They’re Writing About Jesus and Paying for Fake Five-Star Reviews on Amazon

Alright, I think I may be onto something here.

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran an article on authors who paid to get fake five-star book reviews on Amazon (as well as positive reviews on other websites).

This is the part that caught Reader Vani‘s attention:

[Owner of GettingBookReviews.com Todd] 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.”

So Walters-Bearden was writing fake positive reviews for books that exalt God for creating the world… books written by “godly” authors who appear to have no ethical problems getting people to lie about how good their book is.

That sounds… hypocritical. (I know… Christians? Hypocritical? NEVER!)

I’m not just passively annoyed by this. I’m seriously angry. As someone who has written a book and plans to write more, I’m not paying for people to pretend they’re good. If I get good reviews, it’s because readers were kind enough to say as much. It’s one thing to sell a business book and then pay for positive praise. But when you’re promoting religious beliefs that are all about being an ethical person? The least we can do is call you out on it.

But which books received paid reviews?! That’s what I wanted to know.

The PR company won’t tell, of course. The NYTimes article didn’t tell (at least they didn’t talk about the religious books). So I was left to dig up the information myself.

So I started searching for Creationism books with reviews written by Walters-Bearden. No luck. Then I tried a different tactic. I started searching under some of the books listed in the NYTimes piece — Write Your First Book by Peter Biadasz and Infinite Exposure by Roland Hughes.

While Walters-Bearden’s name was nowhere to be found in the five-star reviews for those books, there was one reviewer in common for both of them: Mihir Shah.

So I looked up Walters-Bearden’s name and Shah’s name together on Google.

It wasn’t a fluke. It turns out both of them have reviewed the same three books on other websites.

Coincidence? I doubt it. My working assumption was that they were both hired by the same company to review these books.

That led to this train of thought: If Mihir Shah had reviewed any religious books on Amazon, they must not be genuine reviews; they were reviews paid for by the authors.

Next step: Let’s look at what God-focused books Mihir Shah has reviewed on Amazon. There were 154 reviews to sift through, but here’s a selection of what I could find (along with excerpts from Shah’s reviews). I didn’t include every book dealing with God, but I did list the ones that ought to be least likely to pay for praise.

Set Up To Win by Jr. Minister Benoris P. Toney (reviewed 12/22/2011)

Set Up To Win… is a testament to never giving up, regardless of how high the odds may be stacked against you. As a former addict and participant in street violence for over thirty-four years, Minister Toney’s transformation is proof that God wants the individual to win.

No Innocent Affair by Edward F. Mrkvicka Jr. (reviewed 9/25/2011)

In the spirit of his previous novel, The Prayer Promise of Christ, award-winning Christian author Edward F. Mrkvicka’s No Innocent Affair “is dedicated to those Christians who truly value the word of God.” Throughout this book, Mrkvicka emphasizes that the cost of infidelity and adultery normally heavily outweigh the pleasure attained in committing the deed.

God Theories: Let’s Talk by Ken Ungerecht (reviewed 9/14/2011)

Above all else, Ungerecht seeks to find a unifying thread between religions that will allow human beings to not only explore, but understand and embrace the higher significance and purpose in life.

Know God and Love Him: Prayers with Scripture by Joanne M. Rypma (reviewed 8/16/2011)

Thematic elements such as surrendering, trust, and unifying with God are the central themes of this guide. Ultimately, Know God and Love Him: Prayers with Scripture is recommended for anyone who seeks a spiritual clarity of mind, and who wishes to establish a more spiritual purpose in life.

Divine Knowledge Transfer: Applying Biblical Principles to Communicating, Public Speaking, Educating, and Overall Living by Kelly Libatique (reviewed 7/11/2011)

Ultimately, Divine Knowledge Transfer: Applying Biblical Principles to Communicating, Public Speaking, Educating, and Overall Living kills two birds with one stone, by both helping people to enhance their communication skills as well as to understand the most profound of all messages, God’s Word.

Plugging Into Real Worship by Sr. Andrew P Logan (reviewed 6/1/2011)

In the modern world, individuals have mastered the art of finding loopholes and rationalizations to disobey — and feel good about it. To make matters worse, many pastors and their ministries are raising their own status above God, and thus, preventing churchgoers from being blessed with true worship.

Ultimately, Andrew Logan, Sr.’s Plugging into Real Worship is a must read that provides invaluable insight into authentic worship and why worship is necessary. It has the power to inspire renewed belief in God and clarify the stance of indifferent individuals regarding worship.

A Common Path: The Future of Religion, Science and Spirituality by Alan D. Bourey (reviewed 5/26/2011)

Using legal concepts such as burden of proof and circumstantial evidence, Bourey strips away the fluff and digs right into the good stuff. From how the universe was created and the existence of God to what happens after death and if everything happens for a reason, A Common Path is all encompassing and a worthwhile, enlightening read for all the thinkers in the world.

Prayers for Everyone: Prayers with Sacred Scripture by Joanne M Rypma (reviewed 11/25/2010)

While this text is ideal for someone preparing to participate in a ministry, it is also an excellent resource for the ordinary person desiring to learn more about Jesus and His message.

Again, I haven’t been able to verify all this yet. But paying for positive reviews is shady and people who pride themselves on their ethical goodness should be the first to say no to the practice.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • newavocation

    Isn’t this tactic similar to the right wing organizations pushing to get best seller ratings by buying up their right wing books?

  • http://twitter.com/illjord David H. Carmer

    Actions speak volumes, do they not?

  • Neal Fournier

    Amazon has a “Amazon Verified Purchase” stamp attached to some reviews of a product to make the it more credible.

    The fact that this practice is going on undermines even that.

  • http://twitter.com/SerafineLaveaux Serafine Laveaux

    Paid reviews are nothing new, but it’s usually pretty easy to spot them. The average unpaid reviewer leaves something like “Wow this is a great book, I couldn’t put it down and was up until 4 am reading it. Then I had to go to work all tired, but it was worth it!” while the paid reviewer reads like, well, a paid review complete with correct grammar and flowery prose.

    • Ellentann

      Exactly.  When considering buying from Amazon I never go solely by the overall ranking – I look to see the spread of ratings, timing of the reviews, etc.  I’m particularly skeptical of a just-released book with a number of 5-star reviews already in place (and of reviews posted before the actual release date). Another clue is a batch of reviews with the same posting date. I usually check at least a sampling of reviews at all rating levels.   Heck, I don’t even go solely by a NYTimes or Oprah recommendation!

  • http://twitter.com/JJtheTVnewsguy James Jackson

    Hemant, think of it this way: if people buy the books based on positive reviews, read them, and hate them / realize they’re garbage, they will no longer trust the reviewers.  Of course, part of the problem is the same people who are susceptible to the opinions of strangers on the internet are also likely to buy in to creationism, virgin births, resurrection, Zoroastrianism, golden tablets, martyrdom, etc.

    • Ibis3

      The thing is, reviews aren’t just there to directly entice people to buy books. They also serve an SEO purpose. If a book doesn’t get press, it’s hard to get potential readers to even know that your book exists. Reviews (especially good ones), can push books to the top of search results. Much like being on a bestseller list puts your book into the public eye and garners you more sales.

  • Mehman

    Is it better than paid bad reviews about concurrent’s work?

    Although, it can be the publisher who gives money, not author.
    Just business, nothing personal, etc.

  • Erp

    Not new.  Trollope’s 1875 novel “The way we live now” starts with an author prepping her potential reviewers before she has even started serious writing (admittedly she is paying them in kind rather than hard cash). 

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Thomas Lawson

    “Before working for the self-publishing house, he owned a distributor of inspirational books. Before that, he was sales manager for a religious publishing house.”

    I’m guessing the mastermind behind getting the reviews is also a former Amway salesman.

  • Coyotenose

     I don’t understand why they even feel the need to do this. Their audience is disturbingly gullible. They buy the Left Behind series, for Christ’s sake. LaHaye and Jenkins DON”T KNOW WHAT A GUN DOES WHEN YOU FIRE IT and they are bestselling authors.

    That is not an exaggeration.

    • allein

      I’m afraid to ask, but what exactly do they think a gun does?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I don’t understand why unscrupulous authors and/or publishers would pay for good reviews. Why not write their own under pseudonyms?  In writing their book they’ve already shown they’re capable of writing horseshit, so just tweak the style and idioms to sound like different people praising the book. 

    This seems to me to be essentially like payola. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Payola It’s illegal in the public radio industry; too bad it’s not illegal in the book industry. If an athlete paid an Olympic judge for a good score, it would rain shit for a month.

    Will business rating and review websites sites like Angies List be infected with this? They claim that the businesses don’t pay for reviews, but how can that be verified?

    • TheKevinBates

      Its easier and more efficient to pay someone basically minimum wage to do it full time than it is to do it themselves.

  • 1000 Needles

    Easy to rationalize: What is a dishonest book review compared to saving a soul for Jesus?

    That’s part of what makes religious ethics so dangerous. Anything is fair game when souls are at stake.

  • Mommiest

    Meh. One of the unifying characteristics of the books’ target audience is a desire to believe in horseshit. No one buys “Prayers for Everyone,” because they want a rational, balanced discussion on what prayers do for everyone. They want their delusions reinforced. Fake reviews may help accomplish that.

    You get what you pay for.

  • Alex

    So, people make shitty products and then pay shills to promote them. Been done since ever, and will continue until we die out as species.

  • TheKevinBates

    Just so everyone knows, Amazon has some pretty shady practices regarding this.  They’ve basically come out in favor of it.  Pretty much anything goes with the Amazon comments, and comments on comments, except for posting “this is a fake review.”  There have been well documented cases with evidence and Amazon doesn’t give a damn.

    You can read more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon.com_controversies#Amazon_reviews . There have also been many cases of legit reviewers who criticize books being attacked, stalked and harassed by the author, their family or agent.

    Just letting everyone know before they get all flustered and post some big callout comments on Amazon.  If you call a fake review out as fake, it will be removed, period.  It’s not personal against atheists, its just business.

    Rather than posting negative comments on the existing reviews, it would be more beneficial to simply mark the reviews as “not useful,” write a negative review of the book(s) and mark any other negative reviews as “useful.”  Just to be on the safe side, it may be useful to use an Amazon account that does not include your last name (such as John S instead of John Smith) since you don’t want crazy nutjobs connected to insane authors to start mailing you stuff.  It’s not fun.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/A37GL7VKR3W6ACSIZPH7EID3LI rlrose63

    We have ranted about fake reviews on movies here in this house, but earning over $12,000 for fake reviews is beyond outrageous and so wrong.  I know there is a percentage of reviewers of books, movies, art, etc., who have ALWAYS been paid to be complementary.  But with the internet and all of the sites online and the crowded marketplace, it has gotten completely out of hand and needs to be stopped.

    Personally, I do not pay attention to any reviews online.  I take my chances with books and movies and such because you just can’t trust anything you read online (Hemant being the exception, of course).  :-)

  • Jerome Eteve

    It s a common dillusion for us atheist to think religious people should be more ethical than the common non believer. Religion is not about ethics, it’s about dogma.

  • UAJamie

    Is it possible that it’s the publisher, not the author that is paying for the reviews. That would explain why religious themed books would be over represented if a religious publisher paid for the service.

  • https://sites.google.com/site/clivet/ Clive Tooth

    Mihir Shah has reviewed over 150 books on Amazon. So far as I can see all, except 1, were given 5 stars by him. (That one was given 4 stars.)
    His favourite phrase appears to be “must read”. Here are some quotes from his reviews…

    Snowdon’s Coin for a Killer is a must read.
    certainly a must have for anyone who intends on taking this test.
    It’s a must read and I highly recommend it.
    The Lekton Chronicles is a must read for all science fiction enthusiasts.
    Set Up To Win is a compelling must read.
    The Memory Bank is a must read.
    A Figure Skater’s Odyssey an entertaining must read for all …
    literary quality makes Digital Science Fiction’s First Contact a must read.
    Catawampus Tales is a must read.
    Voice of Conscience is a must-read combination of many…
    To Make A Perfect World is a must-read revolutionary tale
    It’s truly an inspirational must read; I highly recommend it.
    get a hold of True Physics of Light ASAP–it’s a must read!
    The Chalice is a must read.
    It’s a must read!
    All in all, this is a must read
    Final Destination does just that and is a must read.

    You get the picture.


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