The Ethics and Legitimacy of Book Reviews Services
by Craig Tuch
Every once in a while, I’ll either hear from an author or read an article questioning the practice of readers leaving reviews based on a free advance review copy (ARC) of a book they were given. Sometimes they’ll ask whether getting reviews this way is ethical, and other times they’ll be wondering about the legitimacy of these types of reviews.
Occasionally they’ll even ask why any book worth reading would need any help getting reviews in the first place.
The quick answer is yes, they’re absolutely ethical and legitimate—when done properly.
However, to really address all of the common arguments against the practice and explain what it means to “do them properly,” we’ll need to dig a little deeper.
But first, I think it makes sense to examine why a book worth reading might still need help getting honest reviews.
Getting Organic Reviews Isn’t Easy
It doesn’t matter who you are: the percentage of customers that bother to leave a review on your book, whether they loved it or hated it, is universally low. It’s hard to find any official stats on the subject, since online sales aren’t generally broken out per book and reviews can be left in so many different places – but anecdotally most authors seem to report, at best, a review rate of only about 1% - 4%.
To validate this, we can do a rough, quick and dirty test with a book like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
According to this Fortune article from over a year ago, there had been 400 million Harry Potter books sold. While that’s across the whole series, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that each of the 6 books had a roughly equal number of sales. That translates to roughly 67 million copies of book 1.
Now, there are plenty of places to leave reviews, but the biggest would be Amazon and Goodreads. On Amazon, there are currently just over 28,000 reviews of The Sorcerer’s Stone, and on Goodreads there are just over 90,000. Of course, there’s probably some overlap between them, with enthusiastic readers leaving reviews on both sites, but for this example let’s be overly optimistic and assume they’re almost all unique. That gives us about 118,000 reviews.
While 118,000 sounds like a lot on its own, it’s not even 1% of the total number of copies sold. It’s not even half a percent! Actually, it’s just under a fifth of 1%.
Put another way, for every 550 people that read a book that is almost universally loved (The Sorcerer’s Stone has an average rating of 4.8 on Amazon and 4.46 on Goodreads), only a single one of them bothered to review it.
So although these numbers are just very rough calculations based on imperfect information, it should still be fairly obvious that it doesn’t really matter – we could be off by a factor of 10 and the results would still support the argument that it is extremely difficult for even wildly popular books to get organic reviews.
Most self-published authors would be happy to sell 1000 copies, never mind hope for the sort of widespread success enjoyed by books like Harry Potter. But at that rate, those 1000 sales would only result in a couple of reviews. Given how important reviews are to sales (even the negative ones), it only makes sense that the savvy author would look to improve on those numbers.
Enter the ARC
The idea of the ARC is that authors send out free copies of their book, usually in advance of publication (but often shortly or even not-so-shortly after) in the hopes of getting back some reviews from those early readers.
So now that it’s clear why authors would want to do this, the question becomes is the practice fair and legit?
Well, the first thing to remember is that sending complimentary advance review copies of books isn’t a recent idea. It didn’t come about because of the internet, or Amazon, or the explosion of ebooks and self-publishing. Long before the world moved online, you’d find these types of reviews in newspapers or magazines, written by professional reviewers who were generally sent their free copies directly by the author or publisher. In fact, Amazon themselves acknowledged this history years ago on their blog when they stated, “We will continue to allow the age-old practice of providing advance review copies of books.”
If anything, the online era has democratized this practice and added legitimacy to reviews by taking them out of the hands of an elite few and providing a platform for just about anyone to voice their opinions. And not just about books, these days you can find online reviews on just about anything.
Unfortunately, though, those changes also had a negative side.
It didn’t take long before product sellers figured out ways to game this new, open system of reviews. And as the biggest online retailer, Amazon reviews quickly became the juiciest target for these scams and schemes. So much so, that Amazon was forced to change their own rules and ban the practice of providing free products in exchange for reviews. However, their blog post above was written at the same time as these rule changes and was meant to make it clear that those new rules applied to everything except for books.
That’s not to say that books were immune to review manipulation, but that Amazon was planning on handling those issues separately, and they’ve done so in a variety of ways over the years, as a means of continuing to allow authors to provide free review copies to their fans.
Of course, there are still some cases where the rules are being broken, which is one reason the arguments against continuing to allow these reviews hasn’t disappeared yet. But for the most part, these cases are the exception rather than the rule, and as such shouldn’t be used to cast all ARC reviews in a negative light.
So let’s look at the main objections and how they’ve been handled.
Obligation to Leave Review
One objection to reviews on free books is that the reader feels obligated to leave a review. This is an interesting objection, since on the face of it, it’s hard to see why that’s necessarily a problem. That is, if the reader feels that they should provide a review because the author sent them a free book, is that in itself a bad thing – provided the review is honest and unbiased?
Personally I don’t think it is, but regardless, Amazon’s review policies cover this by stating that reviews must be left voluntarily. Authors should not, for example, tell their readers that they have to read and review the free book they were sent (or else!). Authors can send out free books, but it should be left up to the reader to decide if they want to review it.
In reality, I think this specific objection is really rooted in a belief that anyone feeling obligated to leave a review would likely also feel obligated to leave a positive review, even if they didn’t like the book. And that leads us to the next couple of related objections.
Obligation to Leave Positive Reviews
The most pressing concern about these reviews is that readers might feel obligated to leave overly positive reviews in return for getting the book for free.
This is a valid concern, because if a customer can’t trust a product’s reviews, then they may stop relying on them completely, thus in turn reducing the overall value of having reviews at all. Amazon is aware of this, which is why their rules specifically state that the author cannot influence the reviews in any way.
Despite this, I’ve still seen a few authors tell their own ARC readers that they only want 4 or 5 star reviews. Aside from breaking the rules and putting their accounts (or at least those reviews) at risk of being removed, they may be hurting themselves in another way. Studies show that customers have become savvy to such practices, and view overly positive averages as suspicious. They actually trust, and are more likely to buy, books that have at least a few negative reviews.
Still, even honest authors that send their ARCs out to their private list without any such requirements are never going to be completely free from bias. After all, their lists are likely completely made up of fans that signed up because they love the author’s work and want to read more of it, making it a completely biased sample compared to the general population. Even if the writer published a dud, many of their diehard fans would likely refrain from saying anything negative about it.
On the other hand, ARC services don’t have this bias, in that their lists are made up of random reader/reviewers that may or may not have ever read anything by that author before. So as long as the ARC service is legit, then the reviews that come from them should be relatively free from this bias.
Still, nothing prevents a reader who chooses, on their own, not to leave a negative review on a book they were given for free – but even people that pay for books (or other products) sometimes want to be “nice.” As someone that has run an ARC service for the last few years, though, I can tell you that there are plenty MORE that are perfectly happy to leave negative reviews on books they didn’t like, despite getting them for free.
So while the fear of overly positive reviews or biased reviewers does have some merit, I would say that the effects are minimal – confined mainly to the occasional rule-breakers taking their chance against Amazon’s wrath, and the well-intentioned reviewer that never has a bad word to say about anyone.
Paying For Reviews
Aside from being allowed to send out a free copy of their book, authors (and everyone else) are forbidden from compensating reviewers in any way. This includes paying them directly, providing free gifts (other than the book itself), or even entering them into a contest to win a prize if they leave a review.
It’s obvious why this rule is in place, but it’s also sometimes used as a misguided objection to legitimate ARC services like NetGalley or Hidden Gems. After all, isn’t the author breaking the rules by paying those services for reviews?
No, because if the service is legit then the author isn’t paying for reviews at all. They’re paying the company to provide a service – namely, to run their ARC campaign for them.
It’s a lot of work to organize an ARC, find and contact the readers, send out the books, deal with technical issues, etc. By hiring someone to handle all of that for them, an author can instead focus on other ways to market their book or even get started on writing the next one.
And that’s not the only reason to hire a service to handle the ARC. Maybe the author is new to writing and doesn’t have a list of readers they can send free copies to even if they’re so inclined. Or maybe they do have such a list, but they recognize that sending free copies of their latest book to fans that were likely to buy it anyway costs them more in lost sales and ranking boosts then anything the ARC service may charge. Maybe there’s too much overlap between their beta readers and ARC readers.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that an author paying a reputable service to handle their ARCs is nothing like paying for reviews. When run properly, none of the money spent is sent to the actual reviewers at all – and the reviews that result are all voluntary and honest. This also means that how many reviews you get back and whether those reviews are good or bad is solely based on the merit of the book.
Still, not all ARC services are created equal, and there are many companies out there still selling “reviews.” They do so against the rules, and risk not only their own business but the accounts of the authors and readers that use them.
But as with everything else, the bad actors in this group are the minority and with a bit of common sense and due diligence, authors can avoid the risk of doing business with them.
Just Be Smart and You’ll Be Fine
No system is perfect, and there will always be someone trying to game it, but if you use your head and play by the rules you can reap the rewards of ARCs.
If you’re sending out ARC copies yourself to your own list, it’s obvious why it’s important to understand the rules – but don’t think that you’re absolved from that by using a service. Whatever company you work with is still sending out your book, and if they aren’t playing by the rules it’s you who will get in hot water with Amazon.
How do you know if an ARC company is legit or not? Do your due diligence. Ask around amongst your fellow authors, and/or read author message boards for recommendations. But even then, look at each service carefully before handing over any of your hard-earned money.
Specifically, you should be absolutely wary of any company making promises that would be impossible to carry out without breaking the rules – such as guaranteeing the specific number of reviews they can get your book, or the star ratings of those reviews. If they’re sending your book out to real readers that are truly unbiased and voluntary, then they can’t possibly make promises keep such promises.
Like most things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.