Up until a few months ago, I didn’t realise there was a seedy underbelly to publishing. But all of a sudden, I can’t seem to look anywhere without turning up odd or unpleasant behaviour from authors, publishers, or other members of the writing community. It’s actually got to the point that my husband asks me of an evening, “So, what’s the controversy today?”
“So, what is the controversy today?” I hear you ask.
First, let me run through some of the more recent incidents, just in case you missed them.
Wherein a group of authors sick of being “bullied” by reviewers on GoodReads (who had the nerve to give less than 5 star ratings) start their own website and reveal the real identities and contact information of those reviewers in a clear effort to encourage abusive retribution.
Wherein a group of vigilante authors use Twitter and DMCA notices to shut down a perfectly legitimate business venture because they think it’s an illegal book piracy site.
Wherein a respected fiction magazine actively promotes a racist self-published novel, then changes their mind and claims they were ignorant of the racist themes when the internet explodes against them.
Now that we’re all caught up, let’s move on to today’s little gem shall we?
I turned on my computer this morning to find the internet abuzz with details of book reviews for sale. If you don’t want to click through and read the story, here’s the gist:
Entrepreneur Todd Rutherford used to work for a marketing department where he would write press releases and contact review sites to organise book reviews. One day he realised it was a lot of hard work, and there were more books than reviewers. So he created GettingBookReviews.com, a site where authors could pay $99 for him to review their book — positive review guaranteed!
For the value-savvy author, there were package deals: $499 would get you 20 different, positive online reviews. A mere $999 would guarantee you 50 individually hand-crafted 5-star reviews posted on the web.
Mr Rutherford was soon raking in $28,000 per month.
A bit of simple maths will tell you that $28K works out to somewhere between 28 and 280 books every month. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to read 280 books a month. I don’t even have time to read 28 books a month. Especially not if I have to read 28 books then write 1400 individually hand-crafted reviews. So Rutherford outsourced. One of the freelance reviewers quoted in the article admits that she never actually read the books she was reviewing. She just googled them online, skimmed through a couple of pages, then wrote 5-star reviews. (She does say that she wishes she’d been able to read some of the books though, so it’s okay.)
When I read this story, I have to admit that I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t even surprised that authors were buying good reviews on blogs, GoodReads, Amazon, etc. (In fact, the only thing that really surprised me was how lucrative fake-reviewing could be!) But just because I wasn’t surprised doesn’t mean I was happy about it.
It got me thinking about a few things, though.
- Just about everyone I’ve come into contact with today has roundly condemned the practice of buying positive reviews. And yet Rutherford’s site took orders for 4500 reviews. How is it that those authors aren’t jumping up and down and defending the practice? Or is it one of those things that’s only ethically wrong when people find out about it?
- Authors and publishers routinely send free copies (ARCs) of books to book bloggers and reviewers. That’s standard practice. So why exactly is GettingBookReviews.com so controversial? Is it (a) Because it involves the exchange of cold hard cash? (b) Because the service guarantees positive (and often gushing) reviews? Or (c) Because the reviewers don’t necessarily read the books?
- If the answer to the previous question is (b) or (c), that opens up a whole lot of other questions/concerns. For example, where do we stand on self-published authors reviewing each other’s books as a sort of quid pro quo marketing strategy? If one Indie Author provides a positive review of a friend’s book in exchange for the friend doing the same for hers (with or without reading the novel herself), how is that ethically different to Rutherford’s services?
- Following on from that, what about smaller quid pro quo exchanges such as Facebook likes? Or Twitter follows? No, they’re not directly linked to book sales (although neither are reviews), but we all know that we’re more inclined to hit the LIKE or FOLLOW button if several thousand people have done so before us than if we’re the first one.
As a writer, I’m not comfortable with the idea of paying people to write reviews of my books. However, I can’t categorically say I’ll never feel differently. I can imagine sitting at my computer, proudly looking at my book on Amazon.com while my eyes flick back and forth between the “Buy this book” button and the “Be the first to review this book” link. After refreshing the page several hundred times in the first hour, I may be more than happy to pay someone to write that first review. For my own sanity, if nothing else.
As a writer, I’m not comfortable with the idea of requesting someone write a positive review. I am comfortable asking my friends and family not to write a review panning my book. Seriously, folks, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
As a writer, I’m not comfortable with the idea of someone writing a review of my book if they haven’t read it. I’m not writing so people can pat me on the back, I’m writing because I have stories I want people to read. And writing a review without reading the words I’ve laboured over devalues my work.
EDIT: Joel Friedlander also has a great post on this topic, explaining how paying for reviews cheapens the review process for both authors and readers.
As a reader… Well, as a reader I instinctively distrust any review that has nothing negative to say about a book. I’m more likely to be influenced by a well-crafted 3 or 4 star review, detailing what the reviewer liked and didn’t like about the story, characters, writing, etc than I am by a gushingly enthusiastic 5 star review. So perhaps this controversy, such as it is, doesn’t affect me overmuch at all.
Writers: Have you ever paid for a review? Would you ever consider doing so?
Readers: Does this change the way you think about the reviews you read online?