Self-published indie authors have a bad reputation for conning readers out of their hard-earned cash. For most authors this reputation is thoroughly undeserved, but it persists because some indie authors persist in shady practices. This ranges from the deliberate deception of a polished sample chapter followed by a poorly written rest of the book through to well-intentioned but misguided efforts by authors to give each other inflated reviews and/or social media followers. A prime example of the well-intentioned end of the spectrum has recently been promoted on Twitter with the dubious-sounding hash-tag #ravereviewsbookclub.

Most readers will run a mile from a site called Rave Reviews Book Club because they want to read honest reviews that might either rave or rant (or somewhere in between or a bit of both). Those readers who gave Rave Reviews the benefit of the doubt would probably quickly seize up their benefit and take it home once they read that the site bans any review from appearing on their own site that is below 3 out of 5 stars When an author I was following on Twitter promoted the Rave Reviews Book Club I checked it out, because I was intrigued by such a marketing disaster of a name. When I read the FAQ I realised that not only would I never join such a club, but that any author who did so was committing a serious error of judgement.

So I unfollowed the author who had promoted it and posted on the #ravereviewsbookclub Twitter hash-tag that authors should beware of it as review swaps were bad publicity. The response was swift with author Beem Weeks, one of the Governing Body members, responding that review swaps were banned on the service. However, it depends what you mean by review swaps. I am commenting on their publicly available information, which does not include these rules. I will focus on the boundaries of defining something as a review swap and arguing that any scheme no matter how large is a review swap regardless of whether Author A is banned from arranging a swap with Author B. You may prefer the term of author cartel, but it is still against the rules of Amazon, the retailer where club members are ordered to place their reviews.

An author joining the club has their twitter account posted on the Rave Reviews site, which is good promotion for authors, but would be a disincentive for any readers to join the site and may also make them more inclined to leave. The site aims to be a place for elite authors and readers, but as you would expect is dominated by authors. Their member list is broken into three categories: Governing Body (9 authors, no readers), Tweet Support Team (12 authors, 1 book business, no readers), and General Membership (359 authors, 7 book businesses, 32 readers). Those tallies were taken 16th May 2014 and judged someone an author regardless of whether they are also a reviewer or run a book business; a book business is one that offers a paid-for service to authors; and readers are anyone whose Twitter page or website does made clear that they are an author or a book business.  There has been a recent explosion in membership numbers with the 324th member joining on 1st April 2014 with a now discontinued Twitter account and the number currently at 426. As I will argue later, this growth helps the early adopters, but makes joining to become a Book of the Month a largely futile exercise for those signing up now.

There is no list of rules on the website (including the one Beem Weeks informed me via Twitter about banning review swaps), so it is likely that the rules are sent out with the welcome email to those who join. There is, however, an aggressively rule-ladden FAQ and a Code of Conduct. Noteworthy is Code of Conduct paragraph 2 which bans any criticism on any public forum of Rave Reviews Book Club or its Governing Board Members. This is an astoundingly defensive rule to invoke, although it probably explains while I was tweeted with an invite to join four times in a row by its founder Nonnie Jules in an effort to silence me. This suggests that they have something to hide and they certainly do. If I had joined the Rave Reviews Book Club I would not be allowed to write this paragraph criticising the President of the Governing Body.

Nearly half of the Amazon reviews for Nonnie Jules' Daydreams Daughter, Nightmare's Friend were written by members of the review cartel that she set up. Indeed of Rave Reviews Book Club's nine-member Governing Body, six have reviewed Jules' book: Beem Weeks (aka Voice of Indie), Bruce A. Borders, Kathryn Treat, Nicholas C. Rossis, Shirley Harris-Slaughter, and Teri Garringer. From the Rave Reviews Book Club's Tweet Support Team there are further reviews by Angela Mechan, Dale Furse, and Dormaine G (who left the Tweet Support Team recently). From the General Membership, Jules has received reviews from A.A. Pencil, Alex Jones, Bette A. Stevens, James Chalk, Jan Raymond, Karen Ingalls, Kasper Beaumont, Kindle Ninja, Leisl Kaberry, Michael Carrier, Patti Mari, and Stevie Turner. That is 21 out of 53 reviews that can be linked to the cartel set up by the book's author. That is a large-scale gaming of the Amazon review system and unfair to readers, especially as most of these reviews are from authors, but only a few identified as such and none explained their connection to the reviews cartel. Probably the most galling aspect of all is that when a reviewer gave Jules a 3 star review (good enough for entry on Rave Reviews' website) Governing Body member Shirley Harris-Slaughter commented that the person could not possibly have read the book in one day and that she should not be allowed to write any reviews.

For Jules' latest book Sugarcoatin' is for Candy and Pacifyin' is for Kids 17 of the 21 reviews are from members of Rave Reviews Book Club: Governing Board members Bruce A. Borders, Kathryn Treat, Marlena Hand, and Shirley Harris-Slaughter; Tweet Support Team members Bill Ward and Harmony Kent; and General Members A.G. Moye, Carol Balawyder, Clarissa Simmens, Christine Campbell, Dianne Harman, Joy Nwosu Lo-Bamijoko, Karen Ingalls, Kindle Ninja, Michelle Abbott, Stevie Turner, and Susan Swain. For this latest book many are declaring their membership of Rave Reviews Book Club. That gaming of the review system is the worst aspect of the Rave Reviews Book Club and any author involved in it risks reputational damage with a reader community that is understandably negative about authors reviewing each other without declaring their connection. In return for that risk the authors receive free advertising to group members who are required to purchase four books from other members per year, at least two of which must be from the Book of the Month.

That is cheap publicity even if does come with the cheap stunt of what most readers would judge to be fake reviews. The lucky few who attain to being selected as a Book of the Month could be expected to generate quite a few sales and reviews if the over 400 members followed the rules and bought at least two of the twelve Books of the Month in a given year. Authors joining now should not, however,  hold out for that coveted Book of the Month position. The May 2014 selection is A.A. Pencil's The Reunion and Pencil is number 47 in the General Membership list. So anyone joining today to become member number 427 would expect to be Book of the Month in December 2045. That prime publicity shot would cost the author about £300 in Book of the Month purchases and more if there were no free copies of two other books per year to complete their minimum purchase quota.

This is a clever variant on a pyramid selling scheme. Early adopters gain more sales via a Book of the Month selection with the increased membership, while those joining now have no hope that Amazon will wait thirty years to close down this site. This pyramid-like structure is protected with a ferocity that would have pleased the Pharaohs. In the FAQ there is a forceful put-down for any member who dares to borrow a book from the Kindle Owner's Lending Library rather than buy it. This is on the grounds that a borrow does not boost the author's sales ranking and ignores the fact that it does boost the author's library ranking, which is very important in gaining further borrows. This harsh line against library borrowing suggests that the FAQ assertion (in bright red for emphasis) that there must be one purchase/read/review every three months does not mean a purchase or read or review, but a purchase and a read and a review.

The mention of Kindle brings up another hard and fast rule: that reviews on Amazon are compulsory. So you may own a Kobo Mini and buy your books from the Kobo Store, but you must place your reviews on Amazon if it is to count towards your four reviews per year. The focus on Amazon is because they are so dominant in indie book sales, but what Rave Reviews Book Club are doing is against Amazon's rules. Amazon does not permit author/artist reviews of another author/artist if it is written in expectation of a reciprocal review by that author/artist. That is why Been Weeks was so insistent that Rave Reviews Book Club ban review swaps, but this review cartel is still a review swap as can be seen from the following illustration.

Imagine that all 350 author members of the Rave Review Book Club are gathered in a meeting hall and a bag is passed around into which each author drops the name of the one book that they are allowed to list on the site. Then the bag is passed around the hall in the opposite direction and each author picks out a book title to review. The chance of two authors picking out each other's titles is slender and would not be deliberate, but a review swap has still taken place. Each author put the title of their book into the bag in the understanding that it would be reviewed by another member of the cartel. The review swap does not require a face to face agreement between two authors for it to constitute a swap. It is sufficient that an author agrees to write a review in the expectation of receiving one in return.

In reality there is no guarantee that an author will receive a review in return at the Rave Reviews Book Club, but they are placing their title on the site with that expectation in mind. If an author does not purchase, read, and review another member's book every three months, their book is removed from the site, so they write reviews in order to keep their book available for reviews. The difference between this actual system and the review swap in my illustration concerns the cast-iron guarantee, not the intention. Therefore any author who joins Rave Reviews Book Club and whose Twitter address appears on its website is making a public declaration of their intention to break the rules of the Amazon reviews system. Any self-respecting self-published author should think not twice, but two hundred and twenty-two times before signing up to Rave Reviews Book Club. It could lead to the self-destruction of your relationship with your readers and have an impact on your status at Amazon or Kindle Direct Publishing.

[Updated 19/05/2014 to adjust membership numbers]

[Updated 20-21/05/2014 as more evidence emerged of level of questionable reviews for Nonnie Jules' books]

Reviewers to the Slaughter

Sahara Foley book cover depicting a man screaming Update 1: Sahara Foley (aka Pamela Foley) has contacted MMMporium publicly on Twitter and pointed out that she has never been a Rave Reviews Book Club Spotlight Author. MMMporium acknowledges this to be the case and has altered the article on 1 June 2014. Slaughter had appended a selection of book club Twitter addresses to the announcement of Bette A Stevens as a Spotlight Author. MMMporium apologies for the misunderstanding caused by Slaughter's unclear tweet. However we reject Foley's other charges that this article is all lies (a rich claim for someone who remains a member of a review scamming club) and that no member of Rave Reviews Book Club had contacted her to ask her to change her review when all she had to do is to click on the link in the second paragraph of this article. Update 2: It appears that after Foley sent the tweet mentioning @MMMporium that she read Slaughter's comment and complained on her Twitter feed (without mentioning @MMMporium) that this is how Rave Reviews Book Club treats its members and she had been unaware of this. Article amended on 3 June 2014 to bring it into line with the shocking revelation that Slaughter was slaughtering a 3 star review from a Rave Reviews Book Club member.

The Rave Reviews Book Club board Member Shirley Harris Slaughter is a bad review bully - if 3 out of 5 stars can be considered a bad review. There is something wrong with this picture. Even with a name like Rave Reviews the site will publish reviews that go as low as 3 stars, so why is a board member attacking someone online for a bad review that would be considered a good review at the Rave Reviews Book Club. The answer is that Pamela Foley had the gall to give the book club's founder, Nonnie Jules, her only 3 star review among a stash of four and five-star reviews nearly half of which were written by members of her book club. Foley's review is for Jules' debut novel Daydreams Daughter, Nightmare's Friend (2013) and she makes clear that as it was not to her taste she stopped reading halfway through. For a book that she did not finish a 3 star rating appears generous. Looking at Foley's other reviews her ranking policy seems to be 4 star for I recommend it and 3 star for nothing much wrong with the book, but I cannot recommend it (plus 3 stars for a 4 star book with some problems). She began her paragraph on her rating with "Unfortunately" and ended it with "Sorry," but that was not good enough for Slaughter, who went into an author friend of the author meltdown. Slaughter's response was extreme opening with accusing Foley of lying in saying that she disbelieved that the reviewer had read the book in a day. There is something wrong with this picture as well: Foley did not mention when she started reading and made clear that she gave up half way through. She goes on to suggest that Foley re-read the book in its entirety (suggesting she had not missed the bit about giving up halfway) and come back to review it. Although oddly she then tells her that she should not be rating books at all. This is an incredible rant to give to someone who gave up reading a book halfway through and still gave it 3 out of 5 stars. According to Foley's Twitter response to the original version of this article she was a member of Rave Reviews Book Club when Slaughter accused her of being incapable of writing reviews. Two days later the club's membership director promoted Pamela under her author name of Sahara Foley, so it appears that the club's nice directors are unaware of what its nasty directors are up to. Or is this a case of the board playing bad cop, good cop? ;On 8 March Foley left a brief 5 star review for Jules' latest book on the same day as 3 other Rave Reviews Book Club members (including Slaughter) left 5 star reviews. Indeed the book has garnered 5 star reviews from 20 out of 21 given, with 17 of them identifiable as book club members. It is noteworthy that Slaughter did not object to Foley's 5 star review, although she had declared only 14 days earlier that the new club member was incapable of writing reviews. This is a shocking abuse of the Amazon reviews system and a galling example of bullying. It is little wonder that readers have given up paying any attention to books littered with 4 and 5 star reviews. So Slaughter should have thanked Foley for her 3 star review, not bullied her to change it.

Rave Reviews Book Club Cashes In

Rave Reviews Book Club have been going through some changes the most momentous of which is to start charging $25 per year membership fees. In addition the soon-to-be six authors with a coveted Book of the Month will now earn even more on the gravy train. Instead of members being required to buy four books per year including at least two Books of the Month they are now allowed to buy two books that have been Book of the Month in the past. So later arrivals not only might wait until 2045 to become a Book of the Month author, but will be able to choose from the previous 400 or more Books of the Month. Current members will not be charged until the anniversary of their joining falls in 2015, so it is convenient that the founder Nonnie Jules gets to re-introduce her book as one of the two Books of the Month that must be bought and reviewed on Amazon. There are some benefits for paid membership, so the club is offering those enjoying a free membership the chance to upgrade for $15. This has the sense of the Rave Reviews Book Club maximising its takings before the membership cottons on to what is going on.

Another major change is that Shirley Harris Slaughter has left the governing body and her role of Newsletter Co-ordinator has not been allocated to anyone else and Nonnie Jules is now writing the Newsletter. Slaughter is however being rewarded for her over-the-top support of Nonnie Jules by being the Spotlight author this week, i.e., heavily promoted on Twitter.

The Rave Review Book Club is an organisation where loyalty pays while its more recent members pay for the privilege of being allowed to buy the old-timers' books.