On Promoting Your Book and “Shill Reviews”

21Jun12

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.

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28 Responses to “On Promoting Your Book and “Shill Reviews””

  1. I read Small Fish and loved it. Couldn’t put it down. THAT’S why I wrote a glowing review and for not OTHER reason. I did not expect a reciprocal review in return. In fact, I was rather nervous when I heard you were reading Virtual Strangers, Pete, knowing what a discerning reader and stern critic you are.

  2. I am not now nor will I ever be a professional reviewer, being an author takes up to much of my time as it is. Sure, sometimes an author will send me a book to read or review but I always tell them it will be a fair, honest one.
    Yes, I have sent a few friends copies of my books but as always I wait nervously for the review to come in.
    With the easy of self publishing now and so many people wanting great reviews I can see where some of these individuals will try to garner 4 and 5 star reviews. Their goal, to make one of the major bestseller lists.

  3. It’s a bit like juggling chainsaws, innit? Because of my situation as an editor, I find it very delicate and tricky to give reviews. But as a writer, yes, I love it when a reader reviews my work (whether it’s a good or not-so-good review). I always appreciate the feedback. And yes, many of those readers are other writers whom I’ve met on Facebook or online writing communities. I expect them to be honest. I will on occasion reciprocate with a review, and I will also be honest. But yeah, if I come across a book I really hated, would I trash it and give it a one-star review? Or just send a private note to the author and try to delicately state my concerns, without it sounding like I’m just trying to drum up editing business? Yup, chainsaw juggling.

  4. So sorry to have tainted your reputation with a review, Pete.

    I sincerely liked the book and would have written the same review even if I’d never found out what a great guy you are. So sue me – scratch that, don’t. I would rather not face you in court.

  5. I am so incensed about this, I might even write another inflammatory post on my own blog.

  6. 11 Scott Simon

    Bravo, Pete. Reviews count up until the moment readers click the sample button. Authors decide what transpires from that point forward.
    I enjoyed your piece.
    Scott

  7. The pendulum swings and on this traverse it sweeps aside the ‘jury of your peers’ and paints anyone who dares give a positive review with the same broad stroke. No one asked me to review your excellent book – and I believe I did mention in the review that I couldn’t put it down. I gave it the kind of in-depth treatment that it deserved.
    On Amazon my ranking is currently around 20K based upon 48 reviews (all of which can be verified via purchases, and none were given to me for the express purpose of writing a review) and for which I have received 65 ‘helpful’ votes. That means at least 65 readers of said reviews found my analyses useful in helping them make a purchasing decision.
    To aver I have 65 sycophantic friends anxiously seeking out my literary reviews in the hopes of bolstering my current standing in the Reviewer Community might be a stretch. But, then again, some of the reviews make for pretty darn good reading. Besides, who am I to judge?
    These of course are not the only reviews I’ve done. I run a review blog site [Sand in My Shoes Reviews] along with one under my pen name [Nya Reviews] plus I do the odd review off my regular website [I Dance with Words].
    My rule of thumb is that if I struggle to get past the first two or three chapters, the odds are good the best I can say is ‘it sucks’. If I know the author via contacts through social media and happen to have an email address for that author, I might drop a line and explain my reservations and offer suggestions for improvement. I do not find joy in crucifying an author since I am one myself. However, if said author requested a review and the book’s not up to snuff, then I will not hold back.
    My reviews have developed a certain notoriety, to wit my latest 1-star in case you wonder what a 1-star literary review looks like [http://amzn.to/Ko4u9f].
    Perhaps if the Kindle Forum Toads [oops sorry, that’s a bit perjorative] spent more time learning the craft, investing in a professional editor and/or learning how to provide useful feedback for others’ works, in addition to honing reader comprehension skills, they’d have less time available for naysaying and excuses.
    It’s actually laughably transparent who has actually read a given book for which they’ve penned a review. And I’ve no doubt there are ‘rings of impropriety’ – for an analysis I recently posted for a particular title on B&N, see my ‘Cautionary post about reviews’ of 6/20/12.
    And now I’m wondering why I didn’t save this for a Ranty McRant (bless the Smart Bitches for their sterling additions to my vocabulary) for one of my blogs…

  8. Pete, I love your analysis. Reviews are a bizarre subject. I bought Small Fish, read it and reviewed it without any input from you. I tried to be thorough and call it like I saw it. I believe you did the same thing when you reviewed my book, The Sickle’s Compass, and gave it four stars. There was no tit for tat.
    In the last year or so, I have come to know many authors through social media. I buy their books if I see something that interests me. And if I read their books and like them, I may post a review if I get around to it because I see this as a way of helping their projects. None of them asks me to do it or exercises any control over what I say.
    I have also reviewed books for World Literary Cafe. I do that as a volunteer and have never reviewed a book written by anyone I knew at the time of the review. I have on occasion refused to review books because they weren’t my cup of tea. I have sometimes contacted the authors directly and let them know why I wouldn’t review their book. If it is a sin to contact an author and offer my two cents worth about some things that might strengthen the book instead of posting a bad review on the book, I am guilty as charged.
    Regards, SW

  9. 16 Viv

    I’m really at a loss to understand the supposed etiquette of reviews; it seems a minefield. I write reviews for books I have enjoyed enough to wish to endorse, so to speak, but far from all the books I’d enjoyed that much get reviewed. I simply would never have time. So when a new review pops up for one of my books, I am grateful for whoever found the time to write what they thought (even the 1 star, if I am truly honest, because not everyone is going to like a book). I don’t generally solicit them, just let it be known that if people read and have thoughts, to share them.

  10. I recall a similar situation when Gemini Sasson-Brickson was accused of enlisting friends to write glowing reviews. One of those ‘friends’ (I’ve never met Gemi, only got to know her through mutual writing groups) was me. I beta-read Gemi’s excellent, excellent book and reviewed accordingly. They saw my name listed under the acknowledgements and hey presto – I was a toady flunky. Trust me, if I hadn’t loved the book I wouldn’t have written the review. It’s sad, isn’t it?

  11. 20 Ann Onimous

    Haven’t reviewed your title because all those crazy trolls from Amazon are no doubt following you around and I don’t care to have them trash my title. —-Don’t read my book, Pete Morin ! And I wasn’t here !

  12. 22 Malc

    Last autumn (fall, whatever) I bought a Kindle-thingy. Charged it up, read some of the accompanying bumpf, and downloaded (or uploaded, I’m not sure) something Dickensian and something else for exactly no dollars or cents (happy face) and then bought and loaded Pete’s Diary of a Small Fish for not much. So far so good. Next, I commenced reading said Fish Diary. Was I enjoying the experience up to the point (about the second chapter) when the Kindle broke down? Yes. Funny bits, character and plot development, sundry hooks and witticisms aside, I relished one or two uncertain mots that were perhaps not quite so bon as some others I could think of. Did I approach the exercise with the intention of reading sufficient of the fishy chronicle to massage its ego with a (plausibly) glowing review or to savage it with a (plausibly) damning one on Amazon? Yes! Would the review have been tempered in all likelihood by my feelings toward Pete? Yes, oh hell yes. Here perhaps I should explain that I have two things against the man. First, he once cast the suspicion of a doubt on the veracity of my golfing prowess. (Him with his talk of hooded five irons. Pah. God and the squirrels be my witness. Just because a chap plays a miracle round on his own doesn’t invalidate the achievement. Such talk seems as pointless as asking whether the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it makes any sound, in the same category of mystical humbug as trying to hear the sound of one hand clapping.) Second, and this is more of a general sweeping prejudice than a personal one, Pete is, or has been, allegedly, a sometime shyster of sorts, i.e. some species of lawyer. Strike – and I’m sure you’ll all agree – two. Now, as for my review of exquisite fiendishness, The Life and Times of a Sprat was (were?) in my sights, the bead was literally had, when, presto digitalis, the reading machine froze. End of story. Kindle kaput. Waste of money after all. Minnow Memoirs spared.

    Homily (or moral?) : whether you approach a work with a glad eye or a jaundiced one, don’t use Kindle unless you know what you’re doing.

    Ps. Hey Pete, is ‘Shill’ a euphemism? Or a typo? Were you being ‘funny’ again?

    • 23 Pete

      Heh good ol’ Malc. You should start a blog.

      Now then, did you know that (a) if you call Amazon and tell them your problem, they will show you how to fix it or send you a brand new one, FREE? Do you know how to perform a “hard reset?” No, you don’t. Simply slide the switch all the way to the right and keep it there for a good minute. That should do it. And all of your kindle downloads are stored on your own personal cloud in cyberspace; and (b) I’ve never heard such a lame excuse for not reading a book in my life.

      Try “my dog peed on my kindle.” It’s slightly more believable.

      (Do you not have “shill” in your land?)

  13. It is not in the interests of good writers to give anything less than honest reviews of others, period. We all have our own reputations to keep, unlike Joe Anonymous of Neighbourton. Peer reviewing is as good as it gets.
    Small Fish is a fantastic book. That is why I wrote a review, pure and simple.

  14. Pete, thank you for making the case in a most logical and unemotional fashion, much easier to do here than on a forum where people have already made up their minds and are accusatory.

    There have been on occasion very unprofessional self-published writers asking for “swap reviews” in the forum but to therefore extrapolate that every writer reviewing another writer’s work is unethical is nonsense.

    I write reviews for books I’m enthusiastic about. I rarely write harsh reviews mostly because I rarely finish books that I’m not interested in. What finally got me to self-publish in the first place was reading some outstanding self-published novels, books I’d wish I could have written. I’m not going to shut up when I find a book like that. What nerve of anyone to call me “unethical” for doing so. The people who do on the forums, go further than condemning self-published writers, they condemn anyone who writes reviews that they disagree with as though the fact of the review by a stranger made them abandon all common sense and buy a book without even reading it.

  15. We all live by whatever standards we think are proper, but of course that has no effect on general practice or the way others insist on perceiving our reviews. Just gotta live with being misunderstood sometimes. But in case it needs to be said, Pete, while prior encounter on authonomy was the reason I read “Small Fish,” that did not affect the review I posted. Seems there should be no reasonable question about motives if reviewers don’t gush uncontrollably.

  16. 28 LG

    Hi Pete, I could very well have missed a conversation about your reviews at Amazon and if so, ignore the rest of this.

    The statement I saw from JK was actually a compliment to you, that only some small percentage of your reviews ‘might’ be considered ….blah, blah, blah, not that he did consider them unearned friends’ reviews. I can see how it may have felt like a backhanded compliment, but we know JK and if he had found any evidence of wrong doing, he would have laid it out for everyone to see.

    There is nothing wrong with acquaintances or even friends honestly reviewing a book. Nobody could stop it even if it wasn’t allowed. The problem arises when all those ‘solid 5-star’ books get into the hands of unbiased readers and start getting reviews like “the author can’t string together a coherent sentence” or “the editing was so bad I couldn’t even read the book” and give examples of the poor writing. Then prospective customers know that the original gushing 5-stars were a set up. We see that happen so much of the time and it hurts other authors and the reputation of self-published authors in general.

    When you’ve seen 99 cases of fake reviews, I’m not sure that it make you a troll or in need of medication to assume the 100th one might have fake reviews, too. Customers are fighting back against the review games.


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