Are Preview Readers’ E-Book Reviews a Fraud?

Is it cheating to give out free ebook copies and get reviews from your readers?

There are many ways to market a book or e-book, but one thing I’ve figured out: Early reviews are critical for attracting readers and making sales.

Recently, on a Goodreads thread, I discovered one book-marketing strategy I’ve used with great success is considered scammy by some authors.

It’s recruiting readers prior to the book’s release who get a free draft copy of your book or e-book in exchange for a promise to leave a review on publication day.

Do your peeps leave false raves?

Complaints about authors who ballot-stuff their reviews with gushy raves from their personal friends abound on the GoodReads author forums. “It’s not fair!” one writer groused.

There is an ongoing scandal about authors (and business owners, too) who simply create fake identities to post fake raves.

The whole flameup reminds me of another book-marketing tip I gave recently, about how I got great marketing help for my new print business book on shoestring startups by mass-mailing my LinkedIn connections.

Worked great for me, but some writers thought I was just being a spammer on LinkedIn. Even though none of my connections were bothered by it.

It had never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with asking a group of early readers to review your book. I still don’t see what’s wrong with it. But apparently that’s not a universal opinion.

How to do early reviews right

My take on the early-reader review controversy: I think it’s fine if:

  • You don’t tell reviewers what to say or how to rate your book
  • They’re free to say whatever they want, including something negative
  • Early readers aren’t your personal best friends
  • Don’t post any fake reviews by pretend people, or encourage anyone to do that for you

In other words, put out a general call for signups for free copies, and take who you get. Don’t email the family with suggested language for their five-star reviews.

It’s vitally important to have a lot of reviews the day your book or e-book goes on sale, and I don’t see any other way to get those. Every author I know who has sold well has opened with a ton of rave reviews.

How else can you have reviews on Day One and make sales besides asking your fans to read it and review it before it comes out?

Some authors may think it’s a form of cheating, but this marketing technique is here to stay, until there’s a better way to make more sales on opening week and get your book ranked well on Amazon for your category.

How to do early reviews better

If the idea of handing out free copies in exchange for reviews makes you queasy, you might resolve it this way — simply ask that your free readers disclose in their review that they were given a promotional copy.

In checking out my recent biz book’s Amazon reviews and GoodReads reviews, I discovered more than one of my reviewers had done this on their own:

Goodreads review

I loved that. This way, it’s totally transparent how the reader came to be leaving a day-one review.

I think most readers probably won’t even notice, but you’re hiding nothing if you encourage reviewers to come clean about how they got your book.

Are free “early reader” reviews ethical? Leave a comment and share your view.

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38 comments on “Are Preview Readers’ E-Book Reviews a Fraud?
  1. John Cooper says:

    I think as long as the review is honest then I don’t see a problem.
    John Cooper recently posted…1 Simple Secret to Changing Bad Habits and How to Start a BusinessMy Profile

  2. Kate Kindle says:

    I don’t know how else to do it. I’ve never had enough and sales suffer. I just found a way to collect emails to approach possible reviewers on the book page for whatever book I’m selling. I know that’s after publication, but I’m going to use it. Yes, there are those out there downgrading an author’s work by posting hit man reviews and lowering their ratings. Bad news.

  3. Chip says:

    As much as I disagreed with your linkedin strategy, I think this is a normal and smart practice. If all of the free reviews are glowing, it will cast a bit of doubt on their veracity, of course. Maybe writers could send copies to both fans and detractors? As several other posters mentioned, the reviewer should disclose their free copy in exchange for their words much like affiliate marketers are supposed to disclose their relationships with the organizations they link too.

    In this conversation between Tim Ferris and Neil Strauss, the two authors discuss their different approaches to talking about their work while creating it – and the value of that in building an audience, and the overall importance of having a ready built platform to release a book or land an agent or legitimate publisher. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dTQWQXhSJU) having honest advance reviews would certainly fall under the guise of platform building.

    I wonder if it would be possible to contact credible reviewers (those with five or more well written reviews, not all positive) on sites you want to gain traction with and ask them for an honest review in exchange for a free copy. The reviewer gets rewarded for being a frequent contributor to the site, you get a credible review, and with the disclosure, no one’s hands appear dirty.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Chip — you know, I gather that IS a marketing strategy, to find the top Amazon reviewers for your type of book and reach out. Something I’d still like to do with my books but haven’t tried out yet!

      That at least gives someone who does a lot of reviews and often is NOT part of your personal tribe…but don’t know how much people pay attention to who the review is from. If most people are like me, you can and skim and look at the star ratings and pull quotes and make a decision.

  4. Authors have been doing this for years. When one of my books was first published I noticed a bad review of my book (on Amazon) from a work colleague of one of my competitors books. I don’t bother reading the reviews anymore. I believe the fact that it has been selling for 18-years is proof enough that it deserves to still be out there.
    Joseph Rathjen recently posted…When To Safely Hit “Publish” And When To Hold Back!My Profile

  5. Corinna says:

    The problem is when your “supporters” write reviews that clearly demonstrate that they haven’t read the book and are simply rehashing the table of contents and/or press release.

    It’s not that you’ve asked them to rate the book highly. And they think they’re being helpful. But it’s not useful information.
    Corinna recently posted…Thought for the day…My Profile

  6. As said by others, even million-dollar authors – who you’d think wouldn’t need them anymore – ask for advance reviews all the time. Granted, they’re more likely to pick and choose who to include (or their publishers do), so that the reviews are always glowing. But still, they ask and receive.

    I’m not sure why, then, people think e-book authors “aren’t supposed to” ask for the same consideration. Maybe it’s because e-books are so prevalent now?
    D Kendra Francesco recently posted…Air, Our BreathMy Profile

  7. Jawad says:

    Hi Carol,
    Since the launch of my traditionally-published book, I’ve been doing ALL I can to promote and create a buzz around my book. Fortunately, I’d been able to garner several 5-stars reviews of my book on the publisher’s website. I’ve been regularly sending tweets to books’ buyers to ask them to leave reviews, after they’ve read it! I am also very fortunate that my book is currently Number 3 best selling book. All this within a short span of 1.5 months only, since the book is published!
    However, I am struggling for garner ANY reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and Library Things etc. websites! 🙁 I feel these websites are very important to create greater visibility of the book, so there should be some reviews! Also, as much as I blog or try to engage readers or ask for reviews on these websites, I have not seen any success at all! I concur this situation to two facts: Firstly, since my book is technical in nature, there aren’t very many readers on these sites for this kind of book (but then I end up disagreeing with myself, as I see Amazon a BIG site for just about any and everything). The second reason could be that garnering reviews will take its own time, and I should just patiently sit and wait!
    Perhaps, you could create a blog post on how do we go about marketing our books, even if it traditionally-published! 😉
    Jawad recently posted…Integrating SAP BusinessObjects BI with SAP NetWeaver (3rd Edition)My Profile

  8. I don’t see anything wrong with it as long as the reader isn’t pushed into leaving a review. Having friends and family review a book the day it hits the virtual stands can only help with future sales. How would anyone reading the reviews know whether or not the poster knows the author anyway?
    Shauna L Bowling recently posted…Dream Catchers vs. Dream ChasersMy Profile

  9. I agree with you, Carol. There’s nothing unethical about having day-one reviews, so long as they are honest, not coached. It’s presumed that all reviewers have received free copies of your book, so I’m not sure what these people find “unfair” about it.

    As far as people who may have flaked out on reviewing your books, I know that having signed up as a reviewer for a few book tour titles that just did not meet my own critical standards, I felt it was better not to leave a review for these books at all than to abide by the “no negative reviews during the tour” dictated by this particular tour group. The tour leader might consider it “flakey,” but I consider it an ethical stand against books I would have rated negatively. Sometimes it is just impossible to offer constructive criticism, when your overwhelming feeling about a book is negative!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think if someone reached out to you and said, “Please review this — but no negative reviews,” that’s unethical. I didn’t say anything like that! There shouldn’t be conditions on the review.

      I think this is the exact sort of situation that causes other authors to complain that the deck is stacked against them if they don’t also get their friends to lie about how great their book is…and/or if all negative reactions are self-censored.

  10. Terri says:

    I also don’t see anything wrong with giving away free books for reviews. However, I did email someone asking to review my book. They would only agree to it if I didn’t mind them saying they are giving an honest review in exchange for a free copy of the book. Of course, I didn’t see a problem with that.

    What I would like to know is how often you “remind” the person to write the review after giving them the book. I find myself giving people free copies and then never getting the review. I used to assume they just didn’t write one because they didn’t like what I wrote and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. However, I often get emails from them saying they liked it and will write a review shortly. Days go by and there’s no review so I send a gentle reminder. They respond apologizing and saying they’ll write it soon, but it never happens. That’s when I usually just give up because I don’t want to be a nuisance.
    Terri recently posted…20 Amazing Things You Should Say to Yourself (And Believe It)My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yeah…this is the bane of every self-publishing writer’s existence now, people who take the freebie and then don’t leave reviews.

      I think I did 2 nags, and believe the majority of my people did leave reviews SOMEWHERE — Amazon, Goodreads, or Barnes & Noble.

  11. Dava Stewart says:

    I asked this same question in a Google + Book Group (I thought it made sense to ask a group of readers how they felt about it), and everyone who responded said they thought it was perfectly ethical to give away advanced copies in exchange for reviews. Traditional publishers have been doing it forever – Advanced Review Copies, or ARCs are common. There are several books on my shelves that have half the cover cut off because they were ARC copies and publishers didn’t want the original recipients to sell them for profit (I buy most of my physical books at used book stores).

    Something that seems equally odd to me is that some people have a problem with writers reviewing other writers’ work. Most writers read a LOT. Why shouldn’t we be able to leave reviews?

    It’s weird that there seems to be a whole contingent of people (particularly on Goodreads) who are out to make life harder for authors. It’s a really odd sort of emerging side effect of the new writing/publishing/reading landscape.
    Dava Stewart recently posted…On Being a Beta ReaderMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I don’t know if they’re out to make life hard. I think it’s more like there are a lot of sour grapes out there when writers put out an ebook and then it goes NOWHERE.

      Many writers don’t understand how much marketing they’re going to have to do to sell books, and resent that they have to compete in a world where authors with a big tribe can have hundreds of opening-day reviews on Amazon.

      I hear often from writers, “I’ve written a book, so I thought I would start blogging to promote it.” I don’t want to have to be the one to tell them they’ve done these activities in the wrong order! I gather Seth Godin recently said you should start marketing your book 3 YEARS before it comes out…and what he means by that is start building your platform. If you do that first, selling the book is easy.

      If you sit in a garret and write a book and then self-publish it and expect to sell it, you’re usually in for crushing disappointment, especially in today’s hugely crowded ebook market.

  12. Cheryl Rhodes says:

    Yes, I’d say more often than not book reviews that come out the day of release or shortly thereafter probably are frauds. So many times I see glowing 5 star reviews right around the release date and I see these reviewers have only done a couple of other reviews. A quick check shows that they only other books they reviewed were also written by the same author. That tells me they’re either sock puppets or friends of the author. A reviewer with several reviews of books written by different people is more credible. Doesn’t even have to be a lot of reviews – 6 or 7 if they’re all over the place and not loving on one author. That reviewer may have received an advance copy for free in exchange for a review that’s more likely to be an honest review.

    I read an excerpt of a novel that sounded interesting to me. The things that bothered me were stiff dialogue, an abrupt point of view change, and a spelling error. Errors do slip by and I wasn’t sure if this happened in the excerpt the author provided to the page I was reading so I went to Amazon to read the first couple of chapters. In the dedications the author thanks several people who edited and proofread the novel, who may have also provided glowing reviews in exchange for their shout outs. Then I proceeded to read 2 chapters with clumsy dialogue and point of view changes. I didn’t buy the book because those preview chapters warned me to expect more. The author had a good idea for a story but just couldn’t get a handle on it. It was all tell not show. And the telling – all that awkward dialogue – didn’t work.

    After reading that preview I come to the conclusion that some self-published authors also create fake proofreaders and editors to make the book appear professionally finished and give it more credibility.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an author giving out free copies in exchange for reviews as part of their marketing. The problem comes in choosing the reviewers. The author probably can count on family and friends leaving glowing reviews but passing out copies to unknown persons, there is no way to guarantee they’ll leave a review and how good a review it’ll be.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Not completely sure if you’re agreeing or disagreeing with me here — seems like disagreeing at the beginning of your comment and agreeing at the end!

      I do think the issue of friends-and-family raves is out there, as you saw with the well-reviewed but badly written book. Luckily Amazon DOES usually offer an excerpt so you can take a sniff for yourself.

      My point is NOT to ‘choose’ the reviewers, but to do an open call among your readers. Get them on an email list so you know who they are and can contact them, but don’t hand-pick them. And don’t hand them a script or tell them what to say. I think in this scenario, you get fair reviews.

  13. I think this is why an Amazon-verified purchase is important to see at the top before the review. If you do free days, then the free download is considered a purchase and the review is then legit.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Kerrie —

      True enough…but the problem is, if people are claiming free copies on Amazon, you don’t have their emails. And then there’s no way to know who they are and to nag them on email to leave the reviews!

      I did a free Amazon giveaway period for my ebook with Linda Formichelli, 13 Ways to Get The Writing Done Faster, and I think I won’t do that again. Often, you’ll get hundreds of downloads that way, but you’ll be lucky to get a half-dozen reviews! Our conclusion was that you just end up giving away too much revenue, with too little gain for you. Yes, you could get a quick Amazon ranking spike, but that’s pretty fleeting.

      In the future, freebie periods are for my own loyal subscribers who are willing to get on a list for me, both because THEY deserve the giveaway more than random Amazon shoppers, and so I can remind them to leave their review!

  14. Laurie Boris says:

    Thank you for the great info, Carol. This process is exactly what I did for the release of my new book. I put out a request on my Facebook author page and in a couple of groups for volunteers to post honest reviews of my electronic review copies on the day the book went live. Not all were five-star raves. No family. No false accounts. I told no one what to say or even float the review past me first. And not all who initially agreed posted reviews. I think it’s a great way to get some buzz going in those critical, early days of a launch. This is exactly what big and even small publishers do. My first book was with a small press, and I was given the opportunity to purchase review copies just for this purpose.
    Laurie Boris recently posted…What’s Up With That Title?My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, now you’ve brought up another hot topic — people who TAKE review copies and then do NOT leave a review. I think most of mine did review it, but I’ve heard gripes from other writers who felt screwed over for the free copy by people who flaked out on them.

  15. Annie says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with it, as long as you aren’t telling the reviewers what to say. It probably is a good idea to ask the reviewers to disclose that they received an advance copy too.

    The truth is, selling books is hard. You need whatever advantage you can get and I think that people who criticized you either are naive or they don’t have your resources (established readership for example) and so perhaps are jealous.

    Many writers approach book bloggers or other reviewers with advance copies in exchange for an honest review, and that isn’t looked down upon – so I don’t really see how what you did would be regarded as unfair or unethical.

    As to the announcement to your connections on LinkedIn – if they didn’t object to your announcement then why should anyone else? All writers, entrepreneurs, and businesses large and small announce new releases to their public, associates and affiliates – it would be crazy not to do so.

    Anyway, hope your book does well.

    Annie
    Annie recently posted…A funny thing happened on the way to my emailMy Profile

  16. Advance readers (or what my publisher Pixel Hall Press calls beta readers) serve more than one purpose, especially for e-books. Yes, they are great sources for reviews but they can also point out any little errors or typos that snuck in there. I’ve also started asking my beta readers for comments on my e-book covers. This will help me going forward. I like the idea of including a line about receiving an ARC, too.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I asked for feedback as well and have a list of a few small changes to make for the next edition! Definitely something to do if you’re asking early readers. If yours are all writers like mine, they tend to spot the typos for you very well. 😉

      • I have to agree with both of you – Nancy and Carol – that getting early feedback is important. I’m currently working on an ebook and have 5 beta readers. What’s interesting is seeing that they all agree on certain things, yet have differing opinions on others. Their input has helped me see things that I originally didn’t.

        By stressing that I wanted their honest opinions, I got what I asked for. If those who get a free copy for reviewing purposes are told the same thing, their reviews will be honest.

        There has been much controversy regarding this issue, especially a few months ago during a discussion on LinkedIn.

        I have heard that some authors pay for reviews – this I DON’T agree with. Yet, surprisingly, it helps their sales. So the question then becomes: Do you want to be ethical or do you want sales? Ideally, we want both, but sometimes it’s hard to achieve that.
        Lorraine Reguly recently posted…Learn To Be A Better Tweeter (and grow your followers!)My Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          Well…I’m not paying for reviews. Ever. That definitely crosses a line, and I think if it came out, your reputation would go down the drain. Nothing is worth that.

  17. Nico says:

    Of course it’s ethical, as long as you’re not coaching the reviewer on what to write. You see this all the time for people who self-publish their work, but it’s industry standard.

    A review will generally have more weight if it’s reviewed by someone in the industry or a professional reviewer, but I don’t see anything wrong with giving it to other bloggers or people in the GoodReads or LibraryThing communities.

    Giving copies of books to reviewers is how they get reviewed. We don’t pay for review copies, they come graits from the publisher in the hopes of a review.
    Nico recently posted…Two reviews in Poetry is DeadMy Profile

  18. If you buy a traditionally published book, positive comments decorate the dust jacket from book reviewers. Did they not receive an early copy of the book to read? How does one solicit a compelling foreword from someone notable in the field, without giving said person an advanced copy to read. I don’t see the difference.

  19. Daryl says:

    That’s a very good question!

    My feeling that providing someone with an advanced copy of your product and asking them to leave a review is completely ethical, as long as you aren’t asking those advanced readers to leave a biased or positive review as well.

    I mean, whenever ANY major product comes out (eg video games, cars, etc) there are always advanced reviews from people who’ve tested them, so I can’t understand how anyone can say that leaving reviews for a product before it comes out is “unethical”.
    Daryl recently posted…How to Magnetically Attract Freelance Writing ClientsMy Profile

  20. I think it’s ethical as long as the author asks someone to leave an honest review. Obviously if they mention they received an advanced copy it will be better, but there is nothing the author can do to guarantee this.

    I know my conscience is clean if I ask for an honest review and I wouldn’t look down on other people for doing the same, even if the reviews hit the sites on the first day.
    Jamie Alexander recently posted…Stop Focusing On The Wrong Thing And Completely Ignore Your BodyMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, that’s how I felt — what’s wrong with it? I didn’t tell anybody what to say, I just said, “Review it.” They could have given me one star! And I was pretty excited to see how uniformly positive people were about it.

      Having early reviews is so essential…if someone’s got a suggestion of another way to get them that’s somehow less “biased” in that early readers DO tend to be people who are big fans of yours in general, then I’m all ears. But it didn’t make my ethical alarm go off…and from my 12 years as a staff journalist, my alarm is pretty fine-tuned.

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