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?

Covers, Stories, Teasers, Stars, Grades

What makes a book appealing to you? For that matter, what makes a book appealing to anyone? For her February 3 TGIF feature, GReads asked the question “When you’re browsing Goodreads, the library, or a blogger’s reviews, what grabs your attention to make you want to read it?”

For this blog, that’s a two-part question.

  1. What makes a book appealing to me?
  2. What makes a book ‘feature-worthy’ for the weekly Ebook Review Central?

If books were food, I would be making the old joke about being on the “seafood diet”. The joke was that I “see food and I eat it”. In the case of books, I see books and I want to read them. Not all books, but too awfully darn many.

We all judge books by their covers, but I use it to judge what category the book might be. I see gears and I think “steampunk, cool”, and that goes into the “maybe, yes” column. I see a man in a kilt and think “Highland Scots romance, probably not”.  I have, I will again, but unless they are either paranormal or time travel or something otherwise supernatural, except for Diana Gabaldon, I may be done there for a while.

Spaceships or computer chips means cyberpunk, space opera or science fiction romance; again, count me in. But cover art only suggests, it doesn’t guarantee.

I also go for authors I know or whose series I have started. I don’t read a lot of mysteries per se, but I read a lot of mystery series where I’m neck deep in the series, and I’m invested. Or is that committed?

I also like stories where the author has tried something new, so if the reviewer says they didn’t just love the story, but also that there is something new and interesting going on, I might try the book. Particularly if I trust the reviewer. There are some reviewers whose “mehs” mean more than other reviewers’ 5 star ratings. Everyone has their own style.

But when it comes to Ebook Review Central, I use an entirely different criteria for determining which books get featured. Every Monday ERC features up to three books from the publishing output for the publisher(s) and the month in question. On January 30, the publisher of the week was Samhain Publishing, the month was December 2011. On February 3, the last December 2011 issue will feature Amber Quill, Astraea Press, Liquid Silver Books and Riptide Publishing.

I do look for books where there were a lot of reviews. If a title gets 15 or more reviews, that’s one I’ll definitely feature. At that point, they don’t even all have to be good reviews, although it helps. If something is worth talking about that much, then it’s a title that other readers might want to take a look at. In romance, after all, love and hate are often opposite sides of the same coin.

I also look for the tone of the reviews. When the reviewers are doing more than just giving a story five stars and A+ ratings, when the collective reviewing landscaping is searching for words beyond “everyone must read this NOW!” that’s a sign the book is worth showcasing.

When it comes to the Ebook Review Central, it really doesn’t have anything to do with my reading tastes. I might have read some of the books listed for the week, and I might not. And even if I did, I might not have agreed with the other reviewers. The books that get featured depend on the collective blogosphere.

Of course, sometimes I’ll see how much other reviewers loved a certain book, and I’ll be intrigued. There are also times when I’ll see that no one is reviewing a particular author’s books, and I’ll wonder why no one cared enough about the book to post a review on Goodreads or Amazon.

Which leads back to that question again.  What makes a book appealing to you?

Do I read romances? Is the sky blue?

I can never resist a happy ending. Or even a “happy for now” ending.

As a friend pointed out, I do review a lot of what he called “bodice rippers” on my blog. Even if not a lot of actual bodices get ripped, because some of them are contemporary romances and as many as I can find are science fiction romances. But my friend was close to correct, at least in the “horseshoes and hand grenades” definition of close. I do read a lot of romance novels. I enjoy them.

I am also aware that I am quite fortunate. A lot of romance novels are available for review on NetGalley. This is what we call a win-win. Except when it comes to writing all the reviews. I read a lot of books, I write a lot of reviews.

Reading Romances, the blog, is running a Reading Romances Challenge that has a signup and a Goodreads group. One of the interesting things about this challenge is that instead of the usual levels, there are specific, well, I guess you would call them tasks, except that’s not quite right.

A task implies that it’s something you wouldn’t want to do. These are more like stretch goals. The idea is to get romance readers to try something a bit out of their romance comfort zones. The January stretch is to either read the first book of a series, read a book by a debut author, read a book by an author that’s new to the reader, OR, read a YA romance OR read an erotic romance. All the “challengee” has to do is pick one of the above.

I chose to read a book by an author that’s new to me. Why? Because I read a lot of books by authors who are new to me. It’s part of my reviewing. I love discovering new “voices”.

And on the Goodreads group side of this equation–I committed to reading 50 romances. Like that’s going to be a problem. I think I’ve got 5 down and 45 to go. Make that 44 and 3/4–I started a new book today, and guess what? It’s a romance!