Call me a cynic, but my immediate reaction to anyone charging independent authors for reviews is not positive. It comes off as distinctively predatory. There’s practical and possibly legal concerns here, as well as simply how it looks to readers when they find out (and eventually they will find out) that the review they just read was paid for. Why do I mean by all that? Is this the norm in the industry?
First off, it may be the norm. Big publishing houses, with giant marketing budgets, may be paying for reviews. There’s a reason that may be a problem; we’ll talk about that in a few. From the perspective of an independent author though, that’s highly predatory. What do we, as indie authors, want more than anything else? To feel like we have succeeded as real authors right? We all measure that in different ways, but a couple of the biggest factors is sales, and positive commentary. Think about it, how good does it feel to get a glowing review on Amazon? You’ve probably submitted your book to a hundred agents, got rejected, decided to self publish and you get that first positive reinforcement. It’s like a drug, isn’t it? And here, these guys, these reviewers are selling that drug. One of the most recent offers I got through a Twitter DM…$1,000 for lifetime membership to Booktasters. That’s by far the most expensive offer I’ve seen.
Let’s take one of the more ‘reasonable’ ones and look at it from a financial perspective. I could have had my book, Embers of Liberty, reviewed for $50.00. That’s a lot cheaper than the one above, but honestly is it worth it? Most of us have a profit margin of about $3-5 for sales on Amazon. That review would have to generate at least ten sales to pay for itself, before it even started making me any money. That $50.00 is a table at a show, where I could sell ten or more books. I could use that money to buy almost ten more author copies to sell at those shows. Now, I don’t think that these reviewers are being intentionally predatory, not all of them at least. But they are neglecting to consider the financial burden of those of us who jump into these waters on our own. There’s more than just financial concerns here, however.
One site I bumped into had a free review policy, but you could pay to get to the front of the line. No disclosure there either, and when I asked they told me that their reviews are always fair and honest. I’m easy to give people the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure they are going into it with a mind to be fair, and a lot of times they probably are, but if an author with money can pay to guarantee a review you’ve left fair behind. Even then, the reader has to take it on faith that the review is fair and honest and that’s hard to do when some very important information is left out of the equation.
In the U.S. we have laws concerning truth in advertising to protect consumers. The FTC is responsible for monitoring and possibly investigating misleading practices by advertisers. This includes bloggers, and does cover things like whether you have a personal connection to the company or individual you are reviewing, or if you’re being paid by them. A lot of these reviewers say, “Well, you’re not paying for the review, you’re paying for membership to our service.” That’s clever, but it’s also shady. This is one of the reasons I don’t do long form reviews of books anymore. While I can claim that there’s no bias to my review, the reader has to put a lot of faith in someone doing reviews of their competition. Are they a friend I’m trying to help out, or a competitor that spurned me at a show and I’m trying to throw them under the bus? Even when I do quick reviews on Amazon or social media I will point out if I know the author, and i keep it pretty much just to whether I liked it or not and briefly why.
What does this mean for authors? Well, as far as I can tell the person being reviewed, or company whose product is being reviewed, has no ethical obligation under the Truth in Advertising Act. But, if consumers catch wind that a reviewer isn’t being ethical it could blow back on you if you aren’t careful. I do reviews for video games, and when that whole mess blew up a few years ago around the ethical (or not) practices of the games media some developers were caught in the crossfire for participating, and encouraging the behavior. Do you want your brand associated with a media outlet that looks like they may be deceiving consumers, intentionally or unintentionally?
So, what can we do?
Authors, look at the site that you’re submitting your work to review. Are there any disclaimers on the site or on the articles? The FTC requires the disclosure to be prominent and easy to find. Preferably at the top of the article that has the disclosure. Are they wanting money, but no disclosure in sight? You may want to ask is they disclose the payment, and if they don’t, I wouldn’t submit to them. Again, you are under no legal or ethical obligation that I can find, but how does that image sit with you?
Readers, yes, anyone who is reading reviews should be educated in this too. Are you reading reviews from a site that may be giving preferential treatment to authors? Like the one I mentioned above there are some that do free reviews, but if you want a guaranteed review you have to pay, and no disclosure. Are you getting fair information to make your buying decisions? They tell us they do fair, unbiased reviews even when they’re paid, but is it fair and unbiased if you can pay to get to the front of the line?
Reviewers and journalists, because yes, you are journalists. Legally speaking, if you use a platform to disseminate information regularly, like a blog, vlog, newspaper, etc. you are a journalist and subject to the same laws and ethical standards. Also the same protections. You need to disclose anything that could have an impact on your review, even if it doesn’t. Do you know the author outside of the basic networking contact? If you’ve spent time with them outside of a professional setting, or have known them personally for years you need to disclose that. Did you get paid by the author to do that review? Yup, disclose that too. Even something as trivial as whether you bought the book, or were given a review copy, should be in there. Disclose it right at the top. Does it hurt the flow of your review? Maybe, but it will garner you respect from your readers.
Finally, reviewers, remember you are there to review the book, not the person. If you are unable to separate the two I would advise giving it a pass. Review bombing and trolling is a huge problem, especially in the indie scene. People who dislike a person’s politics, ethnicity, lifestyle, or sexual orientation will go to Amazon or Goodreads and, without having even read the work, will give it a scathing review based entirely on their opinion of the author. If you’ve had a public disagreement with an author, or made negative statements about them on social media, you may also want to pass on that review. Even if you do your best to be honest, your readers may have a hard time accepting that.