This news is about a month old, but somehow I managed to miss seeing it when it came out. Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post had a story about an “industry of ‘Amazon entrepreneurs’” built around “catfishing”—creating fake online personas to trick the unwitting. (The term “catfishing” comes from a 2010 documentary film chronicling an online relationship with such a fake person.) These “Amazon catfish” create a fictitious expert—often using character names from books or movies—and then hire some low-paid remote worker to write the actual book. Then, after the book is written, they buy fake reviews for it to promote it, and make out like bandits when it hits the bestseller lists. The Post notes:

“Making money with Kindle is by far the easiest and fastest way to get started making money on the Internet today,” enthuses one video that promises to guide viewers to riches. “You don’t even need to write the books yourself!”

The article goes into detail about some of the writers who use this technique, and some of the online courses that teach writers how to use it. The courses recommend inventing fake authorial personas to build credibility with audiences, reporting bad reviews for “abuse,” and using fake reviews to plug your book.

As the article notes, there’s nothing wrong with using pseudonyms for your books. (Amazon even allows authors to use up to three pseudonyms, something I hadn’t known before I read this.) The problem comes when you make up a fake professional background for that pseudonym, like pretending to be a linguist to write a language tutorial, or a doctor to write a book on health issues. This sort of thing has been an issue in advertising for some time; truth-in-advertising laws prevent using fake medical personnel in advertisements for medicine. (Advertisers have tried some fairly ridiculous stunts to get around that, including the oft-spoofed line “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”)

Some writers are concerned that this sort of thing could give self-publishing as a whole a black eye, but not everyone is so alarmed.

Experts are more optimistic: Jane Friedman, a professor of digital publishing at the University of Virginia, describes catfish as an ongoing but “not that significant” threat. (“It increases the noise for everyone, sure,” she wrote by e-mail, “but for any author building a long-term career, it’s not hard to distinguish yourself from low-quality opportunists.”) Amazon, meanwhile, promises that it is weeding out deceptive accounts and their products.

This probably explains the reasoning behind Amazon’s recent focus on rejecting “paid” reviews—Amazon knows that so many people out there are abusing them to try to build the reputations and sales of their shoddy fake self-help books, and they want to crack down on that sort of thing.

When you get right down to it, scammers and loophole abusers are always going to be with us. Before Amazon changed the payment scheme for Kindle Unlimited, the same sort of people wrote ridiculously short works to try to scoop up book-sized payments for people who just read a page or two. As each loophole is closed, they just move on to the next one. Meanwhile, it’s worth developing a little healthy skepticism when you see a suspiciously-large number of five-star reviews for a book that doesn’t have all that many other reviews.


  1. I like avoiding the endless hoops publishers set up for authors so much I started my own publishing company. But this situation also illustrates that publishers do contribute to the integrity of the book marketplace. Most established publishers make sure authors are who they claim to be and have the credentials to write on a topic. When publishers do not do that, their own reputation will suffer. Pain helps keep people responsible.

    I’ve got mixed feelings, however, about Amazon assuming this role. On one hand, what they’re doing is much needed, particularly given their huge share of the market. On the other hand, Amazon doesn’t have a reputation of displaying much skill with their interventions. They’re not merely the 800-pound gorilla of book retailing, they’re a drunken one. The same bullying and exploitation issues we’ve seen with their warehouse employees and white-collar workers also apply to authors and publishers. Their efforts to go after ‘catfishing’ may end up with a lot of innocent victims.

    Amazon’s corporate worldview is the problem. Their attitude was once called Germanic or, even more precisely, Prussian. It was illustrated by a European saying that “a German is either at your feet or at your throat.” The Germans/Prussians echoed that by claiming that in the world everyone was either the hammer (doing the beating) or the anvil (getting beat upon). It was a world almost devoid of horizontal relations. Everyone was either over or under someone else.

    You see that if you read about the German occupation of Belgium during World War I. Much of its behavior sounds like Nazism, including executing hostages for resistance activities. Read German defenses of that behavior and you’ll find that, once they occupied Belgium, they believed that the Belgians had no right to resist them—for example by blowing up railroad bridges. If any Belgian did that, then other Belgians could be shot.

    Amazon has a similar attitude. You saw it in Jeff Bezos’ response to the recent NY Times expose. Bezos wanted Amazon staff to report any mistreatment to the HR department. That’s incredibly clumsy and authoritarian.

    All HR can do is threaten to fire people. It’s too remote to work with them like a good manager might do with an employee with some personality issue. With an Amazon led in that top-down fashion, the solution is always Prussian-like. Some over (uber in German) must demand change or else.

    That’s why I regard Amazon’s efforts to bring more integrity to publishing and to book reviews with suspicion. A bad response can be worse than the original problem.

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