Behind Reviews: Part 1 Ethical Issues

January 25, 2013 Articles and Opinions

I decided to start another multi-part post on the new blog, this one about the mechanics and structure of book reviews. This is the first, about the sources of reviews and ethical issues. The second, coming soon, will be about indies and reviews. Part III – on spoilers – might be where my blood boils.

There’s a news story that’s set Kindleboards ablaze a while back:  Book reviews for purchase.

It’s an old story, so why am I posting about it now? Well, with a few more recent stories, this is now back in the news.  Fake or commercially placed reviews are a hot topic at the moment. Forbes Magazine did a piece back in July. There are calls for reviews to require a guaranteed purchase, or vetting, or preventing authors reviewing other authors books, but unfortunately these are likely to be ineffective, for reasons explained below.

And then, surprisingly, it affected me personally. Another author I know on a non-writing board announced what an excellent review they had received, to floods of congratulations. I abstained from the discussion, and wasn’t sure how to respond to a PM asking why I hadn’t said anything, as another author. I did not know how to answer. The truth is that the reviewer in question charges for reviews, and is absolutely notorious for writing puff pieces rather than critiques. 

Why do people do this? You may think that all an author has to do is give away books to get reviews, but unfortunately it’s not that simple. To be fair, getting reviews is the bane of the indie author’s life. Usually people will suggest sending out copies to bloggers and reviewers or readers, the route I took:

  • With Fire Season I contacted over 500 blogs that did reviews. I got 5-6 reviews. I sent out over  fifty books – all paperbacks.
  • With The Docks, I sent out a lot of free copies to readers. I got nine reviews. Out of nearly two hundred free books.

From talking to other indie authors, this is a fairly normal copy-to-review ratio. Most readers are not reviewers, and want to enjoy a book rather than review it. This presents another problem for authors however.

Reviews are what sell books, but the catch 22 is that many of the main blogs will not feature or review books unless they already have over a set number of reviews already, usually ten, and above a certain star-rating. Unless you have the reviews to drive the sales, you can’t get the sales to drive the reviews to get the reviews…

In this climate is it surprising that authors are desperate for reviews, and pay-for-review services pop-up?

Giving Books to Reviewers
Now, giving reviewers a copy of the book is fairly standard. None of the book reviewers in mainstream press pay for the titles they review, no matter the size of the publisher. Then there are the grey areas: paying for a fast review, or for access to reviewers. Then you get the downright ethically doubtful areas:

  • Paying for a review
  • Paying for a specific star rating
  • Paying for sales
  • Trading reviews with other authors
  • Trading guaranteed 5-star reviews

Giving Books to Readers:

There are places to get reviews which don’t require reviews or payment, but finding these places takes a lot of time.  Some options are Goodreads – either through giveaways or the Creative Reviews group which links reviewers with authors who are seeking reviews.  Ebooks can be given away through giveaways on Librarything. There are also IndieView and Bookblogs.ning but I haven’t used these recently.

The downside is that it can take time to find the reviewers, time and money to send the books out, and the review return rate is, as stated, very low.  I’ve heard less than 10% for librarything and goodreads. While Amazon Select means that authors can simply make books free, hoping that among the readers who pick them up  some will write reviews, the return rate on review here is actually lower than the giveaways. A lot of people who grab free books from Select simply don’t read them.

Paying for Services extra to the Review
This is where money starts changing hands, usually not for the review but for the services around it. This may still raise ethics questions for some readers,  since any exchange of money for review services may raise questions about bias.

Some like Readers Favorite allow author to get free reviews but pay for packages including advertising and a critique, with the caveat that bad books (1 or 2 star) don’t get their review featured but still get the crit.

Some sites that provide honest reviews allow users to pay for a fast-track review.  Since queues can be six months or a year long, this may occassionally be the only way to get a book featured near its launch date.  Since the reviews are honest and can be negative, an author is paying for the timing of the review, not the review itself and good reviews are not guaranteed.

Services like Bookrooster  allow authors to pay to have their book sent straight to reviewers. While this is an ethical grey area, they guarantee honest reviews and there are cases mentioned on Kindleboards where all the reviewers have declined to review the book, or it has received entirely negative ratings.

BookRooster is an interesting gray area. Authors pay simply to get the book distributed to reveiwers, who may then review or not. This may sound simple but the sheer amount of time taken to find willing reviewers can be surprising. On the other hand, they may skew towards good reviews for several good reasons: first, the book is sent out with a description, and to reviewers who had stated they enjoy that genre, so the only people who will pick it up to review it are those who enjoy that type of book. Second, because reviewers who don’t enjoy it may simply return it without leaving a review. Third, the fee. It will discourage anyone who isn’t prepared to put funding and work into their books e.g. if someone just threw an unedited word doc on Amazon fee, they probably won’t be prepared to use the service, or even put the work in to find it.  However, to counter this I am aware of at least one author who complained on Kboards he got universal bad reviews from them, so paying does not guarantee a good review.

Indies pay, only
Some sites specifically ask for indie authors, and indie authors only, to pay a fee to have their books read and get the same service as large publishers. (BookBag, Kirkus Indies, Publishers Weekly Select) Again this raises the question of whether paying for reviews is ethical, and whether the fee increases chances of a good review.

This can be interesting when the site make no distinction between self-published, vanity press and small-press publishers/e-publishers, and effectively charge for anything that’s not a big-6 book. Having worked for a publisher who was founded in the 1800’s, one of whose books was reviewed unsolicited by just such a site (we learned of the review when we were sent a bill for being ‘self-publishers’, and the department head’s irate response was audible across the office)  I am always wary of sites that do this.

The Ethics of Review Trading
Asking family and friends to review it is a fairly standard thing for authors with co-operative friends and family. Usually, as long as they state their affiliation, there should not be an ethics issue here e.g.  one review for another author I love started paraphrased “I could not put my sister’s book down when she handed it to me. I was in the bath”. If they don’t mention a connection to the author, that’s more of a problem.

However something that comes up very frequently is the author-review swap, usually suggested by a new author with their first book out, because otherwise they’d know exactly how often this gets brought up… The idea is that the authors buy each others book and leave reviews for it. Some specific the reviews must be favourable, some that they must be honest. In practice these are the same thing, since an honest but negative review is likely to attract retaliation.  There is an excellent article by Jade Varden which covers the pitfalls and why it should be avoided, so I’m just going to link to the article here: Jade Varden.

Amazon’s new restriction on authors reviewing books may be aimed at stopping these swaps, as well as the more obvious benefit of preventing authors from down-rating competitors’ books.  The relevant T&Cs: “Sentiments by or on behalf of a person, company or web site with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product)”
Unfortunately this does seem to be causing problems, with legitimate reviews being removed instead of fake or purchased ones, as Forbes Magazine explored in its article here. There is a full definition of the new T&Cs here which also bans family member reviews, paid or compensated reviews, and reviewing competing products.  Notably it does not ban getting a free copy to review.

Buying Reviews and Ratings
By comparison with the grey areas above, there are the outright don’ts, that most people will agree are misleading.  There are the places on Fiverr and Craigslist where an author can purchase a review, arrange for someone to purchase their book so it’s verified, and give it a high rating, or even for an author to write their own revew of their book and have another user submit it. I feel fairly safe in saying these aren’t ethical. I’m not putting links in, but a quick search brings these up – I was surprised at how easy it was to find them.

In same cases, it is even pay-per-star-given which to my mind is just wrong.

Why do people do this?
The problem is that people wouldn’t use these if they didn’t think it worked. John Locke was revealed as one of the users of the site, to the dismay of people who bought his book on how to sell a million ebooks. It’s not just Indies doing it: Stephen Leather  has been mentioned in association with the  friends-and-family method in an article on Forbes.

It’s desperation largely: with so many ebooks coming out each year, it’s hard to find a way to get noticed so some authors will do anything to get a head start.

Spotting the fakes
As a reader, the problem is that you can’t, not easily. Fake accounts are easy to set up and fund, particularly judging from the jobs on Fiverr.  If the only thing a reviewer gives out are 5-stars it can mean they are fake, or that they only review things they really like.

Verified Purchases aren’t an indicator either:  Many of the fake reviews will actually have purchased the book, while legitimate reviewers like bloggers and newspapers will not. Authors outside the US can’t gift review copies to Kindle users through Amazon, while US-based authors can and do, which slants the system. For example, I gave away a lot of books through Smashwords, which aren’t verified purchases on Amazon but the reviews are on both sites.

Even a Vine rating or well-known reviewer may not guarantee an honest review.

What can authors and readers do about this?
For authors it’s a lose-lose situation. The sad truth is that people wouldn’t do this if it didn’t work. Act unethically and be noticed immediately, or be ethical and it will take a lot longer, if at all.  Sales provide ranking and reviews provide ranking, which is an immediate incentive. If you can get your reviews from blogs, groups and giveaways, that avoids the problem, but takes time and effort that could be spent writing. It’s not a trivial time commitment either: the Fire Season giveaway involved contacting over five hundred book blogs to get the reviews I have now, which took over three weeks.  Each author needs to decide for themselves what parts of the grey area, or even the outright dodgy stuff, they are willing to take part in.

As a reader, check where the reviews come from – if it’s a reviewer who has posted from a blog or media outlet it’s more likely to be a valid review.  If it’s detailed and useful, then they probably have actually read the book.  When you find a review like that on Amazon, vote it up.

And finally the single most important thing you can do as a reader? Review books. It doesn’t have to be detailed or complicated, even something as basic as “I like this ‘cos I like this type of book.” is a valid review but the more valid reviews there are, the less use ‘fake’ ones are.

I have a second piece to follow shortly. Meanwhile comments are open below: