By Raymond Esposito
I am an author, and I love book reviews. I am very appreciative when a reader takes the time to write one. I am extra grateful when a potential reader is willing to be solicited for a review. So thankful, in fact, that one hundred percent of the time I will send them a free book. Free books are a legitimate and necessary part of our marketing process. At an alarming rate, however, we are witnessing increases in the use of reviewer Integrity Stamps.
Although I understand the reviewer’s perceived logic behind their words, I can also state that after 25 years as a criminal behaviorist specializing in deception, if integrity is their concern, they should stop using them.
An Integrity Stamp looks like this:
Notice: I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
It is a cringe-worthy statement for every author because it nullifies every word that follows it.
That is not opinion; that is psychology. Here’s why:
A significant portion of my training deals with understanding deception, both regarding a person’s actions and regarding their body language and word choice. One of the first things a professional interrogator learns is that when someone says, “well to be completely honest” it is a damn good sign that up to that point he or she have not been. So just the appearance of “honest” in a reviewer’s statement makes me groan. Not because I believe they are usually dishonest, but because in an attempt to demonstrate integrity, they are doing the exact opposite.
Even if you’re not a professional interrogator, your brain is wired to pick up on these little verbal cues and automatically proceed with mental caution. The reasons I’ve listed below are based on human psychology, and although they may be news to you, they aren’t news to your subconscious.
1. Integrity Stamps makes the author look dishonest. I send you a free book as a thank you for your offer to review it. Nowhere in the correspondence do I suggest, request, or imply that I expect a five-star repayment in exchange for the free book. I assume you’ll provide your honest opinion. Stating the terms, “in exchange for an honest review,” makes it appear as if the reviewer is putting some distance between himself and the author. In other words, it sounds like, “Hey, I can’t speak to the author’s intent in giving me a free book, but I’m gonna be honest whether they like it or not.”
2. Saying you’re honest creates distrust. Our default position is to assume people are telling the truth, especially in “low-stakes” communication. We might not feel that way about the car salesperson, but in the average exchange, we don’t question every motive unless the speaker gives us cause to do so. Honesty tags are one such cause. We stop thinking about “what” is being said and start wondering “why” the speaker needs to convince us of his or her integrity.
If a reviewer states “this is an honest review.” it begs the question: “Have you ever wrote a dishonest review?” If you’ve made a special effort to state the honesty of this review, does that mean the times you didn’t mention your honesty, you weren’t?
3. No one believes transparency claims: When a magician or a politician tells you, “there’s nothing up my sleeve,” you immediately think, “okay, they’re trying to pull on over on me.” Attempts at transparency make people suspicious or as Shakespeare wrote, “I think doest does protest too much.”
Transparency claims create greater suspicion than if the reviewer just stated his or her opinion. But moreover, if I review a book that I borrowed from the library, does it require a disclaimer? If I picked it up at a yard sale for fifty cents, does the cost need to be mentioned?
Getting a book for free either nullifies your ability to write an honest review or it does not. If the former is true, then saying it is an honest review is meaningless. If the latter is true then stating it is unnecessary.
4. The unnecessary creation of a higher standard: Testimonials are perhaps one of the most powerful influences on decision-making. But, testimonials are also the least scientific method of determining actual value because they are based on opinion and personal experience. Most, if not all, celebrity endorsements are paid and yet consumers still respond positively to them.
In the book industry, publishers provide free copies to newspapers, best-selling authors, and celebrities as a regular practice. They do so in anticipation of a review or quote line. None of the recipients ever state that they, “received the book in exchange for an honest review.” Consequently, unless one believes these folks have more inherent integrity than the average citizen, then there is no reason to create some higher standard of transparency. “Book for review” is a common practice, it doesn’t require special processes for non-celebrity endorsers.
5. Free creates less value, not more: It is an established principle of psychology that we give higher ratings to things we have paid for than things we have received for free.
So psychologically speaking, the best way to “buy” great reviews is to charge the reviewer for the book. Moreover, the more they pay for it, the higher they will rate it. Giving away books inherently reduces the value — which is why thousands of books currently reside deep in the bowels of e-readers.
A “free” book may create an obligation to write a review, but it does not extend to an obligation to write a “great” review.
When transparency may be required: If you are the author’s mom, maybe such transparency is essential. If you have a personal relationship with the author that probably will have an impact on your opinion. When I say nice things about my children, I am transparent about the relationship, but I never state, “I received this child for free in exchange for a fair and honest review of their accomplishments. People understand my relationship influences my opinion. Relationships may create possible quid pro quo situations, but a free book just doesn’t reach that level of influence.
Reviewers as a Brand: As I’ve stated, I love reviews, and I appreciate those who take the time to post reviews. Amazon has not only created a market for sellers it has also created a place for Reviewers to build their brand.
The Integrity Stamp only serves the reviewer and their brand; it doesn’t help the person reading the review. These Stamps probably began in an attempt to demonstrate that the reviewers were not “paid” and wasn’t a “sock-puppet” for the author. Well-meaning, perhaps, misguided certainly, as I don’t know a single person whose opinion can be purchased for the price of a free book.
More importantly, paid reviewers, “sock-puppets,” and most readers outside of the self-published industry don’t use Integrity Stamps. The result is that the most honest, sincere, and knowledgeable reviewers—the ones who receive books for their unbiased reviews—are discounted because of the unnecessary suspicion raised with these disclaimers.
So in trying to add value and transparency, the reviewer’s opinion is dismissed or devalued, and doubt is created where none should exist.
The fact is, the legitimacy of any review will be determined by the next reader, not by any statements made about one’s honesty.
Feel differently? Believe such stamps provide some benefit? Think that these Stamps prevent or dissuade dishonest reviewers?
Well, I will give you a free copy of this article in exchange for your honest comments.