by L.J. Sellers
Authors may feel pressured to invent new ways to promote their work, but unfortunately, some tactics are less ethical than others. We’ve all heard complaints from readers about five-star reviews written by the author’s family, but now some novelists have taken Amazon-ranking manipulation to a new level by gifting books to readers.
What’s wrong with giving away books? Nothing, in theory. I’ve given away hundreds of copies of my novels, both print and digital. But when an author gifts a book through Amazon, the transaction counts as a sale, and a lot of sales all at once can push a book higher in the rankings. Better visibility then results in more sales. I understand the motivation to do this, yet it strikes me as deceptive. The practice leads readers to purchase the book based on the assumption that many other readers have already done so. If readers knew the author was the main buyer of those copies, they might make a different decision.
So what is ethical and what is not? Having a friend or two read your book and post good reviews on various forums seems fine. For myself, I rarely solicit reviews, I’ve never asked anyone to post a review they didn’t fully support, and none of my family members have ever posted reviews of my novels. (At least not that I know about. If they’re posting anonymously, it might explain a few things. :) But having friends post five-star reviews of a book they didn’t read or didn’t like is not okay. Directly giving away copies of your books in any format is great promotion and lots of fun, but buying your own books to manipulate rankings is probably not a good idea.
As a guideline, I believe anything that would make a reader feel manipulated or lied to should be avoided. A lot of book promotion falls into a huge gray area of social networking and doesn’t have clear boundaries. For example, it's typically okay to talk about your books if someone else brings them up, but readers hate it when writers sidetrack a discussion to talk about their own novels. They get annoyed when writers anonymously start discussions about their work. Writers can openly start discussions about their work...if they've been participating in the forum long enough to make friends. It's a delicate social balance.
Some readers have become super sensitive to this trend. Last month, a reader started a thread about my Jackson books, just because she loved the series and wanted to share her discovery. Another forum participant immediately assumed I, or someone connected to me, had initiated the thread. I’ve never done that and the participant had no reason to believe I would, but clearly, enough authors engage in that sort of thing to make all of us look bad. I was delighted when other participants defended both me and my series, but the incident made me aware that writers as a group are developing a problem with reader trust.
Here’s another gray area: When is it okay to add someone to your email database? I’ve always assumed that if readers contact me about my novels or enter a contest to win a book, they'll expect me to add them to my newsletter file. Once they receive my mailing, which only goes out to announce new releases, they can immediately unsubscribe. Yet, this is not a clear area, and some readers may not want to be emailed without explicit permission. I’m still grappling with the ethics of this tactic.
This subject could be endless, so I’ll only bring up one more point. Writers who use Facebook and Twitter to exclusively promote their work do themselves more harm than good. It’s spam. Sending people you don’t really know invitations to read your work is also spam.
I’m not perfect, and I’ve made mistakes along the way. This post is intended to not only encourage authors to be ethical in their promotion but also to let readers know their trust is important to me.
Readers: What else do you consider annoying or unethical?
Writers: What has been your experience with these situations?
L.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries and standalone thrillers