Is it Even Ethical? – Guest Post by, Barbara Spencer…

Amazon published a million books last year, does that mean that there were a million new writers, one person writing a million book (hardly likely) or many, many people for which the majority are on their second, third or even tenth book.Nevertheless, that’s an awful lot of people writing at a time when reading butts up against technology in the form of computer games, pop music, Netflix and reality shows.

When I think of the numbers now writing, I usually start humming the tune to ‘Stout Hearted Men’ which appeared in the film New Moon starring Nelson Eddy.

.

Give me some men who are stout-hearted men,

Who will fight, for the right they adore,

Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men,

And I’ll soon give you ten thousand more.

Shoulder to shoulder and bolder and bolder,

They grow as they go to the fore.

Then there’s nothing in the world can halt or mar a plan,

When stout-hearted men can stick together man to man.

.

Before your time – mine too. Nevertheless, I often find it appropriate to hum this tune when I remember what Amazon has achieved in twenty years. Jeff Bezos is undoubtedly a genius and also intelligent enough to employ several – what genii? – who have allowed Amazon to offer other services. Bythat I mean, a free publishing service through KDP which comprises a simple template and a piece of software that gives several different page sizes, another template for the cover, whilst another piece of software checks for errors. Yes, there are limitations, fancy print being one but the paperback is surprisingly well-printed and with the e-book you can update as often as you wish.

I had never used Amazon, not until I was faced with reprinting ‘Running.’ Published in 2010, this futuristic thriller had already had several print runs, but now the cost of printing made its £7.99 price quite uneconomic. As a YA novel, where sales are usually in paperback, it worked at this price. Troubador suggested increasing the price to £8.99 but I didn’t at this price sales would follow. By using KDP-Amazon, I found I could hold the £7.99 retail price and still make a small profit.

Admittedly I have a wonderful artist who sorted the cover, nevertheless, my Amazon journey proved to be a relatively pain-free experience (even for the not-so-technology-savvy). Their KDP website is simple and easily manoeuvred – unlike Goodreads which continues to baffle no matter how many times I bolster my courage with the words ‘I can do this’ and try to change the blurb for my latest book. And by taking it slowly and cautiously I even managed to order a few copies of the paperback for myself!

Recently, I wrote the words ‘The End’ on the last page of Book 3 of my trilogy, Children of Zeus which begins its journey with The Click of a Pebble. Not that this is pertinent to my argument, except that these three books will undoubtedly add to the number Amazon intend publishing in 2021 and the finishing of my book invokes a very different question – not how will I publish my novel, but how do I create an audience eager to read it?

In the olden days I would not have given a thought to this question. Writing for children and YA’s, I had a ready-made audience through Waterstones, and an excellent publisher – Troubador. Self-published, yes, but nevertheless an excellent reputation, and well represented in shops, schools and libraries. With the retraction of Waterstones as a major stockist, and the death of in-store signings, I along with many other authors were relegated to an on-line presence only, and now my titles show the message on the Waterstones website, ‘can be ordered, delivered in 10 days.’ Only the wondrous ‘Time Breaking’ and ‘A Fishy Tail’ still after ten years deserve a place on their shelves.

And so, I have joined the throng anxiously scanning the number of zeros (000000) to gauge my Amazon ranking for the E-book edition – and worry myself to death about marketing.

In my experience marketing is far more difficult thanwriting. With writing if you keep on, one day you reach the end. Not so with marketing. It is so hit and miss that if you follow two authors, both using an identical marketing path (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogging, guesting on other sites) to achieve sales, one may succeed and the other languish.

What marketing requires is an understanding of what people want and how to give it to them.

A Scottish author who I admire takes her novels to fairs to sell. That takes some staying power. But among the successes there are some equally brilliant writers who have no success whatsoever, simply because they can’t achieve more than a small handful of reviews.

The changes to the market don’t stop there. Following doggedly in Amazon’s footsteps are marketing companies – most of which try to be ethical even if they do guild the lily somewhat. Also those wishing to offer services such as formatting, copy-editing and proof-reading. Announce the publication of your book on-line and they are right there, hand on heart and dewy eyed, offering promises for future success.I am not sure how ethical these people are; my own experience has shown me that the advertising blurb regarding their services is just that … advertising blurb. Most of the ‘so called experts’ are amateurs hoping to make money – so be very careful.

Their presence also introduces another element to the mix, that of cost. Like the old saying – there is no such thing as a free lunch, so too there is no such thing as a free book, not if you plan on making it also a ‘well written and most readable book’. That costs.

Does it work? The jury is still out on that one. I know Pay Pal upheld my claim against one company and refunded their fee.

What is not ethical, however, is the cant that revolves around the Amazon star-rating. For a society in which most people possess only a tiny circle of friends, a star-rating has become the Holy Grail, with Reviews being Excalibur – the sword of truth. Armed with enough 5* reviews and one can scale any wall or barrier. And so groups that review each other’s work and give it either 4* or 5* have grown up to promote ratings.

Six years ago, I belonged to one such group that did just that but it was ethical – very much so. The rule was if you didn’t consider the book you were reading deserved more than 3*, you contacted the author privately and shared your concerns. But you did not post a review. Sadly that was quickly disbanded under Amazon’s Eagle-eyed watch. Most recently I joined another group, with a vast number of members which allows the group to sneak under the Amazon radar. In this group you buy a member’s book, read and review it, while another member buys yours. In this group, I commend both the enterprise and the idea behind the project. I question only the route it is heading down. Some authors were asking for 6 books to review in a month. How does one actually read 6 books a month? Fair does, they were then buying 6 books on the list in order to receive their 6 reviews. The problem for me; they had to be 4* or 5*reviews and this was mandatory.

A brilliant system and I confess to having huge admiration for the brains behind the scam. Because, whichever way you look at it, it is a scam. The gullible public when faced with a book that has twenty 5* reviews, even though the majority of reviews are between two and six words – Excellent book, thoroughy enjoyed – will choose that book over another that boasts only two reviews, even though both consist of a thoughtful paragraph and several lines of writing. Yes, I did dip my toe in the water – twice. Both times I was shocked by the standard of writing. Fortunately, a very sympathetic and professional author did advise me to always read the ‘sample’ on Amazon first … carefully.

More recently up popped information from a company actually advertising and promoting 4* and 5* reviews.

How then can you trust Amazon’s ratings? Admittedly they are trying to cut down on scams both Amazon and Facebook, with Facebook cutting down on the sharing and dissemination of posts to friends, while Amazon have limited reviews to those who have spent over £50 on their site in any year.

The heading of this piece, is it even ethical is asking a question which deserves an answer. But I don’t have an answer. If everyone is dishonest around you, should you also be dishonest?

If you go along with the false creation of reviews, up will go your sales. If you don’t, the chances are – unless you already have a good following – your book will languish?

What do you think?

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40 thoughts on “Is it Even Ethical? – Guest Post by, Barbara Spencer…

  1. A thought provoking post Barbara, and I am often asked by authors if they should pay for reviews and I always tell them not to. I understand the drive to have some form of feedback for a new book but where is the satisfaction in your own work if you know that the reviews were not necessarily honest, even if you hope that they might be. I know most of the authors that I review, and many are in the Cafe and Bookstore, which is why I am always clear that I buy books and will review them honestly when I have time to read them. There are some books that I have not reviewed over the years and several I have dropped an email to the author in question. I only post 4 and 5 reviews. I also don’t announce on Goodreads that I am reading a particular book as I believe it creates an expectation in the author of a review within a reasonable time frame. It also colours a potential reader’s buying decisions when they see that a book has been read by 20 people none of whom have reviewed it within weeks or months of their announcement. There are exceptions to my buy policy, and that is for authors whose books I have read and reviewed in the past and I am confident I will enjoy. It applies to perhaps three or four books a year.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “One of the problems today is that we ‘meet’ other authors online in communities like FB and Twitter and learn to like the people they are.”

    I think one of the benefits of so much connectiveness these days is that readers and writers can make connections with each other. Of course it can influence reviews. If a reader likes a book more because they understand where the author got the ideas or where their mindset was it’s still an honest review.

    My mommy gushes about my book, so it must be good, right? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an interesting post! I wonder if total honesty is really possible in a review unless you buy a book anonymously and review it anonymously and have no knowledge of the author either. One of the problems today is that we ‘meet’ other authors online in communities like FB and Twitter and learn to like the people they are. If we then buy their books, we will automatically be influenced by our personal impressions, but I still feel the reviews are legitimate. Personally, I used to belong to a group such as you describe, but I don’t use it anymore because I have decided I don’t want to ask for reviews from anyone, not even as an ARC. I use Beta readers for sure, but it’s up to them if they want to then review my book. Most of them don’t. I just feel better about that, but it’s my decision and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to do the same. After all, I write as a hobby as relief from my teaching, so it isn’t my living. I might feel differently if I were dependent on royalties. However, I believe the real scams are those who offer guaranteed four and five star reviews on a commercial basis and charge for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Delighted to meet similar minded people – thought I was a lone wolf crying in the wilderness. Mine is now a hobby. I have done my dashing around the countryside to schools. Yes, I have recently seen these ads offering 4* & 5* reviews for a fee – horrid.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for a thought provoking article. My answer would be no, it isn’t ethical. It also goes against the Amazon Terms of Service and good authors have been banned for getting involved in these schemes. The people who come up with these schemes are often better marketers than they are writers. I may be old fashioned but I’d avoid them like the plague. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Barbara, please call me Meeks. And yes, any system that makes money will be scammed. It is inevitable, just so sad that books are the victims of this one. So many people never read at all. It feels wrong that their one and only experience of reading may turn out to be nasty because they were unfortunate enough to choose a scam. I wish I knew how to fix this problem. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

        • Meeka – I think that is gorgeous. No one will forget it. It is sad, I agree. I much preferred the olden days but they are gone for good and it seems to be, the world is now a place of scams in every subject – an honest broker has become more of a rarity.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Hi Barbara. 🙂 I think the whole world is in transition, and probably has been for some time, even before the pandemic. Unfortunately, the nasties become emboldened during such times, and it seems they’re everywhere. Actually, they probably are, but I think they’ll be pushed back down under their rocks once we reach whatever new normal we end up creating. There are still lots of good people too. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  5. ” …they had to be 4* or 5*reviews and this was mandatory.”
    As soon as something like this is said, you have to think about the ethics. If a book in your mind warrants a 3, but the person who reads your book gives it a 4, is there not the temptation to bump it up? So, right there, you are not giving an honest review.
    As an author, two things frustrate me: Reviewers not leaving a review or letting me know that they chose not to because they didn’t like it (at least that way I know), and Amazon (the behemoth or necessary evil…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Leon Stevens – I am afraid I fit into the last category. I won’t leave a reply unless I can whole heartedly leave a 4* or 5*. I would prefer to discuss my concerns with the author. Honestly Leon, you make a lot of enemies if you express an honest opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Leon it took me a while to understand your reply, I think that is why I left the groups. Yes, I feel guilty if the book I am reading is only worth a 3* and I was given a 4*. I am not sure if I would allow my book into the public domain unless it really was worth 4*. My daughter would kill me 🙂 If it’s rubbish she says so.

      Liked by 2 people

      • With anything artistic it is all so subjective. If I never published my poems, I wouldn’t have received a comment like this:
        “Thank you so much for the beautiful poem, it was very touching and your words have a healing effect.”
        But to be fair, I also received this:
        “I thought the pieces in this collection were mostly okay. I’ve read much better but there are much worse collections out there.”

        Well, I’m glad I’m not the worst.🤔

        Like

  6. This is a very interesting post, Barbara. I too have discovered that there is a lot of dishonesty in the Amazon review process. I have bought and read books based on dozens and dozens of incredible reviews and I have been horrified at the dismal content of the book. Review scamming is still alive and well despite the steps taken by Amazon to combat it. I don’t think it is right to compromise your ethics even if the whole system is flawed. If everyone did that, what sort of society would we live in?

    Liked by 3 people

    • You took the words right out of my mouth, Robbie. I’m a voracious reader and careful of my pennies, but I’ve still been caught by books that have a gazillion reviews, but end up being second rate or worse. I accept that a lot of people only care about the story, and not how it’s written. Fair enough. But when the story is boring AND badly written, I smell week-old fish.

      I’ve learned to buy most of my books via word of mouth recommendations, and when I do try a new author who hasn’t been recommended, I read the ‘Look Inside’ from start to finish. Amazon was good once. Now it’s being gamed all the time. Unfortunately, it really is the only game in town.

      Liked by 1 person

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