First, just a reminder that you can still get a free copy of Lesson of the Fire at Amazon until the end of Tuesday (7/24). We’re DRM-free, so if you have Calibre, you can convert the Kindle format to epub pretty easily.
Indie Author Ethics
I recently came onto a forum post by an author (so many of my blog posts seem to start this way) asking whether it was a good idea to buy good Amazon reviews. For the sake of my faith in humanity, I’m going to assume he is 14 years old and has decided to self-publish something he wrote on a whim in his Freshman year of high school. Unfortunately, I do see many incredibly naive (or perhaps morally impaired) indie authors who don’t quite understand why certain behaviors are, in fact, unethical and therefore should be avoided.
Buying good reviews is a huge no-no (also against Amazon’s terms of service). Trust me on this. If you get a bunch of bad reviews because your book is terrible trash, the last thing you want is a bunch of paid-for 5-star reviews saying you’re the best thing for the English language since Shakespeare. Eventually, the truth will come out, and instead of a bunch of disappointed readers, you have a bunch of angry readers, some of whom will wreak horrible vengeance on your reputation. And that doesn’t even get into ethics – just a healthy sense of self-preservation. Imagine what you would say if you found out that, say, your automobile’s manufacturer, instead of submitting to the safety inspections mandated by law, just paid a bunch of people to type up a letter promising that your car is perfectly safe. Would you buy that car? More importantly, would you feel that the car was safe if you knew this was the “inspection” process?
Also add to that list:
Posting reviews for your own book: You’d be surprised how many people do this, but it’s a huge red flag that screams “clueless amateur” to anyone glancing at reviews. This absolutely includes the old “create a bunch of accounts on Amazon and have them post fake reviews of your book” trick. It isn’t clever. It isn’t “guerrilla marketing.” It’s unethical, it’s against Amazon’s (and every other e-retailer’s) terms of service, and it makes you a douche bag if you do it.
Asking friends and family to post reviews: This is especially true if they’re embarrassingly glowing 5-star reviews, but even balanced and thoughtful reviews are a grey area if you have a personal connection with the reviewer. Yes, someone you know might do it spontaneously, but it’s a lot easier for random readers to forgive one or two facepalm-errific “even though the author is my friend/sibling/coworker, I think his book is the best one ever” reviews than pages and pages of obvious shills.
Arranging with other authors to review each others’ books: It’s hard to write a fair review when you’re not sure whether a negative review will inspire your author-friend to write an equally negative review of your book. And even if your writing group is made up of Samuel Coleridge, Mary and Percy Shelly, and the Wordsworths (i.e. even if all of you are amazing writers), exchanging reviews in this way still gives the *appearance* of a conflict of interest or quid pro quo arrangement.
Reviews Aren’t for Authors
Keep in mind the purpose of reviews. They are there to help other readers decide whether or not to buy the book you are reviewing. A good review provides enough detail to allow a reader whose tastes are different from yours make a reasonable determination about whether they will like the book, regardless of whether you did. Good reviews may also help the author hone his/her craft for future projects, but that is not the purpose of a review.
A review is not there to stroke the author’s ego (although it might do that) or punish him for some personal failing not related to the book (although, sadly, some are written for that reason). It isn’t there to improve or worsen the authors star rating or make it easier or harder for her to sell her book (although again, those are common side-effects).
Authors Reviewing Authors
One last note about authors writing reviews about other authors: We tend to know what we love and hate and are pretty decently effective at communicating our feelings in our reviews. However, it is usually frowned upon to give highly public negative reviews to authors in your genre “peer group.” Why? Because it can look to an outsider like you are trying to sabotage your competition so that your work looks better by comparison.
Who is your genre peer group I’m an indie epic/high fantasy author. I can hate on the latest Stephen King’s latest offering as much as I want because 1. he’s not a writer in my genre and 2. anything I say cannot possibly detract from his sales. By the same token, I can leave a negative review of an indie mystery author because it cannot be argued that my work is in competition with hers (still kind of bad karma for me to do it, but not actually unethical). I can even complain loudly that the latest George R.R. Martin book was a tremendous disappointment, because as with King, he has far too large of an audience for my opinion to hurt him.
But if I leave a bunch of 1-star reviews for indie authors who are also writing fantasy set “in another world” – especially if they’re still “looking for their audience” (i.e. obscure) – I’m out of line. My 1-star review could very well drive away potential readers (who, incidentally, might buy one of *my* books, instead) or rob them of an opportunity for publicity on a review blog (which, incidentally, might run one of *my* books on the site, instead). Even if that 1-star is fully deserved (the book reads like The Lord of the Rings run through Babelfish twice and then put through a ROT-13 converter), an outside observer may well notice the potential conflict of interest.
It isn’t about whether you intend some impropriety but whether you take actions that can easily and fairly be interpreted as unethical.Gaming the system and appearing to do so look the same to a neutral outside observer. Nothing forces an indie author to be a model of ethical behavior (although laws and e-retailer rules may try), but if you engage in behavior that “looks funny” to outsiders, you must be prepared to accept the potential consequences of that behavior. Yes, even if your intentions were 100% pure.