Paid Book Reviews? Author, Beware.

Written by John K Danenbarger

May 11, 2020

“Sensational” – “Unmissable” – “A masterpiece”

It’s what every author wants to see on the back of their novel — and not just because it’s always a pleasure to see that someone thinks that they’ve done a good job. Those review snippets also tell other people that they’ve done a good job. They help to deliver the kind of trust that turns potential readers into new readers, and eventually into loyal readers.
But how does a new author land those reviews?

Big publishers might send books by their debut writers to their leading writers. Those big names want to know what other people are producing, and they’re happy to lend a new talent a hand by complimenting a book that they enjoyed. It also doesn’t hurt their own name recognition when their endorsement appears on thousands of copies of someone else’s book.

But the demand for reviews is much higher than the availability of big names to deliver those reviews. It’s even higher than the availability of reviewers, especially for new authors with small publishing houses or who are self-published.

Because people in the industry are aware of this need, the industry has created review services — places where authors can pay to have their books read and assessed. Reviewers might balk at reading a book by someone they’ve never heard of and who doesn’t have a big PR budget behind them, but for a fee they’ll lay aside those reservations. NetGalley.com does a good job, and allows authors to pick up a number of reviews from multiple reviewers. There are plenty of other sites, too, including IndieReader.com, Reedsy Discovery, Kirkus, and Writers’ Digest, brands well-trusted by both readers and writers.

But those solutions are limited. First, they’re expensive. NetGalley charges members of the Independent Book Publishers Association $199 for a three-month listing — and membership of the IBPA costs from $139 per year. Kirkus charges $425 for a single review of 250 words. Those are not insignificant amounts for new authors with no current sales.

They’re also unreliable. Books written by new authors are of varying quality but the same is true of reviews written by semi-professional reviewers. Pay for a placement on NetGalley or for a review on Reedsy, and you can’t know in advance whether what you receive will be incisive, fair, thorough, and interesting to read, or whether it will be unhelpful and semi-literate. You can’t even guarantee that the reviewer will have read your book or just pocketed the cash and turned out a boilerplate response.

More likely though, and more importantly, review sites don’t provide reliable ways to match books with reviewers who can be expected to give them a fair shot.

Even the most enthusiastic readers will only want to read a fraction of the books in a bookstore. A reader of science fiction will have little interest in romance novels. An enthusiast of southern literature may have no interest in literary fiction. That doesn’t mean they can’t read books outside their preferred genre. It doesn’t even mean that they can’t enjoy books outside their preferred genre. But it does mean that they can’t understand books outside their preferred genre as well as they understand the rules and expectations of a genre they love.

My experience of using review sites has been a series of positive experiences tempered with unfortunate — and expensive — mismatches. The result, too often, was like asking a chef to review a cancer cell research laboratory or asking a computer programmer to perform heart surgery. The reviewer might have been capable but if they were never going to enjoy a book like the one they were reviewing, or be capable of judging it on its own terms, there was little point in them trying.

Of course, this isn’t to say that reviewers shouldn’t be free to deliver critical reviews, to give books low scores, or to offer the kinds of quotes that no author would want to put on their covers. But they should be able to judge whether a thriller gives thriller readers the excitement they expect. They should be sufficiently well-read in the genre to recognize the tropes in fantasy books and know what current authors are doing. They should be capable of judging not just whether they enjoyed this book but whether other people who like these kinds of books would enjoy it too.
It’s a problem that occurs frequently enough to demand a solution. Reviewers who are being paid to read and comment on a book are doing authors no favors when they review genres they don’t understand. They’re certainly not giving authors their money’s worth.

One solution to the problem may be as simple as a form which the author must fill out when they submit their book for review. The author would have to list ten books in the same genre as their book. Any company offering a review must guarantee that the reviewer they offer must have read and appreciated at least three of the ten books the author has listed. If the company can’t supply a reviewer who satisfies those requirements, the company has to turn down the review.
Note: Until any company offers such a form, any author can simply demand the assurance of a critic’s suitability by listing the books and stating that you require that the reviewer has read a certain number of the books on the list. Remember, dear author, that you are the paying customer.
For reviewers, the system would bring advantages: the more widely read they are in their genre, the more jobs they’ll be able to accept and the more they’ll be in demand. They might even be able to translate that higher demand into higher fees.
And authors would know that whether the review they receive gives them good quotes and rich blurbs or reasons to head back to the editing desk, they’ll have received comment that’s fair and knowledgeable. Their own work might not be a masterpiece but the review will be unmissable.

The Article Paid Book Reviews? Author, Beware. was first published on Medium on Nov 29, 2019   

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