Are paid reviews really a good solution to gatekeeping self-published books?

blueinkPublishing Perspectives is carrying a column by Patti Thorn, former books editor of the Rocky Mountain News and co-founder of BlueInk Review, a fee-based book review site. In this column, Thorn makes the case for fee-based reviews as a solution to sorting through the avalanche of self-published titles.

Drawing on her experience at the Rocky Mountain News, Thorn writes that there are already too many professionally-published works for free reviewers to handle, let alone self-published titles. She points out that, in the era of social networking and Amazon reviewer fraud, it can be hard to trust crowdsourcing—and going by the most popular doesn’t always work either. And well-meaning bloggers can find the flood of titles too much to handle.

But, Thorn says, there is a solution:

We believe fee-based reviews are the answer. In the digital world, it has become necessary to find new ways of supporting editorial ventures. (Just ask one of the thousands of unemployed journalists.) Trying to sell ads online simply doesn’t pay the bills. With a fee-based model, each book pays its own way. The fee supports the business operation and the compensation to professional reviewers and lessens the potential for overall reviewer burnout.

It also allows us to fund our bigger mission of discovering great books, which benefits everyone.

Thorn explains that BlueInk’s reviewers are professional critics and editors, and that they are instructed “to write honest reviews noting both the positive and negative points of any book.” They are paid for their work, and write professional, unbiased evaluations. The author pays in advance and has no input into what they write, but can choose not to have the review posted on the website if it turns out to be disappointing.

The column does not go into detail about what these reviews cost—I had to go to the website for that. It turns out that the fee is $395 for a standard review (to be completed in 7-9 weeks), or $495 for a “fast track review” (which would only take 4-5 weeks). I’m not sure how that would look to most self-publishing writers, but from where I’m setting that looks like a pretty significant amount.

Yes, I know, quality work costs money. But it seems like charging $400 for a review that might not necessarily even be positive sets the bar pretty high. One of the great things about modern self-publishing platforms is that there are few or no fees for many of them—they take their cut out of the sales rather than up front, which means authors don’t need to have a lot of money to get their work posted. (It also means they can publish without being gypped by money-grubbing vanity presses.) Relying on willingness to lay out several hundred dollars for reviews as a gatekeeper could leave out a lot of people who are excellent writers but lack the financial means to submit their books for review.

(I also note that BlueInk is running a story on self-publishing phenomenon Amanda Hocking on its front page at the moment, in which it warns aspiring authors not to expect her kind of success—but doesn’t seem to have reviews of any books by Hocking on the site. Apparently she was able to make it big without having to pay someone to review her books.)

About Chris Meadows (4149 Articles)
TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.

7 Comments on Are paid reviews really a good solution to gatekeeping self-published books?

  1. If you suggest to a self-published author that they should hire a professional editor, often the response is “I can’t afford to pay for an editor.” And this is heard from writers who assume that a novel can be professionally edited for $500. So I wonder how many of these authors will be willing to pay $500 for a review that they may not be able to use, and how they will feel when the review comes back and says “great idea, lousy execution, needs a professional editor’s helping hand”?

  2. (no affiliation) does it for 67 bucks. They send email to readers who have signed up to review books in your genre, and then ask them to post a review (in a certain format) at Amazon. Your $67 gets you ten reviews (no guarantees on ratings, and no way to hide bad reviews). Reviewers do not get paid, but they can develop a following on Amazon (and potentially wider) of other readers who agree with their reviews and are looking to find new books that they recommend.

  3. Edward Nawotka // July 18, 2011 at 4:22 pm //

    The story doesn’t note the price as a consequence of it not sounding like a advertisement for the service. Indeed the price is likely to appear steep to self-published authors. Of course, such a service and fee will appear to seem good value is BlueInk can indeed develop a reputation for solid, honest reviews that can lead to better things along the line. It’s early days yet. With the digital distribution streams getting clogged, $500 for a solid review, which can then in turn be used to market the book — and provided BlueInk can amplify its impact — might seem like a small expense. Of course, spending $500 or more for an edit should be a priority.

  4. Robert Nagle // July 18, 2011 at 6:03 pm //

    I am more neutral about reviews. We need more reviews,and anything which can result in more reviews can be a good thing. Practically speaking, indie people are not going to have the cash to pay for reviews.

  5. Robert Nagle // July 18, 2011 at 6:24 pm //

    Of course, Amanda Hocking’s fiction is not very challenging to read. Frankly, one cannot use the number of unsolicited reviews as an accurate yardstick of whether a book is good. It may simply be that it isn’t challenging or is short or in a popular genre. Some books are simply hard to market; that was the case with Jack Matthews who wrote 15+ works of fiction and still hasn’t received a single review on Surely no one would suggest that Amanda Hocking is a better or more important writer?

  6. As a reviewer myself, I am amazed at the thought of charging $400-500 for a review. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. And for the record, all I require is a copy of the author’s work in bound hardcopy or ePub.

  7. I think some people miss the important point in this issue. Paid reviews are a perfectly valid model. Why not ? But the real question is what is being offered and delivered for that payment !

    If I was able to get Oprah to review my book, I would happily pay $1,000. Wouldn’t you ? If a run of the mill blogger of Science Fiction books who gets 50 hits a week asked me for $50 I would tell him where to go. You ?

    So the real question is what can a paid for reviewer offer ? and what can they DELIVER ?

    Personally I see NO value in the service being offered by BlueInk in and of itself. Reviewing is a deeply personal process. It is wholly subjective. It cannot be industrialised and regulated and systemised among a ‘panel’ of reviewers.

    It is possible that individual reviewers working for BlueInk may have reputations among circles of readers and those readers trust that reviewer. And those readers may have a high probability of purchasing titles recommended by that reviewer. Exactly what percentage will purchase ? What can that reviewer deliver in SALES! In my view that is where the value ends.

    Also for intelligent readers looking for a filter to choose their reading, are they really likely to take strong guidance from reviewers who only review titles they are paid to review ? Even if they quite like that reviewers opinion ? what about all the great titles that do not pay ? Some readers may. But I’ll bet that number will be small UNLESS that specific individual reviewer is really really valued by those readers.

    I do see a market out there for people who either already have a wide reputation among the public, or for people who can work hard to establish such a reputation – who have a discernible and consistent taste in reading, and who can verbalise and express that taste in reviews, to establish themselves as ‘Go-To’ reviewers who then inspire readers to buy titles through their sites. I see them offering both paid for a free reviews to maintain their overall integrity.

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