Let me start this post by stating: this is not a discussion of whether or not you should pay for a favorable book review, as that is, obviously, unethical. This is a discussion of whether or not indie and self-published authors should pay for reviews from reputable sources (Publishers Weekly and others offer such programs). Self-published authors still exist in a divided space. Most review publications will specify that books be “traditionally” published, many author fairs explicitly exclude “author-financed” books, and several industry observers have questioned whether or not we should separate books online by their path to publication—traditionally published books in one section, self-published in another.
As an industry, we still don’t know what to do with the hundreds of thousands of self-published titles coming out every year, and our systems for reviewing, featuring, and selling these titles is disjointed at best (and marginalizing at worst).
Book reviews are at the nexus of this issue, as they have long been heralded as the make-or-break moment for an author. A favorable review in the New York Times book review—at one time—could catapult an author to fame, whereas a negative review could leave an author moaning helplessly on his couch for days on end (this is a true story, best left for another time).
Before diving into the question of paid reviews for self-published authors, it’s crucial to notice two trends in the industry as a whole:
1) Review blogs and websites have proliferated, whereas almost every print newspaper in the country has cut its book review section entirely. 2) The book reviewers of yesteryear have lost some of their weight in the book discoverability formula (fewer people read traditional, print book reviews, making them a less significant predictor of a book’s success or failure).
Given these trends, how crucial is it for your self-published book to be reviewed? And, subsequently, should you pay for a review? Here are three things to consider as you make your decision:
1) How often do you read book reviews? Book reviews should target either booksellers and librarians or book consumers in general. You would fall into that second category, so if you, as an aspiring author (and an assumed book reader), aren’t reading book reviews to discover new titles, then you might question whether or not other consumers are. 2) And for the first target audience: what book reviews do your local booksellers and librarians read? Head to your local indie and ask them how they discover new books. Ask the same of the collection development librarian in your community. They probably learn about books from a variety of sources, so take note of which ones they turn to when they are choosing which titles to stock. 3) Certain review sites are aggregated into a bookseller or librarian’s ordering system. For example, Baker & Taylor, the number one book distributor for libraries, pulls the relevant Publishers Weekly and Library Journal reviews for each title into its system. This means that a librarian doesn’t even have to leave her ordering system to read reviews from these sources, making these review sources invaluable. 4) The almighty Amazon. Consider whether or not a traditional book review in a reputable periodical or on a well-read and respected blog will outweigh a hefty number of Amazon reviews. If you are focusing primarily on selling to retailers and librarians, perhaps focus on more traditional review sources (as most indie booksellers won’t care about how many five-star reviews your book has on Amazon). If you’re selling independently, though, and maybe even exclusively online, a thorough—and diverse—stock of Amazon reviews can go a long way. Give free copies of your book to those you think would have an interesting and relevant critique, and ask them to give you an honest and unbiased review on Amazon. A few negative reviews are great—they show a consumer that you didn’t just pay off your friends and family to sing your praises.
At this point, you’re probably realizing that I won’t answer this post’s primary question: should you pay for a book review? I honestly don’t know. I do think, though, that every single book has a unique trajectory, and as such, should be handled and promoted individually. What’s right for your book won’t be right for anyone else in your writer’s group, so think critically about whom you are selling to, what they read and share, and how a review will positively—or negatively—impact your goals.
Paid book review resources for self-published authors:
Unpaid book review resources for self-published authors:
Book review blogs (this list from Goodreads highlights independent book bloggers):