How To Work Around Restrictions Against Paid Reviews

The Indiefantastic blog kindly reviewed my second global warming science fiction novel Tasneem, available on this blog as a FREE PDF file.

The Indiefantastic blog project has just recently started out with the concept of providing reviews to self-publishing authors, against a very low fee of GDP 10 (the blog is based in the United Kingdom).

I learned about it on Twitter and thought I’d give it a try. While I was not sure that my novel would be able to receive a favorable review, I thought that I could always learn from criticism. Besides, the novel was actually written by my lead character Tasneem, so if the review was unfavorable, it would be her fault, not mine. 🙂

I have been very pleased by the result. The reviewer actually liked my book! I might have something with slight promise here.

And I don’t think the review is favorable because I paid the vast sum of 10 pounds. Nor do I think the review is favorable because the reviewer was afraid of Tasneem’s revenge if she thrashed Tasneem’s book. 🙂

But, unfortunately, under current Amazon policy, the fact that I did pay that nominal fee disqualifies the review from posting at Amazon. Amazon customers will have to do without it.

I am not happy with that. Neither is the reviewer, who is labeled as a bad, dishonest person by Amazon and is prevented from posting her work.

So I took a bit of time to think about how to work around this problem. The Indiefantastic blog has adopted the proposal I made, and changed the business model. Now the “About” page says:

The Indie Fantastic is a new site offering a professional proofreading service to Indie and Self-Published authors. For an introductory fee of £10 I will proof your novel either to the point where I find ten mistakes, or I reach the end of your work, whichever comes first. I also offer a completely free review of your book if required. You’re paying for the proofing, NOT the review, which allows me to freely post toAmazon & Goodreads without penalty.

And a short post at Indiefantastic explains the change and the reason for it like this:

The Indie Fantastic is just over a week old now, and I’ve had time to iron out some teething troubles. The main issues I’ve encountered are;

  • Amazon will not accept paid reviews (however honest)
  • Some self-published authors suffer from simple, costly mistakes in their writing.

Thanks to the considerate legal advice of K.Lenz I can now offer one service that solves both issues!

For an introductory £10 fee I am now offering to proof your novel either to the point where I find ten mistakes, or I reach the end of your work, whichever comes first. In addition, I can offer an optional,completely free review of your novel if required. You’re paying for the proofing, NOT the review, which allows me to freely post to both Amazon & Goodreads without penalty.

I am pleased to have helped with this change. It is a small way to show my gratitude for this excellent review. I would like to recommend the new professional proofreading service strongly to any self-publishing author.

 Here is the short analysis I sent to Indiefantastic yesterday:

A. Problem

Important sites in the Internet publishing business don’t accept reviews that have been written commercially. This is especially true for Amazon, the largest such site.

I will discuss the reasons for such a restriction later on (below C). There I will also propose some changes to existing regulations.

However, as of now, these overbroad restrictions are in place. Therefore one needs to understand how to best work around them.

B. Working Around the Restrictions

1. Concealing Payments

One obvious idea would be to just make sure that Amazon does not learn of some payment.

That idea has many drawbacks.

For one, it is based on deception. The reviewer going this route would be required to lie all the time. This is not compatible with the basic idea of providing honest reviews.

It may be, however, a good explanation for the fact that many commercial reviewers charge considerable sums. Some of that may be hush money.

The other drawback is that this way of doing business makes it impossible to clearly state the conditions of any deal to prospective clients. The reviewer can’t publish the price on a website, for example.

This means that any workaround involving keeping information from Amazon must be rejected.

2. Donation model

The reviewer might refrain from asking for upfront payment and ask for donations instead.

The problem with this model is that, human nature being as it is, positive reviews will be more likely to generate a donation than negative ones.

That in turn may compromise the ability of the reviewer to write honest reviews. Even if it does not, a third party may well assume that it does.

3. Advertising model

The reviewer may charge clients for advertising on the review website.

As far as this is done to conceal a payment that is actually intended as payment for the review, that would only be a variation of the method discussed (and rejected) above of concealing payments.

As far as the payment would be genuinely justified considering the traffic numbers of the website in question, there would be no payment for the review.

4. Proofreading service model

The reviewer might charge a fixed fee in advance. The reviewer would then promise to read the book at least until the point where she has found a fixed number of grammar or spelling mistakes (for example 10).

She would then need to report to her client those mistakes, so that the client would be able to fix them. In the (unlikely) event that the book doesn’t provide 10 such mistakes, she would report that fact, and the remaining mistakes.

She may then, on her own judgment, proceed to write a review if she feels like doing so, and write in that review whatever she honestly thinks appropriate.

The beauty of that model from the point of view of the reviewer is that she can stop early on if a book is lousy, at least in the majority of cases where a bad book comes with many spelling and grammar errors.

The beauty of that model from the point of view of the client is: They get assured value (report on mistakes) for a low fixed fee. And the risk of getting their book thrashed in public goes down. The reviewer will be less inclined to take her frustration out on the author if she can put the book down after having found mistake number 10 on page 7.

The beauty of that model from the point of view of Amazon is that there is no payment for the review involved. It clearly is permitted under the guidelines for reviews, as per the relevant FAQ.

The same is true for other sites like Goodreads which only prohibit “commercial reviews”, without elaborating on what “commercial” is supposed to mean.

There is no payment for the review involved.

C. Why Restrict Commercial Reviews Anyway?

1. The Case For Restricting Commercial Reviews

The reason for these restrictions is that Amazon wants honest reviews. The readers of these reviews also want that.

Therefore, if someone is paid for a review, the review is rejected because the reviewer is seen as biased and unable to provide an honest opinion.

That is especially true if the payment is not disclosed in the review. For the very least, readers need to know if there was a payment involved.

2. Restriction Is Overbroad

However, there are also some problems with this view.

For one, just because someone is paid for something doesn’t mean she is not honestly doing her best.

For example, authors do get paid (at least some of them). Some authors get paid considerable sums by society. Publishers get paid. Editors and proofreaders get paid. Amazon gets paid. Everybody gets paid, except the reviewer. Where is the logic in that?

Actually, the fact that someone gets paid generally means that there is something worth paying for. So, all things equal, paid reviews should not be rejected, but displayed on top of the list of reviews, as long as they are honest.

I hear that the famous film critic Roger Ebert recently passed away. He has a long Wikipedia page. He was famous. Are his reviews of movies worth less because someone paid him to write them?

Obviously not. It is exactly the other way around. He was paid because he provided something worth paying for.

Are journalists stopped from writing about Bitcoin if they, themselves, own some Bitcoins? Are they stopped from writing about some stock or other if they own shares of that stock?

Obviously not. As long as the potential for conflict of interest is disclosed to the reader, someone owning Bitcoins since 2009 would be, all things equal, more qualified to discuss these issues. As long as the potential for conflict of interest is disclosed to the reader, someone who has studied the stock in question enough to bet some of his own money on it would be, all things equal, more qualified to discuss it.

So in other areas, there is no overbroad restriction against any form of paid reviewing. And that is the correct approach. Amazon’s guidelines discard anything written professionally as worthless propaganda. That may be correct in some cases, but it is not in a lot of others.

The vast majority of books published will not make any money. A considerable number of authors is not writing books for money, but for other reasons. Bringing out a message or enjoying the process of writing are among them. Many authors will publish their books for free under a Creative Commons license and use Amazon only because they need Createspace for printing and want their readers to get the book easily on a Kindle.

If the author is not interested in making money in the first place, it is rather inappropriate to remove paid reviews of their books because that might give the author an extra 53 cents in royalty revenue from Amazon.

The present policy makes it more difficult for new authors to find their audience. They can’t rely on professional reviewers (e.g. people who know what they’re doing). That keeps a larger chunk of the whole book market in the hand of established authors.

3. How the Overbroad Restrictions Should Be Changed

Amazon should consider the following changes to their policy.

For one, there should be an exception for unfavorable or neutral reviews. If the reviewer gives three stars or less to a book, there is no reason to assume she has done so because of the vast riches paid to her by the author. And in that case, readers would benefit from being able to see a warning that now they can’t see because of the overbroad policy.

Second, there should be an exception for books that are released under a free license, like Creative Commons.

If the author is interested more in readers than money, that is a strong indication that they are not paying reviewers to make a quick buck, but to get their message out.

And most importantly, there should be an exception for new authors with a low profile.

For a book with less than five reviews, paid reviews should be allowed, so as to give new authors a chance to find an audience. The fact of the payment (and its extent) of course would need to be disclosed to the reader.

The present policy discriminates against professional reviewers and against new authors. It should be reconsidered.

Note that all things equal, Amazon will sell more books if it allows for some paid reviews, for example by introducing the three exceptions proposed above, or only one of them. Amazon would profit from these added sales.

Amazon’s readers would profit as well. They could get some guidance from a professional reviewer on the question if that particular book might be suited for them. As long as the payment is transparent to the reader, there is no deception involved.

Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003, lenzblog.com).

One thought on “How To Work Around Restrictions Against Paid Reviews

  1. I can’t thank you enough for your consideration and advice 🙂
    If there’s ever anything I can do for you, you only have to ask!

    Like

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