Original artwork copyright Nancy Palmer. Pentel pocket brush pen and crayon.
CREEPTASTIC: Sleazy comes in many different guises
Way back when I was a struggling car-less teen college student, living on half a can of condensed soup per day, trying to figure out how to get a job in a commuter city with lousy public transportation, one of my Dad’s friends offered to give me a car … if I’d go to bed with him.
When I refused, he got very angry. I’d had no reason to suspect the man of malice before, and I’d opened my apartment door to him as though he were an old friend (which I did consider him at the time). We were in my apartment with the door closed; nobody was around who could have seen if his yelling and rage-filled gesticulations had turned to physical violence. He did eventually depart, leaving a much less trusting girl behind him. I had no idea if he would come back, and what he might try the next time.
Looking back, what angers me most about this encounter isn’t someone trying to make a transaction of sex. People do that, and I’m not judging. It’s that he tried to prey on a person in a very vulnerable life situation, and manipulate her into an illegal action that he knew wasn’t in line with her values, and that would have made her horribly vulnerable in many different ways.
I’m very much older and in a place of much greater power now, internally and in the eyes of the world. The memory of that creeptastic day doesn’t come to mind often. It did today, though. I happen to be in the slow, challenging process of promoting a self-published book. I am in the very fortunate position of not requiring sales to pay my rent, buy food, and so forth. However, I am keenly aware that this isn’t the case for every writer. And those writers are who were on my mind when I read this unsolicited e-mail that showed up in my in-box today. We’ll call the composer “Creeptastic.” Here are some excerpts. I’ve bolded a few of their lines, and my comments are in parentheses and italicized:
I saw your ebook. From the synopsis it looks like a high quality ebook. ((Well, at least they got this part right)) If you are looking for some real promotion and exposure for your book, I have a few offers for you. My book promotion packages are extremely affordable and can be customized to your book.
Some of the ways I can help you are (ANY one of the following services you purchase will cost you 15 USD, discounts are available if you purchase more than one service at a time; also note that if you want more than what is offered here, remember that discounted upgrades are available for each and every service mentioned; SPECIAL OFFER: Buy (a), (b) (c), (d), (e) (f) and (h) for just 85 USD instead of 105 USD!):
a) I can post 1 honest, detailed, insightful and helpful review on your book. This review will highlight all the positive aspects of your book and enlighten your future readers regarding the real essence and worth of your book. The book review is written by an avid book reader and Native English speaker so you can be assured of quality. NOTE: You are NOT paying me for the review but for the amount of time I am investing in reading your book. (This is what first triggered the memory from my college years. Prostitution was illegal in that time and place, oh, but the guy wasn’t offering me money for sex. He was offering me an exchange of gifts. Wink, nudge, but news reports at the time suggested the law didn’t agree with his interpretation.) The rating may range from 3-5 stars. I don’t post negative reviews. For 49 USD, I can also write an editorial review for you.
Okay. So already, new writers may be feeling uneasiness. Creeptastic has anticipated this uneasiness by providing a loophole of sorts, in an attempt to get around the FTC’s rule against paying for reviews. You’re not supposed to be able to even receive a free copy of the book for review without disclosing the exchange. I sincerely doubt this specious argument would hold up in court.
I can promote your book on social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit, etc). You get 100% targeted traffic from book readers located in English speaking countries.
(So this is an actual legitimate service. Although I have absolutely zero faith in the quality of this promotion, given the rest of Creeptastic’s offerings.)
c) I can promote your book on 10 high quality websites EXCLUSIVELY devoted to promoting free kindle books – on Kindle free days. I can also promote your book if it is on Kindle countdown promotion (please note that it is up to each site’s owner to decide whether to list your book or not. If your book listing is approved, it will be shown ONLY during the promotion period). In addition, I can also offer you GUARANTEED free Kindle ebook downloads or book purchases (in other words, you can ask me to buy/download your ebook for as many times as you want, for a nominal fee). This in turn can boost your Amazon rankings even further! (This gaming of the system has actually worked on a large scale on a nationally known publication, by pumping sales one week. Books were returned the following week, and the book plummeted off the sales lists, but the author is now able to tout their “best-selling book” to promote their consultation and speaking business.)
d) I offer a review ‘up-voting’ and ‘down-voting’ service. For existing reviews on Amazon, you can ask for a maximum of 30 up-votes or 30 down-votes, or a combination of up-votes and down-votes which doesn’t exceed 30. This is quite helpful if there are some positive reviews you want to be up-voted, or some negative reviews you want to be down-voted. For an extra 15 USD, I can also defend your negative reviews on Amazon by posting upto 3 comments on them (you need to provide me with the comments).
(This kind of thing is why Amazon reviews are losing credibility.)
e) I can add 30 likes to your positive reviews on Goodreads. All likes come from unique accounts and multiple IPs.
(This is the most blatant admission of this I’ve ever seen. It’s a violation of Goodreads user policy; if reported, the “reviewers” will be banned. But it’s hard to stop this, because they just switch IPs.)
I removed a couple more of their services for brevity.
h) My BESTSELLER SO FAR: I will rate your book with as many stars you want on Goodreads, post 1 honest review, mark your book as ‘read’, become your fan and add your book to the listopia list of your choice.
(Some of the mysterious popularity of certain authors and titles on Goodreads and Amazon has now become much more clear to me.)
Email me at ((redacted by Nancy)) if you are interested. SERIOUS buyers only, please. I am too busy to respond to tire kickers ((This is a common ploy of shady salespersons; they try to make you feel committed and that you’re in debt to the Creeptastic person for taking up their time, so you’ll be less likely to decline a transaction…and labelling yourself a “tire kicker” or other perjorative.))
***end of excerpt***
I find this whole thing infuriating, for multiple reasons. Primarily because it makes an already difficult job harder, it subverts the intention of honest reviews, it exploits vulnerable writers, and it attempts to scam readers.
Publishing a book, and promoting it yourself, are incredibly time-consuming. It can be frustrating. There are so many new books released every year, and getting yours to stand out from the crowd is a challenge. Time spent promoting the book takes away from time you’d rather spend writing. I know this very well, because the same is also true for the current model of artist-as-entrepreneur, musician-as-entrepreneur, and so on. Creative professionals would rather be creating, in general. Most of us are also uncomfortable self-promoting. And there are social conventions to follow, too: you’re supposed to self-promote, but at the same time over-promotion is both tacky and annoying. There are procedures that work to get your book known. Approaching bloggers, establishing a social media presence, reaching out to book groups, are all touted as means to spread the word of your creative work. Even writing a good book, so that people who read it are genuinely moved to create a review, is cited as a technique… but that too is easier said than done. The hard truth of self-publishing is that most writers are fortunate to sell copies numbering even into the three digits. It’s not an easy task.
Circumventing these paths to word-of-mouth exposure by buying false reports devalues the reviews a writer works so hard to gather. A casual reader looking for the next great story won’t necessarily be able to differentiate between a well-considered, thoughtful reading over a period of hours that results in a 4-star rating, and a different 4-star rating given to a poorly-written book that someone paid $15 to promote. How are readers supposed to trust recommendations if so many of them are marketing tools? A professional paid review service has its place, providing insight to people such as the librarians with limited budgets, space, and time, who must sort through all these kajillion books to choose purchases for their libraries. The commercial nature of those reviews is disclosed. But Creeptastic is offering something different: a deliberate intent to pretend to be uninvolved readers.
Writers without the patience and, frankly, privilege of being able to wait for word-of-mouth to spread could easily be taken in by offers like Creeptastic’s. If it wasn’t okay, they couldn’t offer it, right? Maybe this is how it’s done? It’s just a kind of advertisement, right? After all, this type of manipulation has sometimes been very successful in the past. And there is, after all, the rent to pay. Children and cats to be fed. My book’s wonderful; I know people would love it if I could just get them to read it… However, if this gaming of the system comes to light, the author may suffer serious consequences. The service vendor? Not so much, as they can just switch IP’s and websites and start again. The author’s name and reputation, however, may be tarnished beyond repair.
I’m also angered at how these ploys target the readers. I think people who buy books deserve to be respected. While perfectly lovely books may go unnoticed without promotion, and that is not optimal, purchased ratings are a blow against consumer confidence. It’s not right to mislead people into buying your product, regardless of whether that produce is a washing machine or the novel you’ve spent the last three years producing. There’s a difference between a promotion, such as giving away free books, and a scam, which includes such things as lying and saying that everyone adored those free books. Readers shouldn’t be cheated. Their money and, more importantly, precious time are being invested in your creation. Maybe they’ll like your book. Maybe they won’t. But I don’t believe that setting up a scam to take them in is the best way to build an audience.
There’s a darker side to this, too, and I’m surprised that fewer people haven’t harkened to it yet. When I read this e-mail to my husband (he of Italian descent), and told him that I thought that the next logical step was extortion, he agreed.
“It sounds like the Book Mafia,” he said. “Pay protection money so you don’t get bad reviews.” Or perhaps, I speculate, pay protection money so we won’t tell the FTC that you paid for the good reviews.
And then I wondered if this might not, in fact, be already in place, and we’re not hearing about it because people are paying? It’s not hard to imagine.
In any case, to bring this back to some humor, I did visit Creeptastic’s website. It has a tab for “Testimonials”. How funny, I thought, that someone offering to sell reviews would expect someone to trust a review left on their website? Do they not see the absurdity?
The funnier thing was that when I clicked on the Testimonials tab? There were no reviews. “Coming Soon.” Wow. You’re trying to sell false reviews … and you can’t even provide them for yourself? That says a lot about your product. Rather reminds me of the guy at the beginning of the story, with the car, telling me I should compromise myself so I could survive, telling me what a mistake I was making by turning him down, and refusing his car. “All it needs,” he said, as I locked the door behind him, “is a motor…”