Should Authors Pay for Book Reviews?

by Joel Friedlander on August 29, 2012 · 135 comments

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There’s been a lot of talk about paid book reviews since the New York Times ran an article by David Streitfeld this weekend about Todd Rutherford (a.k.a. “The Publishing Guru”) and the business he started selling reviews to authors.

When he got started, Rutherford was working for a subsidy publisher so he was quite aware of how desperate authors can be to get any attention for their books. So he started a business to sell them what they were looking for.

Rutherford isn’t alone in this business, but he does seem to have used the tools of social media—a large Twitter following and a site to sell the service—to create quite a profitable business.

According to the Times, at his peak he was making over $28,000 a month and hiring other writers to keep up with the demand. When Amazon started removing his reviews, the business was over and is now offline.

The story has continued to develop, and there was a followup today from Publishers Weekly, about Rutherford’s attempts to capitalize on the notoriety from the Times article.

On Salon.com Erin Keane weighed in with a lengthy look at the affair, and social media hasn’t been quiet either. Here’s a tweet from today by author Maureen Johnson for instance:

A Long and Unfortunate History

But more to the point is the question the whole affair has raised: should authors pay for reviews?

There are lots of people now trying to make money from self-publishers, and many of the services being offered are from professionals who know their stuff and will work hard to help you make your book a success.

Then there are the other people.

Even institutions like ForeWord, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly offer programs where you pay to play. Although PW doesn’t guarantee a review, there are lots of other places you can simply buy them.

The reason thousands of authors pay for these reviews is simple—reviews can help sell books. The biggest problem self-publishers face is getting attention for their book. Book reviews will help with that.

Apparently even indie icon John Locke bought over 300 reviews to help push his popularity when it looked like blogging and social media alone wouldn’t sell enough books.

What Should You Do?

I’ve always advised authors not to pay for reviews. I can see doing it as a marketing ploy, but I don’t like it, and here’s why:

  1. It’s dishonest to your readers, who will assume the review is an honest and unsolicited commentary on your work, while you know it’s anything but that.
  2. It cheapens the entire review process, injecting a lot of cynicism at the same time.

There are hundreds of reviewers, both online and offline, who will review your book if you ask them. Of course, you’ll need to have a decent book to begin with, one written and published with your readers in mind.

And you’ll have to do some work, maybe even hire someone to help you manage it.

Going through the process of getting blurbs, testimonials and reviews is one of the best exercises in feet-on-the-ground book marketing any author can have. It will teach you a huge amount about how books actually get sold, and how your book is being received. That’s incredibly valuable learning for any author.

I would hate to think that authors believe they can somehow short-circuit the work required to get book reviews, because it’s not that hard.

You identify good prospects, people who are actually interested in the kinds of books you write. Then you query them and, if they’re interested, you send a book and your marketing materials.

Instead of spending all that money on paid book reviews, think about what Erin Keane wrote near the end of her Salon article:

Being independent should mean that you’re willing to do all the work yourself in exchange for autonomy and all the rewards. Indie authors can fight the reductive “lazy” tag by upholding strict community standards that honor both authors and readers. The readers, remember them? … Reading and writing are acts of empathy and faith. Guard that trust carefully — in this rapidly changing business, it’s the only sure thing.

Put your energy and income into creating the best book you can, then proudly go out and get your own reviews. Your readers will thank you.

What do you think? Have you paid for reviews? How did that work out for you? Let me know in the comments.

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    { 121 comments… read them below or add one }

    Neil November 22, 2014 at 6:46 am

    “There are hundreds of reviewers, both online and offline, who will review your book if you ask them. ”

    No there aren’t. Try actually doing it instead of just writing about doing it and you will discover it is nigh on impossible to get reviews from people simply by asking. The world and his wife are now self publishing. As you rightly state elsewhere, the biggest problem is getting some attention for a self-published book. I’ve been trying to get reviews for my book wothout paying for them for nearly a year. So far I’ve managed to get 7 reviews, and that took a LOT of work. Also, those reviews were all 5-star glowing reviews and have not made the slightest difference to sales.

    Reply

    Katrina November 22, 2014 at 7:52 am

    I totally agree with what you are saying. I have also tried to attain reviews for both of my books, which have been published within the last year. I noticed that the people that I approached for free reviews, were not courteous at all. Hardly any of them replied with a response, therefore they left me hanging. Even a “no” would have been nice. In saying that, the one that did respond informed me that she would review my first title, though that was over six months ago now and I am still patiently waiting. I admit that due to the problems that I had encountered (the lack of common courtesy of free book reviewers, and the expense attached to paid reviews) I started a competitive, genuine book reviewing business. Not that I am poaching because I am not. I am just stating that recognition for a self published title is hard, and frustrating at times. I suppose the bottom line is, yes a person can ask for free book reviews, but in reality that is no guarantee that the free reviewer is going to commit.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 22, 2014 at 11:58 am

    Katrina, considering the number of books being published each year, there are two things every writer should be concerned about if they want a large audience: 1) putting in the time to build your author platform, and 2) producing a book that really stands out from the crowd in terms of quality. Do those 2 things and you’ll stand a much better chance of success.

    Reply

    Ernie Zelinski November 23, 2014 at 2:00 am

    Katrina:

    In regards to getting reviews for a self-published book, I agree with Joel, particularly,

    “producing a book that really stands out from the crowd in terms of quality.”

    I have never paid for a review. Yet one of my self-published books released over 10 years ago now has 388 reviews on Amazon. Why? This self-published book beats out all the hundreds of books in its category in Amazon sales ranking including those published by the major traditional publishers and many written by celebrity authors with a platform. In other words, the book “stands out from the crowd in terms of quality.”

    To be sure, not all of the Amazon reviews for this book are 5-star. Indeed, only 249 are 5-star reviews. But this is another sign of a successful book: The negative people of this world will criticize it.

    Incidentally , I have now earned over $2 million in pretax profits from my books, most of them self-published. Here are some of my favorite quotations that have given me inspiration over the years:

    “Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.”
    — Norman Vincent Peale

    “You are never given a wish without the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.”
    — Richard Bach

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job working on the right project than a great job working on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    “The great creative individual . . . is capable of more wisdom and virtue than collective man ever can be.”
    — John Stuart Mill

    “If you see in any given situation only what everybody else can see, you can be said to be so much a representative of your culture that you are a victim of it.”
    — S. I. Hayakawa

    “Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.’
    — Erica Jong

    “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.”
    — Rainer Maria Rilke

    I do want to add that you are right when you declare, “a person can ask for free book reviews, but in reality that is no guarantee that the free reviewer is going to commit.” Indeed, I have had readers send me lengthy letters and emails about how much my books have drastically changed their lives for the better. However, when I have asked these readers to transfer their comments from the letters and emails to a review on Amazon, only about 30 to 40 percent have done this.

    For sure, there is no “guarantee” that the free reviewer is going to commit. But as Clint Eastwood said, “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.”

    Trust Joel and me, nonetheless, that if you write a great book, and put in some true creative effort in marketing it every day for several years (not only weeks or months), that the free reviews will come with most of these reviews being 4-star and 5-star.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 225,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Reply

    Neil December 2, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Ernie, you make some good points and provide a lot of great quotes.

    But I looked at your books and I can see that you found a particular furrow to plough and have done a great job at it, but it seems that like Joel you got established a while back. Things are very different now. Especially if you are starting out with no contacts, trying to make your own luck and maybe writing a different kind of book (I write fiction). The market is swamped, and getting reviews by simply asking, as an unknown author with nothing to offer but an unknown book, is very very hard, verging on impossible.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 22, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Neil, sorry to hear you’re having difficulty getting reviews, but please keep in mind that’s not necessarily the result that everyone else is getting. As far as doing it, I’ve been publishing books since the 1980s, worked in traditional publishing, owned my own publishing business, and every year help hundreds of authors get their books to market. So yeah, I don’t think I’m “just writing about doing it.” Good luck with your book.

    Reply

    Neil November 22, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Joel, thanks for your reply. You say you started out in the 1980s. That’s kind of my point. I’m sure you know how much publishing has changed since then. Try starting out as a writer now, from scratch, with no contacts.

    So far I haven’t paid a penny for a review but I think these days that’s a bit like being a tiger in a jungle full of tigers and refusing to eat meat.

    If you can give me a list of a hundred people who will review my book simply by being asked, I’ll eat my knee caps.

    Reply

    SS August 29, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    Yeah it can be bad ethics to make fake reviews. But at the same time, it takes a LOT of work to write a book, and if you have it edited, a lot of money too.

    There are trolls out there that get off on just writing bad reviews no matter how the book is. Just trying to make their skid mark on the world. In an effort to counter balance that *H** I think it should be ok to do what you have to do, and I don’t mean glowing ridiculous 5 stars.

    Reply

    Cate Baum August 28, 2014 at 4:13 am

    I still think that writers misunderstand what a professional review offers.

    It’s easy to see what a free review will offer, but a professional review is not supposed to be used in the same way, and that’s where the bad rap comes in.

    Of course paying for consumer reviews is bad practice, but we at Self-Publishing Review offer professional, starred reviews for self-published and indie books at a reasonable rate (from $59) and this gets the author a well-written editorial review that they can use on their author profile on Amazon, B&N and Smashwords, for example. We are a trusted brand, so readers can trust that if we have starred the book with 4 or 5 stars, that the book has some promise, and this can help immensely when shown in the author profile.

    A good quality paid review also offers copy for back of book, promos and press releases that a free consumer review probably won’t offer, plus when you buy the review you are buying the rights to the editorial copy. You cannot use free consumer reviews for this purpose without seeking permission.

    We also promote the book to 37,000 followers from across the world, and tweet multiple times about the book.

    Free reviews are good for promoting your book in several ways, but to seriously promote your work if you are not a good marketer — and many writers are not — you need professional writers to write good marketing copy, in the same way Joel offers professional templates and covers here on this site.

    If we did not charge for the service, we would not be able to offer such services as they would have to be completed by untrained and unpaid staff, and there would be no quality control – or for that matter, control over where and when the article is published online. We work full time, and this is my only job. We write and edit professionally.

    I have actually thought about changing the word “review” on our packages to something like “promotional editorial” because really, that is the service offered. These kinds of posts seem to be really pushing the idea that all paid reviews are unethical, and it’s simply not the case. We never give a five star review automatically, and authors must agree at purchase that their review will be completely impartial.

    We at SPR support indie books all the way, and have all lived through writing and marketing our own.

    I have written extensively about these misunderstandings and the way that professional editorial companies are getting mixed in with the “5 star” hacks on our site. If you would like to learn about the main paid review sites and what is offered, we did a study here:

    http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/2014/08/top-5-paid-indie-book-review-services-compared/

    So please let’s stop the witch hunt of professional review services, and the disinformation, and start separating the chafe from the wheat. It will be incredibly beneficial to the industry, and helpful to us who dedicate our lives to discovering quality books for others to read.

    Reply

    Katrina Sardis August 27, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    I published my first book almost one year ago and published my second book last month. Although, the sales are satisfactory I have received no reviews. I invite good and bad reviews as both will hopefully help me become a better writer (as one never stops learning). I want to be the best that I can be.
    During the publication of my first and second book I began searching for reviewers and found people who would review books for free. I wrote to these people and out of everyone I asked to review my book, I received one response where I was told a review of my book would be carried out (that was approx. 5 months ago. I am still waiting. I carried out another search for paid reviews thinking that if I paid someone to review my book then I would certainly be contacted sooner than 5 months. Nevertheless, paid reviews I found were too expensive.
    On discovering the hurtles I was and continue to face I began my own home based Paid Book Reviewing business. I thought that if I could offer reviews to struggling writers who are in the same boat as me then I would be providing a great affordable service to the writing community.
    I agree paid reviews can be misleading, however, I do not write anything that I do not mean. I stay true to myself, the book and the customer.
    The bottom line is that not all paid book reviewers write solely to pat the writer on the back (that’s what parents are for).
    I hope that reviewers will one day see the mess they have created by posting misleading reviews for the sake of money. I hope that paid reviews will one day be seen in the same light as free reviews.

    Reply

    J Heileman September 23, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    I am a book reviewer who is advertised on several sites. I think being paid to review books is a respectable practice, but the issue is that anyone thinks they can review a book. I have a few published for online publications that I was not paid for, and I did them to show my work and gain more. I believe that people should get paid for the work they do. If anyone wants a review I would be happy to write one. I do not guarantee a positive or negative review, but a fair comprehensive and attentive review. I usually charge between $5-$60 depending on size and genre. Query can be sent to christbusi@gmail.com or find me on writergazette.com under book reviewers.

    Reply

    Writing A Book Chapter May 25, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    After I initially commented I seem to have clicked
    on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get 4 emails with
    the same comment. Perhaps there is an easy method you are able to remove me from that service?
    Cheers!

    Reply

    Carolyn November 14, 2013 at 3:54 am

    One thing that gets lost in the heat of this subject is how difficult and time-consuming it is to write a review. First, of course, you have to invest the hours required read the whole book — which can be a trial if it’s not well done. Then you must evaluate it intelligently in several contexts: the writing, the story, the character development, the verisimilitude, how it compares against the author’s other works if relevant, how it compares to other works in the genre if relevant (plus/minus other features if the book is nonfiction). Then you must compose a concise summary of all these elements in a coherent way, balancing the work’s strengths and weaknesses — also balancing your own emotional reaction to the book against the fact that other people will respond to it differently. All this is professional-level work which many people feel reviewers don’t deserve to be paid for. At the same time, the whole reason they want a review is to get a good one that will help them sell books and get something back for their own investment of time and labor!

    Reply

    Renee Paule November 14, 2013 at 1:01 am

    That’s okay Jennifer … it happens. Yes, both are true :)

    It makes good literature hard to find … hmmm

    Reply

    Linton Robinson November 14, 2013 at 6:48 am

    Excuse me, but… having MORE literature available makes it harder to find?????
    If you manufacture more cares, is it harder to find a good one?????

    This makes no sense. It’s not the “publishing industry” that has become “buyer beware”. It is BUYING books. And it’s always been so. The idea that “professional reviewers” somehow tell you the right thing to buy is peculiar to me. I almost never see reviews in the NYT that sound like anything I’d want to read, and wouldn’t beleive them if they did, frankly. Just not me. And I’m the one who’s buying the books to suit my own taste. Anybody who lets reviewers make their decisions for them is kind of, really… pathetic, when you think about it.
    Over the past year I have read a couple of dozen free books off amazon that are just tremendous. I have never read one that sucked. I hear people whining about reading bad books and just can’t understand why they would want to do that, or why they never developed the ability to ferret out the stuff they like reading from all the stuff available.
    This idea I see wannabe writers yapping about–that having more books available somehow makes books worse–is REALLY peculiar to me, seems like a sort of admission of incompetence at one’s own life skills.
    The idea that we’re not better off with people being able to publish without “permission” from Manhattan or whereever is, really, pretty insulting to both writers and readers alike.

    Reply

    Renee Paule November 13, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    I’ve read most of the above entries and they’ve been helpful to me. What I’m finding particularly difficult is finding reviewers for my genre (self-help, philosophy, motivational). I’ve received some great reviews already … genuine, but one to get that book out there and known is difficult to say the least.

    The ‘paid review’ industry will grow because of the sheer volume of self-published books; the market is inundated with them and judging by the standard of some I’ve seen, they could well have been written and published within just one week. The demand for reviews is huge and where there’s demand, there’s someone to make money out of it; we (Humanity) have that down to a fine art.

    I’ve saved money through this blog because I was thinking about subscribing to PW. Thank you so much for all the info.

    Reply

    Jennifer Douglas November 13, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    Renee are you a member of Spiritual Networks
    ( http://www.spiritualnetworks.com ). I am a member and you will find lots of like minded people on there who may be willing to write you a review.

    I would be more than willing to write you a review as I cover the genre your work sits in but I am one of those who of those paid reviewers the market is inundated with. You pay for what you get. A free review does not guarantee a review and 99% of the time it is no where near professional. When I review I critique and check for errors as part of the process, this is an important part of helping an author grow.

    Good luck with your book!

    Reply

    Renee Paule November 14, 2013 at 12:03 am

    Thanks for your reply Jennifer.

    I would like to point out that I said the market is inundated with ‘self-published books’, not the paid-reviewers. :)

    I’ll take a look at the website.

    Thanks again.

    Reply

    Jennifer Douglas November 14, 2013 at 12:40 am

    Sorry for my misinterpretation of what you had written Renee but in truth both are right. The industry is becoming inundated with paid reviewers and like the publishing industry it is becoming buyer beware. I have heard some terrible stories of those who have paid for a review and never seen it.

    Reply

    Lynne McAnulty-Street October 8, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    I review books, for no fee, for one book distribution business (http://booksellersnz.co.nz), and for author colleagues (Virginnia de Part’e being my favourite). If I offer to review a book for a writer other than those above, I tag the review at my blog as “unsolicited”.
    I’ve been asked to review, even offered a payment; read the book, and as it was utter rubbish, contacted the author and declined to review it as “I could not in all clear conscience offer you a marketable review”.
    When as a writer I may want a review, I will seek a review via the publisher’s usual crew, and maybe a couple of writing colleagues whose expertise I respect.
    But in no way would I pay for a review; that, to me, would make the review utterly worthless and useless.
    I’d want my potential readers to feel they’re getting unbiased, agenda-less help in selecting my book, not being asked to jump in response to a paid announcement:
    “But wait, there’s more! Buy this book and the author will include a free dust-jacket! But it doesn’t stop there …buy in the next twenty-four hours and receive – free – the promo-sheet for the author’s next novel!”

    Reply

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