How the New Amazon Review Rules will Change Your ARC Reviews
By now, you've probably heard about the changes mega-retailer Amazon has made to their review policies in general. If you haven't, you can see the new policies here. The basic gist of it is this: You can't give away free items to get reviews anymore. Only reviewers who are signed up under the Amazon Vine program can get free stuff to review. And Amazon will supervise these giveaways to control the amount and frequency of the gifts. These guidelines apply to all products, not just books.
In fact, they don't apply to books at all. Books sold through the KDP program, and all books listed on Amazon, have a different guideline to follow.
The prior system, the one we've all grown accustomed to, has required that we disclose whether we received a free or reduced price book in exchange for our honest opinion or review. What some folks don't realize is that this wasn't necessarily an Amazon requirement. It was a requirement for the .com site (US) because it is an FTC (Federal Trade Commission) requirement in the United States. Amazon required it because it is the law.
The wording that most reviewers used was this: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. (Or something very similar to this). The FTC does not require any specific wording, so long as the information is clear to anyone reading the review. They call it an "endorsement."
The New Amazon Book Review Guidelines
Amazon has changed the requirements for book reviews very slightly. Now, it is against the Amazon review guidelines to give any product, including books, to someone and require that they post a review, honest or otherwise. Rather, if an author provides an advance review copy (known as an ARC), they cannot require that the recipient provide a review at all. They can only hope that the reader will post a review.
It is not a huge departure from the way things used to be. Back in the old days, book publishers would provide ARCs to established book review publications or individual reviewers who worked for these outlets with the hope that the organization would review the book. It was never a "given" that the book would receive a review. In fact, because these publications received so many free books to read, it was more of a coup to actually receive a review, and an even bigger blessing if they published the review.
The publishers would then take the best verbiage from the review and use it in their own marketing campaigns. They would include the review ratings in the frontmatter of the book when it was released, use it in advertisements, and/or include it on the dust jacket or back cover. These reviews meant something. They were hard-earned by reviewers whose opinions the general public respected.
Amazon has allowed for this practice all along, by including a section of each book page (accessed through Author Central), specifically for actual book reviews.
These days, self-publishers count on reviews to help sell their books in two distinct regards.
Sending out ARCs in exchange for reviews has become a regular, standard practice among authors cum publishers. Amazon doesn't necessarily like this practice because there is a quid pro quo element that can easily skew the results of these reviews.
If you're a reviewer, you may think that fewer authors will send you free books if you leave bad reviews, even the book deserves it. Some reviewers have elected to simply not post bad reviews. (This is not a good idea in our opinion because if the reviewer only posts good reviews, they lose the distinction of having a valid opinion.) Other reviewers may have chosen to post a decent or good review, regardless of the overall quality of the book, in order to protect their ability to get their books for free.
The only difference in the Amazon requirements now is the fact that we can no longer "require" the recipient of our ARCs leave a review at all; good or bad. This change completely removes the quid pro quo element from the transaction. It harkens back to the old process described above, where publishers sent out as many copies as they could and then crossed their fingers. (Note: There has always been some level of quid pro quo within publications in that the publishers would often purchase advertisements within the magazine or newspaper and this might have prompted the reviewers to put their books on the top of their to-be-read pile. But the purchase of an advert does not guarantee a review and this is clearly outlined in their submission guidelines.)
Full Disclosure in Amazon Book Reviews
The FTC still requires that the writer of a review or endorsement disclose whether they received a product for free or for a reduced price.
Amazon requires that the writer of a review or endorsement for books disclose that they received the book for free or a reduced price and that there was no expectation of a forthcoming review.
These are two distinctly different things. Both must be addressed within the review on the Amazon US site in order to abide by both the law and the internal guidelines. So, what's the best way to handle it?
We've come up with a tag-line of sorts which should fit the bill.
Disclosure: The author of this review received a free/reduced price copy of this book with no requirement to review or endorse.
This disclosure covers all the bases established by both the FTC and Amazon. While the FTC doesn't require anything quite so formal, Amazon has made it a requirement to be concise and clear every time. To avoid making an innocent error, we suggest that every reviewer who has received free or reduced price literary works simply paste something like this at the bottom of the review.
We're still not entirely convinced that actual book reviewers (as opposed to street team members and other ARC recipients) should post their reviews in the customer review section of Amazon's book listing pages, but we do understand that it's difficult for self-publishers to get those much-needed reviews. Every customer review counts, right?
Still, if you are a reviewer with an established following and a valid, trusted opinion, your reviews should be posted on your website, driving traffic to YOUR page where you can place a link to the Amazon sales page pretty easily. The publishers for whom you write a review should take bits and pieces and place those in the Editorial Review section of the book's listing page with full credit to your website.
As someone pointed out to me recently, we can't put the genie back in the bottle and the "new" review system, established and therefore dictated by Amazon, has changed the game. The best we can do is to be responsible and conscientious about what we post, where we post it, and give full disclosure where it is due.
Marjorie Jones Cooke
Marjorie Jones Cooke writes romance fiction as Marjorie Jones, Starla Childs and Raleigh Kincaid and is the owner/publisher at Indie Artist Press, a publishing company bridging the gap between self-publishing and traditional publishing to bring to the reading public Great Books by Great Indie Authors.