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Opinion: Why Giving Readers Free Books For Reviews Is Unethical

Opinion: Why Giving Readers Free Books for Reviews is Unethical

Mark Horrell in full mountaineering kit

Mark Horrell, mountaineering diarist and blogger, poses a controversial question about free books for reviews

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).
cover of The Everest Politics Show by Mark Horrell

Mark Horrell is not afraid of controversy

  • 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

Photo of Mark relaxing at camp

Although Mark Horrell writes in a clearly defined and narrow niche, his comments on ARCs are relevant to us all

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

Author: Mark Horrell

Indie author and mountaineering blogger - find out more at Mark's website, www.markhorrell.com.


This Post Has 50 Comments
  1. I’m 50-50 on this issue. I don’t think giving out ARCs is bad. It’s the author’s prerogative after all. I myself have gotten ARCs or even published copies where the authors NEVER, EVER asked for reviews in exchange. Those are the nice authors who simply want to promote their books, taking a chance on us as a reader if we will like their work and give an honest review. I was never pressured to do anything after I received the copies. However, I have seen some authors who give out ARCs specifically to get reviews, and others even not so low-key hinting that if you plan to give unfavourable reviews, you won’t be chosen as a candidate for an ARC. In fact, there are even review groups not affiliated with specific authors who highly discourage giving low reviews (which is weird, to be honest). I have seen new or yet to be released books with OBVIOUS fake reviews. How do I know? Well, they’re the kind of generic reviews that are so short and they basically just summarise the plot in their own words based on what’s written on the blurb. If you check their account and trace those accounts’ reviews, they ALWAYS give out generic reviews that you can simply tweak a bit and pin on another book. And yes, they always give out perfect reviews, they never rate 3 or below. The practice itself isn’t necessarily wrong, but it becomes meaningless if either the author or the reviewer doesn’t care about the truth and just wants to trick people into buying a book, regardless if it’s what the reader wants or not. Which is why when I give reviews, I don’t give do the usual run-down of the plot routine; rather, I state what parts I liked and didn’t like (with as little spoilers as possible) and explain in detail why I gave the rating I did. And yes, while I have given 5-star reviews because I GENUINELY loved the book, I have also given ARC books I’ve read 1-star reviews, not because I wanted to, but because I really did not find anything I liked in the book, no matter how hard I tried to give it a chance. Of course, I also provided all the reasons for that, I ALWAYS do. It’s sad that there are people who are dishonest about reviews and even sadder that it’s become a standard practice in this day and age to some to not care if their book genuinely deserves good ratings or not. I know putting together a book is a gruelling endeavour, but the reader or buyer still deserves to know the truth (via reviews) whether the book is really worth buying or not (i.e. what they want to buy), but with so many fake reviews mixed in with the real ones, it’s almost impossible to determine anymore. And no, I don’t agree that perfect ratings are automatically dishonest; that’s absurd. It’s like saying NO ONE IS ENTITLED TO LIKE A BOOK AT ALL. But I understand why people might not trust 5-star reviews anymore because as I’ve said, they’re up there with the fake reviews. To be fair, there are also a lot of fake bad reviews. Ultimately, the more untrustworthy reviews become, the more the buyer might be pushed to resort to finding out via pirated copies whether a book is good or not before buying. And honestly, with all the fakery going on these days, I kind of understand.

  2. I have to say I disagree in the claim that getting arcs is against Amazon’s guidelines and is unethical. Traditionally published authors have been doing this, so why is this unethical for indie authors . It a free copy is not considered a financial reward, and there is absolutely not obligation for the reviewer to post a review either.

  3. I understand the spirit of the article, and it’s interesting food for thought. However, the closing quotation irked me, calling ARC reviews “fake reviews”. They are not fake if the reviewer actually read the whole book, and is writing up an original summary and thought analysis. A fake review is a review from a dummy account belonging to the author him/herself. A fake review is a review that is copied & pasted from book review to book review. A fake review is written by someone who didn’t even read the book. All of those are examples of “fake” reviews. But calling a review “fake” just because a person received the book at no charge? By that logic, is a thoughtful review of a library book you rented & read “fake”? If you received a book as a gift from your aunt, and read the whole thing and reviewed it, is it a “fake” review because the book was a gift? Calling all ARC reviewers’ reviews fake isn’t fair if they actually read the whole book and are providing their own thoughtful, original analysis of it.

  4. The author is making some incorrect assumptions.

    For example, he says: “My guess is that Amazon considers a free copy to be a financial reward.”

    This is incorrect. In fact, Amazon *specifically states* that book publishers are allowed to give out review copies. Therefore it’s not a TOS violation.

    The ethics issue is dicier. Ethics are relative; they are codes of behavior decided upon by society as being valuable. What was seen as ethical behavior twenty years ago in the US is often seen as grossly unethical today. What we see as ethical today may well be considered unethical twenty years from now. Ethics change as our views change.

    Right now, in this moment, ARC reviews are ethical, because they are the standard industry practice. Paid reviews are considered unethical by indie writers but considered ethical by trad publishers (who use them routinely on thousands of books a year). Ethics vary and shift.

    I can see his argument, and I suspect that at some point in the future society might shift to consider any sort of reimbursement for a review as unethical. At the moment, however? It does not.

  5. I would have to respectfully disagree with this opinion. I am not an author but I love reading (pretty much all genres, fiction and non-fiction, highbrow and lowbrow). I often joke with friends that trashy genre fiction is my version of binge watching Netflix and I buy a lot of low cost fiction or borrow it via my Kindle Unlimited subscription. In doing so, I’ve read many works from either self-published authors or tiny niche publishers who have little to no name recognition for me to go off of and limited resources when it comes to marketing and promotion. Some of my favorite stories from the past couple years are ones that I might never have read if there weren’t reviews and ratings for me to take into consideration when deciding (and yes in many cases there were reviews with the free copy disclaimer).

    When looking at e-books from unknown authors, the information I have to go off of is cover art, title, average star rating, and number of reviews noted in parentheses next to the title. There are tons of books to choose from and not every author can afford amazing cover art; those comments and reviews are often the deciding factor between me clicking or not clicking to read the book’s description. And even if I’m interested enough to click on the book for more info, the descriptions are not always enough for me to go off of. The reviewer comments, even when they are all ARC reviews, will usually supplement enough information to help me decide whether or not to get the book. I generally find it pretty obvious which reviews seem like BS, which ones are irrelevant to my personal likes/dislikes, and which ones genuinely provide valuable feedback to help me decide.

    I think of ARC reviews as an accessible tool in the marketing toolbox for writers with limited resources to use for promoting their book. Personally I don’t see an ethical problem with it as long as reviewers are disclosing the free copy and I know to take it with a grain of salt. I think there are bigger and more important ethical issues regarding the financial and industry entry barriers that creative people in disadvantaged socioeconomic circumstances face when trying to be successful at their craft. Ultimately I am supportive of mechanisms that allow for a more diverse group of people to continue writing and sharing their stories, and I see ARC reviews as more contributing than hindering in this regard.

  6. I read 2 0r 3 science fiction books a week that I purchase from Amazon, but I have stopped purchasing books that have been rated a “5” where the reviewer received a FREE copy in return for reviewing the book. Now days as soon as I see a book that I might want to purchase, I look at the reviews and quite often, the first 10 reviewers got a free copy and wrote an outstanding review.
    If your book is any good, you don’t need to give out free copies for a good rating.
    I believe that Amazon show not allow any reviews where the reviewer gets a free copy.

  7. I have no issue giving arcs out, but I’m not going to chase for reviews either. If someone likes the book I would like to think they would review it, if they don’t then maybe they wasn’t passionate enough to write one.
    I have always given a review to an arc book liked or not. It’s easy for some to sit on a high horse and say they don’t beg for reviews, it is what it is in this day and age, if you don’t want to give a review on an arc, then don’t, but don’t ask for a free book either buy it based on the reviews you didn’t want to do.

    I still feel a lot of readers don’t review not because they don’t want to, but because a lot of voice is given about reviews by authors, the simple and plain fact is, the reader reviews are constructive criticism. If you receive negative then take it and turn into a positive within reason of course.
    I love a good one star review, why because it means they have taken into account your faults and was passionate enough to write about them.

    If you’re hurt by them go to your favorite author’s best book, and look at their one star reviews, you can’t please everyone all of the time. So don’t try, I write for me, not for reviews.

    1. I thought I was the only one who goes straight to the one star reviews. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

  8. This is not an indie specific practice. Trad publishers distribute free ARCs to netgalley, and Amazon imprints also distribute ARCs so I think they’re good with it.

  9. Amazon explicitly allows authors and publishers to give away copies of their book for free or at a discount. From their customer review guidelines page (found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=201929730 ) under “Promotions and Commercial Solicitations” it reads:

    Book authors and publishers may continue to provide free or discounted copies of their books to readers, as long as the author or publisher does not require a review in exchange or attempt to influence the review.

    This has always been the policy, even after the change a few years ago where they no longer allowed physical products to be given away in exchange for reviews. In the press release about the review policy change at the time they explicitly mentioned the exception included in the language above.


    1. Yup, this: it’s clearly ok.
      The author feels it’s immoral, for reasons, but that’s a cop out. Then you can claim poor book sales is only because you’re choosing the moral high ground. “I could be selling more books but I’m unwilling to do what’s uncomfortable to me even though amazon allows it.” This is a terrible mindset for authors who are struggling to sell because they don’t have enough reviews.

  10. I disagree completely with Mark Horrell on this topic. His two examples are actually irrational.
    Example 1: “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.”
    My issues with this point: First, how do we know that those positive reviews were posted by people who were offered the discount? We don’t. Second, I would accept the discount (if I felt like it at that moment) and consider it a service to post a review that accurately reflects my own impressions. Otherwise, all that would be on the review site would be the stellar reviews, which I don’t agree with.

    Example 2: “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.”
    My issue with this point: Restaurant reviewers have this same problem. The ethical ones will try very hard not to alert the establishment to the reason for their visit. If guidebook writers don’t or can’t do the same, they should at least suspect that they’ve been “made” and they will be aware that their service level is not standard. If I were in this position, I would make it a point to observe how other visitors are treated and even see if some of them would be willing to talk to me. In any event, an ethical guidebook writer would do whatever they could to temper their review based on the knowledge that the establishment was aware of their role.

    Furthermore, Horrell is ignoring the plight of authors who are not fortunate enough to have “hundreds of favorable reviews.” I, also, place requests on my book covers and in the back pages of my novels. I also blog about my upcoming books, talk about them on social media, and contact professional reviewers. But if I did not have a group of beta readers/super fans/whatever you want to call them who give me HONEST reviews, I would be invisible. I have had super fans post reviews that were not flattering when they didn’t enjoy a book. I welcome that; if I have only 5-star reviews, who would believe that?

    Horrell’s post reminds me of a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” that goes like this: “A man who is warm cannot understand a man who is cold.”

  11. ARCs have no monetary value. They’re not (or shouldn’t be) resellable in the way published books can be sold secondhand.

  12. Thank you for being brave enough to express your opinion, even though it’s a controversial one. The murky gray area which involves whether to review or not to review? terrified me when I first got published.

    I used to review books on Amazon under the name of mousewife along with movies, anime, and TV series I bought. I did it because Amazon sent me requests to write reviews. As someone who hoped to self publish and wanted a good relationship with Amazon, I complied.

    When I published, I heard from other authors that reviews were being taken down in the same subject matter a writer wrote in.

    I love fantasy, science fiction…Storm Constantine, Elizabeth Bear, and Sarah Monette are among my favorite writers. I didn’t dare review them, though, even though I loved their work.

    For a while, I just left stars on Goodreads and avoided Amazon. I wouldn’t write any reviews, even though other writers asked me to. I, too, feared being biased, because I do really care about books, reviews, and I wish to give them their rightful due because of the material inside, not because I like the writer and want her to succeed.

    Which is another quagmire because I do want her to succeed. One of the most supportive groups I’ve found on social media are other writers. I wouldn’t be here now if not for them.

    So yes, I’m biased. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I wanted to use my voracious reading habit, my huge reading list I was working through to polish up my writing skills crafting reviews.

    It ended up being an addictive habit, distracting even. At the same time, I’m not entirely comfortable with ARCs for some of the reasons you raised, of feeling pressured to give a good review rather than an honest one. My reason for reading the book is to do a favor for another writer rather than because I wanted to read their book.

    If I can do both, that would be wonderful. Alas, it’s not always the case. I’m a picky reader. Not everyone can satisfy me, even if they’re very, very good.

    I’m still mulling ARCs over, since other writers here mentioned some valid points about us needing all the exposure we need.

    You’ve suggested some alternatives to this. Thank you for sharing them with us. It just goes to show there’s many paths to success. We don’t have to follow the same ones. I really appreciate you offering a map, showing some routes we didn’t know about. 🙂

  13. Ok, hold up a minute. I am a Top 1000 Reviewer on Amazon and quite active on Goodreads also. I have read Amazon’s Terms of Service from top to bottom and have reported authors, reviewers, and suppliers when they are breaking it.

    There is NOTHING in the Amazon TOS that says ANYTHING about how sending a free ARC to a potential reviewer is against their rules. I didn’t get that high in the ranking at Amazon that I didn’t ask questions about things like ARC’s. The answers I got were quite simple. I cannot have any monetary gain by receiving the ARC from the author. And the author cannot require me to write a review, under any circumstances. On top of all that, I should state in the review, so that people reading it understand where the book came from (as it will not be listed as a “verified purchase”), that I received it as an ARC and that I have chosen to leave the review.

    To tell people that receiving ARC’s is unethical and possibly against the law? I have no idea where you got your law degree, but you should probably request your money back. I’ve written almost 600 book reviews on Amazon and I would tell you that half of them were ARC’s. The only one that was removed was put right back up on the site, after I asked for a review. My advice for anyone whose reviews on any book were pulled, ask for a review through Communities. They will have a live person review it and make a determination. I’ve had long discussions about ARC’s with Amazon. I’ve also had long discussions with them about book-stuffing and other hideous habits, but that is for another post somewhere else.

    I understand that your PERSONAL OPINION is that ARC’s are unethical, but if you can tell me one reason why an independent author cannot take advantage of EVERYTHING the publishing houses have been able to do for years, I’ll delete this post and never say another word. But you really can’t do that, because then you are telling Penguin Putnam, with their battery of lawyers, that they’ve been breaking the law for years. And your telling indie authors that they can’t do everything in their power to get their books out there in front of the readers who want to read them. Being an independently published author is hard enough, and there are enough people ripping them off in this world, that they don’t need ANOTHER AUTHOR telling them they’re wrong.

    1. I agree with you. I just finished my manuscript. And know little about the next steps, other than it’s like climbing Everest for new Indies! We need every advantage we can legitimately get, to compete. Also, just because it’s my friend, relative or even my mother, or someone who I gave a free book to, doesn’t make their review automatically bias or untrue (My mother and friends would never lie, even if I paid them a million dollars). So it’s not right for Amazon to remove 5 star reviews, without CONCLUSIVE proof that they are SEVERE deceptions. On a reciprocal point, do they remove bad reviews? Advertiser ads exaggerate tremendously all the time, including Amazons’ and sometimes blatantly lie. Organizations like Amazon should not be given vast freedom to do what they want, because often times they are the ones that are bias and use ulterior motives for unethical actions!

  14. Horell admits to:
    “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.”

    All authors do this, (or they should), so what his problem?
    If his “ethical consideration” is a FREE book is a “bribe,” then why doesn’t Amazon look at it that way?
    Smacks of “holier than thou.”

    1. You’re spot on.
      I published my first book on Amazon and getting reviews as a newbie is an uphill battle.
      We need all the help that we can get.

  15. I have no problem giving someone a free book and asking them, if they want, to give a review. I don’t ask for a positive review, and I never follow up on it. If they don’t review, then I never chase them down and ask why.

    The first book in my series is free, and at the end, I remind readers they can review it. If someone reviews it, is that going against your ethics? It’s not going against mine.

    I have never given away ARC books. They have always been already published books.

    Bias reviews will never go away for many reasons. A reader who loves a particular author will often give a positive review even if the book wasn’t one of their best.

    You can choose to live with this limitation, but I won’t.

      1. Why is it sad to say. Writers have put a lot of work and money into writing, editing, formatting, and publishing. To give out free ARC books to known fans of a genre and hope for a review that to any extent validated their efforts may well be the only way their work will be noticed and perhaps picked up by others. Marketing is tough. This may be the one way a worthy book gets discovered.

  16. Great article and I definitely think that the connections of reviews to people you’ve interacted with has made it that those reviews are in danger of being removed – regardless of whether they are legit or not.

    However, your guess that Amazon considers a free copy to be a financial reward isn’t true. Here is a memo from Amazon VP of Customer Services saying that Amazon will still honor the ARC process for books and reviews – just not any other product (see the second to last paragraph): https://blog.aboutamazon.com/innovation/update-on-customer-reviews

    However, there are ways to make an ARC against Amazon policies, and there are nuances to the ways one handles asking for them that makes ARCs illegal. To explain all of these nuances and using Amazon’s statements to dispel it, I created a YouTube video for that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RD_ZvwBGYAo ( you can find links to all the source documents used in the video in the description below the video)

    1. Thanks for clarifying the practice, Dave.

      I’d also like to point out that ARCs are a practice that started with the large New York-based publishers. Whereas they were originally distributed to book reviewers and bookstores, electronic ARCs now also go to favored readers (which is why Netgalley thrives). If Amazon were to crack down on Indies who provide ARCs, they’d have to do the same with larger publishers as well.

  17. Good article, very important issues to consider. Please forgive this long note.

    Early on in my “Indie Author Career,” I made the “strategic” decision not to chase reviews but to use that time and energy to do other marketing work. As a result, my books sell very well even though they have very few reviews.

    I want potential readers to know that any reviews of my books are honest and unpressured. I don’t reward reviewers. I don’t trade reviews. I don’t put “review my book” CTAs in my books or other materials. I don’t use ARC teams, but I DO use editor teams (and they do not do book reviews). I do not ask or nudge any of my newsletter subscribers for reviews

    I rarely even ask “professional” reviewers to consider my books. These are reviewers who are in the business of reviewing books for their publications or media, including blogs. Most of them are swamped with review requests and free books, and the criteria varies from one to another as to which books they select to review. That’s as far as I go, and getting reviews remains very low priority for me.

    The way I see it, each and every reader has honored me by giving me their time. My feelings about this come from the same attitude that I have toward guests in my home: It’s all about hospitality. I don’t ask guests to wash the dishes after dinner, I don’t ask them to clean my house, and I don’t ask them to invite me over to their house. I strive to entertain each and every guest, even casual guests, like royalty. They get the best of whatever I have on hand, the best chair, the best snacks, the best drink, etc. But they do have to pay for the fuel and transportation in order to come to my home.

    Putting my stories into the marketplace is akin to that, an open invitation for readers to buy (travel to) and read (visit) my stories. Once they arrive and “come in,” I do my best to extend my “y’all come” hospitality, to make my stories welcoming, warm, meaningful, and entertaining. I know that some of my readers might not enjoy the visit, or might be too bored with me or too restless to “sit a spell.” And I know that my best might not be good enough for some of them. Whether or not they enjoy their visit, my guests/readers can depart whenever they want to do so, and with my very best wishes. .

  18. It’s unfortunate that ALLi, an organization for which I previously had nothing but respect, would publish such drivel. Fake news is exactly right.

    Not only has the author completely misrepresented the Amazon TOS, but seems to have some grudge against successful indie authors. The practice he attacks in this article originated in traditional publishing, where it’s still going strong. Where are those admonishments?

    Getting attention by being controversial is the way things are done. I understand. Let’s keep it out of legitimate organizations claiming to support independent authorship.

  19. Yes, some authors do incentivize reviews. They’ll give ARC readers gift cards and other valuable payoffs, and they will cut off ARC readers who don’t review. There are ARC services that do similarly.

    The elephant in the room is that indie authors do this because many newsletter ad services refuse to sell ads to authors unless their books have a certain number of positive reviews. The root cause of all the desperate, devious author behavior about reviews is clear.

  20. Great read! Though I don’t necessarily agree with Mark’s standpoint, I still appreciate the thorough coverage. The comments are the best to read that help share a more comprehensive overview of review gathering. Kudos, ALLi!

  21. I think you are utterly wrong and guilty of a gross misinterpretation of Amazon’s TOS. I could go on at length but this isn’t the right place.

    In time, I will willingly address your points in my own blog post if you care to read an alternative and factual point of view.

      1. Here is my detailed response: https://www.stephenbentley.info/giving-readers-free-books-for-reviews-is-unethical/
        I also point out in my blog post that Horrell has completely mislead by providing a link to Amazon’s general review policy and not the policies and guidelines for authors and book reviews.
        I don’t solely blame him for that. ALLi editorial staff should have checked it before publishing such an inflammatory article,
        Stop guessing, Mr. Horrell and check your facts, please.

      2. Now responded to this opinion piece on my author blog. Herron’s opinion is partly based on using the wrong source for Amazon’s review guidelines. He used the general product review guidelines. He should have referred to the specific community guidelines for authors and book reviews as Amazon recognise it/they fall into a special case category.
        I think Herron must know this and is deliberately stirring the pot. He must have nothing better to do, perhaps.
        The relevant guidelines are to be found here (Mr. Herron please read and take note): https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors

  22. You need to read the Federal Trade Commission Rules of Endorsement – it specifically addresses the law regarding online reviews. In a nutshell, while you are entitled to your moral OPINION, when you assert, “it’s probably illegal,” you are most-definitely wrong on both counts (the law, and Amazon’s TOS). It all comes down to pressure and expectation when you ask somebody to review your book. You can ASK people to review an ARC. You’re -supposed- to ask them to reveal “I received this product for free in exchange for a fair and unbiased review” though whether they remember to do that, that’s up to them. But you cannot give them additional compensation, or pressure them, in any way. Which means you risk getting some duds.

    “…your Google search does not equal my law license…”

  23. This is an interesting argument, but rather a hair shirt approach to the subject.

    I think as long as you don’t pressurize your advance readers into writing a review, it’s OK to ask for one with a free copy of a book. It has been the practice in the traditional publishing industry for as long as the business of publishing and reviewing has been going on.

    There are always scandals online, such as the one that hit Tripadvisor recently, and this is what Amazon is trying to combat. But if you are honest about your practices and follow ALLI’s ethical guidelines, I think it’s a shame not to allow some of your most avid fans and book bloggers to read your books for free, as well as asking nicely if they’d like to post a review.

  24. I was a review blogger for a long time. I receive free books to review. I could have afforded to review the 50 to a 100 books I did at my peak. Anyone who followed me blog would have known I am a tough reviewer and don’t hand out out many five star reviews, and do give two star when warranted, this is a bit different from having a dedicated team to review just your books. It is a gray area and one I avoid by just not caring about reviews for my own books.

  25. Thank you for offering your opinion on this issue, which is well thought out and absolutely valid.

    I have certainly benefitted from reviews by strangers who hang out on various forums offering to consider books for review that the author is willing to provide, because I now show a track record of readership/my work looks vetted. Until there’s a replacement tactic, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to ditch the entire proposition.

    But I also agree with Kassandra Lamb above when she mentions how sad it is when authors spend an inordinate amount of time chasing reviews. In my opinion, such a practice begets the kind of gerrymandering that leads to disingenuous representations of our stories, which Amazon is right to prohibit.

    I think both parties – the review platform on the once side and authors soliciting reviews on the other – need to be careful… and saying there are problems therefore there should be no more early reviewing is not the right answer. Reviews offer marketing legitimacy to both sides and can continue to do so if the platform is able to fairly administrate them. Authors need to commit to the long haul and, as the writer of this article said, ask for organic reviews, then accept they will come in over time rather than quickly.

  26. I view ARC reviews as a way to get the ball rolling with reviews on a new release. Verified purchasers are more likely to leave a review if they saw that some people already have.

    Although I’ve had a few reviews disappear, they’ve never been from my ARC reviewers (that I know of). I have a small ARC team and send out a limited number of ARCs to others. If I get ten or twelve reviews to get things started, I’m happy.

    I’d much prefer (and get plenty of) organic reviews, but I don’t think ARCs are unethical and Amazon makes an exception to the “review in exchange for financial reward” rule when it comes to free books to readers (as long as a review is not demanded).

    But I think it is sad when authors spend a lot of time and energy chasing reviews. That time and energy would be better spent honing skills and writing more books.

  27. But Amazon (and why do we always talk about Amazon and leave the rest out?) doesn’t actually forbid giving out ARCs. They just don’t want you to use those ARCs to influence whether the review or rating is positive or negative. They say:

    “Although products may be provided to customers for free or at a discount, and those customers may write reviews, any attempt to influence or manipulate reviews is prohibited, including conditioning any future benefit on writing a review or the content of the review.”

    They specifically state that they will generally allow a review in the following circumstances:

    “A customer writes a review of a product received for free at a trade show, convention, or other similar venue where the provider does not monitor whether the customer writes a review or condition any benefits on writing a review or the content of the review.”

    I don’t go crazy over ARCs, and in fact prefer to limit myself to NetGalley, which is an expensive option but to my mind the best solution as it creates a barrier between myself and the professional readers who download the ARCs. What I mean by that is that there is no personal, direct relationship between myself and those readers–I don’t even announce that the ARC is available on social media or Goodreads. I don’t tell my newsletter subscribers. I choose open download so I’m not even screening the people who want to download the ARC. This exposes my poor ARC to a very tough crowd, and any praise is genuine. It worked a treat for me last year with more positive reviews than anything else.

    I know what you’re talking about, though–the approach used by many bestselling indies of forming huge ARC teams from newsletter subscribers and providing them with incentives (a “pre-launch” price drop or whatever) to make a Verified Purchase. Perhaps encouraging them to leave a review with a further incentive like a freebie side story, or just sending a series of emails to remind them to drop that review ASAP. Now those practices ARE dodgy, to my mind. You’re taking people who are already fans of your writing (else why would they be getting your newsletter?) and encouraging them to leave reviews that are more likely than not positive ones. That’s influencing/manipulating and mostly definitely a TOS violation.

    And it produces the problem that many avid readers are conditioned to leave glowing reviews whether you want them to or not. I’ve had beta readers, who were critical during the beta process, leave a 5-star review on the finished book because they assume that’s what I want. And then I can’t tell them to take it down for fear of hurting their feelings! I’m seriously considering making my next beta team promise not to post a review.

    1. I should have said “soft launch” price drop rather than “pre-launch”. I mean those 2-day price drops that ARC readers are driven toward by certain indies.

  28. Interesting perspective. I need to mull this over, but as one who has had large numbers of reviews removed from Amazon, I have long since stopped actively seeking reviews as it strikes me as a waste of my time. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I have to disagree although I understand where you’re coming from. It has opened my eyes to maybe why a review of mine was rejected by Amazon. I have to go back and check but it may have been because I stated I got a copy from the author. Now, as far as people not writing trustworthy reviews, I have to disagree. I, and many other bookstagrammers/goodreaders I follow, all provide accurate reviews regardless. I have seen one star, two star reviews on ARCs with no hesitation on writing why. Now you stated you had some negative reviews on some arcs you had received…. Authors need to be able to accept those too and there’s ways of writing negative reviews without being rude and disrespectful. So this is definitely your choice but I don’t believe it’s fully accurate the reasonings.

  29. Amazon’s policy, direct from Amazon: “We don’t allow any form of compensation for a Customer Review other than a free copy of the book provided upfront. If you offer a free advanced copy, it must be clear that you welcome all feedback, both positive and negative. If we detect that a customer was paid to write a review, we’ll remove it.”


    I worked in traditional book publishing for a decade and sending out ARCs was common practice. It’s how the business works. Indie authors who want to make life more difficult for themselves by maintaining an ethical standard that doesn’t apply to anyone else in the industry are choosing to shoot themselves in the foot. Which they should certainly feel free to do, but ethically, it’s a lot like not taking an allowable tax deduction that you don’t agree with.

    1. Well said, Sarah. Why should Indie authors hold themselves to a standard different from traditional publishing? We see this all the time, when a highly promoted novel comes out and there are fifty five-star reviews on the day of release. Amazon surely doesn’t take those away. The trad publisher has their stable of reviewers.

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