Most indie authors are keen to solicit new reviews for their self-published books, and a classic tactic is to offer free books for reviews in the form of ARCs (advance review copies), either directly to potential readers or via services such as NetGalley. Yet Mark Horrell, who writes books and a prominent blog about Everest, suggests that offering ARCsmay break the spirit of the law, even if the potential reviewer is not pressured into reviewing. Read on to find out why he makes this claim about practice that has long been a mainstay of the wider publishing industry – and join the debate via the comments box!
I’m going to say something that I know will be controversial and may annoy fellow ALLi members, which I don’t want to do, but it’s a subject we need to discuss.
The Problem with Disappearing Reviews
Recently there has been much discussion about Amazon reviews. It seems that a lot of indie authors have seen five-star reviews disappearing with no explanation. This is infuriating; we don’t have big marketing budgets, and word-of-mouth is one of our most important ways of getting new readers.
I’ve followed these discussions from the sidelines. I’m one of the lucky authors who has hundreds of favourable Amazon reviews, yet – as far as I’m aware – hasn’t seen a single one disappear. Perhaps I should be worried that I will be next, but I’m relaxed.
The Organic Route to Reviews
You see, almost all of my reviews are organic, written by complete strangers who have picked up my books, enjoyed them, and been kind enough to leave feedback for others.
I’m extremely grateful to these people because they owe me nothing.
How do I get these reviews?
- I put a friendly request at the back of my books.
- When I blog about my writing, I leave a note at the end of the post asking readers to kindly leave a review.
I don’t ask friends and family to post reviews, and as far as I’m aware, only one or two of them ever have.
The ARC Route to Reviews
Another thing I don’t do is send out advance reader copies (ARCs) of my books. This is a practice that I understand indie authors have adapted from the traditional publishing industry. It involves sending out free final drafts of a book to readers in the hope they will write a review and post it on Amazon on the eve of publication.
Some indie authors take this practice very seriously, and assemble substantial ‘ARC teams’ of engaged readers who are happy to post a review in return for an advance copy.
I don’t have an ARC team for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a clear breach of Amazon’s guidelines. Secondly, I consider it to be unethical.
Why Free Books for Reviews Break Amazon T&Cs
Let’s start with the first of these reasons, because it’s more clear cut. In their review policy Amazon gives some examples of customer reviews that they don’t allow. Two of these are:
- A customer posts a review in exchange for financial reward.
- A family member of the product creator posts a 5-star review to help boost sales.
This seems clear enough. If you have reviews that are either of these things, then you can have no complaints if the review disappears.
My guess is that Amazon considers a free copy to be a financial reward.
Many of these reviews are easy to spot. If, for example, a book receives a lot of five-star reviews on the same day that it goes on sale, then it’s likely the readers received advance copies (not many people can read a book that quickly).
So those are the guidelines, how about the ethics?
It may seem like a natural kindness to give someone a book and ask them politely to leave ‘honest’ feedback, but if you do this systematically, there comes a point when it’s no longer honest but deceitful.
Consider the Reader's Perspective
To understand this point, it’s necessary to put ourselves in our readers’ shoes. This should be easy for us to do; after all, we are readers too, and consumers of services that benefit from unbiased feedback.
Let me give some examples of how reviews and opinions in exchange for financial reward can become deceitful.
- Suppose you visit a restaurant because it received a large number of positive reviews on TripAdvisor. The restaurant turns out to be pretty average. When it’s time to pay your bill, the waiter returns with an iPad and the offer of 10% off your bill if you post a review. It may be tempting to claim your discount, but you’ve just visited an average restaurant because other people succumbed to that very same temptation.
- A guidebook writer visits a hotel and is treated like royalty because the owner knows they’ve come to review it. When an ordinary traveler arrives the following year on the strength of a review they saw in the guidebook, they receive a completely different standard of service (a friend of mine, the travel blogger and guidebook writer David Ways, has written passionately on this topic).
- As a sideline to my books, I also write an outdoor blog. It’s common practice for outdoor retailers and brands to invite bloggers like me to review equipment and clothing. There are many outdoor bloggers who are only too happy to receive free clothing in return for a review. But these reviews can never be completely honest, because the blogger knows that the brand will stop sending free clothing if they write negative reviews (in the same way that you will probably drop readers from your ARC team if they do likewise).
Although I sometimes review outdoor gear in a lighthearted way, I have never accepted free clothing. But I also review mountaineering books, and in the past I’ve accepted requests from authors and publishers to review theirs. I don’t do this any more. I found it very difficult to post an honest review if I didn’t like the book. These authors were my friends on social media and I didn’t want to upset them.
Fake News, Fake Reviews
We live in an era of fake news and reviews, and I could give many other examples, but hopefully you get the idea.
It’s in our interest as readers and consumers to promote honesty and objectivity.
We are lucky in ALLi to have one of the friendliest, most helpful member communities on Facebook. But I’ve been biting my tongue as I followed our many discussions about Amazon reviews and ARC readers. I know my opinion is going to upset some of you, and I may be in a minority, but it’s time I raised my head above the parapet.
Reviews in exchange for free books are fake reviews. Amazon is quite right to remove them. I hope I’m not the only indie author who feels this way.
OVER TO YOU What's your view on the use of ARCs to solicit reviews? As an author and as a reader? Are the days of the ARC Team over, or is it still a valid marketing strategy – and does it really break Amazon's T&Cs? Mark Horrell would love you to join the debate here.Is offering free books in return for reviews really ethical? #Indieauthor & mountaineering blogger @MarkHorrell explains why he thinks the practice should end. Click To Tweet