The Ethics of Marketing for the Self Published Author – Where is the Line?

When I play the boardgame, Agricola, I often encounter situations where I use the rules to my advantage.  For example, let’s say that I have two choices that benefit me equally, but one of them will hurt my opponent.  The choice is obvious.  Make the move that hurts the opposition.

In the game, food is quite important, and the impact of not having enough at harvest time is quite dire.  What happens if I see that I won’t be able to get enough, so, while my opponent isn’t looking, I snag a couple from the supply? 

That’s called cheating.

In boardgaming, the ethics of the situation require you to play to win.  You must do everything legal under the rules to improve your chances of emerging victorious.  Kicking your opposition to the curb isn’t just okay as an action, it’s considered unethical if you don’t do it.  Cheating, going outside the rules, on the other hand is considered truly reprehensible.  Get caught doing it, and you’re not going to have many opportunities to play again.

The question is: where is that ethical line in marketing?

Shill Reviews – I think that the reading, blogging, and writing communities are in agreement that the practice of writing reviews under fake names and paying for reviews and not disclosing this information is abhorrent.  The backlash against these activities can be severe and ruin your reputation.

Review Trading – This is bit more gray for me.  If I say “will you give me an honest review of my work if you give me an honest review of mine,” is this ethical if both of us are being honest?  If the relationship is disclosed, I think there’s nothing wrong with the practice.

Disclaiming Relationships – This is a major factor to consider.  A lot of people out there will have a serious problem with you if you submit a review when you know the author and you don’t reveal that information.  The same goes for you as an author if you’re getting reviews from friends but they’re not disclosing the fact that they know you.  The very fact of the disclosure, however, diminishes the impact of the review.  You have to determine where this line is for you.

Pre-reviews – When you launch a book, it’s important for you to get reviews quickly.  One method is to email advance copies to legitimate Amazon reviewers or book bloggers and have them lined up to publish their reviews as soon as you go live.  This is ethically sound.  However, you have no control over their words, so you’re leaving a lot to chance.  To game the system, you can have your trusted beta readers write these initial reviews.  Is this ethical, however, if you don’t disclaim the relationship?  This is another line that you need to establish.

Determining the Most Helpful Review – One review is held prominent on your Amazon page – the one voted most helpful.  Do you want to leave this to chance or do you want to game the system?  Let’s say that someone, say an Amazon reviewer that you have no connection to, has written you the perfect review.  It emphasizes all the positives of your work while mentioning minor quibbles as negatives.  This is the review you want all your potential customers to read.  Is it ethical to encourage all your friends to go vote for this review?

Trashing Your Competitors – In boardgaming, only one person can win, and you’re ethically obligated to do your best to ensure that that person is you.  This concept does not hold true in writing.  Some authors seem to feel that, for their work to succeed, the works of their others must fail.  Under an assumed name, they trash, fairly or unfairly, all their opponents with 1 star reviews.  First of all, this, to me, seems horrible from an ethics standpoint.  Second, does this really help the author?  Even discounting the potential for backlash, just because people buy Brent Weeks’ new book doesn’t mean that they want eventually get around to mine.

I welcome your input in the comments section.  What are your thoughts on which of these are ethical?  Any practices that I left out that you want to discuss?


2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Marketing for the Self Published Author – Where is the Line?

  1. I can’t imagine “intelligent” people thinking it is a good idea to trash the “competition”. Who even thinks we’re in competition? If it wasn’t for Tolkien, would our genre exist? So I should discourage people from understanding what fantasy is all about?

    Nice article through and through. I didn’t disagree with anything you’ve said. One issue I’ve run into is friends & family reviewing my book without letting me know -_-

    I think honesty is important no matter what though. So if you review a book honestly, it really shouldn’t matter if you know that author from a forum or whatever. Your review is going to be truthful and helpful no matter what.

    Also interesting is the sentiment that some lower reviews actually HELPS a work because of the rampage of review “shilling” that has occurred recently.

    • Robby,

      It’s funny that you mentioned “who even thinks we’re in competition?” I just replied to someone on the forum on that very topic. He seemed to think we’re in a Darwinian, dog eat dog situation.

      I think that ultimately the best review is one that is glowingly positive but mentions enough “negatives” to give it credibility. I’ve heard it said that you want your star rating to average out to 4.5.

      Thanks for the comment!

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