Marsha Canham's Blog

August 29, 2012

My two cents on paid reviews

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 1:38 pm

For what it’s worth. There’s a lot of buzzing going on these days after the article in NY Times came out about Todd Rutherford (a.k.a. “The Publishing Guru”) and the way he captitalized on authors willing to pay to have their books reviewed. It was implied that most of those authors were indies, self-published. The biggest gasp that sucked all the oxygen out of the indie world was John Locke admitting he paid for more than 300 reviews.

I don’t think I have 300 reviews, total, for all my books spanning back over 30 years *snort*

When he got started, Rutherford was working for a vanity press so he knew how valuable reviews are to unknown authors. Even popular authors need to get attention for their books. So he started a business to sell them what they were looking for and he brags openly that within a short time he was pulling in $28,000/month and even had to hire people to churn out the cookie-cutter 5 star reviews that got pasted all over Amazon and other sites. Amazon has since caught on and deleted most of his reviews, but the taint remains. It’s right up there with the little groups of authors who write reviews for each other whether they’ve read the books or not, but hey, it looks good and the more reviews a book gets–especially the five star ones–the higher up the algorithm ladder the books climb. Some advertising sites, for instance, will not accept books that have fewer than 10 five star reviews.

It isn’t just Rutherford capitalizing on this either. Kirkus Reviews…claiming to be one of the most prestigious mags for book reviews–now offers to review an indie book for the sweet sum of nearly $500, more if the author wants it fast-tracked. They promise honest reviews and if the author doesn’t like what s/he gets back, s/he has the option of burying it under the rug.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well…for one thing, if it’s a paid review through services like Rutherford offers, chances are, for your $99, you’re likely to see a glowing, enthusiastic five star review for a book that some unsuspecting readers are going to shell out good money for hoping to find a new author, and in this brave new world of ebooks, finding new good authors is a treat. I won’t ramble on here about the thousands of good books that were rejected by anal editors who thought they didn’t fit the required genres that were in fashion at the time. Or that one of the grandest bonuses of being able to self publish is that all of those thousands of really good books can now find their way into reader’s hands. Nope, won’t ramble about that. But I will reiterate that competition is fierce to get those thousands of good books noticed, and most of them get poured into the same rushing headwaters as the thousands of not-so-good books that spill over the waterfall every month. Reviews help readers wade through those waters and if the reviews are tainted or skewed, then the reader skims through a dozen pages into it and thinks: WTF? and tosses it back into the swirling waters vowing never to read that author again.

Authors rely on reviews, but they also rely on word of mouth, and if a reader is pissed off by a poorly written book, that word spreads just as far and wide as word of a great book. So suddenly that $99 review isn’t looking like such a great idea.

One of the counter-arguments I’ve heard is that publishers have always paid for reviews. Hmmm.  Not so. They used to send out ARC’s…Advance Reading Copies…freebies that went to reviewers and book distributors and it was up to them if they wrote a good or bad review, or if they reviewed it at all. When I was in print and working for three of the biggest of the Big Six, I used to wait on pins and needles for the reviews to come out on a new book. For romance, the main reviews came from Romantic Times and Affaire de Coeur. Publisher’s Weekly was never big on romance in the early days, so if you got a good review from them you could sing it from the rooftops. I still flog the review I got from them for The Iron Rose and the fact it was voted by their reviewers as one of the seven best mass market fiction books of the year. That’s what you call good mileage.

There were a few online sites as well, run by readers who went out and bought the books, read them, and reviewed them honestly. You never knew if you were going to bash yourself over the head with a brick when you read one of those reviews, or pop open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate. Mrs Giggles, for one, still wields a large, sharp carving knife when she writes a review, but frankly, I would rather get an honest opinion from her, than a phony one  bought and paid for by someone who skims the back blurb or the synopsis and proclaims my brilliance whilst spelling the names of the hero and heroine wrong.

The same holds true with “beta readers” another catch phrase that gets tossed out there as if the books were being tested for levels of radiation. These are readers who offer to read the first draft of a book, or the second or third, and give the author feedback on what could be improved, what makes sense, what makes them yawn. A good “beta” reader gives an honest opinion regardless if it sends the author into the bathroom to toss her cookies. I had a great “sounding board” when I first started out. She was harsh when she needed to be harsh and never told me what I wanted to hear, only what I needed to hear. She was directly responsible for making me throw out the first version of The Pride of Lions and do a complete rewrite that resulted in not just a better book, but a bigger book that had to be divided into two, then three. Thus the Scotland trilogy of The Pride of Lions, The Blood of Roses, and Midnight Honor were born. If she had just told me oh yeah, the book is fine (which, in fact, she did say…but then added: it’s good enough but kind of predictable and ordinary and could have been written by anyone. I had no problem putting it down for a couple of a days and coming back to it.  Augh! Predictable? Ordinary? KISS OF DEATH!!!!) I probably would have sent it in and it would have been…just fine. Ordinary. Predictable. But fine.

I pay VERY close attention to any reviews that show up on Amazon or elsewhere, and yes, I get one star reviews and I get five star reviews. I can’t say I love the one star reviews, but hey…every reader has an opinion and their opinion matters just as much as those who write a five star review. Hell, I don’t like every book that my friends rave about and thrust into my hands to read. Everyone’s taste is different and not everyone likes the kind of book I write. Would I pay someone to write a bunch of five star reviews just so that I sounded more popular than I am? Noooooooooo. I yam what I yam and I write what I write and if readers like what I write and they give me a good review, it puts a huge smile on my face and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. If they don’t like it and give me one star, then I take a deep breath, try to see some value in the criticism and think of ways of possibly winning them over with the next book.  Can you imagine how boring the world would be if there was only one type of book out there, one genre, one style of writing, one plot, one size fits all?

Of course, I’m snickering here as I write that, because that’s exactly why I went on an eight year hiatus from writing…because that’s what the publishers were trying to do:  dictate what to write and how to write it.  Let’s try not to spoil this new-found freedom by taking away the value of an honest review.

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9 Comments »

  1. Excellent article, Marsha. Well done.

    Comment by Roxy Boroughs — August 29, 2012 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

  2. Excellent blog, Marsha! I’ve seen the topic debated here and there. You’re prospective on this important topic is concise, clear and, to my way of thinking, spot on! Well done. If fact, I think I’ll share on FB. :)

    Comment by JILLMETCALF — August 29, 2012 @ 6:08 pm | Reply

  3. Wise as always. Thanks, Marsha.

    Comment by Deb Stover — August 29, 2012 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

  4. Well said. Reviews can at times be subjective. I try not to take them personally.. not every reader is going to like my voice or my perspective.. I learn from the not so good ones .. and the good ones make me want to write an even better book.

    Comment by Marcia King-Gamble — August 29, 2012 @ 9:29 pm | Reply

  5. Bravo Marsha! I was stunned to read about the paid reviews but really you’d think after all the years nothing would phase a writer. Wrong!

    Comment by elainerc2 — August 29, 2012 @ 10:15 pm | Reply

  6. Thanks for this, Marsha. You made some good points about why we should not be paying for reviews. It is so important for the review to mean something and that would always be suspect if the review was purchased.

    Comment by Maryann Miller — August 30, 2012 @ 1:47 am | Reply

  7. Paying for reviews reminds me of all the athletes who use the same excuse for taking Performance Enhancing Drugs. They say they can’t compete with all the other athletes who are doing it without using themselves. And generally, it’s true. So it comes down to a decision whether you want to do the right thing or the expedient thing. A moral decision. I know where I come down on this one. I have a few regrets that it means I likely won’t have the same level of success. Does it compensate knowing that I’m doing the right thing? Maybe. But I know that I couldn’t live with myself any other way.

    Comment by Karen McCullough (@kgmccullough) — August 30, 2012 @ 2:21 am | Reply

    • Karen, if it makes you feel any better, I’ve made several choices along the way during my 30 year writing career that haven’t been popular or haven’t moved me up the ladder at the same pace as my peers. But my thought has always been that it’s MY name on the book. MY name that’s going to stay on that book long long after I’ve turned to dust. I wrote it as much for me as for the readers, and if something an editor suggested didn’t sit well with me, I simply didn’t do it. I was never in this business for the money… probably a good thing too *snort*… I was in it so that I could live vicariously through my imagination, swinging through the rigging with Errol Flynn, charging a battlefield with Tom Selleck, wearing a poncho and packing a Colt .45 with Clint Eastwood. I’ve met and made so many friends through my writing and because of my writing that my life has been enriched in more ways than a few extra bucks could ever account for. Cheating the readers or paying for reviews has never even entered my thoughts.

      Comment by marshacanham — August 30, 2012 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

  8. Hi Marsha -

    Melanie from bookworm2bookworm just let me know about your post and that it was a “must read”!
    She was right and I loved getting all the “nitty- gritty” of what goes on in the reviews world!

    As a reader, not a writer or reviewer, I didn’t realize that any reviewer got paid! I understand that if they work for a newspaper they get paid like any other “staff” member would but get paid to read a book?

    I’ve decided that rates right up their with the idea of book-burning! I guess when I was in college I should have taken some literary writing courses instead of finance courses! How could I have missed that someone could actually get paid to read a book?

    With all the crazy laws they have on the books I think we need to add one that makes sense -You pay for a Book – YOU DON’T GET PAID FOR READING A BOOK!

    Comment by Jeanne Miro — August 30, 2012 @ 3:18 pm | Reply


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