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.