When it comes to selling books in a crowded market, whether you are traditionally published or self-published, positive reviews are a must-have for boosting sales and gaining readership. How authors go about securing those reviews can be controversial.
In the digital age, where over 50% of retail shopping occurs online, independent assessment is the underpinning of consumer purchasing behavior. It does not matter whether the merchandise is a book, cleaning supplies or a microwave. Consumers routinely check product reviews before plunking down cash to purchase. They might look at the sheer number of reviews, or dig deeper to scan a few. Regardless, third-party reviews vetting a product help push consumers to buy or not to buy.
In the book world, getting reviews is not an easy process even for wildly popular books. The percentage of people willing to spend time to comment is low. While exact review rates are hard to calculate without accurate sales figures, I have heard the range is from 1-5%. Take Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn for example. A quick guesstimate using sales numbers from Wikipedia and reviews totaled from Amazon and Goodreads shows only 0.875% of her readers left reviews (20 million books sold with 175,000 reviews). Granted these numbers are rough and do not account for a number of variables but still, less than 1% is not impressive.
So it makes sense why some authors would seek to pay for reviews to boost their rating and influence sales. But just linking the word paid with review raises concerns of dishonesty. So where is the line between ethical and illegal?
1. Advanced Review Copies
ARCs are often used to secure reviews. The age-old practice was established by publishers who sent free copies of a book to booksellers, librarians, and journalists in advance of publication for review. ARCs started well before the digital age when newspapers and magazines were the only outlets for book reviews.
While the review process using ARCs has always been ethical in the book world, once the Internet widened the pool of potential reviewers, authors began to manipulate the free-book-review process to influence the review. The problem occurs when the reviewer who has received a free copy of the author’s book is obligated to leave a review (in particular a positive review). Basically, I’ll give you a free book if you leave me a positive 5-star review. Manipulating the outcome of a review is dishonest and places authors on unethical ground.
That does not mean you cannot send out free books in hopes a few will leave reviews. It does mean you must convey to the reader receiving the book that they are under no obligation to leave a review. Do that, and you are on safe ethical ground. I would take this one step further and underscore to the reader that if they do decide to write a review of your book that, while you appreciate their feedback, you only want honest, unbiased reviews.
What about ARC services, companies that you pay to send out your book to their list of random reviewers? If the ARC service is legit, they will ask their reviewers to only provide honest and unbiased reviews. If you’re going to pay for an ARC service, find out if the reviews they solicit from their readers are obligated in any way. For example, Net Galley, Hidden Gems, Booksprout, or OtohBooks will send out ARCs to their reader list but do not guarantee a review. You are paying for the service to run the ARC campaign and this is a legitimate way to get your book into readers’ hands and hopefully receive unbiased and unobligated reviews.
For more information about ARC campaigns and reviews, see Craig Tuch’s article The Truth About ARCs.
2. Contests, Raffles, and Giveaways
Another common practice to get books into readers’ hands is via giveaways and contests. I know what you are thinking. If I give my book away for free after publication in hopes of a review, that has to be ethical. The answer is: It may be.
Like ARC campaigns, if the contest obligates a reader to review the book in order to participate or the winner to review the book, then the reviews are biased and the campaign is unethical. Instead, let the review happen organically. Make it clear the winner has no obligation to review the book, nor is review required to participate. Also, check out my earlier post on contests and giveaways so your campaigns are not illegal lotteries and are GDPR compliant.
3. Paid Review Services
There are a few reputable pay-for-review services such as Kirkus Reviews, IndieReader, Self-Publishing Review, BlueInk Review. These services are not cheap and reviewers are not obligated to give you a flattering review. You can, of course, use snippets of the review that you like but beware, choose wisely. Taking fragments from a review out of context can be misleading to readers. If you feel the need to spend the extra cash on a paid review, see these articles for more information: Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It? By Jane Friedman; The Indie Author’s Guide to Paid Reviews by Daniel Lefferts and Alex Daniel; The Essential First Step for New Authors: Book Reviews, Not Sales by David Wogahn. Amazon also has its Amazon Vine Program, which invites Amazon’s most trusted reviewers to give opinions on new and pre-release items. Reviewers are not paid and are encouraged to write an honest opinion, negative or positive.
4. Fake Reviews
Like fake news, paying for positive/fake reviews is misleading. Fake reviews are also illegal.
Authors who pay for fake reviews are shortcutting the review process and controlling the end product, which is deceptive to readers. There used to be a number of services that guaranteed a certain number of positive reviews for a price. While these scam services have dwindled now that Amazon has taken a hard line against paid reviews by removing those and suing such unethical services (see Amazon Sues People Who Charge $5 For Fake Reviews by Jeff John Roberts; Amazon Tries New Attack on Fake and Paid Amazon Reviews by Derek Haines; Policy Change on Amazon Book Reviews Updated With $50 Minimum; Amazon Book Review Policy Demystified For Authors by David Wogahn), some scam companies still exist and are willing to take your money in exchange for a positive review.
Fake reviews can also happen when authors swap books for reviews. While the authors are not receiving money for a positive review, the exchange is tied to a financial interest (i.e. more book sales) and most likely will result in a positive review. That does not mean authors cannot swap books for review. Authors should remember to give full disclosure they know the author and their review is their honest opinion about the book.
Besides being misleading, fake reviews violate 15 U.S.C. Section 45, which gives the Federal Trade Commission the power to stop and penalize unfair and deceptive trade practices affecting commerce. Fake reviews are false and deceptive advertising, plain and simple. Fake reviews are not based on a real customer’s experience. Fake reviews mislead customers and defraud them by encouraging them to purchase a product they otherwise might not.
Bottom line, influencing reviews is unethical and can be illegal should it rise to the level of deceptive trade practices that defraud consumers. Strive for an organic review process, whereby your book reviews are honest, unbiased and voluntary. Follow that rule and you will avoid any ethical or legal snafus.
Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.