ANYONE browsing new ebooks in Amazon’s gardening section last weekend may have been drawn to Everything Bonsai! standing proudly at the top of the bestsellers list.
The self-published title certainly came highly recommended with a series of glowing customer reviews, each marked with Amazon’s “verified purchase” quality stamp, which is intended to show that they were written by a genuine buyer.
In fact, Everything Bonsai! had been ghostwritten in three days in Bangalore, India, at a cost of just £65. The book was riddled with inaccuracies, grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. In one instance the word “bonsai” had even been misspelt.
The ghostwritten book commissioned by The Sunday Times The positive reviews had also come at a price. They were purchased for just £56 from people who openly advertise their willingness to fabricate recommendations.
Despite assurances from Amazon this weekend that it does all it can to combat such cheats, the investigation exposes the risk that its millions of customers are being deceived by a vast network of paid-for reviewers, phoney Facebook “book clubs” and fake expert authors.
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An undercover investigation by this newspaper into the robustness of Amazon’s safeguards with regard to self-published books was mounted following complaints from customers and authors.
One reader described buying a bestselling chess guide purportedly written by Matt Sigs, a physics teacher and chess coach at the prestigious California Institute of Technology and accompanied by more than 100 positive “verified” reviews.
However, the book was riddled with errors including confusing knights for kings. The Sunday Times established that no one by that name has taught at Caltech and that the reviews were as fake as his biography.
Online blogs and forums feature self-published authors boasting to have made tens of thousands of pounds from such scams. On one, a so-called Kindle gold rusher bragged of earning $150,000 a year from ghostwritten ebooks accompanied by paid-for positive reviews.
Some even provided a blueprint on how to secure a slot on Amazon’s “bestseller” lists, which use an algorithm to rank the top 100 books in a range of categories. It included advice to choose niche topics where there is less competition, raising the chance of a prominent listing and higher sales.
The Sunday Times placed an online advertisement for an inexpensive ghostwriter who could quickly provide a 10,000-word non-fiction ebook about bonsai trees. Within a few hours, 17 people had applied for the job including the young woman from Bangalore who agreed to produce the book over a weekend for $100.
An online profile page for the book was created describing its fictitious author, Mary Ann Evans, as “a skilled practitioner in bonsai care”.
Fake review writers were then contacted through Freelancer and Fiverr, websites where work can be advertised. Those willing to perform the task were quick to respond with one claiming he could post 300 positive reviews.
On the advice of the fake authors, Everything Bonsai! was offered free for five days using Amazon’s free promotional period.
During that period, 17 positive reviews for the book, purchased from four different dealers for a total of £69, were posted. Only two were removed by Amazon.
Although our fake reviewers were able to download the book free, their posts were still marked as coming from a “verified purchase”.
The Sunday Times actually overspent. It took just eight positive reviews, costing £56 in total, to help the book to top place in the garden and horticulture category of the free ebook section of the Amazon UK Kindle store.
The fake reviewers used a variety of tactics to get round Amazon’s safeguards. One dealer based in America had created more than 70 Amazon accounts by harvesting names and photographs from people’s Facebook profiles.
They included a group of British schoolgirls as young as 15 whose identities were then used to review ebooks and other products on the site.
Everything Bonsai! was withdrawn by The Sunday Times at the end of the free promotional period to prevent any genuine customers losing out financially.
Had it remained, the book and its positive reviews would have been moved to the “paid” category.
While it would have faced more competition there, according to other authors the same tactics could still be applied to fix the chart.
The fake reviewers had downloaded the book more than 200 times, leaving them poised to add more glowing tributes over the coming days.
An analysis of the numerous accounts used by the four fake review dealers suggests more than 500 authors on Amazon may have enlisted their services to deceive customers.
David Morrison, of PublishNation, which provides advice and support for genuine self-publishing authors, said: “Reviews and bestseller rankings are so important to an Amazon author’s success, but this whole system is built on trust.
“Ultimately it is Amazon’s customers who are being cheated by those using fake reviews and it is in the company’s interests to tackle it.”
Amazon insisted tackling fake reviews was a priority and it would consider legal action against those involved.
“Our goal is to make reviews as useful as possible for customers,” it said. “We use a number of mechanisms to detect and remove the small fraction of reviews that violate our guidelines, close abusive accounts, and in some cases take legal action. The specific accounts in question have been closed.”