Self publishers are divided by the strategies they use: white hat vs. black hat strategies.
Those who practice the dark arts of review swapping are still around in 2020. And they'll continue to be profitable as long as KDP allows them to be.
But at what cost?
Kindle Direct Publishing (the hub of an Amazon self publishing business) is like the robots in the Terminator movies turning on humans, and they keep getting smarter every minute.
They start you off with a warning and then eventually terminate you if you continue swapping.
In this article, we're going to cover:
- Where review swapping originated from
- Why black hat self publishers continue to review swap
- Why they got started in the first place
- What they can do to make a transition
The Birth of Review Swapping
The first pioneers of Amazon Kindle Publishing were writers.
At Kindle Direct Publishing’s (KDP’s) infancy, these authors would review swap with each other and give honest feedback to their fellow authors Kindle book. This was before virtual assistants (VAs) came into the scene.
And it wasn’t until a flagship Kindle Publishing course emerged on the scene that things changed.
A digital entrepreneur named Stefan Pylarinos had been working on creating websites with SEO and decided to give Kindle Publishing a try.
By publishing short books on Amazon, he realized that people were buying his books. He was able to rank books on Amazon far easier than his attempts on Google.
As the story goes, he eventually taught his virtual assistant and let him (or her – who knows) take over the majority of the mundane tasks that came with being an outsourcing self publisher—even the reviews.
In his course, K Money Mastery, Stefan goes over multiple methods of getting reviews for books and even covers review swapping.
He went as far as creating a private Facebook group where his students can ask for review swap partners (usually just a community of VAs now).
Stefan’s no dummy. In his course, he has a warning to cover his behind.
Stating: “…it’s my job to share with you all of your options for getting Amazon reviews and promoting your Kindle books … The easiest and fastest way I’ve come across for getting Amazon reviews is through using the Full Disclosure Book Promotion group…”
He also provides a link to Amazon’s review guidelines.
Even though he warned, publisher’s NOT to review swap; he indirectly gave thousands of publishers the one-eyed wink.
By letting everyone know about this option, he opened Pandora's box.
It couldn’t be more obvious; he created a Kindle VA Training course (which is the second upsell to K Money Mastery).
Yes, my friend, this is where it all started … with a marketer turned Kindle Publishing guru.
Below is an interview Stefan did with Mike from Maine. It' from a few years ago when his course launched.
Quick recap of video focus (25:32):
Mike: So the books that you’re working on now, are you doing the review exchanges? Facebook posting? Giving it away? What’s your current strategy, whether it’s black hat or not? What are YOU actually doing?
Stefan: I do everything…
What Fueled the Review Swapping Era
Shortly after the success of K Money Mastery, gurus started popping up on YouTube out of the woodworks!
These mini-Stefans‘ were making YouTube videos and fishing in Facebook groups for coaching clients like there was no tomorrow.
They took Stefan’s course and realized that the process isn’t that hard. The hardest part was getting reviews.
In fact, they realized review swapping is almost EVERYTHING.
The outsourcing process for self publishing a book was easy. But, if you didn’t have your reviews (aka social proof), your book would be dead in the water.
This was late 2014 and lasted until 2016.
An era that I like to call the Golden Age of Kindle Publishing for black hats because Amazon’s anti-review swapping teams weren't as sophisticated as they are now.
If you’ve been around, then you remember these fallen heroes of the Golden Age:
- Steve R.
- Dewan B.
- Jason B.
- Dave K.
These are just to name a few, but some of them created their own Kindle Publishing courses teaching mostly review swapping. It was their bread and butter.
This is how the black hat flame kept burning.
The Era We're In Now
Look over there yonder… we have to create an author platform to be successful now!
Nowadays, the online world is moving towards long-term solutions. (Not just in this Kindle Publishing space).
It’s the rise of white hat self publishing. The time of black hat self publishing is dwindling.
You can clearly see this if you’ve taken a few mainstream Kindle Publishing courses post the Golden Age era.
Courses that once solely taught review swapping now have modules that include things such as email marketing and Facebook advertising.
Ah yes, getting with the times…
To give the O.G. (Stefan) his credit, he had email marketing content in his course from the start – before some decided to make their own course.
Amazon's Mighty Reputation
Remember when Amazon just sold books?
Well, look at it now—a behemoth of an e-commerce website.
In the beginning, they worked hard to establish a reliable and honest reputation/relationship with their customers.
A brand that people could count on. A reputation people could trust because of their customer's reviews for Amazon products.
Amazon's job is to maintain their reputation now.
As more marketers flooded the Amazon FBA and Kindle Publishing markets, Amazon had to fight off fake reviews – and still is.
In recent years, Amazon FBA has taken a big hit with black hat reviews. And so have Kindle Publishers but to a lesser extent.
Amazon won't passively sit and watch black hat marketers ruin their reputation.
It only makes sense that they're combating review swaps with departments dedicated to bringing down these publishers.
No one knows exactly what these departments consist of. But, if they're anything like Google, they have experts and are improving their algorithms, to sniff out review swapping activity.
This is a fight Amazon is determined to win.
Because customers have been complaining about fake reviews on low-quality books in recent years.
They're learning to destroy their enemies – quickly.
Amazon Is Merciful
If you're new to this business, be aware that KDP will give you a warning if you review swap (this is fairly new and post “Golden Era”).
Some publisher's get it months after publishing their first book, and others get it almost immediately after their first book review.
Most black hat self publisher's pay virtual assistants (VA's) from the Philippines or other parts of the world to swap their books (with other VAs).
They pay them anywhere from $1 to $2 per review.
How do they get away with it?
VAs attempt to hide in plain sight by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and swap among trusted VAs via Facebook groups (usually). They use other tricks not to leave any footprints, but they always have to adapt.
It's the virtual assistant army versus the KDP juggernaut. An army of 3rd world virtual assistants (no offense) vs. Amazon.
If Amazon wins, the VA's are down for a little bit and start to adapt and change the way they do things. And guess what? You're left with the consequences.
They'll rebuild (although some quit every time Amazon makes it harder) while you stand to lose everything.
If a Kindle publisher continues swapping after being warned, you don't get to keep your books or re-publish them in another KDP account the second time you get emailed. You've been blacklisted.
Like I said, though, Amazon is merciful. They'll send you a Policy Warning to your KDP account email address first.
Whether you continue after that is 100% up to you.
For The Love of Passive Income
I want to take a section of this article to address black hat self publishers or those who are starting to do review swaps.
For the Veterans: why did you start self publishing in the first place?
Was it not to make a living online? Was it not to have more free time? Most likely.
If you got that freedom because of Kindle Publishing swaps and you're continuing to review swap, I think at this point; it's just ego.
But, the days of getting to a steady 4-5 figures a month with review swapping are mostly gone. The Dark Ages of Kindle Publishing, where people could go wild with reviews are done. For those of you who go far back – I'm talking the era of Dave Koziel.
These days black hat self-publishers are lucky not to be one of these guys.
I'm sure these publishers thought they could get away with review swapping, much like most self publishers.
Avoid being the next publisher that has to deal with Amazon's legal team.
I don't expect anyone to stop review swapping after reading this. Most people won't quit cold turkey, but you can start setting up a good foundation by building your author platform and author email list.
I wrote this post because it needed to be written for the self-publishing community – not to rank for any certain keyword…
Why Self Publisher's Are “Stuck” Swapping
Frankly, laziness, stubbornness, and (or) they don't know any better.
Self publisher's that continue review swapping have become too comfortable with their royalties. It's like an “if it isn't broke, don't fix it” mentality.
They're against the changes that are coming their way.
Even if Amazon does remove their paid reviews (yes, Amazon has an algorithm that removes fake reviews), they continue to do so because they know at the launch of their book they can rake in the profits for at least a solid 1-2 months.
This is what they're used to.
Why would they change, though?
Why would they bother building a website around their books (even if it is a pen name)?
Why bother with getting traffic from Google (YouTube… or other traffic sources), keyword research, guest posting, and email marketing?
Why not build a solid foundation to become an authority in their respective niche(s) and get organic (& book launch) reviews the right way?
My best bet is because it takes too long and too much effort to build a long-lasting online business from their point of view.
Building a website and driving Google traffic to your books is just one white hat way of selling, even more books and getting reviews.
And to be fair, it's on the medium-hard scale of the white hat spectrum.
An easier alternative would be building your list from your Kindle books.
Is Email Marketing the Solution?
When I accepted that review swapping wasn't a long-term (profitable) strategy, I went to the only white hat strategy I knew about: email marketing.
Before I could do email marketing, I needed to build my author email list.
This is where you start building your list of readers by collecting their email address in exchange for a freebie via squeeze pages linked throughout your Kindle books.
When I was learning to implement email marketing, I recalled Stefan's course had a module on this, but he only covered the tip of the iceberg.
Those of you who were part of his Full Disclosure ($47-$67/month) for any given time know what I mean.
Since he didn't go far enough, I resorted to YouTube videos and blog articles about the matter. The only flaw in this approach was that none were related to Kindle self publishing and I was still an online marketing noob 😉
So, I, like many, bootstrapped email list building. I created a small PDF guide for my niche and included an opt-in squeeze page link, so each reader had the opportunity to get on my list.
Long story short, that first experience was brutal.
AWeber (I only recommend ConvertKit these days) with OptimizePress and didn't see much success because I didn't know if my efforts were working.
Pro tip: Use Amazon's affiliate program to sell your books. This helps track your clicks and conversions.
But, don't send them via email.
Instead, send them to a landing page on your author site that links them to your book (new Amazon affiliate rules).
Eventually, you’ll have a list of readers that you can pitch new book launches to (don't just pitch… provide some value).
But where the strength of email marketing, for self publishers, comes into play is in the Advanced Reader Copy Team (ARC Team).
This is a segment of your list that has agreed to leave you an honest unverified review of your book on launch day (usually by subscribing to a new ARC squeeze page).
In exchange, they get discounted products and free books! You can give your readers the ideal incentive, as all niches are different. This is not against Amazon's terms.
I managed to put email marketing and email list building together, but it wasn't until Authority Pub Academy that I put my ARC email list and the rest of the pieces of the puzzle together.
Is email marketing as effective as black hat review swapping?
Not in the short-term. But, in 2020 and beyond long-term is the name of the game.
Email marketing is a great place to start if you want to stay profitable long-term and get book reviews. Continue doing standard Kindle publishing best practices such as strategically selecting keywords you want to rank for. If keyword research has been your known weakness, invest in a tool like Publisher Rocket to help. We've just updated our Publisher Rocket review so be sure to check it out as many successful self-published authors use it.
It's also the perfect transition if you want to ditch review swapping.
Over time you'll want to create a blog to go along with your niche and email list building efforts.
My recommendation is to learn how to drive traffic to your self-publishing niche with one of the following methods:
- Search Engine Optimization (Google)
- Facebook Group
I've seen all these strategies use by self publishers. They ALL work. You have to pick the one you're most comfortable with.
And although it takes some time to get traction, there are courses that teach other white hat strategies to get reviews organically.
If you want to know more about these courses, for long-term self publishing royalties, check our top self publishing course recommendations.