If you’re an indie author — hell, if you’re a traditionally-published author — you know it is damn hard to get people to post reviews on Amazon for your books. I get it. I never posted a review unless asked, until I published my first book. Now I’m a review-posting fool. I post honestly, but never unkindly.
Reviews are simply everything for online sales. Reviews beget sales which beget sales rankings which beget more sales. (Reviews in magazine, newspapers, and blogs are also huge for sales, but in a more expansive way, and are a subject for another time, although I’ve touched lightly upon it in Book Reviews for the Indie Published Author.)
But how do you get them when you’re just starting out? Indie authors, new authors, let’s get real: who gave you your first five reviews? I’ll bet your mom, spouse, sibling, and best friend were on the list. Every time I pop by the reviews of an indie book, I expect this phenomena. I’m amused when I see it (and I do see it). I don’t mind it. I’ve lived it. It takes a lot of sparks to start a fire, and we use any kindling we can.
For many authors, the reviews stop after this inner circle finishes posting. If you’re energetic, persuasive, and strategic (in other words, if you spam everyone you know until they give in out of a desperation to MAKE IT STOP), you can keep building upon that initial flicker until you get a nice little flame.
Reviews not only beget sales which beget rankings which beget more sales, reviews on Amazon are sometimes the ante up to promotion. Last week I launched my debut novel, Saving Grace, on Amazon with a free Kindle-version giveaway. This came after 6 months of agonizing over whether to sign up for KDP Select. I utilized some very inexpensive advertising to promote my giveaway (I’ll blog on that soon) and ended up after four days at #1 in free downloads out of 55,000+ books PER DAY, with 33,016 downloads. I was elated with this success, and it propelled me into big sales over the next week (yes, all of this will be part of that upcoming post).
But none of this would have happened without reviews. Why? Because the websites I paid for promotion won’t even take an author’s money unless they have 13-15 reviews with an average of 4 out of 5 stars or higher. It’s their way of ensuring they don’t promote crap to their readership. I applaud them for it.
And it is a tough hurdle to cross. Conventional wisdom says you’ll give away 200-500 free books for the hope of reviews (yes, I just said 200-500). Not everyone that receives a free copy for a review will end up reviewing it, by a long shot. Another topic for another day is in what form to transmit those free books. (I’m going to be writing up until the final seconds of doomsday based on the promises I’m making in this post alone.)
So here’s where Amazon’s little-read review policy comes into play. The policy you probably only learn about if you notice Amazon is pulling reviews down from your book and you have the intestinal fortitude to challenge them on it (via a “contact us” button, because you’re not allowed to talk to them), given any trepidation you have as you are snarfing up sales out of their hand.
Let’s start with a spouse. My husband posted reviews on my books. He is uber-supportive. His reviews were yanked. He contacted Amazon. They said:
We have removed your reviews as we do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. As a result, we’ve removed your reviews for this title. Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website.
Ouchy. Scary, that last sentence. Now, they did not say spouses. But since I own an indie publishing company and he is married to me, we decided not to push it. When I lose money, he loses money. It makes sense, even if we have yet to make any cents in the form of PROFIT from my endeavors.
My mother posted reviews. Her last name matches my middle name/maiden name — Fagan. Amazon yanked them down. My uncle, last name of Fagan and himself a writer, posted a review. Amazon yanked it. My adult stepdaughter living in Colorado posted a review (Hutchins is her last name). Amazon pulled it. Eric complained, and so did my mother and my uncle. Amazon responded (and by now Eric and Amazon were on a first name basis):
I understand your concerns about these missing reviews by other members of Pamela’s family. We take the removal of customer reviews very seriously.
I’m not able to tell you why these specific reviews were removed from our website. I can only discuss that with the person who wrote each review. However, I can tell you that reviews are removed from the Amazon.com website for three reasons:
1. The review conflicted with our posted guidelines http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines/.
2. The review was removed at the request of the customer who submitted the review.
3. We discovered that multiple items were linked together on our website incorrectly. Reviews that were posted on those pages were removed when the items were separated on the site.
Thank you for your understanding of our policies, Eric. We look forward to seeing you again soon and have a good day.
The referenced review policy prohibited:
• Obscene or distasteful content
• Profanity or spiteful remarks
• Promotion of illegal or immoral conduct
• Advertisements, promotional material or repeated posts that make the same point excessively
• Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product)
• Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product. This includes reviews that are a part of a paid publicity package
• Solicitations for helpful votes
• Other people’s material (this includes excessive quoting)
• Phone numbers, postal mailing addresses, and URLs external to Amazon.com
• Videos with watermarks
• Comments on other reviews visible on the page (because page visibility is subject to change without notice)
• Foreign language content (unless there is a clear connection to the product)
• Feedback on the seller, your shipment experience or the packaging (you can do that at www.amazon.com/feedback and www.amazon.com/packaging)
• Details about availability or alternative ordering and shipping information
• Feedback about typos or inaccuracies in our catalog or product description (instead, use the feedback form at the bottom of the product page).
All involved assured Amazon that none of these were the case. And none were. I can promise you, none of the listed individuals has volunteered to share in our household tax write-off, aka Pamela’s writing career. Amazon was not able to state a valid reason for sucking my mother’s and uncle’s reviews into a black hole, and they encouraged them to repost.
They gobbled up the reposts, too.
By this point, authors, even our most loyal fans have had it, right? I mean, they are done. There are more enjoyable things to do with one’s day, like scrubbing your floors with a toothbrush, or going in for that quadruple root canal you’ve put off for six months.
Maybe there are better people in the world to post reviews than family, too — well, undoubtedly there are — but my point is this: Amazon is not allowing legitimate reviewers who are permissible under their own policy to review my books. Total count of yanked legitimate reviews on Saving Grace: 3. We won’t count Eric’s because we concede his. I went into my free promo period with 19 reviews. It should have been 22. I now have 31. I should have 34. Reviews beget sales beget rankings beget more sales. And more reviews, too, because there’s safety for the timid in a crowd.
I think this stinks.
It didn’t stop there, though.
Once Amazon decided to black ball my step-daughter, mother, and uncle, they black balled anyone with the name Hutchins or Fagan, or that had any connection to us. From what we could tell that included IP address , which knocked out my little “here’s how to review a book” party results, which I had thought was a damn good idea. You know what’s funny? The people there had bought MULTIPLE copies of my books off Amazon. Ah, the laughs I have had over this. NOT. And this was retroactively, off my nonfiction books.
Then they yanked reviews by reviewers I’ve never met, for good measure. Vidya Sury posted a fabulous review of Puppalicious And Beyond last June, and she reviewed it on her blog, too. She lives in Bangalore India. Why did Amazon pull it??? (Vidya reposted it yesterday, and we’re on pins and needles to see if it survives.) So my 11-15 reviews each on my nonfiction books, which were even harder to get than those on Saving Grace, suddenly become 6-9 each. Again, we’ll concede on the reviews by my husband. All the rest were, per their own policy, legitimate reviews.
And they’re gone. It’s not like Amazon kindly reinstates them once you raise it to their attention. You have to try again. But we’ve seen over and over what happens when you do: Amazon gobbles them up like a big meanie.
Now my planned free Kindle ebook promotion of my nonfiction books is a nonstarter. I could still do it, but why bother? I don’t have enough reviews anymore to obtain the paid promotion that I know is required for a successful free-ebook iniative. Without attracting a large volume of new readers with the promo, I’m better off just selling to my modest following.
I could go get more reviews. In fact, that is what I have to do. But why should I have been put in this position when I had legitimate reviews up in the first place? And soliciting reviews takes a lot of time, effort, and social capital. I signed these books up for the 90-day exclusive KDP Select with Amazon because I planned to do a 12-week promotion, giving away one book every other week. (Frankly, I also just went to the well with a vengeance for Saving Grace and my followers shouldn’t be subjected to it again, especially since it would be the same push I made last summer for the five nonfiction books, to which they valiantly but fruitlessly responded.) I’m stalled out now on promo after book 1 of 6. I could have left the nonfiction books nonexclusive, outside of KDP Select. They were selling great on Apple iBooks and decent on Barnes & Noble. I gave that up so I could do the free promo.
Except that now, I really can’t.
Taking a step back for perspective, Amazon has made it possible for indie authors to sell their books. I am an indie author. I am selling a lot of books on Amazon. I made $1000 off Amazon alone this month. This makes me wildly successful (if not yet profitable — it takes time to recoup publishing outlays, folks, lots of time) by indie standards, and I am grateful to Amazon for that. But how much more could I be making if I hadn’t lost more than 20 legitimate reviews of my books? WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE HARDER THAN IT ALREADY IS???? Being beholden shouldn’t have to mean I grovel, whimper, and say “more please,” either. I really want answers to these questions.
Or maybe I’m full of crap. Maybe I shouldn’t whine about reviews posted by my mommy, my uncle, and my adult stepdaughter, even if they were legitimate by Amazon policy.
But even if I fold on those, I think I have a real beef about Vidya and a few others like her. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that I should have been taking screen shots of reviews and date-marking to use in their defense later, so I’m truly not even sure if I’m aware yet of the entire scope of the reviews that I lost. I think that bites.
Thoughts? Issues? Rants?