On Paid Book Reviews

About a month ago, a friend and former coworker emailed this Salon article link, The Dreaded Amazon Breast Curve, to the members of our informal discussion and self-assigned world problem-solving group. Despite the article’s strange title, it is about authors, specifically independent authors, paying for reviews of their books.

The Salon story begins like this, “The fact that many authors pay services to write positive Amazon reader reviews of their books…

Wait a minute! That’s not a fact! That’s the opposite of fact. It’s a fabrication, exaggeration, misinformation, politics, spin, a lie! It’s also not true. As it’s authority for this slanderous statement, the Salon article sites a report from the New York Times, The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy.

At the time, I told my friends that the examples provided in these articles must be exceptions. Very few self-published authors would stoop to buying good reviews. For one thing, it costs money, and that’s something most indie authors have in short supply. Another thing is that it’s dishonest. As someone who should know, I confidently informed our little group that the generalizations and extrapolations made by these articles were simply unsound. The idea of authors buying good reviews seemed so ridiculous to me, I thought little more about it…

…Until, this morning. I was driving one of my kids to school, when I heard this report on the radio — Five Ways to Spot a Fake Online Review (from NPR). Now this report specifically focused on restaurant reviews, but it began by talking about authors buying or posting fake book reviews.

I don’t know about restaurants, but obviously rumors about how widespread the practice of buying misleading book reviews is continues. I still don’t believe it is common. In fact, I believe it’s relatively rare. I’m a self-published author. I sometimes stop by forums and read blogs by other authors, and the consensus about this seems to be that the idea of buying positive reviews is repulsive.

I have never and I will never pay someone to review my books. Asking for reviews is fine. Providing an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) or a promotional copy of a book to a potential reviewer is fine. But this is the only form of payment I think an author (or publisher) should ever offer, and promotional book copies must be given without any guarantee that a review — good, bad, or indifferent is forthcoming.

I probably read (or reread) about one-hundred novels a year. Most come from the public library, others I purchase, and I sometimes grab a free Kindle book during giveaways on Amazon when they sound like something I would like. I’ve reviewed several from all three sources. Normally, I post my reviews on this blog, on Amazon, and on Goodreads. Where I got the book has no impact on the likelihood of me writing a review. I have never and I will never accept money from an author to review one of his or her books. It would be inappropriate.

I believe there is a place for professional reviews and professional reviewers. I have no problem with reviewers being paid for unbiased reviews if they are employed by a magazine, newspaper, or similar media outlet, provided that the funding does not come from the authors, publishers, or anyone else with a financial interest in the books being reviewed.

I understand how hard it is for self-published authors to be noticed. I know this painfully well because I’m still struggling with it. So what, you might ask, is wrong with an unknown author paying for an honest review? How else will a new writer get attention?

Second question first — There are many, well, at least a few dozen websites that will consider reviewing books by self-published authors. Some only review indie books, and they do this impartially and without cost or any expectation of return favors. Some do it simply because they like reading and reviewing stuff they might not otherwise see. Search the web. You’ll find them.

First question second — The main reason authors should not pay for reviews is a matter of perception. It’s a matter of how the general book-buying public will perceive what is happening. We are not talking about paying someone to give you, as the author, an honest assessment of your book. We are talking about the author paying someone to tell the world how good his book is. Do you see the difference? Can you honestly not see why this might provide an impression of bias?

Authors live and die by reviews, especially independent authors. Traditional publishers don’t promote most of their authors as much as they once did perhaps, but one thing they do provide, by the very nature of being professional publishers, is a stamp of approval. A traditional publisher’s mark on a book tells readers that someone, other than the author and perhaps a few of his closest friends and family members, thinks his books are worth reading.

Chances are an indie author doesn’t have an agent, promoter, publisher, or anyone else helping him spread the news about his books. He needs his readers to help him do that, and one of the best ways his readers can help is by writing reviews. When the legitimacy of those reviews is called into question, what is left to show the world that someone thinks an indie author’s books are worth reading? Pretty much the author’s word for it, and no one expects him to be unbiased.

This is why reviews are so very important to indie writers. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say they are precious to them, and I believe this is why most indie authors are appalled at the idea of purchasing biased reviews. Doing so undermines the best way we have to build a reputation with readers.

I personally see the purchase of biased reviews as unethical, inconsiderate, and selfish. It’s also likely to backfire on the writer. Once it is discovered that he has paid for reviews, (or loaded Amazon with biased reviews he himself has written under bogus names) his work will be tainted. No matter how good it might be, the reviews will be discounted, even the honest ones from regular readers. If that taint fell only on the guilty, it would be poetic justice. But it is not that well targeted. It stains all of us.

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About Dave

A reader and writer of speculative fiction. See my website for more information on me and my writing. https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/

Posted on September 12, 2012, in Self Publishing, Thoughts and Observations and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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