Reviews at Any Cost?

Most authors who are either self published or are considering that route understand how important reviews are. The right mention in the right place can drive a lot of people to your book. Once a potential customer finds your book page, the quantity and quality of reviews influence the purchasing decision.

It’s also evident that obtaining reviews is not easy. Book blogs are inundated with requests. A low percentage of people who buy a book, or acquire it through giveaways, leave reviews.

Given the above, that reviews are both important and difficult to obtain, it’s no wonder that some authors pursue practices that other authors feel are morally and/or ethically unacceptable.

Let’s start with providing book bloggers, and other legitimate reviewers, with free copies of the book. I doubt that many of us would question this practice, but there is the point of view that you gave something of value to someone in return for a review. In reality, the “value” of the “gift” is in question. Would the reviewer have ever purchased your book anyway? And, what’s the alternative? Saying to the reviewer, “Hey, can you do me the enormous favor of trying to bring attention to my book and, oh, while you’re at it, pay for the privilege of doing so?”

At the other end of the spectrum lies the concept of fake reviews — creating fake accounts to post glowing reviews of your own book. I think most of us would consider this to be abhorrent behavior.

Where, then, is the line?

Let’s consider a generic review rather than one for Amazon or another particular site so as to avoid the issue of adherence to specific guidelines. At the core, which of the following do you agree or disagree with and why?

Review Trading – You ask an author to review your book, and, in return, you do the same for his. While both of you are planning “honest” reviews, there still exists some degree of social pressure not to trash your acquaintance.

Paying for Reviews –
• “Legitimate” sites like Kirkus that charge money for an honest review from someone who actually reads your book.
• Site where, for a small fee, you can get a great number of reviews from people who probably, at best, only skim your book. While there’s no requirement that the reviews be 5-stars, it’s understood the most of them will be.

Asking Family and Friends – Let’s be honest. Great Aunt Mable probably isn’t going to do anything other than say, “This book was great!!! 5 Stars!!!” Is that really an “honest” review? On the other hand, she bought the book. Why shouldn’t she voice her opinion?

I don’t have all the answers here, though I have opinions. I’d like to hear what you have to say on the matter, and I’ll revisit the subject with my thoughts in a future post.

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?