A while ago, I was approached by an author looking for “swaps.” No, no, not newsletter swaps.
They wanted to swap ratings on a platform. Y’know, a little scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
All right, I wondered, how did that work?
Oh, it was easy, they promised. Just rate their book 5 stars, and they’d reciprocate.
So … no review copies? If I wanted to look at this before I just, y’know, tossed down 5 stars like oh, it’s the best damn thing I’ve ever read, I’d have to fork for myself?
Oh no, they said, there’s no need to read it beforehand! Just give 5 stars.
Reader, I declined.
I Don’t Hand Out Five Stars Lightly
First and foremost, I don’t rate a lot of books 5 stars. I have an internal rating system here: 1 star is I hated it; 5 stars is it blew my mind. Four stars means I enjoyed it quite a lot, while 3 stars is a very average book. Two is about “eh, it was okay, I guess.”
Needless to say, it’s pretty difficult to get a 5-star rating out of me for a book. I’m … a rather critical reader, most of the time anyway.
I’m an editor. I read with a critical eye. It’s very difficult to turn that part of your brain off, especially once you’ve been doing this for ten or fifteen years. You just automatically note errors, and you’re always churning ideas about how something could have been improved or why something wasn’t working. (Editor loves doing deep dives with me; my partner, when we watch TV, not so much.)
So again: it’s pretty hard to get me to hand out a 5-star book rating. A 4-star from me is a very solid rating (although some people would see it as a snub). Four means I enjoyed it quite a lot, even if I didn’t really turn off that critical part of my brain. Five means I was so in over my head, the inner editor actually shut up for a bit.
That should make at least part of the problem here obvious: They wanted me to hand them 5-stars sans any exposure to the material.
That Jeopardizes My Reputation
It should be obvious as to why I had to decline. I’m an editor. That’s my day job. I can’t risk rating a piece of shit book 5 stars. (Note: I did not think this was likely to be a POS book, but as I said, I don’t hand out 5 stars randomly.) If you start swapping ratings and just indulge anyone who asks, you risk your rep.
In my case, I risk my rep as an editor. Other authors may become leery if I’m rating too many dodgy books too high: Do I really know how to edit? Do I actually have the critical skills they need to make their book better? After all, if they disagree this book was 5 stars, then they might be wary. And for good reason: If I’m just handing out 5-star book ratings, I don’t necessarily look very critical. And it would be especially bad if I happened to review something that was a steaming pile—which is the risk we run when we’re not even looking at these things beforehand.
That Risks Your Reputation as a Reviewer
The next issue that should be obvious is that, as much as this is risking my particular reputation as an editor, it jeopardizes any author’s reputation to some degree. Why?
Our readers turn to us for recommendations. If we’re handing out 5-star ratings all over the place, it becomes much more difficult for our readers to discern whether or not our recommendations are any good.
Yes, it’s true that there will be times when any reader disagrees with you. But hand out 5-stars with little to no inhibition, and your readers are likely going to run into duds more often than not. They’re going to stop trusting your recommendations.
That should be concerning for those who run newsletters full of recommendations and stuff: Readers who are sick of getting bad recs aren’t going to open those newsletters. They’re going to be leery about clicking anything. And they might even unsubscribe.
Oh—sure, this isn’t going to sink you. But you do run the risk of alienating readers.
Trad Pub Doesn’t Put Restrictions on Your Rating (and They Hand Out Free Books)
I have trad pub clients, and they do not do this. If they ask for a rating or review, you can bet they are doing two things:
- They’re handing out a free copy so the reviewer can actually engage with the text and form an opinion.
- They don’t put restrictions on your rating.
Any publisher or author who bitches about receiving a “bad rating” from a reviewer just doesn’t know how this works. The reviewer is not beholden to give you a good rating because you asked them to review. They don’t even have to give you a good rating because you gave them a free book.
The only time you get to control the message on your reviews is when you straight-up buy them, from a publication like Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus will charge you nearly $1,000 for the privilege of having one of their reviewers look at your book.
And they can still decide to trash it.
You, as the publisher who has paid for this review, have two options: You can let them publish the bad review. Or you can tell them not to publish it.
You can’t argue with them to change the review or the rating. You can’t ask them to assign someone else. And you can’t strong-arm them into giving you a good review.
So how is it we have all these indie authors running around saying “hey, just give me 5 stars and I’ll give you 5 stars”?
That’s not how honest reviewing works. And it hollows out our readers’ trust in us.
Actually, That’s a TOS Violation on Most Platforms
The request in question came from a different platform, but I’ll point here to Amazon. We all know that the ‘zon rarely takes action against fake negative reviews—people running around 1-starring things they haven’t even purchased, read, or used.
Yet they have a harsh stance against fake good reviews. As an author, you can simply pay people to give you good reviews. There’s a whole cottage industry of simply buying great reviews.
There is a reason for this, which I’ll go over in a minute (hint: it has to do with algorithms). But Amazon knows this industry exists, and they take some fairly harsh actions against anyone posting fake (good) reviews and anyone found to be buying—or even soliciting—them.
Yes. It’s actually a violation of Amazon’s TOS to do this. Again, it seems really underhanded and annoying because they definitely do not care nearly as much about the bad reviews, even if those are just as fake or more fake.
Good Review, Bad Review: Why It Matters
But here’s the thing: Amazon is more leery of fake good reviews than bad ones. That’s because if a product has nothing but 5-star ratings, then Amazon shoppers will think it is good. They will buy it.
And then, because all those reviews are fake, the customer will receive the product and realize it is a steaming pile of shit. They will be mad—at the seller for giving them a steaming pile of shit.
And they will be mad at Amazon for letting a bunch of clearly fake reviews stand.
Amazon wants its customers to have good experiences on its platform, so that they come back again and again. If they can’t trust a product rated 5 stars by a bunch of raving customers, it makes every purchase more of a gamble than it already is. They don’t know if they’ll get quality or a flaming pile of dog shit.
Amazon polices the good reviews, then, to make sure that doesn’t happen. Doing so is a way of attempting to maintain trust in Amazon’s customer review system. The negative reviews are less of a concern, because they often don’t “trick” people into buying something. Some people will buy because of a bad review, but they still know (to some degree) what they’re signing up for.
Good reviews can and do convince people to buy under false pretenses.
Why It Matters: The Algorithm
It’s understandable that a lot of indies want to game the system. As I said, there’s a whole cottage industry of just buying fake good reviews for Amazon. And the algorithm is the reason it exists.
Amazon’s logic here is simple: good reviews = good product. They push higher-rated products higher in the search rankings than those with bad reviews or no reviews at all. So, if your book has nothing but 5-star ratings, it’s going to sail to the top of the charts.
If your book has a lower rating, it will be pushed down further in the sales rankings. In turn, it becomes less visible to customers who might be interested in reading your book.
And it is tough out there. There are so many books and so many people vying for spots. It’s tough to convince readers to leave a review or even a rating. And it’s much easier to get bad ratings than it is to get good ones: It seems like the trolls and the people who have a problem with queer people never have an issue leaving a 1-star rating, but the people who love your book don’t love it enough to give you a rating.
That hurts you in the algorithm. So it’s absolutely understandable that indie authors would seek out a way to “game” the system, to try and at least balance out all those negative reviews and ratings.
Yet, as we’ve seen, Amazon and other platforms try to keep “fake good reviews” under wraps, so that their customers can trust they’re getting a good product when the reviews say the product is the most awesome of awesome products under the sun.
Just Handing Out 5 Stars Is Unethical
I’m not saying Amazon is a bastion of ethical behavior (far from it), but in this case? They do have the right idea. The last thing any of us really want to do is steer our customers—our readers—in the wrong direction.
And if we’re just “swapping” 5-star ratings with other authors, without ever looking at the books we’re recommending, we’re just as likely to shove them off a cliff as we are to push them toward book gold.
So there’s an ethical dimension here: What do we owe, not to our fellow authors but to our readers?
I think we owe them better than this “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of ratings scheme can offer. I get why authors do it, but at the end of the day, it’s unethical. It’s a fake rating. It’s false advertising. Sure, maybe you didn’t buy the rating, but you still posted falsified information.
Actually, you’d be better to get paid for that shit. At least get something out of it, if you’re going to be shady.
I’m happy to read books. I really, really am. And if I like them? I’ll rate and recommend to my readers. But don’t come to me expecting 5 stars just because, and definitely don’t ask me to hand you 5 stars with a blindfold on.
I’d expect the same from the rest of you: Rate my book honestly and fairly, according to your own enjoyment of it. No expectations, no obligations. Just honesty—and regard for our fellow readers.