The indie publishing world is now finally acknowledging what’s been obvious for some time.

Some of its best-known (and best-selling) authors paid for hundreds (or thousands) of glowing reviews to appear on the Internet and Amazon.

This New York Times story makes it clear that readers who blindly trust Amazon’s review system will eventually end up puzzled by the abominable prose filling the supposedly “five-star” book they just bought.

(Note: I’ve long been a member of Goodreads, a Google-owned book review site. I’m sure it’s being gamed, but it’s relatively easy to check the validity of reviewers, and it’s far more trustworthy than Amazon’s reviews.)

Long abused by family members, friends and authors trading glowing reviews with each other, Amazon’s reviews are to be trusted about as much as writer John Locke, the million-ebook-selling author who was outed in the NY Times article as having purchased 300 glowing reviews for his books — a fact not-surprisingly left out of his “How I Sold One Million E-Books in Five Months” ebook.

Sleazy, Locke. Sleazy.

The Hidden Backstory

Sure to be ignored among all the gnashing of teeth is how easy it was for the “entrepreneur” selling all those reviews to find writers willing to create them:

How little, he wondered, could he pay freelance reviewers and still satisfy the authors? He figured on $15. He advertised on Craigslist and received 75 responses within 24 hours.

Potential reviewers were told that if they felt they could not give a book a five-star review, they should say so and would still be paid half their fee, Mr. Rutherford said. As you might guess, this hardly ever happened.

Amazon and other e-commerce sites have policies against paying for reviews. But Mr. Rutherford did not spend much time worrying about that. “I was just a pure capitalist,” he said. Amazon declined to comment.

Mr. Rutherford’s busiest reviewer was Brittany Walters-Bearden, now 24, a freelancer who had just returned to the United States from a stint in South Africa. She had recently married a former professional wrestler, and the newlyweds had run out of money and were living in a hotel in Las Vegas when she saw the job posting.

Ms. Walters-Bearden had the energy of youth and an upbeat attitude. “A lot of the books were trying to prove creationism,” she said. “I was like, I don’t know where I stand, but they make a solid case.”

For a 50-word review, she said she could find “enough information on the Internet so that I didn’t need to read anything, really.” For a 300-word review, she said, “I spent about 15 minutes reading the book.” She wrote three of each every week as well as press releases. In a few months, she earned $12,500.

“There were books I wished I could have gone back and actually read,” she said. “But I had to produce 70 pieces of content a week to pay my bills.”

Drawing parallels to content mills (like Copify) is very easy to do — and probably appropriate. It’s clear that most paid book reviews are sourced from existing content and glued together (rewritten just enough to beat the plagiarism filters) — a reasonable approximation of what goes on when writers pound out SEO articles for $12.

Once again, an overabundance of labor on the backend is making wholesale manipulation of online engines (search and review) a wholly cost-effective opportunity.

Keep writing (just don’t be a jerk about it), Tom Chandler.