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Book Reviewing Ethics And Etiquette For Self-Publishers

Book Reviewing Ethics and Etiquette for Self-Publishers

Where do Indie authors draw their lines?

Linda Gillard asks ALLi Members Where They Draw Their Lines

On Wednesday last author Joni Rodgers took Amazon to task for what she sees as their high-handed treatment of author-reviewers. Some believe the new policy amounts to censorship, but Amazon needed to respond to the many bogus reviews posted by authors – some well-known – who thought disparaging rival books with fake reviews or penning their own eulogies was all in a day’s work.

Such practices are indisputably unethical, but many think Amazon over-reacted. So what is acceptable when promoting your book? Where should we draw the line? Talking to a group of ALLi authors, I found the boundaries of their moral comfort zone varied. Authors are also readers and reviewers but, disappointed and frustrated, some have now given up posting on Amazon and have decamped to GoodReads.

When posting their reviews, do ALLi author-reviewers use a pseudonym? And do they post honest reviews? Richard Bunning rejected pseudonyms. “I really feel that authors need to be seen to be squeaky clean. Full disclosure and honesty demand the use of author name.”

But I review on Amazon under a pseudonym. I want my review to be seen as that of an ordinary reader and if I can't give a book 4 or 5 stars, I don't review, inclining with Thumper to the “If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' at all” school of thought.

Richard Wright is braver. “I review as a reader. I review what I like, and will happily give a negative review if I think it's merited.” Richard seemed happy with the current free-for-all. “I don't think there should be a code of conduct for Amazon reviewers. I can't think of a faster way to kill the whole system. Some dedicated reviewers might stay signed up, but those who just want to tell people their opinion won't bother if it becomes complicated.”

I asked ALLi authors what they thought about tagging books on Amazon. Is it wrong to do what many authors do – tag another author in the tags for their own books? An example: I tagged Daphne du Maurier for my family drama HOUSE OF SILENCE because I think anyone who enjoys du Maurier’s novels might enjoy HOUSE OF SILENCE. With other books I’ve used the names of living authors as appropriate tags. But is this a dubious practice?

Seeley James  felt strongly about this. “It’s unethical to promote anything using a public figure's name without their permission. We shouldn’t degrade how others view indies by violating the wishes of the author we’d like to tag ourselves to.

But how can tagging authors be wrong when traditional publishers use phrases like, “The new J K Rowling” and “If you like Marian Keyes you'll love X”? Isn’t it just a way of identifying a book as similar in some way?

Author and journalist Catherine Czerkawska was comfortable with tagging other authors. “I think in most cases it's perfectly acceptable to tag with a book title or author's name, simply as a point of comparison. If I'm writing a professional review in a magazine and I make a comparison between two writers, I never need to ask permission, nor would I even think of doing it.”

So where do we draw the line when it comes to name-checking authors? “A few reviewers have compared my paranormal thriller, TALION to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS”, says Mary Maddox. “Was I supposed to ask Harris for permission before quoting the reviews? The name of an author, no matter how famous, is not the same thing as a trademark.”

Should you tag or click on a tag for a book you haven’t read? Dan Holloway doesn’t. “I wouldn't tag a book I hadn't read unless I was sure it was an accurate tag. Things like ‘paranormal romance’ are fairly innocuous but ‘great indie reads’ less so.”

M Louisa Locke has a more relaxed view. “Even if you haven't read it, if you know a mystery is a cosy, but not hard-boiled, it’s perfectly appropriate to add ‘cosy mystery’ as a tag.”

On the subject of malicious tagging, there was no dissent, only incredulity that some authors would stoop so low. One unfortunate author of contemporary romance discovered her books had attracted tags such as “crap”, “plagiarism” and “hard core sex” and, with a little detective work, she traced the tags back to another author and emailed Amazon to complain. Their reply was, “The tags fall into our accepted tag names.” She persisted with her complaints and Amazon eventually removed some but not all of these tags.

When it comes to clicking on Amazon’s “Like” button, ALLi authors had differing views. Dan Holloway claimed, “It’s definitely bad practice to ask someone to ‘like’ something they've not read. It's also bad practice to do it.” Jennings Wright disagreed. “To me, ‘liking’ a book doesn't imply I've read it. I may come back to it later, or have just purchased it but not read it yet.”

I too “like” books I haven't read. I don't consider the “Like” button means “I've read this”. (It doesn’t say so.) But I'm an indie who’s come via the unethical world of traditional publishing where cover quotes don't always refer to what’s between the covers and authors will give a quote for a book they’ve merely skimmed. Obviously I lost my moral compass a long time ago…

Whatever their view of different promotional practices, ALLi authors have clearly given the subject a lot of thought. They take their responsibilities to readers and other authors seriously. Dan Holloway again: “For me the bottom line is for us to remember that as an independent author, the most important asset we have is our reputation, so even if something isn't actually bad practice, before we do anything we need to think about the effect it will have on that reputation.”

Richard Wright agreed. “Reputation is everything to an indie, and I won't even consider doing something that might be misinterpreted, even if I know my intentions are good.”

An awareness of personal responsibility, of the vulnerability of one’s professional reputation should direct us towards good practice, but it seems there are few hard and fast rules. Joanne Phillips possibly spoke for all when she said, “Authors, indie or otherwise, will follow their own moral compasses, and this will differ from person to person, and over time. I know that I've changed my opinion on reviewing. I used to review under an Amazon username but now do so as Joanne Phillips. Who knows what views I'll have in another year's time? I'll adapt and decide on my own rules. As long as I'm comfortable with what I'm doing, that's all that matters to me.”


Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard is the author of six traditionally and indie-published novels. HOUSE OF SILENCE was selected as an Amazon Top Ten Editor’s Pick “Best of 2011” in the Indie Author category and is available on Kindle and in paperback.


This Post Has 21 Comments
  1. Steve, if I were you, I would first email all those people who have sent you positive reviews to ask permission to quote them on your website. Most people will agree and be flattered to be asked. If you can’t get permission, or they do not reply, I’d feel free to quote them anonymously. Clearly anonymous quotes won’t have the same authority but at least it’s better than no quotes.

  2. Request for Advice:

    I recently self-published a book about healing chronic pain titled, “Use Your Mind to Heal Your Body” available from McNally Books in NYC and coming soon to Amazon.

    I gave away several copies to therapists at a recent conference and several wrote to me with very positive reviews and ordered copies for thier patients. I would like to include quotes from their email in my website. Do I need to get their permission if I post thier comments annonomously? Should I ask permission to use their names? How should I proceed if they do not reply?

    All thoughts, comments, suggestions appreciated.

    Thank you.

  3. To clarify my position on using other authors names in promotion: I do not feel it is right for me to claim I am “the next Lee Child”. I believe it is OK for others to say that about me if that is what the reader feels. On my just-released book page someone tagged me to James Patterson (I’m not a Patterson fan). That is acceptable because it was her opinion. (Side note: she emailed me that her review was not posting and she’s not an author or family member or otherwise connected.)

    When the marketing arm of a Big6 publisher cites another author, they usually do it with one of their own writers, and permission to do so is often in the contracts of those imprints.

    Peace, Seeley

  4. Sorry, I should have added that it comes down to respect. As a fellow author I understand how hard it is to write, edit and put your soul into a novel. I respect an author far too much to think I am qualified to review their hard work. I applaud them for putting themselves out there and if I don’t like their novel, so be it, I don’t want to be the one to point out thier short-comings.
    We should be building up fellow authors and not try to knock them down! I am an author not a critic, I would rather talk one-on-one and help a person than knock them down using a ‘fake’ name.
    I have had great reviews and some bad ones but that is part of the job. You need to be careful not to over value reviews because it appears to be an issue here. I just feel that an unqualified reviewer can do some series damage to an author.
    I love to read and I would only consider writing a review if a fellow author I respect and enjoy is unfairly reviewed. There is a fine line between constructive criticism and destructive…just be careful what you wish for!

    1. Of course top selling or full time writers review other writers. And they get paid for it by magazines and newspapers. It’s one of the ways writers earn a living. And I’m slightly saddened that you seem to think that writing a thoughtful review, analysing a fellow author’s work, must of necessity involve ‘knocking them down.’ I’ve reviewed professionally, on and off, for years. If I really don’t like a book, not only will I not review it but I won’t carry on reading it. I’ll give it 50 – 75 pages and that’s that. Life’s too short, and there are too many great books out there waiting to be read, so why should I waste time reading something I’m not enjoying. I read quickly, but I’m not in the business of slagging off my fellow authors in public, and I’m well aware that a novel I loathe may well be a novel somebody else loves. So I’ll find something I genuinely enjoy. Coincidentally, this week, I’ve been blogging about how a review can be a gift for a writer. It’s amazing how often you don’t know exactly what you’ve done in a novel until somebody takes the time and trouble to point it out to you – what they took from your book, how they understood it, how it made them feel. And I’m not talking about ‘right or wrong’ here. I’m talking about taking a book seriously enough to analyse what the writer may have achieved. Given that even traditionally published authors these days are involved in ‘branding’ their own books, these kind of reviews can be amazingly helpful. I’d go so far as to say that they are helpful for the writer/reviewers as well. If you find that you really love a book, analysing exactly why that should be can be very helpful to your development as a writer, especially when you’re starting out.

  5. I thought the system was already a ‘free for all’ That is why we are at this point? I am really trying to understand the true value of a review then.
    If a review that is written by someone who never read the book or has an agenda and sways a potential reader…that is wrong.
    As for not liking writers, do the top selling writers post reviews? No they write novels. My point about B&N was lost. The point is they are a competitor and ethically they shouldn’t do a review. It is simple business…which appears to be a missing piece in all of this.
    Are other authors your target market and a ‘major’ purchaser of books? That is why this industry is suffering and needs to re-tooled.
    I still would respect an author far more if they contacted me and offered ideas on how to improve instead of wrting about sentence structure or spelling errors in a review.

    1. It’s hardly a “free-for-all” if Amazon can delete reviews they don’t like!

      And yes, top-selling writers do post reviews. Amanda Craig is a successful author and prolific Amazon reviewer. At the other end of the spectrum Orlando Figes and R J Ellory, once exposed, admitted posting fake reviews to benefit themselves or denigrate rival authors. This is why we have a censorship situation now. Those headline-grabbing stories made a mockery of Amazon’s review system and demonstrated that it was open to abuse. But many authors & readers think Amazon over-reacted.

  6. I rest my case! At least Amazon is attempting to fix a broken industry. On Goodreads the members tell you if you get a 5 star review it must be from a friend or relative…how do you fix that?
    The book industry is full of frustrated, self-promoting, writers who want to be reviewers when they should just stick to writing. I think I should be mentioning my website or blog here…
    If B&N wrote a review about Amazon or another book chain would you give it any merit? Writers should not be reviewing other writers, plain and simple. To say you are ethical or thoughtful is not the point.
    I would respect another author more if he or she contacted me and we talked one-on-one and not use me to fill in their blog page. Just saying…

    1. S. Thomas Bailey, your view, “If B&N wrote a review about Amazon or another book chain would you give it any merit? Writers should not be reviewing other writers, plain and simple. To say you are ethical or thoughtful is not the point” suggests you have a very low opinion of writers! (Also B & N.)

      “Ethical & thoughtful” IS the point! The vast majority of reviews written by authors will be ethical & thoughtful, so why legislate for a tiny minority? Authors are major buyers of books, so why should we be excluded from having opinions about them, especially when Amazon allows 1-star troll reviews to stand where it’s clear the reviewer hasn’t even read the book.

      If you want a squeaky-clean system that’s above reproach, what are you going to do about trolls? Shouldn’t they be purged too, like authors? And what about the publicists of traditionally published authors who post anonymous glowing reviews of their own authors’ books? How will you police that? Or is that OK because they aren’t authors?

      I didn’t have space to include all the comments from ALLi authors but one that I had wanted to include was from Joanna Penn: “I’m at the point of just saying it should be a free for all and trust readers to find out the bullsh*t – it seems that too many people are paying the price for some bad apples.”

      I’m with Joanna on this. Reject censorship & trust the readers to discern what’s authentic. It’s not as if it’s difficult.

  7. I really resent any attempt to deter me or any other writer or reader from writing honest book reviews and I probably review MORE books now since the sock-puppet fiasco as an act of defiance! I used to post reviews under a pseudonym but when the controversy broke, I ditched the pseudonym for the sake of openness.

    When I review books, I review them as a reader rather than a writer, but I suspect that being a writer, my reviews are more thoughtful and more sensitive than if I was ‘just’ a reader – and I take my responsibilities as a reviewer more seriously too.

    Many of the books I review have been given to me by self-published authors who I want to encourage and support but I read them from choice and not for financial gain. There are lots of reasons that people read books and review books, and I don’t think my reasons should disqualify me from having my say. I also often want to review them in more detail than I think the average Amazon reader would want to plough through.

    I’ve therefore arrived at my own solution which I think is both supportive to the indie community and ethical/compliant with Amazon’s terms and conditions. I write a brief review on Amazon while posting a more detailed review on my own website. If Amazon decide to delete any of my reviews (which I’m glad to say they haven’t yet), that’s not a problem, because I will still have aired my views without their censorship – and with a clear conscience.

    But my attitude to Amazon has been coloured by their high-handed attitude. Whereas I used to review only on Amazon, I now also review on GoodReads and have just signed up for Waterstones membership solely in order to be allowed to post reviews on their website also. I am also buying fewer books via Amazon. The honeymoon’s over, guys!

    By the way, I think it is a really useful exercise for any author to write book reviews and I blogged about why I think that here: http://offtheshelfbookpromotions.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/6-great-reasons-to-keep-posting-online-book-reviews/.

    1. I agree with Debbie about writers writing reviews, and my policy changed when I realised how important it is for writers to share their perspectives (unbiased by friendship or any sense of competition, of course. I don’t see other books as competition anyway).

      I now publish less than 3 star reviews whereas I didn’t use to. It’s to balance out the glowing 5 star reviews I often find on books that are actually not very well written. If authors don’t let the reading public (and the authors) know, unsuspecting readers will buy and be disappointed, and the profile of Indie books will be lowered. That does us all a disservice. If readers don’t realise that books are poorly written, writing standards will fall, to the detriment of literature. We have an important role to play in making sure that this doesn’t happen. If authors know that other authors will point out the writing faults in their reviews, they have more incentive for writers to make sure that their work is properly edited before they publish. It’s all part of a system to maintain writing standards and provide important information for readers.

      My post on why it’s good for authors to write reviews is here http://tahlianewland.com/2011/04/07/writers-writing-reviews-can-it-be-bad-for-your-career/
      My post on why authors should publish negative reviews is here http://tahlianewland.com/2012/08/13/should-authors-publish-negative-book-reviews/

  8. I usually use Lainy when reviewing or SMBSLT but everyone knows the two are linked so I don’t’ post under a “hidey” name. I review books and if I find it one, two, 3 star I will post it as such. I have read books others have only one starred, but if I found a book that only had positive reviews I would think twice about it thinking are they real. I like seeing varied opinions on a book and look forward to see where mine will fall.

    I also am guilty of author associating names for example if I review Mandasue Heller I will say if you like Martina Cole I think you will enjoy her. I enjoy reviews that have author associated names too 🙂

    Great article, I enjoy hearing all the different views and am very much of the opinion everyone should review in their own way (as long as they don’t do spoilers without warning people first).

    Lainy SMBSLT

  9. Great post, Linda, and thanks for including my comments. (I think my school teachers might recognise me there with the old ‘I’ll decide on my own rules’ standpoint!)

    I always understood the like button to be there purely to help Amazon target their recommendations. Liking a book doesn’t mean you’ve read it, it might merely mean you like that type of book and would like to have more appear in your recommended products. Amazon’s own description of the Like button is this: “Liking things on Amazon can help improve your shopping experience by allowing us to provide personalised product recommendations based on what you like. You can try the feature on many Amazon product pages. You’ll be able to see how many other Amazon customers like a product, and clicking the “Like” button adds the product to your list of liked items.”

    I’m not sure if the number of ‘Likes’ helps with ranking position anyway, so authors vying for Likes might be wasting their time.

    I agree with your approach to keywords as well, Linda. Using the name of a similar author in your book’s meta data is no similar from saying in your marketing material: Readers of such-and-such may enjoy this book.

  10. Being new to the world of writing/publishing but always have been an avid reader, I was shocked at the entire ‘review’ issue. Firstly, a writer should NEVER review a fellow writer. Being a writer, I now tend to read a book on a different level. I now get thrown off by sentence structure and minor errors that the non-professional reader doesn’t honestly care about. Reading is not as enjoyable as it used to be. The reality is a fellow writer is a competitor and thus has a different level/reason to review. The most ethical person puts themselves in a difficult situation since anyway you look at it you are a competitor.
    Secondly, I stay away from Goodreads since I find there are far too many critics vs reviewers. Again the ‘average’ readers wants to be entertained and be taken away to another place, they care little about editing errors and more about the story. It also seems that far too many authors have ample amount of time to waste on the site.
    Lastly, regarding the review issue. Regulated is a dirty word for some people but it does appear that there is some big issues surrounding reviews. I couldn’t believe that the review system was a free-for-all and you could basically right whatever you wanted…without retribution. I also feel the importance of reviews are grossly over-rated by most writers/reviewers. Before I was a fulltime writer, I rarely purchased a novel based on a good/bad review. I looked at it as one persons opinion…how mant times has a movie/play recieved poor reviews but you liked it. If we don’t base our lives on other peoples opinions then why do we give value to reviewers who have a hidden agenda?
    I take review for what they are worth and my 1 or 2 star critics do not reflect the true feelings of my target audience. I didn’t spellcheck this in honor of my readers who love a good book and don’t spend their time searching for errors.

    1. I have to disagree about authors reviewing. As a reader, I find reviews written by authors the most comprehensive, the most balanced and often the only ones that mention the quality of the writing.

  11. I write reviews using my own name. I have never written a review for a book that I have not read or for one which I considered did not merit 3 stars or more. On Goodreads, I occasionally rate books with one or two stars, but without an accompanying review. I take my reviewing responsibilities seriously. I believe my standards are higher, more demanding than most, my reviews lying on the blunt end of the spectrum. If I give a book 5 stars, it’s because I loved it and would happily give it to my wife to read. I am now reviewing eBooks for The Kindle Book Review, with all the additional responsibility and work that that entails. I’m sure they will bury me with an eReader of some sort clutched in my hands.

  12. Great article. I have a strong opinion against “liking” books on Amazon that I have not read, and my opinion is based on reader feedback. Many readers view the Amazon “Like” button as a measure of quality of the book, much like a review. I wrote a blog post about it when it was first brought to my attention, about a year ago: http://www.worldliterarycafe.com/content/leading-ethics-out
    Since then, many readers have spoken out and I’ve received emails from many. I do view tags differently, as I have yet to meet a reader that really understands that tags even exist, and tags are used to heighten the visibility of books rather than as a measure of quality.

    1. I don’t like books just because someone says “like my book and I’ll like yours back.” But I do “like” it if I think I might buy it, or I have bought it but not read it. I agree with the article, the Like button is a bit ambiguous… But I guess my squishy thought process is, I click Like if I think I will based on the blurb and reading the inside and my willingness to buy it. If those 3 things align, I’m willing to click the button.

  13. It’s gotten to be a murky world out there … I don’t do “likes” from a list of quid pro quos, and I don’t do them for books in genres I’m not going to read. However, I will like a review that offers a thoughtful commentary on a book I’m thinking about reading.

    Re removing reviews. I share Amazon’s concern with fake 5-star reviews, but the only way I can think of to “fix” it is require real names. Requiring purchases from Amazon has some merit, but people still do buy from their local bookstore or use libraries, and I don’t think Amazon should lock out people who support their community. As for the really “bad” reviews, I a 1-star from someone who clearly wasn’t interested in my genre … in its own way, it is helpful. By contrast, I have a 1-star from a “trasher” … I wish it wasn’t there, but it’s so obviously a “slash and burn” effort, it doesn’t worry me in the least!

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