Posted in Ethics, Publishing, Self-Publishing

Barter, buy or blackmail: The ethics of book reviews

five star 2It matters not whether one of the “big” publishers puts out your book, whether your great-aunt with a penchant for publishing edits and distributes it for you from the trunk of her car, or you publish it electronically all by yourself, if you want people to read your book, you’ll probably want book reviews.

Book reviews, and the concomitant moaning that goes on in writers’ circles about reviewers, has a long and storied history. According to Jane Hu, the term book review first appeared in 1861, but the notion of the review or “criticism” (after all, those who write reviews of books or movies have traditionally been referred to as “critics”) goes back as far as 1661 in Paris.[1]

As Sarah Fay, writing in The Atlantic has said, throughout history book review writers, “seem to delight in publishing manifestos that outline the book review’s shortcomings and inadequacies.”[2] She went on to suggest that book reviews have been criticized as reeking of “mediocrity, elitism, nepotism or all three,” and further that they lack intelligence.  In the current Wild, Wild West world of digital publishing, it has never been truer.  And although as Hu says, “Most often, dissatisfaction with the state of book reviewing has come not from the readers who are the reviewers’ intended audience, but from writers who have felt their work mishandled, unjustly ignored, or cruelly misunderstood,”[3] this too has changed.  Discontent with the reviews is now springing from readers – like me.

Although traditional book reviewers – those who through history largely worked for magazines and newspapers – have been criticized for their overall general meanness, today’s book reviewers seem to have the opposite problem.  According to Amazon, the majority of book reviews are in the four-and-a-half to five out of five range.  How is it possible that so many books are truly worthy of five stars?  Well, they’re not.

Earlier this month, Amazon filed a law suit against four web sites that they believe are producing fraudulent book reviews.  According to a report in Entrepreneur, “The suit alleges that fabricated 4- and 5-star product appraisals dilute Amazon’s brand and negatively impact sellers on its site who don’t subvert the system by paying for fraudulent reviews.”[4]  It is this notion of the fraudulent (read: paid-for) book review that incenses me the most.five star 1

The companies in question just might be ones with whom you have dealt, but I hope not.  It seems that Amazon and its readership are no longer going to stand still and accept that so many books can possibly be as good as they appear to be. But the lack of integrity demonstrated by buying book reviews is only one of the loathsome ways that writers these days (self and traditionally published, mind you) are procuring deceitful reviews.

A writer recently related a story about being approached to do a review.  When the honest review was completed, the writer was informed in no uncertain terms, that anything less than a five-star report would result in one-star reports being posted for her books.  Clearly, no honest review could be forthcoming.

Then there are the writers who approach you with the offer to provide your book with a terrific review – in exchange for one for their books.  Honest?  I think not.

Who suffers in all of this wrong-minded marketing?  The readers.  I can hear writers out there now telling me that readers will, in the end make the decisions.  The problem with that line of thinking is that it smacks of a very utilitarian approach to ethics (i.e. the end justifies the means – in this case, very clearly, they are saying that lying up front is okay if they make a sale.  I beg to disagree), and it fails to recognize that readers will already have purchased god-awful books, spending hard-earned money on crap that could have been avoided if honesty had been forthcoming.

Although I recognize that great reviews are terrific for marketing books, why are so many people afraid of honest reviews?  The reason is probably related to the fact that most people don’t write as well as they think they do (if you haven’t been exposed to this truth, read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well immediately), aren’t interested in hearing negative criticism, or don’t care.  The latter care only that you buy their book and quality be damned.  Maybe readers aren’t going to take it anymore.  Bravo Amazon.

[1] Jane Hu. 2012.  A Short History Of Book Reviewing’s Long Decline. The Awl online. http://www.theawl.com/2012/06/book-reviewings-long-decline

[2] Sarah Fay. 2012. Book Reviews: A Tortured History.  The Atlantic online. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/book-reviews-a-tortured-history/256301/

[3] Jane Hu.

[4] Kim Lachance Shandrow.  April 10, 2015. Amazon Sues Alleged Sellers of Bogus 5-Star Product Reviews. Entrepreneur. http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/244950

Posted in Book promotion, Self-Publishing

Who will buy your book?

Someday I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away. — Clarence Darrow

freeOh how I empathize with Clarence Darrow.  I cannot tell you how many books I’ve given away over the years, and these days of the hideous deluge of ‘free’ eBooks as promotional tools makes the problem even worse.  I often wonder how many of other writers’ relatives and friends actually buy their books.

My family, for example, largely feels that they are entitled to receive free copies of my books.  Well, with the most recent one, I decided that this wasn’t going to happen anymore.  Even my 91-year old mother didn’t get a copy (to be fair, I really didn’t really want her to read it – to much *sex*).  The only family member who actually received a hard copy (and that was after he downloaded and paid for an e-book) was my 25-year old son who was one of my final editors.  His keen eye and firm grasp of the English language made him an ideal beta reader for which I paid him.  The least I could do was to give him a copy of the book when he was home from London last weekend.

Should I give it away?
Should I give it away?

Then there are all those other copies we give away.  And this refers equally to my books (and your books) published by traditional publishers and the self-published ones.  These are the review copies.

There is little doubt that review copies are important, however, it can get out of hand.  In addition it seems to me these days that we need to be vigilant that a so-called reviewer does not feel obligated to be a bit less critical of a book that he or she has received gratis.  (Although some bloggers seem to think that a free book might end up as a more critical review.  Not sure why.)

When I wrote the piece When is a book review not a book review? I was thinking about these kinds of issues.  So, we need to consider carefully how many books we give away for free in the hope of acquiring a positive review.

And then there are those free book giveaways that started this rant.  There is little doubt that giving books away can help you to accrue new readers: sometimes, readers who would otherwise pass over your books might try them and like them, then return to buy future offerings.  So that seems like a good investment in marketing.  We need to be very mindful, however, that if as writers we don’t value our work, we can hardly expect others to value it either.  In fact, many readers are just as likely to troll the online bookstores seeking only free books, never returning to your work when the book is not free.  There is no actual hard data on either of these situations although you’ll find plenty of anecdotal stories extolling the virtues of giving away your work.

It would be my greatest wish that writers value their work.  I often wonder if writers who don’t value their work know in their hearts that it isn’t really that good.  There is a difference, however, between the writing a book specifically for yourself and to give away to others, and one you hope to sell.  This is the kind of book you may write simply hoping that a few others might benefit from it in one way or another.

It is quite a different matter to work hard on a piece of writing that you hope readers, unknown to you at this point, will buy, read and appreciate.  This is the kind of work that we have to stop giving away so freely.

So, fellow writers, keep a very careful count of how many copies of your work you give away and the return on that investment.  I’d love to know how it has worked for you.  Perhaps we can build a database of information.  There are marketing reasons to give your work away, but that needs to be balanced by a sense of value.  Tread carefully.

It might be worth remembering what Jules Renard once wrote:

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”

Now I think I’ll surf over to Amazon and set up a free book giveaway and see what happens!!


For a few different perspectives on this issue, here are some ideas from other sources:

Why Successful Authors Are Giving Their Books Away for Free  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/simone-collins/why-successful-authors-ar_b_4115300.html

Why publishers should give away eBooks   http://www.roughtype.com/?p=1573

Posted in Book Reviews

When is a book review not a book review?

It seems simple enough. You write a book, someone reads it, likes it (or not), writes a review, and other potential readers interpret the review for themselves, deciding whether or not to read your book based on their own criteria. One of the most important factors readers might use to interpret a review is the identity – and therefore perceived credibility – of the review writer.

For example, for some readers there might be a big difference between a review written by the New York Times and one penned by Oprah (or at least endorsed by her). Or between the writer’s spouse and someone who doesn’t know that writer personally. That may be the line we cross into territory where a review is not really a review – it is an advertisement. And these are not the only kinds of ‘advertisements’ masquerading as book reviews.

There can hardly be a writer or ‘wanabe’ writer around these days who is unaware of the current book review scams visited upon readers.

In August of 2012 The New York Times published an article titled: “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy.” Author David Streitfeld reported on what appeared to be a newly established business model: writing book reviews for cash. He tells the story of Todd Rutherford’s gettingbookreviews.com, a business based on writing online book reviews – paid for by the writer. One of the service packages he offered was for him to write 20 online book reviews for $499. What could be better? Twenty reviews proclaiming a book to be worthy of 5 stars, the work of a literary genius. In my view, what would be better would be some honesty.

And Rutherford was merely one among myriad businesses that have been springing up all over the place to provide exactly the same service to writers desperate for sales. Quite often, the entrepreneurs offering this service are themselves wannabe writers.

But what happens when a reader finds out the truth of the review? Maybe the book is a good one; but maybe it isn’t. Readers searching for new, indie writers will soon become jaded from being burned. Buying book reviews hurts everyone.

So if a book review is not a book review when it is written for money, what about when it’s written by your spouse (or mother, or sister etc.)?

The Amazon review by a certain party whose last name is the same as mine was not penned by a relative.
The Amazon review by a certain party whose last name is the same as mine was not penned by a relative.

I was mortified when I went onto Amazon.com to see that one of the reviews (and a 5-star one at that) of one of my historical novels Grace Note was penned by someone whose last name is PARSONS. I’m quite certain that anyone looking at that would make the reasonable assumption that it was written by one of my relatives. It wasn’t. I’m just glad the reviewer liked it! The bottom line, however, is that a review by one of your nearest and dearest isn’t really a review either.

So…and here is the one where I’m going to get myself into trouble… what if the review is written by a member of your co-dependency group. These are those writing groups, usually virtual, or Twitter communities, wherein everyone gushes about everyone else’s books mostly so that when yours is published everyone will do the same. I have to admit that this really bothers me. It puts me off buying the promoted books, which is a shame for the writers. However, I just don’t trust these reviews.

I follow a number of otherwise interesting indie authors who also review books on Twitter, but I find that the reviews are always 5-star ones, or very close to it. I’m presuming that they only tweet their 5-star ones (surely there are books they dislike?), but I’d like to be directed to one that might be a 4 or even a 3 ½ star review so that I can make up my own mind. When everything is ‘awesome’, then nothing is ‘awesome.’

Let’s get back to some truth in advertising among writers and publishers. Please.