Lately I’ve been reading about industry trade publications offering self-published authors a book review in exchange for a hefty fee. For decades these magazines offered titles at publishing houses free reviews and scoffed at the works of self-published authors. Now with their ad revenue and sales down, they see self-published books as an easy way to make some fast money on writers.
The respected literary reviewer Kirkus has offered paid reviews to self-published authors on their site for years with Kirkus Discoveries ($425) and now the magazine Publishers Weekly is offering a review service to self-published authors PW Select ($149) where a writer’s books are considered for review in a quarterly supplement to their magazine.
Even some literary agents are trying to get in on this new cash cow. One literary agent proposes to review an author’s title self-published title for the low price of $395-$495.
Personally, I feel paying for a book review is unethical and immoral. It’s a breach of journalistic integrity for any reviewer to take money in exchange for reviewing a title.
Why is it unethical? When a writer pays for a book review it compromises the integrity of the review process. It creates a slippery slope where a reviewer’s incentive for giving good reviews based on the amount of money they make from writers, not on the quality of the writing. What’s to stop a reviewer from giving a terrible book a five-star review if giving that book a good review will get them the money to pay their rent? Where do the standards for quality regarding writing and content go when the only thing that matters is the check clearing?
A reviewer is only supposed to be paid with a copy of the book. This way the reviewer has the incentive to remain unbiased and fair in presenting their opinions of the material submitted to them.
When a writer pays for a book review it’s tainted. The opinions regarding the material are compromised by a writer’s financial consideration in exchange for the reviewer’s services. Journalistically, it’s the equivalent of taking a bribe. The opinions written in that review can’t be seen as valid by the public because the source cannot be trusted as unbiased and fair.
So what’s a writer paying for besides a compromised review? An opinion. And one person’s opinion really isn’t worth $195-$495 of a writer’s hard-earned cash. Self-publishing costs enough as it is for an author to waste this kind of money on something that will have a negligible impact on sales.
Here’s the truth about book reviews: They’re a way for writer to get feedback about their writing. They’re a great part of a writer’s press kit for a title. Along with a well-crafted press release, they’re a persuasive way of getting readers and retailers excited about a book.
But book reviews by themselves don’t sell books. Most casual book readers don’t even read them. Even the ones in the New York Times Book Review get ignored. When I bought that paper back when I was job searching, I’ll admit that was the one of the first sections to get tossed unread. And I’m a free-lance writer.
From my personal experience promoting The Cassandra Cookbook I can tell readers that reviews have no impact on sales. Even though the title was lauded with praise from critics, it still suffered from lackluster sales compared to Isis (where I sent out ONE review copy via e-mail) and All About Marilyn (where I sent out MUCH fewer review copies).
I can also tell authors that I’ve posted copies of my book reviews up at the Harlem Book Fair for readers to look at and guess what? No one cared about them. Want to know what people read at my table? The synopsis on the back cover of the book.
From my experience in the self-publishing trenches I can tell other aspiring self-published authors what sells books are:
A well-written synopsis. If the two paragraphs on the back cover are compelling, they’ll have more impact on a reader than rave reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and The New York Times combined!
A strong word-of-mouth. People tell other people about good books so, the best thing to an author can have is a well-written story. That’s what sold Isis for eight straight years and what's selling Marilyn right now.
A captivating cover. I cannot stress this one enough; the cover is the first impression a reader gets of a title. A strong cover tells a story with a single picture and grabs the reader in an instant. A self-published author should consider investing their money on having a professional artist design the cover before spending money on anything else.
Instead of spending hundreds of dollars for a book review no one will read, self-published authors should invest in free reviews from friends and local professionals to build word-of-mouth among local readers. Reviews from these sources posted on Amazon and other retail sites can have a bigger impact on potential readers than a paid review posted on some site no one will visit since they come from individuals who have experienced the book first-hand. Writers can also get free reviews from book clubs that target their category if they query first and pay to ship them a book. If a writer does their homework and looks out for free promotional resources they can get the word out about their books and keep their cash in their pockets.