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Why Pay For A Book Review?

Book ReviewsCate 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.

*Sarcastic? Moi?

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.

Editorial Quotes

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.

Getting Seen

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.

Sales

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.

If you would like to take a look at our review services, click here. Discounts for BookBaby members and SPR members are available.

About Cate Baum

Avatar of Cate Baum
Cate Baum is a filmmaker and writer of self-published book “The Bull and The Ban” (under the name Tosko) and contributed to "Ole!", a book about 21st Century attitudes to bullfighting with Ernest Hemingway's grandson John and New York Times writer Edward Lewine. She is also editor and co-founder of Filmmaking Review, the sister site to Self-Publishing Review. She is married to SPR founder Henry Baum and lives in LA.

10 comments

  1. I have never paid for sex or book reviews and don’t plan to.

  2. I’m sorry, but the SEO info here isn’t correct. I assume it comes from a misinterpretation of something in Steimle’s article. He doesn’t mention “poorly ranked” links, and for good reason.

    It isn’t “poorly ranked web links” that are a problem. It’s low quality links. And a link isn’t low quality simply because the site it’s on isn’t ranked well yet. If it were, you would be penalized any time a new site linked to yours, and that simply isn’t the case. Low quality links mean things like links from completely irrelevant sites, automated links, links on massive directories and link farms, spammy blog comment links, links incorporated into things like badges, buttons, infographics, and themes distributed to other site owners (like a “sponsored by” link on a WordPress theme), etc.

    And most importantly, it includes paid links, which is what you get in paid reviews. If a paid or sponsored review contains dofollow links, both the reviewing site and the author’s site are at risk of being hit with paid link penalties. Sometimes Google doesn’t catch them on their own, but they’ll penalize quickly as soon as someone reports the sites in question. They’ve accepted paid link reports since at least 2007.

    A free review on a legitimate book review site (which is relevant to an author’s site by its very nature) wouldn’t have any reason to lead to penalties simply because it’s free. Google prefers free links. They want sites to get free (read: “earned”) links as opposed to paid links or anything else they consider manipulative of their rankings. That includes links given in a more selective way (such as from those sites that won’t post reviews of books they don’t feel are worth promoting as opposed to sites that will post a review, and link, for anyone who pays them).

    While I in no way support paid reviews, I used to offer them (though not specifically book reviews). The reviews were all unbiased and strictly vetted for relevance. I had a big problem with Google deciding that a particular advertising / income model wasn’t okay because of some bad eggs, but in the end they ruined it for the rest of us. I took a stand at the time and continued to run my business the way I always had. And eventually my site got penalized. And let me tell you from someone who’s been there, you don’t want to deal with that. It can take months to years to fully clean up the mess if you ever want your rankings back (that blog was highly ranked before the penalty, and it took a couple of years for traffic to recover even long after the penalty was lifted). It’s not worth the risk. But while I don’t support paid book reviews in any way, I do understand your stance, having been in a similar position in the past.

    If a link wouldn’t appear on a site if a payment hadn’t been made, Google doesn’t consider that an editorial link, and it’s something that shouldn’t pass PageRank. So at a bare minimum, sites selling book reviews should make sure any included links are “nofollow” links, similar to the way Kirkus handles the “Buy now from” links in their online reviews. That applies to any kind of paid review, sponsored post, or advertorial. And if either party is in the U.S., the review should probably also follow FTC guidelines, disclosing that a payment was made for a review to appear on the site (note that a separate disclosure page is not enough to satisfy those guidelines — disclosure should happen at the start of the post or near where the link appears to avoid confusion).

    This isn’t meant to be an attack on you or anything. Like I said, even though I don’t agree, I understand where you’re coming from. But I think it’s important for more authors to get a handle on SEO so they can take advantage of the increased visibility while not putting their sites, rankings, and potentially sales at risk.

    • Avatar of Cate Baum

      Hmm I think you misunderstand what a paid link is in terms of quality in Google’s mind. A paid link is when someone pays to have a link added to a directory or ad – PPC – i.e. pay per click – you pay a certain amount of money to pay for each time someone clicks that link. A review that is written as editorial copy that contains a link to the book can only enhance the integrity of the page it links to – in fact we choose what links to add to a review. That is not a paid link. “If a link wouldn’t appear on a site if a payment hadn’t been made, Google doesn’t consider that an editorial link, and it’s something that shouldn’t pass PageRank.” No, that’s not a paid link, sorry. Authors haven’t paid an amount per click or impression to have that link there.

      FTC guidelines are followed on “buy now” links. This of course has to happen. We use “nofollow, nosnippet, noarchive” on many pages on our site in varying combinations.

      Also you are really splitting hairs on my choice of words. A poorly ranked website that links out is the same thing as a bad backlink, since Penguin 2.1. I also don’t agree that penalizing doesn’t take place if you have websites linking to yours. In the last months, I have seen examples of this happening.

      I used to be an SEO specialist for a Google company for a number of years – hope this clears up what you have a bit confused there.

      I think what can be agreed upon is that Google is a little unfair in leaving a lot of guesswork to less experienced website owners and those with content on the web.

  3. Nope. Google’s definition of paid links goes far beyond that. I’d know. In addition to being quite active in SEO and working with quite a few SEO firms for the last decade, I’ve personally had sites penalized for offering paid reviews. ;)

    It has absolutely nothing to do with clicks or impressions. We aren’t talking about PPC or PPM advertising here. Paid links as far as penalties go have to do with dofollow links passing PageRank which influences Google’s rankings.

    This is the direct definition from Google:

    “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link” — paid review posts would be covered under that second example

    https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/66356?hl=en

    FTC guidelines cover reviews in general — even free reviews if a free review copy was provided. Here are the guidelines. Example 21 specifically covers free reviews and having to disclose review copies:

    http://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/attachments/press-releases/ftc-staff-revises-online-advertising-disclosure-guidelines/130312dotcomdisclosures.pdf

    I do agree Google’s policies can be a bit unfair, especially to new site owners. I don’t think all authors, small businesses, etc. should have to study SEO or hire a firm for a fair shot. But unfortunately the overzealous link builders ruined paid reviews like they’ve ruined most good link building opportunities over the years. It sucks. But it’s life on the Web these days. :(

    • Avatar of Cate Baum

      You’re kind of going away from what a paid editorial review encompasses – we write an unbiased editorial review of a book. The links we include are clearly links, and clearly named to show where the links ends up, i.e. to buy the product or often just to learn more about the book, marked “Amazon” or “Author Website”. We aren’t hiding the link in a post that is talking about a subject, then pushing the reader to a shop link unawares. So I don’t agree with you on that point at all. Spammy content that hides links, yes, sure, but that isn’t what we offer. To me, this is the “grey hat” style marketing review style I speak about in the post. But yes, dofollows are taken off most of our direct buy links, depending on which are which, and where they would be placed in our sitemap. Any good review site will make sure to deal with duplicate content as we do, and we even go as far as vetting site integrity and keyword density every couple of weeks, and making sure we have nothing showing up as penalty-possible to keep our site well within guidelines.

      I think what we’re gabbing on about here does completely highlight how it could be immensely dodgy to use amateur review sites who may not realize they need to vet links and keep their website ‘above board’, and only shows further that paying for a professional editorial review is the prudent road to take if you are trying to build a following – whether we agree on what Google’s terms on paid links are! My point being really that using less experienced free review sites could land you in hot water with poor backlinks. And that is very unfair – but how it is. So yes, use reputable companies for all marketing, with track records and testimonials.

      • I totally get why you think the two should be different, and I agree it would be great if they were treated that way. But that unfortunately isn’t what Google’s guidelines say, and it’s not the experience I’ve had with them directly. The only thing that mattered in penalties was the fact that a review was paid for and it had dofollow links. Google consider them paid links, and that was the end of the story. I’ve seen and heard nothing that says they’ve changed those policies unfortunately. I still disagree strongly that free review sites are inherently bad or involve bad backlinks, or that paid review sites are a safer option, especially if all of their in-review links aren’t no-followed or payments properly disclosed.

        But overall I enjoy the blog, and I certainly hope you aren’t one of the review sites that gets hit. I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to do what they think is best for their business, whether I agree with it or not. :) My concern is solely in making sure authors know what to look for so they don’t get burned by any review site — free or paid, and intentionally or not.

        • Avatar of Cate Baum

          We have worked very hard to make sure services are transparent to Google bots and all. All I know is that clients of ours are repeats, and many are delighted with how they can use the review in different ways to market their work. It’s almost by the by for the final editorial review to be published on our site, and I would say there is a growing percentage of our clients who don’t even publish their finished review with us, choosing instead to take it to their publicity packs for various quotes. There are many ways to use the service sites like ours offer, and the point about links and SEO remains a very small piece of the consideration when choosing a service. It’s important to remember that if you were trad published you would gain these kinds of write ups as part of the deal, and as a self-publisher it’s hard to juggle all the hats. We step in here to help create solid marketing materials that are approved by the client and used widely. We offer a huge amount of free resources for self-publishers that join our site, as you know, and we do keep our prices to a minimum with the community in mind, unlike many others. I am not going to ever agree with this idea that you can self-publish a bestseller without spending a dime. There’s just too much competition to float to the top without help, and that’s when we get review orders – when self-published authors need to reach out to professionals for that marketing push. I do believe we deliver that and have enabled many authors to sell books legitimately.

  4. Avatar of Joel Friedlander

    Cate, interesting article and a helpful comment thread, too. Thanks for referencing me, but keep in mind I made that comment to rationalize why people pay for book reviews. I’ve never paid for a review and don’t recommend paying for any reviews unless you’ve already exhausted the options for free reviews in your particular genre, category, or niche.

    • Avatar of Cate Baum

      Appreciated. I hope that’s how I have quoted you – it’s definitely a rationalization to want a professional review if your book doesn’t sell by using free reviews. The truth is, most books don’t sell until they pay for professional marketing, just as your professional design services utilize and grow sales. We have found that our clients use a professional review for editorial and marketing purposes, and some, especially those who get reviewed for series books, do very well on sales once they use the paid review quotes in their author pages, in the same way a professional book cover or template will help sell books. I wrote the article to highlight the fact that professional services increase sales: we happen to offer marketing and editorial ones. There’s far too much stigma surrounding these services, and I really feel it needs to stop. If an author is serious about becoming a professional self-published author, there is no shame in paying for experts to ensure the book is sold in the best shape it can be in.

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