Paid reviews hurt everyone, except those being paid

There’s a caveat to the title of this post, explained later, but I don’t mind a bit of sensationalism. So, this has come around again. It’s a subject that has cropped up a few times and usually makes the news cycle once in a while. It basically boils down to predatory fuckwits offering to write glowing reviews of any book (which they won’t bother to read) in exchange for cashmoney. Idiot authors jump on the bandwagon and buy those reviews in a desperate attempt to get their work noticed.

Most recently there’s this guy selling reviews for $99. Or 20 reviews for $499. For a cool $999 he would write you 50 reviews. On the one hand you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit. On the other hand, you have to say, “Fuck you, pond scum, why are you devaluing the work of legitimate authors and reviewers everywhere!?” To which he’d reply, “Because it makes me around $28,000 a month!” and you can’t really argue with that. Well, you can, but clearly there are no ethics or morals involved here, so applying our own is pretty pointless. His business has failed, thankfully. More on that later.

Of course, it’s not just this guy. From that article:

[Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago] estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

Well, boil my nuts in the tears of angels, what’s the fucking point? Why don’t we all just buy the reviews we need? The guy in the article linked above has some of the best weasel words I’ve ever heard. How’s this:

“I was creating reviews that pointed out the positive things, not the negative things. These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.”

The fuck does that mean, exactly? He’s likening the reviews to back cover blurbs, but that’s bollocks. Reviews are valuable because they’re impartial. We know that blurbs aren’t. He can “reason” it out any way he likes, he knows he’s lying. Misrepresentation.

Anyway, this particular story has a happy ending. The business was ratted out and subsequently failed, for which we can be thankful. The guy says he regrets his venture into what he called “artificially embellished reviews”. Which is good. At least he realises that what he did was wrong, so there might be hope for humanity yet. Shame he couldn’t admit even then that he was lying and misleading people. Just “artificially embellishing”, but there you go.

Here’s the thing, as far as I’m concerned. Paying for a review is not necessarily a bad thing. We all want to get noticed. We all want our work to fall before the eyes of more readers and reviews definitely help that. I’m always going on about reviewing. If you read something, review it! Two lines and a star rating at Amazon and Goodreads can make a massive difference. People are really busy and everyone needs to make a buck, so someone charging money for reviews is not neecessarily a bad thing. I’ve said that twice now in this paragraph and there’s one very important word that I’ve deliberately left out. That word is “good”. Paying for good reviews sucks Satan’s rancid balls, because you’re corrupting the system and devaluing the work of everyone. Paying someone to read your book and honestly review it, however, is fine. That’s a very important distinction.

I’ve never done it, but I wouldn’t completely write off the possibility. Getting reviews is hard and if someone is prepared to take a free book and a small fee, with the guarantee that they’ll leave an honest review in a variety of places, I see that as a good thing. Sure, you might be paying for someone to tell you, and the entire internet, that your writing sucks, your book is crap and no one should buy it unless they run out of toilet paper. But that’s what you always do when you send a book off for review. And when you do send it off, it might never actually get reviewed. Adding a few bucks to ensure it does makes sense. And if you’re told it’s shit, you know to try harder next time. Maybe listen to the advice of your writers’ group and beta readers. Or get new ones. Or something. Just don’t pay some schmuck to guarantee you a good review. You’re cheating your future readers, you’re cheating yourself, you’re cheating the very fucking concept of honesty. And the only one who really benefits is the person charging you for their artificially glowing review. If your book is good enough, it should hopefully get some good reviews all on its own. Regardless, it should garner some honest reviews over time. Hassle people about reviewing it. When people tell you they enjoyed it, ask them politely, ever so nicely, prettyplease can they put a quick review somewhere.

But, most importantly of all, please honestly review what you read. Lead by example. Make it a habit to add a line or two and a rating on a handful of sites every time you finish a book. Or even just one site of choice, like Goodreads. Whether you like it or not. A broad range of honest reviews will do wonders and takes no time at all. And if everyone got into that habit, we’d have fewer predators out there using sock puppets (multiple fake online personas) to leave bullshit reviews. And when you do find those people, don’t grab a pitchfork and a gang of friends and give them a good, old-fashioned online lynching. Why waste your time? Report them to the sites in question and let the policies of those sites deal with them. Then get on with your day, read a book and review it.

We love you when you review our work. Don’t let the sharks spoil it for everyone. Now I’m off to Goodreads to fill in a few gaps in my own reviewing.

(And if you’ve read any of my books, prettyplease can you put a quick review somewhere? And if you want to read my books and will leave me a review, drop me a line and I’ll send you ecopies for nothing, if you promise to leave an honest review at Goodreads and Amazon. Can’t say fairer than that, eh?)

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14 thoughts on “Paid reviews hurt everyone, except those being paid

  1. I agree with you 100%, but I’d like to add a few thoughts for context for those who maybe don’t understand what it’s like out here in review-land.

    I’m sitting at my computer desk with two very tall stacks of books, one on either side of the monitor. The pile to my left is the pile I’ve read for which I need to write reviews. I got behind when I had flu and pneumonia for a month, when I could read but not string together sentences worth a damn. The review pile kept wobbling and falling over today, so I think it’s time I closed my eyes and dived in…

    The pile to my right is *part* of my TBR pile, including one book I paid for and another book that I’m part-way through that I put down in order to prepare for an interview with a different author. My TBR pile was getting under control, I had more reviewers coming in and taking books so I accepted more books and unsolicited books showed up. I now have a TBR pile on the coffee table, computer desk, kitchen dresser and in my ‘office’. I’m drowning in books #firstworldreviewerproblems 🙂

    I admit I’m a bookaholic and that’s a large part of the problem here. I mean, what do you do when you receive an email, like I did this morning, offering you the next Peter F. Hamilton and Greig Beck for free? I’m trying to say ‘No thanks,’ because I know I have too many books to read already, but it’s SO HARD.

    My philosophy with writing reviews is complex and I’m still working through the issues.

    Firstly: I DON’T GET PAID FOR REVIEWS. If I got paid to write a good review, I’d call it *advertising*. If someone offered to pay me to write an honest review, I’d- I’d- probably faint from shock, then I’d have to figure out what to do. Full disclosure is the safest path, hence my recent post showcasing my goodies including wine. (It’s a hard life, but I’m willing to suffer for my art.)

    Secondly: I write maybe three kinds of reviews. Negative reviews are the longest because I detail why I didn’t like the book carefully. While I enjoy snark as much as the next guy, I cringe at the thought of pissing over someone’s baby.

    Positive reviews fall into two main categories for me: the ultra-short ‘I enjoyed this, read it! I don’t want to spoil it for you’ review with variations. Then there’s the tepid review where I read the book and I didn’t really like it – or *really* didn’t like it – but I asked myself: ‘Am I the target market for this book?’ I answered ‘No,’ so I ask myself ‘Will the target market enjoy this book?’ If the answer is yes then I try to indicate who is going to enjoy the book. (And yes, I talk to myself: it’s the only way to ensure an intelligent conversation and outcome focused dialogue. :P)

    My preference is to give books to reviewers who will enjoy them, but once you’ve given someone the book it’s difficult to extract the review. I love my reliable reviewers!

    I’ve even had dreams about books, being overwhelmed by books… I think the night I dream about books a la Pratchett in Going Postal, it’s time to get out of this game.

    PS Edward has my kindle. Am thinking if I want to read with my kindle again, I will need to buy him his own.

  2. I can’t add a great deal to what DMF has said. I always try to give an honest review. If it’s negative it’s never scathing (at least in an insulting way) and either way I try to pick who might enjoy it.

    Having said that, I have been bought the odd beer after reviewing books and in the dark recesses of my soul I wonder how corrupt I’d be in a Reviewing For Bacon scandal. Am I a bad person?

  3. There’s nothing wrong with accepting a beer AFTER a review!

    And no one can be held responsible for their actions when bacon is involved.

  4. Hmm I’m uncomfortable with being paid. I’m uncomfortable being given gifts too ( which is why I think Dark Matter’s full disclosure is a good idea). I don’t like to think money or gifts would cause me to change my view of a book, but the possibility’s there. The perception that it will is there as well.

    I am reminded of Doctor’s being given inducements by Pharmaceutical companies and the issue that causes with public perception and trust. But also they way in which being funded by certain companies has been shown to influence (subconsciously) results of experiments.

    I doubt this issue is new though. I am sure that reviewers for broadsheets have been offered inducements and lunches since books were first reviewed.

    Getting paid would put even more obligation on me to read. The more I feel obligated the more resistant I feel to reading.

    I also fear the temptation would arise in some reviewers to not bother reading yet still review to claim the cash (as happened in one of those news articles) in that case the reader is being defrauded, but the reviewer and author are happy.

    I am also reminded of the contract some companies tried to pull with bloggers/reviewers in the states last year, where a blogger/reviewer had to agree to review within a certain time and review regularly or they would be dropped from the list, or wouldn’t receive copies. Imagine how that effected the quality of reviews and likelihood of being honest in your opinion.

    So on the surface, yeah paying for people to give honest “no obligation to love the book” reviews might be okay, I think the reality would be different.

    A good question Alan.

  5. I would have absolutely no problem if someone wanted to give me a big bag of money to review, but they’re going to be sorely disappointed if they expect it to influence my opinion. If anyone wants to give me a big bag of money for anything else you are of course most welcome. I can see that the perception of impartiality would be a problem though, so I’m not holding my breath. Still, we live in hope.

    As far as feeling obliged to review something goes, I make sure to review anything I’ve formally requested ASAMFP. Anything that just shows up in my mailbox goes into the ‘to read’ pile and will get reviewed if I get a chance within a reasonable period of time, but I don’t ever give myself deadlines for ransoms.

  6. Deadlines for ransoms are, of course, important to stop the flow of fingers in the mail. This time, however, I meant ‘randoms’. Thank you Apple.

  7. Sean – you raise an interesting point with the doctors/big pharma company comparison. I would certainly hate to see reviewers courted in that way. But reviewers do take on a lot of work and do a great job, for nothing usually. At best, unless they’re a paid reviewer for some publication, they score free books. When I review, that’s enough for me (and I’m happy to review the books I buy too.) I think the only way for a reviewer to be paid for their review and remain impartial would be if they were the sort of person who could do that in the first place and not feel obligated in any way. And their policies would have to be very clear. Then the proof of their impartiality would hopefully shine through in their reviews.

    It’s a minefield, that’s for sure.

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