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How Paid Reviews Sell Books – Facts and Figures

As one of the most trusted professional review services, and one of the first self-publishing sites around, it’s SPR’s job to make sure we are bringing books to readers with our paid review service, and we’d like to put the “don’t pay for reviews” myth being spread around by certain self-publishing pundits to bed with some hard, analytical, independent facts. The plain truth is, paid reviews do sell more books in the majority of cases.

Distinguishing Experts From Pundits

There are many independent studies available from trustworthy sources that have nothing to gain from approving of paid review services, and yet they are positively glowing with reports of the importance of them. This is what we should be dealing with, not opinion and tides of social media.  Professional reviews are part of an arsenal needed by every author, and as important as a book cover or editing. But you will never hear an author say, “I would never pay for a book cover!”

The Elephant In The Room

There are many reasons why a book doesn’t sell, including the reason none of us want to admit: a book often isn’t good enough in some way. So let’s just get that elephant out there straight away, and stop being the workman blaming his tools. Let’s accept that in some instances, books won’t sell whatever marketing you do a book will fail. That is why it’s really important to get a professional opinion before you even start promotion.

The Evidence – Paid Reviews

This is real, independent, academic, professional evidence. And it points towards paid reviews helping sales and increasing a product’s reputation and credibility. As book marketing professionals, this is the stuff we deal in.

Moderating Roles of Review Credibility and Author Popularity on Book Sales by Professor Xiao Ma is a detailed independent research paper from Wisconsin School of Business, citing many surveys and studies from the last ten years. You can read the abstract here. This is an impressive research paper that shows that reviews bring in sales. Among its conclusions:
  • Average rating of reviews and diversity of ratings positively affect book sales
  • Consumers seem to pay more attention to reviews for digital books than for paper books
  • Several studies cited in this paper show that professional reviews can significantly influence consumers’ decisions.”

So what about the consumer review? According to this study, “The efficacy of online reviews could nonetheless be limited. First, online reviews may merely represent consumers’ preferences…As a result, potential buyers may heavily discount online reviews.”

Review Credibility as Moderator

Professor Xiao Ma also states that,

Previous research (Forman et al. 2008; Ghose and Iperirotis 2011; Zhu and Zhang 2010) shows that consumers rely on a number of credibility measures (e.g. reviewer identity disclosure, subjectivity of review content) in purchasing decision, high credibility resulting in positive increase or moderation effect in product sales. Thus, review credibility may strengthen signals to product sales by enhancing consumers’ reliance on user reviews. We propose the following hypothesis:
 The higher review credibility, the stronger (1) the positive association between average rating and product sales, and (2) the positive association between diversity of reviews and product sales.”
This points to the fact that readers’ buying decisions are being made on the credibility of the reviewer rather than the rating of the review itself. Getting a well-known, professional review on your Amazon Book Page is therefore going to help book sales a whole lot more than getting your mom and your dog to review your book online, according to this study. By the way, getting family, friends, or other authors to review your book is against Amazon Guidelines. So don’t do it. Ever.

The Stigma Against Paid Reviews Is A Myth

This more recent paper from the UK government showing how online reviews and endorsements can play an important role in helping consumers to make shopping decisions. They can be particularly helpful when consumers buy goods or services whose quality they may find hard to assess before it has been experienced.

The findings show that consumers that use online reviews find them valuable, with an estimate that more than half of UK adults use them. The section on endorsements, i.e. paid reviews, concludes that:
“Our research also suggests that consumers understand that bloggers may sometimes be paid to endorse goods/services. Research by IAB-UK and 2CV suggests that consumers do not mind if editorial content is paid for. If the content says something that is relevant, informative and useful, then it still has value for them.”
In other words, readers would rather read a solid, well-written account of a book from a professional source to help with their book-buying decision.

Boost Your Book’s Potential

The paper also found that,
“Online endorsements have the potential to boost competition and generate efficiencies in a market by:

  • providing information that is useful to consumers when making buying decisions; and
  • potentially enabling businesses [in other words, authors] to target consumers more effectively and efficiently, which in turn might lower barriers to entry and expansion
So companies such as our own are enabled to expand our reach in order to get books into readers’ hands more efficiently than a single consumer due to our business network.

Professional Reviews Give A Better Insight

Because professional reviewers write reviews all day every day, we know how to write an effective review. This study also found that, “Endorsements written by bloggers or journalists may provide a more detailed insight into a product or service than reviews written by consumers.

Professional Reviews Considered More Important

53% found the opinion of the blogger … ‘much more important’ or a ‘little more important’ than other sources of information.

Can’t I Just Get “Free” Reviews?

The difficulty in getting reviews is a well-known challenge for authors. According to Michael Alvear, in his book “Making a Killing on Amazon”, just .0002 of readers of one of the bestselling books on Amazon will post a review. Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s, “Freakonomics” blog estimates that just 1 in 1000 book purchases will post a review – that’s 0.001, or 0.1%.
At SPR we have found that most books get one review – obviously from a friend. Everyone has their own problems, and swapping books for reviews between authors is not allowed by Amazon Guidelines. Most groups, forums, and pages ban anyone self-promoting their book! It’s a complete conundrum, and ironically makes gatekeepers of the very people who negated gatekeeping in the first place.

Even Amazon Gets Leverage From Paid Reviews

A small number of respected sites such as Self-Publishing Review, Kirkus Review, and Foreword are offering book review services, and many of these reviews are being published on Amazon  in the Editorial Review section provided for the exact purpose of posting professional opinion. None of us need to be told that Amazon is the king of marketing for direct sales. Amazon provides this section for a reason: It helps sell your book.

So if you don’t put any editorial reviews in there, you are losing one really important opportunity to gain a sale.

In Internet marketing, it’s widely stated that the most important content should go “above the fold” on a webpage. This refers to the first portion of a webpage you see when you first go to that page without scrolling. However, a study by Jakob Nielsen found that 77% of visitors to a website do not scroll, and therefore only see the portion of the website that is above the fold. And yet Amazon states that, “Customer Reviews are written by customers about your book. They can be found near the bottom of a product detail page.” Note here that Editorial Reviews are placed first above the fold, whereas Customer Reviews are tucked way down below.

I have to assume that Amazon have studied this in detail, and have also concluded that professional reviews do sell more books – because Amazon cares about nothing more than optimum usability to sell products as a foremost motivation in their business model.

ROI – Paid Reviews

The main misinformation out there on sites that tend to discourage authors from using paid services comes from the misunderstanding of how to use a paid review once you have it.

Return on investment is not defined as instantly getting your money back and counting how many 99 cent sales you made directly versus the money you invested. Marketing of a book is cumulative, and early marketing efforts will hopefully snowball into a greater reach. The people who come to us fall into a few categories:

1. Writers who cannot get reviews elsewhere from free sites.Most free sites have really difficult and pedantic submission criteria and do not guarantee a review even if you submit
2. Writers who want a review on a higher-profile site with guaranteed traffic (not just “mom” bloggers or free blog sites with low Google visibility) The purpose of an editorial review is to utilize the reach of the professional company’s own customer reach. For instance, at SPR we send every review out to over 40,000 readers online, and another 10,000 in our newsletter links, plus we get a monthly view count of around 190,000, plus shares made on sites such as Facebook and Linkedin on closed book groups. That works out to the equivalent of a quarter of a million readers! How many readers have you got on your mailing list? How many free services guarantee these numbers will be reached?

You are paying for professionally-managed mailing lists and reader numbers, and the reach of the review itself rather than counting how many direct sales have been made from this precise review. Marketing is a tapestry of many parts, of which a professional review and its reach are one part.

Peer Pressure = Gatekeeping

Several times when I have posted an article like this on Linkedin or Facebook, I’ll get one author who’s like a dog with a bone, protesting about how outrageous paying for a review is. I feel despair for this author as they condemn paid reviews in many comments on the verge of flaming me as I check their ranking and sales, and they are in the hundred thousands of Amazon ranking. And then, just as if nothing has happened, they come to our site and buy a review.

The peer pressure in the self-publishing community is amazingly judgmental, and this is something that leading author alliances will have to address going forward.

It’s gatekeeping in a social shell, and I have to question their motives, because it’s affecting authors’ books and the ability to get them into readers’ hands.

How To Measure Value For Money

If we pay for a Rolex it does exactly the same job as a watch I can buy for $8 at a cheap store. It tells me what time it is. But I’d be considered crazy if I started yelling about Rolex being a rip-off! Why? Because I am paying for a watch that will do a much better job than the $8 one in that I will attract more compliments, be judged socially as being more professional and well-to-do, and be therefore considered “better” in some way. It’s probably not going to be necessary for me to buy another watch in my life.

The same is true with a professional review service. To get a glowing review from a professional review site is really much more important to your sales than if your friend from work writes you a review in terms of reputation of your book. And it will be to you as well.

Professional Reviews Are Professional Marketing

Paid, professional, reputable book review services are becoming more respected and mainstream. Further testimony of this is found in the number of authors and promoters stating they use paid review services. In “Book Reviews: Should You Pay for Them?” by author Kristen Houghton at The Huffington Post says, “Paying for reviews is a commonplace practice.”

It’s time for professional reviews to be recognized and not sidelined by DIY activists who have unfounded beliefs in “doing it all yourself.” There is merit in that if you want to enjoy the book process, but not much. A jack of all trades, master of none will only produce a mediocre product.

FinePrint Literary Agent Joy Azmitia says, “Digital authors can’t upload an inferior book, price it at $0.99, and expect to sell a million copies or expect to get a book deal from a trade publisher. The digital book must be well-written and it has to have marketing behind it. Digital authors are competing with bestselling authors and even mid-list authors, whose works have found new life as e-books. Authors such as Amanda Hocking and John Locke are the exception to the rule because of the editorial work, marketing, and campaigning they’ve put behind their books, despite the odds.”

I understand the self-publishing community got freaked by the Fiverr review scandal (pay a student $5 for a five-star review), and I understand why the words “paid review” have been condemned to mean “scam.” But that is exactly why the use of professional editorial reviews for your book promotion needs to be separated out from this plethora of online hate. It’s just not the same thing at all. Using the established companies such as SPR, Kirkus, BlueInk, and Foreword needs to be part of any professionally-formed marketing campaign.

Contradictory “Group Rules” In Self-Pub Circles

It’s about time so-called book “experts” got on board with this instead of condemning books to the depths of bad ranking just to prove some kind of fundamentalist, purist, “in-crowd” point that is actually scuppering authors from getting the most out of what true marketing and review experts can offer to get books in hands.

It’s your book. If you want to pay for services, why are you being “gatekept” by the very people who started out saying “Down with the gatekeepers!”

Not everyone knows how to market a book themselves. A book deserves the best chance it can get; it’s not down to someone you never met on Facebook whether you use professional services or not. If a group won’t allow you to add your own book link to self-promote, and yet they expect you to self-promote, how is that fair?

As a sidenote, unlike many so-called “alliances,” basic membership at SPR is free, and once you’ve signed up, you can blog on the site for free too, linking to your book sales page.

This is not an endurance test. This is about getting people to read your book. Don’t miss out on one of the tools in a very limited armory to begin with.

You wouldn’t skip professional editing, design, or formatting, so why is it such an outrage to pay for very basic marketing elements such as a paid review?

The answer is, it just isn’t.