Life is Funny

Paid Reviews Injure Puppies and Tear the Moral Fabric of Literature

sad puppyI 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.



13 replies »

  1. I was ready to argue this with you, but somewhere along the way, I lost steam. You’re right. When I first released my novel, I balked at paying for a review. Kirkus didn’t need my $400 and I sure didn’t need them. I looked at other sites (cheaper sites) and in the end decided to go the “solicit individual readers with free copies” route. I really didn’t look at it as paying for a review, but of course it was. I spent hundreds of dollars giving away my novel and got maybe five reviews out of it. Looking back, I probably should have gone for the guarantee of a professional service.

    It is easy to say that paid reviews are all phony, granting legitimacy to work that perhaps deserves none, but it IS done for other products. Consumers have learned to take endorsements with a grain of salt. Reviews, while informative, are never the final word. Fifty Shades of Grey has nearly 10,000 five star reviews on Amazon, but the Look Inside feature gives me more than enough information to know I wouldn’t give it the same rating.

    Reviews provide a book with needed attention, but as with any product, research should be encouraged. There was a guy (no, I can’t remember his name) who paid for reviews and sold thousands of copies of his book. I want to say he made the bestseller lists, but don’t quote me. It was a good story, and obviously many people genuinely enjoyed his work. If he hadn’t put the money into getting those reviews, would he have sold anything? Certainly not as much as he had.

    Though I do see where Amazon is coming from in its policies, you’ve made think twice about my own. Great post!

    • Lost steam lol- I filibustered the passion out of you with my 1500 word rant! The top indie authors have given away 200 to 500 thousand copies- think about that cost. And yes book giveaways at best get a 10% review rate. But mostly glad you stopped by Elle we haven’t heard from you in a couple of posts.

  2. You’re right (as usual—don’t gloat, lol). The moment someone mentions the word “paid,” people assume that means “bought a five-star review.” There was a thread very recently on GR on which an author offered to “trade reviews” and mentioned that he only gives 4- or 5-star reviews. BUT he also said if the book didn’t warrant at least four stars, he’d contact the author to point out the problems and wouldn’t leave a review at all. He never said, “I guarantee you at least four stars,” and yet people jumped all over him about it. He spent more time defending himself than was necessary until it all got cleared up.

    On one hand, I think it was polite that he contacted the authors if the book was bad; on the other hand, if the book was already a published work (and I’m assuming it was), then he’s doing future readers a disservice by not giving a review with three or less stars to warn them of serious issues.

    Paid or not, if it’s not honest, I would think an author would find it a hollow victory to have a glowing review that ultimately means nothing.

    And heck, I didn’t know about that $5 offer when I left my five-star review for your books. I just liked them. Now I’m thinking I should’ve held out for the big bucks.Ten dollars could’ve bought me a couple more books, after all.

  3. I only give out free review copies of Reprobate, and only in e-book, so the cost is about the cost of an email and an attached epub/mobi file. In return, someone reads my book and writes about it. Since Reprobate costs about the same as a TripleFudgeCappuMacciato at Shitbox Coffee, I effectively buy someone a cup of coffee to read and review a 113,000 word e-book. Ehm, that’s 0.000035 dollar cents per word. I really don’t consider that a ‘paid review’, although people on certain sites starting with G and ending with -reads consider a review which states that ‘the reviewer received a free copy of the book in return for a fair and honest review’ to be about as dubious as ‘this review was written by the author’s mom’.
    As far as I know, no professional reviewer (i.e. newspaper/magazine) ever paid for a book they reviewed.

    • The professional review of famous authors is another interesting topic. The “reviewer” be it newspaper or magazine publication, reviews famous people for a reason. Not for the arts merit but because it drives readership, which drives Ad space which drives revenue. So there is a monetary drive behind the professional review choices. I don’t mind opinions on the topic that argue against paid services, but the naivety is alarming

      • I come across so many amateur reviewers who consider *any* compensation whatsoever to instill a positve bias towards the author.
        And when you point out what you just said, you’re met with incredulity and anger.
        If someone is a ‘professional’ reviewer, they get monetary compensation for their reviews. Whether it’s directly from the author or ad revenue or…

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