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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Writing Wibbles

The current Twitter tempest, at least in the writing world, swirls around the issue of paid reviews. In a rare moment of unity, both the indie world (represented here by Chuck Wendig) and the traditional world (Shelf Awareness) agree that the practice is a little icky. To be specific, Wendig calls it “scummy” while SA says “depressing.” (Both posts link back to an article in the NY Times, about the proprietor of a review mill that was recently shut down.)

Review mill! Green energy!
Wendig raises the question, we can all be sure that [this will] reflect more prominently on self-published authors above all others, right? Well, the traditional publishing industry could cite it as another reason to shun indies, except for one problem: buying and selling reviews is long-established practice. A Twitter friend has a small-press book out, and her publisher paid Publishers Weekly to review it. The Times article mentions Kirkus, “a reviewing service founded in 1933.” That’s 79 years ago, if you don’t feel like doing the math yourself, a time when not even science fiction could conceive of something like the Kindle. If the review mills are scummy, it’s only in that they tend to accentuate the positive (which, to authors using such things, is simply providing value for the money).

Before I go any further, let me say I haven’t bought any reviews for White Pickups, nor do I intend to. The honest 5* review it got is better than anything I could have afforded, and it even points out a couple flaws (dammit! why didn’t I write that down when I thought of it?). But if you tilt your head to the right and squint, buying reviews (whether from PW/Kirkus or a review mill) becomes a marketing expense. I don’t have confirmation, but rumor has it that a certain number of reviews (50?) is supposed to draw the attention of Amazon’s algorithms and they start recommending the book. From that angle (remember to tilt your head and squint), review mills are targeting algorithms rather than people. Scummy, yes, but people are always going to try gaming the system when there’s money to be made.

But buying a “real” review can be pricey. Factor in the hours spent first reading the book, then writing the review, and even at minimum wage you could be looking at over a hundred bucks. The Times article mentioned Kirkus charging $425, for example, and that sounds about right for a professional. If I was out of work, I’d probably take $400 to write a review, but I wouldn’t inflate the rating.

Personally, if I had the money to buy reviews, I’d spend it on editing instead. Better yet, I’d spend the time writing something that rises above the crud, leaving indies in awe and publishers grumbling how they could have done better. Back to Scrivener now…


  1. I agree, it's money better spent elsewhere. Not surprised people do it, though. The only thing that surprised me about the article was that only self-publishers were named.

    The more I learn about self-publishing, the more expensive it sounds. I wonder if the next round of articles about it will discuss writers putting themselves in debt to publish.

  2. People do spend it, on the assumption that once you get past the first "NOTICE ME!" critical mass, then the real reviews will take over and swamp out the fake reviews.

    However, it's dubious that the real reviews will ever be as uniformly positive as the purchased ones.

  3. I have post on this that I haven't published yet. But in doing the research, I found the cost was rather variable.

    They don't generally have to read a book to review it. They just look at excerpts and other reviews and spin from there. For a 300 word review, one top reviewer noted they would spend 15 minutes reading the book. For careful "hack" reviews one going rate noted was $1000 for 50.

    Given that there is almost zero cost to get into the business, it is likely even those prices will collapse.

  4. I think there is something not quite right about paying for reviews. I don't think I would ever do so. I give away free copies to others who agree to do a review and keep my fingers crossed that its a good one they submit. ^_^

  5. As an author, I wouldn't pay for a review, but as a business person I'm wondering how I can get into that business ;). I'm perfect for it - I love to read, and I know how to write :).

    It reminds me of the food critic job. How does one fall into such a position?

  6. The sad thing is it takes credibility from a lot of honest reviews. These days if it isn't a person I trust then I ignore reviews altogether.

  7. If you have to pay for good reviews then you're doing something wrong. Good writing should speak for itself and make people want to tell others about it.

  8. Thanks for your patience while I get through real life here…

    Sonya, I'm surprised that it was portrayed that way. Until the traditional world regains its footing, we'll get blamed for everything short of global warming (and maybe that too). :-P

    Tony, very good points. Like I said, though, if you tilt your head and squint, you can call it a marketing expense. Not an intelligent marketing expense (unless, of course, it works).

    Russell, good to see you again! If I was paid $15 to write a review, I certainly wouldn't spend much more than half an hour at it either. (The mill owner was taking $99, then paying $15 to the person doing the actual work.)

    Helen, same here! I do try to review books when I get freebies. But I have a large pile of them already, so sometimes it takes a while (unless I wanted to read it in the first place, or I know the author…). ;-)

    Wendy, you should study Kirkus and their model. But to be a little more honest than them, limit your intake to genres that interest you. Kirkus prefers what I like to call "pretentious litfic drivel," but doesn't make that clear until they take your $425 and slag your genre work.

    Peter, that is a good point. But if the review talks about stuff that happens in the book, it's probably genuine. Vapid "this was awesome" phrases or tons of misspellings can indicate a paid-for review. I suspect, on Amazon anyway, that the review mill people also up-rate ("helpful") each other's reviews to make them stand out. (If I were running such an outfit, I wouldn't miss that trick.)

    Icy, agreed. I think Tony has the right idea about them, it's not so much getting the reviews as building a buzz.

    Of course, there is something worse than buying reviews: forging them yourself, slagging other authors' work, then issuing a "sorry I got caught" non-apology when found out…

  9. I'm very glad you pointed out that traditional publishers have been doing this for a long time as well as the indies (nice point especially about Kirkus). Definitely interesting times.


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