On Promoting Your Book and “Shill Reviews”
This past week, I’ve spent a bit of time lurking in the Kindle forums. I found a few interesting discussions, aptly titled “badly behaving authors” and “badly behaving reviewers.” It seems I’ve been acting unethically – at least that was the consensus from the authorities there. Have I?
Since Diary of a Small Fish went live in September of 2011, it’s garnered 33 reviews, 21 of which are five stars, 11 four stars, and the one 2 star from the nice gentleman who abhors vulgarity.
One of the Amazon guardians pointed out to me that of the 4 and 5 star reviews, close to a quarter of them are what he called “tit for tat,” also known as “you scratch my back, I scratch yours,” or more notoriously, the product of what they call author “review rings.” Reminds me of Authonomy.
Since my reputation is pretty important to me (not all important, mind you – there’s always going to be someone calling you an @$#&@^$%), I’ve reflected quite a bit on this. I even examined the reviews I have given to novels written by authors who first reviewed Small Fish, to see if my review might have been influenced by the kind opinion they expressed in their reviews. I’ve also examined my reviews of “friends’” novels, to see if my “friendship” might have influenced me to give them more credit than they perhaps deserve. Or, as it was otherwise stated, if my review was “objective.”
At the end of my reflection, I have come to the conclusion that it’s pretty much total crap.
There is an opinion out there that the ethical author is never to solicit an Amazon review from a friend or family. The corollary must also be true then – if a friend reviews your novel, you mustn’t review his or hers in return. Much discussion around the definition of “friend” suggests that the term includes people on Facebook with whom you’ve become familiar (such as, for instance, participating in the same groups). I assume the term would also apply to people whom you’ve met on a LinkedIn group or through other social sites that cater to writers (like Agent Query Connect, Red Room, Red Lemonade and the like). Perhaps a good ground rule is if you’ve ever laughed at or agreed with anything someone says in an internet forum, you are disqualified from reviewing her novel.
For my purposes here, I include all the “friends” I made on Authonomy and Agent Query Connect, a grand total of one of which I have actually met in real life – my editor, Robb Grindstaff (who has not reviewed the novel he edited). Those are the people with whom I have the strongest affinity – because (a) I like their style (see infra), and (b) I’ve read their stuff and think they know what they’re doing. I take it on faith that my opinion in that regard is well founded.
A healthy number of these “friends” have reviewed Small Fish favorably. Looking at them, I note that I asked only one of them – Suzanna Burke, who maintains a very active book review blog and agreed to review an advance copy in anticipation of launch. I don’t think under any circumstances I could have predicted how she would react to the story, and I was pretty damn nervous about it, up until the moment I read her review.
Months after she’d posted her review, I read Empty Chairs, the first installment of her memoir. If you know nothing of her story, I challenge you to read it. I gave it a complimentary review, but I now see that it seems to have disappeared. Odd, that.
I have also given “courtesy” reviews (those that follow the author’s review of Small Fish) to Alexander McNabb’s Olives, and Fred Limberg’s Ferris’ Bluff. Following my initial reviews of Vernon Baker’s Slow Boat to Purgatory, Stephen Woodfin’s The Sickle’s Compass, Susanne O’Leary and Ola Saltin’s Virtual Strangers, and Heikki Hatala’s Tulagi Hotel, I received reviews from them. I’ve also reviewed a whole bunch of other novels of non-reviewers. In no instance have any of the reviews been discussed in advance, requested, expected or implied.
So is there anything wrong – ethically – with writing a review of your Authonomy friend’s novel? Are you tainted by your relationship with this person?
I suppose it’s true that in the Brave New World of indie publishing, some aspiring authors enlist their friends to write unduly laudatory “reviews” of a piece of trash that doesn’t deserve to be read past page one. In fact, it happens all too often (which is, I think, what prompts the strong opinions that drive the forums above). It is also possible that one might have a low opinion of a friend’s novel, yet still feel compelled to give him a boost with an unduly favorable review (you might call that a “patsy review,” since the reviewer doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing).
It is also possible that some friends might read the novel, have an unfavorable opinion of it, and decide against reviewing it due to their affection for the author. In fact, I am guilty of that myself (you know who you are!). Is this dishonest, to withhold your negative opinion? To suggest it is, you have to first assert that you have an ethical obligation to review every book you read. Eh, that’s a stretch. I have no obligation to read past the first page, much less finish it.
What about this notion of objectivity? By definition, literature is subjective, coming as it does from the personal perspective of the author, and going as it does into the eye of the reader. A reader’s reaction to a novel cannot help but be subjective, so pure objectivity is a fiction. But am I going to read a novel differently because I know it was written by someone I know (virtually, anyway)? I don’t believe so, but if there is any truth to it, I am probably going to be more critical in my reading, so that I can give the author something of real value – my unvarnished opinion, privately.
Since I didn’t ask any of these folks to read my novel, much less review it, I certainly don’t think any of them have any reason to be deceptive about their opinions of it. And I have an objective basis to conclude that they weren’t: their opinions are almost unanimously shared by complete strangers (alas, the sole exception being the nice gentleman who abhors vulgarity).
What this all comes down to is the propensity for some folks to impose a set of rules for everyone that are based upon the lowest common denominator. Yes, there is impropriety in the way that some people seek and give reviews. There are plenty of indie writers who are immature, insecure, petulant, self-deceptive and overambitious. Their impropriety is obvious enough, and they inhibit the progress of all self-published authors.
But I do not subscribe to the philosophy that the “appearance of impropriety” exists in every instance in which one indie author reviews the work of another – or reads and reviews the work of one who has done him the courtesy first. We are all writers, and we are all readers. We do not give up our rights as readers to express our opinions (or not express them, as the case may be). We do not give up our right as friends to say nice things about people we know or the work that they produce.
I am drawn to the friends that I have because I sense in them (aside from talent) emotional maturity, intellectual honestly, a health sense of humor, and above all, humility. I trust in them to see the same in me. That is the basis upon which I conduct my relationships, and I’m not going to worry about what someone who doesn’t know me thinks.
Customer reviews on Amazon do not have the imprimatur of authority some folks might wish. They are nothing more than the opinions of readers who think enough about the reading experience to leave some feedback for other readers. To the extent that they are written with the intent of misleading customers, that is fraudulent. That’s not what the people I call “friends” do. It’s not what I do.
Filed under: Book Marketing, Internet | 28 Comments
Tags: agent query, amazon, authonomy, book reviews, Empty Chairs, Ferris' Bluff, Olives, review rings, Robb Grindstaff, shill reviews, Sickle's COmpass, Slow Boat, Tulagi Hotel, Virtual Strangers