Bought and Paid For

Sometimes I see a review on Amazon that makes me do the puppy thing – you know, cock my head and make that little “baroo?” noise. Amanda shared a link to a book with an improbably high original price (marked down to free, for now, though) and seriously questionable antecedents, and after I laughed at it, I read the reviews. When I found this: “exelene article Delivery time is punctual and responsible for everything that is recommended to all is the best way to shop …” I sat back and thought that’s the first spam comment review I have ever seen. But then again, reviews are becoming suspect.

I do read reviews on books I’m thinking about buying (other products, too) on Amazon. I’ll hunt down reviews outside Amazon from time to time, but they are handy right there, so that is usually what I look at first. But I do this with an awareness that I cannot always trust what they say. I hear from people outside the industry that they no longer trust reviews, either, because they keep hearing about the reviews being paid for, to give a book lots of nice boost.

But, what about the time-honored practice of giving away copies of books in return for a review? Isn’t that the same as say, this? When you can buy five book reviews for only $30, why worry about what the unwashed public has to say about your book? The service even guarantees you won’t get a harsh review, saying “we can’t guarantee all bloggers will love your book but we do ask bloggers to only post fair and professional reviews. If a blogger really can’t get into your book we ask them to refrain from posting anything too harsh as reviews can make or break an authors career! It should also be noted we don’t believe it is ethical to pay bloggers for ‘good’ reviews.”

Maybe this is why we find reviews on the book with, I kid you not, the World’s Worst Cover, praising it to the heavens. Midwest Book Review wrote this: “Ancient curses can be quite the ruiner of one’s day. “The Mystery of the Mummy” is another novel from Roger D. Grubbs following the continuing adventures of Andrew Rogers and Kathleen McGregor as they are tasked with stopping a millennia old curse from consuming the world around them. If they don’t act quickly, the mummy will be more than some ancient sack of bones, but the death of us all. “The Mystery of the Mummy” is a top pick for suspense fans, highly recommended.” In fact, all six reviews on this book are in the 5 star range, leaving me wondering what lies beneath that truly horrifying cover photo. After having peeked inside, I am disinclined to plunk down the money to endure the rest of it. It’s just as bad as the cover.

No wonder then that book reviews are losing ground as trustworthy indicators of a book’s merit. I can generally tell if an Amazon review is sincere – for one thing, any negative comments without being all negative are likely an honest appraisal. Not every reader will like every book. I have a few blogs I read reviews on and trust. I myself review books on my blog every Friday, mostly Indie authors, trying to give an authentic review when I do so. But the concept of shelling out money for reviews strikes me as wrong. What do you, kind readers, think? marketing is hard for us authors, requiring a lot of our time and effort. Reviewers obviously need some reward for their efforts in reading, but is a free book enough? Is even that too much? I’m not a proponent of making anyone work for nothing. But I look at my reviews as a tip after having bought the books and already spent something, the review is worth perhaps more to the author than that money. I’ve accepted some books for review on my blog, but I am wary of doing so, as I feel that by doing that, I’m obligating myself to that author.

Which, as it turns out, there are regulations about (I should have known… aren’t there regs about everything these days?). Shiny Book Review, a site I know and trust (full disclosure, they reviewed Vulcan’s Kittens, giving it a B- for editing problems. Which led to me having a professional editor go over it, but I digress.) has a whole section on the ethics of how they handle reviews. And they have made my mind easier about the whole obligation thing. “One more thing: the FCC now requires that a disclaimer be made regarding books sent to Shiny Book Review and/or any book review sites.   That disclaimer is as follows: we at SBR are often sent free books, but are under no obligation — none whatsoever — to give anything except our opinion, freely stated.

And this led me to do a little more poking. I found a well-written article at a food blog, of all places, which normally I wouldn’t cite, but she does it so well. Included are links back to the regulations themselves, so you can explore to your heart’s content if you so choose. I just don’t have time, a house to clean, homework, and all that jazz. Which means that most people probably don’t bother to look at them, either, and accepting paid reviews might not be a good idea if anyone ever comes looking closely at the sites you are reviewed on. Not a scandal you want your book tarred with. So in the end, trust no one, er, walk with caution, and if you do reviews, make it clear how you were compensated, even if only with a free book.

In the end, after asking around, I’m not sure random reviews are even given any weight by consumers any longer. Goodreads has been plagued by scandal, Amazon has too many sock-puppets, other mass review sites like Library Thing are just too obscure for the general public. As a reader, I have people I trust to review a book which I will buy on their recommendation. Most of them are not in the business of giving out reviews, it’s just a whole-hearted “oh, this one is good!” Larry Correia’s book bombs, Howard Tayler’s blogunderschlock, David Pascoe’s random reviews… those are the books that grab my attention and get me to hunt them down and buy them. I’ve rarely been disappointed that way.

As an author, I’m still mulling over what this means, other than the oft-repeated ‘word-of-mouth’ is the best marketing of all. You can’t beg, buy, or steal publicity like those spontaneous reviews. When you get one, it’s like a standing ovation, and the three I have gotten I am more grateful for than I can express. Buying reviews would only cheapen that, for me.


  1. The best indicator of a legit Amazon review is whether or not it says “Verified Amazon Purchase” on it. And a perfectly good way to check that is go look at say, Rush Limbaugh’s new kid’s history book. Lots of 1-star reviews from people who clearly haven’t read it and only want to slag Limbaugh, and they often claim to have read it, but none of them say Amazon Verified Purchase (Including one guy I noticed who claimed to have bought the kindle version, which could not have come from anywhere BUT Amazon.)

    The Helpful Review votes are also a bit harder to fake out.

    1. There’s a workaround for the Amazon Verified Purchase status–if a book is enrolled in KDP, the author can give away the book (set the price to 0$) for 5 days every three months. So if the author coordinates with the review service, the reviewers can download the books during a free day, which still will show up as a verified purchase. (It doesn’t mean the reviewer has actually read the book, of course, just that it was downloaded.)

      There is also at least one service that will arrange for sock puppet accounts to download free copies during KDP promotions, which will inflate the book’s visibility on Amazon’s search engines.

      (These two issues are, I suspect, why Amazon is doing Countdown Promotions now, which don’t let a book’s price get set to 0$. Right now it’s offered as an alternative to KDP free days, but I think it’s the first step towards phasing out the free promotions.)

    2. Amazon had to make it so you couldn’t review books that were available for pre-order. For some reason Ann Coulter had a complaint about a bunch of one star reviews on a book that she was less than halfway through writing.

      I do look at reviews on books by authors I am unfamiliar with, but I pay more attention to what the reviewers say than what they rate the book at. I have looked at books that have 5 star ratings, and I believe the reviewers were being honest, but when reading their reviews I could tell that what they were looking for in a book was not what I was looking for, so I passed the book up. On the flip side I’ve read 2 and 3 star reviews that complained about the exact points that make a book interesting to me.

      1. For some reason Ann Coulter had a complaint about a bunch of one star reviews on a book that she was less than halfway through writing.


        1. Tom Kratman once had a review that was for another of his books not the one the review was attached to. [Evil Grin]

          1. Oh, I’ve done that. Put the review on the wrong book in the series. It’s easy to do if you are reviewing some time after you bought it. I did go back and move them around, though!

      2. Yes. I wonder why that would be? Could it be that, as obnoxious a she can be, she writes better than most LP idiots? The next original, rational, logical thought many of them have, will be there first. Some of the “Liberal” commentators spin faster than a 20,000 RPM gyroscope.
        As I said, I don’t like Ann Coulter because she sometimes, and lately more often, tens to be as big a a–hole as the “liberals.” She seems to sometimes look for ways to be obnoxious, and even hateful.
        It’s one ting to carve liberal blubber with abandon, but using a rusty, teeth missing saw, is not necessary. That kind of fatuous stupidity is reserved for those who can’t express themselves properly. Like people who “review” books that aren’t even written yet.
        I agree that “bad” reviews are often a obvious as a t–d in a punchbowl. It says two things about the author/publisher. 1) The book is poorly written and/or edited. 2) You should flee as pursued by ravening wolves, from the author/publisher. Kristine Kathryn Rusch says. “It takes 1,000,000 words written, to become a ‘good’ writer.” I disagree. I say. “It takes reading a *minimum* 20,000,000 words read, and 1,000 _hours_ writing something.” Whether it’s time spent answering/commenting on posts, letters to the editor, reading/replying to email lists, etc., doesn’t matter. Writing is the communication of ideas (whether good or bad) in a logical, rational manner. The theory says that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something, to become good at it. Reading builds the tools of how to communicate ideas, and writing the practice of actually doing it.

        1. ….You’re trying to justify fake reviews of a book that isn’t written yet because you think the person writing the book is mean?

          1. I think he was trying to point out that regardless of how he dislikes a person, it is still wrong to write a review of a book that you haven’t read.

            Which I have to agree with, I have never read any of Ann Coulter’s books, mainly because her irrational love affair with Chris Christy (which she lately seems to be turning into a love triangle to include Mitch McConnell) irritates me and makes me suspect her judgement. I also haven’t reviewed any of her books… not even the ones which aren’t written yet.

            1. The one about how McCarthy was actually right in light of the Venona Papers was actually very good. The context of the “Have you no shame” quote really shows why the liberals have absolutely no interest in people knowing the context.

  2. At the moment I have 31 reviews for my first novel, with an average of over 4.5, and 4 reviews for my second novel, all 5 stars. I did give free copies of the Kindle edition to some reviewers for my first one (all of whom mentioned that in the review), but aside from that all of my reviews were unsolicited.

    Honestly, I don’t imagine that my books are just that good, but I am very selective with my marketing and promotion. Instead of spamming everyone in the world with ads, I stick to venues that specialize in the odder ends of the Sci Fi/Fantasy spectrum.

      1. The problem that I see is that my books show the same sort of review ranking as books with paid reviews–I’m starting to wonder if having too high a rating might actually hurt my sales.

        Maybe I need to start paying for two-three star reviews, to make it look more realistic?

        That could be the new niche for paid reviewers: “All Meh Reviews! We’ll Make You Look Mediocre!”

        1. ::snicker:: I like the idea. The best reviews are absolutely honest, and give some idea of the nature of the book. For instance, Cedar just reviewed one of mine. And she mentioned the not too explicit orgies. This is going to get people who would not like it, to not buy it. And give a bad review. On the other hand people who like sex in a book will (I hope!) grab it.

          Or not. I rarely read reviews. But I do need to go though my pile of recent reads and put up Amazon reviews. Because they are still one of the easiest ways to sort out the well written from the pile.

          1. Yes, I like to review whatever I’m reading, with the exception of really really awful books, which I flinch away from reviewing. I just feel badly doing that to someone.

            1. Yes, I generally only review books I like. And I’m not very good at remembering to do that. Although I have seen people complain about a reviewer who only gives 4 and 5 star reviews, I figure if you look you can find someone who will complain about anything.

        2. Easy enough to do; just do a free run. They often attract one star reviews of “I don’t read this genre, but I downloaded this book and I hate it.” 🙂

            1. I think you’re right. I also suspect that they are more likely to grab stuff that’s not their style, and dump it when the they lose interest. Elle Casey has mentioned emails from new fa ns who didn’t get around to reading and loving a permafree book for up to a year after they downloaded, so there’s that for anecdata.

              I just finished running a kindle countdown promotion to see how it worked with no push (what can the say? I like a baseline for data). Freebies as per collected anecdata have a 3-20% conversion rate to book two in a series. I seem to have run about 30% conversion by offering take the star road at 99 cents for three days, but given people’s reading rates, i’ll be watching sales over the next week and adjusting figures.

              Goes to prove, still true that people value things they pay for more than things that are free.

      2. In regard to giving free copies for a review: the free copie is only worth something if the reviewer likes it. If they hate it, it actually has negative value to them (they had to torture themselves by reading it). Thus, I think that free copies are perfectly OK as they will only prompt favorable reviews from those that would be favorable anyway.

  3. I admit it, I go to the one-stars first. Especially for non-fiction. When they start listing errors of fact, with secondary references, then I can be pretty sure I’m not going to waste $$$ on said title. When they say, “I hatz this buk because it doesn’t say what I want it to,” then I start looking a little more carefully. And when they say “don’t buy this book it is full of lies about the [religious figure] [acronym], may [deity] smite the author with [nasty thing]!!!!!” the book gets in my basket right quick pronto.

    Fiction? Eh, varies, but a herd of three-stars all saying, “neat plot idea, some very good characters, but the editing stank,” then I flag the author as one to watch for the next book, which is usually much, much better.

    1. I hit the five-stars to see if there’s any substance there,and then immediately check the one-stars. One-stars reviews can sell a book to me faster and better than the blurb, depending on the nature of the review – but it does help if there are some informative 5-stars at the other end to balance the one-star.

      Thus, I celebrate the first one-star reviews that Calmer Half gets, because I know it’ll help sell the book to people who shop like I do. (You should have seen some of Larry Correia’s 1-stars before Amazon purged a lot of them. Hilarious! “This book has guns in it. Don’t buy!” …

      1. I look at it in a similar way. I love to watch really bad movies. And if a “critic” (read no talent hack) loves it, I don’t waste time/money on it. Another good method is how much money gets spent advertising it (books and movies), after it debuts. How may Turkeyzillas have rampaged throughout the lands, because they were the “book/movie to buy/watch?” Take The Da Vinci Code, as an example. Anyone know what Half Price books is paying for copies? What about “50 shades of Grey,” or the “Twilight series?” IMO, they “have descended on the land, consuming their substance.” IOW, hyped C–P that sold, as Michael Z Williamson would say, “a metric butt load of copies.” Twilight had an original idea, but NOT a trilogy’s worth of content.
        BTW, $30 for 5-6 reviews means you don’t get what you paid for. It should be $30 for _30_ reviews. They obviously recycle the comments, and probably have a program that does it, anyway.

        1. I don’t know if he tried or not, but at least thirty one stars are gone. I used to point authors at them, so they could see that their first one wasn’t that bad. Then one day, they were all gone. I’ll have to ask him sometime.

  4. I don’t like to review things that either I don’t like or aren’t my cup of tea. However, when I really enjoy something, and now that I know how great it is to get a review, I get myself over to Amazon and write a review. I published in May and have all of 7 reviews. I treasure them, even the less-than-glowing one, because it will keep people away who are looking for lots of physical action.

    There is a website called Story Cartel, which I learned of after I published. You let people read your book for free in return for honest reviews. I figured out that this is how people have 17 reviews two days after they publish. That doesn’t bother me. Traditional publishers send free review copies of books to newspaper and magazines for reviews. Somebody who likes to read gets to read it for free. Likewise, 5 free days on kindle select may get one reviews.

    Paying for reviews sounds like a different ball game.

    1. How does something like Story Cartel affect the Amazon KDP Select agreement? Does Amazon object to the book’s being “distributed” that way?


      1. I haven’t gone with Select so haven’t read those terms that carefully or recently. However, being of a conservative bent and just to make things harder, I figured that free on Story Cartel is less than I’m charging on Amazon, and since I’d agreed not to make it available elsewhere for less than I charged at Amazon…..

        So I decided to think about using Story Cartel for my next book. In other words, I’d run it through Story Cartel for the duration (I think it was 30 days) prior to publishing on Amazon. But I might not. I’ve been reading a lot about how posting things for free doesn’t get you tons of reviews anymore. On the other hand, these Story Cartel readers are people who have specifically agreed to write honest reviews in exchange for free books.

  5. I hate to say this Cedar but I see this as an alternate form of advertising. Think about it. When you see a commercial for cookies they always talk about how good they are. Paints always spread well, look good and dry fast. Burgers are not only good tasting they’re also cheap, even if they’re not. To top that off, the burgers on TV are usually nor even burgers and the ingredients around them are just imitation lettuce, tomatoes, mayo, etc. I don’t really see fake reviews as being any different.

    1. No, I know some are advertising, but as Dorothy points out below, we expect those sorts of “yay! perfect!” reviews in an ad space, but in a crowdsourced arena, not so much.

    2. Advertisements don’t lie. At least not outright. The McDonald’s burger is portrayed as a fast food burger and not as steak and potatoes on a plate. The purpose of advertisement is to match a product with consumers and while the product may be portrayed as the best one ev-ah when it’s not, it’s still got to be portrayed as what it really is or people are simply going to be PO’d.

      If I were providing a review service (and I’m not sure this isn’t actually a great idea) my goal would be to match product with consumers, “you’ll probably like this book if…”, and I’d probably be pretty clear about retaining the right to “if you’ve got nothing good to say, to say nothing at all,” because the review service ought to be a *brand* rather than some sneaking around thing. Being paid for the service should be balanced by the need to maintain your reputation.

    3. I’ve learned a lot with publishing just my one book so far. Like, reviews tend to come in slowly over time. If a book has a whole bunch of reviews clustered around the same date, it might create an aroma of sorts.

      1. Depends on the velocity of the launch or advertising campaigns. If it has a splashy launch, or goes big on a Bookbub/ENT/Pixel-of-Ink/etc campaign, or gets slashdotted/instalanched, expect a wave of review from 2 days to a week later.

        1. True. And your husband’s book had such a launch and a lot of us knew about it. So all the reviews together made sense. Now that I think of it, I got three reviews out of the week of “publicity” I had, so how about I withdraw my earlier comment?

          1. I’ll definitely agree that inbetween pushes, they do trickle in. So you’re right, too!

  6. From the publisher’s perspective, reviews have always been bought: the NYT, Kirkus, and Reader’s Digest don’t review books that don’t have ad space bought for ’em. However, the more the public is informed about this arrangement, the more the crowd-sourced review sites were created by the public as a way to offset the nature of paid-for reviews. (Yes, the sites themselves are created by corporations, but the sites’ data come from crowdsourcing.)

    Who do you trust more to give a review of place to eat – “Indianapolis Taste Magazine” or Well, if you want to know where is hip, the magazine, actually. If you want someplace close, cheap, and good right now, yelp.

    The consumer pushback is strongest when the “us vs. them” is crossed, and paid-for ads are put in the crowd-sourced areas. If I pick up a Hiking magazine, I expect all the articles on gear to have been provided free gear for Testing & Evaluation, and to be pitched to emphasize the positive. If I go on, I expect the reviews to be from people who’ve bought and used it. One will sing the praises of a sleeping bag’s high-tech liner, and the other will grumble that the zipper snags easily.

    If you buy ads in the crowd-sourced area, you’re breaking reader expectations, and you’ll get the equivalent of throw book across room. If you buy ads in the traditionally bought areas, it goes over just fine. The murky grey area is: is the social media reviewer a paid professional reviewer, or running a site like one… or are they acting like a single-point source of crowd-sourced reviews, giving honest opinions? Both kinds exist in social media, and I think the FCC rules were trying, in their own burdensome and annoying governmental way, to quiet the consumer outrage by forcing a differentiation by clarification.

    On a personal level, I’m looking at buying ad space via Project Wonderful, and I have given a review copy away under the understanding that if they didn’t like it, they could either post a negative review or not review at all, as they saw fit. Frankly, if they didn’t like it, a negative review would a.) increase brand awareness by having the name mentioned to viewers, b.) interest viewers who like what the reviewer doesn’t, c.) give me feedback on what I may want to look at next book when doing the beta-reading and editing pass. After all, putting your book on the market is like throwing your product out there to ten thousand beta-testers.

    But I’d never buy crowd-sourced reviews of the “get five 5-star revies for $30!” variety – not only is it dishonest representation for the medium, it would also outrage the very consumers I want to woo. And the consumers aren’t stupid – they can tell.

  7. I read reviews sometimes on the historical romance that I read. Most often it’s because I’m looking at books that are connected to one another and I want the “next” one or the one for a particular secondary character in the book I just read or a previous book that features the older brother or whatever and the publisher failed to put the actual names of the hero and heroine in the blurb. So I go to the reviews to see if anyone put the names there.

    Anyhow, there seem to be two types of reviews. One is the short, “this was really great, such a great author, I read everything she writes” or “this one was not her best” or “I have a hard time getting into books but this one was the best and I’ve read it over and over” (I bought that one, it was horrific, I couldn’t finish it.) And the second type of reviews seem to be from people who are trying to “be a reviewer.” And they’ve got an idea of what a “real review” has in it. I suspect a certain level of self-importance or at least a desire to be part of the industry on the part of the reviewer. These are usually long reviews and contain an extensive plot summary. It’s often to the point where you wonder why bother to read the book since you already know everything about it. They *do* always mention the hero and heroine by name, though, so they’re the ones I look at when the publisher blurb fails.

  8. I don’t know if I have something on Amazon that I can use for reviews.

    Feedback, including reviews, is a price I am sometimes willing to pay for fiction, free or otherwise.

  9. Thanks for the kind words, Cedar (even if Barb wasn’t gentle with the first run of Vulcan’s Kittens). Truth be told, I have no idea when that disclaimer ended up on the site. I didn’t write it (or, I don’t remember doing it… maybe Barb?).

    One thing we are very careful about is appearing to have any conflicts of interest. Our biggest concern is that people might think that we’re giving good reviews to certain publishers because one day we hope to be published by them, since Barb and I are both writers. It keeps us honest, and if anyone has ever read our reviews, we don’t always pull punches (Chris, one of our newest reviewers, is hilariously honest and brutal, a difficult feat) and this can cause some pissed off authors (you have no idea how many authors have come back to me saying I didn’t “get their message”. Honey, I got your message, and it was a back ended load of self-important bullsh*t…).

    🙂 Great piece, Cedar.

    1. I like reviews with a sense of humor, I’ll have to look his up 🙂

      And yes, this is what I’d encountered as well in writing reviews “but that isn’t what I meant!” well, maybe not, but it is what you said!

      1. There is the phenomenon where the writer knows what s/he means but writes down something different. I see this in the day job fairly regularly.

        But sometimes you see people reading in things you didn’t know you’d put there. One of my characters got described as cynical, which made me scratch my head, until I realized how all that had happened. This provided an interesting insight, and that was fine. Then there’s the ones you really don’t get. I just saw my book got its 8th review (yay!), and it was all great. But there was one odd comment that really left me puzzled. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, the book assigned two of the MCs a long line of “disposable lovers” before they met. That put me back, and made me realize what people read in when the writer is vague. I had explicitly mentioned one boyfriend, alluded to the fact that they had dated other people, but then said nothing else. This turned into a series of disposable lovers. They were in their late 20’s and had to have dated someone, for pete’s sake. And this is a book with no sex in it. Sigh.

        1. I wonder how many people hit the ‘link for a free copy from Amazon’ button after reading that review?

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