Are advanced reader copies (ARCs) for book reviews illegal (against Amazon’s terms?)

If you’ve been following me for awhile, you may know I’m unfortunately cavalier and careless in any regards – I like to think of myself as a pirate or a rebel, and that sometimes gets me in trouble.

This year I’ve been working with a new team of writers to put out more content around my fiction brand, Urban Epics. Approval by committee is never a great way to get things done, and so when we set up a new process for giving out ARC reviews, I went along with it because it seemed smart.

 

 

You can ask for reviews from customers who purchased your products off Amazon. However, note that all the customer reviews policies apply to these reviews as well.

  • A seller uses a third-party service that offers free or discounted products tied to a review (for example, a review club that requires customers to register their Amazon public profile so that sellers may monitor their reviews).
  • A seller offers a third party a financial reward, discount, or other compensation in exchange for a review on their product or their competitor’s product. This includes services that sell customer reviews and websites or social media groups with implicit or explicit agreements or expectations that an incentive is contingent on customers leaving a review.

 

We’re trying out a new system using BookFunnel’s certified mail campaigns; and even thought I have 10K page likes and 500 people in my advanced reader group, Facebook doesn’t show all the posts, so we set up a form to get ARC readers on another private email list.

We want to set a tone of expectation, not obligation – we encourage, we don’t force anyone to leave reviews.

However – I sent out an email ask people to join and expressing disappointment that while 100 people downloaded the last ARC copy, only 17 people post reviews.

I immediately got a response from an author that was worried I was breaking Amazon’s requirements, so I thought I’d post a longer response here.

This is very tricky territory – and because I try to help authors with marketing – I’m under a microscope.

  1. ARC copies aren’t illegal, even if you’re in Kindle Unlimited, you’re allowed to give copies away to reviewers.

2. Amazon HAS made it harder for those reviewers to actually post reviews if they didn’t buy or get the book directly from Amazon (which is why we usually launch with a free day, so reviewers can download before posting a review).

Some more details here, although actually it looks like this glitch has been fixed.

 

Amazon Has Banned ARC Reviews, and Forgot to Tell Anyone

 

We already know that Amazon may remove or block reviews from anyone they think you know (why amazon is deleting your book reviews) – including social media or email contacts… but I don’t think that’s a reason for authors to give up hope or say “screw it, why even build a platform?”

 

  1. Amazon is doing the best it can for its platform; we need to do the best we can for our platform – obviously without breaking terms.

 

4. Many authors are so terrified of Amazon, and there’s such a blame-culture of reporting other authors who don’t follow the rules, that they’ve decided ALL advanced reader copies are illegal or immoral (for example, this post):

Why giving readers free books for reviews is unethical.

Opinion: Why Giving Readers Free Books for Reviews is Unethical

 

But if Amazon really believed that, they wouldn’t very clearly made an exception to ARC’s in their terms… which I THOUGHT they had, until I dug deeper. The rules are constantly being updated, and the current version is a little different from when I checked last year.

Here are the details:

 

Direct from Amazon: “You may provide free or discounted copies of your books to readers. However, you may not demand a review in exchange or attempt to influence the review. Offering anything other than a free or discounted copy of the book—including gift cards—will invalidate a review, and we’ll have to remove it.” (source)

HOWEVER – in our original form, we did three things wrong:

  1. we asked for their Amazon profile
  2. we asked to link to a book they’d previously reviewed and its rating
  3. we said that “membership in this group will be contingent on reviews.”

Together, those are breaches of the rules and we quickly removed them once they’d been pointed out to me.

It’s tricky, because we want to encourage our readers to take action and actually leave reviews, and though of course we can’t force them to, nor should we demand positive only reviews in exchange for them to keep getting free books, we obviously don’t want to be sending out books to people who don’t like our books and keep reviewing them negatively.

What if you’re in Kindle Unlimited?

This one surprised me as well: I’d always thought that you’re allowed to give out ARC copies to readers for reviews if you’re in KU (you can’t offer a free book as an optin bribe, but you can offer an ARC copy to potential reviewers… or so I thought.)

Here’s the current phrasing:

You may also provide professional reviewers with a copy of your book via email for the purpose of editing, proofreading and helping with other quality improvements. See the KDP Select Terms and Conditions for more information. When you enroll a boxset in KDP Select, none of those books can be offered elsewhere. (source)

 

If you click the link to Terms and Conditions, it just goes back to the main KDP details which says free books are fine as long as you don’t demand a review or attempt to influence the review.

As AuthorImprints reports, you can give out free copies as long as you are “clear that you welcome all feedback, both positive and negative.” However if you’re in KU, the new terms suggest you can only give out free books to help with quality issues, not to generate reviews.

 

So what’s an author to do?

Yesterday someone asked this in my group:

Your free e-book Guerrilla Marketing makes some great points on how to attract at least 10 reviews before launching. I wondered whether you would change anything since Amazon now appears to crack down on reviews from anyone remotely connected to the author or anyone who hasn’t spent $50 on Amazon?

My response:
No. I’m pretty sure I don’t recommend asking friends or family. And any real readers/buyers will have spent more than $50 on books. Build a list or audience; use clean links; or send them to an ARC copy but ask them to search for/buy your book instead of a straight link (the more hoops you ask them to jump through, the less reviews you’ll get, but if you’ve built a real relationship with your fans they’ll be willing to support you. You can also just run free campaigns and hope for reviews from strangers but conversion will always be less.

THAT SAID: right now I have a facebook page and have tried to get readers into an ARC/advanced reader group; I post a BookFunnel link and remind them a few times to post a review. That hasn’t worked so well… out of 15K people on my email list, about 500 have joined the group, but only 100 downloaded the ARC, which lead to about 20 reviews during launch week. Not great.

This time we’ll try using Bookfunnel+a special email funnel… I don’t totally get it yet, but I think if they sign up to download ONE book from bookfunnel you can set up a short funnel with a couple reminder emails – as long as you’ve already got something up for them to review on (we’ll be using the “post the paperback version first so they can review + link it to the ebook on preorder” this time.

The other trick is getting people to actually open the emails. The first email I sent was too promotional, something like “new release! Free book! Download now!”

Unfortunately, I assumed all the people on my email list were readers who at the very least would want a free book from me, but I was wrong… there are too many authors and too many books. It’s true people devalue free. My books are great, so I know if I can get them to open+read they’ll be happy, but I haven’t released often or consistently for the last couple years and I never set up the amazing autoresponder series I needed to to make sure they A) knew me B ) cared about me and my work C) sympathized/liked me and remembered me out of the dozens of other authors they were following. Once I have my new autoresponder system set up and a tighter funnel so that they are reminded to post reviews if they download and ARC book…. hopefully things will go better.

But it’s always a numbers game. Usually I’ll get about 300 ARC downloads and 20 or 30 reviews, then they start coming in organically over the next few months… eventually most of my books get over 100 reviews (I can also, once people get on my list, keep doing 99 cent/free promos on my backlist so they can read the ones they haven’t yet).

SO: 

1. your book into the hands of more readers who like the genre and buy similar books.

2. Focus on your alsoboughts and make sure you start off selling strong (which is hard to do of course without the reviews) which is why I always recommend

3. Start with a giveaway or package of books that are similar to yours to attract an audience who likes the genre so they’ll at least give you a chance and download a free copy of your book… I would shoot for a list of 1000 targeted readers, offer them a free book, a couple hundred might accept it, a few dozen might read and like it… the more you can keep showing up/engaging/talking to them/sharing great content, the more likely they’ll check out your book and maybe leave a review.

 

HOWEVER: This was before the email that pointed out our sign up form went too far. We’re more careful now with the phrasing, so I made a video talking about our new system.

The problem of course, is that we don’t want a ton of people to get ARC copies and read our books for free without reviewing – or even worse, we don’t want people who are going to steal or leak our ARC copies. And if we don’t know who is on our list or getting our books, we won’t know who is leaking.

Also, we know readers download tons of free books and don’t have time to read them all… we want them to read ours and we hope they like them. This is why it’s so important to get them on an email list, and warm them up over time with multiple pieces of engaging content (not just promotions).

The first step is to get them to take notice and be aware; the second step is to get them to read or listen and take action (and actually start reading a free book they’ve got – don’t assume they will just because they downloaded it). Then you can follow up with gentle or indirect motivations – for example thanking everyone for the great reviews, posting some others (peer pressure) before saying “there’s still time to get your review up during launch week and impact whether Amazon continues to help new readers find this book – your review matters!).

 

Other than that, the solution should be broader reach and more readers. Don’t give out 100 ARC copies and get 5 reviews; give out 1000 and get 50. UNTIL you have an established brand and following, and then you may not need to give out review copies at all.

Once you have over 25 or so reviews, the numbers tend to stagnate unless you’re selling well, but as long as you get a handful more each month, you won’t notices each time Amazon takes some away.

 

EDIT: one more thing – some reviewers use language like ““I got this book free in exchange for an honest review.” Amazon doesn’t allow anything “in exchange for”, so reviews like that referring to a quid pro quo may actually get deleted, even though they’re trying to be forthright.

 

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About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book editor turned book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors write and publish bestselling books. FREE GUIDE: Sell your work without selling out.