Should Authors Pay for Book Reviews?

by | Aug 29, 2012

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.

Photo by tracy_olson

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135 Comments

  1. Amy

    Joel, I first wrote about the topic of paid reviews on IndieReader last week, spurred by David Streitfeld’s case study, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy”, on the front page of the business section of The New York Times, about a shleppy-looking guy with no scruples who sold bogus book reviews to indie authors.

    That story was quickly followed by another, this one breaking in the British media, detailing the crimes of RJ Ellory. Ellory’s story is a bit different, in that he is a traditionally published author caught writing fake reviews for his books on Amazon, leading me to conclude that–trad pubbed or indie–some authors are more hard up for attention than a Kardashian (pick one).

    But back to the NYTimes story. It seems, based on the well over 300 comments received, that the point in the article that had outraged most people–even though it’s as common as the cast of “Honey Boo Boo”–is that (gasp!), authors knowingly paid a hard-up freelancer, living in a hotel in Las Vegas, to give their book a positive review.

    The fact that there are very few products or service industries–from tooth brushes to travel sites–that don’t solicit and/or pay for good reviews is mentioned in the piece, albeit fleetingly. But Streitfeld covered that subject in greater length in a post he wrote last year for the Times, In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5, describing how the enormous demand for reviews–on everything from hotels and restaurants to car dealerships and handymen–has led to a kind of review-factory involving little evaluation of services and products, writing, “the boundless demand for positive reviews has made the review system an arms race of sorts. As more five-star reviews are handed out, even more five-star reviews are needed. Few want to risk being left behind.”

    But the news that you can buy positive feedback on TripAdvisor didn’t draw nearly the same outrage reserved for indie authors.

    Why is that?

    Perhaps it’s because, even though indie books have repeatedly cracked the most respectable bestseller lists, they are still considered poseurs by many (conveniently those, like the New York Times, in the position to commission such an article), who survive on the kindness -and the ad dollars–of traditional publishing.

    As bestselling trad pubbed author Sue Grafton recently said, “Don’t self-publish. That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work” and “…it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research.”

    Well that sure puts indies in their place, doesn’t it?

    The other point that gets lost in “The Best Book Reviews” piece is that paying for book reviews is not just the pervue of indie authors. Professional reviews for all published books–whether trad or indie–are, directly or indirectly, paid for. Traditional publishers not inclined to paying outright for services find other, more socially acceptable ways of racking up positive reviews. On an author’s behalf, publishers, editors, agents and PR people may attempt to develop relationships with reviewers before a book has been critiqued. There are fancy lunches and plenty of swag. If a book has been reviewed favorably by a critic in the past, you can bet that the publisher will send new manuscripts in their direction in the hopes of receiving another good review. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “We’ve already established what kind of woman you are, madam. Now we’re just haggling about the price.”

    But bad reviews of traditionally published authors don’t seem to have as negative of an impact as those for indie books, especially if they appear in prominent publications. In fact, there are many instances in which bad press has served to bring in higher sales. These authors, if they have achieved a certain level of fame, often have media outlets, such as radio and television, in which they can promote their work and obtain additional consumers. The above marketing strategies are generally not available, or are financially out of reach for the indie author. It’s like pitting the Sylvester Stallone from Rocky with the Sly Stallone from The Expendables.

    In spite of this, indie books continue to make their mark all over the bonafide bestseller lists. Their books are being scooped up almost weekly by one of the Big 6, at which time their authors are welcomed into the club (cue secret handshake), their books given a new cover and sent out to presumably legit reviewers with the process starting all over again.

    The moral of the story?

    Even if a review is legit, it is subjective. Even if an indie author pays for a few positive reviews, if their book is badly written the truth will prevail. Or, if its 50 Shades of Grey, everyone will know it sucks but will buy it anyway.

    Reply
    • Tracy R. Atkins

      The perception of value is of the utmost importance for art and entertainment alike. Ask a 6th grader why The Card Players by Cezanne is worth $250 million, and I have a feeling you will receive a puzzled look. They were never told that it was the most important, valuable, wonderful work of art ever conceived and they must cherish it. Odds are, most 6th graders would give it a 1/5 stars for not having SpongeBob worked into the scene.

      Human beings have a limited capability to form decisions quickly. Our brains seek to make a judgment using only the information available at hand, coupled with past experience. Since a new author is an unknown quantity to the book browser, the reviews serve as added information to make a snap judgment call. That is why established authors likely see less impact from a review, as their previous work serves as a mental hedge of quality.

      The value of perception is equally important for art and content creators, for just that reason. Critical acclaim for the new or unknown author immediately increases the perception of value in the mind of the book browser, increasing the odds of a purchase. Perhaps that is why positive book blurbs are so very important in marketing a work. A “book review” in absence of other more important data, fills in the browser’s mind for that ever important judgment call to purchase. The value of a slew of positive reviews is undeniable, even when they are suspect.

      The brain can make tiered judgment calls, however. In this social environment, consumers are trained to go with the flow, more often than not. Fifty Shades of Grey is a perfect example of this. The word of mouth and reputation of the novel preceded the viewing of the reviews for most buyers. Buyers had already made the judgment call to purchase without having to seek additional information. This is the same as when consumers make judgment calls based on advertisements or simply brand awareness. Even the type of review and its source makes a difference.

      So, where does that leave the discussion of paid reviews?

      Reviews really break down into two categories, Partial and Impartial.

      Impartial reviews, from media sources, reputable review sources and recognized media services are not in question. Paying for an impartial review, even it is just a free copy of the work, is a time-honored tradition.

      The paid-partial reviews, or paid-for-positive, is a completely different subject. Most feel that this is dishonest in some way. However, the risk to reward ratio is very low for authors or publishers. Even if the deception is discovered, often the money has already been made and the perception of value is established. Few will likely penalize Elroy or Locke.

      Therefore, if the system is flawed, perhaps a change to the system is necessary.

      Amazon, as a leading warehouse of both partial and impartial reviews could change business practices. Perhaps legitimate paid-impartial review sources could register and be highlighted, just as they do with Kirkus Indie reviews currently. In addition, Amazon is large enough to now sustain business without allow non-purchase-verified reviews of their products. The change of only allowing customers to review works that they bought would limit abuse. Finally, the simple act of rating a work with a 1-5 has its own bias and flaws. Psychologically, people skew to the ends of the curve. Many content systems now use a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down system for social acceptance. Perhaps this system would be better served than the star system in place. Perhaps reviews and comments should be decoupled from the star system or rating all together.

      Reply
        • Tracy R. Atkins

          You are quite correct Michael. I figure that the majority of “review fraud” is committed by those who have not purchased the material being reviewed. It may not be the best solution, but I can’t think of a way to curb the issue of non-readers posting bogus reviews. Even the act of buying a $0.99 ebook requires some validation and credentials in a small way.

          Perhaps there is a hybrid method, where verified purchasers can submit written reviews and star ratings, while non-verified purchases are a simple up/down vote.

          Obviously, Amazon has some sort of metric in play that is not public knowledge, as reviews are disappearing without much in the way of logical sense to the authors.

          Reply
          • Anna Erishkigal

            Tracy –

            Amazon already -DOES- differentiate between ‘Amazon Certified Purchase- reviews (where you bought the book from Amazon) and non-certified reviews. If you look at the reviews, if you bought your book through Amazon -AND- answered when they sent you the automatic email several weeks later that asks you to ‘review this product’, it says so right on the review in bright yellow letters.

        • Linton Robinson

          Exactly Michael.
          Like so many quickfix security ideas, the result could be a worse problem.
          As Anna points out there is already a signal that the reviewer bought the book.
          Whether people notice that amid the stars is a question.
          But I just don’t feel like you can protect people from getting swept away when making buying decisions. If they were more careful, they’d have nothing to complain about.
          If they could determine their own tastes, they wouldn’t need critics to tell them what to like.

          This is being seized on as some horrible new plague, but it seems to me that almost anything anybody buys, they are wooed by all sorts of false colors. Some people make intelligent decisions, most don’t, probably. (Take a look at the last 3-4 American elections before contradicting that. :-)

          Reply
  2. Aishah Macgill

    I am a new self published indie. I have as yet no book reviews on amazon. But I would never pay for one. I have requested a friend who purchased it if she would write a review if she felt inclined. I asked her to be honest, I’m a big girl, in more ways than one!

    Reply
  3. Grace Brannigan

    When I was writing in a niche non-fiction market about 5 years ago, I sent the book to Midwest Book Reviews. I was told to send it and they decide if they’ll review it, as they only do a certain amount. And it was free. I was lucky to have it reviewed and it received 5 stars. I would never pay for one. Now my romances which I’ve been putting up as eBooks since May do not yet have reviews. :-)

    However, I am doing a contest, offering to 5 winners an eBook of their choice as a prize, the only request I make is that a thoughtful review is posted to amazon.

    Reply
  4. Carolyn Haley

    I am a reviewer who accepts pay for the time, knowledge, and effort required to read, analyze, and write a review. It’s paltry pay — enough for a tank of gas — but I receive it from an established and reputable review house, which has high standards and demands honest, balanced reviews. The result is high profile, thus giving an author a chance to be seen and heard above the noise created by umpteen thousands of other indie authors.

    But the bottom line remains: The book needs to offer something to talk about and attract readers, and readers need information in order to decide whether to buy a book.

    Both review services I write for — one paid, the other volunteer; one under my own byline, the other anonymous — require that we express honest opinions but stop well short of cruelty. I think that’s an honorable practice, especially given the astonishingly bad books I’ve had to slog through in order to earn my tank of gas.

    Professional reviewers recognize, regardless of their personal opinions, that every book is written by someone with something to say, who has an audience out there somewhere. We acknowledge that and try to speak to their audience, without pulling any punches or misleading them about the book’s content and quality.

    No one has yet convinced me that this service isn’t worth money. Authors who expect only five-star reviews usually suffer from the delusion that their work is worth such a high rating, whereas in fact, in the indie world, most books go to press before they are fully developed and are poorly produced; and authors shoot themselves in the foot by revealing themselves as unschooled wannabes.

    Nevertheless, their books have an audience, and these authors worked to the best of their ability. Professional reviewers can do them a better service than unrestricted amateurs who take their money (or not) and lie to make them happy (assuming they even read the work) or else publicly humiliate them with nastiness.

    As well, a lot of the authors out there screaming are not doing their homework and so are submitting their work to people who will either rip them off or insult them. There are many reviewers out there — independent or employed by reputable services — who will give their work the consideration it deserves and present it fairly to the world.

    Reply
  5. Jeri

    Even though I don’t agree with buying book reviews, a small part of me sees potential in the idea. However, that is the naive and idealistic side of me. The side that thinks I’m trained and well-equipped to write a fair well-balanced review. A couple of months ago when I decided to do weekly book reviews on my blog, one of the first people who asked about me reading their book asked how much I charged. I honestly was taken aback. Charge? I never even imagined such a thing, but it’s not a shocking concept at all. People and businesses pay for all kinds of promotion. Then I got to thinking maybe I should charge, but then I vanquished the thought from my mind. The problem with paid reviews is that honesty goes out the window, but does that have to be the case. I’m always careful to warn that my reviews are critcial. I’ve only given 17 out of 700 books on my Goodreads shelf five-star reviews. Ratings mean nothing without standards to back them up. On a sidenote, I posted a 3-star review of some expensive outdoorsy sanals on Amazon and had to practically ward off the seller when it came to begging me to remove that average 3-star review. They finally offered another $120 pair of shoes along with the ones I was dissatisfied with. I caved. What can I say?

    Reply
  6. Linton Robinson

    Actually, amazon does have tags that you are a “Real Name” and that you actually bought the book. They also have a program that gives top reviewers free swag.

    Frankly I find the idea that you have to submit your book to somebody else in order to find out if it’s any good to be drop-dead, jaw-gaping shocking.

    But it speaks to a major problem with a lot of this whole thing: the idea that it’s a good thing to delegate to others the task of figuring out what we want to read. It continutally amazes me that Americans, who think of themselves as independent and democratic, would but into the idea that “quality” and THEIR OWN TASTES should be dictated by a hierarchy of self-appointed pundits and “gatekeepers”.

    That’s all being flushed out now. What you’re seeing here is the furor surrounding death throes and birth pangs going on simultaneously.

    Reply
  7. Ronda Del Boccio, The Story Lady

    I say the best thing for an author to do is get a cluster of a half dozen or so people who have actually read the book and will write a review to post on Amazon right away. I don’t believe in paying for reviews and don’t teach my mentoring students to do that.

    Thanks for this article.
    Ronda

    Reply
  8. James Moushon

    Great blog Joel and comments. I am firmly against gaming the system with FALSE reviews and five star ratings.

    I think we need something NEW to help a reader make their buying decision.

    Maybe a brainstorming session with Henry, Judith and Jane and you could come up with other options to help the reader make the decision besides the current review system.

    Example: Have a new area where readers/buyers could write a review or complete a questionnaire only if they had a Kindle account and had purchased the ebook through Amazon. Reward them with something like a free ebook.
    Of course, other retailers would have their own program (Amazon was just an example). These would not be professional reviews but sometimes just a recommendation by a neighbor is all it takes. Maybe we are looking for an opinion rather then something more detailed. It would get the money out of the equation.

    Maybe each review should have a source requirement like:
    PAID by Author review, a Free Copy review, News Media review, etc. At least the reader would have a shot at how much weight they would put on the review in making the buying decision.

    There has to be something that we can do to help this situation.

    I am in the final stages of publishing a new novel and I still plan on submitting it to Henry’s group at SPR for review because I trust them. If the book isn’t good, I want to know it right up front.

    Reply
  9. Turndog Millionaire

    This is so dishonest, and quite frankly, fuels the fire to those who believe self-publishing is evil (although I’m sure traditionally published authors do this, too).

    As someone who has spent hours researching and contacting reviewers, this is the easy way out.

    In the last 2 weeks I’ve emailed dozens of reviewers (and have dozens more to contact) and what I’ve learned is invaluable. It’s sad how some negate this process. It’s like appearing on X Factor. You lose the grind of playing the small and empty club

    Very sad!

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

    Reply
  10. Linton Robinson

    I don’t see why there would be a “need” for a review site like that. Why?
    Again, a heritage hearken-back to days of monoliths. The dinosaurs are falling: what we see now is the scramble of small mammals.
    There are thousands of reviewer blogs out there. They have their own fan bases, their own niches. They are free. They are focused.
    Things are moving towards a democracy, or at least poplism.

    But, again, does anybody have any real idea of the ROI on paid reviews? Is there anything anybody can point to that proves you get the money back in sales? This topic has been all over the last couple of days and I haven’t seen a single citation of anything indicating that it works. It’s like videos for books. Maybe they sell, maybe they don’t. Maybe the more more expensive ones sell more, but there isn’t a shred of evidence behind it.
    I get a dozen email hotsheets a day, showing deals and freebies on Kindle books. I see their covers, the blurb, click to amazon to look at the info, ratings and reviews there. Why would a review in that email be worthwhile?
    What IS worthwhile is an ad in that hotsheet. Absolutely no question of that whatsoever.
    Next question would be, has anybody got anything to indicate that a review is as effective as putting an ebook on Kindle Select and playing that whole complex free-day/ads/listing game?

    Reply
    • Debbie

      “…I get a dozen email hotsheets a day, showing deals and freebies on Kindle books…”

      And that itself is worthy of a separate article. Because from what I’m (just a reader active on a lot of book sites” seeing is that a lot of the paid reviews and gaming the reviews/ratings are being done by authors wanting to get their book on some of the promotion sites with a huge subscription to such hot sheets.

      Many such sites with reputations for effectively promoting books (particularly if accept both traditionally and indie/self published works) now require a certain number of reviews and ratings before even considering adding (paid or unpaid) an author’s books to their sites/mailings. Which causes some authors to go ballistic against reviewers not rating what they need to be included on the hot sheets or to game the ratings. Most such sites don’t seem to even look at the actual review wordings or take into account the different star rating scales used by different sites where an author with an average rating on goodreads saying readers “liked” or “loved” the book won’t qualify based on goodreads ratings just because goodreads rating scale is one star less than Amazon’s … (Amazon’s okay/average book is ★★★☆☆ and goodreads okay/average book is ★★☆☆☆).

      Many authors act like their customers are obligated to churn out the book promotions and ratings they need to be included in the reputedly effective promotion venues and higher visibility listings rather than just being readers expressing an opinion who are merely obligated to respect author’s copyright.

      Reply
  11. Jenn Crowell

    What a debacle this all is! I have nothing but contempt for the “content mill” model of authors purchasing churned-out $5-a-pop positive Amazon reviews (to say nothing of “sockpuppeting” — yikes!), but the gray area strategically and ethically seems to be the PW and Kirkus models. PW at least sets up their service as a guaranteed magazine supplement listing, with a possible chance of review (and lower pricetag), while Kirkus seems quite steep (and their reviews of even traditionally-published books are frank borderering on brutal). It’s worked for several authors — Darcie Chan used Kirkus, and there have been books picked up by the Amazon Encore imprint after a PW Select review — but those outlets are set up to function as a pre-pub buying guide of sorts for bookstores, libraries, and national distributors, who generally aren’t the most realistic channels for most self-published books anyway.

    Reply
  12. Joseph

    Joel,
    I noticed at the end of Ernie Zelinski’s comment he sited the number of different languages his books are translated into. One book was translated into 9 languages, and the next example was 17 languages. He is doing what I have decided long ago that I will do upon completion of my first book. That is of course translate to other languages. I have done some, not a lot of research on this and have found one must be careful, because, as the phrase goes things are “lost in translation”. Done well translation can be spendy, but we must “think globally”.
    This is a subject I would love to see on your site. Ernie has figured this out. That’s why he’s sold hundreds of thousands of copies. THINK GLOBAL!
    MARKET THE WORLD!

    Reply
  13. Ernie Zelinski

    Apparently some people don’t read reviews.

    And it appears that cheating or deception does appear to pay in certain instances.

    Check out this book that “Self Publishing Review” just pointed out on its Facebook post. The thing in question is the author’s names.

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B008M12PRK/

    Regardless of all the 11 reviews being 1-star reviews, the book is selling very well based on its “#1,030 Paid in Kindle Store” ranking.

    Reply
    • Tracy R. Atkins

      So you are trying to tell me my pen name, “EL James Patterson Koontz”, may raise eyebrows?

      Reply
  14. Linton Robinson

    This has been very much-discussed over the last week or so. What it looks like is nobody thinks it’s a good idea except people selling reviews.
    I’d say, forget the ethics and all that.
    Just look at as an expense, from an ROI standpoint.
    Which is, it sucks.
    It’s a vestige of the old system, really. Do you really think people pore over Kirkus trying to find books to read? Especially ebooks? Doubtful.
    Especially compared to the value to readers and power to writers of amazon’s point of purchase reviews and ratings.
    What makes anybody think that these reviews sell books? Does having a blurb from Kirkus or Pacific really mean more than one from your hometown paper or a big fan on amazon?
    Ther’e’s a tightrope dance the reviewer hawkers tread. If they say they guarantee a good review for your money, they look corrupt. (God forbid) If they are really as “objective” as they say (and the very existence of an objective book review is one for Diogenes) then you could be paying money to them to PAN YOUR BOOK. Priceless.
    Except there’s a price on it.
    In the current situation of publishing, sales and marketing, this is a really dumb thing to spend money on. How many ads in email lists or websites could you buy for what Kirkus charges for a review?
    You’d have to be nuts.
    Or course, if feel it’s unethical, then you can be nuts AND dirty.

    Reply
  15. Henry Baum

    I truly don’t understand lumping all paid reviews into one category – as if buying a block of 5 star reviews is exactly the same as an unbiased review. Certainly, there are hundreds of places to get a book reviewed, but many of these can take on so many books, especially those places with decent traffic. Getting a guaranteed review somewhere – especially with the branding of something like Kirkus – can be worth it. It was how The Mill River Recluse got its start. I don’t think you can put her into the same category as John Locke.

    Reply
    • Tracy R. Atkins

      Kirkus has that monster fee though. There are other reputable sources that are paid, but more affordable. PW, though often brutal, and the more tactful SPR, offer more reasonable terms and name recognition. I agree, there is a price to pay for a guaranteed review, it IS work. So there is value there.

      Perhaps we need a review of paid review sites?

      Reply
      • Henry Baum

        I run SPR, so it’s why I’m a little defensive about this – so thanks for the words. I had a sentence in this comment saying that the Kirkus fee is too high, but cut it out. But still, they’re Kirkus, so they’re offering something of actual value if they like the book. Even if they don’t, there’s usually something usable even in a bad review. All publishers selectively quote from reviews.

        Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Henry,

      It could be that this is a different matter for fiction authors than it is for nonfiction. With nonfiction you can identify markets and influencers within those markets and query them in a targeted way. For fiction, you are really looking to expose your book to the maximum number of readers, and a review service that was fair, ethical, transparent and independent of economic persuasion might be useful. But I think that’s a vastly different thing than what Rutherford or others of his ilk are peddling. Thanks for the input.

      Reply
  16. Tracy R. Atkins

    Peter,

    There are quite a few places out there reviewing books. The problem is that many consumers are making buying decisions at the point of sale. The people who make informed decisions are the ones consuming reviews created by reputable review sources. These reviews are generally not in question. The bulk of the buying public are going directly to the store or website, like Amazon, and relying on customer driven reviews.

    The issues are credibility and corruption with these existing customer driven systems.

    These systems are “gammed” regularly. Amazon, Good-Reads, B&N, etc, are ripe for abuse. You have authors and publishers paying for mass-reviews on one side. The other side is roving gangs of trolls publishing BAD reviews for a title, for a number of reasons. Therefore, you can’t simply trust a bad review as gospel either.

    Amazon is trying to combat this with the “Vine” reviews, where they have elite customer reviewers who are supposed to be unbiased. However, they do not seem to handle self-published work. Kirkus has traction with some vendors, like Amazon, but the fee is extraordinary, and the notion of it is akin to the gate-keepers of the traditionally published world that so many independent authors despise. It is just a big mess.

    Reply
    • Peter Pollak

      Tracy: Setting aside stores sales, I’m not convinced reviews on the forementioned websites are driving sales as much as word of mouth. if someone hears good things about your book, I doubt a 2-star review amongs many 3s,4s & 5s will deter them.

      My question is whether one could build an audience for an e-zine that provided quality reviews and rated self-published fiction? It might take a few years to reach break-even so that reviewers could earn $100/review, but I believe it’s both needed and do-able.

      Reply
      • Tracy R. Atkins

        In my research, I have turned up over 100 review websites that will accept fiction in my genre alone. Many of them have long waiting lists and some are even closed for submission. Therefore, there is a huge market for self-published reviews. Reputation and presentation are the critical components. If you have the patience, acumen, and finances to undertake an e-zine, by all means go for it.

        Reply
  17. Peter Pollak

    Clearly there’s a need for an independent review system (another e-zine?) for self-published books that readers could rely on in making their reading selections. Reviewers should get paid and should not feel obligated to find something nice to say about the books they’ve been asked to read. Authors would submit their titles knowing they’re taking their chances. Such a system could be advertiser supported or charge a subscription. I for one would pay $20/year to get a monthly e-zine with reviews and ratings by objective reviewers. Anyone agree?

    Reply
    • Henry Baum

      It’d be nice, but with so much free information online, it is very hard to sustain a paid model. So it’s advertising or nothing, and usually advertising isn’t enough to pay a review staff.

      Reply
  18. D. Patrick Miller

    In 1998, I founded the online Fearless Reviews to showcase the best work of the independent press. We reviewed only the indie books that we found worth recommending. My philosophy as editor was that there wasn’t much point to dissing poor books from the independent press, whereas the good ones needed all the support they could get. I paid my reviewers $25, later $30, out my own pocket and ran the show for about 10 years before running out of steam and extra cash. (I’m an indie publisher myself and not well-heeled, to say the least.) Thereafter I tried a couple different advertising and sponsorship schemes for a couple years, neither of which worked, and finally decided to take the Reviews down for good. A few months ago, however, I saw advertising for paid reviews from Kirkus and Foreword, and noted that they were charging $395 and up. I contacted my reviewers (all professional writers, BTW, who are identified onsite), and asked them how they felt about shifting to a paid review basis. Everyone was enthusiastic and I decided that paid Fearless Reviews were better than no Fearless Reviews at all. We charge $195 presently, and I forward $100 of that to my reviewers. Our philosophy is to be “honest and helpful” — when a book deserves a recommendation we give it, when it needs help we indicate what that help might be in terms of editing, design, etc. We’ve just gotten restarted and so far we haven’t even seen a book we wouldn’t recommend, but when we do we will review it honestly and helpfully. There is a way to do that; money doesn’t automatically make anyone cynical and dishonest. No book review is “cynical” unless the reviewer is already a cynic, and believe me I’ve seen plenty of those in the New York Times. But you won’t see cynicism, hucksterism, or fraudulence in any form in the Fearless Reviews. The publishing industry is going through unprecedented upheavals, and I’m guessing that paid reviews are one of those upheavals that will persist. It’s time for someone to do professional reviews at a reasonable price with honesty and integrity, and that’s what we’re doing at Fearless, as we have done since 1998.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for taking the time to join this discussion. It’s good to know that your reviewers are at least getting paid decently (Steve Vernon: here’s a better gig for you!). I suppose if you can maintain the integrity of reviewers’ independence from the paying customers, Fearless could be the exception in a world that’s very confusing for new authors.

      Reply
      • Mike @ MBR

        We have a small, paid book review service. Its a simple concept. For a modest fee, we purchase your book (typically the hardcover if offered), assign it to one of our editors, require them to read it, then write up a review, which we post on the sites that offer the work. It began as a way to give extra income to the freelance editors we routinely hire to help produce books for our other small press business. Because we use our freelance editors, the authors get back either a positive review, because the book deserved it, or they get back a professional editors comments that can help them improve the work when we return the book and our constructive criticism as to why we can’t write a positive review.

        Its a shame so many hucksters are willing to take an authors money and post shill reviews. We do not do that. Our editors deserve to be paid for their time. We can expect them to return constructive criticism or their editorial review reports for free, though they surely don’t get rich at $50 per book, especially when you break it down by the hours to read and then write either a positive review for a deserving work, or criticisms as to what is keeping us from writing a positive review.

        Our integrity is not for sale. We routinely turn down books either before the book review is ordered from inquiries by the author, or after it began because we’ve gotten far enough along in the work to realize this isn’t going to end well. Other times an author has shown us their website or promotional materials before hiring us, and we can tell by the rambling text and endless run-on sentences or other grammatical issues that we probably shouldn’t take that title on. In that caae, we don’t take it on. Its not all about money.

        We actually purchase the books we review from the modest fee we charge, then pair the title up with an interested reviewer from our team, who must read the book and write a balanced and honest review. If we can’t honestly rate it four stars, we let the writer know. Amazon considers three stars or less a bad review. We rarely give five star reviews, the book would have to be truly outstanding with justification in the review.

        If we can’t write a positive review, yes, we actually return the book to Amazon for a refund, and we refund the money to the author. I’d say this has happened maybe 25% of the time. Most of the time, we find a pretty interesting new reading from the process and everyone wins. We don’t return for refund books that our reviewers have read and then rated. The reviewer keeps it. By buying and keeping the book, we have some skin in the game, too and the review is posted by somebody who truly did buy the book and read it, even if they bought it with the intention of reading it to review. Sometimes as much as half of the fee gets spent on buying the book.

        Our fee is a modest $95, and we buy the book from that money spent, with a preference for buying hardbacks or at least softcovers, vs buying the eBook. Our reviewing editors like real, printed books. Adding a hardback version, even a self-published one, to their shelf after the review, is part of the reward, along with getting $50 per book, regardless of page count, to do the read and write the review. The balance of the income from the reviews covers the modest overhead of running the site.

        We’re trying to help deserving authors get an honest review and a hopefully a leg up as a result, but have no interested in tearing authors down. So the times we’ve refunded and returned, we’ve also told the author some valuable information from professional editors as to why we’ve done this. That’s upset a few of them, others have used the info to go back and make changes to the editorial issues and release a new file to their eBook and on-demand source. Its usually self-published authors who skimped on hiring a real editor to help them prepare their work, rushing to publish it instead, who end up with a returned book. We do our best to weed out the ones we’ll like need to return before the book is ordered, or quickly after. The authors know up front that we reserve the right to return the book, refund their money and give them a brief constructive criticism as to why.

        Because there is an unfortunate stigma attached to paid reviews by dishonest companies like the one in the NY Times article, we keep our service confidential. We absolutely understand why you and other writers posting here feel the way they do about paid reviews. We feel the same way when you’re talking about hiring people for next to nothing (or even lots of money) to just write positive reviews, but not actually buy and read the book.

        We suspect most of those offering them are not trying to maintain some level of integrity in the process and will write anything for a buck. I just thought I’d let you know, not everyone doing paid review services is shilling, or flooding Amazon, etc with glowing reviews of books they haven’t read for a fee.

        Reply
        • Mike @ MBR

          P.S. – Pardon my typos. I should have had an editor review before posting. :)

          Reply
        • Debbie

          And of course you do mean that on Amazon you let the author post the paid review in the editorial section–while on other sites which allow you to post directly in with customer/consumer product opinions you clearly disclose on first screen of review that it is a paid review with a condition that you will only review books positively (as required by federal law) so no one confuses it with an unpaid review.

          Reply
  19. Jeff Dawson

    Pay for a review? No! The bias is too high and cheapens our work. I have a slew of good reviews and some bad ones. Yes, I ventured out for honest opinions. The feedback is honest and at times brutal. I believe many aspiring writers fear the truth. If they do, they should find another venture.

    If I receive a bad review, I don’t go ballistic especially if I sought them out. I read the comments for validity. If they have a valid point or two, I catalog it and move on. If it is just plain bad with no basis, then it is ignored.

    Bottom line, honesty is the best policy.

    Reply
  20. RosalieG

    You speak from both sides of your mouth. You say writers are responsbile to ask people to review their books and maybe even hire someone to help manage the process. You say they need to go through the process of getting blurbs, testimonials and reviews themselves, which is a process of how books get sold. So you are saying these are writer-initiated reviews, and you are also saying reviews get books sold.

    Now, isn’t a writer going to look for friends and types that will pat him on the back with a good review? Isn’t that type of process just as tainted as if he’d paid a review company? I mean, isn’t a pure review one from someone who’s purchased the book and taken the initiative themselves to put it online?

    I don’t believe in fake reviews or paying money for someone to write a good review. I do believe you can pay to have a review company set up your material reviewers and that those reviewers should sign a contract saying they will be unbiased and that they are free to give their honest opinion good or bad. With some review companies the only perk the actual reveiwer gets is the free book. So they aren’t actually being paid.

    I do believe, however, some people pay outsourced social media people to write fake reviews. These people may not have even read the book. That is an atrocity.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      RosalieG, sorry I wasn’t clear enough in my article, but what I was trying to say is well summed-up in your last paragraph. Paying for someone to help with your review program, providing free review copies to people who offer to review your book, soliciting reviews from objective reviewers, are all practices I encourage and teach. It’s the other kind I’m talking about here.

      Reply
  21. Judith Briles

    One reviewer that is a “pay for” but it DOES NOT MEAN A CAT’S MEOW reiver that I’ve recommended is http://www.BlueInkReviews.com. Started by the former editor of the book section at the Rocky Mountain News, Patti Thorn, it does a decent job–it will call a book garbage if it is. It does pay it’s reviewers and I personally know that major pubishers are taking note–gooing after the “indie” books and that the Douglas County Library system here in Colorado pays close attention–if there is a positive review, books get ordered.

    It’s a crap shoot in some ways for the author–they are clueless if it will be good… but let’s face it … if they had had it edited, as they should; if they didn’t rush to publish; if they had a professional cover and interior design done; if they had done a decent writing job and developed their topic/theme/story … the review should support the book.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for that, Judith. No problem with reviewers being paid to write reviews, just the ones who are basically ordering a “review product” that only has the aim of helping to sell the book. That’s really advertising disguised as something else.

      Reply
  22. Joseph Ratliff

    My opinion on paid reviews… don’t. Even if there is no bias towards a “good review” or a “bad review”… I think that by paying for a review the reviewer will spend at least a small portion of their effort making sure the review is written “like a review should look” even if that effort is subconscious.

    Reply
  23. Tom Johnson

    I love to read, but only certain genres. When I was in the publishing field, I did reviews for publishers just for a copy of the book. Now retired, I still like to read, and enjoy getting good books to read (free) for my reviews. I don’t charge for the reviews. However, publishers/promotion departments punish me when they don’t get a 5-Star review for their book, after all they’re sending an author’s book to a reviewer for a “good” review. One book was so bad I gave it a 3-Star review and never received another book from them. Every time I send a 4-Star review back, it will be awhile before they send me another book. This tells me they only want 5-Star reviews. I can understand their reasoning, but I want to be honest in my reviews. I still get books to review, and I post my reviews on Amazon, and like one writer said above, I’ve received a number of “Not Helpful” tags because of lower ratings for a book.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      The practice you describe, Tom, is both unsurprising and dispiriting at the same time. What’s the matter with a 4-star review anyway? Wasn’t that a pretty good review at one time?

      Reply
  24. Joe Brewster Author

    A lot of this isn’t much different than Buzz Marketing. But Buzz Marketing just helps sell more products. It doesn’t reflect on other brands.

    With books once you reach critical mass you start to trade on the goodwill of established brand names. Which is unfortunate.

    For instance, Mark Coker at smashwords starts touting authors in his updates and blogs once they ‘breakout’. I wonder how he’d feel if he found out one of his breakout authors gamed the system?

    I think all distributors start to ‘push’ authors once they start trending with a significant number of sales by displaying their work more prominently on landing pages and highlighting their work in some way.

    This has to reflect badly on their reputations if they are complicit in driving sales to crappy products, right? Or does it?

    Also, placing a book on the NYT bestseller list used to be a great achievement for an author. In large part because of the great tradition and reputation of the New York Times. Authors that make it on the the NYT list by gaming the system aren’t just selling more books than their competitors they are trading on the NYT brand. They become a New York Times bestselling author. That used to mean something.

    I don’t think it’s mere chance that the NYT times broke this story.

    Reply
  25. Yvonne Hertzberger

    I can assure everyone that ALL the reviews on my books are unpaid for. I intend to keep it that way. Paying for reviews is, in my opinion, underhanded, dishonest, misleading and …. well, you get the idea.

    And when I read a review I can often tell what kind it is. There is a certain flavour to the paid ones and those written by close friends who are only doing a favour.

    Reply
    • Tracy R. Atkins

      LOL! That is awesome!
      I have never heard someone compare a reviewer to an escort!

      Reply
  26. Tracy R. Atkins

    I read that NYTs article yesterday and it really struck a nerve.

    There are really three types of paid reviews in my mind; “unread”, “read by customer” and “read by industry professional”.

    “Unread “reviews are the ones that most people will turn their nose up at. Author pays X dollars for X number of positive reviews on a target website. These “purchased” reviews have been the bane of Amazon and other services since the beginning, as it is really just a form of low-level advertising in review form. I feel this is inherently dishonest, but I could be wrong. Amazon is combating this actively and trying to pull these types of reviews down.

    The top tier, the “read by industry professional” is fully acceptable to most people. You pay for the service of an unbiased review. Looking at PW, I would have a really hard time coughing up money after seeing what they do with Self Pub books. They are especially brutal and they leave no room to even try to skim a positive blurb from the text. Out of 100 reviews, only 2 or 3 may have anything positive to say. That’s OK , it’s their right to review books by their established criteria. I feel that these companies are taking advantage of authors though, and Kirkus’ $400+ fees make victims of authors.

    The middle ground is where it gets muddy in my mind. “read by customer” can mean a lot of things. But where is the line? Is it ok to pay a focus group to actually read and review your book? What about giving away copies of your novel to a group and letting them do what they wish? Is that wrong? Does sending advance copies to people get included here?

    I guess im really asking. Im at a critical period in my book where im trying to get people looking at it. My marketing plan includes sending ARCs to people that are familiar with the Genera with a request for blurbs, approaching online review sites and doing a give-away. Am I out of line with the giveaway part?

    Reply
    • Anna Erishkigal

      Sending out review copies or asking an (honest) review group to review your book is a cost of doing business. It’s part of what a ‘real’ publishing company does when they review your book. What matters is that you only put the book in their hands and ask for honesty, not pay money and ask for hype. That means if they hate your book they are free to give you a bad review.

      Reply
    • Debbie

      “…But where is the line? Is it ok to pay a focus group to actually read and review your book? What about giving away copies of your novel to a group and letting them do what they wish? Is that wrong? Does sending advance copies to people get included here?…”

      I don’t think it’s wrong provided details are fully disclosed in any review posting as if a consumer (versus paid/commercial review).

      Most consumer review sites policies have a great deal of leeway in the review guidelines provided details like free-for-review book are disclosed as required by federal law. Others (like Amazon and goodreads) don’t permit paid reviews in with customer reviews except for a disclosed free-for-unconditioned-review book; each will also have own policies on if allowing reviews with federally required disclosed material connections (things like “I’m related to author” or “I was paid to edit this book”).

      If details are undisclosed on U.S. consumer review sites, may or may not be wrong but is 100% illegal, felony consumer fraud.

      For readers reading book reviews, I think many are used to seeing things like “received book free for review” “received book as part of a writer’s panel or focus group” and will just use our own judgment. On the other hand, reviews found not to be disclosing may find the author subject to consumer boycott with or without reporting to site support and filing FTC Complaint. (That FTC Complaint is not likely going to see a quick response and the response might be just the FTC asking reviewer to add the disclosure or delete the review but could go further.)

      Reply
  27. Joe Brewster Author

    A lot of this isn’t much different than Buzz Marketing (See https://online.wsj.com/article/SB113563963024831678.html for example).

    The thing about buzz marketing is it helps you sell more product but that’s it.

    With books it’s a little different.

    Once you reach critical mass you start to trade on the goodwill of established brand names. Which is unfortunate.

    For instance, Mark Coker at smashwords starts touting authors in his updates and blogs once they ‘breakout’. I wonder how he’d feel if he found out one of his breakout authors gamed the system?

    I think all distributors start to ‘push’ authors once they start trending with a significant number of sales. Usually by displaying their work more prominently on landing pages and highlighting their work in various ways.

    This has to reflect badly on their brand name reputations if they are complicit in driving sales to crappy products, right? Or does it? Maybe all they care about is the money.

    Also, placing a book on the NYT bestseller list used to be a great achievement for an author. In large part because of the great tradition and reputation of the New York Times. Authors that make it onto the NYT list by gaming the system aren’t just selling more books than their competitors they are trading on the NYT brand. They become a New York Times bestselling author. That used to mean something.

    I don’t think it’s mere chance that the NYT times broke this story.

    Reply
  28. Jo Michaels

    I am a huge advocate of honest, free reviews. Even if I gift a copy of my book to someone for a review, I always tell them I know my book isn’t for everyone and ask them to please be honest when they write their review. I think the process of buying reviews is deplorable. If you pay someone or offer to review their book in return, they are going to feel an obligation to give you a high mark. I don’t want to put anyone in that position. Ever. Like Liz says above, I have to get up and look at myself in the mirror. I’m not a crook and refuse to become one for the sake of selling a few books.

    Bought reviews also cheapen the whole system that we’re supposed to trust as readers, imho. Great post. WRITE ON!

    Reply
  29. Liz Jansen

    In the end, I have to live with myself. Yes, it is hard to find reviewers and it can be nerve-wracking waiting to read their review. But the price to compromise my credibility as an author is too high.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks to you Liz (and the other authors who have expressed a similar position) for your integrity.

      Reply
  30. Jane Smith

    Christopher wrote, “A book review in the New York Times or Guardian is a paid for review because someone has been paid to review the book [etc].”

    The difference here though is that it’s not the publisher paying the reviewer, it’s the NYT or the Guardian; and the reviewer is free to write a negative review of the book if he or she thinks it appropriate.

    jonejinx wrote, “As a full blown cynic, the idea that the big boys don’t pay for reviews is just idiotic. In this world, NOTHING is free, big publishing is just slicker about it to the point where you don’t see the payment.”

    I’ve worked in publishing for nearly thirty years now and I’ve never seen a reputable trade publisher pay for reviews in the way you’re suggesting. If a book is selected by a book chain for a specific promotion (the three for two tables, for example, or a spot in the Christmas catalogue) then the publisher will be asked to contribute to the cost of the promotion, but that place on the promotion will only be made available if the book chain has first decided the book has merit.

    Diane Lynn wrote, “Pointing the finger at authors who publish untraditionally and pay for reviews is just one more thing traditional publishers make a big deal out of even though they’ve been doing it for years. All those little blurbs by well-known authors to promote new authors aren’t worth the ink they’re written in. Is the well-known author paid or given some sort of incentive to write it? Who knows. It doesn’t matter because it’s not as if it’s an honest opinion. It’s there to help sell the book, not tell readers if it is great or not.”

    Authors are asked to provide those quotes by their publishers or agents, or by the writers directly if they’re friends. They’re not paid for, directly or indirectly; and no one is obliged to provide them if they don’t like the book. I’ve seen many writers refuse to provide blurbs for books they didn’t like enough to endorse.

    Reply
    • Maggie Dana

      Several months before Macmillan published by debut novel, I wrote to several best-selling authors in my genre (women’s fiction) and asked if they’d be willing to read an ARC and write a blurb. Now, I was an unknown … yet these writers whom I’ve admired for many years, graciously sent lovely endorsements to my editor. One of them even suggested a different (and better) ending for the novel. It was clearly obvious she had read the entire book. So my editor and I took another look at my story and we agreed with her. I made the change and she sent along her blurb that ended up on my front cover.

      There was no quid pro quo here. These busy and successful authors took the time to extend a hand to a newbie with no thought of being paid for their efforts. And I’m the one who contacted them; not my editor of my publisher.

      Reply
  31. Anna Erishkigal

    It can be really hard to get legitimate reviews! I would not say, though, that people don’t read them. People are cynical, and getting wise to the games both publishers/self-publishers and also other manufactured product sellers do to hawk their wares. I, personally, ignore the 5-star reviews and look at what the 1, 2, and 3-star reviews say before making a decision to buy. Everybody is happy when their shiny new book/shoes/widget arrives in the mail. It’s the scathing review 2 months later that matters. You then compare the 5-star reviews to the 2-star reviews and figure out which is legitimate. Personally, I would rather have a well-written 4-star review from a lay reader who points out both the strengths and weaknesses of my writing than a bunch of canned 5-star reviews that either simply outline the plot (you know THAT review was purchased) or say ‘loved it’ and little more.

    Reply
  32. carol brill

    I review books for the New York Journal of Books. I do not get paid , and do it for the love of reading and the chance to write in a venue other than fiction.
    As a reviewer, I believe my job is to find a book’s strength-even books I do not admire have strengths, and to write a balanced review.
    I guess my question is, does everyone believe a paid reviewer cannot/will not write a balanced review?
    Why is a reviewer’s time to read the book and write the review not worth compensation?
    Are we talking about being “paid” or being “paid-off”?

    Reply
    • Steve Vernon

      All kidding aside, there is a big difference between writing a review and getting paid by your publisher as opposed to writing a bought-and-paid-for-by-the-author review.

      It boils down to obligation.

      Being and old-school sort of fellow I have a keen sense of obligation. When a publisher of a magazine pays me to fill a page I do my level best to fill it. I owe the magazine or website that has paid me to fill up space with a few intelligent words strung together in an entertaining fashion.

      I’m a writer, as well, and I’m used to the idea of handing out review copies. You cannot expect the reviewer to actually BUY your book to review it. It would be nice – but in the world we live in – things work differently.

      Amazon did change that, in that it started out allowing people who actually bought your book to express their opinion online. They likewise offered a venue for professional reviewers to likewise share their reviews.

      But if I, as a writer, pull a fistful of money out of wallet and hand it to you and ask you to write me a review there is a whole element of obligation that enters into the transaction. If I give you actual pay-your-bills money to write me a review it DAMN well better be a good one.

      That’s a conflict of interest no matter how you look at it.

      If I just hand you a copy and ask you to review it I realize the risk and there is no feeling of entitlement involved. I realize that you might read the book and think that it would perhaps serve better purpose in a landfill rather than a library – and you would be entitled to express that opinion as a truly objective reviewer.

      But once that review becomes a commodity – once it becomes a piece of paid-for propaganda – then we have entered the realm of paid advertising.

      Infomercials.

      Plugs.

      Those little annoying blown-in flyers that always fall out of your favorite newstand magazine.

      In a word – spam.

      Let me end this with one final anecdote.

      One of the tipping-point reasons why I got out of the business of professional reviewing – the magazine that I was writing the book review for contacted me and told me – “This author has paid for advertising in our magazine. Can’t you find ANYTHING nice to say about their book?”

      I told them that she had nice pages, made of real paper, and the corners folded down really nicely – and pulled the review.

      Books are – at the end of the day – a commodity – which means sooner or later money is going to futz things up.

      Reply
      • Joel Friedlander

        Well said, Steve. And that’s the point: obligation. Remember the “wall” between the editorial and the advertising departments? Showing some cracks, I’d say.

        Reviewers deserve to be paid, why do it for nothing? The point is who pays them and what obligation does that create, and you’ve spelled it out.

        Reply
    • H. Tran

      I was encouraged to buy a review from the New York Journal of Books, but it was pricy.

      Reply
  33. Steve Vernon

    I was a professional book reviewer for about two years – selling my reviews to several magazines and websites. I was paid from ten to twenty dollars per review – BY THE PUBLISHER.

    I did it for pocket money.

    I did it for the access to free books.

    The author NEVER had to pay anybody beyond being willing to supply an arc – which was often supplied by their own publisher.

    That’s the way it needs to be done. That’s the way it works.

    I give up the business – partly because I was getting asked to read more and more books that I just plain didn’t want to read in the first place.

    Life was too damn short to read bad books for money.

    As far as writers buying reviews – it strikes me as a bad practice. Number one – it destroys any form of credibility. If the practice spreads – which it probably might – the average book review is going to be about as believable as a YOU-CAN-EARN-BIG-MONEY-JUST-BY-SITTING-AT-HOME-ON-YOUR-BUTT classified ad.

    Besides all that – most of those paid-for five-star reviews are duller than nine day old toe jam. I mean, have you read some of them?

    “I liked this book. It holds up my coffee table real well.” – FIVE STARS

    “I loved this book. In fact, I traded my wife for it. Wish I hadn’t gone and lost that book in divorce court.” – FIVE STARS

    “Boox r kul. Du U reed boox? I redd this buk and it wuz kul.” – FIVE STARS

    So – should writers buy reviews?

    They’d be further off investing their loose change in the nickle slots at their local bowling alley.

    Reply
    • Tracy R. Atkins

      The micro-transaction site Fiverr has made buying reviews a commodity. There are the are thousands of people offering to post a supplied review to Amazon or B&N for $5. Some of them even offer to post 2,3 or 4 reviews for that price. They let you write it. It makes the practice spread like wildfire. Due to this, I wonder if credibility is already damaged beyond repair? How do you tell apart an author who promoted their book well in advance and have 100 honest reviews ready for launch day, vs a guy that paid a few hundred?

      Muddy waters that are bad for both self pubs and big six alike.

      Reply
      • Steve Vernon

        How do you tell?

        In the end, the words will tell. I read some of the reviews – but more importantly I take a look at the opening sample pages. I don’t have to read too far to figure out that one writer’s voice is going to turn my crank – while another writer’s voice wouldn’t get me even remotely worked up if he was reading out the winning Powerball Lottery ticket winning numbers.

        It’s just like buying a book in a bookstore. I always open the first page and start reading. I can usually tell if I want to buy the book or not.

        Reviews are great. Speaking as a writer reviews are freaking near wonderful. There is a great sense of accomplishment that comes from somebody you don’t know stating in public that they dug your words and found them of value.

        But in the end – it is the reader’s responsibility – just like any consumer – to take that puppy for a test drive before opening their wallet. It isn’t always easy, it isn’t always practical or even possible – but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb to follow.

        Reply
        • Tracy R. Atkins

          About 10 years ago, a buddy of mine picked up a short book called “Crum”. It was a memoir-like tale about growing up in the little back-wood WV town of Crum. It was scandalous to say the least, full of vulgar and some really graphic detail.

          My friend was curious what Crum, WV was really like, so we
          drove up there one Saturday. We went to some of the local businesses with a copy of the book and asked what they thought about it. Everyone had something to say. People would get downright mad over the book!

          Every single time, at the end, we would ask, “Did you read it?”. Out of a dozen people, none of them had.

          Reply
        • Sharon L Reddy

          Oh, please Look Inside. That’s where the hook is. I’ve never bought a review. In fact, I’ve only personally asked for one from three known reviewers. I got one. I have five stars and I have two stars, with a couple fours and one three, on thirty titles. It’s obvious the two stars aren’t actually from readers. They’re grab freebie and drop nasty, after Select program promo. I have a total of nineteen in a year.

          No, you can’t get a review all those places, on blogs and such, if you write anything epic, or very unusual. They don’t say no. You just never hear from them. Now, authors who review other authors are taking a whole lot of flack. They bought the book. They read the book. But they’re “authors,” not “customers.” How dare they write a review, like they’re actually ‘people?’ “Everyone go vote all that cheater’s reviews down. Then we’ll add some bad ones and vote them all up and ‘fix that author.'” This is what has happened with reviews on Amazon and why nearly every author I chat with frequently will not be putting books in Amazon Select again.

          I don’t ask for reviews. My friends would be shocked if I asked them. They’re not in my target market. Yes, reviews are a problem, but patience works on getting them. It doesn’t help a d… bit when one of the Pack, uses a false identity to drop a one-star on a book without reviews, because the author stood up for him or herself when attacked by the pack on a forum.

          Reply
          • Tracy R. Atkins

            Sharon,

            You may have the best post of the thread here. Your first line says it all. “Look Inside”. That is the best hedge against buying a work you don’t like, and the cornerstone of the caveate emptor style of book buying that is now upon us.

            The ability to read the first chapter or two of a book is available at every brick and mortar store and most online stores. It is right there for all to examine. Perhaps we should begin to educate other readers to look beyond the customer generated reviews, blurbs and cover copy, and simply read the opening pages of the book. It takes the same amount of time and gives you an instant feel for the title you are about to invest your time and money in.

      • Debbie

        Update: Amazon is suing fivver reviewers for posting commercial reviews outside the editorial section as if a customer review.

        Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Good one, Steve. You actually read and reviewed books for $10? Gotta be an easier way.

      Reply
      • Steve Vernon

        Well, in at least one case it lead to an interview series with some reasonably profitable interview fees as well as a chance to have a long telephone conversation with Neil Gaiman.

        (the grinning geek that hides within my suave outer appearance
        thought that was pretty freaking cool!)

        But yes – the ten bucks a pop did not amount to much at all and it was one of the reasons that I gave it up – but it also lead to a lot of free books – including more than a few limited edition collectibles – thanks to the genre I was reviewing in.

        But I wouldn’t do it again. Definitely for ten or even twenty bucks.

        Reply
      • Linton Robinson

        Thousands of people do it for free because they enjoy it, or to draw people to their blog.

        Reply
  34. Jacquelyn Lynn

    Certainly authors need reviews to sell books, and getting reviews should be a part of their business plan for their book. Yes, getting legitimate reviews takes time and energy. Your suggestion to hire someone to manage the process is good — pay that person instead of paying for reviews. It might take a little longer, but the reviews will be authentic and, in the end, more valuable.

    Buying reviews is in the same category as buying Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers. You might get the numbers, but are they worth anything?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Exactly. And sometimes you can tell, for instance Twitter users with thousands of followers but only a few tweets. It just comes across as completely phony.

      Reply
  35. Diane Lynn Tibert McGyver

    I haven’t trusted reviews for decades regardless if it was for a book, movie or other product. My first assumption is that it was paid for in some way. Traditionally and untraditionally published books are in the same boat when it comes to reviews. I seldom read reviews and if I do, I do only to get an idea of what the story is about, not to know if the reviewer liked it or not. The only exception is for movie reviews. If the reviewer hates it, it’s probably a movie I’ll enjoy.

    Pointing the finger at authors who publish untraditionally and pay for reviews is just one more thing traditional publishers make a big deal out of even though they’ve been doing it for years. All those little blurbs by well-known authors to promote new authors aren’t worth the ink they’re written in. Is the well-known author paid or given some sort of incentive to write it? Who knows. It doesn’t matter because it’s not as if it’s an honest opinion. It’s there to help sell the book, not tell readers if it is great or not.

    Reply
  36. Simon Townley

    For sure, this is a disreputable practice. But it’s easy to point the finger at self-published authors, because they are promoting their own books, which looks like vanity. But when business does the same thing, then it just looks like business. So if mainstream publishers do this, it will simply be part of effective marketing. If people selling camping chairs and electronic gadgets on Amazon do this, does anyone kick up a fuss? Look through Amazon sometime. On many products, virtually all the reviews look fake. If you leave a comment complaining about the situation, that will rapidly get voted down as not helpful – and I mean quickly. Give it a try, see what happens. Manipulating Amazon reviews is clearly a major marketing activity, and probably a full-time job for some people. This doesn’t justify paying for reviews and I don’t intend to ever do that – but don’t simply wag the finger at self-published authors. Everyone is at it.
    I’d say Amazon and their algorithms have a lot to answer for. I recently read a book on Kindle marketing for self-publishers and it had a lot of good information. But it devoted a whole chapter to how to create fake reviews – and made the point that it’s almost impossible to rise up the listing without lots of favourable reviews. The author was suggesting that it’s a key part of getting noticed in the kindle. It’s not just about persuading readers to buy your book – it’s vital in getting noticed in the first place.
    Now, no outsiders really know how Amazon’s algorithms work, but this writer was convinced it was a major factor, and he was making a living selling books on the site.

    Reply
    • Tracy R. Atkins

      Amazon built an empire because of customer reviews. Back when they started doing them, it was the edge that got them to where they are now. Now those same reviews are becoming a liability. They started the “vine” program for reviews in exchange for free merchandise. Those vine reviews are heavily weighted over customer reviews. I wonder how that is going to go.

      Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Simon, you make a good point. I’m not “pointing the finger” at self-published authors, but I’m addressing them because that’s my audience. If I wrote for camping supply manufacturers, maybe my take on this would be different (but maybe not).

      Reply
  37. christopher wills

    I’m not sure it is as straightforward as you imply. A book review in the New York Times or Guardian is a paid for review because someone has been paid to review the book. A book review on a postcard stuck on a shelf in a bookshop is a paid review because the staff must be ‘encouraged’ to write the reviews and I wonder who selects those books. A book review on a chat show is a paid review because the publishing company will have paid considerable sums of money promoting and marketing the author to get them on chat shows unless the author is in great demand. A book launch party with the gliterati invited and reported on by the media is effectively a paid review etc. I am sure there are many more examples in the traditional publishing world.
    The real problem with self published authors paying for reviews is that it lacks the sophisticated (underhand?) ways the traditional pubishing world has developed to get their paid reviews.

    Reply
    • jonejinx

      As a full blown cynic, the idea that the big boys don’t pay for reviews is just idiotic. In this world, NOTHING is free, big publishing is just slicker about it to the point where you don’t see the payment.

      Reply
      • Tracy R. Atkins

        Jonejinx

        I agree that many reviews are really just extensions of PR and promotional materials. Perhaps those are more of an investment in marketing. However, author beware; Paid reviews aren’t always a good investment either, especially with the more “reputable” outlets. Publisher Weekly Select is pretty brutal on their paid reviews. I don’t know how anyone would consider it a wise move to peruse one.

        (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/52904-pw-select-july-2012-reviews.html )

        Reply
      • Debbie

        The difference is that reviews the big boys and paid reviewers on staff at professional publications like the “New York Times” are not pretending to be consumer reviews from just a reader/customer. They don’t post in with customer or consumer product opinions.

        NYT and commercial/professional services like Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, the American Library Journal and others are absolutely not having reviews posting in with the customer reviews. They keep those to their own publications and areas clearly for professional/commercial reviews like the editorial section on Amazon.com.

        Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Christopher, to my mind the question is who pays for the review, and there’s a world of difference between a reviewer paid by an employer to write unbiased reviews and an author who pays for a review in hope of selling books. It’s similar to the “wall” that is supposed to exist in publications between the editorial and advertising departments.

      Reply
      • christopher wills

        I’m not sure I made my point very well. The money a publishing company pays to get books reviewed comes directly from the author as the publishing company’s cut of the cover price. So traditionally published authors are paying to get their books reviewed with some of the 90% of cover price they don’t receive.

        And reviewers do receive some of this money because their salaries are paid by publishing companies paying to advertise in the papers. I bet you a large publishing company that spends a lot of money on advertising in a newspaper gets a lot of their books reviewed in that paper. Reviewers also get other payment direct from the publishing companies, like invites to launch parties and meals and I have heard of sports book reviewers getting tickets to sporting events paid for by publishers.

        I am not saying that paying for a review is right I am just saying that publishing companies have evolved complex ways of paying for their books to get reviewed without it seeming like they are doing it overtly. A top publisher’s marketing director would not last very long in their job if they were not getting their books reviewed in the top papers and magazines.

        And the author is paying for these reviews, albeit by proxy. As for unbiased, sorry I don’t believe that for one minute. I am sure many are unbiased but how many authors get paid to review their best mate’s book knowing their best mate will also be paid to review their new book a few weeks later.

        Sorry Joel but I am a cynic and money is involved so publishing companies are going to pull every trick they can to sell as many books as they can. The difference is that it is obviously corrupt when a self published author pays for a review; but traditional publishing companies are just as corrupt; they just don’t appear that way because they can call it marketing. But the result is the same – to get books reviewed.

        Reply
  38. Ernie Zelinski

    Joel:

    No, authors and publishers should definitely not use paid reviews.

    As someone posted recently when I questioned the amount of integrity there is in all the programs offered to wanabee writers.

    “Integrity is in great demand today but in extremely short supply.”

    Even so, I question the value of these reviews. Sure, people are citing John Locke and his use of a review service. Locke definitely shouldn’t have used the review service. In my opinion, Locke still would have had his great success if he didn’t use the review service. I read Locke’s ebook on how to market ebooks. I was impressed by all the work he put into marketing and I believe he would have been remarkably successful if he didn’t use the review service.

    A certain number of reviews are important for selling a book on Amazon. Much more important, however, is getting people to visit Amazon’s webpage for your book. You can have one hundred 5-star reveiws. But if no one ever visits the Amazon page for your book, it will be stuck in never, never land.

    Here is an example of a book with some reviews but with poor sales. I first noticed this book (apparently published by a subsidy publisher) when someone on Facebook posted a link to a webpage about the book on this review service.

    https://www.readerviews.com/ReviewHolmesBeyondTheMyth.html

    My guess is that the author paid anywhere from $75 to $400 for the review, depending on the package she chose. This particular review also appeared on Amazon for awhile until Amazon removed it.

    Note at the link below that this book now has 9 Amazon reviews, more than a lot of books.

    https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Myth-Maria-t-Holmes/dp/0983094616/

    Yet my estimate from the “Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,652,783 in Books” is that the print edition of this book has sold fewer than 10 copies through normal channels since the book was released over one and a half years ago. (Insofar as Kindle sales, I cannot give as acccurate as an estimate but from its Kindle sales ranking, it’s nothing to write home about.)

    Also note that one of the 9 Amazon reviews comes from another review service. You will find the same review at:

    https://www.featheredquill.com/reviews/inspirational/holmes.shtml

    In short, the author apparently used a subsidy publisher and then used at least two review services. The success of the book is not that great.

    There is a little irony here, too. The book is about using “The Law of Attraction” to manifest things that you would like in your life. It seems that the author hasn’t been that effective in attracting much prosperity through the sales of her book. Or am I being a little too cynical? On the other hand, perhaps my mention of the book here will give it the publicity push it needs to reach its potential, much more so than the paid reviews have done for the book.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Prosperity Life Coach
    Author of How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free
    (Over 165,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Ernie, as usual you are right on. If more authors did the kind of simple anaysis you’ve produced here, the pay for review sites would have fewer customers.

      Reply
  39. James T Kelly

    I couldn’t agree more. I paid-for review is just an advert masquerading as something else. How would you feel if a friend spent weeks telling you how good the latest Bond film was only to tell you after you’d seen it that they hadn’t and were just telling you that for the money?

    That said I can see why so many writers might have gone this route. The fear, nay panic, that your book will never be found amongst the noise of the Internet must be almost paralysing. And hey, of it was good enough for John Locke? Who isn’t going to be tempted by a slice of that pie?

    Reply
  40. Jane Smith

    “Even institutions like ForeWord, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly offer programs where you pay to play.”

    I don’t have time to check up ForeWord or PW, but I know that Kirkus herds all its paid-for reviews into one section, though, which isn’t distributed with its more well-regarded free reviews: so not only do they not have the same reach, it’s clear to well-informed readers which reviews are paid-for and which aren’t.

    The paid-for reviews which have kicked up all this fuss are ones which masquerade as legitimate ones, in venues which provide a facility for anyone to write a review. There’s a big difference.

    I agree with you that writers shouldn’t pay for reviews: it’s not appropriate. I wish more writers realised that.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Jane, PW does the same thing with its PW Selects program. Still, I’m sure that many authors go into these programs convinced that they will get some massive benefit from them, while all it really is is a way for companies to trade on their name while relieving authors of money that could be better spent on promotions that might actually make a difference. Why else would they pay to have a tiny notice in the “self-published” ghetto?

      Reply
    • rebecca myers

      I am a new self-published author of “My Journey to Heaven And Back” and I have found it extremely difficult to find reviewers. I believe that I should not pay for the review because it will give me less credentials. However, trying to find book reviewers for the self published is anguishing. If there is a site that is opened now for reviews I would love to know about it. Thank you for your site.

      Reply
      • Jennifer Deaves

        I am a reviewer who does both paid and free reviews. I do not base my review on whether the author paid or not, with all my reviews being an honest, open and non biased review. I review based on what I read, not the money I receive. I think the key here may be to steer away from the large review companies and stay with the independent reviewer.

        Why do I offer a paid system? I would love to review every self published authors book for free but, as a long time reviewer, the demand for reviews and the amount of books I receive daily are so high that my free reviews are logged in 12 months or more in advance. Most authors do not want to wait this long, and I do not blame them. By providing a paid service I offer authors the opportunity to have their book reviewed within 4-6 weeks of my receiving it. I do not only review the books but offer a package that includes marketing – publishing the review in the two magazines, online, and on numerous social media outlets. Basically I think authors need to spend their money wisely, looking at their marketing budget and cost for service offered. I am more than happy to receive free books from any authors if they are willing to wait.

        Reply
        • Brian Beecher

          Made an earlier comment under a moniker but chose to use my real name for this one. I shall take you up on the free review offer simply because I cannot afford paid reviews at this time as I am deep in debt, only sporadically employed, and still have a car payment to manage for a few more months. My novel JUDAS TIMES SEVEN marries fiction with fact in dealing with the dark side of office politics. It is a story of greed, betrayal and jealousy in the modern workplace which shows that when feelings may be hypersensitive actions based on betrayal and jealousy can sink one’s career with no opportune way to fight back. Should be a must-read for anyone concerned with restoring a sense of fairness to the workplace.

          Reply
        • Debbie

          I presume when posting in with consumer reviews (or what appear to be) on all U.S. sites you clearly disclose yours is a paid review as required by federal consumer fraud and endorsement laws.

          Some sites, like Amazon.com, also have policies in place allowing paid reviews (outside of payment of a disclosed free-for-review book) only quoted in editorial sections. Some like goodreads flat out prohibit paid (commercial) reviews and any commercial use of their site outside of someone’s author’s page and groups/threads set up for commercial purposes.

          Reply
      • Linton Robinson

        Jane, your best bet is to search for bloggers in your area of writing. There are tons of them.
        But really, what are free-standing reviews worth to you? What counts is reviews on your book’s amazon page, where your friends, reading club members, etc. are as valid to “social cred” as some guy at Kirkus.

        Reply
    • beechnut79

      I just pulled up the Kirkus website and was unable to find free reviews, and they charge $425 for a standard review and $575 for express service, which is almost that much over what I can afford. Perhaps you know something that I don’t. And even those outfits that DO offer free reviews, much like the free online dating sites, like to play this “upgrade” game to get you to go for a paid version. Supposedly you get more benefits.

      Reply
    • Gary Ockunzzi

      Very good food-for-thought article, Joel. I self published a book 17 years ago. Never paid for a review (while I have only a few and I’ve sold just shy of a thousand books, I feel that I’ve kept my writer’s integrity intact, it is humble, I am humble and know that I’ll never be a famous author and that’s alright).

      Reply

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