Can readers trust paid-for book reviews?

I’m delighted to welcome fellow author Kevin Domenic. Kevin has published a number of novels, including the Manga style Fourth Dimension series. Today he talks about the ethics of paid book reviews.
Promotional Honesty

 Got my first one-star rating last weekend.  Wasn’t a good morning.  I never really expected to get glowing reviews from everyone and anyone who picked up my work, but that didn’t take away the sting that came with being told the book I spent so many hours imagining, writing, changing, editing, deleting, rewriting, publishing, and promoting was so terrible in the eyes of a reader that they gave it the lowest possible score.  Granted, it is only one rating.  And the person didn’t leave an actual review to go with it.  Not even a name, for that matter.  It simply says, “Anonymous, 1 out of 5 Stars.  No text was provided with this review.”  But that was all it took to send me into a weekend-long review hunt, sending promotional copies of Key to the Stars to as many book review websites as I could find, hoping a few more good reviews might offset the damage done to the book’s overall score by that single star.  After all, there are plenty of readers and websites out there who are more than happy to give honest reviews for free.

 Then I found a website (which shall remain nameless) that offered book reviews for fifty dollars each. 

 I am not a supporter of paid reviews.  Considering many corporations are employing people within their organizations to post fake 5-star reviews on their products (The Consumerist: Spot Fake Product Reviews) and some are even giving customers free products in exchange for positive reviews (The Consumerist: Retailers Resor to Offering Refunds to Customers For Positive Reviews Online), I refuse to take part in any of that kind of nonsense.  I want my reviews to be honest, legitimate, and from real readers with nothing to gain or lose from reviewing my book.  I want to know what they thought, how they felt, and whether or not the book was worth the money.

 Shortly after discovering this website, I found myself in a conversation with a paid reviewer.  This person referred to herself as a “Professional Reviewer” and felt that the both the cost and the title added extra credibility to the reviews she wrote.  Additionally, a book review from this website came with an in-depth analysis of the author’s writing ability which points out where the book fails and where it can improve.  Her argument was that newspapers like the New York Times pay their book reviewers, so why would this be any different? 

 But there’s a fundamental difference in ideology there.  A book reviewer for the New York Times is paid directly by their employer, not the author.  It doesn’t matter whether the review is good or bad, they will still be paid.  And, provided they do the job to the satisfaction of their employer, they will be given more books to review.  The authors themselves have zero input.  It doesn’t matter whether or not he or she likes the review; such feelings have no bearing on whether or not the reviewer will get more work, and thus, continue to receive a paycheck.  Therefore, there’s no reason for them to feel swayed one way or the other. 

 On the other hand, paid reviews inevitably come with a stigma because the reviewer is making money.  Think of it this way.  Reviewers are well aware that most authors are not going to write, edit, publish, and promote just one book.  They’re going to make at least two, if not more.  That means an opportunity for repeat business.  If the author is happy with the first review, it’s reasonable to expect they’ll go back to the same reviewer for the next.  So, a positive review serves the financial interest of the reviewer.

 In other words, I don’t trust paid reviews.

 I know that there are plenty of people out there who just want good reviews on their products regardless of how they get them.  Whether it’s a book or an album or a wrench or a stove, many sellers are happy to forge reviews in exchange for profit.  The problem, aside from the fact that it’s immoral and dishonest, is that people feel betrayed when the reality of the false review comes to light.  Honestly, how would it make you feel as a customer of Amazon.com to see a report that employees of a product’s manufacturer have posted fake reviews to influence your purchases like this: The Consumerist: Yet Another Company Learns the Difference Between Amazon Reviews and Ads.

I know I’d feel betrayed.  And you know what?  I’d rather have a thousand one-star reviews than betray my readers.

 God bless,

Kevin

 

Kevin Domenic Blogspot

Kevin on Facebook

Key to the Stars on Amazon.com

14 responses to “Can readers trust paid-for book reviews?

  1. Just saw a link to this on IWU’s FB page. Those one star reviews with no text totally suck. I get quite a few of them on B and N. I assume they are from illiterate people who don’t like my genre or my name or are having a bad day. I think no-text reviews should be banned.

    But as far as Kirkus, their reviewers are indeed paid, and have been since the beginning of the magazine. Their primary customers are their subscribers, who are teachers and librarians. They have to be honest, because otherwise, libraries would drop them. I don’t think it’s right that they charge so much to review indies and small presses, but it’s their way of gatekeeping. They figure you’d better be pretty sure of your literary quality to put down that amount of money to let a Kirkus reviewer at your book (they’re notoriously snarky.). A good review from them is probably worth the money, but the money is no guarantee of a good review.

  2. I’ve been reading these types of posts with great interest. I offer book reviews on my blog at no charge. This is what bothers me. Because I receive the book from the publisher or author at no charge, the FTC considers that payment and I am considered a paid reviewer yet I get paid nothing. Honestly, the time it takes to read a book and review it, is not worth getting the free book. Many times, those books are donated to our local children’s literacy program. It has no bearing on my review. If I were working for a newspaper or Kirkus, I would not only get the free book, but get paid for my work. I think it is unfair that I am expected to disclose everywhere I write a review that I received the book free of charge but Kirkus can charge a large fee and not do the same. There are some of us that believe giving fair and honest reviews are important. That said, I would rather return a book and let the author or publisher know I didn’t like it and refuse to write a review than destroy a career over giving it a one star. Always a slippery slope.
    If I didn’t receive free books, I would simply not be able to continue reviewing books. Not all books are available in the local libraries and I certainly don’t have the extra time or money to hunt them down. I book review request is long. Also, receiving books helps me discover titles I would never find on my own.

    • Wow! That is interesting. There are hundreds of online review blogs. Some state they received the books at no charge, some do not. I doubt it occurs to them that the FTC has any interest.

      Although I wouldn’t go as far as to say a 1 star review could destroy a career, it’s always nice to hear that an ethical reviewer would rather return a book they don’t like than give a negative review. Look at Stephen King and see how many 1 stars he has for his books! :)

  3. Comment on Goodreads from Val
    “Kevin, I like that attitude, and I wish you soon some more constructive feedback from your readers! Good luck!”

  4. As I understand it, Amazon’s policy is that paid reviews are not allowed under reviews, but must be put in the editorial section of the listing. That being the case, anyone looking at a book on Amazon and reading the reviews should feel confident that the “reader reviews” are all unpaid, except for the copy that was sent to the reviewer. Paid reviews are classified as editorial reviews and it’s up to the publisher to add them in the appropriate section of the listing.

    It’s so hard to tell though. As an example, I submitted my book to and received a recommended from Midwest Book Reviews for Loyalty Binds Me. Midwest added the review on Amazon, which Amazon took down, although it wasn’t a paid review. I was able to insert Midwest’s review under Editorial reviews for my Kindle version which I self published, but the indie publisher I used for the paperback version hasn’t been able to add it to the Editorial Reviews section for that listing.

  5. Kirkus generally reviews for the large publishing houses and they are paid by the publisher. They opened up their review to indies, but it ain’t cheap. Paying Kirkus to do a review doesn’t guarantee a good review. But they don’t publish the review–it’s up to whoever purchased the review to use it or not. You can read about it here.

    I used Kirkus as an example of paid reviews that can be trusted. Their business model fails if their reviews lose their integrity.

    • Thanks, Joan, and thanks for the info on Kirkus! I’m interested in what Kevin says about readers not trusting paid reviews when they recognize one as such, because I’ve read quite a few posts in the Amazon forums about it. Whether the review is legitimate or not, if people who could potentially purchase a book think the review is biased and don’t purchase because of that, the author loses a sale. So I suppose an author has to consider this when he/she chooses to pay for a review.

  6. Hey all,

    First and foremost, thanks so much to Linda Welch for posting my blog! I’m happy to be here and I’m glad to be featured.

    Regarding Kirkus: I must disagree. While I agree that full disclosure is a good thing, I still think the idea of being paid for a review opens up the possibility of having biased reviews.

    Just because the reviewer isn’t getting paid directly doesn’t mean they aren’t encouraged or pressured to write favorable reviews by management. Kirkus, like any company, is a business. And the point of any business is to generate profit. One of the biggest contributors to long-term profit is repeat business. An author is far more likely to spend more money on additional reviews if the first one is positive.

    However, let’s just say for the sake of argument that Kirkus indeed gives out unbiased reviews. Most readers don’t know this. If I, as a reader, knew that a review I was reading came from a company that the author paid to review the product, I wouldn’t trust a word it said. I’d assume it was biased and ignore it while simultaneously losing a little respect for the author in the process. In order to find out a reviewer was (hypothetically) unbiased, I’d have to go through the process of investigating and researching the company, reviewers, and their background.

    And I doubt many readers are going to go through that hassle just to decide whether or not a review is legit.

    That’s just my opinion, of course. :)

  7. i agree completely! I know some author’s pay big bucks to get a review from some of the “big” influential sites, they are getting more than a review, they are getting exposure to a very large group. But i would have to call into question the validity of the review, even if there isn’t any wrong doing it still seems wrong. I wasn’t surprised to read about people getting paid to write fake reviews on amazon, and pissed too. I post reviews there and this sort of thing will make people question my reviews.

  8. I couldn’t agree more, Kevin. Great post.

  9. I’m ambivalent about paid reviews. At first I thought, like you, that I was betraying my readers if I paid a review site to review my books, but I have modified that opinion. I think a review that’s paid for isn’t a betrayal if it’s done professionally and there’s full disclosure. For example, Kirkus opened its reviews up to indies. The author or small publisher pays Kirkus to do the review, but not the reviewer directly. There is no guarantee that Kirkus will give your baby a favorable review. In effect, there’s a Chinese firewall between the author and the actual reviewer. I know there are other sites that operate this way, and the reviewer you contacted may be one of them, so I’m not so quick to judge a paid review as a betrayal.

    At present, I have not paid for a review other than to send the reviewer one or two copies of my books–some may consider that a form of payment. However, that doesn’t mean that in the future, budget permitting, I would eschew paying for a review from a legimate reviewer like Kirkus.

    Joan

    • That poses the question, does Kirkus pay it’s reviewers, or are they volunteers? I don’t know. If the reviewers are paid, would Kirkus continue to “hire” reviewers who did not serve their customers’ best interests? Kirkus is a business and businesses serve their customers, in this case the authors or small presses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Afiseaza emoticoanele Locco.Ro