Bookish Rant: The Buying and Selling of Book Reviews

I wish I had a dollar for every person who sent me a link to the New York Times article about paying for book reviews. You know the one, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy” from August 25. There’s a slight irony in the NYT publishing it, since no one really knows exactly how they compile their bestseller list, but I digress.

The things that keep circling in my mind about the whole “paying for reviews” thing go like this:
1.       It feels like there are more books out there than ever
2.       It is definitely harder to get people’s attention for anything than it used to be
3.       Most people pick the next book they are going to read because they’ve already read that author (96% based on the Goodreads May Newsletter) so how does a newbie author get on readers’ radar?
4.       Book Blogging is a labor of love, getting the blog to pay for itself (hosting fees, giveaways, etc.) is difficult enough, and blogging takes a lot of time and energy

Two things happen. (Okay, a lot more things happen, I’m only going to deal with two).

One of those things is the one that the New York Times article highlighted. Maybe low-lighted is a better word. Todd Rutherford made a tidy living for a while selling rave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads to authors. Not just authors whose names no one ever heard of, either. It turns out that part of John Locke’s self-publishing success is owed to purchased reviews.

Although the Times made a big deal about “exposing” this pay-for-play company, it’s a)out of business and b)not the only game in town.

Two companies, Blue Ink Review and Kirkus Book Reviews both offer a paid review service for independent/self-published authors. The difference is both cost much more (approx $400) and they each send the book to one reviewer who provides one review. Neither guarantees a good review. What they both offer is that if the author doesn’t like the review, the author has the option to not have it published. How often that happens, who knows?  Also, they don’t blanket Amazon and Goodreads with multiple five star reviews.

(As a librarian, I will say that Kirkus has a lot of history behind them. They’ve been in the reviewing business for a long, long time. Since 1933. I used to get their reviews when they went into a three-ring binder, which dates me as much as it does them. Their reviews were always long and thorough. What selling their services in this way does to their street cred in the long run remains to be seen. Their newsletter is available free online and for anyone interested in books it’s definitely worth a read.)

And then there were the ChicklitGirls, who are also out of business. After all, if Kirkus Book Reviews can charge $400+ for a book review, why shouldn’t a book blog charge a much more reasonable fee, oh say $95 for a book review? Just like Kirkus (well, sort of) they did disclose in their reviewing policy that there was a fee for a review. Unlike the more reputable publication they cited as their excuse, the “Girls” threatened to sue an author who complained about their practices. For a full report, take a look at the terrific summary over at Dear Author.

But isn’t what happened over at ChicklitGirls (minus the lawsuit threat, that was just bad behavior) part and parcel of the same thing?  They saw a way to make money, same as the New York Times article exposed (no pun intended) by charging authors for reviewing their books. And they tried to make money off what is otherwise a very labor-intensive what, hobby, addiction, drug-of-choice for most of us? Yes, I’m talking about book blogging. Which doesn’t otherwise pay.

We often get the books we review for free. But not always. Some of us buy them. Some people borrow them from the library. Often it’s a mix. Many blogs have affiliate links from Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble and/or The Book Depository. If we’re lucky we take in enough to pay the hosting fees for our sites and the cost of any giveaways. We probably all spend way more time than we ever imagined. Book blogging should probably be the dictionary definition of a labor of love. We love sharing what we read, so we blog.

But what happens when you get paid for reviewing a book? If you blog and you sign up for a tour, you might have faced a piece of this dilemma. You’re part of the advertising for the book, even though you’re not getting paid. You hate the book. You know the author doesn’t want a bad review as part of the tour. What do you do when it happens?

If you’ve been paid to review the book, then what? You really are part of the advertising. Your review is an ad. Ads are supposed to be positive.  So, if a review is paid for, is it a review, or is it an ad?

And when you read one, how do you know?

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7 thoughts on “Bookish Rant: The Buying and Selling of Book Reviews

  1. Ooo great rant Marlene! I was part of a book tour lately, and I would review the book. But I hated the writing style, I could not finish it. So I told her tourorganizer, and did a guestpost instead. I am really secondguessing my self now on continuing to participate in book tours for authors whose work I have not read and liked before.
    I do buy all my own books, I very rarely accept review requests, as I hate reading on command, but some authors I enjoy reading, and in that case I enjoy receiving an e-arc and read the book soon.

    Payment for reviews sound like a good way to make money, but I do believe that being honest, to yourself and to your readers, is more important. Lol, I would be happy with € 1,00 per review! I have been thinking about giveaways, but well, I want it to benefit my loyal readers and commenters, and not just any person who only responds to giveaways with the very same sentence at all times. So I will think a bit longer on that.

    Looking forward to reading more comments!

  2. Two other major pre-publication reviewers also have paid review programs: ForeWord (see https://www.forewordreviews.com/services/book-reviews/ ) has two tiers of paid review “opportunities,” and Publishers Weekly only considers “self-published” books for a fee (see http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/diy/index.html ). It has gotten very difficult for small press titles to get reviews; many book bloggers now ignore them and only accept books from large and/or well-known publishers.

  3. And that’s why I rarely post reviews as part of a tour: I want to be able to speak my mind. If I read a book for a tour and I do not like it, I let the tour organiser know and I will not review it.

  4. Marlene –

    I’m a reader not a reviewer but I had received one book from Goodreads but I couldn’t bring myself to write a review. It was definately not the book I was expecting (they had two books with the exact same title and I didn’t receive the one I was expecting).

    It was totally depressing and I just couldn’t bring myself to write a bad review so I wrote nothing at all. I thought maybe it was my perspective that was off but after months of reflection realized it really was an awful book.

    Needless to say I’ve never received another book from Goodreads.

    What do you thing? Would it really have been honest to write a review when I thought that way? Maybe it was my personal opinion and not the author’s writiing after all.

    What would you have done in the same circumstances?

    1. As long as you are reviewing the book and not the author, it’s your honest opinion. Goodreads sends those books out because they want opinions, you are perfectly within your rights to give them yours. I think you might even say that you were expecting a different book by the same title, and your expectations were “set” for the other book as part of your review.

  5. I have received books from tours where the book turned out to be absolutely awful. Fortunately only a couple of times. When it’s happened, I wrote the tour company and withdrew from the tour, and gave my reasons. I still host for those companies. Not every book is to everyone’s taste, although in one case the book was absolute dreck.

    If I’m lukewarm, I’ll post the interview or guest post, but one book I just couldn’t do that. It was serious suckage.

  6. Dude? I could be getting paid $400 to review books?! Screw this lawyer-shit. I need to change careers. Books are very much less stress-inducing. Do you think extreme sarcasm and dragon-bias would still warrant the full price?

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