Pay to Play: Should Writers Pay for Reviews?

Spurred by a post (that was taken down) on the New Podler, there has been a debate about whether or not it’s ethical for self-publishing review sites to charge authors for reviews.  I come down on the side of it being not that big a deal: so long as the reviews are honest and thorough and writers understand that payment is no guarantee of a good review, it doesn’t seem like the worst practice.

That said, I’ve made a point of not charging for reviews because it just feels wrong.  I do charge though – for going up in the queue and being reviewed first, but you can choose to be put on the waiting list for reviews for no charge.  Anyone who reviews for the site is eligible for that payment if they review a book by an author who pays to go up in the queue.

Cheryl Gardner of Pod Peep is the most vocal proponent that reviewers should never charge and should be doing it for the love of reading, writing, and promoting self-publishing.  I’m not such a hardliner.  A reviewer at The New York Times is getting paid by the newspaper to write a review.  I do a lot of fiction writing and writing for the web that I don’t get paid for.  I spend hours upon hours writing and promoting this site.  I enjoy it and do it for the love of promoting self-publishing, but I can’t feed my child on love.  I know “I’ve got a kid to feed” can justify anything, but I don’t think charging for reviews automatically compromises the integrity of the site.

An argument could be made that because self-published authors are paying to publish, it’s a different type of system, and writers understand that paying for reviews is part of the investment.  A problem arises because self-published writers may be under the impression that reviews are much more useful than they are.  They may believe the investment is worthwhile – pay for a review, make the money back in book sales.  But writers need to understand that it’s more than likely that a review – even a glowing review – is not automatically going to generate sales.  Still, I do believe there’s value in a review beyond book sales.  Even the ego boost is some sort of payment, as is criticism, as an author can learn mistakes he or she has made.  The author can use the review in promotional material that could help when drafting query letters.  Sales aren’t the only barometer of a review’s worth, so a reviewer is providing a useful service – if the review is well-written and honest.  There are pay-for-review sites that don’t fit that model, but I’m not going to name names.

Pay to Play

Pay to play isn’t unique to publishing, and it’s becoming an increased part of the art world, given how difficult it is to make a living in this economy.  The theatre has a growing issue with pay to play, as the theatre is even less lucrative than publishing:

In addition to the very poor financial terms that playwrights already must endure, many legitimate professional theatres (and countless amateur and semiprofessional ones), as well as reputable play development organizations and playwriting contests, are now actually charging playwrights for the privilege of reading their plays. Peruse any call for unagented play submissions (and even some agented ones) and you’ll see requirements for “submission fees,” “processing fees,” “reading fees,” “donations,” etc. These fees can be as low as $5 per play for small theatres and playwriting contests, to as high as $30 per submission to the internationally renowned New York Fringe Festival and even $35 per submission to the highly prestigious Eugene O’Neill Theatre Conference (the US’ most highly respected venue for developing new plays; the latter two organizations also require participating playwrights to agree to significant subsidiary-rights grabs). Submission fees upwards of $50 or even $75 have been reported.

There are rock clubs that charge bands to play as well.  Some see this as a matter of paying dues (literally).  It’s annoying, but it’s not inherently unethical.   The fact that money is changing hands does not mean that artists are being taken for a ride – if they understand what they’re getting by paying and if they have other options available.  In the old days of the self-publishing review blogosphere, there were only a handful of sites, now writers have many more options.  It may depend, in some regard, on how much a reviewer is charging.  Kirkus Discoveries, which charges as high as $550 for an expedited review and $400 for a normal review, does seem unethically high.

Taking Advantage of Authors

It’s up to the writer, to some degree, to understand the value of what they’re paying for.  So often, you read people chiding the self-publishing industry for “taking advantage” of authors.  As if authors are led to believe that self-publishing is as easy a route to selling books as traditional publishing.  You see this in posts criticizing the positive articles in Time or the NY Times about self-publishing success stories.  The criticism is that authors will think that because some writers have been overwhelmingly successful with self-publishing that they will as well.

This makes about as much sense as an author looking at Dan Brown’s sales figures and thinking: well if he did it, so can I.  Frankly, if a person goes into self-publishing with the idea that they’re going to become a bestseller, they haven’t done their research.  I don’t think writers are that feeble-minded and gullible.  When is running your own business ever easy?  I should think that authors understand that reviews on a website are not going to lead to overnight success.  Regardless, it’s still fun to be written about and to see a book treated seriously.  For some, that may be worth the investment.

Still, I don’t charge for every review because I don’t think it’s right to make it compulsory if the writer can’t afford it.  Every writer should have access.  But if a writer’s able to afford moving up in the queue and understands this is no guarantee of a good review, this doesn’t seem like too controversial a policy.

  • I was a reviewer for the Los Angeles Daily News for several years and they paid me, not the author or publisher, plus I got all sorts of free (unsolicited) books that usually went to some charity. Unread.

    This is why I only send review copies by mutual agreement. Not that that will guarantee a review. I sent out 39 copies last year and got ten reviews total. I can’t afford to carpet-bomb publications with review copies, nor can any other self-published author. I also know from the Daily News experience that most review copies have no impact.

    As a journalist I was taught that it is a big conflict of interest to accept compensation from anyone you are doing coverage on, and I just can’t get past that early training. The online culture blurs a lot of rules, but I think this is a good one. Objectivity is the goal.

    And if the book is of sufficient quality and interest, reviewers will ask for it and review it.

  • veinglory

    As mentioned above, reviewer at the New York Times is paid by the New York Times who is paid by the readers to give them info they want, not by the author to do promotion for them.

  • The web is a different animal from newspaper writing, including a different way to make revenue. For example, affiliate links: someone buys something on Amazon, and the linking website gets a percentage, or getting paid via the number of page views. That’s a different system than traditional newspaper/magazine advertising, which just pays a lump sum. So because it’s harder for website owners to make money online, some need to find another payment model.

    This is why the newspaper industry is so terrified of everything moving online, as they can’t make the same amount of money. I’m not advocating that reviewers all charge, but if an online magazine aims to be a self-standing business like Time or Newsweek, it needs to find new payment options – because pay subscriptions and ad revenue isn’t going to cut it.

  • To add: how is paying for a review different than paying for an advertisement? I understand: you’re paying for someone’s opinion, which could be negative, and an advertisement is neutral. But really, at its core a review is just another type of advertising.

    I’m playing devil’s advocate here, not being a literal advocate.

  • The Podler

    I think there is a great deal of intellectual dishonesty in the idea that blog reviewers must write for free. The big fat analogy is the university. You pay to play. Period. The student pays to attend class and to get evaluated. What does she get for the tuition payment? That’s anybody’s guess, really. It varies, all depending on the student. But the point is that the student pays a fee for the right to get their work evaluated by the professor.

    So the real issue is not that I asked, or that any blog reviewer would ask for a fee, it is that those who launch into critical mode really comment on the quality of the reviews themselves. My reviews are worth nothing, so everyone gets angry when I suggest that I want to charge a fee. If I were a NYT book critic and opened a review blog for self-published books, I could charge 1000 bucks a pop and nobody would say a word. I am sure that if POD-dy MOuth returned and charged 500 bucks a review all those who criticize me would applaud her.

  • Who cares?

    If the PODler wants to charge, let ’em. Others are just mad because they didn’t start charging in the beginning, and they are afraid PODler will probably succeed at it. And if PODler does succeed, then we’re all really going to be pissed.

    BUT…as I said on PODler’s blog, self-published authors are poor, so I doubt ole PODler’s going to get rich anytime soon.

    So why do we care if he charges or not? Kirkus takes you to the bank and back a few times, but they do provide what they promise and have been doing it for years.

    Heck, let’s have a review site challenge and we’ll all start charging for a month and see who can make the most! Then let’s throw half our earnings into the pot and go out and buy a whole bunch of self-published books and run some sale figures higher than Amy Fisher’s iUniverse book and make POD history! Talk about stimulating the economy….we all make some money, authors get reviews, books get bought, printers get business, bookstores make money, authors make royalties…Who’s with me?


  • Steven Reynolds

    I can see both sides of this argument.


    As I’ve already commented to Henry in a separate e-mail, I don’t like the idea of getting paid for reviews because:

    1. I write mainly for readers contemplating spending money on a book, which is why I started posting at Amazon in the first place. Honesty is important to these readers. How can they trust a positive review if they know it was paid for by the book’s author? They might as well just read the jacket blurb or the publisher’s glowing press release.

    2. There would almost always be an expectation from the paying author of getting a positive review. Nobody is going to pay to be ridiculed publicly. A few scathing reviews, and the pipeline of authors willing to risk it would dry up pretty quickly. If the wonderfully tough Jane Smith over at Self-Publishing Review (UK) charged $1000 or even $100 per book, how many authors do you think would be willing to roll the dice? I can’t imagine a site making money this way. But if, as Podler suggests, a famous critic from the NYT hung out a shingle and charged $1000, self-published authors would probably be queuing up. This is only because the value of a positive review from a famous critic would outweigh the risk of getting a bad one, and, importantly, because of the reputation that critic developed in a non-author-pays context.

    There is one context in which I’m always happy to charge authors for feedback: a private and detailed manuscript assessment for unpublished work. Because it’s private and not splashed across the web, the expectation is for searing honesty, and the author certainly gets what they pay for.


    Let’s be pragmatic here. The reality of most reviewing of self-published material is that it isn’t really reviewing at all – it’s promotion.

    Most reviews are positive. There are two reasons for this. First, most reviewers only post reviews on books they actually finished reading (again, Jane Smith is a welcome exception) and we tend to persevere only with books we’re enjoying, don’t we? So no surprise that most reviews are good. Secondly, most reviewers are self-publishing enthusiasts, so they’re unlikely to post the kind of scathing reviews that make self-publishing look like a home for failed writing. Similarly, when a self-published author seeks a “review” on a public website, they don’t really want a critique, do they? They want praise they can use for promotion, or evidence of an audience they can show to an agent or mainstream publisher.

    Essentially, then, most “reviewing” of self-published work ends up being P.R. by another name, even if reviewers don’t really intend it to be. So, one could argue, “If I’m going to do P.R., I might as well be paid for it. And paid handsomely.”

  • Randall Radic

    Reviewers should be paid, in my not-so-humble opinion. After reading the book, which they may or may not have done anyway, they have to sit down and write the review. They should be paid for their time and even their expertise. If they are not writing honest reviews, it will quickly become obvious and no one will read their reviews, thus no one will be willing to pay them for their reviews. They will put themselves out of business.

    If reviewers are not paid, it reduces the impact of their reviews — who is going to give relevance to the opinion of some writer that isn’t even paid for his/her opinion? Most readers will believe the reason the reviewer isn’t paid is because they’re amateurs. And if they’re amateurs, why should I read and trust their review anyway?

    “Don’t muzzle the bull while he turns the mill.” Remember that one from your Bible? In other words, while the bull pulls the stone that grinds the wheat, let him feed from what he is producing, as he produces it. The same is true for reviews. Let reviewers make a living while they review.

  • I’ve been wrestling with this myself, since I have no reviews just yet. I’ll have to read through this post again later when I have more time to shape a decision. I know the passive approach is not the best way to get attention and get yourself out there, particularly as a self-published author, but at what point does paying for reviews/publicity transcend one’s ego?

    BTW, guy at bestfantasybooks posted a caution that Amazon reviews are fake. Have to stop reading that thing.

  • The Podler makes the very odd comparison in comment 5 that “The big fat analogy is the university…The student pays to attend class and to get evaluated…But the point is that the student pays a fee for the right to get their work evaluated by the professor.”

    Students go to school to learn. Evaluation is part of the process that can lead to getting a degree and/or a job. Instructors–who have been verified to possess certain knowledge–first teach and then evaluate what the student has gotten out of the material presented. This process is entirely unrelated to someone reading a book and then sharing their opinion of it with the public. Whether teachers get paid has no relation to whether reviewers ought to be paid. Paying reviewers isn’t even similar to a writer paying a consultant to give a private critique strictly for the purpose of making a work more salable, as Steven Reynods pointed out in comment 7.

    On the other hand, I make movies that put the audience to sleep. I will pay $10 for a review that says the reviewer slept through the whole film and awoke feeling much healthier and happier. I will pay $5 for a review that says the reviewer slept through part of the film and awoke feeling healthier but not happier or happier but not healthier. I will pay $2 for a review that says the reviewer didn’t fall asleep but enjoyed the film very much anyway.

  • My only concern here is that I think if the writer has paid for the review it should be noted clearly within the review. The reader should be made aware that there is a transaction going on. Otherwise I have no problem with writers soliciting for reviews, and even paying for them.

  • Okay, after having had time to think about it, here’s a bit more of a response from me.

    I think the issue I’d have with paying for reviews is one of value. Of course, you can define this concept any way you like, but if someone is paying for a review and it is a bad review, then they’ve basically thrown their money away, wouldn’t you agree? It’s like gambling and losing in that regard, like you got held up by the one-armed bandit. Of course, exactly how valuable a positive review is can balance it out, but if you’re paying for a review and it is a positive one then how sincere could it be? Too much like a conflict of interest, I think, in this world of perception-based reality.

  • As a reader, I simply would not trust a review site that charges for reviews. If the reviewer has a vested interest making money from authors, then he is prone to write good reviews of bad books to generate further business.

    In the paper world, reviewers get paid by readers of their review publication, not by the authors/publishers submitting books. In the online world, that business model obviously doesn’t translate, because if you want to get any exposure, you have to allow your reviews to be read for free. If a reviewer really wants to make money, I would suggest Amazon Associate links or advertising revenue, but I know from experience that these aren’t conducive to much income.

    By all means, charge the author. Who am I to moralise? But don’t expect savvy readers to value your reviews.

  • Randall Radic

    By the same token, why should readers ‘value’ a review written by an amateur?

  • I value the opinion of amateurs because I am an amateur too.

    Advertising revenue and editorial opinion have to be kept separate. There has to be another way to generate income than Pay-per-post if this medium is to keep any integrity.

  • Steven Reynolds

    “By the same token, why should readers ‘value’ a review written by an amateur?”

    They shouldn’t, at least not automatically. But if they’ve read that person’s other reviews, and some of the books they covered, and found their work to be reliably insightful and interesting, then they should value it – regardless of their professional or amateur status.

    Having said that, I’m not unsympathetic to Randall’s view (as expressed in 8). If what we do as reviewers has value, then ideally we should be paid for our time and expertise. I’d love someone to pay me for my hobby – wouldn’t we all? But the fundamental question here is about who that “someone” should be, and if that “someone” is the author, it undoubtedly sets up a conflict of interest that undermines the credibility of the process. I don’t think we can escape that.

    Whether or not anyone really cares about this conflict is a different question. I don’t think self-published authors are looking to reviews to boost their sales to readers – they’re never going to make real money unless their book gets into physical book stores, and that won’t ever happen for a novel that remains self-published. I suspect most authors are looking to reviews as a way of demonstrating credibility and an audience when they approach agents or mainstream publishers. But agents and publishers will ultimately rely on their own reading of the novel, not mine. Still, a glowing review might at least pique their interest. Is that pitch worth paying for? I guess that’s up to each author and reviewer to decide.

  • POD authors have an uphill battle, first to be noticed and second to be taken seriously. While staff book reviewers obviously receive a salary from the magazine or newspaper they work for, they have traditionally not been paid anything by the author other than (usually) keeping the review copy of the book. The traditional wisdom behind this has been that payment from the author raises a question in the public’s mind that the reviewer has been bribed to write something more flattering than they otherwise would write.

    At present, nobody within the traditional publishing/reviewing establishment takes paid-for reviews seriously because they do view the practice as unethical. Some reviewers are so strict about this, they won’t even accept a free copy of the book in exchange for a review. I know many people who charge for reviews and they do their level best to provide a fair opinion of each book they receive. But their efforts do not change the perception of the book community that the practice is suspect.

    On one hand, the question is somewhat moot because most readers never see or hear about POD books because those books and their reviews never come to their attention. Unlike the writers who DO know about the numerous blogs and other sites that review their POD and small-press books, conduct author interviews, and host blog tours, general readers seldom hear about such sites because those sites just aren’t on their radar. At the same time, POD authors and those who support POD books are trying to prove that POD books are just as good as mainstream books. The trouble is, maintaining that POD is a different system with different rules than those followed by well-known authors and primary review sites works against us.

    Personally, I think that everything we do that makes our POD books appear to be minor league publications with minor league reviewers and minor league promotional methods hurts our books because the process just screams out that our work isn’t on the same level as mainstream work. This isn’t fair, of course, and maybe we will change the rules and the misconceptions over time. But today, I must say that I think a paid review hurts the cause more than it helps.

    Of course, every author has to make a decision about paying or not and can roll the dice as s/he chooses. It’s not always an easy decision.


  • I’m still laughing at Steven Reynolds calling me “wonderfully tough”. I shall use that on my business cards from now on. Thank you, Mr Reynolds!

    I’m with Francis Hamit on this one: I, too, was taught that a journalist should never profit from the subjects he or she is discussing. It’s fine to be paid by the publication you’re writing for–but not by the people you’re writing about. Reviewers who take money from the authors they review are bound to have their opinion of the book coloured by the size of the cheque, and that compromises the ethics of everyone involved. I cannot be biased in my reporting of anything, and that includes self-published book reviews.

    And anyway, I can’t quite see writers actually paying me to review their books the way that I do, can you? What’s really good is when they email me after their review has appeared and ask for more information, and then listen to what I have to say. I’ve provided very detailed feedback to a few authors now, and without exception they’ve all improved their work as a result. Now, that’s gratifying. I’m looking forward to seeing their next books, and I’m sure they’ll do well. But if I’d charged for the review then I’d probably end up charging for that editorial feedback too, which I doubt that many could afford: they’d end up getting less out of the deal, I wouldn’t get to feel so smug (which many would say would be a good thing): we’d both lose out.

  • Steven Reynolds

    One final contribution, if anyone’s still reading this thread…

    Some commenters here have spoken about professionals vs amateurs. It prompted me to dig out this 2007 article by Richard Schickel in the L.A. Times:


    Schickel lambasts online amateurs and makes a distinction between “criticism” and “reviewing”. I remember it caused quite a stir in the Amazon Top 100 who do, it must be said, tend to take themselves way too seriously. I don’t agree with everything Schickel says, especially his doubting that “the guy from car parts” would be able to make a meaningful contribution to criticism. Many people lead rich cultural lives outside their designated professions. Wallace Stevens was an insurance broker. T.S. Eliot wrote plenty of his best poems when he worked in a bank. Faulkner wrote one of his novels literally while on the job as a night watchman. But Schickel does make some good points.