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Publishing: Update On The Ethics Of  Reviewing Other Authors’ Books

Publishing: Update on The Ethics of Reviewing Other Authors’ Books

Photo of two Muppet puppetsTwo years on from “sockpuppetgate” – when certain authors were discovered to be posting negative reviews of books they deemed to be in competition with their own – there is still confusion and dissent about the ethics and etiquette of authors reviewing other authors' books. This post shares self-published authors' current views on the issue and includes the latest guidance on reviewing practice from Amazon.

The following comments are taken from a recent private conversation between ALLi members after one had spotted a group of trade-published romance authors systematically posting rave reviews of each other's books across multiple platforms. The names of the participants have been removed to protect their privacy.

Is it ethical to take part in a mutually beneficial reviewing circle?

  • “When you've got the same circle of people reviewing each other's books, the natural assumption is that reviews are not honest reviews. They appear to have been arranged, which reeks of quid pro quo and gaming the system. A few honest reviews between fellow authors? I don't have a problem with that. But the same eight people systematically exchanging reviews of each other's work across multiple venues? That seems fraudulent to me, little different than buying fake reviews.”
  • “Even if the reviews are honest, even if one believes this is ethical behavior, it *looks* dishonest. It casts doubt on all the legitimate reviews for that book. And there's a very real chance that it could blow up in all of their faces at some point.”
  • “I don't think there is anything wrong with this if they are honest reviews. People should be allowed to review books written by their friends. Just because they are friends doesn't mean their opinion isn't valid. If they are just rating them all 5 stars without reading them, then sure, that's foul-play. But there isn't any way to prove that. And I think assuming foul-play before being sure it's foul-play is like assuming someone is guilty of a crime until proven innocent.”
  • “I feel very strongly about this because I have made at least 50 fabulous author friends online over the past four years. Does that mean I'm not allowed to review their books? It shouldn't. And I wouldn't stand for it if someone said I couldn't.”
  • “It's a myth that Amazon and certain parties like to perpetuate that it removes all indie authors' reviews of other indie authors books. I've done dozens of them and I'm not sure that any of them have ever been removed. Please don't tell Amazon! But my conscience is clear: they are books I've read and enjoyed, I give honest and detailed reviews (which shows I have actually read the books), and I review more books now than before they started trying to discourage author reviews from reviewing, because I don't like my views suppressed. What I find much more irksome is the way trade publishers buy quotes from high profile authors and other celebrities to put on the covers of other authors' books. Has Stephen Fry really read and enjoyed all the books that bear his endorsement on their covers? I don't think so.”
  • “Here's a hypothetical twist: what if there were twenty authors all reviewing one another's work and inflating their ratings with five-star reviews? Would that be kosher? I know a circle of 5 YA authors who do that – all rate each other's book 5 stars. Every single time, every person in the group. It does inflate their ratings, especially with titles not yet released, which is why I believe they do it.”
  • “Is it any different to what used to happen before Amazon et al, when publishers would send books pre-publication to, let's say, a famous thriller writer for a review, who would get a good review in return from the same writer? Not as well organised as this cabal sounds, but not that different … ?”
  • “If the author is a friend, or you have the same agent or publisher, an ethical reviewer will state that in a review. If you receive a free copy for review you're legally obliged to state that.”

Amazon's Attitude

  • “I thought Amazon at least had vowed to remove all such reviews? And I'm surprised the Goodreads bloodhounds haven't sniffed it out!”
  • “Two years ago, Amazon went on a review massacre, a rampage that was in direct response to the bad press about John Locke and friends buying their reviews. They also issued correspondence stating that authors were in the same category as manufacturers, and therefore could not review any book because it was a conflict of interest. They went overboard, and they have dialed it back since then, so we should be careful not to make assumptions based on their behavior in 2012.”
  • “I spoke with an Amazon rep on May 26th to clarify their policy, and he stated clearly: “Authors are allowed to review any book they wish to review, as long as it is not their own book.” Amazon states this on their site as well: “Authors are welcome to submit Customer Reviews, unless the reviewing author has a personal relationship with the author of the book being reviewed, or was involved in the book’s creation process (i.e. as a co-author, editor, illustrator, etc.). If so, that author isn't eligible to write a Customer Review for that book. Personal relationship” is open to interpretation, but the policy is not to remove reviews simply because the reviewer happens to be an author.”

Two years on, the aftermath of the initial scandal continues to trouble authors, and particularly indies, but it should not stop you writing honest reviews about other authors' books, provided you are open about any free review copies received and the nature of your relationship. Of course, just like any other readers, not all authors are eager reviewers or feel comfortable writing reviews, but if you want to do it, don't let your status as an author constrain you.

OVER TO YOU Please feel free to join the debate via the comments section at the end – but remember that this is an open website, and your name will be published against any comment left there.

Twitter bird outlineEASY TWEET

“Is it safe to start reviewing other authors' books again? Did you ever stop? Thoughts from indie authors via @IndieAuthorALLi: www.selfpublishingadvice.org/ethics-of-reviewing/”


This Post Has 12 Comments
  1. My personal opinion is someone has to get the ball rolling, with out some kind of written statement about the book how will you know what it is about? At least with one Author rating another Authors book you have a semi professional opinion. The way this would be wrong is if the book was not read and had a bogus made-up review to score high ratings. I am the Author of “From Geek to God, the novel”, I have left reviews for other books, needless to say the books I reviewed had Authors thus making me an Author leaving a review for another Author, where is the harm in that?

  2. It’s become something of a two-edged sword. I learned how tricky it can get, early on, with “reciprocal reviews” and no longer ask or do them. Since I am a writer with seven titles currently available as well as an active Amazon Vines reviewer, I take attitudes very seriously. When it comes to my own books, I actually prefer a writer’s review, as they can be very helpful if I’ve missed a structural target or have a repetitive issue, since we speak the same language. But I also really enjoy reader’s comments and reviews as they are usually spontaneous and revealing. I review lots of books, many in the genres I write in. If I enjoy a book, I write a complimentary review illustrating the points of plot and character I found most engaging. If I can’t give a book three stars, though, I will contact the publisher or the author if possible and offer my notes. For the peanut gallery of online trolls-in-training, it is all too easy to target reviews. Amazon has not done enough to prevent puppetry and trolling although at least they will remove trolled reviews if enough people object to them. On Goodreads, however, trolled reviews and ratings from someone who hasn’t read the book are pretty typical, and those who engage in this kind of trollery usually move in groups. It pays authors to keep a low profile there, if they want to save their hides. On B&N, they so favor the reader’s comfort, that they make it almost impossible to post a review brought in elsewhere, if you are the author. Ethic should be important to every writer who wants to publish. When it comes to reviews, especially so.

  3. I am in a real quandary at the moment. A tangential friend, as described by Anna, recently published her first novel and encouraged all her “friends” to buy the book. I saw from the cover, book description, and publisher, that this book would be a slog for me because it is of a genre I haven’t read in over 40 years. I downloaded the ebook and as I plodded through the first third of the book I cringed through each chapter. The writing is, I suppose, not bad, given the genre and audience. But page after page of pent-up sexual chemistry and a female protagonist who, in my mind was as mindless as 12 year old, almost caused me to give up. Finally the plot began to unfold and a degree of suspense was introduced. But as I work towards the end of this book, knowing that the author is waiting for the “expected” 5-star review, I am chewing my nails over the ethics. If I didn’t know the author, this book would get a low 2 stars. But I am very aware of how just one 3-star review can “damage” a book’s hype. I refuse to compromise my own values by star inflation. I keep looking for the few nice things I could say about the book, but in the end, the best I’ll be able to offer is a 3 star with a caveat about this not being a genre I enjoy.

    If you were the author of this book, which would you prefer? My honest review or silence.?

    1. This seems to be the conundrum of self publishing online. Apparently the blinded peer review was a good idea, and the ethical dilemna of reviewing for a friend would be less complicated.

  4. I read a lot. At times, the book I read is written by someone I “know” tangentially via various writers’ websites/groups. Does that per definition make me biased when i review the book? No, i would argue – the reviews i write are honest and based on my reading experience. Very rarely am I given a book to read and review, and if I am, I will state that openly. What I can say though, is that it would be difficult to post a truly negative review for a book where I know the author. In such cases, I generally abstain – does that compromise my honesty? Not sure, but O know very many reviewers think the same way and only post the positives.

  5. It’s certainly likely that there is collusion between some authors and it’s a shame those of us who don’t do that have to be penalised because of it. I know many authors and have read their books and I am always honest in every review I write. I consider it a matter of integrity. I may decide not to review a book written by a friend if I didn’t enjoy it but I would never write a review raving about a book that I haven’t read or didn’t enjoy reading.

  6. I recently wrote a review for an Indie author (who does not belong to ALLi). I looked at her other reviews: all were 5-star.

    However, I stuck to my policy of leaving 5-star for actual total rave books, something I rarely do as I believe in there being few utter rave books, but there can be many many good ones.

    I kind of suspect the other reviewers were giving 5-stars out too easily. And I certainly had points to make which I didn’t, as I somehow felt shouldn’t rate too low as would look very picky and uppity about my own writing – this is probably misplaced fear but somehow on Amazon a 3-star even has become something of a criticism. So if there is any dishonesty going on, one wd not want to look like you were indulging in ‘author’s wars’ rather than simply saying that the book has some failings. So, you fall to mentioning only what it has that is good … which is positive, but honest reviews are actually helpful if they are written ‘decently and in order’ as the Presby church says of all behaviour – i.e. they are constructive and useful. Difficult one!

  7. I think anyone should review any book they’ve read and want to review. However, authors, in this highly accessible world, are vulnerable to retaliation for reviews that someone doesn’t like.

    I don’t write book reviews, because I don’t consider myself a reviewer. That is, IMHO, a specialized skill. I’m a reader. I will comment on books I’ve enjoyed, but I don’t write what I’d call a review.

  8. The “but mainstream authors do it” line drives me potty – it’s another of those “but they do it!” lines that sits alongside “there are loads of badly written/badly edited books published traditionally.” To me, that’s straightforwardly shoddy reading, and as a reader my first thought is “if they can’t see that’s shoddy rteasoning they probably can’t string a cherent plot together.

    You either think it’s OK or you don’t think it’s OK – both have very convincing arguments behind them. But let’s take the lead and not get into this lowest common denominator stuff!

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