Authors Writing Customer Reviews on Books

Amazon’s customer review policies are about as clear as a frosted-over windshield, and in light of several scandals, the question of “what constitutes an acceptable review?” has come forward. I am writing this as my interpretation on some of the more ambiguous points on the review policy. Debate and discussion are welcome. If there is an area where I got it wrong, please let me know (with sources).

Authors reviewing other authors:

Taken literally, authors would not be allowed to write negative reviews on any books because all other books, in terms of marketing, are competing products. However, in its FAQ section, Amazon explicitly says that authors are allowed to write reviews on other books, as long as they do not have a personal relationship with the author or were not involved in the creation of the book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=amb_link_47889982_2?ie=UTF8&nodeId=201077870&pop-up=1&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-1&pf_rd_r=12325CF211A579EA73XB&pf_rd_t=7001&pf_rd_p=1838506562&pf_rd_i=customer-reviews-guidelines

The latter is self-explanatory, but in the former, where are the lines drawn? Obviously, my brother can’t write a review for me, but what about my second cousin’s next-door-neighbor? How exactly does Amazon define a close relationship? Since my guess is as good as anyone else’s, I’ll give my opinion on who can and can’t give an author a review (Notice the word “opinion.” This should not be taken as any type of legal or professional advice).

1. First, the obvious no-no’s: the author him- or herself, a member of the author’s immediate family, or anyone who might have any type of financial benefit from the sale or creation of the book.

2. Friends: this is an area where it may get a little sticky. Once, I read where an author had a review removed because “your account activity indicates that you know this person.” (This to me smacks of Big Brother. Plus, I’m a little interested to know how Amazon can tell from a person’s account activity that they know a person, unless they themselves said it in the the comments section (“Hey, thanks for the review. Wanna meet at Bob’s Bar for drinks later?”). I guess in theory if you’ve ever sent something (such as a gift card) to the reviewer’s email, that would indicate a possible relationship, but to me, this doesn’t seem like sufficient evidence of a close relationship. A lot of authors have emal lists of readers). For this purpose, I’m using the operative word “close.” So, who can write review for me?

a. My best friend in the world?- No. Although I can’t imagine how Amazon would know that, but I’d rather err on the side of ethical. Besides, I couldn’t put any of my friends in the position of choosing between lying to me or hurting my feelings. I would think this would be a good rule of thumb to follow: if you feel like you would have to lie to avoid hurting a person’s feelings, don’t review it.

b. An acquaintance, coworker, classmate, etc.?- Probably safe in terms of Amazon policy, but once again, I’d advise against it if relationships could potentially be damaged.

C. People you only know from social media-acceptable. For most indies, using social media (the correct way) may be the only affordable, feasible way of reaching readers. In fact, in Amazon’s marketing tips section, they advise you to use social media to promote your book. (https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A37SMD4NYVZDI7). However, if you can’t handle negative criticism from people on the web, don’t use this method. Another caveat: be wary of “author support” or any other type of group that emphasizes “positivity.” This could be code for “only positive reviews are allowed.” If a group does not allow for constructive criticism or a chance to send the book back, leave. They are forcing  you to lie to maintain your membership (which is usually designed to benefit the “elite” of the group) In fact, leave any group if posting a critical review creates bad blood. Bottom line: if you ever feel pressured or intimidated to leave a positive review, back away. You should always feel free to be honest (I don’t approve of rude, nasty reviews, and when I see them, that reviewer’s credibility is shot in my eyes, but that’s just me).

3. People who are members of your author club (including a Facebook group)-of course. The thing to remember here is that you must allow unconditional reviews. You cannot, for example, tell your members “I’ll enter anyone who leaves a review in a contest into a drawing.” It’s also very important that you don’t make a positive review (or a review at all) a condition for continued membership, as this is inherently coercive and not a very good way to make or keep fans.

4. An author whose book I reviewed: there is a lot of debate over the so-called “review exchange” but there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. The right way: buy the book, read it cover-to-cover and give honest feedback. If you purchased a product with your own money, you have every right to review it like any other customer (unless you are a  family member or another clear conflict of interest is present). I don’t make a review of my book a condition of getting a review from me; I want people to read because they want to, not because they feel they have to. But if an author whose work I have previously reviewed WANTS to read and review my work (even if done simultaneously), I don’t see how there’s a problem or anyone else’s business (including Amazon’s). Can I work at Wal-mart but recommend Target? Sure I can. The key here is that both parties have to do so on their own accord and there has to be an understanding that the reviews will be honest and may be critical. Where it becomes problematic is when two authors make a prior agreement to only give each other positive reviews, with or without an actual reading. The key word here is “honest.” Any prior agreement for an automatic positive review is unethical.

5. A paid reviewer: the short answer is no. The long answer is absolutely not. There are places for paid reviews (such as the Kirkus) but they have no place among consumer reviews.

Now, whose book can I review? And how should I review? Obviously, the same terms apply to me as any other reviewer. Here’s what to avoid as a reviewer:

1. As previously mentioned, avoid any type of sweetheart deals. Don’t give someone a positive review just because they gave you one, unless the book truly merits it. Ask yourself: am I only doing this because I feel I have to? If yes, then don’t do it. You can always give feedback privately if you don’t feel comfortable leaving a low review.

2. The opposite is true: don’t give someone a low review just because they gave you one, unless you have truly read it and it’s really bad. Instead, see if they may have a point. If the review is truly spiteful (and it may happen when you have a personality difference with vindictive individuals), I personally will refuse to support them financially by purchasing their book or to waste my valuable time reading it. Ask yourself: am I doing this to get even? If the answer is yes, don’t.  And this applies to #1 and #2: never leave a review on a book you didn’t read. Which brings me to the next thing:

3. Don’t leave a low review if you are only doing it because you don’t like the author as a person. Admit it: you are only reading their books to pick it apart (if you are reading the book).That’s unprofessional and bad karma. In light of a certain incident that happened on Goodreads a few weeks back, many have now openly admitted that they consider it perfectly acceptable to leave a one-star on a book if they didn’t like the author as a person (whereas in the past the mantra was “it’s an attack on the book, not the author.”) ask yourself: am I doing this to teach this guy a lesson? If so, don’t.

4. Don’t leave a review if you are being compensated or coerced. In fact, report this person to the group admins. Bribery, threats, and intimidation are not acceptable ways to gain reviews.

5. Don’t promise someone a specific review. It’s ok to say, for example, that if you can’t give someone a four or higher, you will not review at all (my policy).

6. Don’t post a review written by someone else. Reviews should reflect YOUR thoughts and feelings on the book. There was even a ring ( who was busted) who were pre-writing different reviews on their own books (which included some criticism to make them seem legit) and then distributed to each other for posting.

7. Don’t include in a review anything that does not relate to book content.

What are your thoughts on this?

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2 comments on “Authors Writing Customer Reviews on Books

  1. Good article, Jessica.
    Actually, there is a well-known reader-site that positively looks down on writers as readers (and as such, as reviewers). I’d say, any writer–aspiring or otherwise–who is not a reader, is not a writer (at least, not a good one anyway).
    This whole “big brother” business is outrageous. So is the business of leaving fake-reviews; and of openly buying reviews. The whole system of rating books by its reviews is skewed, no matter how you slice it. And, yet, we all have to grovel to get them…Catch 22?

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    • I couldn’t agree more, Inge. And I know exactly which site you’re referring to.

      I wrote this article partly in response to the whole Dylan Saccoccio debacle (his admittedly unprofessional behavior caused many people to openly admit that they do in fact feel they have the right to use the review system to attack or punish an author), and partly to dispel the misconception that authors aren’t allowed to review each other’s works. Amazon does prohibit “sweetheart deals” (as in I’ll give you a 5 if you give me a 5), but it does not say that two authors can’t give each other honest reviews of each others’ work. I don’t enter into such agreements because of time constraints, the potential to create hard feelings, and because I don’t want anyone to read my book because they feel they have to. However, if someone I have reviewed wants to read my book as well, what right does Amazon or anyone else have to say they can’t? Additionally, Amazon does not clearly define “family” or “close friends” so until they do, we have to make a judgment call. I define “family” as immediate family, and I don’t consider anyone I only know through the Internet to be a “close friend.” A lot of people have twisted the rules (as written) to accuse others of dishonesty. When someone on a well-known forum started making open accusations against me and even said she “began her own investigation” into my reviews (obviously, this person doesn’t have much of a life), I emailed the president of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, made him aware of these accusations, and invited him to have his own team investigate my reviews (given and received). Guess what? Not one single one of them got removed and they told me to report any further slanderous comments immediately.

      Like

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