I love the topic of paying for review services. In writers forums such as Goodreads it is met with a hailstorm of commentary against the practice. The general voiced consensus is that paying for reviews is tantamount to the greatest of cardinal sins. I say voiced for a reason. Paid for reviews are a lot like porn. Not a single person you ever meet uses such and yet people are making tons of money selling it. Those who have engaged in review services see the criticism and decide to sit the conversation out. So we are left with a the opinions of a few misguided souls who don’t understand (or can’t afford) the basic foundations of successful marketing.
The truth is that paid review services make good business sense. Every argument against such services are based on false notions and incorrect presumptions. Some writers may have moral issues with exchanging cash for a review, but since these people are not sanctioning companies who advertise, my guess is that they have confused the “art” in writing, with the “business” of selling.
Now before you comment “I never pay for reviews and I do just fine with book sales,” let me say that I’m not suggesting anyone buy reviews. I am stating, with absolute marketing authority, that if you can afford to then you should and that for those who do, you are not tearing the moral fabric of literature. Here’s why:
One of the strongest laws of influence is social validation. As a species we overly rely on the opinions of others to make decisions. It’s easier to do so. It requires less work and we don’t have time to investigate every scenario. The best type of social validation is representation or testimonial. That is why celebrities and athletes receive large compensation to be a spokesperson for products -we don’t call these “paid for reviews” we call them “endorsements.”
Social Validation is why companies want you “like” their Facebook page. Its the only reason they even have a Facebook page. That is why people join Angie’s List. That is why we rate Ebay sellers. These things are all testimonials. Validation from other people to help us with our purchase decision and to help companies promote the quality of their product. Companies spend money on various programs to gain this advantage. Just like politicians spend money on advertising to win elections – the correlation is direct – He who spends the most…wins. The more buzz the better. We all want to know who and what is receiving the most attention…and then we want to be a part of it (Except for Hipsters but they’re a different breed of consumer.) If I asked you to name your top three products in a category, you would be surprised (and I would not) to learn that in most cases, your product choices closely follow the hierarchy of advertising dollars spent.
But back to books – When was the last time you saw an Ad on television for a book? Exactly – happens very seldom. What drives books sales? Testimonials, reader ratings and the most important social validation in our industry – THE BEST-SELLERS LIST…which is driven by the aforementioned reviews and ratings.
Services that connect your book to readers who then provide reviews are simply the writer’s advertising vehicle. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s not immoral, it doesn’t injure puppies, its just what every business person does to improve product sales. In truth you are already paying for reviews. Every time you give away a copy, you paid the value of your book. If your book retails at 2.99 and you give it away in exchange for a review…you paid 2.99 for that review. If you did a Goodreads giveaway then it cost you the price of the book and shipping. If you spend your time in social networks to promote yourself and your book, those hours are included as marketing costs. If you follow my blog and decide to read and review my book, that is a paid service we call “earned advertising.”
The difference between paid services and these other things is that the paid service provides a guaranteed return on your investment. For good or bad you will get back a review in exchange for the money spent. In business a 100% return on investment is a strategy we must employ – the proverbial “no brainer.”
Paid for reviews critiques seem to be synonymous with “buying a 5 star review.” The fallacy is an assumption that if a company collects a fee for finding readers and those readers are paid to read and review the book, then the reviewer will only say “nice things.” Hogwash. Perhaps people who pay for this service really do write excellent work and that is why they have the confidence to engage these services. Paid services aside I am not aware of any author who believes that they published a piece of 1 star trash. I don’t think writers are purposefully producing crappy work, bribing people for reviews, because self publishing is so financially lucrative that they can’t resist the opportunity to be rich and famous.
Some writers do engage in the sock puppet practice. They and their friends create hundreds of email addresses and then write shining reviews of the book. That is not the same as a paid review. The former is false advertising and the latter is simply advertising. The bigger problem with the “paid review = 5 star treatment”fallacy is that paid reviewers are poorly compensated. They receive a free book and maybe five or ten dollars for reading it and writing a review. If you do the math you realize that being a reviewer pays about two bucks an hour. Now I understand that everyone has their price, but it seems unlikely that you could buy an opinion for five dollars and a free book. I’ll make the offer that I have made in every one of these discussions that no one has taken me up on. Here it is – if I can buy a 5 star review from you for $5 please email me your paypal info and I will make the transfer. I’ll also note that I did not pay that reader at Kirkus to write that little dig about the ending of my book. Jeez you’d think for $500 the reviewer would just say nice things.
A secondary argument is that reviewers don’t actually read the book, they just write reviews. In fact there was a national story on such a practice several years ago. I can’t argue as to what a reviewer may or may not do. I will say that if you are a reader, you should be able to figure out a review where the book was read versus one where it was not. Besides reviews are about consistency. Most of us take a look at the one star reviews and give them as much, if not more, weight than the 5 star reviews…simply because we expect that your Mom, your Dad, your sister and your besty all gave you 5 stars regardless of what they thought about the story or you ability – love is blind like that.
People also argue that paid for reviews are “wrong” as evidenced by Amazon’s policy against it. Amazon fully supports paid for services. They offer such services through Kirkus and Clarion. Amazon’s policy is that paid service reviews need to be posted in the editorial review section and not the general comments section. They did add the “verified” purchase tag to alert readers if a book was purchased through Amazon. Of course many “un-verified” reviews are because readers purchased at Smashwords, B&N, Kobe, or received a free book from the author. Many review companies now allow an author to pay the cost for the reviewer to purchase the book. So if you thought that “verified” thing meant it was a “real” review, it really depends on your definition of “real.”
So let me just repeat. If you want more potential book traffic, if you want feedback on your writing, if you want ratings on your book and if you have some marketing dollars to spend – the correct business action is to engage at least one review service. Go big like Kirkus, go medium like Portland Review or go for more every day readers from the list of companies that offer such. Paid reviews don’t injure puppies or starve children, they are simply a good marketing strategy. Book writing is fun – Book selling is a business. If you’re going to be good at the business side you need to forget the moral outrage of your less resource enabled fellow authors. We live in a fast paced commercial world – use the tools of business to improve your product sales. Because the truth behind how successful Indie authors really gained their success…well that would probably surprise you… and not in a good way.