Everybody Pays for It

I woke up yesterday morning to the dulcet tones of my husband, yelling something about the front page of The New York Times. Still bleary-eyed, I wondered over to my computer to find David Streitfeld’s case study, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy”, about a shleppy-looking guy with no scruples who sold bogus book reviews to indie authors.

It seems, based on the well over 300 comments received, that the point in the article that had outraged most people—even though it’s as common as the cast of “Honey Boo Boo”—is that (gasp!), authors knowingly paid a hard-up freelancer, living in a hotel in Las Vegas, to give their book a positive review.

The fact that there are very few products or service industries—from tooth brushes to travel sites—that don’t solicit and/or pay for good reviews is mentioned in the piece, albeit fleetingly.  But Streitfeld covered that subject in greater length in a post he wrote last year for the Times, In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5, describing how the enormous demand for reviews—on everything from hotels and restaurants to car dealerships and handymen—has led to a kind of review-factory involving little evaluation of services and products, writing, “the boundless demand for positive reviews has made the review system an arms race of sorts. As more five-star reviews are handed out, even more five-star reviews are needed. Few want to risk being left behind.”

But the news that you can buy positive feedback on TripAdvisor didn’t draw nearly the same outrage reserved for indie authors.

Why is that?

Perhaps it’s because, even though indie books have repeatedly cracked the most respectable bestseller lists, they are still considered poseurs by many (conveniently those, like the New York Times, in the position to commission such an article), who survive on the kindness –and the ad dollars—of traditional publishing.

As bestselling trad pubbed author Sue Grafton recently said, “Don’t self-publish. That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work” and “…it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research.”

Well that sure puts indies in their place, doesn’t it?

The other point that gets lost in “The Best Book Reviews” piece is that paying for book reviews is not just the pervue of indie authors.  Professional reviews for all published books—whether trad or indie—are, directly or indirectly, paid for.  Traditional publishers not inclined to paying outright for services find other, more socially acceptable ways of racking up positive reviews. On an author’s behalf, publishers, editors, agents and PR people may attempt to develop relationships with reviewers before a book has been critiqued. There are fancy lunches and plenty of swag. If a book has been reviewed favorably by a critic in the past, you can bet that the publisher will send new manuscripts in their direction in the hopes of receiving another good review. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “We’ve already established what kind of woman you are, madam.  Now we’re just haggling about the price.”

But bad reviews of traditionally published authors don’t seem to have as negative of an impact as those for indie books, especially if they appear in prominent publications. In fact, there are many instances in which bad press has served to bring in higher sales. These authors, if they have achieved a certain level of fame, often have media outlets, such as radio and television, in which they can promote their work and obtain additional consumers. The above marketing strategies are generally not available, or are financially out of reach for the indie author.  It’s like pitting the Sylvester Stallone from “Rocky” with the Sly Stallone from the “Expendables”.

In spite of this, indie books continue to make their mark all over the bonafide bestseller lists.  Their books are being scooped up almost weekly by one of the Big 6, at which time their authors are welcomed into the club (cue secret handshake), their books given a new cover and sent out to presumably legit reviewers with the process starting all over again.

The moral of the story?

Even if a review is legit, it is subjective. Even if an indie author pays for a few positive reviews, if their book is badly written the truth will prevail.  Or, if its 50 Shades of Grey, everyone will know it sucks but will buy it anyway.


Rebecca Nichloson contributed to this piece.


In light of the New York Times story, I thought it expedient to explain  IndieReader’s review policies.

1). Authors can not pay for an IndieReader review, although they do submit their work to us, meaning that in most circumstances we do not pay for books.

2). IndieReader pays its reviewers to read the books we choose to review—from start to finish.

3). IndieReader’s reviewers chose from genres they enjoy, so someone who hates science fiction will not be reviewing a sci-fi title.

4). IndieReader directs its reviewers to rate each book on its merits and to not make allowances because the book is self-pubbed.

5). Authors agree when they submit their books that—no matter what the rating—IndieReader can post the resulting review on its site.

6). If a book is reviewed poorly, we give the author the option of deciding whether or not they want us to post the review to Amazon.

The bottom line is that IndieReader’s goal is to become trusted advisers to book-lovers wanting to try an indie. And while any review is at its core subjective, it does not serve our purpose to post good reviews of lousy books.  But don’t take our word for it.  Find a review, check out the book, and then you decide.



15 replies
  1. avatar
    Charles D. says:

    Amen, Amy. The cream always rises, in any industry. And, if one pays close attention, they can discern the genuine reviews from those done by shills.

    Your site rocks!

  2. avatar
    RD Meyer says:

    Eventually, an author who pays for a positive review will have it come back to haunt them because their work is still out there and will still stink. I’ve seen a lot of positive movie reviews for awful movies where, after the opening weekend, word got out and the movie tanked. The truth WILL come out eventually, and a writer will have to work doubly hard to overcome readers who felt scammed by the first book.

    • avatar
      Charles D. says:

      Very true about movie reviews…I didn’t think about that. I wonder what the studio/dist co does to get such glowing reviews from major newspapers, etc. I’ve seen some that had to have included, at minimum, a comp trip to an LA screening, five-star hotel, etc.

      Even Ishtar and Gigli had good advance reviews.

      Great point!

  3. avatar
    Don Meyer says:

    Another great job, Amy! In my case, I work hard to get my “independenty published” books reviewed, especially understanding how many requests their are for review(er)s. I send my books (or queries) out and wait to hear back or hopefully get that reivew … and sometimes never do! And, of course, I never hesitate to have a review posted, even if it is not a “stellar” review, I think that is the only way to bring a fair mix to the table. Even I would be suspect if everyone like a particular work. Unfortunately, the number of “pay” reviews far exceed the list of reviewers willing to take on a book. Of course, the number of books being published has created both the shortage and the demand, as well as helping to create a booming business in the review trade. I’m not sure it is all bad, nor should it be totally discounted, getting that first review is always a struggle and if someone wanted to “pony up” to get one on the books (no pun intended) so be it. Coupled with the fact that a “paid” review is usually turned around faster than waiting on a review(er) to take a look at your book, may lead an author to “go get one” while they wait. As we all know (or soon learn), at the end of the day, it really is all about marketing and promotion …

  4. avatar
    Alan Freed says:

    So, what is this, then?

    “Based on the number of books that we receive and don’t have time to review, IndieReader has decided to begin charging $100 per book review.” “

  5. avatar
    Jim says:

    Anyone interested in this subject you should also read the following research by an Assistant Professor of Business Administration. The interesting part starts where it says: “In one experiment we had people play a fun online game for a few minutes.”


    Between paid for and not paid for reviews, people found paid reviews not just more helpful but *significantly* more helpful. Note that the paid reviews were just paying for a review, not necessarily a positive one.

    When they were told about the paid reviews they discredited them. Customers that post the odd review now and then are in a minority.

    A (fairly) well known saying: “Trust is earned.” With a place like Indie reader you can decide if it’s reviews reflect your experiences and decide whether to rely on it or not, it’s not going to change it’s name anytime soon. With millions of anonymous customer reviews you start blank every time in terms of earned trust.


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