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The perils of paid-for reviews

Despite the regularity and ubiquity with which free speech is invoked in online discussions, it is rarely relevant in the way it is used, as either sword or shield. In the broadest possible sense, our online discussions (at least in the United States) are reflective of the “marketplace of ideas” theory of free speech, but for the most part, we’re not specifically implicating First Amendment protections when we’re making asses of ourselves expressing ourselves online.

This post is the first in a series on the First Amendment and online speech, and we’re starting with a topic of much recent controversy: book reviews, specifically purchased and sockpuppeted reviews and the threat they pose, not only to the relevance of honest reviews, but also to artistic and critical expression.

It has been almost three years now since the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) finalized its revised guidelines for online product endorsements. Before the Internet, advertisements and product endorsements were more easily distinguishable from independent, critical reviews of products. However, online commercial venues like Amazon have complicated that distinction, because it can be difficult to tell whether the person writing the review is a disinterested user or a paid promoter. In fact, we have recently seen a number of cases in which authors use sockpuppet accounts to endorse their own books and criticize the books of their competitors. RJ Ellory was forced to admit and apologize for this behavior after Jeremy Duns tracked through some Amazon reviews and noted his findings on Twitter  (it’s fascinating to watch Duns lay it all out tweet by tweet). Then there are those authors, like John Locke, who have paid review services to write reviews of their books in order to increase word of mouth and online influence/sales. And let’s not forget the authors and their spouses who have recently taken to Amazon to defend their (or their spouse’s) books and lash out at readers who have given them negative reviews: Henry Jaglom and Emily Giffin’s husband are two notable examples in the same number of weeks. Several years ago Christopher Pike used a sockpuppet account to rebut a Turkish woman’s objections to his fictional portrayal of Turkey, claiming afterward that it was the Turkish reviewer who was sockpuppeting negative reviews and accusing her of “tak[ing] things much too far and is trying to rob fiction authors of their artistic license.”

Much of why all this is bad has been rehearsed and rehashed online, each new incident increasing the pressure on an already fragile relationship between authors and readers on the subject of critical reading and reviewing. First there is the issue of honest reviewing, and the way in which sockpuppeted and purchased reviews undermine the trust readers can place in book reviews, even in venues that are generally perceived as legitimate. Then there is the negative pressure exerted by angry authors, their family, and their friends and fans, sometimes openly and misguidedly/unwisely (like Jaglom and Mr. Emily Giffin), other times anonymously and speciously (three guesses and the first two don’t count). This pressure has resulted in a number of book bloggers calling it quits – Hippies, Beauty, and Books and Pretty Deadly Reviews in the past week alone – and there has even been talk of death threats issued to reviewers like the woman who Emily Giffin’s husband targeted on Amazon (she details these threats in her blog post).

Things have gotten so bad that I’m starting to recommend books with the caveat that the author is not likely to lash out at a negative review. Because for all the hiding behind sockpuppet accounts and paid reviews, authors who take on readers for less than stellar reviews (this xkcd cartoon says it all) are crashing through the safety barriers between all authors and readers. As a friend of mine put it, ‘a book cannot respond to a review; only an author can,’ and once the author intervenes against the reader, the distance between the author and the book collapses, imperiling precisely that critical distance many of these complaining authors insist on.

Critical distance is good, not only because it encourages honest feedback on books, but also because it protects the freedom and integrity of book reviewing more generally. While authors and publishers might think of honest book reviews as marketing, at best that marketing is indirect, because there is a serendipitous commercial advantage to the word of mouth reviews can generate. In this sense, reviewing and marketing are parallel activities that can both serve a commercial purpose, even though the main purpose of independent reviewing is not to serve the author or the publisher, but to serve readers, both in terms of evaluating books and generating commentary and discussion. However, honest reviews cannot be bought or sold, which means they cannot be controlled by anyone except the reviewer. This unpredictability, the lack of a guarantee about whether or how a book will be reviewed, is part of what makes a “good” review so valuable as indirect marketing.

One of the objections that many of us had to the FTC’s guidelines as applicable to book bloggers is that book reviewing is the kind of critical expression that should remain free from government regulation. Because even with the First Amendment generally protecting speech from government restriction and suppression, there are categories of speech that the government does maintain an interest in, and commercial speech is one of those categories. Commercial advertising, paid endorsements, and other types of speech related to selling products and services have less protection than private or political speech (political speech is considered “core speech,” and as such has the most protection against government interference), because the government assumes an interest in the safety of the consumer and truth in advertising. Consequently, not only can the government regulate commercial speech in certain ways (e.g. to reduce deception), they can also define the scope of that regulation, as they did with the FTC guidelines on product endorsement.

Which is where the danger lies for book reviewing. Traditionally, art and the commentary it produces have been regarded with level of respect and broad protection similar to that afforded core political speech. Indeed, the political implications of artistic freedom create a philosophical link that can be important when considering whether the government has any interest in regulating, limiting, or outright censoring artistic and critical expression. So while book reviews, per se, are not subject to government interference, paid endorsements, aka advertising, are. And what is a paid-for positive review or a sockpuppeted review by an author if not advertising?

In the case of the sockpuppet, the author has a material interest in the product he/she is either promoting via a positive review, or criticizing via a negative review. The review is neither independent nor economically disinterested. In the sense that it is presented as an independent opinion, it is deceptive. In the case of paid-for positive reviews, while the fact of the review writer reading the book or not may make a material difference, the very act of exchanging money for a positive review makes the review itself part of a commercial exchange on behalf of the author, who has a material interest in both the reviews and the book itself. In both cases there is an attempt to mislead the reader into believing that the review is an independent, honest critique of a book, not a paid endorsement or self-interested advertisement.

The sad irony here is that authors have as much or more reason than readers to protect the integrity of their work and their freedom to produce it. Honest critique stands up for both artistic integrity and freedom, and yet it is imperiled by those whose interest is best served by supporting it. Once you pay for positive reviews, you take away the very quality that makes them valuable as indirect marketing. And by extension, every honest opinion becomes suspect. While such behavior may be regarded as somewhat marginal at present, the more mainstream it becomes, the more it threatens to kill the very thing it is trying to replicate.

There is already a wide gamut in reviewing, with professional ‘pay to play’ publications like Kirkus and PW Select, not to mention RT’s policy of ‘buy an ad, get a review.’ And let’s not forget the ChickLit Girls blog that got in trouble recently for charging authors for reviews (which would inevitably be positive, since they openly said they did not publish negative reviews) and then threatening an author who disclosed the scheme. Of course there is a big difference between having reviewers be paid for their work and paying for positive reviews. And the question of whether paid reviews can be honest is affected by many different factors. Professional book reviewers are certainly paid, and their credibility is not suspect. But offering positive reviews for money is a very different thing.

At what point do book reviews become commercial speech and therefore subject to government regulation? At what point does the FTC decide that there is enough concern about the independent nature of reviews to step into the book blogging world and cast a shadow on the many honest, independent bloggers? And what would the effect of that be on the relatively free and open environment in which book reviewers currently function? Readers are already skeptical of online reviews, and at some point, reviews as a whole could become so suspect that they will no longer provide the indirect marketing so many authors and publishers depend on. What then?

I don’t know what responsibility and power readers have in this situation besides standing up for and providing honest, independent opinions on books. Beyond that, I think we have to depend on authors (and perhaps publishers) to have as much respect for honest critique and critical freedom as they want us to have for their work and their artistic freedom.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

73 Comments

  1. Julia Broadbooks
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 06:33:50

    Robin, thanks, as always, for another thought provoking post. I think that this is the one of the most important issue to me as a reader at this point. If I can’t trust online reviews, then my world as a reader shrinks back down to word of mouth from people I’m acquainted with (whether online or in real life).

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  2. sarah Mayberry
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 08:05:15

    I wholeheartedly agree that authors stand to lose at least as much from this as readers. As an author who believes in the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy of writing – i.e. write the best book you can and trust that people will find it – I am deeply, profoundly pissed off to learn that other authors have been gaming the system. Maybe I’m naive, but I have always believed it was about the work, not all the bullshit, but learning that you can buy your way to best seller status makes me want to bang my head against a brick wall. As a reader, it ruins Amazon and Good Reads reviews for me, unless they are from a trusted source. I guess the only plus side is that it turns sites like Dear Author into even more trusted places for readers to come for recommendations, discussion and the like. As an aside, I read one of the self-authored reviews that RJ Ellory wrote, and I thought it was crap. The least you should do if you are going to blow smoke up your own skirt is talk in specifics about the book. His self-review was full of compliments to himself as writer, but no real information about the plot or themes or anything. So not worth selling your soul over.

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  3. Sirius
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 09:00:11

    Paid online reviews (unless reviewer works for the print or online magazine and is on some sort of salary of course) annoy me. Of course first and foremost because it is gaming the system, but as somebody who writes reviews I hate that mine and other honest reviewers’ opinions are being tainted because of that. I do not think that “paying for honest review” can ever be a true expression – IMO such review is not an independent opinion, because the reviewer now has a financial stake in author paying her for next review. Would author ever ask again if she is not happy with the review? I just do not think so.

    But here is another thing – I have not been paying attention to the *quantity* of the reviews book has in a very long time. If the book has one review from the reviewer whose tastes are closer to mine and I am interested in the topic of the book, I am getting it, but I guess people still check whether the book has a lot of reviews and that is playing into their decision making process? Otherwise such services would have all dissappeared, right?

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  4. Tina
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 09:07:50

    In just the last two years my method of buying a book by a new-to-me author has drastically changed it is directly related to my distrust of online reviews.

    In the past I was more likely to strongly consider a book that had a high star rating. I would actually spend time reading the blurb, reading an excerpt and taking all that into account to decide whether to actually purchase.

    Now if I see a plethora of five-star reviews, especially of a new author, then I am immediately suspicious. 9 times out of 10 I won’t even pause to even look at the book, much less read the blurb or an excerpt. If I do read a blurb and it grabs my attention, then I’ll look at the ratings array. If it has a decent spread then I’ll start reading the reviews. These days I usually start at the 1-to-2 star reviews rather than the 5-to-4 stars. This is also about freebies as well. Even a free book takes time to read and if it is bad it is time I will never get back.

    Over time I have developed a spidey sense of what is legit and what isn’t. But it takes so much energy to have to do that to simply decide on a read that it is sometimes easier to simply fall back on your tried and true favorites or depend on word-of-mouth of trusted people and reviewers.

    In the end as more and more people catch on, the only result is that a small group of dishonest writers end up making it a lot harder than ever before for newer writers to find an audience.

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  5. Carrie G
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 09:20:15

    I used to enter contests for giveaways of unknown or little known authors. I thought it a great way to experience something new. After I wrote a middling review for one book (good but not unique- 3 stars), the author emailed me several times questioning my grade/star system and asking pointed questions. She was polite, but it made me very uncomfortable. Since then I’ve never entered any more giveaways for new/little known authors.

    Since I use my real name online, I’ve been even more cautious about where I post my reviews. I used to post to both goodreads and amazon, but now rarely post any on amazon. I’m a nobody, but after the recent attacks, it’s clear a nobody reviewer can be targeted as readily, or more readily, than reviewers whose names are well known. I don’t like feeling this way. I read and review at least 200 books a year. It’s my hobby. I’m not trying to be mean or snarky in my reviews if I dislike a book, but I want to be honest. So far I haven’t changed my reviews, but I’m more likely to DNF a book I don’t like rather than finish it and review it. Reviewing used to be relaxing and non-stressful, now these authors and rabid fans are taking the fun out of it.

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  6. Angela
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 09:25:12

    I don’t think you can pay for an honest review. Like Sirius, I think that in that kind of agreement there’s the inherent understanding that the review will be positive.

    I hate the idea of this happening on so many levels. If I knew these reviews were paid for, it might not so much because then at least I wouldn’t feel deceived. But I am, and they’re trying to pull one over on their consumers. I think some of these authors doing this should think about that. You’re deceiving the people who pay you. No one appreciates that, though apparently the benefits – so far – aren’t outweighed by readers disgust.

    It also really bothers me that these type of reviews lessen the value of reviews I spend time and care writing.

    When I first started purchasing books online around 5 years ago, I based my purchases off the star rating, then the blurb, and reviews. Of absolute strangers on Amazon. Now I’m much more cautious. I trust those that I know on Goodreads, mostly, and in real life. I know whose dis/likes mesh with my own and I follow their recommendations. The star rating, number of reviews, and even what most reviews say don’t mean anything to me anymore.

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  7. Liz Mc2
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 09:45:47

    I’m so glad you’re writing about this. Great post! Like others, I pretty much rely on word of mouth from “trusted” reviewers now. Thanks to the Internet, my word of mouth circle is pretty big. But means SOMEONE must be willing to try new stuff and tell others about it. I worry that as more and more people become reluctant to do that, my reading choices will be more limited–or I will have to take more risks (and I’m hesitant now, because I use my real name online too).

    I sometimes review (for a small fee, paid by the journal) for a literary review that focuses on small press Canadian works that otherwise get little review attention. They have a long-standing policy of positive reviews only (not gushing, but overall positive), partly because they see themselves as nurturing a culture that’s struggling. But I just had a long talk with the review editor, who has been reading all the same articles about online reviewing and whether it’s too nasty or too nice that everyone else is reading, and who is thinking hard about whether that policy still makes sense and how it might be reworked.

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  8. Avery Flynn
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 10:21:47

    Paying for a positive review is dishonest and does a disservice to the reader and the author. Plus, it royally ticks me off when I get a book based on reviews and find out it’s a bought review (positive or negative). There are a billion books out there and reviews are what I consider when purchasing – especially with digital.
    That said, as an author when I book a virtual blog tour I provide digital ARCs for reviewers on the tour. Now, I pay the book tour company but not the reviewers. I have no control over the reviews. I don’t consider this pay for a review. Thoughts?

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  9. Arethusa
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 11:08:47

    For romance I don’t pay attention to Amazon reviews unless it’s rated below 3 stars. It’s trusted blogs or my own judgement. The romance review space is too wild and wooly for me in general. This is not to say that the review space for lit fic, for example, is more immune to intrigue but there’s more structure and more established reps that makes it easier for me to sift the wheat from the chaff.

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  10. Expy
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 11:43:16

    @Sirius: What about getting free books, especially ARCs, in exchange for reviews? Based on that reasoning, even reviewers who receive freebies would be doubted because we would have a stake in getting more freebies. Why is the line drawn at cold hard cash? Bribes aren’t always in a briefcase full of unmarked dollar bills.

    I wonder, is there some intangible trait found only in money that can taint honesty as opposed to free books, swags, and VIP invitations? What does everyone here thinks?

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  11. farmwifetwo
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 12:14:10

    On goodreads I have just over 30 friends. 30 people who’s opinion I value, and don’t necessarily agree with. 30 people who post “why” they like or dislike a book. Those opinions are invaluable when choosing what I plan to read. I have no plans to have hundreds of friends or be part of any book review groups or be known for reviewing. Since I simply comment… the last will never happen :)

    Using Ms. Mayberry above as an example – and I’ve read a couple of her books – I know what the book is about and how they felt about it. I can then decide if I wish to read it or not. Why read a book when you know it’s going to hit your “buttons” just to write a negative review? I never trust a 5 star review – since I give very few of them – and always look for the 2 to 3 star ones which usually give a “why” that person did not enjoy that book. This warns me about any topics in the book that I may not wish to encounter in my reading.

    Also, unless it’s free or nearly free, I will not buy a new to me author. I get most of my books via the library – to be blunt I can’t afford my 300+ books a year habit – and I return approximately half only partly read. I don’t note those down on goodreads unless the book has specific issues – if I noticed grammar mistakes something is really wrong – or it hits a specific “button” and I wish to tell others. Otherwise, it’s simply deleted from my TBR b/c I feel it’s a personal/mood choice and maybe I’ll read it another time and enjoy it.

    I don’t think the majority of readers comb through reviews to find something to read. Most people read less than a dozen books a year. Many get them handed down from friends or pick up something that looks interesting on the shelf at the library or grocery store. IMO if you really want people to read your book start by an interesting cover, a good description on that cover and an interesting (don’t follow the “fad” of the week) story. Your biggest buyers aren’t via Amazon or Goodreads but word of mouth and hand-me-downs.

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  12. Sirius
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 12:22:15

    Expy, my comment is probably in the spam filter.

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  13. Janet
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 12:27:38

    Sirius: I just checked the spam filter and could not find a comment from you. Sorry!

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  14. Kim in Hawaii
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 12:36:07

    You wrote, “I don’t know what responsibility and power readers have in this situation besides standing up for and providing honest, independent opinions on books.” That power prompted me to contact Michele Gorman, the author who requested a review from the ChickLit Girls. I offered to review it; I truly loved it; and I promoted it on my website. I used the power available to me to celebrate books.

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  15. SonomaLass
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 13:07:08

    Once you pay for positive reviews, you take away the very quality that makes them valuable as indirect marketing. And by extension, every honest opinion becomes suspect.

    This precisely. If readers can’t tell the honest opinions from the advertisements, then there’s no point in anything except negative/critical reviews.

    As others have said, I already distrust unknown authors whose books have nothing but gushing reviews on Amazon or Goodreads — especially when those reviewers haven’t reviewed other books, or have only given 5-star reviews. It’s sad that I can trust Amazon reviews of kitchen appliances more than books.

    I know quite a few readers, and some online review sites, that have a policy of posting only positive reviews — if they can’t say anything nice, they don’t say anything at all. I don’t mind that so much, as long as I know it’s their policy and trust their integrity that anything they read and didn’t like just isn’t getting reviewed. But I worry that a positive-only approach is getting to be tough to distinguish from a sockpuppet or paid-promoter approach.

    I find myself less and less likely to publish negative or “meh” reviews these days, particularly when the author is someone whose online persona I don’t know. So it’s coming at me from two directions — my positive reviews carry less weight if they aren’t balanced by some that aren’t positive, but posting less-than-positive reviews makes me look over my virtual shoulder for nasty responses. The result has been reviewing a lot less than I read, because it just isn’t as enjoyable as it used to be.

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  16. Anthea Sharp
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 13:31:04

    As an author with only 4 and 5 star reviews at Amazon on my YA urban fantasy series (even DA gave the first book a B-) I *hate* the backlash of “if there are only positive reviews, I don’t trust the book to be any good.”

    I got my reviews by asking YA book bloggers to read and give an honest review. Sure, there’s some self-selection – if a reviewer didn’t like the concept of the blurb, they declined. So, where does that leave me? With a suspiciously well-rated book…

    Anyone want to give me a 3-star review? I’ll pay! (wink wink)

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  17. Karlynp
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 13:53:14

    @Expy:

    Expy, I too get a lot of ARCs from Netgalley and authors. I make certain I mention this in my reviews, so anyone reading it can judge for themselves. Personally, I don’t /won’t accept books if there is an expectation of a review. I find that to be a business type of an exchange which makes me obligated, a position I will always avoid. I may or may not read it, and I may or may not review it. More so, I might not like it and I will review it.

    A few months back I got an ARC book from one of my FAVORITE authors Toni Blake (actually, it was sent to me from her assistant.) She has done this before and they always come with the clear message that a review was NOT required. TB is one of my favorite authors who I love to chat about, so I gave each book a review. They were all great until this last book. I didn’t like it and reviewed it with my disappointment clearly noted. Will she send me more books in the future? I truly believe she will, cause by all accounts she is one classy author who gets it.

    Offering free books without the obligation of getting a review is perfectly OK for me; it is when they put an expectation on the reviewer that I don’t agree with.

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  18. Ros
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 13:55:27

    These stories of sock puppetry and paid reviews made me so angry last week I almost decided to give up writing altogether. What hope have those of us who won’t buy our way into a best-seller list? Anyway, on a saner day, I am persevering, and trying not to think too much about it. Write another, better book. That’s all I can do.

    I think it’s pretty easy to distinguish between paid reviewers and paid reviews. A reviewer paid by a publication or other media outlet should be able to maintain as much neutrality as the rest of us. A review that is paid for by the author/publisher is never going to have that same neutrality.

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  19. Amber Lin
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 13:57:52

    Probably it shouldn’t have but it kind of surprised me that this post lumped sockpuppetry together with paid reviews. To me, sockpuppetry is a complete and utter lie, and clearly a betrayal of trust. Paid reviews are only such if they are not disclosed or if they violate a site’s TOS (which I realize many of these “services” do, but I would still personally make the distinction). Here is what I’ve been wondering about. Why is a paid review, assuming you disclose, inherently evil, but giving a free ARC copy of a book in exchange for a review considered par for the course? In fact, sometimes these ARC copies are given in advance, so that if a release is highly anticipated, it implies an additional commercial value than the sticker price of the book. I’m seriously not trolling, but to me the difference between those two is a question of “how much”: did you get $5 in exchange for your review (in the form of a free book) or did you get $15 in exchange for your review? But it’s for this reason that I’m hesitant to lump “paid reviews” in with fake ones. There’s a Venn diagram in here somewhere.

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  20. Sirius
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 14:03:13

    @Janet: Thanks Janet.

    Expy, I was rambling in that post but my answer is that I have no answer why money is a no-no for me, but ARCs are totally okay. If I do reviews for the blog (not mine, I do not have my own), I often get the free review copies and of course there is an expectation of review, but an honest review.

    I wanted to say that ARC is not a compensation which you can use like cash anywhere else, but on the further thought I do not think that makes sense. I wanted to say that I review for a blog and if I get a free copy, that is not direct connection with the author and does not imply any expectation by the author, but recently I got several ARCs from the authors directly, so that’s not relevant either.

    I have no answer in other words, I know for me it is a big difference, but I cannot articulate why.
    I can just second KarlynP’s words – when I review on Amazon I make sure to say that I received a free reviewing copy (and blog always states that reviewers review ARCs and the books they purchased on their own), and if the reader wants to disregard the review because of that, I guess I can see that – not because my reviews are less honest but because the book was indeed received for free.

    Maybe others can articulate the answer I will agree with.

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  21. Linnae Crady
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 14:44:58

    Thank you for this post and for tackling this subject. Purchased and sockpuppeted reviews are just commercials in disguise. There is nothing wrong with advertising but it should be transparent. I read reviews but I often wonder if the reviewer has been compensated and reviews are never the primary reason I purchase a book. However, there are so many books on the market it can be difficult discovering the right book. Reviews are a great tool for finding something great to read. It is sad when bloggers and/or authors are attacked over reviews because reading is enriching and should be relaxing and fun.

    On a personal note, integrity is precious and easy to lose. Once lost, it is almost impossible to regain. My website, Cover Cafe, sponsors an annual romance cover contest and protecting the integrity of the contest is a top priority. Cover Cafe doesn’t offer advertising because it can be a slippery slope and I want the contest to be above board and fair. I’ve thought about adding advertising because it would be nice to offset expenses but the contest committee works hard to remain neutral towards publishers, authors, and artists. So far, the integrity of the contest trumps the perks of advertising. However, we do run the risk of being attacked for a cover appearing in our notorious Worst category. Cover Cafe loves existing on the edge of danger . :>)

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  22. Amber Lin
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 14:46:40

    @Sirius I am definitely not implying that everyone who accepts an ARC review will provide a falsely positive review, but it certainly can happen. Conversely, a paid review may very well be an honest (and negative) one, ala Kirkus, Romance Times. Actually in those cases it is the middle-man company that is receiving the money, perhaps not the reviewer themselves (I don’t know if they are or aren’t). Either way, it is in their vested interest to keep authors/publishers coming back for more, so there is a conflict of interest. That doesn’t mean the review WILL be weighted higher, just that there is a benefit to the reviewer for doing so. I have definitely seen remarks among reviewers, like she didn’t want to completely blast a Harlequin book for fear of getting kicked off their ARC list. Even if Harlequin wouldn’t do that to her, the fact that she felt that way influenced her review compared to if she had simply bought the book herself.

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  23. jane
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 14:49:09

    @Amber Lin: There are so many differences between paid-for reviews and ARC reviews it is not even funny and the fact that you are trying to conflate them is seriously disturbing. First, when a publisher sends an ARC there is absolutely no guarantee that sucker is being read. I know this because I recycle hundreds of books a year. Second, reviewers maintain complete independence from publishers. We are not in privity of contract with them in any way. Third, for the books that are reviewed, we actually read them.

    These ARCs have zero value to us as reviewers. We cannot give them away without permission. We are not to sell them. We are told to dispose of them (aka recycle or trash them). If we get a digital arc, it has even lower value as they are often PDFs that cannot be read on anything but a large screened device. Many PDF ARCs are time sensitive and the publishers remove access to them after a certain period of time.

    Receiving an ARC is receiving a near valueless object which is quite different than say getting hard cash for faking a review.

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  24. Michelle Sagara
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 14:49:27

    This is the first time I’ve posted on dearauthor.com; I generally lurk like the timid creature I’m not. But I wanted to answer:

    Why is a paid review, assuming you disclose, inherently evil, but giving a free ARC copy of a book in exchange for a review considered par for the course?

    I think they’re two entirely different things. But I wanted to explain why the free ARC is considered par for the course: It’s the traditional review paradigm.

    I write an intermittent review column for F&SF. I’m paid to give my opinion; I am obviously never going to review my own books. In theory, I don’t buy the books I read for the column; their publisher’s publicity arms send ARCs to the magazine in which the column appears for the purposes of review. The magazine doesn’t pay for the books it receives.

    When a publicist sends books to review channels, there’s a good chance those books won’t be reviewed; there are a lot of books, and not as much column space for them. Nor do they expect only good or moderate reviews. The publicist is looking for exposure. For pull quotes. They may send 20 books per monthly cycle with the hope that one will be reviewed.

    When looking for those things, the venue matters. But the fact that I am paid to write a review column and Jane or Robin are not is irrelevant to the publicist. What matters is that the resultant review gets eyeballed by readers. So dearauthor is added to the publicist list, and free books are sent to dearauthor in the same way they’re sent to RT or Publisher’s Weekly.

    To the publicist, the ARCs to dearauthor are like the ARCs to the NYTimes. It’s part of the way they reach out to reviewers.

    You can make the argument that the ARCs are worth money, and therefore the reviewer is being paid – but the reason it’s thought of differently is that: it is business as usual.

    Authors will offer ARCs if they’re trying to reach reviewers because they’re aware that that’s how business is done. They’re not going to offer the reviewers a cheap book or urge reviewers to buy their own copy because they’re aware that the reviewers probably have a whole bunch of entirely free titles they’re never going to get through to choose from. The cost of the book becomes irrelevant.

    Have I reviewed books I’ve bought myself? Yes. If I find a book truly compelling, and I want to spread the word, I do. I’ve also read books I’ve badgered authors for directly, because of the column lead time. But by and large, I read from the ARCs sent to my column’s editor/publisher, and so do most commercial reviewers.

    The internet has changed that paradigm. Readers blog and review. I love this because it means word-of-mouth spreads faster – but that’s all reviews are meant to do: spread word about a book. In my humble opinion, the most important push a book receives is still word of mouth and reader enthusiasm. If a publicist feels that your entirely love-of-labor site spreads that word to a broad range of readers, the publicist doesn’t care that you work for free.

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  25. Sirius
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 14:53:40

    OOOOO, that’s a great point @jane:

    Yes, if I request the book from the blurbs Wave sends us, it will be read, unless there is something in the book that I find disturbing, but we review maybe one tenth of the books that we get (have no idea about exact numbers, just know that this is a MUCH smaller number from what we receive), so definitely A LOT of them are not being read.

    And I absolutely am not allowed to share them with anybody, sell, loan, etc, etc.

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  26. Sirius
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 14:55:28

    @Amber Lin: Jane answered so much better and also, I said initially that reviewers who work for magazine online or otherwise to me are totally different animals.

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  27. karlynp
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 14:57:21

    Sirius@Amber Lin:

    Great points Amber. If you factor in ARCs, it does beg the question “what is an ‘honest paid review’ vs a ‘deceitful paid review’?” For me, the biggest distinction is the obligation on the reviewer, not the price of the book or exchange for services. Paid reviewers are obligated to provide a review. Books given to readers with the understanding that a review will be forthcoming is yet another form of ‘paid review’ because they are obligated. Books given to readers with NO expectation that a review will ever be forthcoming, are honest exchanges as they have no obligation.

    Free product ‘demos’ are common everywhere. Companies do this all the time with the hope you will enjoy and buy more or tell your friends. But ‘hoping’ the consumer will like it and talk about it is very different from ‘obligating’ the consumer to talk about it. It’s why I always make mention if a book was an ARC, as it discloses the exchange making it an ‘honest’ review. Many of the ‘paid reviews’ mentioned in recent articles were not disclosed as such, making them highly deceptive.

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  28. Expy
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 14:57:48

    @Anthea Sharp: Try Lori

    Okay, for $50 I will write a scathing review of your book and somewhere in there call you a dunderhead who should never have been allowed to touch a keyboard. I’ll post it on Amazon and Goodreads.

    Then my partner Carolyn will come in and tell me I’m an idiot because it’s the best book she ever read and I’m just a big old mean reviewer who wouldn’t know my ass from a comma splice.

    We’ll argue, throwing in rhetoric, slander and for an extra $10 some really choice insults that we’ve been perfecting for the last eight years of being friends.

    Another $10 guarantees you a personalized GoodReads shelf from each of us. Mine will be titled something like Hated this book and my cat’s litter box is more interesting and Carolyn’s will say something like Loved this book and hate mean girl reviewers with cats.

    Trust me, you’ll get a lot more interest in your book and for the $$ you pay us, we might even read it ourselves. But probably not.

    @Karlynp: Me, I don’t mind (much) being obligated to review, it’s being obligated to write a positive review or abstain if I can’t write a positive review that I mind. It’s a quick way to get on my shit-list. I think it’s quick way to get on any reader’s shit-list.

    @Sirius: I got another thing I’m wondering about that I hope someone would articulate about too. Wouldn’t an ARC be more alluring than money? Maybe not every ARC, but how about The Casual Vacancy? Because, IMO, getting an ARC means getting VIP access. Especially if it is J.K. Rowling’s new book.

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  29. Cervenka
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 14:58:15

    I think people have left out the most obvious difference between a paid review and an ARC review: the expectation of a positive review. An ARC review can be downright savage because the author/publisher/publicist has not negotiated with the reviewer for a specific outcome. While some pay-for-review services do not guarantee a positive review (the Kirkus indie reviews, for example), many of them do, and that subverts the entire reviewing process by removing even the pretense of impartiality.

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  30. Jackie Barbosa
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:00:36

    So, what about Kirkus?

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  31. Expy
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:12:12

    @Michelle Sagara:

    To the publicist, the ARCs to dearauthor are like the ARCs to the NYTimes. It’s part of the way they reach out to reviewers.

    What? Surely there must be a distinction. While DA is cool and all, I don’t think DA have the same level of prestige as NYT.

    Wait… does DA have a printed publication subscription something I’m not aware about?

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  32. Shiloh Walker
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:14:27

    Why is a paid review, assuming you disclose, inherently evil, but giving a free ARC copy of a book in exchange for a review considered par for the course?

    Well… for one, because it’s too easy to ‘perceive’ a conflict of interest, IMO. And if the perception is there, you’re screwed.

    For another, it’s slimy, skeezy and just plain wrong, if you ask me.

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  33. J.N. Duncan
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:14:52

    Transparency. It’d all work out just fine if we actually had some of that. All of this review fakery works if and only if nobody knows anything. Amazon should be requiring reviews to state exactly where they are coming from. Is it paid for? Is it requested? Is the reviewer related to the author? Or is it a paid for book reviewed at the reviewer’s discretion? Should be reasonably simple. If you’re caught lying about it, your account is banned. If you’re an author caught sock-puppeting, your buy buttons are disabled for six months. The same should be said for review sites. Do you only post reviews if you like a book? Say so. I honestly don’t take much issue with that, since there are so many books out there that deserve notice. I think it says more sometimes to ignore a book than to give it a bad review.

    Let readers decide if they want to accept a particular type of review at face value or not. I understand reviews come from a variety of places for a number of reasons. Make those reasons transparent and let the reader decide. Perhaps it’s time for publishers to put non-sockpuppeting clauses in their contracts, so that to do so violates the terms and hits the authors in the pocket book. Not getting paid would be a good deterrent, at least with the legacy published authors. Writing organizations should have clauses about this in them. Violate it and you’re booted. The industry just needs to put in some consequences for people being unethical asshats. And everyone should be vocal about it. When these things start getting called out whenever they happen and it gets into the public sphere, even indie authors who partake will be forced to think twice, because unlike the notion of any review being a worthwhile review, this is the kind of attention that will kill sales.

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  34. Ros
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:18:47

    @Expy: Why must there be a distinction? I guess there’s a difference in circulation numbers and the kind of readers each attracts, but they fulfil EXACTLY the same function for publicists.

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  35. Cervenka
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:19:56

    @Expy:

    I think you need to re-read the analogy. The comparison was ARCs to ARCs, not NYT to DearAuthor.

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  36. Michelle Sagara
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:20:05

    @Expy: Among romance readers, dearauthor has, IMHO, way more prestige than the NYTimes. Publicists are not going to send their entire catalogue; they’re going to send the books they feel might be relevant (even on the fringes) to the review venue.

    Publicists make lists. They’ll add reviewers to those lists, based on genre. YA review lists won’t be the same as SF review lists, and I’m sure Kirkus & Publisher’s Weekly are on the “send everything” schedule.

    NYTimes will be on one list. Dearauthor will be on another. The lists are weighted by perceived reach and perceived audience – but the mechanism for either is: ARC to review venue. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear.

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  37. Jane Litte
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:24:23

    The biggest problem with the question that Amberlin poses is that it shifts the responsibility from the authors to the recipients of these arcs and the money. I don’t place blame on those individuals to take the money to write the review. The blame and responsibility should be on the author for soliciting that sort of thing. Amberlin’s question places the ethics of the reviewers’ in question instead of questioning the ethics and motives of the authors. Why is it the reviewers and the readers are being questioned here. Shouldn’t the focus be on what authors, agents, publishers, and author organizations are doing to serve the readers?

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  38. Expy
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:25:11

    @Michelle Sagara: That is clearer for me to understand now. Thank you.

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  39. Sunita
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:27:22

    Jane, Michelle Sagara, Sirius and others have made most of my points about ARCs v. cash payment for reviews, but I’ll add a few more:

    (1) I read and review ARCs that I wouldn’t necessarily buy, because what I read for review at DA is not exactly the same as what I would read if I didn’t review here at all. I don’t read anything I don’t want to, but I try to stretch and pick stuff up that I think I should give a shot, or that I think would interest the DA crowd. So if I didn’t have the ARC, I wouldn’t write the review.

    (2) I share books on my Kindle with my mother (she’s on the same account). I’m not allowed to share ARCs with her. I’ve often bought books for her that I already have ARC copies of.

    (3) I’ve bought copies of books whose ARCs I’ve reviewed because I wanted an ePub/mobi version, and/or because I wanted to support the author.

    (4) I feel obligated to review an ARC if I request it, but I sometimes don’t manage it. If a publisher or author then decides I shouldn’t receive any more ARCs, that seems fair to me, but it rarely happens. Would they be OK if they paid me $15 and I didn’t review the book? I doubt it.

    (5) Staff reviewers for magazines and newspapers are on salary and editorial is separated from advertising. Freelance reviewers (those who are paid by the review) are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest. If they don’t, they risk losing the ability to write reviews at any comparable outlet.

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  40. Jane Litte
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:30:27

    Jim. I totally agree. Want to buy reviews? Fine. Just disclose that the review was purchased. I’d be totally fine with disclosure and transparency on the part of the one making the purchase.

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  41. Sunita
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:34:27

    Oops, I forgot one difference:

    Even if the author pays me $15, I still don’t have the damn book. And if I’m trying to write near the release date, I have no way to get it.

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  42. Hell Cat
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 15:39:15

    @sarah Mayberry:
    As someone that went to a lot of panels at Dragon*Con this weekend that discussed a quality product will earn honest reviews, good and bad, this is especially interesting to me. I missed the latest drama, but I can say that I don’t judge based on perks. They’re awesome. I appreciate things like ARCs, but I’m still going to be honest. I’m not for sale. In fact, most of my reviews are books no one else has given me. I’ve had exactly two ARCs. Everything else has been bought by me. My bank account weeps at me for the fact. And I absolutely make it a point to put in my review “this was an ARC” as a way signify where the book arrived from.

    There’s a reason I rarely give out As in my reviewing. It’s a matter of truth as I see it, as a reviewer. I know people can’t verify me in the internet age. My words, my actions must do that. That’s part of my online currency. I have held that value for my entire online presence.

    Side note: Sock-puppeting has pissed me off since I was in fandom. It’s amazingly easy to figure out, the blow up is never worth it, and authors/fans often lose that currency that I consider important.

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  43. Madame X
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 17:57:34

    I’ve always prided myself on being an honest reviewer. I try not to fluff or pull punches, and I want my tastes to be legible to other readers – I think the most important thing that any amateur reviewer can offer on a site like Amazon or Goodreads is a taste profile.

    But when I look back at the reviews I wrote in the first months after I joined Amazon Vine…I find them suspect. My excitement about FREE STUFF didn’t stop me from being critical, but my negative responses sure carried less bite and sting. My opinions and my star ratings were at least a little inflated; I rounded up more than I really should have.

    I’ve had a lot of time now to recognize the problem and try to solve it. I codified my star ratings, so that when I’m uncertain I’ve got personal guidelines. I’ve obtained access to a much, much larger pool of free books on NetGalley and Edelweiss and familiarity does breed contempt. I’m just not as grateful anymore.

    In any case, when I look back at my own history with ARCs, I can see why someone would relate it to buying reviews and such. I know I’m not the only reviewer to have at least gone through a phase where free ARCs fluffed up my ratings. And I’m suspicious of people who don’t at least recognize the problematic aspects of it, because I think you have to see the potential issues to guard against them.

    My latest concern is making sure that I don’t find myself on some sort of hamster wheel where all the books I read are ARCs. I need to be sure that I’m exploring more, venturing farther afield in my reading, instead of following a path predetermined by marketing/publicity departments.

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  44. Meoskop
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 20:02:08

    If an ARC was a free ride to a positive review there would be a heck of a lot of angry publishers at my door. I’m one starring two Big Six ARCs this month alone. As someone who has been on various ARC lists for several decades, I concur with Jane’s rundown of ARC life.

    This topic is pretty dear to me, and I appreciate this post. I stopped reviewing openly (I still had a mailing list) for several years and the climate wasn’t nearly as hostile to reviewers as it is now. I’d urge bloggers who want to throw in the towel to consider reconsidering. Take a hiatus, these authors too shall pass.

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  45. Ann Somerville
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 23:01:15

    @jane said:

    “Receiving an ARC is receiving a near valueless object which is quite different than say getting hard cash for faking a review. ”

    Quite.

    Most books offered to me to review are books I wouldn’t read even if I had them for free under any circumstances. The usual retail price of m/m books is anything between $2.99 to $10.99.

    Now, it takes me 2-3 hours to read a novel of usual length, and 1/2 hour to review, not counting the time I spend cogitating.

    I charge a minimum of $40 an hour for my professional time.

    If an ARC is supposed to be my pay, then the books have to be worth a hell of a lot more than they are – and be something I actively want.

    OTOH, a fake review can be tossed off in under 5 minutes, from what I’ve seen of them, and since the book doesn’t need to be read. $5 might be worth it, if you’re willing to sacrifice your integrity for such a pittance. I’m not. And I’m not paying someone else to do it either.

    Interestingly, Fangs for the Fantasy defended the practice of buying reviews, saying

    Frankly, we understand why some indie authors seek to buy reviews – simply because it may be their only way to gain that precious review. The sad thing is, while there are many gatekeepers in publishing (which we have spoken about before and why this can make self-publishing or indie publishing the only realistic option for an author), we are increasingly seeing the same gatekeeping in reviewing.

    I profoundly disagree with this (ironically it’s the same argument Melissa Douthit put forward in now deleted posts in support of paying for reviews!) A paid review is not ‘precious’ because it’s fraudulent and is of little use in raising a book’s profile, and the author gains it regardless of the book’s quality – which the readers quickly discover. Then the author’s reputation sinks.

    If a self-pubbed author feels they have resort to such tactics, then something is wrong with their ethics, their marketing or their writing. Fake reviews won’t fix any of those.

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  46. Karlynp
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 23:44:13

    Ann, they’re not deleted. You can find the comments here: http://write2publish.blogspot.com/2011/06/big-six-paid-reviews-and-drm-oh-my.html

    It’s all down in the comments area, where she goes back and forth with an author who soundly believes its a bad idea. It is an interesting perspective from an indie author as to why paid reviews make sense. I don’t agree, but people like Douthit who do not see anything wrong with it will do it. And if her new website has its way, readers will be too frightened to review for risk of harrassment and public persecution. Paid or fake will become even more acceptable to these kind of authors.

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  47. Ann Somerville
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 00:01:47

    @Karlynp:

    “they’re not deleted”

    Ah. She referenced her posts on the subject in comments on her blog but the actual posts are gone. [I don't want to derail the conversation and bring up the site which shall not be named or linked to. However, I was surprised, and a little disappointed, that a major YA fantasy blog would take a similar line to a discredited, disreputable writer.]

    “Paid or fake will become even more acceptable to these kind of authors. ”

    I think the appeal to them is the guaranteed praise. Many insecure authors can’t cope or don’t want to cope with the honest reader response because in their heart of hearts, they know they’re not as fucking good at writing as I am ::cough::

    But I will never understand the appeal of fake praise, as I will never understand why some people plagiarise. If you haven’t earned it, what’s the value in it?

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  48. Patricia Briggs
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 02:18:02

    You know, my mother (who was a very smart woman) always said, never write anything in your diary that you don’t want someone else reading. If the Internet had been around, before she passed away, she’d have added that to diaries. Both are venues that can feel private and anonymous when they are neither.

    If you are doing something that you don’t want people to know about (aka sock puppetry and paid for positive reviews) that’s a pretty good sign that you shouldn’t be doing it. As my wise old mom would tell us all — such things tend to come out in the end — and at the worst possible moment, too.

    There is a difference between Kirkus et al and paying for positive reviews. The big review magazines charge all of the publishers the same amount per review and there is no expectation of good reviews. I, personally, don’t like it — any more than I liked the idea that publishers would pay to put books in the chain bookstores and “buy” a certain amount of shelf space. Both seem sqweebie to me — but, hopefully, neither is an attempt to “fool” readers into buying books they wouldn’t like.

    Paid for positive reviews is … dishonest on the parts of both the writer and the reviewer. And both parties are stupid if they don’t realize that readers will figure out really quickly what is going on. I became a fan of Dear Author when I read a negative review of a book I quite liked.

    One of the issues — as a writer and a reader — is that somehow writers feel that if their book doesn’t sell well, it is because it didn’t get enough attention.

    As a writer I can tell you that I thought my first book was terrific and was quite disheartened when it was “a limited edition”. I blamed all sorts of things from font to cover — but happily I was just smart enough not to spout nastiness all over my publisher. After ten to fifteen years of writing experience I went back to that first book my initial reaction was — “Wow. They really will publishing Anything.” It was, if not terrible, not really ready for prime time either.

    New writers (and old, too) are told (by each other, mostly) that publicity, advertising is the real way to sucess. Network, Facebook, Twitter. Blog. I will tell you that the best publicity campaign I ever witnessed (when I first got into this game ) ensured that everyone read this new author’s first book. It was a good first book — but people went in expecting (because of all the fuss) an extraordinary book. Her second book didn’t sell hardly at all and she is no longer publishing (unless she is doing it under a different name).

    The secret to making it the world of writing books, is to write a good book. And then write another good book. Eventually people will notice.

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  49. K.M. Frontain
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 07:26:39

    Doesn’t anyone read book samples? No matter how many decent reviews a book has, the first thing I do after skimming over the reviews is check the book sample. I’ve been reading for a long time. Every book I’ve ever read has reviews shoved in the front pages and on the back–only the best reviews, of course, in the hopes they’ll help sell the book. But I have rarely ever bought a book unless I’ve read the first few pages to see if it was interesting.

    Same thing now. Read the on-line samples first. Most books do have on-line samples these days; it’s poor marketing on the author’s part if not.

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  50. Shiloh Walker
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 07:36:07

    @Patricia Briggs: <~~ I heart her…

    And both parties are stupid if they don’t realize that readers will figure out really quickly what is going on.

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  51. Maili
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 09:33:19

    Paying for a positive review isn’t dishonest, though. No different from paying a high-profile person to endorse a product in public, or employing a plant to enter a film message board to praise a targeted film to raise awareness among board users.

    For those with invested interests, it’s an investment. It’s designed to gain exposure, awareness and anything that can start the most efficient yet oft painfully elusive promotional campaign in the world: Word of mouth.

    Word of mouth is pretty much every person’s best friend and worst enemy. It can be so temperamental. Just when you think you got it all figured out, just enough for you to manipulate it to do whatever you want it to do, it oft goes off in a direction you definitely doesn’t want it to go to. Like shutting itself in a room when you need it to party like there’s no tomorrow to attract attention.

    Like when you’re trying to get people to talk about a book release or paying an army of reviewers to write pretty words about your book, you know it’s over when a Hollywood A-list couple who are rude enough to choose this time to split up or when a terrorist blows up Buckingham Palace. Or even when there’s a cliffhanger ending of a crappy but very high-profile TV show.

    Because that’s all people will talk about. Most just won’t give a crap about your book release. Doesn’t matter if the product is that excellent or pure shite, or that 99.9% of positive reviews are paid. It’s usually all about timing and mood.

    This is most likely why some books – like James’s 50 Shades – hit the mother lode while other books died a quiet death. You know, when people bitch about the quality of those books, it doesn’t make sense because it’s rarely about the quality. It’s mostly about catching people in the right mood. Fantastic when a book is well-written as it can help to go a long way, but it’s still about timing and mood.

    So paying for a positive review is pretty much an investment with no guaranteed return. A gamble, even. It’s a waste of money, really. I mean, if an author is mug enough to throw their money away instead of trusting their books to do the talking and readers to do the recommending, then go ahead and be a mug.

    No one can truly manipulate or control the word of mouth, so there’s no point in badgering people to pimp your book 24/7, retweeting all good reviews all day, throwing $10K at an army of faceless reviewers, and blowing up at negative reviews.

    On the other hand, publishing a review without a disclaimer that the reviewer was paid to write this as a positive review? Dishonest. Or rather, unethical on this review editor and/or reviewer’s part.

    An advertorial — which is what a paid positive review basically is — should be clearly marked with a disclaimer or label that it’s an advertorial.

    There’s – in theory – nothing wrong with advertorial as a whole as it’s just another form of advertising, but it does leave a bad taste in mouth when it’s not marked as one. Not doing this is illegal in England and Wales as well as Scotland, in fact. It’s ruled illegal because the practice of not marking an advertorial as one is a failure of respecting and upholding potential customers’ right to make an informed decision.

    So when reviewers and their review editors fail to protect their readers this way, they are the ones that betray readers. Not authors who paid those reviewers to write positive reviews.

    There’s actually nothing wrong with being paid to write positive reviews — but only as long as there’s a disclaimer within each paid review. That’s the key, really.

    A paid positive review can be seen as a honest review if the reviewer makes it clear in her review that it’s a paid positive review. This way, she’s respecting her readers’ right to make an informed decision. You know, all cards on table. Take it or leave it. No skin off anyone’s nose. And everybody’s happy.

    In short, a disclaimer is – and should be recognised as – a crucial line between a honest review and a dishonest review, regardless of money, agreement, bias and such.

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  52. Jill Sorenson
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 10:43:44

    @Maili: From what I understand, most paid positive reviews are written by people who haven’t read the book. Even if no money is exchanged, writing a review for a book you haven’t read is dishonest. A paid positive review could be honest, in theory, if the person reads the book, but how can it be trusted? No praise, no pay.

    I couldn’t promise anyone a positive review in good conscience. No honest reviewer would.

    I’m aware that authors sometimes agree to provide cover quotes as a favor. I don’t know what I would do in that situation. Could I find something positive to say about the book, even if I didn’t like it? I’d probably say I didn’t have a chance to read it, which would be another sort of dishonesty.

    I don’t have a problem with reviewers being paid for their valuable work, but when their good opinion is for sale, the review means nothing.

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  53. Maili
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 12:48:59

    @Jill Sorenson: Still doesn’t matter if it’s clearly marked with a disclaimer, though.

    We all know that a reviewer’s cred and reputation are built on their reviews alone. Their reviews are the showcase of taste, preferences, writing skills, voice, beliefs and whatever works. And yes, that includes whether they would sell positive reviews for money and whether they actually read the books or not.

    So if a “reviewer” is upfront in her review about being paid to do a positive review of a book she’s skimmed, then she can be seen as a ‘honest reviewer’. WYSIWYG, basically. Her being upfront makes her honest and trustworthy because she’s allowing her readers to make an informed decision on whether to value her ‘reviews’ or not.

    This is hugely different from a reviewer who makes an effort to hide that kind from her readers. That includes refusing to put in a disclaimer, denying she was paid to do a positive review, denying she hasn’t read the book and blah blah. All this makes her dishonest and untrustworthy because she’s denying her readers’ right to make an informed decision.

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  54. Jill Sorenson
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 13:24:37

    @Maili: I can’t agree. Admitting to false statements doesn’t negate the dishonesty. For example.

    Dumptruck Courtship was wonderful! The characters were great and I loved the writing.*

    *I didn’t read this book.

    How does saying “I lied” at the end make the actual content of the review honest? Or the person, for that matter. It’s more honest than pretending otherwise, but if the statements made about the book aren’t true, they aren’t true.

    Also, have you seen a review like that? I haven’t. I don’t know what author would pay for a positive review with a disclaimer. The only value is in the appearance of sincerity.

    I agree with Jane that the blame should be on authors, not reviewers, and I’m sad about the cynicism from readers. I think we should expect better behavior from authors than sock puppetry, cheating, and petty attacks.

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  55. Estara Swanberg
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 14:13:30

    Heh … my first impulse was to nod in agreement but not comment here, because all my thoughts had already been expressed (and I’ve legitimately done my thing and squeed about various books in the open reader threads here) – and then I remembered something I have done now which led to book reviewers writing two reviews (positive ones) about books I loved and wanted to actively help gain more recognition.

    I’ve three times bought books (mostly ebooks) and sent them to people who have a well-known online presence and who review books (That’s the Booksmugglers and Sherwood Smith – she’s an author but she also writes about what she reads on GoodReads and her LJ, which generally has interesting writerly discussion posts).

    I know that my simply offering to buy the books for them wasn’t the only impetus for the review (Ana from the Booksmugglers had heard from other friends of the author, for example blogger Chachic, that Code Name Verity was interesting) – but, having had success in recommending Tamara Allen’s Whispering in the Dark to her (and our occasional exchange of comments on the blog before), I really wanted her to review the book if she was interested WHEN it was released in the UK in February. And as I was a beta reader for the book I was pretty sure it would be right up her alley, so I paid for a legitimate copy for her (which she acknowledges in the review) but also organised for E. Wein to send her a version she could read before the book was available in stores.

    I’ve been squeeing about the Touchstone Trilogy by Andrea K. Höst (self-published) since I bought and read it in February (I discovered the author through a Booksmuggler’s review of Champion of the Rose, and by now I own and love all her books, but the Touchstone Trilogy has turned into an instant comfort reread – I’ve read it three times this year) – I sent GoodReads recommendations to a few friends I was fairly sure of, and most of them read the excerpt and bought the book and enjoyed them, but while I was pretty sure Sherwood Smith would like it, I’ve only recently, when there was an appropriate blog post on BVC, mentioned it to her there as a rec.

    And because she answered with polite interest, I bought her the trilogy on Smashwords ^^. Now, in this case it was serendipity because she had already bought the first ebook due to being unable to sleep that same day after our comment exchange (and obviously being open to reading something new right then) and she really liked the book and said so on GoodReads, so she was happy to be able to dive into the rest of the story right away (and her status updates don’t disguise that there are a few grammar mistakes – I saw 12 in 800 pages, which I think is pretty low actually), but I could basically see quite a lot of other readers who follow her adding the Touchstone books to their wishlist on the strength of Sherwood Smith enjoying herself (She’s been an Andre Norton Award judge for years, so when she enjoys a YA book, fans of the genre listen).

    Is that already gaming the system by using my personal contacts with these people? One part of me just wanted them to read a book I was 75% sure they would like, but the other part of me was hoping they would write about their impressions so others would buy the books – so the author would get more money, so they would write more books for ME to read ^^.

    I’ve decided that only when I am truly 75% sure again, I may do so again.

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  56. Hell Cat
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 14:34:28

    @Patricia Briggs:

    The secret to making it the world of writing books, is to write a good book. And then write another good book. Eventually people will notice.

    That was exactly hammered home at Dragon*Con, during the writing tracks. Worry about a good product, something worth the effort of a review (good or bad). Keep writing. Don’t buy your way into popularity because the readers will find out. And it won’t be pretty on the outcome. People like me depend on a variety of sources, to see how a book shakes out, to see if it’s worth the financial investment. If I can’t trust the reviewer to give an honest opinion then I’m less likely to try new writers. And I would have missed some really good authors that way.

    There have been books by authors I love that I didn’t like overall. It wasn’t my sort of setting or story. If I were to give them an A based on former books, I’m not doing them a favor. Anymore than if I were to give an A based on monetary currency. I have a lot more Bs and Cs than I do As in my review blog. It’s hard to gain an A. If I give one out based on paid programming, then those who have been given As previously will be suspect, which damages their reputation by association with mine – even if we don’t know each other. I don’t want to do that because it’s unfair the hard work put in by the authors who maybe given a black mark based on my actions. It’s a wider circle than me alone. Just write a good book, even if I don’t like it, and I’ll give an honest answer.

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  57. Sirius
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 15:04:07

    @Jill Sorenson: Yeah I agree as well. I mean, I guess disclaiming that she was paid for the review and she have not read the book makes her honest as a person, but I am not getting how does that make her honest as a reviewer. What is honest in this hypothetical review besides a disclaimer? You have not read the book – you made up the stuff you wrote, no?

    Letting me make an informed decision as to how much trust (zero for me) to put in such a review is wonderful, but what about the actual content which is still a lie?

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  58. Sirius
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 15:11:43

    @Sirius: Replying to myself – I guess I can see the situation where the reviewer actually have read the book to write a paid positive review. I definitely appreciate the disclaimer in this situation, however the fact that the outcome of the review was predetermined still makes me question the actual content of the review, the honesty I mean.

    I guess the most interesting hypothetical situation is when the author pays for any review – negative or positive, but again I want to see that to believe it.

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  59. Maili
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 17:17:32

    @Jill Sorenson: That’s the point. If you can’t or won’t put in a disclaimer that you haven’t read the actual book, then you shouldn’t publish it as a ‘review’. Full stop. You’ll never been seen as a proper reviewer if you do put a disclaimer or honest if you won’t. :D

    “I agree with Jane that the blame should be on authors, not reviewers”

    As a reader I don’t quite agree. I expect and trust general reviewers to do their jobs. Most go to them for their insights and takes on books that interest me. If they make a behind-the-scenes deal and publish reviews accordingly without my knowledge, I’d be teed off.

    As for authors who abuse a review system like Amazon’s reviews by pretending to be readers or paying people to post yay-yay reviews? I don’t care. The integrity of Amazon reviews was compromised almost from the start. Which is what, ten or fifteen years? Amazon never did anything to sort it out. Why should they, really? They don’t care as long as books sell. Most readers usually figure that out, especially when they’re part of a book community. Including those groups on Amazon’s own forums.

    Amazon reviews hold absolutely no value for me. (Except when someone points out an entertaining or witty review, of course.) I can go elsewhere for reviews. A typical book reader tends to shop around for better prices and so, it stands to reason that they do the same with reviews.

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  60. willaful
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 17:38:09

    @Madame X: “I know I’m not the only reviewer to have at least gone through a phase where free ARCs fluffed up my ratings. And I’m suspicious of people who don’t at least recognize the problematic aspects of it, because I think you have to see the potential issues to guard against them.”

    I completely agree, and am glad to see another reviewer seriously thinking about this. Would love to hear more about your methods of keeping yourself honest.

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  61. Ann Somerville
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 19:45:41

    @Maili:

    “Amazon reviews hold absolutely no value for me.”

    That’s fine for you, but (1) this isn’t just happening at Amazon and (2) fake reviews do take people in.

    As a reviewer and an author I am horrified at how the fake reviews devalue the work that you do and I do to promote good writing and good books.

    You may technically be right that a paid positive review is not dishonest if there’s a disclaimer – but you never, ever see one. Nor do authors out their own sockpuppets unless forced to. We’re not talking about infomercials. We’re talking out and out fraud.

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  62. WRITING ON THE ETHER: Hotter Air | Jane Friedman
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  63. Maili
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 08:37:13

    @Ann Somerville: I know and I agree with you. What can one do, though? It’s Amazon’s responsibility to do something about the Amazon review problem. They knew years ago and they know now, yet they still haven’t done anything about it. Same with other sites that make money from hosting reviews. Such as Good Reads, LibraryThing, etc. Some do combat dodgy multi accounts, but outwith that? Meh.

    As it stands, I’d rather focus on those reviewers whose principles and ethics I respect. They’re the ones I am willing to fight to protect. Such as making sure that no one with invested interest can easily badger or bully independent book reviewers and book bloggers into dreading writing reviews, changing the way they review or closing down their blogs.

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  64. Sirius
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 15:01:12

    @Madame X: Oh. I did not even realise a concern about reviewing too many ARCs. Out of over 600 reviews on Amazon, ARC probably constitute 10-20% of my reviews tops, and that is only because I repost some of my reviews for the blog on Amazon and do it very randomly and erratically and certainly not too many of them. The ARCs directly from the authors were maybe 7 or 8 books, or even less. When I review for Wave, sure, probably 70% of my reviews are ARCs (not sure of the exact numbers), but as discussed before, none of those are from direct contact between me (or any other guest reviewer) and publishers and are guaranteed to be read or reviewed, but on Amazon the vast majority of my reviews (I guess 80-85%) are the books I purchased, so no, I am not concerned at all about limiting my ARCs, I have very few of those. I confess to also not getting the concern about softening up ARCs reviews, but thats just me. Probably not having a blog and not ever dealing with publishers and not planning on doing it has a lot to do with it, I don’t know.

    But say I would have received a lot of ARCs, if I had my own blog (asking because I one day may very well decide to have it) is the potential concern that publishers will not send me any more if I will be too harsh? If so, again, books are something I (as I am sure many people here) I am used to spend a lot of money on, and would continue doing so

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  65. Cevernka
    Sep 06, 2012 @ 19:16:46

    @Maili: “If you can’t or won’t put in a disclaimer that you haven’t read the actual book, then you shouldn’t publish it as a ‘review’. ”

    By definition, disclaimer or no, that’s not a review. Even with a disclaimer, that should not be published as a “review” because it simply isn’t one. “Review” indicates at least some level of analysis and critical evaluation, neither of which is possible without having read the source material. I don’t think a comparison between a celebrity endorsement (which does not imply any level of analysis or critical evaluation) and a book review is appropriate. Now, if someone were paid to go through and rate books five stars and have in place of review the statement “I have not read this book and was paid to rate it five stars,” then I think that’s a valid comparison to a paid product endorsement.

    ReplyReply

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  69. PC
    Nov 29, 2012 @ 02:14:39

    This is how I see the situation. Indie authors will never have the same level of interest in their books like big publishing houses do. They just won’t because they can’t afford all the marketing that is required to build an audience. For Indie authors to get reviews, they have to do all the leg work themselves. They don’t get paid for the time they put in and they usually have other jobs that take their time up as well. Paying a service to review their book for them may be the only way they can get some feedback. They can still use that feedback to improve their writing to some degree if need be.

    I’m not really seeing this as a moral or ethical issue so much as a marketing one. If someone gives your book a bad review, then you should just let it go. There’s no need to get nasty with anyone about a bad review. But calling Indie authors unethical for seeking a paid review is not fair to my mind. If they paid for it, well it was their money to spend. The reader can still decide off the review if they want to read the book or not. An Indie author should have the right to market their work too, even if it’s only a hobby.

    I think this debate is becoming slanted to edge indie authors out to some degree. As if their work doesn’t matter. Shouldn’t people also expect Indies to get a good review if their friends and family members post them? It’s unlikely that your mother or best friend is going to rate your book as a 1 or 2.

    In the end time is precious. If a person happens to write a review on your book out of the goodness of their hearts, great. But the chances of that happening for an Indie are low. They are likely to see reviews from friends and family members only. Should all those reviews be discounted too?

    In the end the whole idea of a paid review should be put into perspective. They are the only tool, in many cases, for Indie authors to get some decent feedback on their work. Some may be bogus, but at least they are hearing something from another individual that can help them improve. And a potential reader is at least seeing something that could help them decide if they want to read the book or not.

    I have written reviews on products before and I wasn’t paid to do it. I just wanted to share my thoughts with others. Then people go back and rate my review with a thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s how we’ve developed as a society. We review one another. Sometimes it’s paid, most of the time it’s not. But I think everybody who creates a piece of work deserves some form of feedback for all their time and effort. If they choose to pay for it, well that’s their business. I don’t think they’re unethical or cons, they’re just people who want to know if what they’ve created is any good. Most Indies will never make enough money to live on anyway. We can at least give them the benefit of the doubt without making them out to be crooks.

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  70. willaful
    Nov 29, 2012 @ 11:10:42

    Authors can pay for professional critiques of their work. That’s a completely legitimate and helpful way to obtain feedback, as long as you use a reputable person and not some scam artist. A paid review is not that — authors neither expect nor will receive genuine feedback from that. It’s just a way to try and fool people into buying your work.

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  71. Karlynp
    Nov 29, 2012 @ 11:32:58

    PC – What about transparency? You know, honest disclosure of how the review was created? How can you write such a detailed comment about paid reviews, including the ethical nature of them, yet you just glossed over the biggest ethical point as if it was irrelevant?

    I find it incredibly disheartening how so many authors who support the practice of paid reviews skip and/or gloss over the need for transparency. Readers/consumers want honest, unbiased reviews. I dont think anyone will disagree to that fact. So when authors pay for a review and not disclose that fact, they are gaming the review system, IMO. This goes for undisclosed review swaps, undisclosed friend/family reviews…etc. When I get an ARC copy, I feel bound by ethics to disclose that.

    Disclosing the fact it is a paid review at the authors request does diminish the value of the review significantly. And that should tell you why paid reviews are not a good idea. They lack value when you play the game straight and disclose, or they are deceptive tools when you play the game dirty and not disclose.

    ReplyReply

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