A question on review ethics

So, I have a question I’d like to throw out there to the romance community.

What do you think of authors asking for reviews? I don’t mean asking for reviews in exchange for money or a prize.  I don’t mean asking friends and family for reviews. But I have seen a handful of self-published books, where at the end of the book, there is a brief note that says something like this:

If you enjoyed this book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon.com.

I have been arguing with myself about this practice for months now. First, I think that it is true that having reviews helps you sell books. My sales on Amazon.de jumped up a notch on the day I got my first review for my German edition of Unlocked. I think that having more reviews may get more people to click on a book, also leading to more sales–if people think that this is a book that people are “talking” about, and that it has buzz, that operates as an attractant. (There are some other, sneakier benefits that I won’t go into.)

People ask me questions about things like writing books and getting buzz and getting discovered, and the truth is, what little research I’ve done (I’ve seen it in three or four books, and those books have more reviews than you’d usually see in their position, and more uniformly positive) suggests that asking for reviews gets you more of them.

On the other hand, the fact that asking works makes me wary of the process. Is this not a form of biasing your reviews from their random sample? Is it okay to do this? I think authors–especially authors who value their reputation–need to be very careful of how they tread in this area, particularly in light of Linda Hilton’s post here, detailing books where it appears that the authors have dragooned friends, family members, and sock puppets into posting positive reviews without admitting to bias.

This is one of those things where I’ve realized it’s impossible for me to dissect how I feel about this all. Should I do it? I don’t know. Should I counsel other authors, who are just starting out to do it? I don’t know. If it’s wrong for me to do it, is it wrong for them? If it’s okay for them, is it okay for me? I argue with myself back and forth and forth and back, and what it’s really come down to is that I don’t know how this practice would be viewed by readers.

So, I’m asking for your thoughts. What would you think if you saw an author asking you to please consider leaving a review?

  • I have no problem with it. As long as the author doesn’t offer compensation, it’s all good.
  • It makes me a little uneasy, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that bad.
  • It makes me a lot uneasy, and makes me wonder whether the reviews the author gets are skewed.
  • It would completely turn me off, and I wouldn’t buy another book by that author.

Does your answer change if, instead of saying, “If you liked this book, please consider leaving a review,” the book simply says, “Please consider leaving a review”?

I definitely want to hear your thoughts on this.

58 thoughts on “A question on review ethics

  1. @Kaetrin:

    My only information is qualitative and anecdotal.

    I know that when I got my first review on Amazon.de (a five star review) for my German version of Unlocked, my sales went up–almost a doubling. I know that when I got my first review on Amazon.de for the English version of Unlocked over there (a two star review), my sales ticked down–almost by 3/4ths.

    Can I attribute those to the reviews? No. There are other factors at work that could have caused the change in sales levels. But it does seem like a contributing factor.

    I do not know if there would be a different level of sales for Unraveled with 28 reviews, most of them five stars, and Unraveled with 100 reviews, most of them five stars. I suspect there would be a tiny boost, but I don’t think the boost would be as big as the boost between having no reviews and having one good one.

    But one thing that it is infinitely harder for me to correlate is sales from blogs/goodreads and sales overall. I do think there is some effect there, too–just harder for me to measure. I do know that my sales on Amazon.fr started increasing (which is to say, like, 10 copies in March–it’s still a very new market there)–and I had no idea why until a French reader posted on my Facebook page with a link to a review–not on Amazon, but on a blog.

    But I would never, ever tell someone “post reviews on Amazon rather than Goodreads” because (a) it’s not my job to tell my readers what to do and (b) (more selfishly) I think Goodreads sells books–and it makes people more excited about reading books–than Amazon reviews.

  2. Thx Courtney. I think I’d rather just keep doing what I’m doing as I’d only want to bother with posting Amazon reviews for those books I really like and then (it seems to me) I’d run the risk of being called some kind of puppet (“look, she only posts 5 star reviews and there’s hardly any of them, she must be related to the author”, etc) and really, who wants to bother with that?

    I’m happy to contribute to an author’s sales for books I love via blog posts and Goodreads (even though that is not the reason the reviews are posted). Of course, if I don’t love a book the reviews are still in the same places but I don’t flatter myself that a negative review from me would cause any kind of drop in sales.

  3. Fascinating comments. When I’ve seen this request in books, I think “Oh, good idea. This author seems business savvy.” And then I ignore it completely because I’m lazy.

    I’m trying to wrap my mind around it, but I confess I can’t quite grasp why it would be unethical to solicit positive reviews. When an author discourages negative reviews, she’s attempting to silence some readers so that’s an obvious overstep. But biasing public discussion of your book towards the positive to increase sales… isn’t that the meaning of marketing? Is marketing unethical? Is it unethical because the author is doing the marketing, versus a publicist? Is it unethical because it has a real effect on sales? But then, that’s the point of marketing, so it begs the previous question.

    Going on the phrases ‘biasing the sample’ and ‘distort the balance of public opinion’, maybe the underlying principle is this: Amazon and goodreads commenters should be free from marketing influences, as pure and objective cross-sections of reader response. To over-represent positive reader response would sully the accuracy of the cross-section. It would trick a potential reader into buying a book they otherwise would not.

    Is that about right, Courtney? Maybe it’s not, let me know. But here are my thoughts for what they’re worth:
    1. I think positive reader responses are already overrepresented on Amazon. Like someone else has said, people usually review things they either enjoyed, or less commonly, hated with a dark passion. Some readers faithfully review everything they’ve read, but I don’t think that’s typical. So why preserve an objective cross-section that doesn’t and couldn’t exist anyway?
    2. When an author successfully solicits positive reviews in the manner we’re discussing, those reviews are presumably genuine. Those readers really did enjoy the book. They aren’t puppets. Their reviews are legitimate.
    3. People who dislike the book are still free to review. “If you liked this, please review” wouldn’t block negative reviews.
    4. “If you liked this book, tell your friends.” Is that ethically questionable as well? Of course that’s the backbone of book sales. What about “If you liked this book, tell your friends online via blog or social networking.” Still okay? Then how about “If you liked this book, tell your friends on goodreads.” Which part of that progression became unethical? I don’t see it, but I’m open to the argument. Maybe in the distinction between “tell your friends” and a formal review, but these days I think that line is pretty thin. Or maybe the problem is actually saying “please tell your friends” instead of just hoping they’ll tell their friends. Authors should be read and not heard type of thing?

    Anyway, I’m enjoying your blog!

  4. I didn’t think anything of it. It was politely asked a reader to consider leaving a review – i don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking a reader to THINK about leaving a review. It’s no different than my plumber or pressure washing guy asking me to think about leaving a review on Angie’s List if i’m satisfied with his work (or referring his services if I know someone’s looking for a plumber). Why would it be any different? Businesses ask for reviews/recommendations all the time; it’s a part of doing business. Authors are businesses too.

  5. Hi Courtney. I know I’m late to the party but I thought I’d chime in. My indie books do have a gentle ask at the end. Honest reviews are critical to indie credibility, brand building, and their self-owned business. As indies, we are entrepreneurs/small-business owners. And we have to act accordingly.

    If you think about it from a business perspective, books = products, readers = consumers. So what do we know about the average consumer and their product experiences?

    Sales: Studies show that dissatisfied customers will tell more people (8-10) about their experience with a product than happy customers (2-3 people).(Links A, B)

    Even more compelling, is the data comes from science.

    Science: Psychologically and physiologically, human being are hard wired to focus on the negative. (See NY Times article Link C, and “Bad is Stronger than Good” Link D.)This data has 2 primary implications: 1) readers are more likely to review books that have made some sort of negative impact on them, and 2) prospective readers are likely to weigh negative reviews stronger than positive ones.

    That brings us to the ask. The ask helps level the playing field. It equates positive reader/consumer experience with a call to action in a very non-threatening way.

    If you have a need, or even a wish, how are people going to about it if you don’t respectfully put it out there?




    B. http://returnonbehavior.com/2010/10/50-facts-about-customer-experience-for-2011/

    C. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/24/your-money/why-people-remember-negative-events-more-than-positive-ones.html?pagewanted=all

    D. http://www.csom.umn.edu/Assets/71516.pdf

  6. I’m with Carey, where I include a little “How’d you like it? Please consider leaving a review to help other readers.” I intentionally don’t specify “If you liked it.”

    As a reader, I actually like it when an author reminds me that I might want to leave a review. My memory’s such that I can plan to review and forget entirely by the time I sit down at the computer and open up Amazon. (There’s a reason I use timers and to-do lists for getting things done.)

    What bothers me is when the author specifies “if you liked it” or some such thing. As if disliking the title makes my opinion illegitimate. :/

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