Inviting Your Criticism of Criticism: The Paid Reviews Debate

In News by Porter Anderson

In a new series of articles on industry debate, we ask for our readers’ thoughts on the value of paid reviews as author services.
Image - iStockphoto: s1murg

Church of 100 Doors on the Greek island of Paros (Image – iStockphoto: s1murg)

By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson

So Many Ways Into a Topic

If you know the Greek island of Paros in the Cyclades, you’ll be familiar with Parikia’s Panagia Ekatontapyliani, or “Church of 100 Doors.” Said to date back to the 4th Century AD, it’s a stately, elegiac Byzantine landmark in the Aegean. It does not, in fact, have a hundred doors, and no sure explanation for that abiding moniker, either.

When you look at the evolving industry of publishing today, it can seem to have parallel characteristics: the books business is a kind of temple based on our regard for literature. It has an honored past; some obscure traditions; and—on the face of it—at least a hundred ways in, entry points of debate and discussion, presumed thresholds to potentially lucrative business everywhere you look.

As we consider various elements of the industry and its complexity, the author-services sector is one of the most complex and sometimes combative. Obviously a market attractive to opportunists, the deeper the bench of self-publishing, in particular, appears to grow, the easier it is for some to imagine wealth there for the wooing. And as trade authors become more adept in the ways of commercial reality, they, too, are frequent customers of the services ringing the creative camp like lunch trucks outside a busy construction site.

While there are some extremely large author services—the one in Seattle called Kindle Direct Publishing is among them—the field is more commonly busy with far smaller outfits, many of them one-person startups tightly focused on one type of service or another. Unregulated and with few recognizable credentialing elements in place, these businesses operate in a market of authors many of whom who are—and this is said as a matter of reality, not as an evaluative statement—frequently beginners with little or no business experience of their own.

One of the many areas in which author-service offerings have arisen in recent years is the paid book review. That sub-sector of the author-services world gives us an interesting picture of the dynamics that can come into play as free enterprise and writers’ needs converge. Some author-service offerings are offshoots or trial balloons sent flying by major corporate interests. Others are grassroots efforts. In your childhood you might recall your father converting the back porch into a “beauty parlor” or a travel agency for your mother to operate. Today, one or both spouses may just as likely announce an intention to assist authors in their bid for publishing success. Haircuts may be had in both instances.

Our purpose in this article—as it will be in some forthcoming articles looking at other parts of this changing business—is not to hand you one opinion or another, but to ask you to consider some of the conversation and give us your feedback.

Let’s start with the paid review.

‘As Many Reader Reviews as Possible’

In one of her regular posts for the author corps, Jane Friedman titled a Monday article Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It?. Friedman is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest and Scratch magazine. She is teaching at the University of Virginia after years with the University of Cincinnati; she keynotes and gives packed instructional sessions at writers’ conferences in the States and abroad; and she’s my colleague, in fact, in The Hot Sheet, a relatively new biweekly subscription newsletter that interprets publishing industry developments expressly for authors. With more than 215,000 followers on Twitter, Friedman is one of the most visible and experienced guides for authors at work today.

In her piece on paid reviews, Friedman opens by setting out three types of reviews—paid trade book reviews (she lists Kirkus Reviews and Foreword Reviews as examples), paid non-trade book reviews (she lists Indie Reader, Blue Ink Review, Self-Publishing Review), and reader reviews (which should not involve payment, of course).

While skeptical overall of the efficacy of what paid reviews can do for authors in the marketplace, she points out that this is a component of author services not even well known in the author community. As she puts it, “even less is known about the value of such reviews.”

Her basic assessment in her independent judgment of the paid-review scene is:

“The majority of authors will not sufficiently benefit from paid book reviews, and should invest their time and money elsewhere.”

She prefaces that conclusion with a not that “a lot of people will be unhappy with me saying so,” but she proceeds to look at questions authors might ask themselves to determine whether one or more paid-review services might be right for their needs. Those questions include:

  • Are you targeting the trade?
  • What does your overall marketing plan look like?
  • What’s your book category?

Among the points Friedman raises is the fact that in an era of online retail with the Amazonian overhang as dominant as it is, “a better way to sell more books on Amazon, or through online retail [in general], is to generate as many reader reviews as possible.” This is a recognition that consumer reviews on sales pages and reader reviews in such settings as the Amazon-owned Goodreads have a lot of energy in the digitally connected marketplace today. To this point, she writes:

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

“Some might argue that having a professional review as part of the book’s description on Amazon (and elsewhere) adds a sheen of professionalism and leads to more readers taking a chance on the book. But I believe readers are generally not persuaded by one professional review when there are few reader reviews and/or a low star rating. Like it or not, purchasing behavior online is driven by quantity of reviews that help indicate a book is worth the price, assuming no prior exposure to the author.”

On the other hand, she argues that there are other circumstances in which a paid review may be of benefit:

“If you have an outreach plan that involves approaching libraries to consider your book, or if you’re trying to reach independent booksellers, then having a positive review from a source they know can help you overcome an initial hurdle or two. It will not guarantee they will carry or buy your book, but it may help make a favorable impression. (That said, they may know your review was paid for if your book is self-published. This probably won’t matter to them as long as they trust the review source.)”

She goes on to point out that the children’s market may be one in which “paid reviews can make the most sense, “because you’re not typically marketing directly to readers (children) but to educators, librarians, and schools. The children’s market highly values trade publications such as School Library Journal or Publishers Weekly; these publications help them understand what’s releasing soon and make good choices about what to buy, often on a limited budget. Here’s the rub: you can’t buy a review in either of those publications I just mentioned. You would have to submit to them through the traditional channels at least a couple months (or more) in advance of your publication date.”

And she illuminates her own assessment this way:

“As I said at the outset, this is a controversial topic, and perceptions about the practice [of paying for reviews] widely vary. I’m not typically an advocate of paid reviews, because in most cases I think that authors fail to capitalize on them and also that authors can achieve much the same results if they put in the (time-consuming) effort to secure the many types of free reviews available to them. It’s not that I’m morally against paid reviews, although I do think paid review services can make it sound like all sorts of wonderful, influential people will suddenly take notice of your book when that’s seldom the case.”

‘Expert reviews are more valued by consumers’

SPRA spirited round of resistance develops quickly in the comments on the Friedman post from Cate and Henry Baum, the owners and operators of a paid-review company, Self-Publishing Review, often referred to as SPR. Now based in Spain, the Baums offer services to authors that range from a $69 starting price for a review to a marketing package starting at $899.

In an initial comment running to just over 1,000 words, Cate Baum writes that Friedman has “drawn conclusions without reliable data.”

The Baums’ key point seems to be that the paid review serves the purpose of being an “editorial” review, as it’s called in Amazon and other retail settings, as opposed to a consumer review, and that in this sense it can have special value to authors. Cate Baum writes:

“People get an editorial review to put in the Editorial Reviews section on Amazon so that people might be more inclined to buy the book and add a customer review. Amazon have done this officially because expert reviews are more valued by consumers more of the time than a customer review – I have independent studies to prove this. This is because an expert reviewer can judge a book’s viability, readability, and the writer’s talent much more astutely than someone who reads a few books a year. We have scientific data on this I would have been happy to share if you had asked.”

Cate Baum also writes that the value of a paid review may not be in its own messages to potential readers but as part of a “cumulative effect”:

Cate Baum

Cate Baum

“People get an editorial review to put in the Editorial Reviews section on Amazon so that people might be more inclined to buy the book and add a customer review. Amazon have done this officially because expert reviews are more valued by consumers more of the time than a customer review–I have independent studies to prove this. This is because an expert reviewer can judge a book’s viability, readability, and the writer’s talent much more astutely than someone who reads a few books a year. We have scientific data on this I would have been happy to share if you had asked.”

For his part, Henry Baum of SPR questions Friedman’s viewpoint this way:

Henry Baum

Henry Baum

“I really think you’re looking at self-publishing through the lens of traditional publishing. Most self-publishers have very little interest in the library market–they’re interested in Kindle sales and online marketing.

“So, yes, a paid review won’t necessarily help you reach library buyers, but if that’s your main argument against paid reviews, it’s a very narrow lens.”

It’s interesting that Henry Baum and Friedman seem to place similar weight on the online-retail primacy of the question for many authors. Baum writes:

“You’re conflating paid review and “professional trade review” like they’re the same thing–as if the main reason people buy paid reviews is to be recognized by mainstream publishing. It just isn’t. This is a Kindle world now–that’s where most self-publishers want to be recognized.”

Friedman, in response, firms up her assertion about what holds more weight in that online environment:

“Customer reviews (quantity and star rating) matter more to a book’s visibility and sales success on a site like Amazon. This is fairly well-established in the Amazon self-publishing community and emphasized in all the how-to guides. This is why indie authors-marketers, such as Tim Grahl or Sean Platt, tell authors why and how to get as many reader reviews as possible on the first day or week of a book’s release.”

Henry Baum counters:

“Editorial Reviews are listed before customer reviews on Amazon, so Amazon itself prizes them more. In the study Cate links to, it’s determined that a reviewer with an established reputation has a greater impact than customer reviews. Obviously, customer reviews are hugely important, but a good Editorial Review can help get that process started.”

In his comment about editorial reviews appearing before customer reviews, the assumption is that Baum refers to the material seen when you scroll down a sales page, not at the top, where the star-ratings and number of customer reviews are the third thing on the page, after a book’s title and author name.

And Now, Your Turn

Taking into account the fact that there are different forms of paid reviews that may serve different purposes, what’s your sense of their value. Be as specific or as general as you like. The exchange between the Baums and Friedman turns on self-publishing authors, per the name of the Baums’ author-services company. But feel free to discuss paid trade book reviews or other offerings in the field.

Let’s put it this way: Under what circumstances do you think paid reviews make sense? What do you think are the key criteria in this type of the industry’s author-services sector?

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.