Sunday, March 22, 2015

Do Paid-For Reviews Hurt Authors?

The answer to that question, it appears, depends on what side of the aisle you fall -- author or reader. 

So I was following an author for a spell, keeping an eye on the release of their first novel. Within a week they were pushing 20 reviews. All five-star. And all, notoriously, brief. This hinted at the possibility that these reviews were actually paid for, part of the marketing strategy to boost early sales of the book. I surmised this because:

  1. The bulk of the reviews were one paragraph and very generic. A punchy caption followed by stuff like, “This book was a page-turner!” “Couldn’t put it down!” and "Can't wait for the next!" With minimal specifics about the actual story. 
  2. The reviewers had very few, if any, others reviews. The idea being, they didn't do book reviews very often. This was a short-term gig. 
After concluding that the author was paying for reviews, it turned me off. I never purchased the book as a result. 

Was I being unreasonable? 

There is significant debate among indie authors about the possible benefits and/or ethics behind purchasing reviews. On the "pro" side are those who argue that indie authors are already at a disadvantage against trade-pubbed authors who have trade pubbed books reviewed by trade media via ad dollars. Besides, many businesses, not just authors but restaurants, travel agencies, etc., already purchase positive reviews as a matter of course. On the "con" side are those who argue that impartial reviews are ethically sound, that authors should not stoop to the level of crass business, and that a good book should be able to sell itself apart from artificial hype. 

In an increasingly competitive market, I can understand why an author would pay for bulk reviews. No. This isn’t something I’m planning on doing any time soon. Nevertheless, from my vantage point, “fake” reviews don't seem to hurt many book's sales... unless it's to fellow authors like myself

I could be wrong, but basic readers -- as opposed to writers who are paying attention to books in their genre, publishing practices, and market specifics -- don’t seem to pay too much attention to other reviews. At least, they don't seem to be asking, “Is this review fake?” If the average reader is looking at reviews at all, it is generically – “How many five-star reviews does this book have?” Meaning that paid-for reviews could be the perfect advertising tool. Why should the author wait for a glowing, detailed, five-star review to arrive -- IF it arrives at all -- when she can pay for a dozen splashy five-star snippets on release day? 

Either way, I never bought the aforementioned book. Apparently, that hasn’t hurt its sales. Or stopped the brief, generic, five-star reviews from rolling in. Which brings me back to my initial question: Do paid-for reviews hurt authors? Unless you’re one of those nit-picky, attempting-to-be-ethical, non-businessy, novelists like me, the answer seems to be “no.”

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Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The Ghost Box, The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


Joan said...

Interesting. In the past, I've received free books through Book Bub, read them, and thought they were horrible. Then I would see all the five star reviews on Amazon and wonder how in the world anyone could say anything good about the book. Never thought about the possibility of paid reviewers.

To me, building a good platform and a launch team is a better idea. And yes, there may be some negative reviews, but I'm skeptical of books that have only 4 and 5 star reviews.

Ane Mulligan said...

One thing to remember about 5 star reviews is they are not necessarily paid, even if you think the book stunk. :-) Fiction is so very subjective.

When I was reviewing for Novel Reviews, I'd get a book I disliked.I'd send it to another reviewer who loved it. I knew her too well to question her taste in literature. LOL

Personally, I've never known anyone to pay for a review.

Dina Sleiman said...

Whether or not they are smart business wise, I think they are tacky and unethical. If I suspected that of a Christian author, especially, I would never support their books. I don't mean that to sound like a double standard, but I buy Christian books largely for the spiritual content, and that says something very negative to me about where an author is spiritually.

When I send free books to influencers, I make it clear that I want them to be honest and that 3,4, and 5 star reviews are all acceptable. If they really hate the book, I ask that they please just decline to review.

Mark Baker said...

Another group turned off by paid for reviews are the serious reviewers. We can spot the fakes a mile away and won't buy the book as a result.

Iola Goulton said...

What Mark said.

There are lots of online networks where reviewers chat and swap notes. Some spend a lot of time identifying paid reviewers, then emailing Amazon and Goodreads in an effort to get their reviews deleted and accounts cancelled. Sometimes they succeed.

Also, an increasing number of readers won't buy a book that has nothing less than five-star reviews--unless it's an author they know and have read before. It doesn't matter how well-known the author is, if this reader hasn't heard of the author, they are a 'new' author, and will get tarred with the suspicion they have purchased reviews.

Some readers take this one step further and won't buy a book that doesn't have at least one critical review (two-star or one-star). So even asking people who didn't like the book not to review can backfire. After all, no book is perfect and even the classics have critical reviews.

Yes, paid-for reviews hurt authors. All authors.

jessilroberts said...

With self-published books, I don't put any stock in high star reviews. When I see all five star reviews, or a dozen five stars and four one stars, I find it pretty suspicious. If I pay any attention to those reviews, I'm probably only going to pay attention to the one stars, which I figure are more honest.
With traditionally published, I don't pay that much attention to reviews.
What I do put stock in is the first few pages of the book, no matter who published it. If the free preview grabs me, that is more important than any number of reviews. Generally, after reading a chapter or two of a book, I know if I'll enjoy it.

Interestingly, I saw this poll on goodreads recently. It asked how many reviews do you typically look at before reading a book?
Over 75% of the people taking the poll read three or less reviews before reading the book.

Connie Almony said...

I am very leery about high-star books myself and will take special care to read the more informative reviews, but I would be careful before assuming short notes are paid for, and decide not to read them for that reason alone.
Anne is right on the money about the subjective nature of fiction assessment. There are many books I’ve disliked that were loved by friends, and were recipients of major awards—books I would have given 2 or 3 stars if I’d been completely honest. So, though I might find its reviews unhelpful, I would not assume they were paid for.
At the same time, I agree that I will not buy books on reviews alone. I may peruse them for an idea of what readers might like, but if I don’t know the author I will definitely need to read the sample.
I give away a number of books for reviews but I place no restrictions on them other than that they mention they were given the book for an honest review. I do not give them limits on stars. Nor do I chase them down if they don’t review. The book stands for itself. Some will like it. Some will not. That’s the nature of the beast.

Mimi said...

It is my understanding that to some extent reviews are bought regardless of how you look at it. People will need to be able to find a book to be able to do a review. For people to find a book to review a certain amount of advertising needs to take pace, this costs money. I'm also told that publishers pay well known reviewers good money to do book reviews with waiting lists in place. So how does that figure?

Dina Sleiman said...

Mimi, I'm not sure where you are getting your information. Maybe from the people selling reviews? Reputable publishers do not pay for reviews. Send out free books, yes, with instructions to give an honest review. Advertising to sell books is not the same. The issue is if reviews are not honest or written in bulk by people who haven't read the book.

E.E. Kennedy said...

I don't have all that many reviews on my books and many of them are five star, but most of them are detailed ones, making it clear that the person read the book. I've never paid for reviews beyond exchanging a book (usually ebook) for an honest review. I don't believe that counts, does it?