Monday, 14 April 2014

The Ethics of Online Book Reviewing

By Iola Goulton

It’s no secret that there are fake reviews on Amazon. Indie author John Locke has admitted to buying reviews, ‘entrepreneur’ Todd Rutherford admits to selling them, a Gartner study shows 10%-15% of online reviews are fake, and studies show consumers have difficulty identifying fake reviews (many people don’t even know it’s a problem).
 
Some authors are prepared to let ethics fall by the wayside in the quest for the almighty dollar. I’d love to say that Christians are immune to unethical or dishonest behaviour, but I’ve seen this isn’t the case.

Author Etiquette

Narelle Atkins recently posted on author etiquette, particularly in regard to online interaction with readers. It was apparent the ‘rules’ are slightly different depending on where you are posting:
  •  Retail sites (e.g. Amazon): don’t interact with reviewers
  • Reader sites (e.g. Goodreads): you can thank reviewers, but don’t criticise reviews
  • Reader blogs (e.g. AusJenny or Iola’s Christian Reads): it’s nice to receive a comment from the author on a review, and I think readers like the interaction. I agree with Narelle that authors should absolutely visit and comment if they have requested the review or been interviewed. That small courtesy certainly leaves me more responsive to hosting the author again.
  • Social Networks (e.g. Facebook or Twitter): it’s fine to like or retweet positive comments or reviews, but best not to mention critical reviews.

In all cases, monitor the review site for a while before you comment, as this will help you understand the unwritten rules. For something like Facebook pages or Goodreads groups, be aware that different groups and authors have different views on author comments and author marketing. Lurk (read without commenting) until you are certain your post or comment is appropriate for the group. Read the welcome messages or check the group files to see if they have etiquette guidelines. For example, Australasian Christian Writers Facebook Group has etiquette guidelines for self-promotion.

Contacting Reviewers

One author asked if it was all right to contact a reviewer privately to ask about something that was puzzling in the review. I think this is perfectly acceptable when you know the reviewer in real life or online (e.g. when you’ve approached the reviewer to offer a copy of the book to review).

It’s less clear-cut when the review is part of a blog tour organised by a promotional company, through NetGalley, or simply a review that appears on Amazon. In this case, I think you look at the content of the blog and judge for yourself. Of course, it’s only an option if the reviewer makes their email address available on their blog (e.g. through the contact page). If you can’t find their contact details easily, that probably means they don’t want to be contacted.

If you have no relationship or existing connection with the reviewer, please be aware that the reviewer may not appreciate being contacted and queried about the review. Reviewers aren’t your beta-reader. You shouldn’t be using reviews as a way of receiving specific writing craft feedback. That is the role of your editor and critique group.

Common Questions

Over the next few months I’m going to address some of the common questions authors have regarding online reviews:

I’m going to start with the final question, because I think it’s important to understand some of the recent history in online reviewing.

It’s not that readers and reviewers are mean to authors. It’s more that reviewers have seen so much dishonest and unethical behaviour online that they react to it—and sometimes over-react. You can help reader-author relations by displaying good author etiquette.

Don’t be part of the problem; become part of the solution.


Join me next week for a post on some of the background to online reviewing. Meanwhile, leave a comment and let me know what questions you’d like answered regarding author ethics. 

By Iola Goulton. I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website (www.christianediting.co.nz), or follow me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/christianediting), Twitter (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/iolasreads).

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog (www.christianreads.blogspot.com). 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.

36 comments:

  1. I love that final thought, Iola! Become part of the solution!

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  2. Hi Iola,
    there's certainly a lot to think about with all this. I really want to be part of the solution, not the problem so thanks for the series!

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    1. Thanks, Catherine. I'm sure it will get you thinking!

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  3. I fully agree Iola with your post. I don't mind having authors comment on my blog, in fact its nice. I also don't mind them contacting me privately. I don't really like them commenting or liking a review on goodreads. I actually think that is self serving and it frustrates me.
    Often if I love a book I will contact the author and I love to get a note back. I actually have made great friends with some authors because of this.

    Having an author complain about a review or try to explain there book to me on a public review site or my blog is something I do not like. I they feel they must defend there book or explain something do it via email or a private message at goodreads or face book. I agree doing it on a public forum can loss you many potential readers as we don't like authors who complain about readers etc. I have actually stopped reading books by a couple of authors due to this behavior.

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  4. Great post Iola. Thanks for this series. One thing I'd like to see discussed is the ethics of reviewing books by people you know. Also, although perhaps not an ethical issue, I often have trouble in knowing what to do when I haven't really enjoyed a book by someone I know. At the moment, I tend not to review a book at all if I don't feel I can honestly give it at least 4 stars (I know 3 is still considered good on some sites). Though that can skew the ratings if you only review books you like. Would be interested in what you and others think about that, especially as social networking means we are likely to have at least an acquaintance with many other Christian authors.

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    1. Hi Nola

      We will be discussing reviewing books by people you know later in the series. Briefly, my advise is to be up-front if you're reviewing a book by an author you know - it looks dodgy if you pretend there's no relationship when there is (and someone will connect the dots).

      On reviewing not-so-good books by people you know ... that's a tough one. Yes, we will cover it, so I hope you'll stop by then and contribute to the debate.

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    2. Thanks Iola. It's also probably my personality (recovering people-pleaser), but I find it gets harder the more writers I meet at conferences and online. Look forward to your insights when you get up to that topic.

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  5. Iola, I have given some thought to your last question. Why do some readers and reviewers write mean-spirited reviews that can hurt authors?

    I think this is a very complex area because what an author may perceive as 'mean-spirited' and 'unhelpful' can be exactly the opposite. I have had authors ask me to remove reviews from the CALEB Review section of the Omega website (before we went to Goodreads) that I considered the epitome of graciousness and tact. In a welter of positives, they would object to one negative comment. Yet this comment was exactly what the author needed to know to progress as a writer. In one case, one of the authors who asked for a removal said 12 months later that the reviewer was right - but, in her ignorance, she had not realised this was just what she needed to know.

    So, it doesn't follow that just because an author sees a review as 'mean-spirited' and damaging to their career that it really is.

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    1. Anne, I think that's an astute observation. I've seen blog posts from authors commenting on "mean-spirited" reviews. I've read the reviews and seen only fair criticism. Sure, some reviewers (particularly non-Christian reviewers) use stronger language than I would use, but that doesn't mean the feedback is any less valid.

      Besides, reviews are for readers. And I know a lot of readers who only buy based on the low-star reviews. They won't even look at purchasing a book with only five-star reviews from an unknown author - because they assume the reviews are all written by friends and family.

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    2. Iola, excellent post! I'm astounded by the high percentage of fake reviews. There are millions of online reviews, and this means there are hundreds of thousands of fake reviews floating around in cyberspace. It's appalling to think that there are authors who are soliciting fake reviews, or writing fake reviews on their own books using one or more pseudonyms. No wonder readers are skeptical, and work on the assumption that a sizeable percentage of glowing 5 star reviews could be fake.

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    3. Annie, I'd define a mean-spirited review as a review that personally attacks the author rather than commenting on the actual book. Unfortunately, it appears that many authors take criticism of their books very personally, as if the reviewer has personally attacked them. The golden rule for authors is to never comment on a negative review. The review sites eg. Amazon have processes in place for people to report inappropriate reviews.

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    4. Narelle, I would class any review that attacks the author, rather than discussing the book 'defamatory' rather than 'mean-spirited'. That said, there are exceptions even to this: consider Bob Carr's recent book. The attacks on him personally by the press were a direct result of the revelations in Diary of a Foreign Minister. So there can be no blanket rule in any case.

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    5. Goodreads have recently adjusted their review policy to prohibit reviews or shelving that is primarily about the author, not the book (which raises an interesting question: how can Goodreads tell the intent of a shelf name? But that's another discussion).

      Memoir and autobiography is an interesting case. How do you review Mein Kamf without referencing the author or his personal beliefs? Is it even possible? Many self-help books draw significantly on the personal experience of the author. Is disagreeing with the conclusions of such a book about the book, the author or both?

      I would agree with Narelle that many authors take criticism of their books personally. If an author is not ready to separate themselves from their work, and aren't prepared to acknowledge that not everyone will like their book, then I'd suggest they aren't ready to publish.

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    6. Annie, I agree, if the statements made about the author are false. But, I've seen reviews where the reviewer talks about the author's writing ability in a negative way. eg. This author is clueless and needs to pay someone to edit their badly written book. Readers will be wasting their money if they buy this book because the author can't string a coherent sentence together. This author needs to learn how to write fiction before they upload their poor quality first draft.

      The above statements are possibly true, and could be verified as true or false by reading a sample from the book. A reviewer talking about the author's writing ability rather than keeping their focus purely on the book could be considered mean-spirited, but their statements aren't necessarily defamatory.

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    7. Yes, I agree, Narelle. But I'm with Iola: if a person cannot distinguish between criticism of their writing ability and criticism of themselves as a person, then perhaps they aren't ready to publish.

      On the score of writing ability, I've seen pre-publication reviews of books that almost killed the publication. The reviewer simply didn't get really deep point-of-view and probably had not encountered it before. This reviewer obviously could not get 'inside' the text and into the character's shoes - and absolutely slammed the author's style.

      This is why the area is so complex. So many authors forget that a review is an opinion, not a fact.

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    8. Annie, I think there are authors who struggle with receiving criticism of their writing, and that can relate to their personality, or other issues in their life. It's not necessarily a reflection of the standard of their writing, or whether or not they're ready to be published. Authors who are sensitive to criticism can always choose to not read their reviews. I agree with Iola that reviews are primarily written for the benefit of readers.

      It's concerning to see authors becoming obsessive about their reviews. For example, an author wanting a large number of 5 star reviews, and no low starred reviews. This desire can lead authors into murky waters, and potentially unethical behaviour to achieve this result.

      I agree, a review is one person's opinion. But, I don't see the need for reviewers to make the content of their reviews personal. A comment like 'this book doesn't work for me' is a more professional way of saying 'this author's writing sucks.' It achieves the same result, and tells the reader that, in the reviewer's opinion, the book wasn't a great read. Reviewers should tread warily if they're making personal comments about authors, because they could skirt close to crossing the line into bullying and harrassment.

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    9. actually if you write something defamatory in a review you can be sued over it. So reviewers need to be careful not to personally attack an author.

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  6. I think your contribution to the discussion of ethics will help build professionalism. We need more of this. Thank you!

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    1. Couldn't have put it better, Elaine, so I won't. Great stuff, Iola :)

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    2. Thank you, Elaine and Andrea. I hope you enjoy the series.

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  7. I'm so glad to have you explain this so clearly, Iola, Narelle and Annie. The penny hadn't dropped about authors not needing to review other authors known to them because of folk who review professionally. I don't read too many reviews myself because I always read the back cover copy. And reviews can be one person's opinion and taste after all. Even so, if I've really enjoyed a book I'll give a review which is usually about why I've enjoyed it and not the actual plot. I guess that's because I read a review given about my second book which told the whole story from go to whoa. (It wasn't on Goodreads or Amazon.)

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    1. Thanks, Rita.

      I agree that a book review shouldn't give away the whole plot of a novel, although I think it's valid for a review of a non-fiction book to discuss the author's arguments. Unfortunately, some reviewers don't seem to understand this. However, I've also read a few books where the back cover blurb contained a spoiler, so it's not just reviewers who make the mistake of giving away the plot!

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  8. Thanks Iola. Great post. It can get very complicated so it's good to have some guidance about what is and isn't considered appropriate. At this point I'm a reader and aspiring author. I like to give honest reviews the books I read in Good Reads. It's a good thing to remember that each review is one opinion and not even the best written book can please everyone - one only has to check review by classic and block buster authors who all get there fair share of one-star reviews.

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    1. Thats so true someone like me would give pride and prejudice a one star same with Gone with the wind. I didn't like either just couldn't get into them. When I finally saw the second on screen I said I just 4 hours of my life I will never get back. Others loved them but if I did review it wouldn't be nasty or vindictive or mean spirited. just not my cup of tea. Oh on the second one would be just couldn't connect with Scarlett and wanted to slap here silly to knock some sense into her.

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    2. "Each review is one opinion" - that is so true, Jeanette. Any one review is only worth the attention a reader gives it.

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  9. Thank you Iola for a great blog and I'm looking forward to reading more from you about reviews and reviewing. I particularly find it difficult to write reviews for an author friend of a book I have not really enjoyed it and look forward to your thoughts about that. Had to smile at Jenny's comments. I am a romance writer who, to the horror of many romance writers, has never read Pride and Prejudice - well, not all of it anyway. Have seen the movie of Gone With the Wind and have the book but still promising myself to one day read it. Although a writer and reader of romance novels it doesn't mean I have to like books other romance genre readers rave about! Personal taste is so important.

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  10. Great post Iola.
    Great conversation that followed too.
    I have never met an author who enjoys getting 1 or 2 star reviews ... so I as an author who was first a reader, will never give low ratings. And now as a published author who has received a few 1 star reviews - ethics are so very important. And as my mother told me often, if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. (although in the spirit of honesty... at least sandwich the ugly between a couple of nice things .. but that should be in the critiquing process - I agree.. not something to be found in a review)

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  12. I review for Netgalley, and have my first title for Booksneeze, which could be considered an incentive, but thankfully they do not require positive reviews, only honest ones. I couldn't do it of they did, as I could not gush over a book I did not like.
    It may be controversial, but I do believe there is a place for critical (within reason) reviews, as I think they help to show both sides, and can help me make up my mind about a book.

    I have however had fans attacking me for critical reviews, or seen it done to others, which annoys me. The flip-side of the coin, perhaps?

    I did send a person a copy of a piece I wrote for review, though told her it did not have to be positive, though I understand the potential for manipulation in this practice.

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    1. I can understand why authors don't like one or 2 star reviews or critical reviews. It's not something I look forward to when (smile) my books are published (hopefully not in the too distant future).

      On the other hand, it seems to me that if reviewers only ever review positively (through self-censorship or dishonesty) they rapidly become pointless. And if every reviewer only reviewed if they have positive things to say and could give the book high ratings, by de fault every book on Good Reads would be 5 star with glowing reviews - again not very helpful.

      So I think I appreciate honest reviews & will give (after thinking about it carefully) a low rating from time to time. Being honest doesn't mean being insulting though. And I always try to find and mention the positives about the book.

      Perhaps as writers we need to be able to separate ourselves from our work (I know that's difficult, it's like hearing someone insult your baby) - and to realise, as I said above - this is but one opinion which we are welcome to take or leave. We need to be a bit thick skinned and also believe in ourselves and our work. A few low-starred reviews won't sink our careers and may actually give authenticity to the 4 & 5 star reviews.

      Having said that = the mobbing of fans when a reviewer gives a less than favourable review is a concern. And I haven't experienced the agony of a 1 or 2 star review (or the exhilaration of a 4 or 5 star review either).

      btw - I discussed the positives of criticism in this post - something that has take me many, many years to learn (and am still learning). http://christianwritersdownunder.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/a-thorny-gift.html

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    2. Yes, I try to say something positive too now. Unless its a book that is truly atrocious, which thankfully is rare. I have however experienced insults, attacks and even outright bullying from fans for critical opinions. Its not just books, but any popular media that has passionate fans it seems.

      As for criticism of my own writing- well I get it on essays!

      As someone historically trained, it find it both intriguing but also saddening that one response to criticism of historical fiction (on the screen or elsewhere) seems to be to try to make out that the history is wrong, and to deny the validity or reliability of the evidence- all in an apparent attempt to defend the fiction......

      I also have written a post on this subject here http://crossromance.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/why-do-i-read-and-write-critical-reviews.html

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  13. Jeanette, As reviews are for readers not authors and alot of readers will trust reviewers they know they wouldn't expect a reviewer they follow to read books they dont like so I dont find it pointless. anything below a 3 star rating I am not going to bother with or I am not going to keep reading. there are to many books out there to bother with books I dont like so I wont have any books under 3 stars. Lifes to short to read boring books. Also anyone who follows my reviews knows I like historical best and dont read horror or heavy suspense they also know I rarely read chick lit so know I won't be reviewing this type of book.

    I believe this is the same for many reviewers. I know Rel doesn't read alot of historicals so if she reviews one it is probably worth reading. Its like When I mentioned Gone with the wind I would have stopped reading after a chapter or two.

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    1. I read mainly historical fiction, and I personally find it can be a real mix, so maybe by followers won't know what to expect! For instance, I know Christian regencies are big at the moment, but the trouble is that some are written by people who have apparently never been to Britain where their stories are set, and the books may be full of stereotyping, errors, and cultural prejudices or misunderstanding.

      I for one cannot really get on with stories like that, I mean I think books like this should at least have British characters who can distinguish between England and Britain!

      However, because of my background, I think I more readily notice things like this then other reviewers would, and so possibly I don't know I'm going to dislike a book when I first pick it up. Its not always easy to tell....

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    2. My *favourite* Regency was the one where the King was ruling England (if you can't tell what's wrong with that statement, you shouldn't be writing a Regency romance). And the heroine had an estate worth ten times what Darcy's estate was worth in Pride and Prejudice, but the heroine could apparently only afford two servants.

      I wrote a long and detailed review of that title, but never ended up posting it, because another reviewer had already made all my points. I did up-vote her review, as it was (in my opinion) the most helpful on the page. I checked out some of the author's other books, and she seemed to get one-star reviews from people like me who couldn't stomach the way she mangled history, and five-star reviews from people who (I guess) didn't care.

      Thanks for visiting, Bookish.

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    3. Yes, even I as a Medievalist whose historical knowledge barely stretches far beyond 1485 knows that's wrong. It's called 'Regency' because the King was mad and incarcerated, and his son took his place- though I must say I once confused Regency for Victorian in an interview and the author put me right. That's why when it comes to Regency I'm unlikely to notice all but the most glaring errors like the ones you point out.

      Either they didn't care or simply did not know. I do think that we Brits are more likely to notice certain things, like Americanisms in speech of 'British' characters or implausible land tenure to servant employment figures!

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