Monday, 21 April 2014

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

By Iola Goulton

Over the next two posts we are going to look at four of the big problems with online reviews: spam, shills, sock puppets and stupid.


Spam is unsolicited electronic advertising, named for the Monty Python sketch. It usually refers to email messages, but can also include comments on blogs, websites, social media sites or any other electronic format.

There is a fine line between spam and legitimate self-promotion—and no clear definition of which is which. For every Twitter guru saying no more than 20% of tweets should be self-promoting, another says the opposite.

Is all self-promotion bad?


But make sure you are promoting in the right place. Amazon don’t permit self-promotion except in the Meet Our Authors discussion forum (an area most readers never visit). MOA was created in May 2012, in response to complaints that the discussion forums were being overrun by spamming authors. This decision by Amazon has led to accusations of bullying in the customer discussions.

Here’s how.

Newbie authors come into the discussion forums and promote their self-published Kindle book. One or more customers will politely inform the newbie that self-promotion isn’t permitted outside MOA, and the author should delete their post. Some authors apologise, delete and leave (or stay and join the conversation).

But some authors say it’s their ‘right’ to post in the discussions. That’s what their friend/publisher/PR guru told them. After seeing a few posts like this every day for months, many readers abandoned the Amazon discussions.

Others stayed, but lost patience with the newbie authors—which did lead to some less-than-polite exchanges. No, that wasn’t fair on the new authors who were posting in genuine ignorance of the rules. But it is understandable. There are pages of dead discussions:

Author 1: Buy my book!
Reader: Please don’t promote your book in this forum. It’s against Amazon Terms of Service. You can promote in the Meet Our Authors forum – the link is at the bottom of the page.

Author 2: Read my book! It’s free today!
Reader: Please don’t promote your book in this forum. It’s against Amazon Terms of Service. You can promote in the Meet Our Authors forum.

Author 3: Buy my book!
Reader: Please don’t promote your book in this forum. It’s against Amazon Terms of Service.

Author 4: Read my book! It’s free today!
Reader: Don’t promote your book in this forum. It’s against Amazon Terms of Service.

Author 5: Buy my book!
Reader: Don’t promote your book here. It’s against Amazon Terms of Service.

and so on, until …

Author 54: Buy my book!
Reader: I hate spam. Go away.

You can see why the readers got a little annoyed. And why an author might respond negatively to that—because they don’t understand the history (although, if they’d read Amazon’s terms of service, they might not have been so ignorant).

Please note: that final response is not an example of online bullying. It’s not polite, but neither is it repeated or hostile. Equally, a single critical review does not constitute bullying.

Most online groups have their own rules about self-promotion, which range from never to always depending on the group. If you don’t know the rules of a particular site, lurk until you work them out (lurking is reading the posts without commenting). Many authors would have benefited by reading and understanding the Amazon rules before posting.

The only places you get to promote on Amazon (or many other sites, including Goodreads) is your author page and your book pages. So make sure they shine.


A shill is a person who publicly helps a person or organization without disclosing that they have a close relationship with the person or organization … Shill can also be used pejoratively to describe a critic who appears either all-too-eager to heap glowing praise upon mediocre offerings

With over 20 million customer accounts, it’s fair to say that there are thousands of shill accounts on Amazon, created to pump up the ratings of Product A, to hide critical reviews of Product A, or to denigrate Products B and C to entice customers to purchase Product A.

One example of this can be seen in the Top Reviewer forums, where users are finding their critical reviews hidden by a voting campaign they assume is organised by the product manufacturer.

One famous shill is Harriet Klausner, who has published close to 30,000 book reviews on, the vast majority of which are five-star reviews. She’s slowing down a little: in 2013 she reviewed a mere 3.1 books per day, compared with a high of 7.8 books per day in 2008.

There’s nothing wrong with writing lots of reviews, except that Harriet doesn’t buy the books. She receives them free of charge, as physical review copies. FTC guidelines state reviewers must disclose when they have received a free product—something Harriet never does.  This makes Harriet a shill, as she’s not disclosing her relationship with the publisher.

If you’re wondering what Harriet does with her free books, her son sells them online at The mystery is why publishers continue to send Harriet review copies. I can only assume they like the five-star ratings.

While Harriet is breaching both the rules of Amazon and the FTC guidelines by not disclosing her free books, there is no evidence she’s getting paid for her reviews.

Other reviewers are.

Amazon clearly state that paid reviews are not permitted in the Customer Reviews section (although authors are free to quote from paid reviews in the Editorial Reviews section of the book page).  Here’s an example I came across one day while browsing a Facebook page for Christian authors (not Australasian Christian Writers!):

author/reviewer will write an “honest” review of your book for just $5. As a bonus (which sheds a planet-sized shadow over his understanding of the word “honest”), he also offers guaranteed five-star reviews.

Like all good ffiver reviewers, he will purchase a copy of your book to ensure you get the AVP Badge.

Next week we will look at sock puppets … and stupid.

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. Thanks Iola for another informative post. It's good to know some of the pitfalls out there.

    1. Thanks, Jeanette. I hope you learned something and will join us again next week.

  2. Hi Iola,
    Yes, these pitfalls are vital to be aware of.
    Regarding spam, I always find it surprising that so many self-promoters are still willing to give it a try, regardless of seeing many others doing it on the same thread told not to. Perhaps they don't even bother to read other comments.
    And regarding shills, thanks for the interesting background on Harriet Klausner, whose name comes up time and again. Is she still in #1 reviewer position at Amazon? Like you, I'm surprised that people still send her books, as she's such a well-known shill.

    1. Hi Paula

      Harriet isn't the #1 Amazon reviewer any more - they actually completely re-engineered the ranking system so it's based on a combination of factors, not just the number of reviews. But she's still reviewing. I guess the publishers like the idea she'll give them a guaranteed five-star review. Of course, Harriet isn't the only shill among the Amazon Top Reviewers, but she is the best known.

      I'm always a little disappointed when I see a review from Harriet on a Christian novel, as it makes me think a little less of the publisher, that they're more interested in high-rating reviews rather than reviews from honest customers.

    2. Paula, I've discovered there are people who join Facebook groups for the sole purpose of spamming the group with their writing promo. When you point out the group etiquette rules, they either leave the group or ignore your message (which leads to them being deleted from the group). The upshot is writers don't gain readers/followers by ignoring forum and group rules/guidelines. If anything, they turn off potential readers by their inappropriate behaviour, as illustrated in Iola's example from the Amazon forum discussion.

  3. I thought reviewers were not meant to sell books they were sent to review or is that just some publishers. I guess I don't read that many reviews and not as many 5 stars to notice some of these reviewers. Interesting her not disclosing the free book and getting away with it so often.'
    The people getting paid $5 do they also get paid the cost of the book?

    1. I think selling review copies is a bit "off". I know Amazon Vine doesn't allow it, and all the ebook reviewer programmes specifically ask people not to share the file.

      The $5 reviews usually ask the author to drop the price of the book to free or 99c so they get the Amazon Verified Purchase badge, or they charge more than $5 for more expensive books. So it's double cheating - it's a paid review, and it shows as a verified purchase when it was really a gift.

  4. Iola, I love the Monty Python sketch :) Thanks for providing definitions for spam and shills in the context of online reviewing. It's disturbing to think that authors are buying reviews. It's also surprising that publishers continue to send review copies to known shill reviewers, especially since they must realise the reviews will be ignored by discerning readers.

    1. I know not everyone likes Monty Python, but I think it's fascinating that a 40-year-old TV comedy sketch has become part of our cultural makeup in this way.

      I suspect publishers send review copies to shill reviewers because they want the five-star reviews ... regardless of the quality or authenticity of said review. It bumps up the star rating.

    2. Hi Iola - I wonder if all that many publishers DO know about shill reviewers. I'm sure some of them are aware but I'm equally sure that these days, when so many people want to be paid for those jobs which have traditionally been volunteer, that they might simply think that this is the way things now work.

    3. Good question, Anne. Large publishers should know (but they are perpetuating the problem by continuing to supply Harriet Klausner etc with review copies). I'd be concerned if larger publishers don't know about shills etc - it doesn't speak well for their industry understanding.

      I'm sure many of the smaller publishers don't know about shill reviews, and self-published authors often know less. I had one self-published author ask me how reviewers earned a living - she honestly didn't realise we do this as a hobby, for no payment except free books.

      Many authors think a five-star review from Midwest Book Review is a positive endorsement of their writing, not knowing it's MBR policy to give all books five stars. A review from MBR tells me you've got a good book blurb and opening hook - not necessarily a good book.

  5. Iola,

    Thanks for this info. I have been on both sides of this coin. I have been so called harassed on book networking sites and facebook book pages to read an author's book and these authors can be unrelenting sometimes.

    As a reviewer, I find it offensive that there are people who set up their own service to guarantee a 5 star review for payment. I review on my review blog to support authors and encourage readers for an honest review and will not receive any form of payment.

    These people give us reviewers who enjoy doing this for all the right reasons a bad name and reputation.

    Dare I say that an author puts their integrity on the line if they resort to paying for a review and resorting to spam techniques. It can really put a reader off investing in their book when they behave like this. Very counterproductive.

    Thanks again, Iola.

    Look forward to the next two descriptions.

    1. Hi Peter

      I absolutely agree - fake reviewers downgrade the value of the unpaid work we do as reviewers. The only payment we should ask for or receive is a free copy of the book, and (hopefully) the pleasure of discovering a new writing talent.

      It's also a fact that some authors have integrity issues, or respond inappropriately to reviews. I'll be covering appropriate responses in another post in this series.

      Thanks for visiting, and see you again next week!

  6. I received a direct Facebook message from one of the fiverr reviewers ... I was at a time that one of my books were listed as free... Made me laugh... The message was written in a way that she was doing me the biggest service... Hmmm (I replied no thanks)