly request the removal of bad reviews. Perhaps even notify your local media about your efforts, since the publicity can help spur Goodreads and Amazon to take down the bad reviews and one-star ratings. And this might dissuade the scammers from coming back for more, because now they could risk being exposed for who they are.
The author is internationally published author and film producer, Gini Graham Scott, PhD, who has published over 200 books, 50 for traditional publishers and 150 for her own company Changemakers Publishing, specializing in books on self-help, popular business, and social issues. She is the author of The Big Con: Scams Targeting Writers, the Victims, and How to Avoid Becoming a Victim and I Was Scammed about all types of scams and how to avoid them. She has written and executive produced 18 feature films and documentaries, featured on the www.changemakersproductionsfilms.com website. An inspiration for this article is that Changemakers Productions is now raising money for its first horror film Dark Cabin, which features 6 friends on a vacation up against Viking ghosts. It’s filming in the New York area in February 2022, and other horror films are planned. She also writes books and scripts for clients. Her website for writing is at www.changemakerspublishingandwriting.com.
For more information or to set up an interview, contact:
Executive Assistant to Gini Graham Scott
Changemakers Publishing and Writing
Lafayette, CA 94549 . (925) 385–0608