Should indie authors pay for book reviews?

In the words of Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility." Indie authors are getting a taste of freedom, a taste of what it's like to call the shots, and (not quite as tasty) a taste of what it feels like to pay our own way. We're shelling out for editing, copy editing, cover design, trailer production and PR.

Now BlueInk Review invites self-pubbed authors to submit their books for review for a mere (brace yourself) $395 for a 7-9 week response or $495 if you want the review in 4-5 weeks (wryly observing that PW pays less than fifty bucks, and venerable Kirkus also lowballs writers with double digits while charging indie authors up to $575 for a review.) You are promised an extremely well-qualified reviewer from a pool of folks who've written reviews for mainstream media outlets. What you are not promised is that the review will be favorable, and a glance at the first ten reviews listed today on the BlueInk site breaks down thusly:
Positive: 3
Negative: 5
Mixed (reviewer managed to hold nose): 2
A lot of word count was devoted to 6th grade book report synopsis type stuff. One included a lengthy quote from the book being unhappily parsed. Virtually every review complained of poor copy editing, and I do wish indie authors would take note and not scrimp on that. It's important. That said, I recently read a book from a Big 6 publisher that featured very shoddy copy editing, and I didn't see a complaint about it in any of the mainstream reviews.

Here's what the BlueInk site says about their philosophy:
When it comes to judging book quality and understanding the intricacies of the traditional book publishing and book review industries--well, we’ve walked those walks for an awfully long time.

...Our reviewers are fine writers and well-qualified because we know how to judge these skills. Our reviews are taken seriously by publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians because we understand their professional needs and constraints. We respect their time and they respect our opinions.
Respect for authors has never been a prerequisite for reviewers in the mainstream, and it doesn't appear BlueInk will be breaking with that tradition. I saw no mention of an attempt to match books with reviewers knowledgeable about or interested in a particular genre, nothing about reviewers respectful of or in touch with a specific (or mass audience) readership. It's always struck me as impractical that book reviewers are predisposed to dislike books that the majority of readers love. Open-mindedness, a positive attitude toward books outside an extremely narrow mindset, has never been valued in that arena, and I think that's why book reviews have become less and less relevant.

Patti Thorn has more to say in "Making a Case for Fee-based Reviews of Self-published Books" on Publishing Perspectives, and indie authors should definitely check it out. She makes some good points. There's a lot to think about here.

I'm really loathe to talk smack about anyone in this space, and indie authors will have to decide for themselves if the risk of a negative review is worth $495. That's the great thing about going indie. But to me, it feels like I finally broke up with my abusive boyfriend, who's now inviting me to take him out on an expensive date. I'm supposed to hope for a kiss but be grateful for a punch in the face if he decides I deserve one.

Thanks, but no thanks.


Suzan Harden said…
It's more akin to paying a Mafia enforcer for the privilege of breaking your legs. WTF will these people come up with next?
Joni Rodgers said…
Ya gotta love her for wanting to fight for the quality of books. For that, I do give her a cowboy salute, but sheesh...the pricing. Honestly, she's a great book brain, I wish she'd gone into business offering editing services!
On the other hand, think about how much time it takes to read a novel and then write a thorough review. When you look at it from the reviewer's point of view, the price makes a lot more sense--and therein lies the rub. As consumers, we want the best service possible for the least amount of money, but as the producers, workers, and manufacturers, we want to be paid a fair wage. What's a fair wage for a reviewer who takes her job seriously? How much do you think that person should be paid per hour? Per book? What would your bottom line be if you were writing a review for a random self-published novel?

That said, I think this is going to be a hard sell for writers, and I'm not sure this business will survive. We'll see.
This is ludicrous. Since no legitimate reviewer I know of gets paid $495/review, this smacks to me of extortion. I give them kudos for being "honest," but the whole idea creeps me out.

I'm also read bothered by the idea of self-published authors going out there and trading glowing reviews for books they've never read. It all smacks of the desperation to be noticed and further devalues the already rock-bottom mentality of the level playing field than electronic self publishing offers.
Joni Rodgers said…
What's a fair price for Suzan's leg-breaker? (That cracked me up, Suzan.) I'm sure he takes his job very seriously as well.

The traditional review model is plagued by the fakakta notion that a person trained and practiced in the craft of tearing books apart is somehow more knowledgeable than a person trained and practiced in the craft of creating books. As a proponent of free speech, I'll defend to the death their right to savage my books. Am I going to pay them to do it? Not only no, but hell no.

Incidentally, on my bottom line, I read and review books on a regular basis, and I get paid nothing. I do it because as a reader, I love talking about books, and as a writer, I care about the health and integrity of the body literati. For that body to thrive, good books and dedicated authors must be lifted up and celebrated.

If I don't like a book, I choose to say nothing, but frankly, that's rare, because unlike old school reviewers, I'm not being force-fed books in which I have no interest or genres I don't appreciate. I read books I'm excited about reading. (One of the best novels I've recently read is MILKSHAKE, a soon to be indie-pubbed novel by Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss. I can't wait to shout about it!)

Along with all the terrific books that are seeing light of day in the new publishing order is a rolling belch of poorly written, unedited crap. That's a fact. But well-intentioned amateurs don't need to pay $500 for a kick in the crotch. Their books will sink below the surface or rise on the strength of devilishly savvy marketing - just like crappy books published by brick publishers, long may they wave.
Joni Rodgers said…
(Above responding to Kathryn.)

Colleen, I agree, but honestly, the incestuous Amazon reviewing has no less integrity than anonymous negative reviews written by critics who haven't read the book or unilaterally hate the genre, and we all know that's been going on for years. No one was willing to defend authors from that. We were supposed to just suck it up. So I can't fault these "cheaters" who are gaming the system.

Readers are smart. They'll quickly see through that.
Mylène said…
Joni, I've always felt it's less that "readers are smart" (that's hard for me to gauge) but that readers have minds of their own, and once emerged from the schoolroom generally can't be browbeaten into buying and reading anything they don't want to. They can sometimes be tricked (by a review, or by general mania) into buying a book--but not into liking it or finishing it. It's one of the things I love most about our "consumers," and it can't be said about others. Many of us remember when we all wore shoulder pads, convinced they looked good on us. Readers don't shoulder books that don't fit them.

Our continuing challenge is to figure out how to reach them--but the ways to do this are as varied as our imaginations will let them be.

Paying for a review does not strike me as particularly imaginative,
"Colleen, I agree, but honestly, the incestuous Amazon reviewing has no less integrity than anonymous negative reviews written by critics who haven't read the book or unilaterally hate the genre, and we all know that's been going on for years."

Yes, that's very true. So then what's the place for reviews/reviewers, period? I'm not sure I have ever made a decision as to whether or not to buy a book based solely upon a review, negative or positive. Sometimes, if a friend of mine says something really positive about a book I'd otherwise write off, I might take a look, but ultimately, whether I buy the book or not will depend upon my engagement as a reader and not what someone says about it. And I'm much less likely to trust negative reviews. What I do trust is more balanced reviews, ones where the reviewer speaks both to the flaws and the gems within the book. But honestly, even that often annoys me, because I'd just as soon go ahead and read the book and decide for myself (and not have spoilers).

As I said before, I actually don't have as much of a problem with the price as the idea that ANY writer would pay for a review, favorable or unfavorable. That's my beef with this model. I do believe in some type of review service that would help to separate out quality works, but in order to do that, you do have to have the reviewers. Who should those reviewers be? Fellow writers? Perhaps, although I do see a problem with a potential "conflict of interest." How much should they get paid? I know you say you write reviews for free, Joni. I do too, when I really believe in a book. But if I were working for a service like that, I'd want to get paid at least SOMETHING.

Writing a good review is an art form in itself, and the good reviewers do respect authors. The problem is that, as you said, most reviewers are trained to appreciate literary fiction or literary commercial fiction, and few even begin to acknowledge genre. Part of the education of MFA programs is to learn to review, and to learn to be well-reviewed, and I always had a problem with that. Granted, it did help me to see the problems with my own work, but I always felt the biggest problem with the approach is that it didn't teach us to value what WAS working.

The thing is, no one can tell what's going to resonate with readers, and when we say "readers," we tend to make that a big monolithic glop, when readers have all sorts of different and nuanced opinions. A reviewer is just one of those readers.

And what is quality, anyway? Isn't that part of the problem? That now, as always, quality is subjective and nebulous?
This comment has been removed by the author.
Part of what makes our new epublishing revolution so exciting is that we're being forced to reevaluate all of these models and to ask ourselves all sorts of hard questions. And like everything else on the web, bias is an issue no matter what.
Mark said…
I can't see this model working as-is. BlueInk would do better to market themselves as consultants who will give you a private review with the option to publish and promote on their site. The author, after all, has paid for the review work. The author, therefore, should be allowed to control the results. Any business employing an external evaluator by choice would expect this. I noticed on the BlueInk site that authors can request to have reviews removed, so why not take it one step further? Authors could then choose to submit to BlueInk as part of finalizing the book, while there is still time to incorporate feedback. Essentially, an author would be paying to replace (some of) the functions of traditional in-house reviewers and editors. That seems a perfectly reasonable model.
Joni Rodgers said…
Wait...Mylène...are you saying my shoulder pads *don't* look good?!
Suzan Harden said…
Speaking as one of Dr. Kat's "monolithic glop", why do I need someone else (regardless of who's paying them or how much) to tell me what my tastes are?

As a reader, I don't sit and deconstruct a book (or at least I didn't use to). I'm don't care whether a particular tome is "good for me" or "expands my horizons" if that's not what I'm looking for.

As a writer, I'm not paying someone for her time, just so she can tell the world I write light, fluffy entertainment. Hell, can tell you that right now.

And Joni, as an indie writer, I'd LOVE to pay for an editor who didn't turn up her nose at me.
Joni Rodgers said…
Suzan, I'm working on a list of people to recommend. Watch this space. And if anyone out there has a terrific copy editor or cover designer to recommend, please flip us an email:
Stephen Graff said…
I also give them kudos for honesty, but I don't see the practicality of paying that much for a review that may end up derailing the book the author is trying to sell. Better to let customer reviews come in over time, send out to review blogs. Reviews will come back--with hopefully positive reviews in the mix--and at no expense to the author.

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