By now, I don’t suppose anyone is terribly surprised by the news that some authors (notably self-published “sensation” John Locke) have paid to have reviews posted on Amazon in the hopes of boosting their books’ visibility. (NYT article here.) The fact that it isn’t surprising doesn’t make it any less unethical, but it does make me look at my own practices as a publisher trying to gain visibility for my books and wonder where, exactly, the line between ethical and unethical really falls.
The thing is, for authors whose books are available only at online retailers (i.e., no print copies distributed to bookstores), the whole discoverability game comes down to convincing those retailers’ algorithms to display your book instead of other people’s books. The goal is to push your book up the charts in a way that makes them more visible to potential buyers than other similar books. Moreover, all of the ways you can accomplish this have relatively little to do with the actual merits of your book. Whatever you’re doing, you are, on some level, trying to trick the retailer into putting your book in front of a reader and, by extension, to trick the reader into clicking it and then into buying it.
Here are some tried and true methods of gaining visibility, particularly on Amazon:
1) Make the book free for a short period of time. When the book comes off free, Amazon’s Also Bought and other recommendation engines will tend to propel the book back up the charts. The higher the book was on the free charts when it went “unfree,” the better the results when it comes off free are likely to be. This is entirely because Amazon’s engines are “rigged” to see a book with a lot of free downloads as more popular and more relevant than similar books with about the same number of actual sales. The more readers “see” your book in the Also Bought lists as a result of it having been free, the more likely they are to be convinced it’s a good book, because (obviously) lots of people must be buying it. Except they haven’t been buying it; they’ve been downloading it for free.
2) Get the book into any top 100 list for any category. Some categories are much harder to get “into” than others. For example, if your book is shelved only in “contemporary romance,” you are going to have to sell many more copies to break into the top 100 than if you are shelved in a more obscure category, like “Anthologies/Short Stories”. Although getting into a more popular top 100 list like contemporary romance will lead to more sales than being in one of the lesser known top 100 lists, there is still no doubt that hitting any list will make your book more discoverable and will also lead Amazon to display it more often to readers of other books in that category. For this reason, it’s not unusual for authors/publishers to shelve their books in categories they barely belong in for the sake of making it “easier” to hit a top 100.
3) Drop the price of the book to 99 cents to get it to climb the charts, then boost the price back to $2.99+. This is an incredibly common practice. I’ve seen authors set their whole list of books to 99 cents, then selectively set the ones that are selling well back to higher prices…in some cases, much higher. Again, this is an attempt to “trick” readers on some level; what the author is hoping is that readers buying the book today at its higher price will assume it reached the top of the charts at this, higher price rather than realizing most of its purchasers only paid 99 cents.
4) Sell a lot of books. This one seems kind of obvious, but what I mean is the practice of the author buying his or her own books as a means to boost its ranking. Now, unless you have a lot of money on hand, it’s hard to do this at a scale which, by itself, will be enough to launch the book into the top 100 overall on Amazon, but it’s certainly not inordinately expensive to buy enough books in a span of a few days to materially and significantly affect the book’s placement. This is a simple mathematical equation. An author can pay a few hundred dollars for advertising on a blog or other website or pay a few hundred dollars to buy a few hundred copies of his or her own books. Which is going to be more effective? I’ve never done it, but I have to tell you, hands-down, I suspect that buying your own book is more likely to boost sales and be an effective use of promotional dollars than buying an ad.
Okay, so I freely admit to having done #1 (I’m doing it right now, although Amazon stubbornly refuses to make the book free and is instead setting its price at 99 cents) and, to a lesser extent, #3. I don’t tend to move prices around based on when I think a book has reached its current zenith in rankings, but rather based on when I feel the lower price has stopped being a “draw” for readers to buy the book. But I’m still engaged in a form of manipulation and I definitely am trying to get Amazon et al to give my books more visibility by making it seem as though they are going to sell well, given that visibility.
I’m not really sure I have a grand point in this post. I simply think that, given all the other ways I see of “gaming” the system, purchased reviews seem like just one cog in a much greater wheel. If that is wrong, why isn’t #1 or #3 wrong? Aren’t those just as “manipulative” as fake reviews or mis-shelving? Why is buying your own books as a promotional tactic wrong when big publishers can pay to get front page placement and you can’t? I can see both sides of this, I guess, and while I draw the line at tactics I consider to be out and out deceitful and dishonest (like buying reviews, misshelving my books, or buying large numbers of copies), I can’t say I’m completely sanguine about the ethicality of some of the other tactics I have used.