The Ethics of Paid Reviews

The writing blogosphere is ablaze this week with the scandal of paid reviews. In an article for the New York Times, David Streitfield revealed that various businesses have been posting fake 5-star reviews for hire.  In his short tenure, he produced about 4500 reviews, most of them farmed out to people who spent only a few minutes glancing over the book in order to include the relevant details in their glorious review. The people buying the reviews were typically indie/self-published authors.

The response I have seen from the writing blogs has been damn near universal condemnation. This is wrong, unethical, and downright shameful. Authors should never buy good reviews.

I agree, and to make it clear, I have never paid for a review, good or bad. The fact that my book presently has only one review on Goodreads and one review on Amazon should be testament to that. Also, while I do post reviews here on my blog and over at Goodreads, I have never been paid to do so.  (Heh, though if you have read my book, feel free to take this as mournful plea to go post a review.)

But over in the comment thread at The Happy Logophile, blogger Jo Eberhart asked why we are all so mad about it:

…I wonder whether we’re actually so incensed about this issue because the reviewer is being paid, or because the reviews are guaranteed to be positive. Is it the unethical behaviour of the authors in “bribing” someone to read their book? Or is it the unethical behaviour of lying about the quality of the book?

It was an excellent question, and it got me thinking. Where is the ethical line? Is it that the reviewers were paid, that the author was the one paying, or that the review was guaranteed to be good?

I don’t believe it’s a problem for reviewers to be rewarded in some way, even in cold hard cash. The New York Times pays staff writers to review books. Newspapers, magazines, and even booksellers do this all the time. For that matter, Consumer Reports pays its staff to review toaster ovens, and I think we’d all agree there’s no ethics violation there.

But these purchased reviews were not commissioned by a neutral party. They were commissioned by the author himself. That’s getting into murky territory. Can an author pay someone and expect a genuinely honest review of the book? “Here’s your $50, no strings attached. Read the book and post your honest opinion, good or bad.” Unfortunately, it’s hard to really cut those strings. Even if the author uses this reviewer only once, a reviewer who gets a reputation for posting bad reviews won’t get much future business from the other authors either.

But promising to post a good review no matter what? Ah, that seems to be the real ethical line, because the reviewer is willing to tell a lie for that money. Even if the reviewer truly liked this particular book, his willingness to fall back to a lie somehow invalidates the true reviews.

This problem shows up even outside of this current scandal of paid reviews. There is often a quid pro quo arrangement between authors of “I’ll review/blurb your book if you’ll review/blurb mine.” From what I hear, even in traditional circles, this carries the expectation of a good review. The release valve for honesty seems to be that if you can’t give a glowing review, you don’t post a review and simply tell the other author, “Sorry, I wasn’t able to get to it in time.” Even that goes over poorly.

Ultimately, I think the problem is that reviewers receiving compensation is not the problem. The problem is when that compensation leads the reviewer to lie about the book.

Still, it would be nice to find a way around this ethical dilemma, particularly for indie/self-published books. Why? Because there are real economic benefits to solving this, both for authors and for readers.

Namely, indie authors who have quality books need the endorsement that comes with multiple good reviews. They have eschewed their chance at getting the “gatekeeper” endorsement of traditional publishing, so reviews and word of mouth are the only endorsements they can get.

Meanwhile, shoppers would like to be tipped off to all the indie crap that’s out there. Glowing reviews by the kind of service mentioned above cloud this issue, and it would be nice to see them buried by real readers’ reviews.

And finally, readers who are capable of putting out a decent review might like a little reward for putting in the effort. There’s not enough money available to pay the equivalent of a million New York Times columnists, but as e-book pricing moves up out of the 99-cent basement, there is at least a little bit of money available to throw at them.

But can we find a way for authors to pay that money without giving the reader a reason to lie in the review? It seems that the best way to do it is to insert an intermediary between the author and the reviewer to see to it that the reviewer is rewarded for writing a review but not punished for writing a poor review.

I think Amazon could be such an intermediary.

Here’s how I think that could work. I’m looking at this specifically from their KDP Kindle publishing program, but I think elements could be carried to other platforms.

I, as an author, could say that I want some more reviews for my books.

You, the reader, could buy a book and post a review.

If you are reviewing a book that an author has requested reviews for, you would get some percentage of your purchase price back. Maybe you would get back 20% if you simply gave it a ranking, i.e. how many stars? Perhaps you could get back as much as 50-60% if you actually wrote a text review.

The review/rating you gave the book would not impact your payment or keep you from reviewing other books.

If an author decided he had enough reviews or that he did not like the reviews he was getting, he could turn off the pay-for-review option.

Here are some of the things I like about this:

  • Amazon could ensure that the payment was truly a refund by only offering to those who bought the book from Amazon. This would also limit the paid reviews to one per customer per book.
  • The author would have no control over the kinds of reviews he gets. Once the review goes up, the author automatically pays for it. He gets no choice on which reviews he pays for or who gives those reviews.
  • The only real choice the author gets is whether or not he wants to pay for any additional reviews. He might decide after fifty good reviews that it’s enough. On the other hand, he might decide that after eight one-star reviews that he’s better off not paying for any more of them.
  • The author pulling the plug does not prevent more reviews. It only stops the payment for future reviews for that book.
  • Offering a refund percentage of less than 70% would keep the payments less than the author was making from the book, so Amazon would not so much be charging the author as discounting the royalty in exchange for the review.
  • Likewise, keeping the payment to less than the cost of the book would keep readers from abusing this as a get-money-from-starving-authors scheme, since they could only get back part of what they had already spent.
  • Since authors would likely turn the option off after receiving some number of reviews/ratings, there would be an incentive to review new books that did not yet have many reviews.
  • Amazon could hold the reviewer’s payment as a discount on future purchases, thus encouraging future sales for themselves and eliminating service charges on small financial transactions.
  • While it doesn’t stop an author from paying people to go post false reviews, it would make those less valuable by providing good books a more legitimate path for reviews and drowning bad books in truthful reviews.
  • Hopefully, the possibility of paid reviews would increase reviews overall, even on the crappy books that do not want honest reviews.


So, some questions:

  • Do you think this dodges the ethical issues around an author paying for a review?
  • If you are an author, would you use such a system?
  • As a reader, would this encourage you to write more reviews or post more ratings?
  • As a shopper, would this make you trust Amazon’s reviews less, more, or about the same?

Or am I crazy for even suggesting it?

Limbo and Unreality

I’m in a bit of limbo right now for my novel, Beneath the Sky.

I have finished the cover and uploaded the necessary files to the printer for the paperback edition. They’re doing their review and should get back to me in a day or two. Then I’ll have them overnight me a galley proof and look that over.

Meanwhile, I’m finishing off the eBook formatting for both MOBI (Kindle) and ePub formats. That should let me reach Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook directly, as well as a few others (Apple, Sony, etc.) through the intermediary service at Smashwords. Uploading on those should come in the next few days, which will probably result in some more limbo as their internal processes push it out to the servers.

Self-publishing is hardly a push-button process, but to the extent that it is, I suppose I’m in the midst of pushing that button. With luck, I’ll be able to post real links next week.

So while part of me is excited with the anticipation of getting this out the door, it’s also a little unreal. It’s one thing to set aside my lifelong notions of traditional publication in favor of indie publishing, but it’s quite another to actually step through that door.

Tune in next week to see what’s on the other side…

The Art of Undercutting

Posting on Warcraft’s auction house is both simple and complex. You can post one or many. You can make them cheap or expensive. You can be a good citizen, but you can also be a dick. At the root of this is the practice of undercutting your competitors on price to make sure yours sells first. There’s nothing wrong with undercutting. It’s just a tool, and you can use it like a scalpel, a hammer, or grenade.

The Scalpel

In almost all cases, I encourage minimal undercutting. If the lowest price on that piece of armor is 420 gold, price yours at 419.99 gold. Very likely, the next person to come along will price theirs at 419.98. Each successive undercutter shaves off a trivial sum, and the prices stay high.

Yes, high prices are good for sellers. Sorry buyers, I’m in business mostly for myself, not for you. You go run three more daily quests and get back to me with another 50 gold.

The Hammer

I see bigger undercuts all too often. Someone sees that piece of armor priced at 420 gold and decides to whack a chunk off of that and sell for 400 or maybe even 350. There are a few possible reasons for this, but they’re all wrongheaded.

Bad Reason #1: “Round numbers sell better.” This is baloney. The items are sorted by price. Buyers don’t look for the round number. They look for the cheapest. And they’re not waiting for a round number either. They go with the lowest price at the time that they want to buy.

Bad Reason #2: “A bigger price drop will get me noticed.” Again, the buyers don’t care. They just want the cheapest at the moment. The only way it gets you noticed is by your competitors.

Bad Reason #3: “A bigger price drop will keep my competitors from undercutting me.” This is maybe 20% true, but that’s not enough to save it. The truth is that most profitable markets will have multiple sellers, especially towards the end of an expansion. A small fraction of these will be fleeting competitors, just trying the market out, and an aggressive price drop might scare a few of them off. But the majority of your competitors are there to stay, and they’ll be right back, undercutting you by a minimal amount.

Bad Reason #4: “Minimal undercutting is too much work.” Yeah, typing those extra characters is just soooooo hard. I’ll admit there’s a shade of truth to this, and it’s one of the reasons I rarely bother to undercut by 0.0001. But I almost never undercut by more than a single gold. Typing 400 is as many keystrokes as typing 419.

Basically, this level of undercutting is an annoying move, and if you do it repetitively, you will earn the reputation for being a dick. It’s also stupid.


Because you left money on the table. That’s almost 20 gold you left out here. I wouldn’t care if it were only you, but when I come back to undercut – and believe me, I will be back to undercut – that’s also almost 20 gold that I had to leave on the table. Now instead of selling my item for 419.98, I’m selling it for 399.99.

Get enough of you hammer-heads together, and before long, we’re having the same price war as before except it’s around 200 gold instead of 400 gold. Usually it takes a server shutdown before the prices can rise back up.

So, in short, DON’T DO THIS. Keep with minimal undercuts.

The Grenade

That is, unless you’re trying to blow up the entire market.

Some items sell at very high markup. They cost next to nothing and sell for hundreds of gold. There are lots of competitors working that market, and your only hope for sales is to time your undercuts just before the buyer shows up. It means you’re camping at the auction house, reposting every hour or two to undercut the other five guys who are doing the exact same thing.

One approach to get out of this reposting trap is to nuke the market. Figure out your costs down to the copper. Do what you can to get that price down. Remember to include posting costs and auction house commission costs. Know your down-to-the-bone minimal price.

And then start posting just a little above that.

Suddenly, items that had been selling for 120 gold are now being priced at 10 gold.

Holy hate-mail, Batman, but that’s going to stir up trouble. Competitors will argue with you. People will say you’re ruining the market. People will ask you to play along and bring prices back up. They’ll buy you out and repost at the original prices. In short, they’ll do anything to keep those prices high.

But if you’re committed to doing this, you have to press on. Keep posting at these rock-bottom prices. Sooner or later, your competitors will stop posting their wares. They’ll stop buying you out and realize they have bags full of items they can’t sell. Eventually, you’ll own the entire market. Then start raising your prices. You never get back to the original prices, but with 100% of the market you can sell enough to be making more money than you did before.

I admit this is a serious dick move. Asshole mother-fucking cunt-shitting dick move. (Thanks to George Carlin for that…) But in many ways, the auction house is the ultimate player vs. player arena, and sometimes you decide it’s necessary to be a dick. The biggest proponent of this goes by the moniker “The Greedy Goblin”, and if you read his blog, yeah, he’s a real dick, and apparently anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot living in the world of rainbows and unicorns.  (And I would know — by the time you read this, I’ll be holding on to Poonalooey’s mane as we ride across the rainbow fields of Everjoy!)

You want some idea of how much hatred you’ll get for this? Look at how many folks in the book industry (from bookstores to publishers) hate Amazon. Yeah, we’re talking “with the passionate heat of a thousand fiery suns” kind of hatred.

And yeah, you can also say that Amazon is providing a great service to the customers by cutting out all this bloat and middleman profit. I suppose you can also say the same thing about the Greedy Goblin, that he’s trying to bring cheap armor to the masses. Except Amazon at least talks the talk. Greedy Goblins make no bones about being in it for pure profit.

But ultimately, we’re all just playing a game. We’re all here to enjoy ourselves, not to pay the bills or finance our retirement. There really no joy in fucking someone else over, or at least, there shouldn’t be. As the great Wil Wheaton said, don’t be a dick.

Future gaming columns will include the way to beat the Greedy Goblin, thoughts on posting in quantity, some exceptions to my suggestions above, and even an argument for when it’s not so bad to pull a Greedy Goblin.

The Crash of Details

Remember when I talked about all those little things I was going to have to do to get my book out? Well, they’re crashing down around me as my self-imposed deadline of April looms ever closer.

I blame a lot of this on the fact that I’ve been fighting a really nasty cold for FIVE WEEKS now. I mean it, seriously. It went all bacterial on me, hitting my sinuses and touching on my lungs. I’m now on my second round of antibiotics – the first one providing adorable twin side-effects of insomnia and fatigue – and I still feel like I’m coughing up a lung. My head hurts. My ribs ache. And to top it off… I’m whining! Blech! I hate whining. And yet here I am.

So, back to the book.

Before the cold hit, I was moving along towards filing my DBA, opening a bank account, and ordering up a batch of ISBN’s. Alas, the name I had chosen for my little publishing venture was a little too close to another existing publishing company. If they published textbooks or travelogues it wouldn’t have stopped me, but they publish fiction in some of the same genres I write in, including a few by some of my favorite authors. I hadn’t chosen the exact same name, but I think there was some possibility for confusion, so I gave it up.

So, a month later, armed with a different name, I’m off to file my DBA, open a bank account, and order up some ISBN’s. I worry that this particular process may come with the occasional “two to four weeks” of delay that crops up in paper-based transactions. Then again, maybe some of these things have stepped forward into the twenty-first century. We’ll see.

I do have the copyedit corrections back on the manuscript. It turns out it was fairly clean, but she still caught enough errors that I would have been embarrassed to see them myself in the printed copy. I’m still in the process of incorporating them into my master document since I’m anal enough to want to approve each correction individually.

It’s also paranoia driven by a recent experience C.J. Cherryh had of seeing her most recent Ateva novel butchered by the copyeditor. Apparently that editor saw Cherryh’s careful rendering of the Ragi language into English as far too indirect and passive and decided to “fix” it. Shudder. Fortunately, so far my copyeditor has committed no such sins, nor am I expecting her to. But I’m a little paranoid.

Then there’s the cover. I confess it’s still entirely in my head, and that worries me. Part of this is it’s still been so long since I’ve painted, and part of it is that until I finally see it in one piece as a cover, with all the typography and everything, I won’t really know if the image I have in mind will actually work as a cover or if it’s too busy.

Then there’s the formatting. Fortunately, the research and experimenting I did earlier on e-book formatting gives me some confidence here. As for the print formatting, I’m pretty sure I can bend MS Word to my will enough to manage the formatting requirements of fiction. My main worry here is actually getting all the necessary parts, i.e. the front matter and the back matter. You know, title pages, copyright pages, acknowledgments, and so on.

Then there’s the actual dealing with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Createspace, and so on. I’ve seen quick how-to guides on those, so I’m not expecting much of a hurdle. Still, it almost seems worth the effort to go through it with a short story just for the trial run.

Oh yeah… and then there’s a completely unrelated tax snafu that I need to deal with in the next couple of weeks. Grrr…

Sufficed to say, I’m still trying for the start of April, but I may very well miss it by a mile.

Amazon Lending Library, KDP Select, and Risk

So, let’s talk about the Amazon lending library. When they launched the Kindle Fire, Amazon also announced a digital lending library, likening it to Netflix for books. For a flat fee (being an Amazon Prime customer for $79 annually), you could borrow one e-book per month. Sounds great, sort of, but they ran into trouble right from the start.

They went around to the various traditional publishers, and the vast majority of them simply refused. The terms they offered those publishers aren’t public, so I don’t know what they were, but in the age of the digital book with on-demand borrowing, the only difference between borrowing and buying a book seems to be the money changing hands, or rather, not changing hands. Hence, anything less than full purchase price per customer loan was not going to fly for the traditional publishers, who were not exactly bearing much love for Amazon in the first place.

Undeterred, Amazon decided to loan out those books anyway, declaring that they would simply pay the publishers full price. Well, that’s nice on the one hand, but it also seems unsustainable. Furthermore, it might not even be legal. As anyone familiar with publishing will tell you, authors don’t sell books. Rather, they license copyright, and they give that license under certain specific terms. If you want to put their copyrighted work to a use that’s not covered under the license contract, then you’re out of luck. Those rights still remain with the author.

So, even if the publishers had been temporarily mollified with full-price payments, the authors were not. Enter the Authors Guild who believes that the authors have not given their publishers the right to enlist their books into this lending library, even if they’re getting paid for each loan.

So, to hell with the traditional publishers, right? What about all those authors using the Kindle Direct Publishing program (KDP)? Amazon decided to enlist those authors in the lending library by offering them a deal called KDP Select.  In exchange for allowing their books to be in the lending library and not to sell them anywhere else, Amazon offered some promotional carrots as well as a slice of a $500,000 pie. To date, about 30,000 self-published authors have taken them up on the offer.

But there has also been a lot of push-back, pretty much dividing the self-published authors down the middle. Some expressed concern over the fine print on exclusivity as well as the opaque financials on figuring out how much your book will earn in lending fees.

Specifically, the various KDP Select authors are fighting over a pool of $500,000, all 30,000 of them. While their example math talks about your hypothetical book getting a 1.5% chare of that (i.e. $7500), the reality is much more likely to be much closer to 0.00333% of that (i.e. just shy of $17), quite possibly less. With a potential for one to five million books to be loaned per month, the loan fee is anywhere from ten to fifty cents each.

David Gaughran wrote an excellent piece on why he is not going to enroll any of his titles in the KDP Select program, but it’s less about what he might get today. It’s more about how much he’ll be paid in the future.  He feels that this notion of setting a pool for us to fight over is a dangerous precedent. At a time that authors are finally getting direct access to their readers and the financial transparency that comes with it, this is a step in the wrong direction.

Now, I like Amazon. I’m even an Amazon Prime customer. Sill, I think this is a bad deal for authors for similar reasons as Gaughran’s, but it’s not just about having authors fight over the money pool. It’s about the assumption of risk and the data to manage that risk properly.

Being an Amazon Prime customer had other features before this lending program. One of them is free shipping on just about anything Amazon ships out of its warehouses. This covers everything from books to Kleenex to cookies. Personally, my wife and I use this a lot, and we only pay $79 each year for it. For us, it’s much cheaper than the regular shipping charges on all the individual purchases. Seriously, they have a great deal on Kleenex, and with our allergies, that’s a bulk purchase. Ditto with the soy powder, the rice cookies, the diapers, and the air filters. In fact, I bet we use it so much that Amazon loses money on us.

But Amazon knew that was going to happen. They didn’t know it would be me they would lose shipping money on, but they knew it would be someone. They also knew there were folks they would make money on for the shipping. They have a database of millions of customers and billions of transactions. They can make predictions of how many shipments will go out under their Prime program, and they can make sure that it’s priced accordingly. They are assuming risk here, but they also have the data to manage that risk. Costs will vary on the small scale, but they can predict the aggregate with high accuracy.

With the KDP Select lending program there is risk as well. How many books will be borrowed? How much with that eat into sales of books? How much will exposure translate into more book sales? At this point, no one really knows, not even Amazon. But Amazon has the best chance of knowing early what the costs are going to be since they’ll have real time data that no one else in the world will have. It makes sense then, that they should be the ones to shoulder that risk and manage it appropriately. But they have not. Instead, they have determined that their cost will be $500,000 a month.

I don’t think that’s fair. Of course, they don’t have to be fair. They’re running a business, and their bottom line is their ultimate focus. Of course, authors don’t have to play along with it either. I suspect that the authors who have embraced self-publishing as a way to take control of their rights back from traditional publishers are not going to be too quick to hand them over to someone else.

We’ll see, but I’m hoping that Amazon and others eventually reach some arrangement that works better than this. After all, even Netflix saw the light and aborted its ill-conceived Flickster project.