Giving Readers Free Books for Reviews is Unethical. What! Who said that?

It is an opinion expressed by an author named Mark Horrell in the the Alliance Of Independent Authors (ALLi) blog dated January 7, 2019.

He couldn’t be more wrong and before I explain why, here is an excerpt of what the post had to say:

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 ARCs may break the spirit of the law, even if the potential reviewer is not pressured into reviewing.

It appears that “disappearing reviews” prompted him to pen the article as he explains:

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.

Good for you!

He continues:

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.

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.

He then goes on to give three examples of when it [the review process] could become deceitful.

One

“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.”

There is no comparison whatsoever between such a scenario and the ARC book review process.

Two

“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).”

And, your point?

Three

“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).”

I think he makes a valiant attempt to bolster his argument here but I don’t agree with him for these reasons:

The fact the clothing was given free in return for a review does not per se make the opinion in the review dishonest. That does a grave disservice to the honest bloggers who do give an honest review. Like a book review, what is tantamount to dishonesty is a failure to declare the review was made in exchange for an honest and voluntary review. Once those or similar words are used, then the reader of that review can make up their own mind as to the credibility or otherwise of the review content. It negates any suggestion of deception.

As for his last point under ‘Three,’ of course! That’s human nature and acceptable business practice, I would ask Mr. Horrell this: would you carry on dating a woman who constantly criticizes you or your appearance?

It’s a tough world out there. The ARC system was originated by the powerful traditional publishers and us indies can only try to match them as best we can within the rules.

We still struggle to match them in any event. How many indies get their books accepted for review by Oprah, the NY Times, the Richard and Judy show (UK), the London Times, Telegraph or Guardian. Hen’s teeth or flying pigs – take your pick.

So, what are the rules according to Amazon?

This is the policy as to book reviews [Note: Horrell quoted the general customer review policy NOT the specific book review policy]:

4. Can I pay for someone to write a Customer Review for my book?
No. 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.

The only type of paid review that Amazon supports is an editorial review. An editorial review is a more formal evaluation of a book usually written by an editor or expert within a genre, but can also be written by family and friends. If you’ve received an editorial review of your book that you’d like to post to the Editorial Review section of your book’s detail page, please visit our Author Central Help Page. 

For the complete set of rules as to the guidelines for authors click here.

I suggest that Mr. Horrell should in future check facts, stop guessing, and be far more responsible with his public utterances.

 

 

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