Amazon Customer Book Reviews: Author Controversies

Reviews Pic

Most authors are customers, too.

As customers, we want to see actual reviews written by actual customers, find a variety of balanced opinions, and be able to trust Amazon’s customer review system.

As authors, we see the benefits of having more customer reviews. Of course, we always cross our fingers that the reviews will be positive. However, we realize that we can’t please everybody, and we know that what’s good for the customer is good for authors and publishers, too.

If the reviews aren’t balanced or if customers aren’t able to trust the review system, then the system isn’t benefiting anyone – customers, authors, publishers, or Amazon.

Authors write many book reviews. That’s because authors are readers, too, and nobody understands how important reviews are more than authors.

So it’s important for authors to understand what is or isn’t allowed, and why.

Violations can lead to deleted reviews, loss of review privileges, account suspensions, books being unpublished, etc.

(1) Review Swapping: Jack reviews Jill’s book and Jill reviews Jack’s book.

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t spell it out by saying, “Review swapping is not allowed.”

But it can be deduced from the guidelines (see References 1-3) as follows:

  • You’re not allowed to offer compensation for writing a review. If Jack offers to write a review of Jill’s book in exchange for a review of Jack’s book, then Jack is offering Jill compensation. This is a clear violation of the guidelines.

Amazon may catch it (perhaps through cross-referencing). If not, customers who observe it may report it to Amazon. There are stories of authors who have lost reviews and privileges.

What’s wrong with this? Doesn’t the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-my-back idea seem unscrupulous? How would this look to a customer who noticed what was going on? It doesn’t matter that the reviews could, in principle, be written objectively. The problem is that the review is written with compensation in mind, which provides an incentive for writing an unbiased review. It’s the incentive that matters, not the intent (incentive is also much more clear).

It is possible for a review swap to come about in other ways. For example, Jack might review Jill’s book. Jill checks out Jack’s profile and discovers that Jack is an author. Jill reads Jack’s book and reviews it. They didn’t agree to scratch each other’s backs. But how would Amazon know the difference? It still looks like a review swap.

If another author reviews your book, you might feel like reciprocating. But then it will look like a review swap. Instead, pay it forward: That is, read a book by someone you don’t know, and review that book.

Of course, it’s possible for two authors to review each other’s books and not even know it, especially if they don’t use their real names on their review profiles. The chances of this happening accidentally, however, are very slim. It still looks like a review swap to Amazon.

There is yet another way for a review swap to come about. Jack is an author who knows Jill. Jack asks Jill to read and review his book. Jill does. Months later, Jill has written a book. Naturally, Jill wants Jack to return the favor. Doesn’t this still look like a review swap?

(2) Advance Review Copies: Dave gives out free copies of his book, hoping to receive some reviews.

This may be legitimate. This is the one exception to compensating reviewers: Authors or publishers may give one free copy of the book to each potential reviewer. Publishers often have mailing lists for advance review copies. Goodreads has a giveaway program to help authors distribute advance review copies for print books.

However, there are restrictions:

  • You must make it clear that you welcome all feedback – positive or negative. For example, you’re not allowed to give a free book in exchange just for a good review.
  • You can only offer one free book. You can’t offer products, discounts, entries into a contest, bonus material, etc. as an incentive for writing the review.
  • You can’t tell the reviewer what to write, tell the reviewer to write a review if the feedback is positive but just email you any negative comments instead, etc.
  • The book must be given free up front; it can’t be contingent upon writing the review.

Giving out advance review copies encourages more reviews. More customer reviews is good for everyone, but only if they are unbiased.

Note that such reviews won’t show as Amazon Verified Purchases. (There is a possible exception. For example, if your book is free through KDP Select and the reviewer downloads your book when it’s free, and the reviewer checks the box to mark it as an Amazon Verified Purchase.)

(3) The Friend and Family Plan: Jane asks her many family members and friends to review her book.

If all authors did this, most of the reviews would be biased. Amazon can’t say that it’s only allowed if the reviews are unbiased: How can Amazon tell, in general? They can’t.

So instead, Amazon has guidelines for what is or isn’t allowed:

  • Definitely, anyone who shares a household with the author isn’t allowed to review the book.
  • Close friends aren’t allowed to review the book. (What makes friends ‘close’? Good question.) This surely includes close family members who don’t live with the author, too.
  • Anyone who has a financial interest in the book isn’t allowed to review it: spouse, children, publisher, editor, cover designer, etc. (Even if the cover designer doesn’t receive a percentage of royalties, the success of the book may help the cover designer through referrals.)
  • Obviously, the author isn’t allowed to review the author’s own book.
  • You’re not allowed to post reviews on behalf of others. For example, if you sell a book to someone in person who has no internet access, if they ask you to review the book on their behalf, you’re not allowed to do it.

Amazon blocks and deletes reviews that are suspected of being on the friend and family plan. They may have a program that checks for common addresses, IP addresses, etc.

In addition to Amazon, there are external parties checking reviews. For example, there are people publishing research who are examining the writing style of multiple reviewers to see if they may have been written by the same person, scrutinizing books with many reviews but only a few sales, etc. There are published cases of review abuse that have been discovered and exposed.

(4) Dogs Eating Dogs: Bob slams the competition by giving them negative reviews.

Authors are not allowed to review similar titles. This very clear from the guideline that says you can’t review a book if you have a financial interest in it. So if Bob gives Eric a bad review and that bad review might improve the sales of Bob’s book, that review is in violation of Amazon’s policies. You’re not allowed to slam the competition.

Aside from being unscrupulous, it’s just plain foolish to slam the competition. Most books are more complementary than competitive. Customers usually buy multiple books that are similar (if not all at once, then spread over time). It’s usually not Book A or Book B; it’s often both. So if you do something to cause similar books’ sales to decline, it might hurt your own book’s sales through Customers Also Bought and other marketing associations.

You’re also not allowed to give positive reviews of similar titles, since a good review of a similar book might improve the sales of your book through Customers Also Bought lists.

(5) Paid Reviews: Cindy pays Jeff to write a review of her book.

This clearly violates the rule about receiving compensation, with one exception.

Editorial reviews, such as Kirkus reviews, may be paid for. These appear as editorial reviews, however, and not as customer reviews. There is a separate section for editorial reviews, and they can be added through AuthorCentral. Editorial reviews don’t necessarily need to be written by editors and experts in the field, as explained in Note 4 of Reference 3.

Note: All of the names used to illustrate examples (Jack, Jill, Dave, etc.) are all fictitious. These names do not refer to actual people. If there happen to be authors with those names who have done the things described (or have been accused by others of doing so or who may have done related or similar things), it is purely coincidental.


1. Kindle Direct Publishing Newsletter, May 2013, Volume 26, Featured Resource, “Q & A on Amazon’s Customer Review Policies.”

2. Customer Reviews Submission Guidelines.

3. Customer Reviews Guidelines Frequently Asked Questions from Authors

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

14 comments on “Amazon Customer Book Reviews: Author Controversies

  1. I have written reviews for novels in my genre on Amazon, and I have several reviews of my book that are written by other authors in my genre. I have at least two cases where I have reviewed a book by an author who has also reviewed mine.

    I have never had a review of my work deleted, nor have I ever had a review I have written deleted. So I am not sure how somebody ends up on the “review police” radar.

    For what it’s worth, all the reviews I have written are honest ones. I tend to leave four and five star reviews, mostly because I don’t have a lot of time to read and I only finish books that I really like.

    • There is always room to clarify. 🙂

      If you publish a calculus workbook, you’re not allowed to review other calculus workbooks. If you publish a romance, since that’s a very broad category, you might be able to review other kinds of romances (maybe even all other romances); but you shouldn’t be slamming other romances.

      If an author posts publicly, “I’ll review your book in exchange for a review of my book,” and someone who sees this complains about it after the reviews are done, that probably greatly improves the chances that Amazon will catch it and do something about it. There is a clear incentive here to write the review. In the other examples I gave, Amazon might not find out about it, and they might not take action if they do find out. They also change their policies and procedures over the course of time.

      Most authors and customers won’t see deleted reviews, but it has happened and on a fairly large scale.

      I myself only give five-star reviews. I only take time to review a book if I really like it, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying bad things about an author’s hard work. Thank you for sharing your comments.

      • The problem with, for example, people who write calculus workbooks not being able to review other ones is, who else is qualified to review them? There is so much academic pressure to publish that it’s hard to find an expert in the field who hasn’t written a book or two.

    • I have been troubled by this before, especially since my background is in science and math. But there are customer reviews – written by customers who’ve used the product – and a separate place for expert reviews. My impression is that expert reviews – written by experts who are evaluating the text – belong in the Editorial reviews section (and external places for professional book reviews). Both customer reviews and editorial reviews show on a book’s product page, and even indie authors can use AuthorCentral to add Editorial reviews to the Editorial reviews section. Of course, teachers can write customer reviews, too; but if a nonfiction author wants a review from an expert for which the review may not satisfy the customer book review guidelines, it can be included with Editorial reviews (and it may have a more professional impact in that location).

  2. “scrutinizing books with many reviews but only a few sales” This bothers me. I have recently put my book out on a promo for free through this weekend. At first I asked for honest reviews, no contests, no games no gimmicks. Then I thought about it. Do I really want a review from people who feel like they are put under pressure to write their review?. The answer was , “No” So I went free for all, no review required. The object was to celebrate my paperback coming out and stimulate interest. Now, if I give out more copies than I have sold this weekend, and more people review than actually purchased the book. (the promo was through smashwords but people can review on Amazon) It is already on 20+ to-be-read lists at Goodreads alone, and I haven’t sold twenty copies this weekend…is that going to be a red flag to get me booted off of Amazon? I should hope not, hardly seems fair.

    • So far as I can tell, Amazon isn’t looking at the ratio of reviews to sales. A couple of independent researchers external to Amazon seem to have an interest in this sort of thing. What will they do with it? Who knows.

      That data in and of itself is meaningless. There are many books that sell thousands of copies in bookstores, to schools, and many other ways, but seldom sell on Amazon; those will surely have more reviews than Amazon sales. Publishers send out 100’s of ARC’s, sometimes. As you mentioned, some books are free on other sites. You can give freebies at Goodreads.

      Unless the research also explores these other issues, or if the research also couples other criteria (like writing idiosyncrasies common among the reviews), I don’t think anything can come of such data. But somehow some authors’ and publishers’ unscrupulous tactics (e.g. getting caught slamming the competition) have sometimes been exposed. Perhaps it is a result of research such as this (probably, not from looking at any one thing alone).

      So I wouldn’t worry about this ratio, especially if there is reason for it. 🙂

      • I really think that the ratio of reviews to paid sales is a non-issue, and didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. A few external (i.e. not affiliated with Amazon) analysts may look at this (for whatever that may be worth), and certainly not that data all by itself, as there are several possible reasons that a book may have many reviews compared to sales.

  3. What bothers me is when I read a book’s blurb on Amazon and blatant spelling and grammar errors jump off the page at me. I then ask myself, “If this person can’t write three sentences without making mistakes, how can their book possibly be readable?” But, I decide to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and I move on to the “Look Inside” feature, where I find so many errors that my reading experience is ruined in the first couple paragraphs.

    Next, I look at the “reviews” and find 10 short, quickly-written 5-star reviews, all of which say, “so and so is the next James Patterson, and this book is awesome, couldn’t put it down!!!!” And the real kicker is this: The book is in Amazon’s “top 100,” meaning that it must be selling 50+ copies per day! And the real kicker: A reader chimes in with a 1-star review, saying, “I don’t know how this book could possibly have garnered a single 5-star review; it’s unreadable!” And then, multiple comments appear below this review, telling the reader/reviewer that he/she is stupid, out of touch, doesn’t know how to read, and that he/she is cyper-bullying a great book. LOL.

    • As a shopper, I place a lot of emphasis on the packaging and especially give the Look Inside a careful review before buying a book. I may check out the reviews, but they generally don’t factor into my decision, good or bad. I’ve learned from such examples that I can usually decide whether or not I’ll enjoy a book from the blurb, cover, and Look Inside, and not so much from the reviews. Yet, evidently there are customers who place much emphasis on the reviews, and so reviews continue to be important for authors. Thank you for sharing your example (which is a big problem for Amazon and the image of self-publishing).

  4. How can I convince you to include a physics category in your blog? I miss my physics class at UCSD with Barney Rickets…..That was the extent of my comprehension though……Intro to Physics! LOL!

    • It’s great to find students who miss their physics classes. I’ve thought of starting another blog just for physics. I’ve debated with myself whether there may be demand. I guess there is one way to find out. 🙂

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