Cate Baum of Self-Publishing Review attempts to put some of the myths to bed about what it means to buy a book review.
I have seen too many forum posts where self-publishers vow to never pay for a book review. It’s still seen as sinister and icky, and somewhat dishonest. But there’s a touch of herdism about all of this naysaying. Let’s look at the facts.
There Are Two Types of Paid Review
There is a huge misunderstanding in the community about what paying for a review really means, and it’s about time the publishing community understood the differences. Not all paid review services can be, and should absolutely not be, tarred with the same brush.
Let’s get this straight: There are two types of paid review: the marketing book review, and the editorial book review. We at Self-Publishing review create editorial reviews. The NYT recently published a piece highlighting these differences, interviewing Todd Rutherford, a now infamous five-star book reviewer, who will happily add as many positive reviews as you like to your Amazon or B&N page – as long as you pay him. But, by his own admission, he was “creating reviews that pointed out the positive things, not the negative things,” Mr. Rutherford said. “These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.”
A marketing review is the sort of paid review that deserves bad press, in a way. There are those on Fiverr and other such “grey hat” sites that offer reviews that give you five stars, with a glowing report of your work, posting on sites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as a consumer. I have seen abysmal books with many 5-star reviews, all written in the same style with the same spelling mistakes and language. These books are the sort of book that the writer wants to get out there quickly, make a fast buck and move on to their next shabby efforts. If this is how you want to write, i.e. to make a small amount of money fast and have no soul, then try it. But it can ruin a half-decent book once real readers get their claws into it and see the fake ratings.
Not only that, paying for a positive review could be illegal. The ASA in the UK have published a memo about bloggers who write about products, stating, “We’re reminding bloggers who are paid to write positive reviews or comments about a product or service that they must be up-front with their followers by making clear that it’s advertising. Not only will this help bloggers avoid misleading people and breaking the ad rules, it will also stop them from potentially breaking the law.”
What a professional editorial review service offers is something entirely different. Let’s start with what our review service at SPR doesn’t do. We don’t post reviews on Amazon. We don’t post reviews on B & N, Smashwords or Goodreads either. We don’t give five stars automatically. We don’t pick and choose which books to review. This is because we feel this would be breaking the trust of writers everywhere. We support and offer advice as part of our service – because we are dedicated to self-publishing, and will remain so.
So what does an editorial review offer the discerning self-published author?
Trust And Support
A paid reviewing service does this: it enables authors to know they will get a reliable, erudite, properly informed objective opinion about their work. This review will be completed in a contracted, limited time period. At SPR for example, we offer a month turnaround, or a two-week turnaround on Jump Start review packages. This means you can trust you have something right there for your book launch, guaranteed. This is not the case with anything but a paid editorial review service on the market. The editorial review is the only model that guarantees this.
At SPR, like some of the other professional services around, also offer lots of add-ons such as tweeting your review and selling your book through our store and bookshelf on our site. This gives you extra outlets for sales.
A proper review service for self-publishers should advise on what to do next to promote your book. This support is part of the service. For instance, we have been doing this since 2008, so we know how to help and direct you in the right direction – perhaps to one of our affiliated or partner services or perhaps to a free resource. Often I just give an answer on email directly to my client. Yesterday, for instance, I wrote a quick guide for a client wanting to remove his tracking changes on Word for his e-book. The day before, I helped a client use our blogging system to write about their book. It’s all about knowledge sharing – and because professional services have been in the industry for years, we know what you need.
This Is What Publishing Houses Do
Okay. I am going to spill a trade secret that might be a revelation*. The truth is that if you had a traditional book deal, part of that deal would be spent to pay someone to write about your book. Shock Horror! And it would not be a surprise if the in-house editorial team at your publishing house wrote something positive about your book and posted it online.
So let’s stop being such high and mighty purists about what it means to be a self-published author and face reality – part of marketing your book is going to cost you some money to get someone to write about your book. Because that’s what would happen at a publishing house as part of the well-oiled machine of book marketing. I used to work in one. It’s true. There are no book fairies hiding in Barnes and Noble casting spells to make people buy books magically. There are no writers that spontaneously combust a bestseller out their backside.
All the bestselling self-published writers I know have basically sold a pound of flesh to get their book sold, and worked day and night to sell, sell, sell, blogging, interviewing and grabbing any kind of marketing they can, using complicated and well-planned strategies to sell books. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or an entirely honest one. As a self-publisher, you have to be prepared to be written about, and that will come out of your budget. In which case, going for one first-class review instead of buying ten for $5 may do you well.
Opportunity To Grow
A professionally reviewed book has an opportunity to grow before publication: the review may help the client to grow as a writer, and learn several new points about their book. They might learn what sort of audience their book could appeal to, so they can take this forward in their marketing approach. Many times we have an author say, “I never thought of my book that way, and I’m going to act on it.” Sometimes they learn that they need to edit their work, or get a new cover design. We do have maybe one out of twenty authors who don’t publish their review; instead they use it as a mini-content edit, and go away and rewrite based on our review. Then they come back and have another go. It’s an economical alternative to an expensive edit job when you know you’re almost there.
What we do encourage is that writers share their review on their Author Central page on Amazon, and their editorial quotes on other sites such as B&N and Goodreads. An editorial review gives writers ‘pullquotes’ for the back of a book also, from a trusted source and known name on the market. We provide help on how to do this and supply a permalink to the review, which we format nicely for sharing.
Some authors need to gain visibility for their website, so by using our website that has many readers, a link back to their start-up site can be a gateway to boost theirs by gaining views via our site. We also add outlet links for sales. Considering that SPR gets thousands of views on our website and on our social media networks and newsletters from those uniquely interested in buying and reading self-published work, it really does help a book get noticed online and in search results. A professional website will always add tags and keywords to make sure your book can be found by genre, name and interest.
As Joel Friedlander over at The Book Designer says, “The reason thousands of authors pay for these reviews is simple—reviews can help sell books.”
But the wrong reviews can make an author look phoney. If a book has 100 5-star reviews on Amazon for example, the more discerning customer is going to know something is off, especially if the book has a couple of 1-star reviews saying how utterly dire the book is. We all get those, but usually the balance is with real reviews of all star ratings.
Therefore, it’s very important to choose the right paid review services. Make sure that the words “objective”, “impartial” or “comprehensive” are mentioned and make sure you read several reviews on the website you choose before paying for your review. By placing star-rated reviews from professional companies in your editorial section on book sites, readers can see how critics rate your work. This is invaluable, and worth a lot more to you as a seller than a thousand poorly written one-line reviews in your consumer section.
Free Reviews Don’t Cut It
There are two types of company that offers free reviews. There are those bigger companies who often affiliate, or originate with known publishers that say they offer free reviews – but the small print will tell you that they select what they review, and you have no guarantee your book will be chosen. By submitting your book “to be selected” for one of these free reviews, you may wait up to 20 weeks to see your book review appear! That’s 5 months! There is no guarantee of any control over the content of your review either, so you may wait all that time and end up with something unusable. With an editorial review, you will always be asked if you want the review made public before it appears online.
Although there are a few amateur bloggers who do review well, many free review services you find online via forums are run by hobbyists who love reading at home, and are happy to get a few free e-books in return for spouting an opinion online. Some free book services are going to give you rules, such as “only add your book if you have thirty five-star reviews”, or “I only like books with happy endings about zombies or princesses.” To me, that is as bad as the gatekeepers of trad publishing, and is against everything self-publishing stands for.
Free services rarely inform you of your review being published and it’s rare you can have an opinion about whether or not the content of the review goes public. The old saying “you get what you pay for” may stand here.
The best kind of free review is using a Beta Reader group such as those found on Goodreads before taking the plunge with your book going on sale. Beta reading groups can be perfect for ironing out kinks with feedback from a random but dedicated group of readers before going for the big sales campaign (our SPR Fiction Winner Martin Kee 2014 did just that with his book Bloom) – and that campaign should include a professional review service with a timed service that can be dated into your project plan.
Free Reviews Could Damage Your SEO
SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a technique that webmasters use to increase their visibility and ranking on Google and other search engine results pages. Joshua Steimle at Forbes says,
In case you’re a newbie to SEO, incoming links, also commonly referred to as backlinks, are a primary part of Google’s method by which it determines how to rank websites. At the simplest level, Google looks at how many links are pointing to a website and the quality of the websites those links are coming from…Check for bad links right now, and proactively remove them…”
Steimle offers many ‘bad link’ removal tools at the bottom of his article. Given that more often that not blog sites offering to review for free do not get many viewers or ranking on Google, and given that poorly ranked web links can do damage to your website in terms of how Google ranks your content rather than improve visibility, sticking to quality sites for reviews is a much better plan – say no to sites that are poorly constructed, old-fashioned and contain a lot of ads, listed links with no content, or popups, however enticing a free review may sound. You could damage your online presence and ruin sales.
We Pay Our Reviewers
With most review services, sometimes even if you pay, the service may not pay their writers. This is because many bloggers are happy to work in exchange for a free book. But having writers work for free means one thing: the provider can’t be too fussy when it comes to the standard of their work. At SPR we pay our writers a substantial percentage of the fee paid. We hire writers with experience and a good literary resume. Make sure the service you choose does the same, and ask about the reviewers available if you want a certain reader. We hire a small but dedicated group of professional writers from different backgrounds to give our clients a choice, and to make it easier to match the book to the reader. As well as here at SPR, other services that pay their staff reviewers and have a stringent quality standard include BlueInk Review and Kirkus.