Thursday 1 December 2011

Writing Raw: Amazon clamp down on paid-for reviews

I was immensely cheered today to read in Writing Raw that Amazon are clamping down on paid-for book reviews provided by author promotion organisations. Ironically, the article was penned by someone who runs one such website, Shirley A. Roe, of Allbooks Review.

Writing Raw is an online magazine that grew out of Raw Edge, a nice Arts Council-funded literary magazine that was handed out for free at libraries here in the Midlands. (I always picked one up, and our own Michael Thomas reviewed books for them.) The current issue is here, but apologies to future readers: from the look of it, old content on the site is scrubbed when a new issue is added, so I can't permalink to the issue, and I can't directly link to the articles I'm talking about.

Shirley Roe's article, "David vs. Goliath or Allbooks Review Int. vs.", can be found about two-thirds down the left-hand column on this page. It begins:
"Allbooks Review started in 2000 and has reviewed thousands of books, encouraging and supporting new and established authors for more than eleven years"
According to the Publishers' Area on the Allbooks website, the cost of a review is currently $45. Quite a bit of money for an author, although if you wanted to pay someone by the hour to read and review a book of any length it wouldn't come close to minimum wage. The FAQs reassure authors that "98% of our reviews are positive". Their Goodreads account is still up, and all books get either four or five stars, including, naturally, five stars for Shirley Roe's books.

Amazon have removed all of those reviews from their website, because:
"We found your reviews to be in violation of our guidelines and have removed them. Because of this violation, we've removed your reviewing privileges from your account."
Looking at Amazon's review guidelines, I would guess that this is the part of the guidelines that the company is said to be violating:
"Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product. This includes reviews that are a part of a paid publicity package"
Seems perfectly clear and sensible to me. Free books sent out to reviewers are fine, but reviews for which you have been paid are not. Another relevant part (and it's something that I will have to be careful to do in future) is that:
"If you received a free product in exchange for your review, please clearly and conspicuously disclose that that you received the product free of charge."
At the conclusion of the article, Shirley speaks of becoming the "Michael Moore of the book industry". Erm, no. The Michael Moore in this situation would be whoever noticed the thousands of paid-for book reviews that were potentially misleading consumers and got Amazon to do something about them. Ideally by way of a comical prank.

So, in short, good for Amazon.

To open the issue out a bit more generally, indie and self-published authors and their friends should really understand that in many regards a range of reviews is better than nothing but five-star reviews. A range of reviews looks honest. Think of your favourite book of all time, and look at it on Amazon: I bet it's got a handful of one and two star reviews (often from complete idiots, or relating to particularly bad editions, but you get my point).

By all means encourage your friends and family to read your books, and to review them on Amazon. But encourage them also to be honest and to disclose their relationship with the author. Do all you can to discourage them from harassing less enthusiastic reviewers. Someone doing this kind of thing is not doing you any favours. (That commenter is also responsible for the silliest, unfairest review I've ever read.) Even if they didn't like your book, those are your actual readers, and if your friends and family post harassing comments, mark their reviews as unhelpful, and so on, that's going to put them off ever trying and reviewing your work again.

If you want the wider world to treat you like a proper, professional writer, ask your friends and family to treat you like one as well.

The other article that caught my eye in this issue of Writing Raw was a guide to "How Book Awards Can Boost Your Marketing Campaign" by Mary Greenwood. (It's the first article in the left-hand column here.) She's not talking about serious awards, but rather about paying to enter your books in things like the ForeWord Book of the Year, which I think are called awards mills (though apologies if I have the terminology wrong). Note that like Allbooks Review, ForeWord provides a paid-for review service.

Though the content of the article is not untrue or misleading, I would suggest that a magazine like Writing Raw shouldn't really be encouraging its readers to pay "$50.00 to $150.00" to enter such awards. You may well be able to tag it onto your bio and make a few people think your book is a worthy award-winner, and it might even help sales, but – and this is a big but – these awards are there to exploit writers, to take your money. Even if you might get something out of it, should you encourage and participate in such exploitation? To readers who don't know what it is, a ForeWord Book of the Year award has no more weight than an award you made up yourself; to people who do know what it is, it is arguably worse than no award at all.

If you want my advice, instead of paying $45 on an Allbooks review or $150 on the ForeWord awards, set up a Goodreads giveaway. For that money you could send ten or twenty copies of your book out to real-life, independent, interested readers, all of whom have friends, online and offline, who trust their opinions and reviews.

1 comment:

  1. Just realised that I was completely wrong above about WritingRaw being a spin-off of Raw Edge! Nothing to do with it whatsoever!