Catfishing on the Amazon

Selbe Lynn/Flickr
Selbe Lynn/Flickr

Last week, The Washington Post published Caitlin Dewey’s article How an industry of ‘Amazon entrepreneurs’ pulled off the Internet’s craftiest catfishing scheme, and it caught my eye because it deals with the tactic of self-publishing ebooks on Amazon, and then paying for fake reviews to boost sales.

The article’s use of the term entrepreneur is apt, since these entrepreneurs do not write the books themselves, but hire others to do it. This is hardly the first time that someone has ghostwritten books for someone else. According to Wikipedia, ghostwriters have penned, among other materials, memoirs (Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton) and novels (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys). And the idea is the name of the ghostwriter isn’t given credit with the book.

The entrepreneur described in The Washington Post article uses the pseudonym of Dagny Taggart, taken from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. This is different than a pen name, since the person with a pen name actually wrote the book. I’m fine with someone using a pen name, and literature has many writers using alternate names, such as Stephen King, Joanne Rowling, and Dean Koontz (whose Wikipedia site lists 10 pen names).

I had heard of the practice of paying ghostwriters and assembling a library of ebooks on Amazon, but I didn’t realize how big a single entrepreneur’s library could be. The article notes that Dagny Taggart published 84 ebooks in one year! I’ve self-published two ebooks in 2015, so that number boggles my brain.

I found the idea of paying someone for a fake review to be disturbing. The marketplace is surely a crowded one (84 books in one year from one person!), and each writer (or entrepreneur) wants to grab attention of viewers and turn them into customers who purchase their books. If I’ve never heard of an author, a review is certainly helpful. Same with the advice of friends about a new restaurant in town: should try it out, or is the food and/or service not worth it? So I can see how a glowing, five-star review would help a book’s sales. And how twenty of those kinds of reviews would help even more.

Also, the article made me meditate on how I want to approach this blog. In my old blog, I posted things I created (drawings, flash fiction, etc.), and I didn’t talk about personal matters. But as I think about this new blog, I’d like to open myself up more.

Why not start now? I added a photo of me on the About page — something I never did during six years on my old blog. I hope to someday become a full-time writer. I’ve had that dream for many years, ever since falling in love with stories and thinking that books were magical in how they drew me in. I still love books, and I’ve wanted to become a writer capable of conjuring that story magic.

When I get into the rhythm of writing, it’s amazing. But the idea of getting my work out there is a scary one. I’ve dealt with lack of confidence for a while, in thinking my writing wasn’t good enough, that readers wouldn’t like it. Starting small helped, and you can find many of my flash fiction stories on my old blog. This past summer, I told myself I needed to get a longer story out there, and I picked a horror story, since Halloween made for a convenient deadline. I was very pleased to finish a novella in late October. It’s up on to Amazon, and I set it as a free download for five days in the hopes of getting readers to try out an author they’d never heard of before. The novella doesn’t have any reviews, so that answer hasn’t come.

But the answer will come eventually. In the meantime, I will never pay for a review to try to fake out potential readers.

Also in the meantime, I will continue writing. I’m researching one story and writing another story, and progress has been good.