2017 Writing Goals #PoweredByIndie

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Image from ShutterStock

2017 WRITING GOALS

I’m trying to focus on my main writing goal for 2017:

DEVOTE MORE TIME FOR WRITING!

I think it’s a pretty good New Year’s resolution.

And I’m off to a good start, wearing out my seat cushion and rubbing off the letters from my keyboard as I pound away.

Mostly about physics for now, as I’m wrapping up a BIG project, but I have many writing plans for 2017, and I’m anxious to start on them.

I also hope to spend more time on my blogs in the near future.

A couple of other related goals include:

  • read even more indie books
  • find more time to write reviews

I have a lot of specific goals, and timelines for projects. Goals and timelines help me be productive and stay motivated.

But I’m trying to focus on the main three, posted above.

What are your writing goals for 2017?

Remember to use the #PoweredByIndie hashtag when you post about them on social media.

Amazon is sponsoring this hashtag and supporting indies.

I was lucky, as KDP mentioned my main goal (to devote more time for writing) on their Twitter site.

Check out Amazon KDP on Facebook and Twitter. You can see other great writing goals, and they often share links to valuable publishing tips.

Amazon also has indie New Year’s stories to share: http://www.amazon.com/newyearnewstories

HAPPY 2017!

Chris McMullen

Copyright © 2017

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

Click here to view my Goodreads author page.

  • Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
  • Volume 2 on marketability and marketing
  • 4-in-1 Boxed set includes both volumes and more
  • Kindle Formatting Magic (coming soon)

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One-Word Reviews at Amazon Now?

Reviews 1 Word

I saw a one-word review at Amazon today. So I’m guessing the 20-word minimum has been removed.

You might recall a couple of months ago that Amazon was testing out both ratings and reviews on print books. Those ratings disappeared after a few weeks, so perhaps the compromise was to remove the minimum word count.

The review forms have changed (but there is a tiny ‘here’ link below them that you can click if you prefer the old way).

My guess is that Amazon is trying to encourage more genuine customers to leave reviews. So now there is no ‘imposing’ 20-word minimum.

(In reality, what had been preventing a customer from writing the same word 20 times consecutively?)

We’re short on time now, so give me a one-word summary of the last book you read. 😉

Amazon: Experimenting with Review Changes..?

Amazon Review Changes

If you’ve shopped for Kindle e-books recently on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, you may have noticed some changes to the way that search results are displayed.

Or maybe not. Not all shoppers have been affected.

Apparently, Amazon is testing something out with many customers, but not all customers. That would make sense, actually. Then Amazon would have data for two groups: a control group, shopping like normal, and an experimental group, experiencing the changes.

What’s going on?

This doesn’t apply to everybody. Many customers are observing the following:

The review tally and average star rating are not showing up next to Kindle e-books in search results for many (but not all) customers.

Just to be clear:

  • Reviews are showing, but only on the product page. Normally, you see the total number of reviews and average star rating before reaching the product page, but for those who are experiencing the change, you don’t see any review information until reaching the product page.
  • Print books are not affected. Only Kindle e-books are affected (and only for some customers).
  • Some customers who aren’t seeing the review info in search results were able to switch web browsers (e.g. from Internet Explorer to Mozilla FireFox) and then see the review info. The browser switches haven’t been consistent (e.g. for one person, going from Explorer to FireFox works, but for another, it’s FireFox to Explorer that does the trick). Some customers report that no browser changes resolved the issue.
  • The test applies to shopping for Kindle e-books on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. (There are other ways to shop for Kindle e-books, such as right on the device. Most people shop for Kindle e-books from Amazon’s home page.)

The way we “know” this (of course, only Amazon “knows” for sure) is from various customers (including myself) observing this firsthand, and some authors (this time, myself excluded) contacting Amazon to inquire about this and receiving similar responses.

Will the World End?

Predicting the end of the world doesn’t come with many rewards. Whether you’re right or wrong, either way you seem to lose.

Right now, it’s evidently just a test.

Here is my pure speculation. I don’t have any evidence of the following; I just tried to reach a logical conclusion from what data I have. It might be like watching a news story break out: You hear eight theories for what happened, some of which seem reasonable, and they all turn out to be wrong. But sometimes it’s still fun to play along.

  • Amazon is probably looking at (A) sales data between the control group and experimental group and (B) any impact the changes may have on creating a positive shopping experience.
  • A positive shopping experience may include data on returns, review activity, customer complaints, and average review ratings, for example. Maybe they are also listening to publisher feedback.
  • If the changes lead to (A) increased profit or (B) improved shopping experience without any decrease in profit, it would seem logical for the changes to become permanent.
  • If the changes instead result in a decrease in profit or adversely affect the shopping experience, this will probably be a temporary change and things will soon return to the way they were.
  • It could be a long delay. It might take time for affected customers to get accustomed to the change before they return to their usual buying habits.

What’s going to happen? Would you like to call heads or tails?

I’m interested in the outcome, but I don’t feel strongly one way or the other, either as a customer or as an author.

I sort of like browsing through titles and thumbnails without that review tally in search results. I sort of feel that it may (at least, in principle) encourage authors to worry more about writing and marketing and much less about reviews (but in practice…). I believe there could be a few small benefits. But again, I don’t feel strongly about it. Either way, I won’t lose sleep over this.

Some books may benefit from the changes. Some books may be hurt by the changes. Probably, it will balance out to a large extent. If the changes persist, it probably means that it’s helping more books than it’s hurting.

Sales do fluctuate for all books. So any author whose books are presently on the downward part of a typical fluctuation are presently pulling out their hair. It might be pure coincidence that their sales are down, but if they noticed these review changes, they will surely blame the reviews. But those authors whose books are presently on an upward swing will be thinking that evidently the changes are helping them out. One author isn’t a good statistical sample. Even a handful is not a sufficient indicator.

Personally, I don’t expect things to change much if the changes are here to stay. Right now, you still see the reviews on the product pages, so it’s not like reviews have vanished; you just have to get to the product page before you see them.

Maybe some books that are getting clicked frequently because their ratings are really high won’t be clicked quite as frequently. Maybe some books that aren’t getting clicked as much now because the review ratings are really low will get a few more clicks. Maybe not.

Constant Change

There is only one constant in the publishing business: change.

Several months ago, Amazon eliminated the 4-for-3 program for print books. I expected that to hurt sales, but my paperback sales actually improved significantly after that. Perhaps it’s because Amazon started discounting CreateSpace paperbacks more after discontinuing the 4-for-3 program. Or maybe my sales were about to rise for other factors, such as new releases and marketing. It’s a complicated analysis.

Amazon changed the FREE Super Saver shipping price and the fee for Amazon Prime, but these don’t seem to have affected my sales.

Here are a couple of things to consider:

  • The change is fair because it affects all Kindle e-books. It’s not like they just did it to your e-book, but left all others like they were.
  • People still want to read Kindle e-books. Your book is still available. Customers are still shopping for books.
  • Reviews generally have much less impact than authors realize. Sometimes a negative review improves sales, sometimes a positive review deters sales, very often reviews don’t affect sales at all, and when sales do change, it might very well be because of some other hidden factor and a review just coincidentally showed up at the same time.

Don’t worry. Be happy. Just read and write more books.

You can’t change the change.

It may not change at all.

If it does, don’t sweat it.

There are probably more important things that you should be doing right now than worrying about this. 🙂

Publishing Resources

I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles on publishing and marketing by clicking one of the following links:

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

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.

Amazon Customer Reviews—Simple Survey

Reviews 3

I’m curious how you, as a reader, feel about customer reviews at Amazon. I made this simple survey hoping to find out.

Please answer how you feel as a reader (not as an author).

This survey is just for informational purposes only.

Here is your chance to review the review system. 🙂

Pros:

  • You can learn about experiences that other customers have had with the product.
  • The number of reviews give some indication of how much a product has been purchased.
  • Feedback often includes a variety of opinions to consider.
  • You get to express your opinion about products where thousands of other shoppers can read it.
  • Critical reviews can help to prevent the sale of products that really aren’t fit for sale (though returns and complaints could achieve the same outcome).
  • Honest customer feedback has the opportunity to determine the success of a product.

Cons:

  • Opinions are often contradictory, making it a challenge to judge what to believe.
  • The system can be abused, both with favorable and critical reviews (though Amazon has made it much more difficult to do this compared to a couple of years ago).
  • There are sometimes spiteful remarks in the review section. This is one feature that seems to contradict Amazon’s focus on creating a positive shopping experience.
  • Customers aren’t required to either buy or use a product in order to review it.
  • Reviews can be posted anonymously. This is a pro in terms of internet security, but leaves room for occasional reviews that abuse the spirit of the review system.
  • Some external advertising services require a minimum number of reviews and average star rating, providing an incentive to recruit favorable reviews rather than encouraging reviews to come about naturally.

Overall:

  • Do you feel it’s beneficial, as a reader, to have customer reviews on the product page? That is, do the pros outweigh the cons?
  • Do you like the comments, the ratings, or both?
  • Do you feel that you could improve the customer review system? If so, how?

Vote:

Publishing Resources

I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles on publishing and marketing by clicking one of the following links:

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

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.

Book Reviews, Interviews, Guest Blogs, & Author Support

Cool Books

I see many bloggers doing book reviews, author interviews, guest blogs, and supporting authors in several ways. That’s awesome! 🙂

I’ve been wanting to do such things for some time now, but the main hurdle has been something that I often preach on my blog:

  • Gear your content toward your specific target audience.

If you write a sci-fi book, for example, a blog that attracts sci-fi readers is the best place for a book review or author interview. Much of the content on my blog, in contrast, is of general interest to many different kinds of authors.

As you may have seen in a recent post, I finally thought of a way to help provide a small measure of support for specific authors and books in the context of my usual content. I plan to make more posts of this sort in the future, including:

  • Demonstrating what is marketable about specific books.
  • Illustrating marketing strategies that specific authors are employing.
  • Showing specific book covers that work well.
  • Discussing marketing features that specific author websites are utilizing.
  • Describing specific books, authors, or websites that provide good examples of some marketing, publishing, or formatting concept.

I feel that specific examples can be instructive, and by featuring a specific book or author, I would be supporting fellow authors in a small way.

Note that I will only mention books or authors by name that I feel are doing something well. Although it may be instructive to point out mistakes, I won’t point out any mistakes of specific books. (When I do point out common mistakes, which can be useful, I do it in general terms, not in reference to any specific books or authors. Well, I may point out my own mistakes, but that’s different.)

Another way that I plan to provide a little support to fellow authors is with some new pages. You can see one of the new pages already, called Cool Books (look for it on the index at the top of the page or in the sidebar to the right). It just has a few scary books right now, but I’ll be adding to it as I get the chance (keep in mind that I’m also working on the Read Tuesday stuff).

If you have an author interview or guest blog in mind that coincides with the publishing or marketing content that I often provide on this blog (e.g. you want to discuss your publishing or marketing experience), please feel encouraged to contact me with your proposal. 🙂

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Review Copies

Publishers and authors sometimes send out several advance review copies in an effort to try to build buzz for an upcoming book and, hopefully, generate some early reviews.

(If you’re interested in review copies for any of my books, please see the end of this post.)

Note that there are different types of book reviews. There are customer book reviews that can be posted on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Goodreads, for example. Bloggers can post reviews on their blogs. Then there are media reviews that may appear in newspapers, magazines, etc.

Readers who receive an advance review copy are required to include a note in the review stating that they received a free review copy.

Amazon, for example, permits this as long as the reviewer isn’t compensated in any way other than a free review copy, it is made clear that the reviewer can leave a good or bad review, and the review doesn’t violate any of Amazon’s customer review guidelines. (Note that Amazon’s program is now pretty effective at blocking many reviews from close friends and family. They can help you generate buzz and promote your book, but aren’t eligible to review your book.)

There are a few ways that an indie author can give out advance review copies.

One way is to get fans to sign up to be on a mailing list for the chance to receive a review copy of your next book. When a fan contacts you, this is something you might offer. Or when you’re ready to send out a limited number of advance review copies, you can post an announcement. You could do this with paperback books or e-books.

Another way is to sign up for a Goodreads giveaway. Recipients are encouraged to post a review, but aren’t required to do so, and, of course, a review could be good or bad.

KDP Select provides an alternative means of giving away free copies with the hope of generating a few reviews. However, there is no guarantee that any reviews will come, and if they do, they may be good or bad. Actually, there is somewhat of an increased chance of getting a negative review because the freebie may attract readers from outside the genre, who aren’t familiar with what to expect, as well as readers who may not bother to read the description and check out the book as thoroughly as if they were to make a purchase. It’s also possible to give away hundreds of free e-books through a free promotion without getting a single review in return.

The KDP Select free promotion is more likely to be effective if you succeed at promoting the freebie to your target audience.

One nice benefit of the KDP Select freebie is that the reviewer may opt to have the Amazon customer review show as an Amazon verified purchase. Other kinds of customer reviews generated at Amazon from review copies will show as unverified purchases. Many reviews that show as unverified purchases may seem suspicious to buyers (although when they come from review copies, they are the result of additional marketing steps that the author or publisher has taken).

A month ago I announced that I was trying out the Goodreads giveaway program. Today I sent books out to 10 lucky winners. Now I cross my fingers.

If you weren’t one of the lucky winners, but are interested in receiving a copy for any of my books or future books, please let me know. One way to email me is to click my name where it shows the photo for the about.me on my blog (on the sidebar to the right). Or you can just leave a comment (but don’t post personal information in the comment), and I’ll try to contact you in return.

Please specify which types of books that I write interest you (or if you have any specific titles, feel free to make a special request) – e.g. self-publishing, math workbooks, etc. It doesn’t have to be for you – e.g. if you have or know some kids who could benefit from some good old-fashioned math practice.

It’s not really a review copy in that I don’t expect anything in return; I just hope the book will be put to good use (or at least firewood). 🙂 (Of course, if there turns out to be a high demand, I may have to be selective. I’ll be surprised – pleasantly – if this offer turns out to be that popular though.)

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Amazon Customer Book Reviews: Recent Improvements (?)

Have you noticed a few subtle changes, recently, to Amazon customer book reviews? Find any book on Amazon with several reviews and look closely.

First, let me back up a little, time-wise. On the product page, customer reviews show in two columns. The wider left column shows the top-rated customer reviews in full, while the narrower right column shows the first sentence (or so) of the most recent reviews, with the newest reviews at the top.

This has changed somewhat.

Until several months ago, Amazon used to only show the three top-voted customer reviews at the left. Now, more reviews show up in full at the left; the exact number depends on how many reviews there are all together. This was a nice improvement that many authors and customers had requested.

Another change that occurred several months ago was the inclusion of a few selected excerpts just above the review section. Until very recently, these quotes appeared one above the other in a list, and included a note of how many other customers made similar statements.

Very recently, this changed for one of my books. The excerpts now appear in callouts, and it no longer shows the number of customers who made similar remarks. If you click on one of the three callouts, Amazon takes you straight to that review.

Another of my books has the old list system instead of the callouts, and still shows the number of similar remarks. Maybe they are testing the callout system with selected books, maybe it will take time to change this for all books, or maybe only select books will feature the callouts.

Anyway, there is an interesting issue with the two-column format with more than three full-length reviews showing at the left. For any book that receives a bad review, this comment always carries weight while it’s the most recent review since it shows up at the top of the reviews in the right column. When eventually a good review comes in, it appears above the old bad review.

Unless… customers vote on the new good review, moving it over to the list at the left. Then the bad review reclaims its position at the top of the right column. When there were only three full-length reviews at the left, it wasn’t easy for a new good review to become popular enough to move onto that exclusive list. But now there may be several reviews on the left, so it’s easier for a review to make the transition.

It’s a rather subtle point, and probably not worth much consideration. I just thought it was interesting.

Another change that occurred several months back is what happens when you click the link to see all of the customer book reviews for a given book. Presently, it shows the top-rated favorable review and the top-rated critical review. In the old days, all of the critical reviews (or all of the favorable reviews) could potentially be buried at the bottom of the list, depending on the circumstances. This feature helps to show some balance. Customers are probably trying to weigh the pros versus the cons, so this may be helpful.

What I like most about the recent changes is that Amazon is evidently constantly assessing their customer review program and striving to improve it. The steps may be small, and it may not seem like an improvement to everybody, but I appreciate the effort – both as an author and a reader.

Amazon has made very significant changes in the past. One of the most notable occurred a few years ago when Amazon altered its program to help block suspected shill, sham, and household family member reviews. This change was implemented when they removed thousands (probably, millions) of suspicious reviews. The revision wasn’t perfect, I’m sure; there are probably a few still out there that didn’t meet the criteria of the program, and there were probably a few removed that should have stood. However, this was a significant change to improve the customer review system, and it appears to have made a marked difference.

Have you seen any other changes recently? What are your thoughts?

Who knows what will come in the future? Since Amazon is making periodic changes, we have reason to hope that it will continue to get better.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Comparing Book and Movie Reviews

I buy books (both paperback and e-book) at Amazon and rent movies from Redbox. As an author, reader, and movie watcher, I find the comparison interesting.

When I pull up Amazon’s home page, I see a customized list of thumbnail images of books. Every book has the average star rating beneath it. However, when I pull up Redbox’s home page, I see just the thumbnail images of the movies – no average star rating. Also, when I shop for movies at a physical Redbox, I don’t see the reviews at all.

The strategy is a little different. Amazon wants you to see the perceived popularity with other customers before you click on a book that looks interesting, while Redbox wants you to decide which movie looks interesting before seeing what other customers think.

At a physical Redbox, they evidently don’t want you to be influenced by reviews at all. Perhaps including highly visible reviews on the machine would slow down the process. Have you ever stood in line just to return your movie, but had to wait twenty minutes for someone who was shopping? If so, just imagine how long the wait would be if customers could read through hundreds of reviews there.

I like how – online – Redbox wants you to first select a movie of interest, and then check out the reviews. I prefer this to Amazon’s method of showing you the average star rating first. I kind of feel that I’m being told what to read: Buy what’s most popular… what everyone else has… we know what’s best for you…

Things become more interesting when you check out the reviews themselves. Movies tend to have very many reviews, and the critics can be harsh. It’s tough to find any movies – even with popular actors and actresses – that have very high average star ratings at Redbox. Sometimes a pretty good movie has an average star rating of around three.

The average review rating can actually be less than one star. Fortunately, the minimum customer review at Amazon is one star. I once clicked on movie that had a really cool cover and looked professional, but had a point-something star rating with over a hundred reviews. What? How could it be that nobody liked the movie?

Authors can gain a different perspective on customer book reviews by checking out some of the Redbox movie reviews. I’m glad I haven’t produced any movies.

Yet even if the movie has many of bad reviews and hardly any good ones, it still has numerous reviews. That is, many people watched it regardless of all those lousy reviews. If a book has many more bad reviews than good ones, customers probably won’t buy it. Its sales rank will plummet.

Ah, there’s another point. Amazon tells you the sales rank. So if a book that was selling regularly suddenly has a dry spell, the sales rank climbs up to a million and shoppers think, “That book must not be good.” If the book is lucky enough to get a sale, the sales rank improves to the hundred thousands, and sometimes that one sale triggers a couple of more sales. If the sales rank climbs to the low thousands, customers perceive it as popular. If it gets on the bestseller list, it must really be good, right? That’s the perception.

Redbox doesn’t tell customers the ‘rental rank.’ Redbox doesn’t tell you which movies are more or less popular. I like that it’s not a popularity contest. It’s just about what interests you.

At Redbox, you sort movies by release date or alphabetically. The order of search results is a little more… interesting.

Of course, Amazon has tens of millions of books to choose from, whereas Redbox can only fit so many recent movies in the machine (Netflix doesn’t have that limitation). A movie is also over in a couple of hours, while you may spend weeks reading a book.

I realize I’m comparing apples to oranges. Actually, the supermarket sells apples pretty much the same way they sell oranges. The difference between book sales and movie rentals is fairly significant.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/05/amazon-removes-book-reviews

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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/23/historian-orlando-figes-amazon-reviews-rivals

(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.

https://authorcentral.amazon.com

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.

References

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

http://hosted-p0.vresp.com/816983/84997531d8/ARCHIVE

2. Amazon.com: Customer Reviews Submission Guidelines.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-reviews-guidelines

3. Customer Reviews Guidelines Frequently Asked Questions from Authors

http://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors

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

Customer Book Reviews – Can’t Live With ’em, Can’t Live Without ’em

Twenty years ago, we would stand in our favorite aisle in the bookstore, hoping to select a few good books.  There weren’t nearly as many books to choose from back then – we only had to choose from the limited selection of books that the publishing houses deemed fit for us to read.  If there were any reviews to guide us, they were printed in newspapers and magazines.  We didn’t have customer opinions to help impact our buying decision – unless friends or family happened to have read the book.  The only customer reviews that we saw in the bookstore were the biased quotes and testimonials that appeared on the cover and on the first pages.  If you wanted to express your opinion, you had to have your own printed article.

How times have changed!  Now we can sit in our PJ’s and sip coffee while browsing for books online.  Customers express their opinions and even rate the books on a scale of one (*) to five (*****) stars in customer book reviews.  Everyone has an opinion, and anyone is free to share it.  You don’t have to be an expert to be a critic.  In fact, experts are often ineligible – since other authors who have expertise writing in the same genre are not allowed to review books in that genre.  For example, who would be better qualified to review a sci-fi book than someone who has been both reading and writing sci-for for thirty years?

But that’s okay.  We’re not really looking for experts to tell us what we should or shouldn’t read.  We want to know if we will enjoy the book or not, so we look at the opinions of other customers like ourselves.  So when we pull up a few pages of search results, we look at two things – price and rating.  Naively, we expect five star (*****) books to be awesome and one star (*) books to be awful.  After all, five stars (*****) means you love it, three stars (***) is neutral, and one star (*) means you hate it.

Then we find some of our favorite books online and see that they have three stars (***).  Why don’t the books we used to love have rave reviews?  Then we buy some five star (*****) books and learn that some don’t live up to our expectations.  Experience tells us not to rely solely on the rating.

Next we start reading the reviews.  This is when it really gets interesting.  Five people can say, “It’s the best book ever,” while three others can say, “Don’t buy it.  It stinks,” and yet everyone is talking about the same book.  This is characteristic of most books that have dozens of reviews.  Best-selling established writers who have hundreds of reviews often have a rating from three (***) to four (****) stars, including several customers who hate it and love it.  People form a wide variety of opinions, and some people like to disagree.  This is definitely reflected in the reviews.

So how do you know whom to believe?  You can discount any review that doesn’t provide a good reason for why they love it or hate it.  You can also discount anything that isn’t useful.  But you may still be left with plenty of reasons to read it or pass on it.  These days we can make well-informed buying decisions.  Too bad so much of the information is conflicting!

If you appreciate the struggle of sorting through these conflicting reviews as a customer, just imagine the emotional state of the author who only has a few customer reviews.  The fate of the self-published author, especially, often hinges upon every review.  If one of the first reviewers leaves one star (*), the poor author feels crushed.  This must be a tough blow after putting so much time, effort, and thought into a book to be shared with the rest of the world.  If you come across a book that has a single one star (*) review, would you buy it?  If a book has 100 reviews, we know that we will personally disagree with many of them; but for some reason, if a book has a single one star (*) review, instinctively we trust that review and avoid that book.

The books with just a few reviews are tough for both customers and authors.  The authors need more reviews to help customers judge whether or not the book suits them.  Potential customers also want more reviews for the same reason.  If a book has three reviews, it pretty much doesn’t matter what the rating is, it will be difficult to judge the reliability of the reviews.  For example, some customers shy away from a book that has three five star (*****) reviews because it seems suspicious.  Maybe these were all friends of the author..?

Unfortunately, only a tiny percentage of books are actually reviewed.  Just look at the bestsellers.  A book that has sold tens of thousands of copies may only have hundreds of reviews.  Very often, one out of a few hundred customers will actually take a few moments to express his or her opinion.  That’s fine for popular books.  Once a book has a hundred reviews, another review isn’t going to matter much.  But when a book only has a few reviews, every review is critical – for both the author and for other customers.

If a book has dozens of reviews, that’s a sign that the book has been purchased frequently – at least, it appears to have been good enough for several other customers to try.  As long as the system hasn’t been abused.  The idea behind the customer review process is to provide an assortment of honest feedback about the book in order to help other potential customers make more informed purchasing decisions.  Unfortunately, the system can also be abused in a variety of ways, such as shill, sham, and paid reviews.  A small percentage of authors have created multiple accounts to leave themselves reviews, get family members and other parties who have a financial interest in the book to leave reviews, or even pay others to leave book reviews.  This practice hurts customers and all of the scrupulous authors.  Customers and authors alike need for the customers to be able to trust the system.

Personally, I’ll take the many conflicting reviews – which often times are entertaining to read – and occasional abuse of the system – versus sitting in the bookstore aisle completely uninformed about the books.  If you want to improve the system, the answer is pretty obvious:  If you happen to read a book that doesn’t have hundreds of reviews, take a moment to voice your opinion.  But beware!  If someone doesn’t like your opinion, you may get a No vote under, “Was this review helpful to you?”  We not only express our opinions on the book itself, but we even express our opinions on the opinions!  Have an opinion on that?

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