Disclaimer: The weather is great. I’m in a good mood. This is not about me. I don’t even write under my real name anymore, so I honestly don’t care what people say about my books. I gave them all away for free for over a year, so I’m definitely not trying to sell them. This is genuinely about being a conscientious and ethical book reviewer.
I have no delusions that people will follow the advice I give here.
In fact, if you’re the type of person to violate any of these rules, then you’re probably not the type to care about ethics in the first place.
Reviewing a book is an art. It’s subjective. It’s impossible to have any consistency across time or people.
Yet, I do think there are clear ethical and unethical practices. This post is an attempt to formalize my thoughts.
The problem with Amazon reviews is the same as the problem with social media. People have the ability to spout off anonymously with no consequences to their words and no accountability.
It never even occurs to them that their actions might be unethical and harming someone.
Hopefully this will help you consider your actions, even if they make no difference in the end result.
Rule 1: One-Star Ratings Should be Reserved for Scams
We don’t live in the age of publishers anymore. In the 1990’s and before, there was essentially no such thing as a scam, because a book only got published if an agent thought a writer had produced something of significant quality.
Then an (acquisitions) editor had to agree with that agent. Then a publisher had to agree with the editor. Then the book would undergo a developmental edit, copy edit, line edits, and galley proofs.
Back then it was okay to give a 1 star rating to a book you hated, because your review didn’t carry any weight, and everyone understood that even at 1 star, the book still had a minimum quality.
This has changed.
Nowadays, something like 10% of books on Amazon are literally scams. They contain no content. I can’t get into all the ways people try to scam the system, but here’s two common ones.
The first is to include the whole book in several languages over and over before English. This way, when someone clicks forward to the start of the English version, Kindle Unlimited thinks the person has read a thousand pages.
Another scam is to take huge amounts of text the scammer found on a webpage (Wikipedia or something) and then run it through autotranslators a bunch of times until it reads like semi-coherent nonsense. This way plagiarism checkers can’t catch it.
These, along with other scams, are unreadable. They are not books. They deserve a one-star review to warn people of the scam.
Unfortunately, this means you cannot ethically give a real book the same star rating or else you are indicating to the public that a real book is on the same level as a scam.
It doesn’t matter how much you hate a book. If it’s not a scam, it’s not a one-star book. There could be a time in the future where Amazon implements a “scam” rating.
If you can’t tell the difference between a book produced over a year with this level of worldbuilding and this attention to prose style (start with Parts 1-14, then progress from there) and this attention to character, then it’s probably unethical for you to be reviewing any book at all.
You think you’re helping future customers not waste their money, but you’re actually making it more likely for a future customer to disregard real 1-star scam books by crying wolf.
2. Read the Book Before Reviewing It
It seems like this should go without saying…but, scan a few reviews and be amazed at the number of people who write a review without reading a book. Some people review a book that hasn’t even released yet.
This needs to be said.
It’s unethical to review a book you’ve only read one chapter of. It’s borderline if you quit halfway through.
There’s no hard line here, but I recommend only reviewing books you’ve finished. At the very least, don’t speculate on the ending—or whether stuff makes sense—or if it all comes together without actually finding out if it’s true.
Your speculation is not the book.
I don’t care how smart you think you are.
I don’t care if you qualify your review and comments with disclaimers that you didn’t finish the book.
No one needs to hear your opinions on something you haven’t experienced, especially if it didn’t make sense to you.
Most great novels leave something for the end. I’m not sure why there’s a tendency to pan anything that isn’t fully explained in the opening pages. That’s just bad storytelling.
If you think a book can’t make sense, use that as motivation to read it. The author might surprise you. The only other option is to shut up and let someone who actually read it offer their opinions on the ending.
I seriously can’t believe that needed to be said.
And on a related note: review the book not the author.
If you don’t like my post on the prose style of J.K. Rowling, then cry in your room to yourself. I promise you she’s just fine. There’s no need to negatively review my books that you haven’t read as payback on behalf of her.
That’s unethical and against Amazon’s Terms of Service. I won’t report you and get your review privileges revoked, but I probably should.
3. Take Into Consideration the Number of Reviews Before Posting Your Own
This is probably the most controversial rule on the list.
Let’s say a book has a single 5-star review. You plan on giving it 1 star. Your opinion about the book will decrease the overall rating of the book by 2 whole stars (to an average of 3).
Are you so conceited to think that your opinion should change a book from possibly selling copies to not selling copies?
The less reviews there are, the more weight your review has. Your opinion could change a book from being successful to not being successful.
There is no doubt an ethical component to choosing to negatively review a book with a low number of reviews.
Are you so confident that your taste in books is universal that you want to tank a book before it can get to people who might enjoy it?
This is more complicated than people think.
My personal rule is to not give a negative review to anything with less than 5 other reviews. But each case needs to be decided on its own merits.
4. Consider that You’re Not an Expert Before Giving an Expert Opinion
Grammar, punctuation, and capitalization are weird things. Often times the proper use varies depending on your style guide.
I go by the Chicago Manual of Style. Some of the advocated things look weird to me, but they are correct.
Before you say there are grammar and punctuation mistakes in the book, consider the fact that you might be wrong.
Unless you’re intimately familiar with all 1,000 pages of the CMS, your underpaid high school teacher might have been wrong about something. It could have changed over time. You could mis-remember it or have learned it wrong.
Or, the writer could be doing it on purpose to elicit an effect by breaking style and grammar guidelines.
In addition, good writers do a lot of research. We try to get everything right about the profession of our characters. Sometimes we don’t.
But sometimes we do, and if you’re not an expert yourself, consider that you might be wrong about a “mistake.” Not everything you see on TV is right.
I don’t care if you’ve seen every episode of The Great British Bake Off. There’s a chance you still don’t know everything about bread-making.
Of course, the Dunning-Kruger effect makes this extremely difficult. The less someone actually knows about a topic, the more confident they are in their expertise about it.
Moreover, sometimes “mistakes” are there on purpose to advance the story. Every story requires a suspension of disbelief.
The ethical approach is to stop yourself when you want to point out a mistake. You’re not an expert. Don’t mess with someone’s livelihood pretending you are.
5. Typos Happen
I’ve found typos in Penguin books that have had the equivalent of $30,000 of edits. If you find a typo in the first chapter, don’t assume the writer is bad or the work unedited.
There’s a weird, hostile culture right now where people read books looking for the slightest thing to call a writer illegitimate or amateurish.
The ethical approach is to give authors the benefit of the doubt, especially an experienced one. Typos happen no matter how much money you throw at editors.
I swear if The Great Gatsby were written today, and it accidentally had a typo in the first chapter, everyone would throw the book down in disgust and give it a one-star review saying how amateurish Fitzgerald’s writing was.
His career would have ended before it began over something stupid and outside his control that doesn’t affect the overall book in the slightest.
Review the book, not some petty thing you’ve blown up out of proportion because you’re too lazy to actually review the book.
Typos are not related to the writing quality. If you don’t understand the difference, stop reviewing books.
I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting now. This is a good starting place.
I truly believe each and every one of the guidelines above are ethical in nature. You should review books honestly. You should feel free to be critical.
You are free to write and rate however you want.
But many people never think about the harm they can cause.
Reviews matter for visibility and advertising. Whenever something has an effect, there’s a chance you could do harm.
These guidelines are merely a way to examine the harm you might do to others without intending to.