The Business Ethics of Writing and Publishing: Shilling

There are all sorts of articles available on how to publish (traditional and self), on why or why not to go a certain route, how to present yourself, how to produce a good product, how to get the attention of agents, publishers, reviewers, readers, etc.

But you know what I’ve never seen?  An article about writing and business ethics.

Now, I can’t cover every aspect of business ethics with this blog, let alone this post.   There are dozens of fields of study related to the subject, and students majoring in business can expect to spend hundreds of hours learning about ethics before they graduate.  I can’t provide anything that comprehensive.

But, every so often I’d like to do a post on one aspect of business ethics.  And I’d like to start with deceptive business practices we can all easily avoid, especially if we’re self publishing.  Some of them might be obviously unethical, and others not so much.

Why is it important to avoid deceptive practices?  For two main reasons.  One: taking care to avoid these things will establish trust between you and your readers.  Two: it protects your business.  Some of the things I intend to bring up aren’t only unethical, they’re illegal.  Any action that could put you or your work in danger is a bad business practice.

Today I’d like to introduce you to a deceptive practice known as shilling.

Shilling, quite simply, is the practice of planting someone in the “audience” who agrees with or approves of the product and the seller.  The shill is presented to the rest of the audience as being one of them–someone totally unrelated to the business.

How does this apply to writing?  Where can we see this?  Easy, in product reviews.  When you go to buy a book on Amazon (or a plethora of other online retailers) you can read reviews from other customers before you buy.  A shill is someone whom the author knows who pretends to be an unrelated consumer.

These people typically leave five-star ratings and praise the work, sometimes without citing specifics (because they often haven’t even read it).  They say things like “This is the best book I’ve ever read!  You must buy this now!  I was hooked from page one!  The party never stopped!” etc.  Low quality shills won’t say anything even remotely negative.

Low quality shills are easy to spot for those reasons; their reviews don’t sound like real reviews.  They’re even easier to pick out on self-published works, because self published works tend to have a small distribution, and therefore fewer reviewers.  High quality shills are a different matter: they understand the consumer and exactly what people look for in a genuinely good review.  High quality or low quality, it’s all unethical. 

Avoiding shilling should be easy.  Occasionally you might have a relative who wants to log in and sing your praise without reading what you’ve written–dissuade them.  Make them at least read the book.  You can’t control what they say about it, but you can prevent them from posting something outright dishonest.

Sometimes people like to give out free copies of their books to acquaintances in exchange for reviews.  This is perfectly ethical as long as you do not stipulate what kind of review they must give you.  Also, to avoid looking like you have a bunch of shills in place if they all happen to really like the work, stagger your freebees.  Because shills can also be spotted by when they review.  They often appear right after a book is published, or right after a score of bad reviews have gone up (although, in the later instance sometimes they’re sock-puppets instead of shills.  See below).  If you give away a lot of review-exchange copies right away, you might get a lot of glowing reviews posted around the same date.  That will look odd, and someone might think you’re shilling.

Why is shilling bad?  Other than for the clearly unethical reasons (it’s lying, even if the shill has read the book and posts a review that contradicts their true feelings.  Legally you can’t lie to customers in order to get them to buy your product.  More in this vein at a later date.), it’s bad because you can actually scare off customers with an over-the-top review.  If people know there’s a shill about they will question the quality of the product.  Why does this product need a fake review?  What’s wrong with it?

Shilling has an ugly cousin–and the vernacular is sock-puppet.  If you’ve ever spent much time on the Writer Beware blog (link under Resources and Helpful Links) you’ve probably encountered a lot of these in the comments section.  These are worse that shills because they are the sellers (or, on Writer Beware, the accused scammers) themselves pretending to be someone else.  If you can’t defend your work under your own name, or feel you have to make up reviews for yourself, that’s a red flag.  Why do you feel the work can’t speak for itself?

Trust your writing.  Trust your product.  And trust your readers.

What do you think?  Is shilling all that horrible, or are fake reviews harmless?  Got any other suggestions for how to spot a shill?


(ETA: On a personal writing note, I’ve got a story up at Baen’s Bar that earned an  HM in the WotF contest.  If you’re a member and you’d like to read it and leave a crit that would be much appreciated!)


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2 thoughts on “The Business Ethics of Writing and Publishing: Shilling

  1. Ethan says:

    A friend of mine e-pubbed his book, and garnered at least a few decent reviews, but I don’t think the reviews are going to make any difference. Almost as soon as his book went online, it was buried under the weight of all the other ebooks out there.

    Shilling isn’t ethical. But does it even matter? I’m not sure.

    • That is something to be taken into consideration: How much do reviews contribute to sales? But if the answer really is none (or an incredibly small percentage) why give in to the urge to use a shill? It’s unethical and gets you nowhere. Again, I think it all comes back to the quality of the product. If it’s good, people will eventually find it and purchase it (self publishing is a long, slow road. Your friend’s book still has potential to rise to the top, even if it’s initially buried). Trust the product.

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