Home » Book Reviews

Category: Book Reviews

A (not so) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon

A (not so) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon

When I first started blogging, back in September 2011, there were almost no restrictions to reviewing on Amazon. Someone could create a buyer account on Amazon, buy something, and 24 hours later they could review any product on any Amazon site.

Yes, any product. On any site. Amazon has never placed any restriction on who can review what. You don’t have to have purchased the product on Amazon to review that product—which is good news for book bloggers. Bloggers often receive free copies from authors or publishers, from book tour companies, from reviewing sites such as NetGalley, or from sources such as the library.

Amazon allow customers to review whether or not they have experienced the product (i.e. read the book). However, Amazon also recognise that potential customers place more trust in reviews where the reviewer has experienced the product. Amazon acknowledged this by introducing the Amazon Verified Purchase badge, and AVP reviews are now shown ahead of non-AVP reviews.

But as Amazon gained a reputation as the powerhouse of online shopping, sellers attempted to game the reviewing system by posting fake reviews. Amazon responded by tightening and clarifying the reviewing guidelines—an ongoing process.

In this post, I’m going to highlight some of the background to these changes.

Spoiler: Amazon isn’t out to get honest authors. Only the dishonest ones.

Friends and Family Reviews

Amazon’s fake review problem first came to my attention several years ago. Savvy reviewers noticed an oddity: a self-published book from an unknown author had somehow managed to garner over 350 five-star reviews. It also had a handful of one-star reviews. The five-star reviews were all from new accounts that had only reviewed this one book. The reviews were all short, and expressed similar sentiments: the book was amazing. A must-read thriller.

The one-star reviews told a different story: this was a novel in dire need of editing. They questioned the authenticity of the five-star reviews.

Amazon investigated, and the five-star reviews disappeared.

Amazon tightened their reviewing guidelines to prohibit “promotional” reviews (including reviews from friends and family). A lot of authors have lost reviews in this way, as Amazon has (rightly or wrongly) tied them to a reviewer through common IP addresses or gifted books. There is a concern that Amazon may monitor social media relationships e.g. Facebook friends, although this is merely supposition. Amazon says they do not monitor social media.

The investigation was expanded across the store, and Amazon deleted many reviews. They also introduced a new requirement to the US Amazon Reviewing Guidelines, and clarified their definition of promotional content.

Customers now had to make a minimum purchase of $5 before they could review. But this didn’t stop the fake reviews.

As well as deleting reviews, Amazon began prohibiting reviewers from posting reviews if they believed there was a relationship between the reviewer and the seller. For example, in mid-2017, Amazon Australia refused to allow one of my reviews to post because they had determined I knew the (Australian) author. I did, although I don’t believe that affected my review and I had disclosed I’d received a free book from the author. Ironically, Amazon US posted my review of the same title with no question.

Buying Reviews

Now deceitful sellers looking for fake reviews had to become world-class hackers in order to deceive the hacker hunters at Amazon. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there was an almost endless supply of ethically challenged “reviewers” who would post a fake review in exchange for a buck or five … which was against Amazon’s guidelines. Websites with convenient names like “Buy Amazon Reviews” sprang up to connect the two groups.

Creative sellers could write their own reviews for the company to post on “genuine” accounts, and for a small premium some reviewers would offer to buy the ebook so the review would carry the AVP tag. I guess they forgot that Amazon can and do track our Kindle reading habits, so it wouldn’t have been difficult for them to tell that the writers of these glowing five-star AVP reviews hadn’t even opened the ebook in question.

Amazon soon caught on, and filed suit against the websites in question.

This was followed by additional lawsuits against Fiverr reviewers offering a similar “service”.

Coupon Clubs

Then came the coupon clubs. Sellers would offer product discount coupons to Amazon Prime members, offering them products at a 99% or 100% discounts. Facebook groups sprang up, connecting people who were happy to receive free products through Amazon (with the shipping paid by Amazon through Prime) in exchange for a five-star review. This left Amazon paying to ship hundreds of dollars of free product to customers who didn’t spend any money at Amazon except for their Prime membership.

Amazon started deleting reviews, and reviewers appeared in the Amazon Discussion Forums.They complained their reviews had disappeared, and that was awful because now they weren’t going to get any more free products (it was apparently a condition of membership to the coupon clubs that reviewers had to post a five-star review within a narrow timeframe to get more products, despite this being against Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines).

Other reviewers investigated, and called out the coupon club reviewers for their bad behaviour—for knowingly or unknowingly breaking Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines by posting multiple reviews for products without adequately testing those products. The discussions are gone now, but the ones I remember reading showed wilful ignorance from the coupon club reviewers. They refused to believe what they were doing was in any way misleading or unethical, or that it contravened Amazon’s guidelines.

Amazon Increases the Purchase Requirement

Amazon responded by introducing a $50 purchase requirement.

In order to review products on Amazon, a potential reviewer had to have spent $50 on the site, excluding any Amazon Prime membership.

Initially, the increased purchase requirement only applied at Amazon US. In late 2017, I noticed Amazon had introduced a $50 purchase requirement in in Australia and Canada, and a GBP 40 purchase requirement in the UK. But it appeared that if you were eligible to review on Amazon US (as I am), you were eligible to review on any other Amazon site. The reverse may also have been true.

I have personally purchased dead tree books from Amazon US and UK, and ebooks from Amazon US and Australia (one of the quirks of living in New Zealand is that I must purchase physical products from the US store, but can choose to purchase Kindle books from the US or Australia).

I’ve been actively reviewing since 2011, and have always posted my reviews on Amazon US and UK. When Amazon introduced the Australian store, I started adding my reviews there as well. Anyway, despite the increase in the purchase requirement, I was still able to post reviews at all three Amazon sites. I then tried posting a review at Amazon Canada, a store where I have never spent as much as a cent. My review was accepted. This showed me the $50 purchase requirement was at a single store.

This has now changed:

  • The purchase requirement is now per year, not a once-for-all-time.
  • The purchases must be made at the store in question.

The requirements differ by geography:

  • Amazon US says reviewers must have spent $50 in the last year at Amazon.com.
  • Amazon Canada says reviewers must have spent $50 at Amazon.ca within the last twelve months.
  • Amazon UK says reviewers must have spent GBP 40 at Amazon.co.uk within the last twelve months.
  • Amazon Australia says reviewers have spent $50 at Amazon.com.au, but there is no timeframe mentioned. Yet.

I tested this. My results:

  • I was unable to post a review at Amazon Canada (no purchases ever).
  • I was unable to post a review at Amazon Australia (lifetime purchases: <$20). I am still in the Top 100 Reviewers at Amazon Australia.
  • I was able to post at Amazon UK (no purchases in the last ten years).
  • I was able to post at Amazon US (purchases: >$50 in the last year).

I suspect Amazon UK will catch up with me soon, and veto further reviews. However, the UK site displays the top three or top five reviews from Amazon.com, so some of my reviews will continue to show on the UK site, even though they were posted at the US site.

I don’t know what is behind this latest change. It could be that sites like Buy Amazon Reviews sprang up offshore to sell fake reviews from non-US reviewers who had spent the equivalent of $50 in their home store. Non-US sites are harder for Amazon to track and sue. The easy solution is to only allow US customers to review in the US store.

Update: Amazon Limits non-AVP Reviews

The latest news is that Amazon is limiting the number of non-Amazon Verified Purchase reviews on books. This may extend to other products. There is a view that Amazon Verified Reviews are somehow more reliable than non-AVP reviews. The default is to show AVP reviews, and many Amazon users won’t even know they can adjust their filter to show all reviews. From Amazon’s perspective, it makes sense to attempt to control the ratio of AVP to non-AVP reviews if:

  • They believe their customers place more trust in AVP reviews, or
  • They suspect some non-AVP reviews are flouting their Reviewing Guidelines and are actually Promotional Content.

Amazon also say:

We may restrict the ability to submit a review when we detect unusual reviewing behavior, or to maintain the best possible shopping experience.

My feeling is this may be a result of two separate issues:

  • The growing number of authors with significant and active street teams, all trying to post reviews on or close to release day. If this is the case, I’d suggest authors ask their street teams to stagger their reviews (e.g. by batching the email reminders so different people receive the reminder on different days).
  • Coupon clubs and other ethically challenged sellers are still giving away free products in exchange for reviews (probably five-star reviews).

Either way, we can only hope it will eliminate some of the fake reviews (and sellers) without hurting genuine reviewers (and authors).

Conclusion

I know authors find it hard to get reviews. I know authors find it frustrating when they lose reviews, or when reviewers can’t post for whatever reason. Often, it’s the honest sellers, honest authors, and honest reviewers who miss out.

But I also know Amazon customers need to be able to trust the Amazon review system

Amazon want that as well. Without trustworthy reviews, Amazon is just another online retailer.

Years of observation has shown me that every rule Amazon have introduced, every review they have deleted, has been an attempt (successful or otherwise) to protect their review system.

Amazon could get harsher. They could only allow people to have purchased a product from Amazon to review that product on Amazon. Many other retailers do. They could correlate our Kindle pages read with the books we are permitted to review. After all, they already collect that information.

We don’t want that. So we need to be ethical customers, sellers, and reviewers. And we need to encourage others to be the same. Anything else hurts us all.

This post is the background to a series I’m planning for later in the year. What questions do you have about reviews that you’d like me to address? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review - Book Launch Gladiator by Jordan Ring

Book Review | Book Launch Gladiator by Jordan Ring

Book Launch Gladiator starts by emphasising the importance of building a platform well in advance of launching your first book, with an emphasis on the importance of launching your book with a good number of reviews. He recommends some good tools, and has some good tips particularly around book promotion sites, and the importance of getting reviews early. He also has a Udemy course available free for those who purchase this book (RRP $149).

Ring doesn’t talk about pre-orders at all, which I found odd, as I know a lot of authors use pre-orders to drive early sales and reviews. He also claims reviews help trigger amazon [sic] algorithms to help your book become more visible on Amazon. I’ve never seen any evidence of this: reliable sources such as David Gaughran say sales are what count, not review numbers (although reviews provide consumer proof and may encourage sales).

I also disagreed with this statement:

“it can be very hard to be the first person to review a book.”

As a long-time reviewer (and sad person that I am), I find it’s a small buzz to be the first person to review a book (as long as my review is positive. I loathe being the first reviewer of a book I didn’t like). I would also point out that authors who follow his advice and rely too heavily on reviews from friends and family are going to run into problems with disappearing reviews, as Amazon doesn’t permit reviews from people who have a close personal or financial relationship with the author.

The author provided me with a free copy for review, and the review copy opened at the free bonus (nice) and opening chapter (fine). But the book opened after the part where the author disclosed he is a marketing coach for Archangel Ink, a pay-to-publish press, and the publisher of this book. If the book is meant to be a low-key form of promotion for the publisher, the proofreading errors (e.g. capitalisation errors) are not great advertising.

Overall, this isn’t a bad book. The information and links were relevant and useful, but there were a few too many pseudo-promotional mentions of the publisher for my taste, along with borderline reviewing advice and indifferent proofreading.

Thanks to the author for providing a free ebook for review.

About Book Launch Gladiator

Welcome to the only guide written by someone on the front lines that will show you how to succeed in the Kindle world. By learning how to become a Book Launch Gladiator you will reign victorious in the Kindle Colosseum, where many others have failed.

In this book you will learn:

  • How to make decisions on KDP Select, pricing, and most importantly, launch timing
  • How to set up your book for marketing success through crafting the perfect book description, book title, and making sure you have a great book cover
  • How to get the bare minimum of reviews for your book (and more if you want them) complete with tools and recommendations
  • What to do during launch week instead of just incessantly checking sales numbers
  • A guide to continued marketing success in your writing career

Jordan wants you to succeed as a new author, and the process packed within these pages will lead you towards your goal. It isn’t an easy journey, and this book doesn’t pull its punches, but by the end you will have a much better grasp on the process as a whole.

Learn how to do book marketing the right way, without loads of money or time. Becoming a book launch gladiator requires careful planning, and this book will be your guide to meet that end.

You can find Book Launch Gladiator online at:

Amazon | Goodreads

About Jordan Ring

Jordan is the marketing and book launch guru at Archangel Ink. He has discovered the ins and outs of launching books by writing, publishing, and launching three of his own in a short time span. He currently enjoys working closely with authors to help them find success with their own books. During the day he is a freelancing authorpreneur and at night he runs a podcast with his wife called Freedom-Cast: Leaving Normal Behind.

Book Review | How to Best Optimize Blog Posts for SEO

Book Review | How to Best Optimize Blog Posts for SEO

How to Best Optimize Blog Posts for SEO used to be a blog post, although the blog post had 20 tips and the book has 25. It is very short, and the actual content ends shortly after the halfway point (there is then a sample of the author’s 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge).

Thompson starts by explaining what SEO is and why it is important to bloggers and authors. I had read (and reread) the older blog post several times, but I still found several areas in which I can improve. What’s especially good is that the author provides links as well e.g. she says it’s important to have a great headline, then links to the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer.

Yes, SEO experts will know all this stuff. But I’ve read blog posts by some of these experts, and they are borderline unintelligible, or go into a lot of detail about things that aren’t relevant to book bloggers. I like Rachel Thompson’s simple, no-nonsense style, which is easy to understand and implement. It’s a short book but not expensive, and definitely worth the small investment.

Thanks to the author for providing a free ebook for review.

About How to Best Optimize Blog Posts for SEO

Are you unsure how generate more traffic to your blog? Do you feel overwhelmed by all the SEO articles out there (or not even sure what the term means)? Do you wish someone could break it down for you in simple steps?

Then this is the book for you!

Rachel provides you her top 25 tips laid out in easy to understand language gleaned from her own ten years of successful blogging as well as optimizing and managing countless client blogs. Containing a wealth of information, these tips will help you increase traffic to your site!

Topics include:
· SEO terms defined
· Specific ways to increase traffic to your blog right now
· How to optimize each post for maximum exposure on Google
· Ways to connect with readers
· How to integrate your blog posts on the various social media sites

If SEO confuses you, this is a great beginner breakdown for any new blogger, writer, veteran author, and even small businesses.

Find the book online at:

Amazon | Goodreads

About Rachel Thompson

Rachel Thompson is the author of Broken Places (one of IndieReader’s “Best of 2015” top books and 2015 Honorable Mention Winner in the San Francisco Book Festival and Los Angeles Book Festival and 5/5 Readers Favorite), and the multi award-winning and best-selling Broken Pieces, as well as two additional humor books, A Walk In The Snark and Mancode: Exposed.

Rachel founded BadRedhead Media in 2011, creating effective social media and book marketing campaigns for authors. Her articles appear regularly in The Huffington Post, IndieReader, FeminineCollective, BookMachine, BlueInk Review, and TransformationIsReal.

Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the blog-sharing hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs, the weekly live Twitter chat #SexAbuseChat, (Tuesdays, 6pm pst), and #BookMarketingChat (Wednesdays 6pm pst) to help writers learn how to market their work.

She hates walks in the rain, running out of coffee, and coconut. A single mom, Rachel lives in California (with her two kids and two cats) where she daydreams about Thor. And sleep.

Book Review | Market Like a Boss by Honoree Corder and Ben Hale

Marketing is a huge topic, and a short book like this can only ever scratch the surface even when dealing with the niche of online book marketing. That can be seen as both a weakness as a strength—a weakness in that there is so much How to Market Like a Boss! doesn’t say, but a strength in that it does provide to a quick and easy-to-read introduction to the subject.

Much of the information can be found in other books on book marketing and in greater depth. But there were a few comments and tips I haven’t seen in other books, such as the calculation of the lifetime value of a fiction series reader, or the description of different types of email lists.

One point the authors make strongly which bears repetition is this:

Marketing is highly specific to the brand and the products. What works for one will not necessarily work for another. In short, there is no “one size fits all”.

This, I think, is a mistake many authors make—believing there is only one way to sell books. This is demonstrated y the number of books and training courses from authors proclaiming their way as the one true way with disclaimers in the small print that there is no guarantee of success). It’s refreshing to find two authors who don’t buy into the myth.

This short book is packed with useful advice, and offers a solid end to the series (the previous books were Write Like a Boss! and Publish Like a Boss!). It’s not the most comprehensive book on marketing, but it is worth the investment.

Thanks to the authors for providing a free ebook for review.

Publish Like a Boss

Book Review | Publish Like a Boss! by Honoree Corder and Ben Hale

Publish Like a Boss! by Honoree Corder and Ben Hale is the second book in their joint three-book series.

I read and reviewed the excellent Write Like a Boss! a couple of months ago, and wrote a post sharing Ben Hale’s fascinating (and detailed) editing process. After reading Write Like a Boss!, I was keen to read the rest of the series

Publish Like a Boss! starts by taking readers through the different types of publishing.

They avoid using the pejorative term “vanity publishing”, and instead refer to this as self-publishing. They then use the phrase “indie publishing” to refer to what I (and many others) call self-publishing. This doesn’t necessarily matter, but it is important to understand what they mean by the terms so you don’t get confused.

They go on to share their C’s and Q’s of successful indie publishing (Conistency, Company, Quality, and Quantity). They then provide tips on publishing fiction, publishing non-fiction, and useful resources.

I haven’t yet published a book, but I have spent the last few years observing and educating myself on the changes in the publishing industry, both for my own benefit and for the benefit of my editing clients. Some of the content covered topics I already knew, but which would be useful for someone new to publishing. However, I still picked up several useful tips.

The part I found most helpful was their list of mistakes new author-publishers make:

  • Being cheap
  • Rushing
  • Having no long-term vision
  • Failing to establish a brand
  • Not creating a long-term business plan

I’m guilty of not thinking long-term, so that’s something I need to work on.

It’s a short book and easy to read, but packed full of great advice for the first-time author, like:

If you want professional work, you can either pay with cash or pay with time. Either way, it’s going to cost you.

Overall, a short but useful book, and I’m looking forward to reading the final book in the series: Market Like a Boss!

Thanks to the authors for providing a free ebook for review.

Write Like a Boss

Book Review | Write Like a Boss by Honoree Corder and B Hale

I’m in Sydney this weekend, attending the annual Omega Writer’s Conference. Our venue has wifi, but it’s not great, which means I’m not going to be able to research and post my usual Saturday Best of the Blogs post. Never fear! I’ll be back next week with a double dose of blog links (or you can follow me on Twitter or Facebook—Buffer will kindly be tweeting and posting on my behalf).

Instead of a Best of the Blogs post, I’m sharing a book review, for Write Like a Boss by Honoree Corder and Ben Hale.

Write like a boss? What does that even mean?

Writing like a boss is about being smart.

Write Like a Boss is a short book about what it takes to be a successful writer. It’s got content, but also some great tips for actually doing it—writing, publishing, and marketing. Ben Hale writes fantasy novels, while Honoree Corder writes non-fiction (including books for writers, and books on productivity). This combination works in Write Like a Boss, because they are both able to bring their own particular expertise in writing to the table.

The authors say:

The biggest hallmark of professional writers is not marketing skills or business knowledge, it is consistency … keeping your writing commitment is about threading it into your life.

Easier said than done, which is why Write Like a Boss includes some tips to building that consistency. And doing it today, not tomorrow. They cover mindset, treating writing like a business, and learning the principles of marketing, then move into more detail on actually writing fiction and non-fiction.

In Chapter Four, Ben shares his ten rules of fiction, and his revision process. Each of Ben’s novels currently goes through thirteen drafts (he used to have twenty-four). I found his explanation of each draft hugely helpful, and it’s something I can see myself pointing editing clients towards. Hale uses four sets of outside readers—an alpha reader (for plot and characterisation), a paid editor, beta readers, and a final beta reader.

As a freelance fiction editor, I found it interesting to see where Ben’s paid editor fit in the process.

His editor sees the fifth draft of the book—he goes though the full book another eight times after getting the edited version back. I suspect some of my clients think they’ll be able to get my copyedit back and publish within a couple of weeks. Ben’s process shows why that’s not realistic. It sounds daunting, but I’m sure his process results in a much better book than if he’d skipped some of these steps.

Note that these are Ben’s tips. He’s a multi-published fiction author with a solid writing, revision, and editing process. He’s learned the craft. What he’s sharing here are tips, not a substitute for learning for ourselves (Honoree points out she invested four years in learning before she launched her writing career).

Chapter Five is from Honoree, and she shares her process on writing a non-fiction book. She shares four kinds of non-fiction writer, and four key questions that every non-fiction writer must answer for each book. It’s great stuff.

Write Like a Boss is the first in a series

Publishing Like a Boss and Marketing Like a Boss are both in the works. If they are anything like Write Like a Boss, they will be well worth reading. Recommended for pre-published writers, and those looking for ideas to improve their discipline, motivation, and productivity.

Thanks to the authors for providing a free ebook for review.

Sell More Books With Less Marketing

Book Review | Sell More Books With Less Marketing by Chris Syme

Chris Syme is rapidly becoming one of my go-to sources for up-to-date information on book marketing.

Many of the other experts excel in saying what’s worked for them, and don’t realise why that can’t or won’t work for everyone. Sell More Books With Less Marketing starts with a hard truth many book marketing experts gloss over:

You must write a good book. This means beta readers, editors, and good covers for a start … you must do the work … all the work.

Chris Syme doesn’t have a gazillion book sales of her own. But she does have her daughter, Becca, a NYT Bestselling author who writes in a couple of different genres (and is a guest lecturer at Lawson Writer’s Academy, which means she knows her stuff). Chris and Becca co-host The Smarty Pants Book Marketing Podcast, and Chris has her own Facebook group.

Some of the material in this book is repeated from her earlier book, The Newbies Guide to Selling More Books with Less Social Media. This includes her explanation of the sales funnel, and her stage of a published writer. This was the lightbulb moment for me in regard to her first book, as it illustrates why so much of the marketing information out there doesn’t work.

Because it’s not written for newbie authors.

This book is.

If you haven’t read any books on book marketing, this is an excellent one to start with. It covers the basics in a straightforward way, so a new author won’t get lost in book marketing jargon that’s years ahead of where they need to be.

It’s aimed at authors with fewer than three books published, and little in the way of an online platform.

This means readers can focus on what’s important now, rather than wasting time chasing the next must-do strategy that only works effectively for authors with multiple books published, ideally in a series.

Sell More Books with Less Marketing covers the sales funnel, the three-must have marketing tools all authors need, and each chapter has actionable steps to take. Chris Syme also provides readers with access to her exclusive Facebook group, and access to a free email marketing course.

Syme asks readers to make three commitments:

  • A commitment to consistency
  • A commitment to perseverance
  • A commitment to excellence

Like most professional marketers, Syme subscribes to permission-based marketing rather than the old interruption marketing. This is intelligent marketing, because it’s marketing to people who’ve asked to be marketed to e.g. via an email list.

She like threes: she has her three commitments, her Big Three Goals (discoverability, sales, loyalty), and the Big Three Components you’ll need to succeed (website, email newsletter, Facebook page).

Syme cuts through the plethora of advice on book marketing to deliver three threes that will form the basis for a solid marketing platform, with no slimy selling involved.

Recommended.

Thanks to the author for providing a free ebook for review.

Christian Authors Unite by Antonio L Crawford

Book Review: Christian Authors Unite: Challenging the Way Writers Write, Publish and Think

Christian Authors Unite is a compilation of articles on marketing for Christian authors. There are seven chapters by seven different authors. Each chapter covers points on a specific topic related to writing, publishing, and marketing Christian books. The chapters cover

  1. Building your author platform
  2. Targeting your market
  3. Keeping your writing on track
  4. Writing a book proposal
  5. Automating your author platform
  6. Launching your book
  7. Marketing your book internationally

It’s an eclectic mix of topics.

Topics like writing a book proposal are most relevant to those seeking traditional publication. (Those seeking to self-publish would do themselves a favour by knowing this information). Other topics seem more focused on the self-published author.

Antonio L Crawford comments that most writing conferences fail to offer current training about modern marketing techniques or distribution channels.

(I will say the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference is ahead of the curve in this! But there is another conference where I’ve never even seen the value in buying the session recordings, because so much of it seems to be focused on outdated publishing ideas.)

This is a short book, and isn’t going to give you all the answers about marketing your books.

But it will give you some ideas and inspiration, whether this is the first book you’ve read on marketing or the fiftieth. (I think my number is towards the higher end of that range.) No matter. I’m sure you’ll learn something—I did.

And yes, you will be challenged to think.

Thanks to Antonio L Crawford for providing a free ebook for review. You can read the introduction to Christian Authors Unite below:

Review: The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine

The Fine Print of Self-Publishing should be required reading for anyone considering self-publishing, publishing through a small press, or publishing through a “traditional publisher” which requires the author to contribute to the publishing or marketing, or requires that they purchase books at “cost”. Seriously. Reading this book could save you thousands … if you remember a few things that he doesn’t mention. Like the number one rule of publishing:

Money flows from the publisher to the author.

Now we’ve finished the public service announcement, let’s get back to the review.

The author is the owner of a self-publishing firm, and the book is very much from that perspective. I’m not convinced by his explanation by of the difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing, but he defined what he meant, and that was sufficient to give the context for the rest of the book. I’m also not convinced by his underlying belief that authors need outside help in producing a professional product, that they are unable to do it themselves. I agree that everyone needs an external editor and/or proofreader, as no one can fully edit or proofread their own work, and people who aren’t trained graphic designers need to pay for a professional cover design. And an author may well decide to outsource tasks such as formatting.

But I don’t believe that a “self-publisher” is the best place to obtain all these services. I’ve read books from several of the self-publishers referenced in this book, and while the formatting in all of them was professional, the cover designs were of variable quality, as was the editing (one was, in my opinion, 150 pages longer than it needed to be, which priced the book out of the market).

What Levine didn’t do was give an author looking to self-publish any reason to outsource the publishing rather than do it themselves using freelance contractors. He points out that all the self-publishers he refers to (other than CreateSpace and Lulu) outsource the printing to Lightning Source. Yet a savvy self-publisher can deal directly with Lightning Source and avoid the printing markups which seem to be a major way these “self-publishers” make money.

This, for me, was one of the key strengths of  The Fine Print of Self-Publishing: a clear analysis of how “self-publishers” make money not just from being paid to produce the book, but from the ongoing sales. The author also takes readers through the real meaning of standard contract terms, including royalty calculations, and the relationship between printing markups on selling price—and how excessive printing markups produce a book that’s priced too high to sell. He also covers some of the “marketing” activities these organisations offer, with some idea of the relative cost and benefit of each.

One of the disadvantages of any book examining the current state of a market is that is can get outdated quickly. The Fine Print of Self-Publishing is no exception: one of the featured publishers (WinePress) has already gone out of business since the book was published three months ago (there’s probably a lesson in there about the reliability of some of these firms).

There are also a couple of areas where I would have liked to have seen more information, specifically with regard to one publisher mentioned in the book. While they don’t charge for publishing, they do require authors to contribute $4,000 towards marketing the book … but don’t say what that $4,000 buys. Personally, I’m not going to even look at spending that much without knowing exactly what I’m getting for the money. In fairness, the company wouldn’t disclose their contract without having a manuscript—something the author couldn’t exactly provide, given the nature of this book—so that’s not the author’s fault. But I’d really like to know what an author gets for that money …

The other thing Levine doesn’t cover are the firms who publish for free, but require authors to purchase a set number of their books. Based on the printing markup figures used in the book, the cost of 1,000 copies could easily exceed $10,000. These companies are, I believe, especially deceptive, as they often claim they aren’t self-publishers or vanity publishers, but traditional royalty-paying publishers (only they don’t pay royalties on the books the author buys, and what’s more “vanity” than requiring the author purchase 1,000 or more copies of their own book?).

Despite what looks here like a laundry list of complaints, I do believe any author considering self-publishing should buy and read this book. While the author never comes out and says “use Company X not Company Y”, the analysis makes it pretty clear who are the best options. It also provides a basis for the savvy author to calculate figures such as print markup for other companies not featured.

Buy the paperback and a new highlighter pen. You’ll need it.

Thanks to the author and StoryCartel for providing a free ebook for review.

Rules of Online Reviewing

This is a special post for the members of the Indie Christian Authors group on Facebook, as we are discussing online reviewing this week. It’s taken from a series I’ll be posting over at Australian Christian Writers in May and June, and it’s actually two posts—so it’s long. Very long. But I do encourage you to read to the end.

Online Reviews: What is permitted? And what isn’t?

There is a lot of confusion regarding what is permitted in terms of online reviewing, not helped by the fact that each site has their own rules, and some enforce them more than others. Today I’m going to take you through the Amazon Reviewing Guidelines. I’ve chosen Amazon because as well as being the site I know best, it’s the biggest online retailer, it has the most reviewers (over 20 million), and the most product reviews.

Amazon has clear Reviewing Guidelines, and will take action to remove reviews that contravene the guidelines. Amazon gets a lot of attention regarding “fake” reviews (which exist in greater numbers than most people realise) and “bully” reviewers (who are far less common than the media implies).

– self-published author Rick Gualtieri

 

Behaviour like “I called his place of volunteer work and made it evident that I was in possession of the email addresses of his friends and extended family members”.

Amazon go into more detail about what’s not allowed than what is allowed. This includes:

Objectionable material

>No swearing, calling people names, using inappropriate language (like calling someone an idiot or a nazi), and no promotion of illegal conduct (I once saw a forum discussion where someone was looking for novels featuring incest. The discussion was promptly deleted).

Inappropriate content

The big one here is links to external websites (including your own). Amazon won’t delete a review with external links, but it will delete the link and replace it with […].

Off-topic information

Information on price, packaging or shipping aren’t relevant to customer reviews, as Amazon has other forums for offering feedback on sellers or packaging.

Promotional content

No:

  • Advertisements, promotional material or repeated posts that make the same point excessively
  • Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product)
  • Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product. This includes reviews that are a part of a paid publicity package

If you find reviews which include information like this, you can Report Abuse.

What is Report Abuse?

If you look at the bottom of any Amazon review (except one you’ve written), you will see “Was this review helpful?”, and Yes and No buttons. If you believe a review contravenes Amazon Reviewing Guidelines in some way, click “No”. Amazon will then say “If this review is inappropriate, please let us know”.

Click on the link (“please let us know”), and you will be given the option to say why the review is inappropriate. It’s best if you mention a specific reason that is against the guidelines (e.g. the review is self-promotion, the review is written by the author/editor, the review is about price or delivery and not about the product, spiteful remarks about the author).

This feature can be used by anyone, author or reader. If, as an author, you believe the review is against Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines or Conditions of Use (often called the Terms of Service, or TOS), this is the responsible and ethical way to report it, rather than leaving a comment on the review. Note that Amazon do not remove reviews simply because they are critical—they must contravene the Reviewing Guidelines in some way.

It usually takes several reports from different people before a review is removed (although I don’t know exactly how many).

Of course, the big question is: What is promotional content? Promotional content is explained in more detail on the FAQ page, where Amazon give some examples of reviews they don’t allow.

Reviews Amazon don’t Allow

 A product manufacturer posts a review of their own product, posing as an unbiased shopper

As discussed previously, this is a sock puppet review. Amazon doesn’t permit reviews of any product you have a financial interest in, which includes books you’ve written, edited or published. Not under your own name, and especially not under a fake name.

A shopper, unhappy with her purchase, posts multiple negative reviews for the same product

This is an example of multiple sock puppet reviews. Amazon only allows reviewers to review each product once (so you can’t review the hardcover and the Kindle edition of the same book), so anyone posting multiple reviews must be using sock puppet accounts or circumventing the system in some other way. It is possible. It isn’t permitted.

A customer posts a review in exchange for $5

This specifically refers to reviews from ffiver.com, but $1 or $1000, the amount of the payment isn’t the point. Amazon do not permit paid reviews in the Customer Reviews section, as customers expect these reviews to be from impartial customers. If you have paid for a review (e.g. from Kirkus Indie), you can quote it in the Editorial Reviews section of the book page.

A customer posts a review of a game, in exchange for bonus in-game credits

In-game credits have a financial value, so this concept is a variation on a paid review. There isn’t really an equivalent for books, but I have seen some authors offer a prize or a free short story in exchange for a four-star or five-star review.

One famous Christian author using a variation on this is Karen Kingsbury, who has offered a free cruise-for-two to the reader whose review most “touches her heart”. As one reviewer says, that’s not going to be a one-star review, is it?

Author Kristen Lamb says:

I’d love to offer reviewers sweet prizes for reviewing my book, but it’s just too … what’s the term? Creepy. … It’s a fine line that can get writers in ethical trouble.

A fine line, indeed, and one with consequences. When Amazon found a puzzle company were sending Amazon gift vouchers to people who had reviewed their games on Amazon, they deleted all reviews for the games in question, and also deleted the entire reviewing history of some reviewers. Amazon saw the gift cards as compensation. Amazon’s Selling Policies clearly state that sellers cannot offer a refund in exchange for a review:

you may not provide compensation for a review other than a free copy of the product. If you offer a free product, it must be clear that you are soliciting an unbiased review. The free product must be provided in advance; no refunds are permitted after the review is written. Product review solicitations that ask for only positive reviews or that offer compensation are prohibited. You may not ask buyers to remove negative reviews.”

A family member of the product creator posts a five-star customer review to help boost sales

Amazon prohibits reviews from people with a financial interest in the product, which would include family members like a spouse or dependent children.

My advice for people reviewing books by friends or family members is to be up-front about it. Start the review with “I’m the author’s mother (sister, favourite cousin)” or similar, so readers know to expect glowing praise.

This is one instance where I make an exception to my “Authors should never comment on reviews” rule. If Mum, sister or favourite cousin has written a glowing review and you can’t get them to delete it, add a comment to the review acknowledging the relationship and thanking them for their wonderful, albeit biased, review.

Don’t pretend to be an impartial customer. Someone might get suspicious that you and the author share an unusual surname—the review will be downvoted, reported for abuse, and possibly removed because then it looks as though it’s there to boost sales. That is the key phrase: “to boost sales”. If your friend or family member is reviewing as a way of encouraging you, they should have no problem acknowledging the relationship in the review.

A shopper posts a review of the product, after being promised a refund in exchange

This is another variation on a paid review, and is also against the Selling Policies. If Amazon find a reviewer receiving a ‘gift’ from an author (e.g. a 99 cent gift card) after the reviewer has reviewed a book by that author (such as a 99 cent Kindle book), they can and will delete the review. I’ve seen it “recommended” that authors “thank” their reviewers by gifting a $1.00 gift card for a 99 cent book. Amazon might be wise to this idea, or they might not be. I don’t know. But really? It’s a deliberate effort to circumvent the Amazon guidelines, and I have trouble believing that suggestion came from a Christian. But it did.

Amazon frowns on gifting Kindle copies of books to reviewers, as the reviewer can then either on-gift the gift or refuse the gift and use the credit towards any other Amazon purchase. You are better to either send the reviewer a copy of the book directly (as a mobi, prc or pdf file), or gift a copy through Smashwords.

A seller posts negative reviews on his competitor’s product

This concerns authors, as it gives rise to the myth that authors shouldn’t review. Authors can review, but should be extremely careful about posting critical reviews of books in the same genre, as such reviews can be seen to fall foul of this guideline. For this reason, many authors chose not to review in the genre in which they write, or to only write positive (four-star or five-star reviews).

An artist posts a positive review on a peer’s album in exchange for receiving a positive review from them

I have seen review swaps offered on Facebook and Goodreads. Authors mean well, but review swaps are explicitly prohibited by Amazon, and are frowned upon by readers—because we don’t trust the reviews. Think about it:

We agree to swap books and honestly review each other’s books. I read yours and hate it. It’s not just that the main character is too stupid to live, it’s that it’s supposed to be a romance but they don’t meet until Chapter 38, and it’s full of spelling mistakes (the heroin lives in Sidney, New South Whales, and wheres a high-wasted dress). Do I:

a) review honestly, knowing the other author is going to be reviewing my book and might take this as an excuse to drag me and my book through the mud; or

b) lie.

That’s not a decision you want to make. So stay away from review swaps and reviewing circles (where several authors agree to review each other’s books).

This doesn’t stop authors supporting fellow authors in other ways. Authors endorse books all the time. They post reviews and recommendations of author friend’s books on their blogs. The problem is these influencing reviews often read more like an endorsement, and therefore might be better placed in the Editorial Reviews section of the Amazon page.

To summarise, please don’t try and come up with a creative way to get around the rules. It’s not ethical. It’s not honest. At the most basic level, if you are trying to use Amazon reviews to promote your book, it’s likely you are going to fall foul of Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines or the Selling Policies, and you need to think again.