Why I don’t give away free books to readers in exchange for reviews

Today I’m going to republish a post I originally wrote for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), an industry body for authors who for various reasons have decided to publish our books independently.

The post concerns the practice of giving readers free books in exchange for a review on Amazon. It’s something I don’t do for reasons I describe in the post, but the practice is widespread among fellow authors and even commercial publishers, many of whom consider it perfectly legitimate.

Reviews are very important for authors, and it seems to me that it’s in the interests of all authors to maintain trust in reader reviews by not trying to cheat the system.

But what is a fair review can be a grey area. I’m still not clear what Amazon’s official policy is. My post proved controversial to what is normally a very supportive author community. While there seemed to be a consensus that giving a gift in exchange for a review was dishonest, some believed that books were exempt from this. Others believe the practice is OK as long as the reviewer declares that they’ve received a free copy (something I’ve always done when I’ve been given a book to review for this blog, but not something I’ve seen happening much on consumer review websites).

Although the post was originally written for authors, I thought it might also be interesting to you as readers. Firstly, I hope it will reassure you that reviews for my books can be trusted. But secondly, and just as importantly, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the issue.

Almost all of my reviews are from complete strangers. I'm very grateful to all of you. It has helped me to become a no.1 bestseller with very little self-promotion beyond this blog.
Almost all of my reviews are from complete strangers. I’m very grateful to all of you. It has helped me to become a no.1 bestseller with very little self-promotion beyond this blog.

I’m going to say something that I know will be controversial and may annoy fellow ALLi members I don’t want to do this, but it’s a subject we need to discuss.

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. Almost all of my reviews are organic, written by complete strangers who have picked up my books, enjoyed them, and been kind enough to leave feedback for others. I’m extremely grateful to these people because they owe me nothing.

How do I get these reviews? I don’t know. I put a friendly request at the back of my books. When I blog about my writing, I leave a note at the end of the post asking readers to kindly leave a review. I don’t ask friends and family to post reviews, and as far as I’m aware, only one or two of them ever have.

One thing I don’t do is send out advance reader copies (ARCs) of my books. This is a practice that I understand indie authors have adapted from the traditional publishing industry. It involves sending out free final drafts of a book to readers in the hope they will write a review and post it on Amazon on the eve of publication. Some indie authors take this practice seriously, and assemble substantial ‘ARC teams’ of engaged readers who are happy to post a review in return for an advance copy.

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.

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. Many of these reviews are easy to spot. If, for example, a book receives a lot of five-star reviews on the same day that it goes on sale, then it’s likely the readers received advance copies (not many people can read a book that quickly).

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. To understand this point, it’s necessary to put ourselves in our readers’ shoes. This should be easy for us to do; after all, we are readers too, and consumers of services that benefit from unbiased feedback.

Let me give some examples of how reviews and opinions in exchange for financial reward can become deceitful.

Suppose 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. It may be tempting to claim your discount, but you’ve just visited an average restaurant because other people succumbed to that very same temptation.

A guidebook writer visits a hotel and is treated like royalty because the owner knows they’ve come to review it. When an ordinary traveller 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).

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).

Although I sometimes review outdoor gear in a light-hearted way, I have never accepted free clothing. But I also review mountaineering books, and in the past I’ve accepted requests from authors and publishers to review theirs. I don’t do this any more. I found it very difficult to post an honest review if I didn’t like the book. These authors were my friends on social media and I didn’t want to upset them.

We live in an era of fake news and reviews, and I could give many other examples, but hopefully you get the idea. It’s in our interest as readers and consumers to promote honesty and objectivity.

We are lucky in ALLi to have one of the friendliest, most helpful member communities on Facebook. But I’ve been biting my tongue as I followed our many discussions about Amazon reviews and ARC readers. I know my opinion is going to upset some of you, and I may be in a minority, but it’s time I raised my head above the parapet.

Reviews in exchange for free books are fake reviews. Amazon is quite right to remove them. I hope I’m not the only indie author who feels this way.

This post first appeared as Why Giving Readers Free Books for Reviews is Unethical on the Self Publishing Advice Center blog, run by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

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One thought on “Why I don’t give away free books to readers in exchange for reviews

  • February 20, 2019 at 6:45 pm

    Hi Mark,

    An interesting article. If I might be so bold I am going to make some comments, which may, and may not be of any relevance.

    I read the original post on ALLi and all the responses thereon and note a number made reference to Goodreads. I am registered on Goodreads, mainly to track books I have read. A quick review of my books shows me I have read four of yours, al, of which I purchased from Amazon. In full disclosure I have to admit I received a free ebook from you for joining your mailing list. That book is not listed on my Goodreads page.

    Now when deciding to purchase a book I normally check reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads. The difference between the two is that Amazon blocks reviews before publiciation date, whilst Goodreads does not. I have often noticed that the same reviewer posts identical reviews on both sites. Of course, Amazon owns Goodreads.

    I often notice ARC reviews on Goodreads before publication, with the disclaimer “I received a prepublication copy in return for an honest review”. To me, that proves an obvious quid pro quo. Whether the the review is honest is beyond the scope of this discussion.

    I also note that a number of commentators state that a free book is not a financial reward. All that I can say is that if I never had to pay for a book, I would be considerably wealthier.

    Apologies for the long winded response. Love the blog

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