Between April 18th to 19th, 2011, we conducted an informal survey into independent publishing behavior. We anonymously surveyed 100 independently published authors regarding their attitudes and behavior. The results were surprising.
Book reviews have traditionally been an essential tool for book marketing. Libraries often request copies of neutral third party reviews when considering which books to buy. Bookstores often consider book reviews when deciding whether or not to stock certain books. They are a standard part of most media kits sent to the media during book promotion. And readers rely on them to provide valuable insight into the books they are considering.
Indie authors have several unique problems acquiring reviews. First, many of the mainstream publications simply refuse to consider self published books. Second, those outlets that do review self-published titles often are inundated with far more requests than they can ever complete. Third, while the vast majority of indie authors gravitate toward digital books, many of the most widely respected review platforms still require print copies.
Indie authors often attempt to fill the gap by launching their own review blogs and sites, not to review their own books, but to provide a review outlet for other indie authors. The goal is noble and practical. After all, who better to help readers sort through the millions of self-published titles than an indie author? On the surface, this would seem to be a culture of self-regulation, with independent authors offering peer review of each others’ books in an effort to raise the quality of the whole.
But reviews are only as valid as the reviewer offering them. And a reviewer’s credibility is only as high as his honesty. If readers don’t trust the reviewer, the reviews become worthless to everyone involved. (The following numbers have been rounded for simplicity.)
76% of indie authors admit to giving a book a higher rating than it deserved to avoid hurting a fellow author’s feelings.
32% of indie authors admit to giving a book a higher rating than it deserved in an effort to support indie publishing.
26% of indie authors admit to giving a book a positive review without even reading the book in order to help a fellow author.
19% of indie authors admit to giving a book a positive review based only on reading the preview.
These results are troubling because they show a huge disregard for the authors’ obligation to readers. Even in this small, informal sample, the percentages are too high to ignore. In these results, we see a willingness to sacrifice the expectations of the reader to benefit independent authors. Instead of serving as a legitimate form of peer review to provide a measure of quality control for readers, it becomes a quid pro quo arrangement with no real purpose other than the propagation a large quantity of useless reviews.
But what is more troubling is perhaps the justification for this behavior. After sharing the preliminary results on the writing sites from which the independent authors were solicited, many defended the practice. They argued that it was no different that when authors give each other blurbs to put on their books. Essentially, they argued that “everyone” does it, and therefore it was acceptable.
To understand the issue, it is important to address a fundamental difference in what we are actually discussing. Most customers are familiar with the book blurb. It is a short quote or statement from an author in support of another author’s work. Pick up any traditionally published book, and chances are that you will see a blurb either across the top of the front cover or on the back cover. Book blurbs are solicited in a number of ways. A publisher may ask one of their bestselling authors to provide a blurb for a new author with a blurb to enhance the new author’s credibility, particularly if they write in the same genre. Or authors may solicit reviews independently from their peers, sending promotional copies to authors they respect and requesting a blurb. Or authors who are friends may provide blurbs for each other.
Is this the same thing as artificially inflating a consumer review? That depends on whether or not you believe traditionally published authors routinely lie in order to give each other fake blurbs. If you believe that all of those book blurbs are lies, then it is no stretch to justify lying to readers with an inflated book review. But even if you do believe those blurbs are outright lies, the poor behavior of one person never justifies the poor behavior of another. Just imagine if your teenage daughter justified shoplifting by claiming that it was OK since Lindsey Lohan did it.
And while this may seem like splitting hairs, the Federal Trade Commission has been studying the matter extensively over the last few years. In 2009, the FTC published revised guidelines for testimonial advertisements that specifically addressed the subject of bloggers and consumer reviews. The statute (16 CFR Part 255) clarifies the FTC’s stance on matter and for the first time expanded the FTC’s reach to include testimonials s made by bloggers and consumer reviews.
The issue is – and always has been – whether the audience understands the reviewer’s relationship to the company whose products are being reviewed. If the audience gets the relationship, a disclosure isn’t needed. For a review in a newspaper, on TV, or on a website with similar content, it’s usually clear to the audience that the reviewer didn’t buy the product being reviewed. It’s the reviewer’s job to write his or her opinion and no one thinks they bought the product – for example, a book or movie ticket – themselves. But on a personal blog, a social networking page, or in similar media, the reader may not expect the reviewer to have a relationship with the company whose products are mentioned. Disclosure of that relationship helps readers decide how much weight to give the review.
Do customers generally understand the relationship between a book blurb and the book it appears on? Yes, consumers are savvy enough to recognize a book blurb as the marketing copy that it is. But a reader review posted to Amazon.com or Goodreads.com is another matter, and when you post a review under the guise of a consumer or indifferent reader, the customer may not realize that you have a vested interest in promoting independently published books in a positive light.
So can an independent publisher ethically review other independently published books while still promoting or supporting independent publishing? Absolutely, as long as we clearly identify our objectives and recognize our obligations.
Obligations to readers: Our obligation as a reviewer is to provide honest and factual insight into the book. Inflating the rating of a book misleads the reader into thinking that a book is better than we honestly believe that it is. It harms our own credibility as reviewers and by extension harms our credibility as writers. In the mind of a reader, if we can’t objectively rate the work of other people, how can an independent publisher objectively rate his or her own?
Obligations to business partners: Retail sites such as Amazon.com allow customer reviews because they know that those reviews help to drive sales. However, if the review process becomes suspect, the reviews lose value and suffer from diminished returns in regards to driving sales. Particularly for independent authors that employ the Amazon.com Kindle Direct Program, preserving the integrity of the customer review process should be a priority.
Obligations to other authors: Rating independently published books more leniently than traditionally published books devalues the efforts of those independent authors that deserve real recognition and penalizes traditionally published authors for a contrived reason. Further, independent authors that deserve genuine praise are not supported by inflating the value of independent authors that produce lower quality work. When everything is five-stars, how can the truly exceptional work stand out?
Based on our obligations to these three different groups, how can we develop an ethical review policy?
*In an effort to show independently published books in a positive light, chose to only highlight or review those books that you genuinely enjoyed.
*Do not post reviews of books that you have not read or of books that you only partially read.
*If you are asked to review a book and decide the book does not meet your standards, inform the author that you will not be posting the review instead of posting an inflated review.
*Acknowledge on your blog or website that you are only posting reviews of books you enjoyed, so that the readers understand that you are not inflating reviews but simply not reviewing books that do not meet your standards.
These simple steps provide the transparency necessary for an independent author to ethically review fellow independently published books without harming the reviewer’s integrity or misleading the reader. An ethical policy that consistently insists on transparency prevents both real and perceived ethical issues from arising in the first place.
 See Appendix I: Independent Author Survey.
 United States. Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, 2009. Web. 28 Apr 2011. <http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm>.
 Bureau of Consumer Protection Business Center.” The FTC’s Revised Endorsement Guides: What People are Asking. Federal Trade Commission, 06/2010. Web. 28 Apr 2011. <http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus71-ftcs-revised-endorsement-guideswhat-people-are-asking>.