So Rat has a problem with paid reviews. No, wait, he has a problem with a blogger receiving any kind of renumeration, which for him includes a free book. His argument raises all sorts of issues which I thought I would lay out in a blog post.
First, though, let me be up front about where I am coming from. We accept free copies of books from publishers, publicists, and authors. Most books reviewed on Dear Author in the last two years have probably been free although I know that each reviewer buys books of her own. We also received free Sony Readers in exchange for an ad space and continual linking to Sony ebookstore in 2009. AND! *gasp* Dear Author will be having ads in 2010. Actually, we’ll be having one ad space at the top of the sidebar that will rotate between four sponsors.
When I started Dear Author, I felt like I could not take ads and still be independent. As a newbie blogger, I think I worried too much whether ads would influence my content and so I stayed away from accepting money from ads. Now I feel much more confident that I and the rest of the reviewing crew at Dear Author will not be affected by the filthy lucre. In other words, if we give a bad review and an advertiser takes their marbles away, so be it. If we give a bad review and that means a publisher takes their marbles (free books) away, then so be it.
We started this blog on books we bought ourselves and we know that Dear Author can continue to be successful without any publisher support. This is not to say we aren’t grateful for the support publishers provide in the form of giveaways and access, but we aren’t dependent on it either.
Now that I have the self interest/bias/conflict information out of the way, let me march forward on my opinion regarding the issue of money and blogging. There are two main components of Rat’s argument. First is the issue of the pay-per-review blogger and second is the issue of free books. To this I add a third, and that is money earned by the blogger through ads.
1. Pay Per Review
Pay for review is not a new concept and occurs at the highest echelons of reviewing. Kirkus Reviews has, since 2004, allowed authors to buy a review for $350.00. It also allows publishers to pay for inclusion in its newsletter at $95.00. RT will review only epublishers that pay for an ad. I don’t like the practice and I am suspicious of someone who is paid to review.
On its face, I do not think that paying for a review is unethical. Where it becomes a concern is when the payment is for positive press or where the pay for review is not clearly disclosed. If the reviewers who accept money for a review feel personally constrained from giving a negative opinion, then it is also a concern.
What I think needs to occur is disclosure so each reader can make a decision for him or herself as to whether that review is helpful. If the pay for review blogger’s reviews consistently work for Readers A and C, then does it really matter that the review was paid for?
As long as disclosure is made, then I think that “taint” of the pay for review blogging doesn’t travel far. So long as each blogger informs the reviewers of their own policies (yes, we review ARCs here at Dear Author) then the readers are equipped to make decisions of their own. I am a firm believer that the readers of DearAuthor are independent-minded individuals.
2. Free Books
Free books is how the publishing industry gets reviews. It’s standard. They send out advanced copies (sometimes unsolicited) and people read and prepare reviews for them in advance. Libraries, retail outlets, and even readers rely on these reviews in making purchasing decisions. There would be no conceivable way for publishers to obtain early reviews to facilitate orders if publishers did not have review copies.
Free books do not guarantee a review much less a positive review. (Look back through the archives. We have plenty of C and below reviews of books we received for free). What free books do is provide an opportunity for greater diversity of coverage. I don’t know how many times I’ve picked up a book for free and reviewed it here when I would never have paid for it.
In many ways, I feel like free books help us at Dear Author to move away from our comfort zone. If we relied solely on the books we purchased, you would see an even greater self-selected books. Some reviewers here are loathe to try new authors and others, like Jayne, are experimenting with every line Harlequin puts out. In order to have that variety, access to free content is important.
The problem perceived by advertising is that the money somehow influences the independence of the blogger. I am not saying that advertising can never influence a blogger, but I am saying that advertising on a blog does not make a prima facie case that the blogger is unreliable. Advertising has been the underpinning of book review journals and any other free content for as long as I can recall. In fact, the demise of newspaper book reviews is premised on the declining ad revenue.
Ad revenue does not mean that a blogger is unreliable. The content determines the reliability of a blogger. Has the content changed since the ad? If you believe it has, then the blogger is diminished in your eyes. If it is has not, then what is the problem with ad revenue?
Blogging is an evolutionary experience. Over time, the focus or even the tone of the blog can change but our core principles at DA which are the discussion of books fostered by the reader has never changed. The demands on the blog, monetarily, have grown. We are still all about the reader, but this enables us to provide more benefits to reader without impairing the relationship I have with the budgetmaster at home. Money will enable Dear Author to meet the needs of the growing audience. If readers are turned off because of this, then we accept that and respect that but we believe that our core principles remain uncompromised by this.
What it all comes down to is this: do you, the reader, have sufficient information about the bias of the blogger to make the information provided in the review helpful? No blogger is without bias because no person is without bias. The best that we can do is be independent, consistent, and transparent.