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.

Analyzing the Behavior of Book Buyers Part 3 – Reviews

In Part 1 of this series, I examined how book buyers find your page.  In Part 2, I wrote about the first thing they look at on your page.

At this point, the potential customer has found your book and, after reading the description, is intrigued.  You’re home free, right?  Wrong.

Next comes the dreaded reading of the reviews.  Some browsers will read a bunch of comments; other only a few.  You can be sure, though, that they’ll all look at the top rated one for the “Most Helpful Customer Reviews” and that they’re all looking for the following:

  • Assurance that someone out there has actually bought and read your book.
  • Assurance that the book isn’t total crap.
  • Highly individual criteria.

We can’t control that a potential buyer might read something innocuous in a review that makes him click away.  There’s no accounting for taste, and you have to write the book you want.  The fact is that you’re not going to convert every browser into a buyer.   There are, however, some things that you can do:

  • Make sure you have reviews for the potential buyer to read
  • Make sure that these reviews say positive things
  • Make sure that the top Most Helpful Customer Review is awesome

I can hear you shouting at the computer: “I will not write fake reviews!  I have no control over the reviews!  I can’t even get reviews!”  Calm down.  First of all, I can’t really hear you, so screaming doesn’t really accomplish anything other than making your coworkers look at you funny.  Second, give me a chance to explain:

  • You can get reviews.  It takes a lot of time and work, but it can be done.  Pick a goal of how many reviews you want.  Send 10 emails a day to Amazon reviewers, book bloggers, people on forums, and anyone who has ever “liked” your blog until you get commitments for the number you want plus at least 25% (some of those “commitments” will fall through).  With luck, one out of every ten emails might result in a “yes.”
  • You do have some control over the reviews.  If you want them to say your book is good, WRITE A GOOD BOOK!  Most reviewers, especially ones you’ve contacted personally, don’t want to say bad things about your work.  If you give them half a chance, they’ll mostly concentrate on the positive.  Make sure there are positive things for them to say.  If you’re getting only bad reviews, consider the possibility that your book wasn’t ready for publication.
  • I agree that it’s unethical to post fake reviews.  I do not plan to use that method, and I do not advocate you doing it either.  On the other hand, I don’t mind gaming the system a little.  If you get enough reviews, you’ll hopefully find one that you really like.  It will be detailed, say fantastic things about the book and about your writing ability, and mention some minor negatives.  Once you get that review, tell all your friends, family, and fans to click “Yes” to the question, “Was this review helpful to you?”  That will move the review to the top of the list, and enough votes will keep it there.

Final thoughts on reviews:

  • You’re going to get some bad reviews.  Don’t sweat them too much.  Not everyone has the same tastes as you, and that’s okay.
  • The best reviews tell potential buyers both what the reviewer liked and disliked about the book.
  • A five-star review that says, “This book is AWSUM!!!” and a one-star review that says, “I hated the title so I didn’t read it.” or “This bok sux!” aren’t going to impact your sales or reputation much.

Tune in next Wednesday for Part 4 – Your Sample Is Crucial.

The Ethics of Marketing

Great news!  We have a guest blogger today.  JC Farnham, the blogmaster extraordinaire from Supercritical – The Alchemy of Writing, has written an excellent post for us.

Being in a similar self-publishing situation as Brian, I’d like to talk further about something mentioned on the Ethics of Marketing a few days ago. As a graduate of marketing, I thought it might be particularly useful for me to add my thoughts on the subject to provide a different point of view for the followers of this blog.

First, a bit of technical background.

Marketing Ethics is a strangely tricky subject, as I discovered during the aforementioned course. Even for an official governing body to make a ruling on an incident is oddly difficult. To this end each case is often settled on the merits of that case alone. On occasion a precedent is set to which judges are compelled to act but, only when these pre-set rules come into question, can that be done. People have to make mistakes.

We are in a position today where the market is in flux, more so than in the past (though it remains to be seen, it may be settling)—particularly with the advent of new and easier self-publishing routes. Previous rulings on matters of ethics have to be transferred to fit these new cases. Now, I’m not a lawyer, but research, logic and experience from my degree modules tell me that things are always somewhat uncertain. This is probably why we find an awful lot of stories coming out about fake or dishonest reviews and such similar devious situations. Unfortunately it’s easy to cheat, tempting perhaps… thankfully our industry tends to police itself. To wit, when an incident comes to light, people tend to stop buying those products—the books go without saying of course, but people also stop buying into the brand itself, the author.

It regularly falls to the individual to discriminate between what is right and what it wrong. Don’t make it hard on yourself. If you are looking to publish, you probably aren’t looking to do it just once. You need to acquire a kind of staying power, and that doesn’t come from a good campaign for one book. Be a brand to be believed in.

I particularly find the subject of reviews interesting. It has been shown time and time again that people typically use reviews as a way to inform their decision making processes. While I don’t like to think I rely solely on the opinions of others when it comes to choosing on which books to spend my limited funds, I’m well aware that if a product has more reviews I’m more likely to take the risk of buying…

Regardless of what those reviews said.

Now like Brian showed in his post, it’s easy for a rather crafty author to get this glowing reviews. I would like to go on record saying that, any review is better than no review. People seem to worry that bad review could mean the end of their income, and though that is a warranted worry, if you have a professional quality product all exposure is good exposure. One only has to read about Lady Gaga to realise that. My point is that all reviews carry weight. One may want more glowing reviews than bad, but the fact one has either shows your product is engaging. The problem comes when you do something off and you can’t shake it. The United Colours of Beneton come to mind with their increasingly morally grey advertising campaigns (I’m not sure how showing pictures of dying men helps them sell their services, but each to their own…). It makes people wary of striking up a dialogue with them. Controversy certainly helps garner some kind of interest it seems, but it’s usually best not to be that kind of brand… That should go without saying. Common sense.

To ask people to provide you with favourable reviews therefore is rather dishonest and it doesn’t show you, the brand, in a good light to do so. Strive for honest reviews.

If you “trade reviews” with fellow authors, you have to expect an “unfavourable” review or two, but that never stopped anyone. Meyer and her Twilight fans care little who tries to trash them. Paolini didn’t (and doesn’t) worry about what people thought of his writing in the early days. He published his novels, caught the hearts of his readers and fought to improve with each succeeding book. Their success isn’t based on ensuring the only reviews they have are favourable. Their success is based on firstly having a product that speaks to their target audience, and secondly on being a brand to be believed in.

Let’s summarise. Don’t worry too much about your reviews or your critics. You shouldn’t need to pick and choose. You’re bound to get some harsh ones, some weightless, uninformed but ultimately good ones, some almost-too-perfect ones… but all that matters is getting those reviews (that’s another subject altogether of course). Unless you’ve found the winning formula of pleasing everyone (and let’s face it, there probably isn’t such a formula) there will always be someone who didn’t engage well with your story. It happens. Everyone is different and entitled to their opinion.

Things being uncertain in self-publishing is not an excuse to bend or break the rules. There are precedents, albeit ones previously related to traditional publishing, but, if you get found out, it will come back to haunt you. Even if you don’t let to progress to court level, bad stigma is exceedingly tough to shake.

It’s difficult to name names on those who did this badly, but here’s an example that should relate well to the subject of stigma effecting opinion. It remains to be seen whether J.K. Rowling enjoys success with her adult fiction (for the price set financial security should damn well be certain however many units she shifts…). She is known for being a children’s author, a good one at that, but one never the less. She has a stigma, good or bad, attached to her. “Can she really transfer the same skills over to adult fiction?”, “Will it be worth it?”, etc. Only time will tell. The great thing is she’s trying none the less.

Let your work stand up for itself without being pushed alone with the more “glowing kind of solicited reviews”. I hope you catch my meaning there. If not here it is, spelt out:

Don’t force the good reviews. It’s not worth it and people will be suspicious of such complete praise.

That being said, word of mouth buzz is ridiculously efficient. Get people talking about you and you might well find your sales rising rapidly. China Mieville seems to have managed this on the strength of his imagination alone. He’s often tipped as being tremendously creative and a truly remarkable talent, and that reputation whether you personally think it’s earned not (I do, but who am I) allows him to sell to people who would be otherwise unsure of his subject matter. You have to pick up his fiction to find out, and therein lays the trick.

Achieving this means getting your brand out there. Whatever you decide that means for you. Reviews are a must, as are many other marketing tools, but remember to reach your target customers where they hang out, and do it honestly, and with really weight behind you. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than your words seeming hollow whether you mean it or not, or for that matter falling on deaf ears.

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?