Authors Too Need Code of Conduct

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Bloggers aren't the only ones misbehaving online. So are authors on Amazon.com, says Aaron Shepard, author and publisher of Aiming at Amazon.

Prominent tech publisher and blogger Tim O'Reilly made recent news with his proposal of a code of conduct for bloggers. But bloggers aren't the only ones who misbehave online. So do authors on Amazon.com.

So says Aaron Shepard, author of the book "Aiming at Amazon: The NEW Business of Self Publishing." In January, Shepard posted an article on his Web site called "Amazon Etiquette: Minding Your Manners on Amazon.com," with suggested guidelines for Amazon book promotion. (Shepard's Publishing Page is at http://www.aaronshep.com/publishing.)

"It's getting to be a real jungle on there," says Shepard. "Authors are spamming Amazon in a desperate effort to get their books noticed. Many don't even realize their behavior is inappropriate, because they have no experience in business. Others know but do it anyway, just because they can get away with it."

Popular author spamming techniques include

-- Writing positive customer reviews of their own books under false names.

-- Soliciting positive reviews from friends and relatives who have no real interest in the book's subject and pretend to be objective.

-- Writing positive reviews of competitors' books but mentioning the reviewer's book to draw off sales.

-- Creating dozens of Listmania lists so that Amazon will display a book's cover whether or not it's relevant.

According to Shepard, it's harder now than it used to be for authors to write fake reviews. In the past, all you needed was an email address with which to start a new Amazon account.

"I spotted one author who had written literally dozens of phony five-star reviews for his quack sex manual. You can usually tell when a book's reviews are fake by the way they'll all sound alike and say similar things." That author, says Shepard, apparently still makes tens of thousands of dollars a year from Amazon sales of his book.

Now, though, Amazon accepts new reviews only from accounts that have been used for at least one purchase. "That has improved things a lot," says Shepard. "But you still get phony reviews. Basically, authors can write as many reviews as they have credit cards."

Once the province of the cagey few, spamming on Amazon is becoming more and more common, says Shepard, as some of these methods are promoted on discussion lists, in workshops, in newsletters, and in new books on marketing, publicity, and promotion. Though no one publicly urges authors to write fake reviews, other techniques are openly endorsed.

"For instance, the owner of one self publishing company actively teaches some of these methods to his customers," says Shepard. "Recently he published his own book about Amazon marketing, so this approach will be getting a big boost. He even has a clever euphemism for it. He calls it 'competitive networking.'"

Amazon's own ambiguous policies, says Shepard, are part of what allows such methods to spread. "In most cases, Amazon doesn't clearly prohibit them. Yes, the spirit of Amazon's guidelines does oppose these practices -- which is why Amazon can deal with them when reported. But Amazon could discourage such things much more effectively by just saying, 'Don't do this.'"

Instead, says Shepard, Amazon sometimes seems to actually encourage spam. Recently, for instance, it started allowing customer reviewers to link to other products from inside the reviews. "I don't know what they could be thinking," says Shepard. "You know just how this will be used. Authors will not only mention their own books, they'll link to them!"

Ironically, says Shepard, no spamming techniques are necessary to succeed on Amazon. His own book "Aiming at Amazon" decries such methods and shows how books can sell well without them. "I'm the proof of the pudding," says Shepard. "I've been living mostly off Amazon sales for years without any resort to spamming."

Shepard's article "Amazon Etiquette" proposes four simple guidelines that he says would clean up the scene on Amazon. "But with the spammers entrenched and spreading their message," he says, "there's not much hope."

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