Publishing Is not a Dog-Eat-Dog Business

I debated with myself whether or not this article would be worth writing. I feel that the majority of writers already realize this, and the minority who exhibit the dog-eat-dog mentality aren’t likely to read this article – and, if they do, be influenced by it. Then I considered that it may provide a little reassurance to the majority, if nothing else. So I have written this article with this possible benefit in mind.

Unfortunately, there are a few unscrupulous authors and publishers out there who incorrectly believe that they can become more successful by making their colleagues look worse by planting negative reviews on similar titles and other unethical practices. We see it happen occasionally. Most of the one-star reviews are from actual customers who simply didn’t like the book, but a few are actually from competing authors or publishers – sometimes directly, and sometimes indirectly by persuading or even paying others to do it for them.

We know it happens from the times that that the author was caught red-handed. Reviews have been removed, accounts have been suspended, and a couple of such authors have been featured in high-profile articles.

Let me stress again that the vast majority of authors do not behave this way. Most authors – both indies and traditionally published – are much more ethical than this. Most authors support one another. I don’t mean to suggest a bad image for authors or books in any way. I hope that you will keep in mind that the vast majority of authors behave professionally and supportively and that almost all books provide much value to readers, and not let the behavior of a few bad eggs adversely affect your image of books and publishing at large.

What I really want to point out is why the dog-eat-dog approach is foolish in the publishing industry: Similar books are generally much more complementary than competitive. Buyers usually buy multiple books (if not all at once, then over a period of months or years). It’s usually not a case of, “Should I buy Book A or Book B?” but, “Where can I find more books like Book A?”

Similar titles help one another through Customer Also Bought lists, word-of-mouth referrals, etc.

If an author succeeds in hurting sales of similar titles by blasting the competition, this author is very likely shooting himself or herself in the foot. Every time a customer buys a similar title, that author’s book shows up as a suggested add-on. So hurting the sales of one book tends to hurt the sales of similar books.

Similar titles tend to feed off of each other’s successes.

Another important point is that a negative review sometimes actually helps sales, instead of hurting them. This is a second reason that the unethical dog-eating-other-dogs mentality is likely to backfire.

No author wants to receive a bad review. But sometimes they help sales rather than hurt them. First of all, every review adds to the total number of reviews. More reviews is a sign of greater popularity. Second of all, a negative review among good reviews may help to provide balance. Occasionally, a negative review does hurt sales, but many times it doesn’t.

We must also give credit to the customer. Shoppers can often tell that there is something funny about an unethical review. If they suspect that the competition has blasted a book, customers are inclined to feel supportive toward the poor author who was blasted. They might even buy the book when they otherwise wouldn’t have.

If a customer recently read the book and was about to post a negative review, upon seeing a harsh negative review already there, the customer often reconsiders this. Thus, a malicious one-star review might not result in more negative reviews, just more obviously malicious ones. When customers see a harsh negative review, sometimes they post a positive review when otherwise they wouldn’t have reviewed the book.

Of course, it takes much time for the author to see what effect, if any, a review has. Occasionally, bad reviews do deter sales. It’s just that the assumption that a bad review will always deter sales is clearly false; sometimes it does, but often it doesn’t.

The vast majority of authors who are scrupulous have a great deal of support on their side. Those few unscrupulous dog-eat-dog authors are missing out on this wonderful opportunity.

Most authors help one another in various ways:

  • We discuss ideas with other writers for writing better, marketing better, publishing better, etc.
  • We provide support through comments and emails.
  • We share recommendations for cover artists, editors, etc.
  • We reveal tricks of the trade to authors we interact with and trust.
  • We support one another emotionally.
  • We offer advice from our experience.
  • We give critical feedback when it is solicited.
  • We buy, read, and review many books.
  • And much, much more.

The self-publishing community is very supportive and resourceful. It’s an amazing team to be on. The community is far stronger than a stray dog going around eating other dogs.

Finally, a few bad authors shouldn’t be casting a bad image for dogs. When I think of dogs, I think of wonderful, furry, loving creatures, who win your love with sad eyes, slurp your face with a salivating tongue, stand up on hind legs and throw their front paws on your chest, and faithfully follow you wherever you go. We could learn a lot by studying the natural goodness exhibited by the vast majority of dogs. 🙂

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

9 comments on “Publishing Is not a Dog-Eat-Dog Business

  1. love your analysis of bad reviews here. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but you’re right. They can influence someone to leave a good review, prevent someone leaving a bad review that says the same things…. much fodder for thought!

  2. Great post. Sadly, a few bad authors do ruin the game for the rest of us. I remember when two of my 5-star reviews were erased. I heard that part of the practice came from the idea that reviews from authors in the same genre are seen as fixing the game. The original idea was that authors sabotaging each other with negative reviews would be stopped, but it backfired. Many authors read and review books for each other to help, so the program goes after more 5-stars than 1-stars. So, part of the equation is that the publishers need to recognize that this isn’t a competition. You’re right that most readers and authors already know this.

      • It really cuts me off from reviewing books, but it isn’t even a perfect system. I have a few fantasy book reviews up there, which aren’t touched. So, I think a report needs to be filed or an intentional sweep of the system. I got nailed by somebody that reported me for a suspicious amount of 5-star reviews. We still think it was another author, but it’s anonymous.

  3. Whenever I read a negative review along the lines of “this book makes no sense” or “I didn’t understand what was going on” I always want to buy the book, just to see if I’m smarter than the reviewer. Does anyone else ever feel like that, or am I just that arrogant?

    I see a lot of bad reviews that end with “instead of reading this book, buy this other book.” Seriously, does that work? If anything, it prejudices me against the book being plugged.

    • I think more and more customers are beginning to ignore reviews that don’t seem to provide helpful explanations or seem to be advertisements for the competition. And when we doubt the reviewer, it’s probably common to at least Look Inside. 🙂

  4. When I see someone bash an author but promote another in their review, I am immediately put off by the review. Having the opportunity on Amazon to say why I felt a review was not helpful, I always say, “No, because the reviewer was promoting another author rather than discussing this author’s work.” I have done that at least three times in the past year. So it does happen and I do see it. I agree with Misha Burnett though, sometimes I just buy a book to see if it will be as challenging to me as it was to another reviewer, because I like a challenge.

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