Reviews are important for authors.
However, they are also one of an author’s biggest challenges, because reviews aren’t “for” authors; they exist to inform the consumer at the point-of-sale. This means that authors are supposed to be quite hands-off when it comes to reviews.
Then again, it might be easy for J.K.Rowling or Stephen King to rake in reviews, but it’s tricky when you’re just starting out and you’re just happy when anyone reads your books. When you’re self-publishing, you have to wear many hats, and one of those is “publicist”.
So how do we balance having to be both author and publicist? One way is to identify a set of policies regarding your reviews, and sticking to them.
Ultimately this is a balance between two forces – publicity and ethics, and if you want to maintain ethics, I think there’s really only one guiding rule:
Don’t compromise your reviewers by paying them or offering them incentives to give you a good review. This also means not accepting reviews from obviously biased people (your mother may love your book, but she’s far from impartial).
Additionally, there’s one other if you also provide reviews – it’s basically the same thing in reverse:
Your reviews should always be honest and as unbiased as possible. Additionally, you should not accept incentives for reviews, such as counter-reviews or preferential treatment – even cash.
Some argue that to maintain the highest level of ethics, authors shouldn’t actually provide reviews at all. I don’t personally support that stance but I certainly respect it.
Of course, as a self-published author, only you can decide whether or not you allow these rules to influence your business; you’d have to go very far past the line of “good ethics” before you start to commit fraud. This used to be a lot easier than it is today; thankfully Amazon is getting better at filtering out obvious fakes, but naturally this is a predator/prey game, and phony reviewers are becoming more complex in their approaches all the time.
I recommend you practice some ethics in how you handle reviews, even if this makes things trickier in the short term. In the long term, your reviews will be trustworthy and endure, as opposed to the obvious templates that seem to fill out the fake reviews I’ve seen on Amazon.
After all, you want your readers to be able to trust your reviews and testimonials; once you lose that trust, it’s almost impossible to get it back.
This is all doubly important if, like me, you don’t provide your work for free (my books occasionally have sales, but they are always priced).
As stated earlier, this can make things very difficult for a new author proceeding from a standing start. How do you get those crucial first reviews (when you can’t rely on close friends and family members)?
I believe you need to be prepared to compromise, which is okay, provided you do so with the right intentions.
What follows is very heavily my own opinion; feel free to dispute this in the comments section.
Providing Review Copies
Obviously this skirts quite close to “incentivising”, but personally I think this is okay. Getting those first reviews is difficult for anyone, even authors who are giving their work away for free!
This a pretty common publicity tactic, regardless of if you are selling frying pans, toothpaste or books.
Naturally, you can’t ask reviewers to only give you good reviews, though I don’t personally think it violates ethics to only give your books to people you think might give you good reviews – you wouldn’t give a chick-lit romcom book to a science fiction blogger, for example.
Of course, you need to decide if you want to disclose that you gave a reviewer a free copy of your book. I do, and I encourage you to do so (I think being up-front about this is pretty important).
These are good reasons to have a fleshed out policy that is universal whenever you want to provide a review copy.
Review exchanges can be a murky area, and Amazon in particular frown upon them these days. Again, I believe you can go into them with either good or bad intentions.
If you’re not aware, review exchanges are when two authors agree to review each other’s books. Obviously the problem with this is if they give you 5 stars, but you dislike their book… Yeah.
You need to decide whether you will be swayed by the reviews of other people, and how you’ll handle things when conflicts arrive.
This is a good reason to have a strict policy, so anyone entering into exchanges with you knows what they’re getting.
Providing a “safe space” for reviewers
Remember how I said that whilst useful, reviews aren’t for authors? This is the policy area that relates to this.
As an author, I believe you should foster a situation where reviewers know it is safe for them to review your work. This means that reviewers don’t have to worry that an author will bad-mouth them online if they post a negative review.
This is more useful for popular authors who receive many reviews – but it’s a good idea to get started early.
A written policy that simply states you won’t engage with reviewers over criticism is ideal for this.
Bear in mind, this doesn’t mean you’ll never engage with hostile readers – it just means you won’t try and ‘drag them over the coals’ for negative reviews.
Hopefully from this, you can see why a review policy can be useful. It doesn’t take long to put one together (mine can be found here, if you want an example) but might be very beneficial in the long term.
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