How Amazon’s New Review Policies Hurt Authors and Book Bloggers

book-review

I’m popping in for an unscheduled post because I have something I have to get off my chest. Ahem.

In my 10 months as an indie author, I’ve learned many lessons, the biggest of which is probably that the industry changes really fast. But I have a big problem with one of the latest changes, which affects not only indie authors, but ALL authors.

Amazon has decided that reviews that are part of a paid blog tour can’t be placed on their site. Now, I understand that they consider this part of their “you can’t pay for book reviews” rule which is a valid rule. But I don’t think they understand how blog tours work. Here’s the deal. On a blog tour, you are paying for space on the blogger’s site – whether that is purely promotional with cover, blurb and buy links, or a review, if the blogger chooses to leave one – and for them to receive a copy the book, not for the review, which is optional. I’ve been with a few companies that say if the blogger doesn’t like the book, they shouldn’t post anything, a rule I like because I’d rather see nothing than see them publicly skewer my work. (Granted, in that case I get no publicity either, but the person did read the book, so I didn’t pay for nothing.)

Not allowing these reviews to be posted (or later removing them, which is worse) puts authors in a bind and lessens the value of blog tours. Reviews are SOOOOOO hard to come by, especially for indie authors who don’t have the same level of exposure as some traditionally published authors. I don’t understand why, but a lot of people are hesitant to leave reviews. Of course, I know some people won’t like the book and some just forget, but others worry that they have to write something worthy of the New York Times. I keep telling everyone that even if they just give it a star rating and say “I liked this book,” that is enough. But yet I have people who I know loved a book because they told me by email or on social media but they have never left a review.

And that’s not even counting Amazon’s policy that reviews left by anyone they deem may know you can be removed. That’s a whole other level of trouble for authors. I know they are aiming to remove bias, but when you are just starting out, friends and family are a large chunk of your audience. Plus, nowadays a lot of our readers connect with us online, which is a totally different nature than an in-person actual friendship and shouldn’t fall under this rule.

At the same time, we live and die by reviews. Amazon uses the number of reviews we have to trigger their marketing and promotions efforts, including the “customers also bought” and “you might like lists.” These may not sound like much, but they are crucial for exposure. Perhaps the biggest way Amazon reviews affect us is that in order to even be considered for the Holy Grail of promotions – the BookBub feature – your book must have at least 50 4- or -5-star reviews on Amazon. (I’ve tried getting a feature on a book that doesn’t meet that requirement; don’t bother because they will reject you right away.) Not to mention that when people are trying to decide whether or not to purchase a book, they look at the reviews. Correctly or not, the more reviews a book has (assuming they are positive), the more attractive a book is.

But getting back to my original point, blog tours used to help us reach those goals. On average, a blog tour will net you between 10-20 reviews, depending on how long your tour is and how many people liked the book. Now, those reviews don’t help toward our marketing goals. Yes, you still get the eyes of the blog subscribers and maybe Goodreads users (if they post there) on the review, but that’s not nearly as many people as would see it on Amazon. And you can excerpt the reviews in the Editorial Reviews section, but those don’t add to your ratings score and most people ignore them. Reviews used to be a value ad for doing a tour. Now that that is gone, I don’t know if tours are worth the money. Where does that leave us and where does that leave book bloggers? Only time will tell.

Amazon pretty much built the self-publishing industry with the Kindle. Now they are restricting the possibility of success for the very people they need in order for their sales to continue to be strong. That makes no sense to me. Before you say, “if you’re not happy, don’t use them,” I will note that I have my books on many platforms and 95% of my sales (not including hand-selling) come from Amazon, so I’m dependent on them. Right now, I’m just grateful they exempted authors from their rule that you can’t give away free goods in exchange for a review; if they hadn’t we’d be totally screwed and ARCs would be a thing of the past.

As a customer, I love Amazon. As an author, I find their business services easy to use and I love the exposure I get to their audience, but their review rules are bewildering. Why outlaw something that will help them make money? Aren’t sales what they are after? Now they are basically asking us to find a bunch of total strangers and magically convince them to buy a book from an author they’ve likely never heard of and leave a review. Easy-peasy, right? Maybe if you already have a following, but if you don’t?

I fear that these rules, especially if they continue to get tighter – which I imagine they will – may well discourage people from self-publishing or make authors think twice before continuing to do so and hurt the industry Amazon helped build. Will it kill the industry? Probably not, but by restricting reviews to this extent, Amazon is certainly shooting itself in the foot and dissatisfying one of their biggest customer groups.

What do you think? How do we thrive despite increasing restrictions? If you’re an author, will the changes affect the way you market your books? How? Am I thinking about this wrong? If so, how do you see the changes? I hate to be wrong, but it’s always possible.

What’s in a name?

We’ve been talking a lot about rules, expectations, etc when it comes to writing. Which got me thinking about pen names. When I first decided to pursue writing as a career I had a decision to make. What name did I use to write under? My name? Another? It’s a question I’ve seen many other authors ask as well.

There were a lot of reasons that went into my decision to use a pen name.

1. Genre: If I was going to write erotic romance, or something that might be frowned on by family then I wanted to keep it separate. Not that I was ashamed if I wrote erotic romance, but I for one hate seeing the look on my grandmother’s face when she hears that my stuff is pretty racy.

2. Work: I have a day job. Honestly, I wasn’t so much worried about the content as I was their reaction to me publishing and having a day job. A few of my co-workers made sure to point out that writing was a game. Not something I took seriously.

3. Success: When I first started pursuing this career if you didn’t sell a lot of books with your debut it made it harder to find an agent/publisher. Everyone wanted a “debut” author. And you could really only focus on one brand to build. It wasn’t common to cross genres.

These three reasons were more or less the catalyst for my decision. In the beginning I had no intention on cross promoting. As far as I was concerned, I would take on a whole new identity with my pen name.  But that’s not path I ended up following.

Now (only a few years later) those reasons no longer ring true for me. Crossing genres is more common. Agents are seeking out writers to offer representation. Publishers are doing the same. You can build a brand with a much wider focus than a narrow one as before. The point is that you are good author and put out solid work each and every time. And write what makes you happy. As for my family…well, my writing isn’t doing anyone any harm. I just make sure to tell warn them up front.

I’m not saying a pen name isn’t important. For some it very much is. Fortunately for me, I have the freedom to write under whatever name I want and can cross promote. So these days if someone asks my opinion on choosing a pen name, I say do what’s right for you. Make a decision that falls in line with your own personal career goals. Publishing is changing, providing more authors with more options. Whether or not you take a pen name is just another possibility for you to expand your horizons. It’s a lot of work to build two different brands, two different names. But there is some freedom to explore as well.

What about you? Do you write with a pen name? As a reader do you pay attention to the author name or just the story?

Jennah Scott aka Jen Duffey