This has the potential of being my most controversial post yet.
And I like controversy about as much as I like snooty moms asking me personal questions about the decisions I made in the raising of my children.
But I believe that reciprocal reviews have the potential of being unethical simply because any quid pro quo arrangement could be intentionally tainted, possibly inaccurate and maybe even dishonest.
My friend Jane Steen, who has written a great deal about ethical behavior for authors, has this to say about reciprocal reviews.
1. On their own, individual reviews don’t make a huge difference. Let’s be honest. While it helpful to have some reviews on Amazon.com, it’s like throwing a bucket of water on the house fire. You’re doing something but it won’t be enough. It is far better to have an accumulation of them, from actual readers, all with a variety of opinions about your story. Too many five star reviews is just as suspicious as no reviews at all.
2. Someone in a reciprocal arrangement is getting the short end of the stick. You hand me over your copy of Your Guide To Amish Zombie Princesses‘and you yank a copy of Falling For Your Madness out of my hands and the idea, you say, is that we both write a review.So then I read Your Guide To Amish Zombie Princesses and I discover a lot of problems. I may find tons of spelling and grammatical errors. I may also discover the work is derivative or sloppy or badly formatted or kinda dumb. You give my book a solid 4 star review. But it would be a stretch to give yours two. So you come out with a loss. Unless I lie and give you a four or five star review, which goes against my conscience. At that point the loss is mine. This idea of reciprocity sounds even, but it’s not. Not by a long shot.
3. Reciprocal reviews do not build up trust, do not strengthen friendships, rarely improve one’s writing — they just boost numbers. What if the case is reversed and I give your Princess Zombie book five stars and you give my FFYM two? Wouldn’t my feelings get hurt? Wouldn’t I avoid asking you in the future? If we both lie, just to make each other comfortable, we’re not doing either of us any favors.
4. Art is subjective. The whole 1-5 star system is not a very good one. I once got a two star review because the reader thought that I didn’t give enough attention to the suffering mother as she gave birth in my story. (Oh, and you better believe I wanted to respond to that!) This imperfect system already has too much corruption and too many people who take advantage of it. Reserve your reviews for books that you read, not books that someone is making you read. That way you can enjoy the subjectivity of our art and be free to leave the reviews you want to about it.
5. Reciprocal Reviews turn a gift into an act of commerce. We give our heart and souls into our work for our readers. If we’re lucky, our readers respond to our art with their reviews, recommendations, follows or other examples of reader love. A reciprocal review, by someone that has already agreed to a favorable report, cheapens the act of art itself.
6. Reciprocal reviews tell yourself and the world that you don’t have the means to earn success through your own merit. Why do we even publish if we’re going to manipulate the system? Personally, I want to be known as a great writer. I want it to be because of my skills, my craftsmanship, my own hard work. If I depend on the manipulations of others to become great, then the victories will be far emptier.
7. Reciprocal reviews are like gift exchanges at Christmas. The best gifts are those that you give. They’re the ones that you’ve thought about, that you’ve worked for, that you’ve discovered is the perfect gift for someone you love. So not only do you give the gift, you give the meaning and affection behind the gift. But if you give a gift because you have to, then you think about equal values and “what if she gives me something nicer” and the whole reason that you give gifts in the first place, out of love and affection, is completely squashed.
8. The goal of reciprocal reviews is fairness. Fairness is a poor marketing strategy. Generosity, however, is an excellent one. Seth Godin in his book, Linchpin, said, “Stop settling for what’s good enough and start creating art that matters. Stop asking what’s in it for you and start giving gifts that change people. Then, and only then, will you have achieved your potential.” I believe this. I’d like to stop looking to the people around me to judge what is expected of me, like a reciprocal review. Instead, I want to look for ways to be generous and not expect anything. I believe this is the way to grow long term relationships which is far better than one review.
9. Reciprocal Reviews are based on fear. If I had you a copy of Falling For Your Madness, my fingers are crossed that you’ll like it. I’ll hope that the comments you make in your review are worth the effort it took to read the book. Hope is too positive of a word. I”ll probably be very anxious and fretful — hoping that my review of your book is fair enough. I may even go so far to count words. If you bought it, I’ve already received my compensation. I’ll stand firm in the quality of the book and not be afraid of what you’ll say in your review. I have enough to stress out about in my life, thank you very much.
10. Reciprocal Reviews are unethical if they hide facts from the readers. The act of hiding anything looks bad. If you avoid reciprocal reviews then you don’t have to worry about Amazon.com or anyone else connecting one of your readers with a review you left. I know that I don’t want any hint of impropriety linked to my name. I’d rather pass on your offer of reciprocity than risk an accusation of wrongdoing or misleading readers in the future.
No one is going to stop you from soliciting reciprocal reviews from your writer friends. It’s likely you can collect a few dozen and no one will notice.
There is no such thing as an Author Ethics police.
And believe me, I’ve got far better things to do than check on you and judge you. But that doesn’t make it right nor fair. Please carefully consider the points I make in this post. I want to encourage you to make choices in every area of your writing career that puts you in the very best light, not one that could be seen as sneaky or manipulative or misleading.