For those who don’t know, when you self-publish a book, and if you join Facebook groups for writers, you get approached by a lot of other self-published authors who offer to scratch your back if you’ll scratch theirs by reading and reviewing each other’s books.
Perhaps you’re reading this and you’re the one who approaches other authors to do review swaps.
Sounds like a harmless way of getting reviews for your book when you’re hardly yet known, right?
A few years ago a popular article published by NY Times lifted the cover on the idea of reviews for hire, and put it more succinctly than I can when they stated:
In theory, at least, good reviews are proof that a writer is finding his or her way, establishing an audience and has something worthwhile to say. So as soon as new authors confront that imperative line on their Amazon pages — “Be the first to review this item” — the temptation is great for them to start soliciting notices, at first among those closest at hand: family, friends and acquaintances. They want to be told how great they are.
“Nearly all human beings have unrealistically positive self-regard,” said Robert I. Sutton, a Stanford professor and the author of several traditionally published books on business psychology. “When people tell us we’re not as great as we thought we were, we don’t like it. Anything less than a five-star review is an attack.”
Here’s the thing: if you have ever downloaded a book with a crappy cover, horrible typos and spelling mistakes on every page swipe, and the writing style or story itself is just garbage (but that’s still subjective, so I’ll just focus on the former) and yet the “book” has like thirty-five 5-star reviews and not a single negative one, chances are the reviews are from “author review swaps.” Or paid reviews, or a combination of both.
This can be problematic, as I’ll show you in a moment since authors have a vested interest in showing off how their book is well-liked by those who’ve read it. But the average consumer who stumbles across the book might not have any way of knowing all these glowing reviews are from other authors trying to help each other out.
I recently found an in-depth article that covers how review swapping became a thing thanks to internet marketers who jumped into the Kindle space earlier in the decade:
I can’t tell you how often I read poorly edited self-published books. Maybe you do too. I’ve finally started giving up and telling people “nope, I’m not reviewing this unless you want me to give it two or three stars and get mad at me. Please get it edited first before I put my review online”. Poorly edited books show up on various blogs as the number one reason indie authors aren’t taken seriously.
Often times the authors who have approached me in the past would get offended with me and feel I’m not living up to my end of the bargain, in which cases I no longer care if they go and delete the review they originally gave me for my book.
I just refuse to reward horribly-written books with glowing 5-star reviews as a ‘favor’. And you should too.
Check out these snapshots of reviews for a book on Amazon. They’re from a book I was approached to do a review about a couple of years ago, and in good conscience, I couldn’t for very similar reasons as these two people noted — the book was absolute crap but yet has nearly 200 five-star glowing reviews!
But check out what a couple of ACTUAL customers said after trying to read the book:
(Click the screenshots below for a larger image)
These two reviews come from the same book and highlight a few of the problems with review swapping:
- They undercut the integrity of the author and question the credibility of the content of the book itself. Let’s face it, people don’t just judge a book by its cover anymore: they judge it by the reviews on Amazon, as well.
- These reviews underscore flaws in Amazon and their review system, as well as the type of books that are self-published on there. Let’s face it, even though the stigma of self-publishing is largely disappearing, it’s shenanigans like this that keep many people from taking indie authors as seriously as traditionally-published authors.
- And like my point above, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the bunch. If the only self-pubbed books some readers choose to read are poorly-written and edited even worse, do you think they’ll take a chance on other self-published authors after that? Didn’t think so. As a result, even the excellent books by indie authors can be judged harshly without being given a chance.
- In my experience and observation, most of these reviews are really vague, and one never knows if the other author truly read the book or just skimmed it, or neither. I’ve seen reviews that were so non-specific, it could have applied to any book. I realize some people who do read a book and rate it can also say very little or just indicate that they liked it. But when you click on their name on Amazon you can see all the reviews they’ve given and get an idea for their sincerity and genuineness. When I write a review, I like to give examples of what I liked, cite quotes or just be specific about what I liked. This is hard to do if I’m doing a review swap and find that I don’t actually like what I’ve read.
Other problems with review swapping, including but not limited to the following:
- You’re obligated to be positive, or at least you feel that way. Once you agree to do a review swap, you’re compelled to follow through. Your word as an author and as a person is on the line. The obligation can be a gigantic burden if you happen to discover the book you’re supposed to review is pure bovine scat and not worth the glowing review the other author may be expecting of you.
- What are you supposed to write when you think it sucks and your tribe will too if they check your Amazon reviews and buy things you “recommend?” If the book is riddled with errors and is absolutely horrible, your first reaction is probably going to be one of frustration. What if you tell the truth about this book, and that author retaliates when they review yours?
- Your integrity will be questioned. If you decide to show mercy where it’s not really deserved, and you sugarcoat your review while skipping over all the misspellings and editing errors, you create other future problems. If they read a book based on the fact that you gave it 4 or 5 stars and it turns out to be terrible, do you know who looks bad? Not the author who wrote the book — but you. You’re the one who looks like you are paid to review books or do it as a favor. People will think your reviews aren’t truthful, and maybe other things you write (such as your books, if you’re a non-fiction writer) aren’t truthful, either. Your credibility is gone, and even if you never do this again, it will take time to earn back.
- If they post their review before you post yours, it’s tempting to let it influence what kind of review you give them. If you are a fast reader and get yours up first, you won’t have to consider their opinion of your own work when you write it if the book wasn’t really a masterpiece worthy of honest 5-star reviews, the other authors can see your honesty and there’s no telling if they’ll respond in kind.
- If you’re a self-published author the only thing you have to legitimize yourself is not reviews, as so many believe, but your reputation and evidence of integrity. Review swaps compromise that.
- Why force yourself to read something you don’t like in your free time? For me, this is the number one problem: I love to read and have over 300 books on my “To Read List” and I know I can’t possibly get around to reading each one, and yet I’m postponing them all by offering to read crap I truly don’t want to read…Who has that kind of time on their hands? (I’ll give you a hint — not expert writers).
OK, I realize those are a lot of reasons.
Here are even more reasons not to review swap.
Expert Writers and Those Who’ve Built a Following Don’t Need to Resort to Review Swaps
There’s mixed opinion about all this on the internet, I realize. Some indie authors swear by review swaps, others admit to having done them but swear never to do them again (like myself). But as I update this in 2019, I’m finding it’s fast become something mostly newbie authors are tempted by, and veteran authors know to stay away from the allurement.
If you have been following me and trust me, and you are thinking of self-publishing (if Steve can do it anybody can do it!), then take stock in some remarks like this I’ve seen other people make and couldn’t have said any better:
I mean I wish I hadn’t done it, that I had made it through the publication of my first book without falling for all the rhetoric about reviews being the only way a self-published author can succeed and they, therefore, must do anything to gain them. I wish I had been better, that I had understood that my credibility was at stake and just stood proudly by the quality of my work to garner readers. It’s not faultless, but doesn’t need bolstering either. I wish that I hadn’t listened to all those pulpiteers, who claim that a good book could never be enough. Sadie Forsythe, ADDRESSING A PAST TRANSGRESSION AND WHY I’LL FORGIVE A NEW INDIE AUTHOR A REVIEW SWAP OR TWO
I’ve learned from my mistakes, too
Disclaimer: At the time of writing this, I’ve only done a few review swaps, and on other occasions, I’ve naturally reviewed books of friends, but without feeling obligated to just because a few of them had reviewed mine first. We never discussed it, it just happened that way.
When I published my first Kindle book in 2013, 6 Lies People Believe About Divine Healing, I had various proofreaders to go over it for me after I had it edited. I personally asked each one upfront if they’d be willing to also leave a review of it on Amazon the week I published it. Roughly 15-20% of those who read it followed through, resulting in about 15 reviews that were up when I hit the ground running quite hard. It’s just par for the course that the majority of people who offer to won’t, for whatever their reasons.
Thanks to my tribe, we reached number one in Pentecostal books the weekend it released. This obviously felt great, but I had to work hard during the weeks leading up to it, as well as afterward.
The next month I did a free promotion with the book, and simultaneously launched my next book also free.
In these two books I had a notification at the front that invited people to an email address to help notify me of typos or errors that had been overlooked. I was quite embarrassed by how many emails I received at first, particularly in that second book, which although I had gotten it edited, I didn’t have the same plethora of proofreaders before launch that 6 Lies had.
The type of errors people caught were embarrassing to me. Often times the mistakes were the result of me correcting things my editor suggested, and it made some sentences really wonky or added extra words by accident. And the one book of mine that I never had edited but put online has sold very poorly so far at the time of this writing.
I’ve since learned my lesson and now it’s my policy that NO book of mine goes on Amazon without an editor (I literally thank God for you, Roy Farias and Lisa Thompson!). After having fixed the mistakes in my last major book and making corrections, nearly 20 proof-readers went over it to make sure I caught everything. Thanks to much more thoroughness than the previous launches, in the year since its release only ONE person has caught a typo in 9 Lies People Believe About Speaking in Tongues that made it through to Amazon. I’m proud of that and I think months of editing beforehand is worth it. [Side note: I am also proud that the only 1-star review that book has gotten to date is from someone who admits to not having even READ the book, which I encourage other indie authors to count on happening with their books, especially if they are non-fiction.]
Jan 2019 Edit: That particular book got re-published with Destiny Image Publishers and has since been re-released as a traditionally published book.
Indie Authors, PLEASE Invest in an Editor — It’s For Your Own Good!
I constantly download — or in some cases of wasted money, buy books that CLEARLY were written by people who think readers will pay money to read a prolonged blog. Or that their readers are idiots who will buy anything. I have approached some authors privately and have even offered to show them things I’ve been catching in their books because I think other than the editing, the content is stellar.
Out of the dozen or so I’ve written to, only one has taken me up on my offer.
Well, you might supposedly have a “good eye”, but you can’t see your own blind spots. Let someone ELSE edit it for you! And by golly don’t be so foolish as to turn down someone’s FREE work when they’re offering to edit it for you. But if you’re aiming for mediocrity, by all means, ignore any FREE help you’re offered. Go ahead and reinforce the negative stereotypes self-publishing has because you think your work is good enough to throw on Amazon without a proofreader or editor.
Sad but true: many independent authors simply believe that their work does not need to be edited. We ALL have unrealistically high self-regard, not just writers. Authors are too close to their work to make the critical structural and grammatical changes that might make the material more succinct. I can’t emphasize it enough: every writer benefits from a good editor.
I have tried to read books that:
- never apostrophized possessive pronouns.
- began sentences without capitalizing the first letter
- ended sentences without periods
- unnecessarily capitalized random words in the middle of their sentences
- had poor grammar
- read like they were copied and pasted out of Google Translate or a content spinner
…and yet these same authors have ONLY five-star reviews and NO complaints. This makes me wonder if they paid for positive reviews or did review swaps.
Some online entrepreneurs who don’t have any expertise in writing but only in knowing how to make money outsource their books on Craigslist, put their name on the “report” the they hired someone to write, and then leverage their mailing list or customers and get reviews from people who’d never criticize their work if it deserved it.
Hence gaming the system further.
This results in encouraging other authors who see what looks like a lot of results think they should do the same. Including Christian authors, unfortunately.
The problem is many of these marketers who recommend some of these methods are selling boatloads of their books not because they’ve got a lot of good reviews for their book, but because they’re marketers and have gotten a lot of people into buying their book!
I’m not a grammar nazi when reviewing books (unless they’re absolutely horrible) but as an author, I know the tricks and ways people rank their books well with dubious methods, but I have learned to resist the temptation. Maybe you don’t need me to tell you what you already know because you’ve already felt swindled after reading some of these cheap
reports books I’m talking about.
Now, if you want to throw content on your blog and not worry about it, that’s fine. I try editing my content carefully, but I still find mistakes or have them pointed out to me on a regular basis. But with a book you want people to pay money to read it. In that case, put the effort into making it worth buying.
That All Being Said, Are Review Swaps Ethical For Christians?
I constantly tell my email list or Facebook followers that when I’m asking for their “best candid review” it means they are allowed to hate it but it would be beneficial to me as a writer if they explain why they hated it. I’d rather have honest reviews all over the spectrum because it helps me improve as a writer, but obviously hoping they’ll like it!
If they rate it 5 stars, it is also great when they explain why they liked it that much. Constructive praise is as helpful as constructive criticism.
But you don’t have a large platform or a blog you can ask readers? You better start building one, then!
I’ve had paragraphs of feedback from proofreaders telling me ways I come across like I contradict myself or how one point undermines another I made. Some suggested re-ordering my chapters. All advice I often adhered to, and has helped make the book(s) more excellent than if I just threw them on Amazon and asked for reviews.
The other reason I am done with review swaps is because they have a way of excellence-proofing your work.
Like another indie author says at Self-publishing Advice,
To begin with, it’s clear that many of us feel badly for other independent authors who may not have produced gems (in our opinion) or even particularly competent work. Though everyone advises you to read good examples of writing in order to learn, I find that being able to see where something went wrong from a not-so-great writer is also valuable, helping me avoid pitfalls I might not otherwise have noticed.
Many of the folks in the discussion mentioned that if they couldn’t say something good about a book (and give it 3-5 Amazon stars), they would prefer to just pass over it in silence, not wanting (I suppose) to break someone else’s rice bowl.
I do sympathize with this point of view and do the same for what I consider to be “forgivable” offences, the small formatting, editing, plot hole issues that fall into the “there but for the grace of God go I” categories. I don’t see any need to dwell on much of that in the form of reviews destined to be read primarily by readers.
But when I come across books where the author doesn’t even try, where there are gaping plot problems, historical bloopers, and a general air of “it’s good enough for my dumb readers,” then I object both as a reader and as another independent writer. So this time I wrote a 2-star review detailing the issues, for the benefit of other readers.
You will attract trolls who negatively review your book no matter what — even if they’ve never read it but already think they disagree with the topic or hate that you’re writing about it. You need to hold your chin up and make your face flinty. If all you do is review swaps and get 5 star reviews, you insulate yourself from the criticism that could help you improve as a writer.
That being said, it doesn’t mean I won’t review manuscripts for friends and acquaintances. But I’m increasingly wary of reading anything unsolicited. If you want me to proofread a manuscript of yours or review it, PLEASE tell me ahead of time what stage of the draft it’s in (ie if it’s been edited yet or not). So many people have helped me in that stage, that I’m happier to pay it forward and do the same where appropriate and time permits.
But if I see the words “review swap” in your message, I’ll just delete it. It’s code for “nobody reviews my book after reading it, therefore this will be the only way I can get a 5 star review for it”
I’ve had way too many crappy books sent my way that have never gotten good reviews from actual readers. I can’t add another fake five-star to your book’s Amazon page in good conscience if it doesn’t truly deserve it.
Let’s face it, review swaps aren’t for more 1 or 2 star reviews, are they?Can you think of a best seller where people said “Good book, but it needed an editor”?Click To Tweet
2020 update: I’ve talked a lot here about what not to do, but here’s a video I just came across that does a great job saying a lot of these thoughts in video form, but ALSO some tips on how to get legit and quality reviews. The video should start around the 12:14 mark: