Monday 28 April 2014

Reviewing Ethics: Four Sins of Online Reviewing (Part Two)

By Iola Goulton

Last week I looked at the first two big problems with online reviews: spam and shills. This week I introduce sock puppets and stupid.

Sock Puppet

Many Amazon reviewers (including authors) use pseudonyms. Technically, Iola is a pseudonym—I don’t get an Amazon ‘Real Name’ badge because Iola isn’t the name on my credit card. Other reviewers use pseudonyms for reasons ranging from protecting their personal privacy, not wanting other people to know what they are buying (if you had issues with infertility or an addiction to pornography, would you want everyone working that out based on your Amazon reviews?).

I don’t see anything wrong with using a reviewing pseudonym as a way of protecting what is left of online privacy. I don’t want my identity outed and my family threatened by some disgruntled author (this is known as being doxxed). Amazon has my full name, address and credit card number, and would release this to the relevant authorities if required. No one else needs to know.

Sure, some Amazon users don’t behave well online. Some of them use pseudonyms. Others use their real names. Some are called “Amazon Customer”, perhaps because they chose that name—but often because their Amazon user name was deemed to be against Reviewing Guidelines (e.g. it included their book title: “Joe Bloggs, Author of Whatever”).

There’s nothing wrong with using a pseudonym, as long as the intent isn’t to deceive. If you’re calling yourself Amazon Customer to disguise the fact you’ve just reviewed your sister’s book (which you edited), or when you call yourself A Reader to review your own book … well, that’s a problem. It’s a sock puppet account. It’s dishonest, it’s against Amazon Reviewing Guidelines, and it’s against FTC guidelines.

The best (worst?) example of Amazon sock puppetry is the author who created over 350 fake identities to give his book five-star reviews. The sock puppet reviews are long gone, but references remain in the remaining reviews, and in the 4,300-post discussion in the Kindle Book Forum.

One commenter sums up this behaviour well:

 Using a sock puppet account isn’t clever or funny. It’s dishonest, and wrong.


Some bad author behaviour can only be described as stupid.

For example, one author was caught reviewing her own book. When confronted on Amazon, she said she didn’t write the review. It was from a friend in Australia, and the author posted it under her own account because her friend couldn’t: they don’t have the internet in Australia.

Yes, the author really said that. The review is gone now (surprise!).

Do read the Terms and Conditions

I often find author-reviewers claiming they don’t know the rules of Amazon (the rules will be the subject of my next posts, starting in June).

I don’t understand this. My father always taught me never to sign a contract until I’d read the terms and conditions, and while I admit I don’t always follow this advice when I sign up to a website (e.g. Facebook), I would never sign something involving money without reading the terms and conditions first. Yet so many self-published authors appear ignorant of Amazon's reviewing guidelines, conditions of use, and selling policies.

Not knowing the terms and conditions of a website you are using to sell your product is, in my opinion, stupid.

Don’t Criticise a Review

I understand some reviews can be harsh, but please keep your meltdown private. Call a friend, go to the gym, bake a cake. Don’t respond online.

Criticising a rating, review or reviewer through a blog post or Facebook page isn’t clever. Too often, fans see this as an excuse for a witch hunt, and fan behaviour (like telling a reviewer to stick their hand in a blender) makes the author look bad. You can’t control the behaviour of your fans (or family), so don’t give them any ammunition.

Don’t draw attention to the review through writer loops either—many reviewers are members of these loops. They will see your response, and mentally cross you off the list of authors they review. Remember: nothing is private on the internet.

Criticising reviews is especially stupid in the romance genre, as romance readers have long memories, and still haven’t forgiven Anne Rice or Deborah Anne MacGillivray for their anti-reviewer antics (from ten and five years ago respectively, although Anne Rice is currently pontificating about reviewers using pseudonyms. Yes, Anne Rice, who writes under a pseudonym).

PS: Blaming the offending remarks on your husband or significant other isn’t an excuse.

Don’t Respond to Reviews

If the reviewer who has just given you a one-star review isn’t smart enough to understand the point you were trying to make in your 80,000-word book, is a 200-word comment really going to change their mind?


Don’t even try. Savvy readers will ignore the review. If the point is valid … well, responding will make someone look stupid, and it won’t be the reviewer.

Amazon doesn’t have an official policy regarding authors commenting on reviews. Some marketing “experts” recommend authors comment on low-star reviews, rationalising the reviewer will appreciate the interaction and can be persuaded to raise the star rating. This may well be true—but I’ve never seen it happen.

What most often happens is the reviewer never even sees the response. But other people see it, comment … and it always ends up with the author looking bad. Even the nicest comment can look condescending to the wrong person. It’s not worth the risk.


So there you have some of the background to why some people think reviewers don’t like authors. But it’s not true.

Authors, we want to love your books. And you. Make it easy for us by spending your time writing the most amazing books ever.

Don’t spend time dreaming up creative ways to get around the rules and guidelines of online reviewing. Please. Because every time an author does something that’s ethically suspect (or out-and-out cheating), it adds to the list of things readers and reviewers consider unacceptable.

We’ll discuss this in my next series of posts. 

By Iola Goulton. I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website (, or follow me on Facebook (, Twitter (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog ( I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2000.


  1. Iola, excellent post! Thanks for providing definitions for sock puppet reviews, and explaining why they are unethical and breach reviewing guidelines.

    I was researching a small press, and discovered a comment on a review on one of their books that was defensive in tone. Further research revealed that the commenter, who was using a reviewing pseudonym, was actually the author of another book from the same press. I compared the author bios, and concluded it was likely the same person wrote both books under different names. The review comment looks like a random comment from a customer, but it makes sense that the author, or someone close to the author, would have a bigger incentive to defend the quality of the book.

    1. This review is actually against Amazon's Reviewing Guidelines (which I will discuss in detail in my next series of posts), because the reviewer has a financial relationshiop with the book being reviewed.

      Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all too often. I suspect the culprits don't think things through.

      If you identified the link, so will others, and that's going to have a negative impression. As a reader, do you want to buy a book where you suspect the reviews aren't genuine? As an author, do you want your book published by a publisher with ethical issues that could make you look bad?

  2. Thanks, Iola! This is so informative. I was reading a book recently about Jesus' words: 'Let your "yes" be "yes" and your "no" be "no"' where it suggested that Jesus actually wasn't against oath-taking (which Paul did, after all) but was commenting on the system the Pharisees had devised about truth-telling: there were rules for when you could get away with deception and when you couldn't!

    Nothing much has changed. We're still thinking like Pharisees - that there are times when it's okay to be deceptive!!!! (Apologies for the exclamation marks but sometimes they make the point.)

    1. Even if an author (or reviewer) gets away with deception on Amazon, God knows, and His penalty for sin is more serious than Amazon's. (However, God is also faster to forgive than Amazon.) Thanks for commenting.

  3. Again Iola, you're opening this author's naive eyes to what's out there in review land. Maybe we could liken it to our Christian walk. If someone says something unkind about you, it's silly to come back at them yourself, it can make you look too defensive. The truth will eventually be obvious to those who know you.

    Good idea about baking a cake... to sweeten the sour taste often left by a mean review.

    And yes, Annie, there's a lot to be said about keeping it simple. People will value our word more if we're not constantly on the defensive.

    1. I agree, Rita - the truth will be obvious. It makes me wonder why people engage in such practices, if they purport to be Christian. Surely such marketing practices demonstrate a lack of trust in God.

    2. A lack of trust in God ... good point. While the examples I've given have been from non-Christians, I have seen similar behaviour from authors who claim to be Christian, and that's especially disappointing. If God is in a project, He will use it as He sees fit.

    3. I agree, Rita. The truth will be obvious to those who know you, and even those who don't are usually intelligent enough to work it out.

  4. Thanks Iola for another helpful and informative post. Now I know what a sock puppet is (apart from a sock with button eyes :) ). It is amazing the lengths so people go to promote their work. I can't help thinking that the indie author who created over 350 fake identities to give his book 5 star reviews might have been better employed in writing the next book!

    1. My thoughts, too, Jeanette. Many authors say the best publicity for a book is your next book.

    2. Absolutely. Inventing that many fake IDs would take a lot of time, and in the end wasn't worth the effort.

  5. Hi Iola,
    As with all of your posts on reviewing ethics, I find myself staying longer than intended, following the links and shaking my head. That author who was busted and made up the excuse about her Australian friend (lol) is just the start. Some of those other links about authors behaving badly have hurt those authors big time. It should be a lesson to us all that the stories are still out there as examples of what not to do, regardless of the original comments and posts being deleted by the authors after a bit more thought. One moment of self-defensiveness on a public forum may undo years of work on what may well be good books.

    1. I thought you all would like the "no internet in Australia" example. And you make a good point: the internet has a long memory, and so do readers. As Christians we are called to forgive this kind of behaviour. I can and do, but I'm still unlikely to recommend a badly behaved author to someone when there are so many good authors using ethical marketing methods.

  6. Well I'm shaking my head - what other response is there? The behavior you have described is just not needed if we write the best book possible, learn the craft, and do our homework.
    I do feel a little chastised - I need to re-read those Amazon reviewing rules and check for my own reviewing. I've only just started though so its a good time to get a handle on the promotional side of reviewing that can lead to breaking the rules.

    1. I will be covering the Amazon Reviewing Guidelines in detail in another post, so stay tuned ...

      And you're quite correct: better to know the rules before you start reviewing than to find them out the hard way.

  7. Iola, I am finding this series invaluable, especially as a reviewer. I pricked my ears when I read about the pseudonym practice. Amazon changed my original name to Amazon Customer stating that this change happens when you reach a certain number of reviews (cannot remember how many) and this was a reward. I was not particulary happy about this and there was no mention about reverting back to the previous name.

    Today after reading your article I managed to change my review name and profile name back to what I had in the beginning. After reading this article, I am now relieved I have my name back so I can be identified for who I am without any doubt.

    I am really enjoying this series, it is a great eye opener and I appreciate your efforts to enlighten and increase our discernment in this area.

    I am encouraged by yourself and many others here to remain in integrity and credibility in what I do as a reviewer and you as authors.

    This is great stuff and I am glad I have been exposed to your counsel.


    1. Thanks for commenting, Peter, and I'm glad you're finding the series useful. I've never heard of an Amazon reviewer having too many reviews before - which makes me suspect you just got a customer service representative who didn't know the rules. That's a common problem. I've "met" many Amazon reviewers who know the rules better than the Amazon employees.

  8. My goodness, what an eye opener. As a person who rarely frequents or buys from Amazon since they refuse to accept PayPal, much of this about sock puppet reviewers was a real eye opener. I can't imagine anyone going to the trouble of creating all those fake IDs. Enjoying this series on reviewing. Thanks Iola.

    1. It's off-topic, but I suspect Amazon won't accept PayPal because of the PayPal commission. However, you don't have to be a regular Amazon customer in order to review - you only need to have purchased one product, which can include a free Kindle download. However, I do think you need to either have a valid credit card (or Visa Debit) or an Amazon gift card in order to set up an account.

      Even when I bought most of my ebooks from Kobo, I'd still check the reviews on Amazon first, as they have more product reviews than any other site.

  9. Thanks for a great post Iola (your real name's Felicity Trueblood - am I close?). I can understand someone perhaps making an honest mistake and not realising they're acting against the guidelines (because as you point out, they haven't read them), but it's certainly eye-opening to learn of the premeditated devious means people go to so that people don't know they're reviewing their own books. No excuse for that and I imagine once they're "outed", it would only damage their reputation. Sad to think that Christians are also involved in such behaviour because it not only ruins their author reputation, but their witness. Looking forward to the next installment :)

    1. Felicity Trueblood ... close (lol).

      It's the devious means that annoy customers - and honest reviewers. And it's difficult to tell an honest mistake from premeditated deceit, which is why many customers have long since stopped giving self-reviewing authors the benefit of the doubt.

      Besides, it's a lot easier to believe it's an honest mistake if Felicity Trueblood is reviewing a book by Felicity Trueblood. But when A Reader is reviewing dear Felicity, and a little investigation finds A Reader has only ever reviewed Felicity's books ... that's when it starts looking off.

      My next series starts on 6 June, so I'll look forward to "seeing" you then!

  10. My son made a puppet out of a sock when he was 3. He called it 'The Missing Sock'. It was pretty ugly - had only one button eye, and fabric ears that unfortunately looked like horns. Mr Missing Sock had a mind of his own. He and Tully got into trouble quite a few times. I can't help thinking that these online sock puppets are very much like my boy's actual sock puppet - Imaginary friends can be an excuse for bad behavior.
    Learning a lot from your posts, Iola. Thank you for sharing this insight. xo

    1. I think this example exactly describes where online sock puppets get their names! Thanks for visiting, Rose.


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