Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

In Re Paid Reviews

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.

3.   Advertising.

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.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

26 Comments

  1. RStewie
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 14:13:46

    Excellent post.

    I agree, too, that paid reviews don’t necessarily have to be “tainted reviews”. If the reviewer is honest, and their paid reviews provide real feedback to their audience, what does it matter that they made money off the effort?

  2. Keishon
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 14:14:19

    The best that we can do is be independent, consistent, and transparent/////

    that sums it up for me.

  3. library addict
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 14:33:30

    Ads are not inherently a bad thing. As you've stated, the revenue they generate will help your site. I don't pay much attention to ads other than that I find the flashing ones highly annoying :P

    I don't see how accepting free books or ads – and being upfront with disclosure of such – generates more of a bias or “compromises your independence” than the natural biases we all have as people. Everyone has their own personal beliefs and hot-button issues.

    No blogger is without bias because no person is without bias. The best that we can do is be independent, consistent, and transparent.

    Jane, this sums it up perfectly.

  4. Jane O
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 14:39:38

    What it all comes down to in the end is the quality of the reviews. A reviewer can gush over dreck only a few times before readers stop paying her any heed. If, on the other hand, the reviews are thoughtful and honest, who cares why the books were chosen?

    As for advertising, well, I spent thirty-odd years working on newspapers, which survive on advertising. I never saw a story killed because an advertiser would object, or written because an advertiser wanted it. (That’s not to say that advertisers never objected -’ I was on the receiving end of plenty of those phone calls. But they all came after publication.)

    If newspapers can keep a wall between editorial and advertising (and most do), I don’t see why bloggers shouldn’t be able to do the same thing.

  5. SarahT
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 14:52:16

    Thanks, Jane, for yet another excellent post.

    1. I don’t have a particular objection to paid reviews as long as this is not synonymous with inflated grades.

    2. Free books are fine – again, as long as I feel they don’t affect the integrity of the reviewer.

    3. Ads: I don’t like ads. I try to ignore them on sites I visit.

    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.

    That’s pretty much where I’m at right now. I’ll extend that to ARCs as well, although the fact that I don’t review ARCs on my blog has more to do with time constraints than a belief that my review grades could be tainted by a sense of obligation.

    No blogger is without bias because no person is without bias. The best that we can do is be independent, consistent, and transparent.

    I love this quote! That’s what I hope to achieve.

  6. katiebabs
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 15:04:15

    My question is with all the blogs, where an author can have their book reviewed for free, why would an author pay for someone to review their book? Paying $350 for a review? Can that be a tax right off?

  7. Robin
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 15:18:10

    Two points from someone who a) accepts free books for review, and b) knows how much freaking money Jane spends (well, not to the dollar, but generally) sending out books, etc. to readers of the blog.

    As to a) accepting free books, I think the perception that this makes a blogger more suspect is artificial. First of all, advanced copies are promotional in nature; they’re like the logo glass you get at your local art and wine festival or the complimentary logo cloth bag you get at your grocery store during recycling appreciation week or whatever it is. They are not pay or compensation for anything.

    Secondly, though, consider the blogger who only reviews books she purchases. If I assume that the blogger is more likely to purchase books she a) expects to like because of the author, subject, other buzz, etc., how is that blogger any more independent than the blogger who picks up a free book written by a new-to-them author or in a new-to-them subgenre? In other words, couldn’t you argue that the bloggers who review only purchased books are much more likely to purchase only books they expect that they will like? In other words, why would getting a free book make someone more likely to feel kindly toward the book than using one’s own money to buy it? Which is NOT to impugn bloggers who only read self-purchased books, but rather to suggest that these two bloggers are not so differently situated as they might initially appear.

    Now, as to b), a similar question: why does spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year buying and sending out books (domestically and internationally) make a blogger more independent? What if a blogger can’t afford such a thing, and why should a blogger who can and is willing to spend that much money have to? Obviously she could choose not to, but part of the fun of blogging about books is being able to share them, and Jane facilitates a lot of that here. So if advertising is going to ease Jane’s burden in getting and sending out all those books, then I support it, because it’ll probably never really cover the true accumulated costs (in time and money) she’s dedicated to DA, and I know that it will never alter her commitment to keeping DA a readers-first resource.

  8. Janet W
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 16:04:12

    Everything makes total and complete sense. Pretty naive to think that an arc would guarantee a great review. And I agree with whomever said that self-selected books might very well lead to great reviews … makes sense, who spends their hard earned cash on what they fear might be dreck? I wouldn’t like arcs or freebie books because then I’d feel obligated to review on a timetable: that would feel too much like work LOL. Which is why you’re the blogger and I’m the reader.

    Transparency is key. Go you if you can figure out ways to defray costs and keep your accountant-in-chief happy. Or make a million: Huff Post seems well on the way to doing that :)

  9. Teddypig
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 16:19:43

    Yes, there are expectations setup by someone giving you a free eBook that you will review that book or a free anything that you will mention that thing. Even in the nicest way possible that is part of the deal.

    Yes, if I buy my own website and pay for my own books it does mean I will most likely not be encyclopedic in scope of the authors or books I will review. It also means more positive reviews explaining what attracted me to that eBook or that author and more positive reviews because I simply do not have the time or money or ambition to buy stuff I find unappealing or from publishers who have consistently failed in quality.

    I think that’s how most people buy books anyway. Why would any reviewer who buys books to alleviate the burden of even unspoken expectations placed on anything given to them for free be different?

  10. SarahT
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 16:21:15

    @Robin I don't think accepting free books makes a blogger more suspect, particularly not when they openly say they accept ARCs. I have absolutely no problem with bloggers reviewing ARCs. In fact, I assume most of them do.

    I don't review ARCs for two reasons. Firstly, my geographical location: I haven't been offered many ARCs so far, and those which I could have accepted weren't necessarily books I wanted to read. If offers of books I'd love to get my hands on suddenly started pouring in, would I accept them? Hell, yes!

    Secondly, time constraints: I have very limited reading time and I prefer to devote it to books I know I want to read. This is obviously thoroughly selfish, but then my blog goals are probably a bit different to those of Dear Author. While I review books on my blog, I'm not truly a review blog in the same way that I perceive Dear Author to be. I feel no sense of obligation to my readers, for example, to read a certain book straight away simply because it's a new release and I know people would be interested in reading a review of it. I read whatever I'm in the mood to read.

    When I mentioned wanting to remain independent, I was referring to my blog as a whole. I'm a one-woman show and this gives me the freedom to put whatever I want on the blog without having to confer with someone else. As indicated above, my blog is a selfish entity. I blog about what I read and whatever else happens to interest me of a book or blog-related nature. I'm most assuredly not a readers-first resource. Actually, I think it's very difficult for any small blog to truly put readers first and foremost when it comes to reviewing books. A collaborative blog is in a better position to offer variety and more regular content.

    I have every admiration for all that Dear Author has achieved. If Jane wants to run ads on the site, she should certainly do so. I know US postage is cheaper than Swiss, but I still shudder at the thought of the expense of mailing all those books.

  11. tricia
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 18:29:04

    Jane, I’m all for DA having blog ads, especially because I expect that the understated elegance of this site won’t be traded off in the process. An ad at the top of your sidebar sounds just right, and I hope you get enough in the process to help defray your costs. I want DA to keep going a long, long time.

    I have a question, though–will you truncate your RSS feed to get more people to come to the site directly? I know there’s already an ad when I read DA in Google Reader, and since it’s usually unobtrusive it never bothers me. But I rarely visit sites directly anymore, unless I want to comment (like now!). It takes a really, really interesting truncated 100 words (or whatever) to get me to visit a blog site these days. And seeing an ad in a truncated RSS post would piss me off. I know it’s months away from your change, but I’d like to know your thoughts.

  12. Jane
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 18:40:15

    @tricia Nope, I am not going to truncate the RSS feed because I do not like truncated RSS feeds. I figure you can suffer a Google Adword there (although I think that nets us only a tiny amount each month) but I am all about the full feed.

  13. Srsly...
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 19:03:16

    I agree with the post from a reader’s POV. But as a writer, and this is just for me alone, paying for a review is like paying for sex. Thankfully, I’ve never had to do it.

  14. DonLinn
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 19:03:33

    I can assure you from many personal experiences that a publisher’s paying for a Kirkus review most assuredly does not guarantee a positive review. Kirkus reviews can be among the most scathing of any mainstream reviewer.Publishers pay for them because a decent Kirkus review virtually guarantees broad library purchases. In fact, up until very recently many libraries’ policy was not to purchase in many categories without a review from either Kirkus or Library Journal.

    Whatever the case, your point on transparency and disclosure trumps whatever arrangementsa given reviewer may have with authors and publishers. Well said.

  15. Srsly...
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 19:06:31

    As a writer, and this is just for me alone, paying for a review is like paying for sex. Thankfully, I’ve never had to do it.

    As for the ad thing. Have fun. I don’t think anyone would be against it. We all know what you like and don’t like by now.

  16. Robin
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 20:21:29

    @SarahT: I just wanted to let you know that I wasn’t taking issue with your comments; I was thinking more about Rat’s blog post in which he argues against the practice of taking free books. IMO that’s an artificial and unreliable marker of blogger independence. Also, I don’t think it’s selfish to only review books you want to read — that’s the freedom in being a hobbyist, isn’t it?

    My own feeling about writing reviews is that no matter the book I do my best to apply my analytical attentions to reviewing it. I like the process; for me it’s fun. I wouldn’t even know how to make my reviews more appealing or trustworthy to more people — I’m feeling proud these days of the fact that I’ve gotten to where I can write what I think is a decent review in under 2000 words. Baby steps, lol.

  17. Christine M.
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 20:46:59

    @tricia, if you want to completely get rid of ads in your feeds on google Reader, install AdBlock Plus (http://adblockplus.org/en/). It’s made of awesome. Google Reader becomes ad-free, without–and, if anyone’s in the know, correct me if I’m wrong, without that hurting the people actually putting up the ads on their sites. It’s great add-on to Firefox.

  18. Jody
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 21:27:18

    I’ve been getting free ARCs to review for about a year. Out of thirty books, only one by an author I adore, would I have read, let alone purchased. In my case, the only Freebie Effect has been feeling obligated to write the most objective, honest and thoughtful review possible because that’s what my ARC source requested.

    I’ve enjoyed most of the books; they’ve expanded my literary horizons considerably, but I’ve gotten some real bow-wows. I’ve never hesitated to call a stinker a stinker, and IMO, it would be very difficult to write a convincing false review. I’m not the least bit concerned if the reviews I read are written for pay, the book was free nor if DA sports ads in the future. Ads are ads and reviews are reviews.

  19. King Rat
    Sep 03, 2009 @ 00:20:32

    I know free review copies is standard practice. And I think in the majority of situations with newspapers and large blogs they aren’t an issue. Why I worry about free review copies for bloggers specifically is that I read the forums on LibraryThing and a few other places where book bloggers congregate. There I watched much handwringing by bloggers over whether or not it was okay to turn down a publicist, to write a negative review, trying to write positive stuff about reviewed copies so as not to cut off the flow of copies of review copies, etc. In practice, for a lot of small bloggers, the review copies do affect what they write. It’s hard for me to see these discussions and come away thinking they are writing what they’d tell their friends, away from the public nature of their blogs.

    As for paid reviews, it’s a whole different ball of wax. While Kirkus Reviews might be able to maintain a semblance of independence (I don’t know the innards of their process) in the face of money from authors due to their size and the relatively small portion of their income derived from such payments, a one person blogger outfit cannot.

  20. SarahT
    Sep 03, 2009 @ 00:37:17

    @Robin I didn’t think your comment was directed towards me. My reference to independence was more in terms of Jane’s quote than Rat’s blog post.

    @King Rat There are a few review sites which I avoid precisely because of the reasons you mention. However, not all review blogs are like that. For me, it’s a matter of trust. If I’ve visited a blog for a while, and I’ve seen them give a variety of grades to the books they review, I’m more inclined to believe their claims of honesty and fairness. I don’t differentiate between larger or smaller blogs, by the way, as a blog’s size is not an accurate measure of its integrity.

    I am still baffled as to why an author or publisher would pay for a review at a blog – unless it was for a guaranteed good grade. There are so many bloggers who write quality reviews for free, or at least for the price of an ARC.

  21. tricia
    Sep 03, 2009 @ 06:53:10

    @Christine M.: I use a really poky old computer, and Firefox is a real strain on it. I use Chrome now for most things (except it doesn’t seem to want to open Typepad pages for me the past couple of days). The embedded ads in Reader aren’t bad right now. I used to subscribe to one site that always managed to embed an auto-starting video ad, and I ended up unsubscribing.

    @Jane: Thank you! You are made of class.

  22. Shiloh Walker
    Sep 03, 2009 @ 08:41:59

    this is one blog fest that’s kind of slipped past me. I do remember Emmy, avidbookreader & Katiebabs discussing it on twitter, but until I saw a a post at Karen’s and then this one, I really didn’t know what was going on.

    Where it becomes a concern is when the payment is for positive press or where the pay for review is not clearly disclosed.

    I can agree with this completely-there is a national magazine, where your best bet at getting a review is buying an ad. There is no guarantee you’re getting a good review, nor do I want one. I’d rather earn a bad review then buy a good one. I have done ads in this magazine. However, I’m more interested in the ad and the exposure than the review.

    There is no way I would pay for a review on a blog. Ad space is different, and that falls under promotion. paying for a review? No.

    Here’s how I see it:

    if a blog is going to run advertisements, they do need to be prepared to handle things in a professional manner. If they can’t, they shouldn’t consider running ads to begin with. If the blog can be run in a professional manner, there shouldn’t be any concern that taking advertising money would in anyway skew their reviews. If those are the concerns, then you shouldn’t take the ad money.

    That’s my 2 cents.

  23. Jane
    Sep 03, 2009 @ 09:14:53

    @King Rat I am not a participant over at LT so I haven’t seen those things but you are right that if a blogger has problems being independent then accepting any free book could be problematic.

  24. Robin
    Sep 03, 2009 @ 12:54:43

    Why I worry about free review copies for bloggers specifically is that I read the forums on LibraryThing and a few other places where book bloggers congregate. There I watched much handwringing by bloggers over whether or not it was okay to turn down a publicist, to write a negative review, trying to write positive stuff about reviewed copies so as not to cut off the flow of copies of review copies, etc. In practice, for a lot of small bloggers, the review copies do affect what they write.

    I guess I’d argue that this is part of a larger issue and that the review copy is merely an expression of it. And that the issue is one of general separation between a book and those who are behind its composition, publication, and sale. That is, if you cannot look at the book as an independent thing, and the review as a consideration of that independent thing, you’re not going to be writing a completely independent review, whether or not you bought the book to begin with. I’d be interested to know how these bloggers approach reviewing more generally. Do they feel bad about giving a less than stellar grade to a book of a favorite author? Do they feel unable to give a negative review to a book when they like the author’s online persona?

    My guess is that for at least some of them, the answer to both questions would be yes, and in that case, the fact that they’re purchasing their books would not solve the basic problem of personalizing the review process. Although it might be disguised more easily.

  25. Melissa Blue
    Sep 04, 2009 @ 15:07:37

    There is a review site out there that plainly states they want a certain amount of copies of your book because they consider it payment for the review. The wording rubbed me the wrong way. It could just be I read it as “You owe us a free copies of your book if you submit here.” That would be like an author saying, “When I send you a free copy of my book you owe me a good review.”

    The relationship between a reviewer and author is a special relationship. If you can call it a relationship. The reviewer and author don’t make any promises to each other. But that relationship changes when things are bartered whether it’s books or money. I don’t see ads as a problem for the simple fact the reason I would put up an ad on a review site is to gain exposure. There are still no promises.

    Sidenote: The phrase “prima facie” gets me all giddy. It also makes me think of McDonald Douglas, Title 7 and shifting burdens.

  26. Chris@bookarama
    Sep 08, 2009 @ 16:06:13

    I feel the way you do about point #2. I’ve accepted ARCs I wouldn’t have gone out and bought. I’ve discovered new authors and genres this way which I think improved my blog. More diversity isn’t a bad thing,

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