by Anne R. Allen
Last month the Seattle Times reported that Amazon is suing a bunch of paid review mills.
Unfortunately, many paid review sites don’t feel they’re doing anything wrong. A spokesman for one of the companies Amazon is suing said: “We are not selling fake reviews. However we do provide Unbiased and Honest reviews on all the products…and this is not illegal at all.” (Caps are his. Apparently using mid-sentence caps makes you look more sincere.)
This stuff may not be technically illegal. (We’ll have to see this play out in the courts.) But buying customer reviews is definitely against the Terms of Service of most retailers and can get you kicked off Amazon for life.
It can also draw the ire of the vigilantes who hang out in the Amazon fora, Goodreads, and BookLikes, who are some of the nastiest cyberbullies on the ‘Net. To them, an accusation equals guilt and you are never allowed to prove your innocence. These are people who learned their ethics from the Salem witch trials.
So you really want to stay under their radar.
I understand why they are annoyed. It seems as if every day I get followed by another paid review mill on Twitter. And their sites are slick. They make it seem as if paying for reviews is a part of the process of self-publishing.
It often does seem as if paying for an online “customer review” is an accepted aspect of doing business these days. You hear all the time about businesses paying for five-star ratings on Yelp and other review sites.
But don’t do it for your books. If you’ve been tricked into paying for reviews, ask that they be deleted.
Otherwise, you could get in big trouble. Soon.
What’s the difference between a customer review and a professional review?
It’s OK to pay for a professional review from established magazines like Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, or Midwest Book Review. I don’t know if they’re worth the price, but they’re not in the same category as paid “customer” reviews.
The reviewers at those journals are trained and vetted professionals writing for well known magazines that have a reputation to uphold—not a bunch of guys in a cafe in Sri Lanka stringing together a few words for five bucks.
I just saw this comment from author Anthea Lawson on The Passive Voice, which picked up this post:
“Actually, PW has dropped their paid review service (and kudos to them for doing so!). They offer other paid promotional opportunities to indies, which may or may not be of use.
If you go to the PW Booklife website and click around, you can find how to submit your indie title for free for consideration. Then it’s a multi-step process, but if your title meets their criteria, you’ll get a review in PW. My most recent historical romance picked up a starred review that way.”
Thanks for the info, Anthea!
Professional reviews like the ones from Kirkus can’t be posted on retail sites in the review section. You can paste a small quote from one of them into the “editorial reviews” section, but not in the review thread.
The consensus from authors who have bought them seems to be: they are not worth the hefty price!
What is considered payment for a review?
Unfortunately, a number of common practices in the traditional book world are considered “payment” in the online world.
- A free book is considered payment by Amazon, so book review bloggers are required to post disclaimers when they review a book they received from the author or publisher.
- Reviews that come from a paid blog tour are also not eligible as customer reviews.You can only quote from them in the “editorial reviews” section.
- Amazon also does not permit reviews (or votes on reviews) to be posted in exchange for any kind of compensation—including bonus content, entry to a contest or sweepstakes, discounts on future purchases, extra products, or other gifts. This means a free book must be given before the review is posted with no stipulations about what kind of review must be written…and
- No gifts should be given after the review is written, so there’s no appearance of payment for a positive review.
If you do offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you need to make it clear that you welcome both positive and negative feedback.
This includes trading reviews
Review barter between authors is strictly forbidden as well. Anybody who says, “I’ll give you a five star if you give me one” is asking you to pay for a review in kind.
No author should review another with the expectation that the review will be reciprocated. I see authors all the time who complain that author “X” hasn’t given them a review, “even though I gave him a rave.” Let go of that expectation. Nobody owes you a review. If you did get it, you might not be pleased, anyway.
Some unscrupulous authors may approach another with this blackmail game: “I gave you a 5-star, now you give me one, or I’ll change it to a one-star.” Don’t fall for it. It’s better to lose the one review than get on the wrong side of the Zon or its vigilantes. Do report the blackmailer to Amazon.
Amazon doesn’t always pay attention to reports of abuse, but any author who gets reported for blackmail repeatedly might find themselves banned from the site. When abuse reports reach critical mass, something is usually done.
Some of the vigilantes believe no author should be allowed to write a review, but this is silly in these days where nearly everybody who reads has tried their hand at writing a book. But you do need to make sure your reviews are always honest and there is never a direct trade or a quid pro quo.
But be careful when reviewing something in your own sub-genre or any author who might be considered “a competitor”. Amazon’s TOS say “You may not write reviews for products or services that you have a financial interest in, including reviews for products or services that you or your competitors sell. This has been interpreted in different ways, but everybody agrees it’s a no-no to trash a competitor’s books.
And please, please, please don’t send me your book expecting me to review it. We average 100,000 hits a month, have nearly 4000 subscribers, and we LOVE every single one of you, but I have at least 200 books in my TBR pile. I read in a limited number of genres—I prefer cerebral comedies and classics—and I do leave an Amazon review if I enjoy a book, but I’m a very slow reader.
This blog is my way of giving back to the writing community. I get no revenue from it. It takes time I might otherwise spend reading and writing. So please do allow me some time to write my own books. (And deal with some heavy-duty health issues I’m fighting right now.)
But we do appreciate every one of our readers. We just reached 2 million hits yesterday!
The new plague of paid review mills
Unfortunately, most of the big newsletters require a large number of 4 and 5-star reviews on the US Amazon site to accept a book for promotion. I wish they’d find a more reliable method of choosing books, because this has brought authors a major incentive to game the system.
It also gives a huge weight to reviews at the US Amazon, so other countries’ sites, plus B & N, Kobo, Apple, etc, get very few reviews at all.
The problem is momentous for authors who write for an older demographic. If your readership is older people, it can be an exercise in tooth-pulling to get even a handful of reviews, even though readers may gush about how they love your work on FB or email.
The worst are the review companies who say they will write “honest” reviews with no guarantee of stars. DO NOT FALL FOR THIS. If you pay, the review is not acceptable to Amazon, even if it’s honest.This happened to a friend of mine. She paid for three or four of what she believed would be “honest” reviews.Now a vigilante group is harassing the author, stalking her, trashing her reputation online, and making threats against her and her family.
This author is nearly seventy and has been writing her whole life, but she’s new to the Amazon world. She didn’t realize that all paid reviews are a no-no.
There’s a reason for her confusion. The review mills are very clever at lying to their customers. Some even use the Amazon logo on their site and claim to be Amazon affiliates. I’ve seen them when they follow me on Twitter. They say that they provide “the correct way” to get Amazon reviews tell newbies it’s the only way to make the bestseller lists.
But they are flat-out lying.
So how do we get reviews?
I know it’s not easy, especially if you write for my generation. (Yes, I’m a Boomer who is very much feeling my age this week.) The problem is we simply aren’t in the habit of writing online reviews. And we’re usually put off by those emails demanding we do “homework” after buying a product. But we need to start writing them. It’s one of the few ways to fight this stuff. Bring in some grown-ups!
If you want to know the right way to get reviews, here’s a helpful piece by Kimberly Grabas at Your Writer Platform and another great one from marketing guru Penny Sansevieri.Do follow all the steps they suggest. Randomly sending queries to the top-rated Amazon reviewers can lead to grief. Many of the established reviewers are very anti-self-publishing. So carefully research each one. Mass-querying hardly ever works, and it can backfire, big time. Don’t do it.
Here are some tips from a bunch of pros about how to market your book. None of them involve paying for reviews. (I’m one of 18 people interviewed for this piece. I don’t know if I’ve ever been called a “one of the world’s foremost thought-leaders” before. LOL.) But there are some fantastic tips from some of the best marketing people out there!
How about Amazon’s other review problems?
I know a lot of you are thinking, um, paid reviews aren’t exactly the only problem on Amazon.Every article I see about the paid review lawsuit is followed by comments from authors who feel the whole Amazon review system is in serious need of a clean-upI agree there are BIG problems beyond the paid review stuff. Almost any author who is trying to sell books these days has run into the trolls and sock puppets who seem to spend their days leaving nasty or idiotic reviews (for books they obviously haven’t read) for no particular purpose except to wield the power they probably don’t have in their real lives.
There are also armies of Dana Carvey wannabes who love to one-star random books for “profanity and too much sex” (which they probably don’t realize may actually boost sales). Others are trying to push some other political or religious agenda.
And lots of humor-challenged politically-correctibots seem to have nothing to do but lurk around Amazon attacking works of humor or satire that go over their tiny heads.
There’s also lots of unpleasantness generated from the Amazon fora, which are the domain of long-time Amazon denizens who predate the ebook era and tend to hate ebooks and indies. These Amazon message boards (as opposed to the Kindleboards) started as a site for discussion of videogames and game reviews and are still dominated by a pervasive old-school gamer mentality.
If you heard anything about the #Gamergate controversy last summer, you know the attitude I’m talking about.This is an aggressive, intolerant, testosterone-fueled universe where innocence is a crime and everybody is assumed to be guilty of something. It’s an attitude that can be dangerous to readers and writers alike.
(Remember people judge others by themselves. People who accuse everybody they meet of gaming the system are only telling you about themselves.)
The gamers-of-the-Amazon-system are often in competition with each other for the lucrative “top reviewer” status which gets them free stuff to review (not just books: they get electronics and videogames and other cool, expensive stuff.) A lot of their antics have to do with competition amongst themselves, but innocents often get caught in the crossfire.
And there are other petty-theft games some scammers like to play on retail sites, like leaving a one-star that says “I never received a copy of this book.” Usually the person has placed the same “review” on dozens of books—sometimes all in one day—the only day that “person” has ever reviewed anything. If there’s no “verified purchase” tag, it usually means this “reviewer” is a sock puppet for a scammer trying to blackmail the author into sending them a free book or product.
Sock puppets (multiple fake identities) are used for all sorts of nasty purposes. Amazon seems to have no restrictions on the number of aliases a person can have, so a handful of malevolent trolls with time on their hands can wreak serious havoc on any number of vendors at the same time.
Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t often respond to complaints about sock puppets and bullying behavior. Maybe this is because the bullies seem to be doing a good job of policing the site for free. But it’s a bit like hiring the Hell’s Angels to work security for your rock concert. That kind of stuff can backfire in nasty ways.
I hope Amazon will consider doing something to fight the bullying and scammy behavior on their site as well as the paid review people.
They could start by limiting the number of identities a person can have. I can’t think of any reason a person would need more than five pseudonyms for review purposes. If they have hundreds, I think that would be a pretty strong signal they’re up to something.
How to Fight Abuse: #1 Write Reviews
The best way you can fight the abuse of the review system is to leave honest reviews of the books you read. Amazon no longer requires 20 words for a review. Even one or two words will do, although a thoughtful review saying why you liked or disliked a book is always more helpful.
Every real review dilutes the pollution coming from review mills, scammers, trolls, and out-of-control vigilantes.
How to Fight Abuse: #2 Report It!
When you see abuse, report it through the drop down menu next to the review. They ask you if you find the review helpful or unhelpful, and right next to those buttons is one for “report abuse”.
If you’re a customer, you can also make a comment on the review, but never comment on a review of your own book. (An author shouldn’t use the comment thread even to thank the reviewer. This is against the Goodreads TOS and much frowned-upon at Amazon as well. If you want to thank a reviewer or offer a copy of your next book, do it through Author Central.)
In my forthcoming mystery novel, SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM: The Camilla Randall Mysteries #5, an author comments on a review and ends up being terrorized—online and off—with swarms of obscene one-star “reviews”, destruction of her business, hacking her accounts, death and rape threats, and other horrors.
This isn’t so farfetched. I know authors who have gone through this, for much smaller offenses than my heroine. It happened to me early in my blogging career when some moron in the fora decided to misinterpret one of my posts.
These vigilantes don’t just fight fire with fire. They fight a glow-stick with a nuclear bomb. And they never let facts get in the way of their need to find somebody to torment.
It’s always best if a customer reports abuse, rather than the victim. As authors, we are vendors, not customers, so if the bully/sock puppets pose as customers, they’re the ones who are “always right.”
But if customer complaints achieve critical mass, Amazon might act, the way they’re doing with the paid reviews. I have discussed the problem with a number of well known authors, and their complaints fall on deaf ears. Complaints need to come from customers, not vendors.
Meanwhile, do not fall for the pitches of the paid reviewers. As much as you want to qualify for that Bookbub ad, the risks are too great. The vigilantes know how to game Amazon and use the rules against you in sadistic ways most of us can’t even dream of.
Don’t risk being a target. Don’t pay for reviews and stay safe!
For a great analysis of the cybertroll and book bully problem and how to deal with them, see Shari Stauch’s post at Where Writers Win. And Eden Baylee has a great post on Bad Reviews and Bad Author Behavior on her blog this week.
For more on what authors need to do to stay under the radar of the vigilantes, see my post on May 18th at The Kill Zone.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen), May 17, 2015
BOOK OF THE WEEK
“It’s an hilarious lampoon of crime fiction, publishing and the British in general. Anne Allen gets our Brit idioms and absurdities dead to rights…Its digs at the heroic vanities of micro-publishing and author narcissism are spot on…Whether you enjoy crime suspense, comedy or satire – or all of them together – you’ll have enormous fun with this cleverly structured romp. Highly recommended!” Anne is “obviously a Brum lass masquerading as a Yank”...Dr. John Yeoman
Follow Camilla’s hilarious misadventures with merry band of outlaw indie publishers in the English Midlands. Always a magnet for murder, mischief and Mr. Wrong, Camilla falls for a self-styled Robin Hood who may or may not be trying to kill her. It follows Ghostwriters in the Sky, but can be read as a stand-alone. (And sets the scene for Camilla #5, due in July)