THE BLOG
09/30/2013 11:22 am ET | Updated Nov 30, 2013

Five Stars for Five Dollars: Buying Reviews, Reviewed

"For $5, I'll leave a five-star review of your Kindle ebook, purchase it (up to .99), 'like' it, and vote down negative reviews!" -- Fiverr.com listing

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Sounds great, I thought. What could it hurt? Everybody's doing it, apparently. That's how at least one self-published author helped juice his sales and defraud readers. Recently, an anonymous blogger purporting to be a Fiverr whistleblower has promised to out dozens more bestselling authors for the same practice (although there's zero evidence at this point that any of the accused are guilty of any wrongdoing).

After signing up for the help-for-hire site Fiverr, I clicked the "Order Now" button and was redirected to Paypal. I entered my Paypal information, and was then re-directed back to Fiverr to enter the URL of my ebook on Amazon. For this test, I used a dummy ebook I self-published under a pseudonym.

Eight hours later, I checked my ebook's page on Amazon and there it was: A glowing, five-star review! Four paragraphs in length, even. And it appeared the reviewer had actually read my ebook.

"A one-of-a-kind vampire book!" read the subject line. The reviewer name-dropped several top vampire television shows and movies in the review (Twilight, the Vampire Diaries), a nice touch (and one that would, of course, help my ebook out when Google's search engine spidered the Amazon page). Judging by several story details in the review, it was apparent the reviewer had at least skimmed my book. It sounded like a lot of work to go through for just five bucks. Or four bucks, since the reviewer spent .99 to buy my ebook, thereby giving it a quick sales ranking boost.

I clicked on the reviewer's name and saw a list of dozens of other five-star reviews that they had written. Every book was self-published, and every book was rated five stars. I recognized one of the authors on the list as a self-published writer whose ebooks regularly hit the Kindle chart's Top 100.

"You need a critical mass of readers to generate word of mouth," the author wrote in a guest post on a popular self-publishing blog. Word of mouth, or a critical mass of fake reviews and purchases to push your ebooks into the Kindle Top 100? With ebooks, visibility is a big part of the marketing equation. Once an ebook hits the Kindle Top 100, sales tend to snowball as new customers discover it in greater numbers.

Meanwhile, my own bought-and-paid-for reviewer sent me a quick note. "It was actually a fun read," the e-mail said. "Thanks."

Damn. This prostitute has great bedside manner.

Once I logged back into my Fiverr account, I gave the reviewer a "thumbs up" evaluation. It was only afterwards that I reflected back on how I had originally picked my reviewer out of the hundreds available on Fiverr: on the basis of the half a dozen positive appraisals of their "services." Had I fallen victim to the same scam that I had been attempting to pull off (in the name of journalism)?

With existential horror, I realized that somewhere in the deepest, darkest parts of the Internet, there is a black market for fake Fiverr reviews.

Postscript: After I posted a link to the Fiverr reviewer's Amazon account on Twitter, their account was deleted -- either by Amazon or by the reviewer. This meant that the glowing review disappeared too...along with my five-spot.

This story originally appeared in a slightly different form on Dear Author.