Monday 16 June 2014

Reviewing Ethics: Online Book Reviews (Part Two)

By Iola Goulton

Last week we introduced the Amazon Reviewing Guidelines and the concept of “promotional content”. Promotional content is explained in more detail on the FAQ page, where Amazon give some examples of reviews they don’t allow. This week we are going to go through those examples in more detail:

A product manufacturer posts a review of their own product, posing as an unbiased shopper

As discussed previously, this is a sock puppet review. Amazon doesn’t permit reviews of any product you have a financial interest in, which includes books you’ve written, edited or published. Not under your own name, and especially not under a fake name.

A shopper, unhappy with her purchase, posts multiple negative reviews for the same product

This is an example of multiple sock puppet reviews. Amazon only allows reviewers to review each product once (so you can’t review the hardcover and the Kindle edition of the same book), so anyone posting multiple reviews must be using sock puppet accounts or circumventing the system in some other way. It is possible. It isn’t permitted.

A customer posts a review in exchange for $5

This specifically refers to reviews from, but $1 or $1000, the amount of the payment isn’t the point. Amazon do not permit paid reviews in the Customer Reviews section, as customers expect these reviews to be from impartial customers. If you have paid for a review (e.g. from Kirkus Indie), you can quote it in the Editorial Reviews section of the book page.

A customer posts a review of a game, in exchange for bonus in-game credits

In-game credits have a financial value, so this concept is a variation on a paid review. There isn’t really an equivalent for books, but I have seen some authors offer a prize or a free short story in exchange for a four-star or five-star review.

One famous Christian author using a variation on this is Karen Kingsbury, who has offered a free cruise-for-two to the reader whose review most “touches her heart”. As one reviewer says, that’s not going to be a one-star review, is it?

Author Kristen Lamb says:
I’d love to offer reviewers sweet prizes for reviewing my book, but it’s just too … what’s the term? Creepy. … It’s a fine line that can get writers in ethical trouble.
A fine line, indeed, and one with consequences. When Amazon found a puzzle company were sending Amazon gift vouchers to people who had reviewed their games on Amazon, they deleted all reviews for the games in question, and also deleted the entire reviewing history of some reviewers. Amazon saw the gift cards as compensation. Amazon's Selling Policies clearly state that sellers cannot offer a refund in exchange for a review:
"you may not provide compensation for a review other than a free copy of the product. If you offer a free product, it must be clear that you are soliciting an unbiased review. The free product must be provided in advance; no refunds are permitted after the review is written. Product review solicitations that ask for only positive reviews or that offer compensation are prohibited. You may not ask buyers to remove negative reviews."

A family member of the product creator posts a five-star customer review to help boost sales

Amazon prohibits reviews from people with a financial interest in the product, which would include family members like a spouse or dependent children.

My advice for people reviewing books by friends or family members is to be up-front about it. Start the review with “I’m the author’s mother (sister, favourite cousin)” or similar, so readers know to expect glowing praise.

This is one instance where I make an exception to my “Authors should never comment on reviews” rule. If Mum, sister or favourite cousin has written a glowing review and you can’t get them to delete it, add a comment to the review acknowledging the relationship and thanking them for their wonderful, albeit biased, review.

Don’t pretend to be an impartial customer. Someone might get suspicious that you and the author share an unusual surname—the review will be downvoted, reported for abuse, and possibly removed because then it looks as though it’s there to boost sales. That is the key phrase: “to boost sales”. If your friend or family member is reviewing as a way of encouraging you, they should have no problem acknowledging the relationship in the review.

A shopper posts a review of the product, after being promised a refund in exchange

This is another variation on a paid review, and is also against the Selling Policies. If Amazon find a reviewer receiving a ‘gift’ from an author (e.g. a 99 cent gift card) after the reviewer has reviewed a book by that author (such as a 99 cent Kindle book), they can and will delete the review. I’ve seen it “recommended” that authors “thank” their reviewers by gifting a $1.00 gift card for a 99 cent book. Amazon might be wise to this idea, or they might not be. I don’t know. But really? It’s a deliberate effort to circumvent the Amazon guidelines, and I have trouble believing that suggestion came from a Christian. But it did.

Amazon frowns on gifting Kindle copies of books to reviewers, as the reviewer can then either on-gift the gift or refuse the gift and use the credit towards any other Amazon purchase. You are better to either send the reviewer a copy of the book directly (as a mobi, prc or pdf file), or gift a copy through Smashwords.

A seller posts negative reviews on his competitor's product

This concerns authors, as it gives rise to the myth that authors shouldn’t review. Authors can review, but should be extremely careful about posting critical reviews of books in the same genre, as such reviews can be seen to fall foul of this guideline. For this reason, many authors chose not to review in the genre in which they write, or to only write positive (four-star or five-star reviews).

An artist posts a positive review on a peer's album in exchange for receiving a positive review from them

I have seen review swaps offered on Facebook and Goodreads. Authors mean well, but review swaps are explicitly prohibited by Amazon, and are frowned upon by readers—because we don’t trust the reviews. Think about it:

We agree to swap books and honestly review each other’s books. I read yours and hate it. It’s not just that the main character is too stupid to live, it’s that it’s supposed to be a romance but they don’t meet until Chapter 38, and it’s full of spelling mistakes (the heroin lives in Sidney, New South Whales, and wheres a high-wasted dress). Do I:

a) review honestly, knowing the other author is going to be reviewing my book and might take this as an excuse to drag me and my book through the mud; or
b) lie.

That’s not a decision you want to make. So stay away from review swaps and reviewing circles (where several authors agree to review each other’s books).

This doesn't stop authors supporting fellow authors in other ways. Authors endorse books all the time. They post reviews and recommendations of author friend’s books on their blogs. The problem is these influencing reviews often read more like an endorsement, and therefore might be better placed in the Editorial Reviews section of the Amazon page.

To summarise, please don’t try and come up with a creative way to get around the rules. It’s not ethical. It's not honest. At the most basic level, if you are trying to use Amazon reviews to promote your book, it’s likely you are going to fall foul of Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines or the Selling Policies, and you need to think again.

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. Wow! There's so much to think of! A couple of those (like doing reviews for one another) at first glance I would not think of as being wrong. You make some great points. I think we might need a post on how to get more reviews, ethically. (Unless we have and I've missed that post!)

    1. It's not so much that some of these things are "wrong" - it's more that some authors have abused the system, so Amazon has decided not to allow certain kinds of reviews.

    2. Yes I suppose you're right - its the usual story, a few abusing the system so the system clamps down. Fair enough, too.

  2. Whoa, imagine being in the financial position to make Karen Kingsbury's offer!
    I appreciate having more of this clear advice, so our own lines don't get blurred. I'm actually glad to see that family members of authors may make Amazon comments, if it's properly declared. I didn't realise that. Thanks for the post, Iola.

    1. Family members can comment, but members of your immediately family still shouldn't review your books on Amazon - although they can review on Goodreads or Koorong (but should still disclose the relationship).

  3. Iola, thanks for another helpful post. There seems to be a lot of misinformation floating around regarding what is and isn't acceptable. We also can't assume that just because other authors are doing it, or endorsing certain practices, that it must be okay and not breaching the review site's TOS.

    1. Hi Iola and Narelle
      I think that's a very valid point about assumptions. I've often seen something another author's done and thought, 'Oh, what a great idea' and assumed it was ok. I guess that's the biggest lesson for me here - that's just because someone I would normally trust has done something doesn't mean it's legal or ethical. Not because their intentions are (necessarily) bad but because they have also made assumptions based on what they see everyone else doing.

    2. Yes!

      The other problem is that someone comes up with what they think is an original idea to promote their book, not realising that the reason no one does it is because it's against Amazon's rules (or FTC guidelines, or Goodreads rules...). Review swaps are a good example of this.

  4. Hi Iola, Thanks again for another clear post on Amazon reviewing policies. It's good to know the ins and outs of what is and isn't acceptable.

    1. Thanks, Jeanette! It's not that difficult - the general guide on Amazon is if that you are doing something purely to promote your book, it's probably against the rules.

  5. Like you have said in your past posts, Iola, it's all about common courtesy. Catherine also made a good to get reviews ethically or do we do as we've mostly always done and hope someone does it out of the goodness of their heart. And bless 'em if they do!

    1. Hi Rita, If you're looking for influencer-reviewers, who will disclose in their review that they received a free book from the author in exchange for an honest review, you can post requests on your writing groups.

      Reader reviews are harder to source. You can pay a publicist to help you, pay to put your book up on NetGalley, or tour your book with a blog alliance (which may or may not incur a cost).

      Australian Christian Readers Blog Alliance (ACRBA) offers free blog alliance tours. The only potential cost to the author/publisher is providing either print or electronic review copies.

      ACRBA tours fiction, non-fiction and childrens books. Regular bloggers who want to review books can join ACRBA and request review copies of the books they're interested in reviewing.

      ACRBA accepts submissions for traditionally published books and indie books (no subsidy/vanity books). I toured my debut book, 'Falling for the Farmer', in March and received 8 reviews from ACRBA members. I offered print review copies for Australian members, electronic for international members.

  6. Very interesting post Iola. Read it with interest. I also had the alarm bells ring when I read the recent RW member post about swapping reviews. I suspect there's a lot of this goes on.
    Did you every get around to reading "Romancing the Memory Collector'? The sweet romance I sent you last year? If you did, I missed the review. Cheers Virginnia

    1. Yes, a lot of review swapping does go on, to the annoyance of many reviewers (who don't hesitate to report it when they see it).

      Yes, I did read Romancing the Memory Collector, and my review will go live next Wednesday (18 Feb). I'm sorry it took so long, but I really enjoyed it. Well done!


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