Bad Literary Marketing Ideas – “Astroturfing” And Why You Should Never Use It

As a writer, I spend a ton of time researching marketing ideas. Before I decide to embark on any given marketing idea, I first research to see if the idea is working for others, the pros and cons of pursuing the idea, and most importantly, what my audience thinks about the use of such ideas. I must say that the best teachers I have come across have not necessarily been other writers, but my readers. I hang out where my customers are, and I take to heart all the things that other writers are doing that readers either can’t stand, or that cause them to avoid authors who use such marketing ideas.

A few days ago I posed this question to my FB page of over 3K authors: “Who else is familiar with the term ‘astroturfing’?” To my surprise, not ONE single author claimed to know what the term meant. It is for this reason, and learning from my customers what they hate to see authors doing, that has caused me to completely revamp my entire marketing plan from the ground up. One of the most important things I have learned from my readers so far is that they absolutely despise authors who engage in the practice of ‘astroturfing.’ But before we get into the article, we must first have an urban vocabulary lesson.

Solicited/”paid” review – ANY review that is the result of an author requesting that the reviewer write and submit a review on any given book/story to any publication including, but not limited to, blogs, magazines, Amazon, Good Reads, websites, etc., regardless of whether or not the reviewer received a free copy in exchange for the review or purchased the book/story on their own

Astroturfing – the practice/act of using solicited reviews in any media publication to make a book/author seem more popular than it is, or to create a false “buzz” about the work on the internet using social media. The act of “astroturfing” also includes using “puffery” or false claims about a work or author, such as claiming it to be a “best seller” or winning literary awards that it has either never won or that do not exist.

These days being a self-published author, an indie author, or pretty much an author in general means you are spending more time promoting your works than you do actually creating them. With POD companies, vanity presses, small indie houses, and insta-publisher sites like Amazon allowing everyone and anyone to be an instantly published author in under five minutes, It’s a sad reality that has authors doing anything and everything they can think of to try to have their voices heard over the drone of the masses. How you are being heard, however, can mean the difference between having positive feedback from readers and the literary world in general, and getting a bad reputation as an author who is willing to stoop to unparamouned levels to bring readers to their books and make a sale.

With so many authors following each other’s marketing plans, it would stand to reason that if everybody else is doing it, then it has to be a good business model to follow, right? Wrong. You remember what your parents used to ask you when you told them that EVERYbody was doing it? The same goes for business. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it is a good idea or that is works, it just means that it is a trending practice at the moment, and next week it could very well be something entirely different and even less useful. And while writing a genre that is trending could be a good idea, following everyone else’s business model is not something you want to do. It’s why one of the first things that any respectable literary agent is going to ask you is, “What is your long-term goals and marketing plan?”

So what are some of the marketing trends that you are better off avoiding? Number one on the list is astroturfing. In this instance, we are talking about any solicited review that the author requested, whether the reviewer was paid a monetary value or traded a free copy of the work in question or purchased the product on their own in exchange for a favorable review. The reason why authors should never really do this are many. Below, we outline a few of the more prominent reasons why authors should not solicit reviews from family members, friends, street team members, random bloggers, or pretty much anyone who is willing to write whatever the author wants them to, etc.

Paid/traded reviews are fake, they sound fake, and it makes an author look fake. Readers are not dumb. They have learned to spot such reviews and have been known to boycott authors who consistently use astroturfing to try to bolster their sales or make readers think the book is selling better than it actually is. It’s distasteful, dishonest, unprofessional, and in all honesty it makes an author look bad to not just readers, but to potential literary agents and publishers alike.

Readers want unbiased reviews by other readers. It’s how they make their decisions on whether or not to purchase a book. Paid reviews, however, are not unbiased reader reviews, they are just another paid endorsement. Dozens of endorsement reviews by street team members, family members, coworkers, etc. are ultimately going to be counterproductive for the author in the long run. Readers have learned to spot such popular catch phrases, and quickly move on to another book that does not have such reviews. Endorsements, also known as testimonials, are better off being posted on your author website or your personal blog, not as reviews on your books on Amazon and Good Reads. As one reader put it, “When I see a relatively unknown author with a book that has fifty or sixty reviews and all of them are 4 and 5 star reviews by people who have not actually purchased the book, then I know I’m not going to get an unbiased review of the book. I’m just getting another self-published train wreck that got handed out to anyone willing to slap up a ‘copy and paste’ ready review.”

In addition, having book review bloggers do paid reviews are not going to help you in the eyes of readers either. Again, they want unbiased reviews, and bloggers are traded copies of books with the expressed request that they ONLY post a 4 or 5 star review. So unless your work is being reviewed by a blogger whose blog is seeing tens of thousands of unique hits and followers each day, allowing dozens of book review bloggers that are only being frequented by the same few hundred readers and writers is actually hurting your sales, not helping. Readers don’t trust promoters, and if your book is sporting dozens of cookie cutter reviews that sound more like endorsements than an unbiased, unsolicited review, then sooner or later readers are going to take notice and start bypassing your work, not snatching it up to read it.

You are better off spending your time and energy trying to get one or two high-profile bloggers or well-established critics to give your book an honest critique than wasting that time by sending out dozens of advanced copies and begging for reviews from anyone who can copy and paste. Getting your work reviewed and in front of the right people can skyrocket your sales and your promotability, as well as solidify your position as a well respected, professional author in the eyes of readers as well as other writing professionals. Likewise, getting a reputation for astroturfing your reviews on Amazon can turn readers against you, and you can hardly blame them. If you are going to spend money on something, do you want to know what all the family and friends of the creator thinks about it, or what other money-paying customers think about it? So you have to ask yourself, would you rather be viewed as just another self-published author hocking their bad novels on Amazon, or as a respected author who not only took the time and energy to put forth their very best work, but who went the extra step and got it in front of the right people who could help their career instead of doing what everyone else is doing? It all comes down to how you are viewed, your reputation as an author. If you really want to stand out from the crowd, then prove to readers that your book really is as good as your family and friends tell you it is. It’s not easy, and it’s oftentimes not pretty, but in the long run, your work, and your reputation, will be better for it.


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