In the past few days there has been a great deal of Internet chatter about Amazon pulling down reviews. We’ve heard this before, but this time there is a new twist. Amazon is not allowing some reviews to go up at all. Some reviewers receive a message that a book has a limit on the number of reviews that can be posted because there is unusual review activity.
So, what does this mean?
The basic understanding is that Amazon has instituted a new, unpublished policy that disallows the rash of reviews that come from an author’s ARC group. Why would Amazon have a problem with this? Clearly, the more reviews on a book, particularly high-star reviews, the more readers will buy the book. Since Amazon earns money on every book sold, aren’t they shooting themselves in the foot while they alienate the authors who supply most of their book content in the first place?
Believe it or not, there may be a method to the madness. We all know that the self-publishing boom has produced less-than-stellar products. Authors who do not edit will publish their rough drafts. Authors who have no talent and no desire to improve their craft based on inflated egos refuse to learn how to write for publication and clog the system with horrific examples of bad literature. Fraudsters published gibberish to manipulate the original Kindle Unlimited payouts based on percentages read, and they modified their practices when KU 2.0 KENPs replaced the original model. These practices are bad for everyone because it dilutes Kindle’s brand, and it perpetuates the stereotype that self-published authors are less-than. As it turns out, Amazon actually does care whether the books it sells are good and they want their customers, not the author or publisher, to determine what is wheat and what is chaff.
To understand why Amazon may be challenging the veracity of ARC group reviews, let’s establish what an ARC group is. An ARC, or Advanced Review Copy, is a copy of a not-yet-released book that is available to reviewers. By reviewers, I’m talking about the book reviewers who lend their clout and opinions from trade magazines in the author/publisher’s target audience. Publishing a cookbook? You want reviews from Southern Living Magazine and Good Housekeeping. Writing a book about street racing? The reviewers at Car and Driver or Super Street will have a better audience than Reader’s Digest. And, of course, we’d all love to garner a look-see from Publisher’s Weekly or the New York Times book section.
With the advent of self-publishing outside of the old vanity press model, the self-publishing author has developed a new tool: the ARC group. These are friends, colleagues, and/or fans of the author who will read the latest book and post reviews on the venues of either their choice or the choice of the author. Prior to release, or sometimes later, the author puts out a call for readers who get a free book in exchange for an “honest” review.
That word, honest, is the kicker. The readers are already fans. Even if the book has little merit, they are going to leave a good review. Why? Because they like the author. They like being in the inside circle of people in the know. They are, for lack of a better word, the author’s entourage, minus the glitz, glamour, and free bottle service.
Generally, the group will read the book and begin posting their reviews at the same time. If the book has sold 100 copies and suddenly receives 15 or 20 reviews in a few days, Amazon’s bots flag this as unusual activity. One hundred book sales will generate 1-2 organic reviews from the general reading public. Amazon has learned this from years of analytics and experience.
Why do they care?
Because the product reviews on Amazon are not supposed to be commercial book reviews. They are the opinions of Amazon’s customers, not the author’s dedicated readers. They are designed less as a marketing tool than they are a communication platform between one customer and another. The customers are supposed to look out for one another.
Posting “friendly” reviews from ARC groups defeats and dilutes this purpose. The purpose of ARC reviews is to sell books. When your ARC team publishes their reviews in the Amazon-controlled product review section, it appears you and your team are trying to mislead the general reading public into thinking the book is more popular than it really is. This is both unethical and damaging to your reputation.
What should authors do?
There is a place on a book’s listing page for the editorial reviews I mentioned earlier in this article. Self-published authors can and should be using that same place for their ARC reviews. As seen in the image below, you can manually add and remove reviews using Author Central. By labeling the reviews you’ve received from your ARC group as comments from your Fan Club, you remove the shady aspect of having your ARC team post them in the customer reviews section.
So, the next time you send out your book for pre-release reviews, save yourself the headache of wondering when the Amazon gods are going to hit you with a bolt of review-removing lightening. Place these reviews in the correct section, and if you’re not getting great reviews from total strangers, keep working to hone your craft and supply a better product.
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.
There are only a few things in this world that really, truly tick me off. One of those things is dishonesty. Another one is crunchy peanut butter, but that is a post for another time. For now, I'm going to talk about dishonesty, Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), and the "gaming the system" mentality that seems to be over-shadowing the emerging market of self-publishing.
KDP is not a playground
When I log into my KDP account, I'm not going there to socialize (although the KDP forums are a nice place to hang out most of the time). I'm going there to work. This is the platform where the magic happens, where my manuscript becomes a book. (Another thing I hate is when people distinguish between a book and an ebook - that distinction died a decade ago.)
More and more often these days, however, there seems to be an entire segment of the population who go to Amazon's publishing platform to play writer. They throw words onto a page and without so much as a cursory proof read, they hit that publish button and giggle. Those folks are bad enough, but what happens when supposedly serious authors begin using tricks to lure unsuspecting readers like lonely sailors to a Siren? What happens when authors who are otherwise talented and professional start to play the games that well-known scammers play?
They piss me off. That's what happens. And little else, apparently.
Book Padding for Page Count
Amazon pays authors a royalty in two ways. First, there is a royalty on a direct sale, when someone purchases the right to download a book. That is pretty straight forward. The other way they pay some authors is by dividing the Select Global Fund among qualifying authors. Specifically, authors whose books are available through the Kindle Unlimited book subscription service. The fund is distributed to each author based upon how many pages of their books have been read by the subscribing readers. The exact amount paid per page fluctuates with the number of books enrolled in the program, the number of subscribers, the total number of all pages read across authors, but it's been hovering at roughly a half-cent (USD) per page for a while now. It doesn't sound like a lot, I know, but it adds up if you have a quality product to offer.
It would add up more quickly if some folks would stop gaming the system every way possible.
Most recently, some authors have taken to padding their books. For example, a well-written, engaging novella-length book that sells for 99 cents (USD) is worth every penny, or more, of that 99 cents. Personally, I think novella's are worth 2.99 to 3.99, but that's just me. Lots of authors sell them for a buck.
A reader purchases said book for 99 cents and reads it. Only, the book ends at the 30-40% mark, and the rest of the book is filler. Ads for other titles. Sample chapters of either the author's backlist or books written by their friends.
Now, I'm not saying that the reader has been robbed. They paid 99 cents for a novella I would have charged even more for, certainly. But they expected to received the 300+ pages advertised as a novel for 99 cents. They did not agree to buy a 125 page novella and a slew of marketing for 99 cents. I'm not talking about one sample chapter or a page of links to the author's back list. I'm talking about a couple hundred pages of apparent marketing.
To me, this is false advertising, plain and simple.
Why do authors game the system at Amazon?
Not many readers know about the return policy at Amazon. And many more readers wouldn't waste the time to return a 99 cent book just because of superfluous ads; or perhaps they simply don't want to make the author feel badly about their work. But it's not the buyers that the author is actually trying to game. No, no, it's Amazon and the Global Select Fund. It's me, and you, and every self-published indie out there.
Remember that second way that Amazon pays authors for their work? That Global Select Fund will pay an author for every page of their book that gets digitally turned. It doesn't matter if the reader actually reads it or not.
What would you do if you stumbled across the end of a book so early in the file you're reading that you are simply taken aback? Would you scroll through a few pages to see if it picks up again? Would you scroll absently to try and figure out what happened? Would you, perhaps, use the Table of Contents to jump to the back of the book to see if there is a note of some kind?
If you're a KU subscriber and you've downloaded the book for free, that's exactly what these authors hope you'll do because they will be paid for every single one of those page turns. When you jump to the back of the book, Amazon's computers count that as reading the whole damn thing... hundreds of pages of ads at a half-cent per page.
The author of a 99c book receives about 35 cents in royalties. The author of a 400 page KU-downloaded book that is read from cover to cover will earn about 2.00. That's a big difference. So what these authors are doing is marketing to the KU reader and hoping they will jump to the back of the book as soon as they've hit that premature ending, thus upping the payment to themselves.
Why I'm upset about authors gaming the system
That Global Select Fund is pretty huge. It's almost 15 Million bucks, actually. That's a lot of moolah! But it's not infinite. When we consider the number of pages read (or pages turned) in KU every month, it's actually pretty finite. Remember, the going per-page rate is about a half-cent.
The more pages turned, the smaller the payout per page. When authors who are otherwise talented game the system by padding their books with unnecessary and unprofessional fluff, they are deliberating taking more than their fair share of the pot and deliberately reducing the value of mine; of all the other authors whose works are just as valuable. It's greedy. And by not telling unsuspecting readers what they are REALLY buying (or downloading), it is fraudulent business practices.
In short, it's criminal behavior, and it makes me angry.
What can you do to stop authors gaming the system?
Several avenues are open to authors and readers who prefer to play fair.
First, don't fall for it. If you come across a book that is LOADED with ads or "previews," skip it. Don't turn the pages. Return the book to the Kindle lending library without adding one single half-cent to the author's pocket. If you paid outright for the book, utilize the return policy and get your money back. You've been taken for a ride. Don't stand for it.
Secondly, don't do it. Don't be one of those authors who deliberately reduces the intrinsic value of your peers' books out of some sense of greed or importance. It's tacky. Just don't.
And finally, leave a review so other readers can be prepared for what they are really buying. Every book on Amazon has either a file size or a comparable paperback page count listed in the description. If the Kindle version of the book says that it's 350 pages and you finished reading at position 30%, then the "actual" number of pages is 122. Let readers know this. Whether you adjust your star rating on the review is entirely up to you, and I would always leave a review as to the story quality honestly, as well. But let the author know that you were not pleased to have been duped into lining their pockets for something you never agreed to buy.
Honesty isn't hard. It's a good thing. A real thing. It's something that we indie authors should treasure as we face off against the old guards of the publishing world. The last thing we need is to be judged based on the dishonest actions of a few authors who don't understand that everything they do reflects on us, on the infancy of a new industry, and has the potential to bring everyone down with it.
As a newer publisher on the block, the official position of Indie Artist Press concerning the closure of Samhain is one of nostalgic foretelling. In our official opinion, it's only a matter of time before most, if not all, of the e-presses (as they used to be called) fall by the wayside under the mighty hammer of Amazon's KDP self-publishing platform.
From a less professional and more personal position, we are sad to see the closing of an esteemed company that stood guard at the gates of quality literature for more than few passing years. We remember when Samhain was born. We remember watching them grow. When we were part of the founding team for another successful e-press around the same time, we watched Samhain with great care, a little envy, and a lot of good wishes as competition within a field of business is always a good thing!
They will be missed even as time moves forward into the new world of publishing in both print-on-demand and digital fashion.
While it's hard to imagine a publishing house as established as Samhain "not making it," it is important to note that they did, actually, "make it" in a really tough business. The fact that times have changed, platforms have changed, and readers have changed should not erase the fact that Samhain was one of the pioneers in the ebook revolution.
Remember when we all carried Palms to read our ebooks, and none of the people we lived or worked with could really understand why? Remember when ebooks were just PDF docs on a computer? Do you remember the arguments and the debates surrounding what made a "real" book and what made a "real" publisher? I can remember when publishing in ebook format wouldn't get a romance novelist recognized as published by the RWA. I can remember when any publisher that didn't pay an advance was simply a scam! (Even though they weren't.) And I'm sure you can remember those days, as well. Today, nobody can claim that Samhain was not only a "real" publisher, but a damn good one!
The question is: where do we go from here?
If quality publishers like Samhain closing down is a reflection of the industry, can we expect more closures? If quality publishers like Ellora's Cave, the first greatest success in ebook publishing, can suffer from growing pains and transitions within the industry, can we expect more and more authors to go directly to self-publishing? We believe the answer is yes to both questions.
Self-publishing is a valid and honorable form of publication. It always has been. The difference between the old vanity presses of the past and self-publishing now is the cost of self-publishing. Now, it is affordable. Just as the dawn of the home computer spurred everyone who's ever wanted to write a novel to actually write one, the affordability of self-publishing has made it possible for each and every one of those books to make its way to the reader.
Sometimes, this is a very good thing! Look at a title like The Martian for verification of that fact!
Sometimes, more often than not, it's not a very good thing. Quite the opposite. Sometimes, it's a very bad thing. Look at a great many books listed on Amazon right now to find innumerable examples. Some books simply should not be published.
Without stalwart gatekeepers like Samhain and other small publishers setting the bar high, how will the self-published author make his or her way? How will their work - their well-crafted, honed, edited, proofread, professional work - be noticed as exceptional among the millions of books crowding Amazon right now; not to mention the tens of thousands that are added every single week?
Self-publishers need a gatekeeper. They need a brand that says their work is steadfast, worthy and not simply "another" book on Amazon, or any other platform. The IAP imprint is a mark of excellence. A symbol of quality that the reader can trust no matter what the genre. And is assurance to the author that their work is of the highest possible quality and meets industry standards.
If you're looking for someplace to call home; if you're looking to self-publish but you understand the importance of investing in your work, we invite you submit your book for consideration. (Our submission guidelines are on our website and please note that we do not accept every book submitted.) Please browse the options we offer here at Indie Artist Press. If your book has already been edited and it's ready to publish, there is NO investment. And if it does need a little work, we are happy to enter into a traditional contract that allows you to make NO investment up front. Once your investment has been met, we'll pay 100% of net royalties forever. You can also choose to invest in your work before publication and take advantage of significant discounts.
That's the balance. That's the way self-publishing can and will succeed as the self-publishing craze moves forward, and that's the way we'll keep the craze from sweeping talent to the side.
The new age of self-publishing with platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords and Draft-to-Digital has paved the way for many, many new authors. The very technology that authors use has changed over this generation from the battered, Underwood typewriter to the PC/Mac to the tablet. Heck, some authors don't even type at all any more. They speak. Naturally. Like a dragon.
Where does that leave manuscript formatting? I'm not talking about the final product that one submits to a POD publishing platform like Createspace. I'm not talking about that all-too-perfect PDF that gets sent to a digital typesetter. No, I'm talking about the format in which we actually write our books.
In the Beginning...
there was a typewriter. We put in a sheet of actual paper and then we pressed keys (we didn't tap them, we pressed them) representing letters. Those keys pushed a metal arm with a letter embedded on the tip against an inked ribbon, which left the image of that letter on the sheet of actual paper. We did this over and over again until the page was full. At that time, we pulled the paper out, laid it gently on a stack of its brethren next to our typewriter, inserted another sheet and started all over again. If we were lucky, we could produce a full page of usable, presentable text, appropriate for submission to an editor, with the utter obliteration of only 10 or so sheets of actual paper.
The proper format for this document was as follows:
Double-spaced. In the top right corner, we'd include our name: Last name, followed by first name. Beneath that, we'd place our working title, and finally the page number. The right margin was ragged, of course. If any words required italics in the final version, those words were underlined in the manuscript. (If one wanted typed italics, one had to use a second typewriter.)
This caused a specific pattern to emerge. Because all typewriters had the same font (courier) and the same font size, every manuscript was the same upon submission. The editors could see the total number of pages and estimate the total number of words. The standard became 250 words per page.
Later, when personal computers took over the world, the appropriate and acceptable formatting for manuscripts did not change. We set up our pages to have exactly 25 lines per page. We used courier, 12 pt. font (sometimes TNR). The lines were right-margin ragged. We included the header and page number on every page.
Publishers (often slow to catch up with the rest of the technological world) didn't care that we could format our manuscripts however we liked, or however they liked. They simply didn't want to know (and they didn't care) that we were using a computer instead of a typewriter.
Today, I am amazed by how many new authors are unaware of the very real necessity of actual manuscript formatting when it comes to submissions. At IAP, we list our required formatting on our submission guidelines page, and we're not kidding about it. These aren't suggestions.
I'm as guilty as the next guy. I love to see what progress I'm making on a final draft by typing directly into the format I'll publish in. It's cool to see those justified paragraphs and page counts increase by using a page set up that is only 5x8 or 6x9 inches. It's fun. I get it.
It's not professional to submit this to an editor or a publisher for consideration.
Double Spacing and/or 25 Lines per Page:
This makes reading easier. This makes commenting on a manuscript easier. I still print out the submissions sent to me via email and mark them up with a blood red pen. If I have to take the time to reformat your manuscript in order to make my life easier when we've asked for an industry standard submission, you're placing your submission in front of an angry and frustrated editor. Not a formula for success.
Underline, not Italics:
As technology advanced, it became possible to actually italicize words in a manuscript. (Again, it made us early transitional authors feel pretty awesome to do that.) Who needs to underline when it totally works with the real thing?!
That might have worked for a moment, but the publishing industry soon learned that spotting an italicized phrase or two within an entire manuscript for purposes of typesetting was a royal, italicized pain in the rear. Even now, when I'm interior formatting a manuscript into a book, I will completely miss italicized sections as I work my way through. If those passages are underlined, I can find them easily and convert them as I go.
Yes, yes, I know that I could use the search feature to locate all instances of italics. Believe it or not, my scroll finger is faster. It's much easier for me to place the document into a screen that contains 15 or so pages at once, find the underlines and do my wicked little thing with the I-button.
Really, what it all boils down to is the fact that every publisher has its own submission guidelines. They are published where any serious author can easily find them and they are a litmus test to the user's ability to follow directions. A well-formatted manuscript submitted in accordance with established guidelines can indicate how productive it will be to work with an author; will he or she listen? Are they a diva who believes the rules don't apply?
When you're writing your novel, format it however you like. But when it comes time to submit it to another professional, proper formatting of your manuscript can mean the difference between a contract offer and a trip to the round file of despair.
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