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Posts tagged ‘paid reviews’

To Pay or Not to Pay


Reviews. The bane of every writer’s life. We love the good reviews and we are crushed by the bad. After all, our books are our babies and no one likes being told their baby is ugly. So we watch and wait, holding our breath, until the reviews start rolling in on each new release. We weigh whether we should pay to have professional reviewers and bloggers review our book. We have heard the calls from the hucksters, all telling us that for a low investment of some of our hard earned money, they guarantee a certain amount of stellar reviews. We ask our friends, family and friends to post their reviews.  And we wait, wondering why folks say what they do in reviews and praying those bad reviews are outweighed by the good.

Authors gaming the review system is nothing new. In fact I should correct that last statement to say that publishing professionals gaming the review system is nothing new. There have been paid reviews probably as long as there has been publishing. The focus, over the last few years, has been not on the paid reviews from magazine — and bloggers — but on those paid reviews that show up as ordinary customer reviews on sites like Amazon.

Back in April, Amazon took steps to bring a halt to fake reviews. At that time, the target of its legal team was the site with the oh-so-original name In that suit, Amazon alleged that the owner of the site was being paid for reviews of products that had never been read or used. In other words, pay the defendant a certain amount of money and he would give you a glowing review, whether your product deserved it or not. As a result, most of the sites like the one referenced earlier have shut down. But that didn’t end the problem.

In a new move to stop fake reviews, Amazon filed suit against more than 1,000 people it alleges have been offering to write fake reviews. These people are part of the Fivver community. From what I understand, Fivver is a site where you can post your services, whatever they might be, for the grand sum of five dollars. Amazon, concerned about what these Fivvers might actually be offering, had its own employees/agents contact members of the Fivver community. Not everyone they contacted offered fake reviews but a number did. It is alleged that, among other things, some of them said the caller could write the review they wanted posted, email it to the Fivver member and that member would post it to Amazon using their own Amazon account. No need to read the book. Then there was the one who said to mail an empty box or mailing envelope to give the appearance that they had mailed the book to be “reviewed” to the “reviewer”. Others allegedly said they would not read the book even if sent to them but they would give it a great review. Fast forward to this month and yet another lawsuit filed.

As you can imagine, there are some folks out there who are seeing evil in this, not from the part of the paid reviewers but on Amazon’s part. After all, if they are going after the paid reviewers, what are they going to do to the poor author who paid for those reviews? What if the author didn’t know their agent or publisher or mother/brother/uncle/friend paid for the reviews to help them?

I can’t speak for Amazon but I have a feeling what we will see happening is that a number of reviews will simply drop off the site. These reviews will either be directly tied to the sites Amazon has suspicions about or will have key phrases that are oft repeated across other reviews. It is easy enough to code a data crawler to find such similarities. It is basically the same sort of tool that schools use to determine if a paper contains any plagiarized parts.

Amazon might go one step further. Right now, if you look at Amazon customer reviews, you will see some from verified purchasers and then those that aren’t. A verified purchaser is someone who actually purchased the item from Amazon. The only problem with this is it doesn’t reflect those who borrowed a book or short story under the Kindle Unlimited program. This may be the point where Amazon needs to add that as one of the descriptors. I know a number of authors, and readers alike, who have been asking Amazon to do just that. At least that way, people who look at reviews before buying something would have an idea if the reviewer actually put down money on the book in question.

There is always the possibility that Amazon will require you to have purchased an item from them before you are allowed to review it. I’ll admit to being torn about this option. That would keep reviewers like Shiny Book Review from posting reviews on all sales sites. It would kick out reviewers who receive free copies of books unless Amazon has them register as reviewers. This is a path I’m not sure I want to see them go down.

Right now, Amazon gives more weight to reviews written by verified purchasers. As they should. I know that when I look at reviews, I tend to pay more attention to those written by people who have “verified purchaser” listed under their names. I know they might have left a review without actually reading the book but the likelihood is less than it is for those reviewers without the VP notation.

The bottom line, however, is simple. Paid reviews are a way of gaming the system. Amazon — and other sites like it — can make it harder to find folks to do them, but where there is a will, there’s a way. Someone will find a new way around the system. But, as a reader, I put more weight on those reviews written by folks I know bought the book and this is why I want to see Amazon note those who borrowed it under the KU program. They, too, pay for what they read even though it is a subscription fee and not a per book fee. If I’m getting a royalty for it, they’ve paid for it in my opinion.

Amazon is not the big bad in this case. It is actually protecting its customers and the writers who use it as a sales platform. For that, I thank them.


Oh those pesky ebooks

I’m going to admit right off the bat this morning that I am operating under a handicap. No, not the usual one of not enough caffeine. My beloved ROG laptop has decided to become the bane of my existence. The battery, overnight yesterday, decided not to work. Now the keyboard is lagging and, at times, not registering keystrokes. Since it is out of warranty with Asus, I’m dealing with the extended warranty through Squaretrade. That means it gets to be sent in for repair. It also means I have to move all my work over to the backup machine (now my family knows why I always have at least one other working laptop as well as a tablet on hand at any time). So, if there are weird missing letters, that is the cause. I’m trying to catch them but. . . .

Anyway, back to being a Mad Genius.

First things first. If you are registered for WorldCon, you should have received notice that the Hugo packet now available for download. Fair warning, some publishers sent only extracts of their nominated works (Ancillary Justice and Skin Game come to mind). John C. Wright’s work is all combined in one file and not necessarily listed in all categories where he is nominated. So it is a bit of hunt and place for him. At least there is a note with the packet that explains this. So, if you are voting this year, start reading. There is a lot of material to get through.

Now, on with the show, so to speak.

Despite all the attempts made by traditional publishers (Baen excluded) to convince readers that e-books are nothing but a novelty that will soon disappear, it is clear they are here to stay. It is also clear that readers are becoming more and more discerning about how e-books look. I’m not just talking about covers but about the interior of the e-book as well. They want the “printed page” to look as professional as the printed page of a physical book. In other words, they want it to look pretty. Or, more simply put, they want it to look professional.

What am I talking about? Joe Konrath talks about it over on his blog. If you scroll down, you will see two examples. The first is pretty similar to most e-books you find out there right now. There is nothing really wrong with it and it is certainly a far cry from those early e-books that had to be hand-coded. But it is simple, almost plain. It is workable but, let’s face it, it doesn’t look like what you expect a printed page to look like.

Now scroll down and look at the second example. I’ll admit that it is a bit too fancy for me but it serves my purpose of illustrating the difference you can have with just a little thought and work. The only thing I would probably do differently is lose the drop cap. I’ve never really liked them and they don’t, in my opinion, look right on dedicated e-book readers. On tablets, they are much better. Trying to read an e-book with drop caps on my phone is problematic at best because of the small screen. But remove it, keep much of the rest, and you have a “page” that looks more professional. Well, it looks fancier and that, to many readers, means professional.

Several books ago, I changed the way I format my e-books to start utilizing small caps on the chapter headings as well as the first line. I removed first line indent on the first page of each chapter. I used special font characteristics (such as bold and italics) to set off the text of the chapter headings and the first line. The key with doing this with e-books is not to small cap and bold or italics the entire first line because of the way readers can alter font size. You don’t want three lines suddenly bold or italicized. So I decide going in if I will do only the first X-number of words or the first clause. Then I follow it throughout the book. Consistency is the key.

What I have found since doing so is I get fewer reviews that focus on the fact my books are indie published. Even though I have no concrete proof that the change in formatting is the reason, I can reasonably make that assumption because of the timing. Those comments stopped, for the most part, around the time I changed my formatting. So, here’s my suggestion, find a publisher of books of the same genre as what you write. Look at their formatting of their print books. Now try to duplicate what their page formatting looks like. The benefit to doing this is two-fold. The first is that your book will, as stated before, look more “professional”. The second is that those readers who follow that publisher will pick up your e-books and there will be a familiar feel to them because they look like those of their favorite publisher. Both can help increase sales.

Since I already touched on reviews — the bane of all authors at some point in their careers — if you haven’t heard already, Amazon has decided to go after paid reviews and has sued several of these review mills. This is something we should all welcome. Now if they would just do the same about the sock puppet reviews. . . .

Anyway, Anne R. Allen has a very good post about why we shouldn’t pay for Amazon customer reviews. Read it. Think about it.

I think her post rang as strongly with me as it did because I was talking with my writers group Sunday about reviews. The newer writers looked at me like I had grown a second, or maybe a third, head when I told them I welcomed the occasional negative review. They couldn’t understand why any author would want to see a one or two star review on their work. Wasn’t that like admitting your baby is ugly?

I explained that, as a reader, I am suspicious when there are nothing but five-star reviews for a work. That’s especially true if there are a lot of reviews and the vast majority are five-star with only a very small percentage of any other ranking. It makes me wonder if the author or publisher didn’t stack the deck. Then I explained that there have been a number of times when I’ve seen books with nothing but five stars that I’ve looked at the sample and found anything but a great book. For me, at least, the three-star reviews have been more reliable than the vast majority of reviews on either end of the spectrum. That said, yes, you do want those four and five star reviews, especially if you are trying to be accepted by a lot of review sites because many of them have a requirement of the number of reviews/level of reviews you must have before they consider your work.

Go read the article and let me know what you think. There’s more I’d say but I am about to throw the laptop across the room, so I’ll stop here. What are your thoughts about e-book design and reviews?



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.

To pay or not to pay — for reviews that is

Last week’s post about the Fifty Shades of Grey books and the success they’ve had sort of rolls right into at least part of today’s post. As I pointed out last week, I’m firmly convinced one of the main reasons those books have had the success they have is because of the push they received. Part of that push came from reviews. And that is the main focus of today’s post.

First of all, I want to give a hat-tip to Taylor Lunsford for pointing me to this article. She’d seen references to it on twitter and wanted to know if I’d seen it.

Book reviews have been around for as long as there have been books. I can remember when they made up a large part of the Arts section of the Sunday paper. The New York Times Book Review used to be the size of a daily newspaper. Libraries and schools, as well as bookstores, rely on Kirkus and Publishers Weekly for reviews to determine what books to buy. Reviews from bloggers and readers have become the life’s blood for indie authors and small presses. So it really is no surprise that someone came up with a system to get these same indie authors to pay for reviews to get them better placement on Amazon and other online stores.

What gets me is how everyone seems so up in arms about this, acting as if this hasn’t been the norm for publishing for years. Paid reviews have been around just about as long as reviews have been. Sure there are free reviews and reviewers out there. But to get into Kirkus, etc., do you really think they just pluck books out of the air to review? Not if you’re an indie. Here is a link to the pertinent page from the Kirkus site. It costs $425 for a review (more if you want to fast track it) of 250 – 350 words. Oh, note that once the review is ready, you’ll be notified and can preview it. At that time, you can decide whether to “keep it private” or put it up on the Kirkus website. If you choose to put it up, “we will also distribute it to our licensees, including Google,, Ingram, Baker & Taylor and more. On top of that, our editors will consider it for publication in Kirkus Reviews magazine, which is read by librarians, booksellers, publishers, agents, journalists and entertainment executives. Your review may also be selected to be featured in our email newsletter, which is distributed to more than 50,000 industry professionals and consumers.”

Publishers Weekly, which you’d think would recognize the growing importance of the indie movement in e-books, allows for quarterly reviews of indie books in a special publication call PW Select. To be considered for inclusion in this quarterly publication, you first have to register. For the standard PW Select, your upfront money is $149. If you want the PW Select Plus (which includes Vook), it is $199. the difference? The second option is designed to get you to publish through PW’s Vook platform. So they are getting you coming and going. Not only are they having you pay for the possibility of having your book reviewed in their QUARTERLY supplement the focuses only on indie books, but they are also trying to get you to pay to publish through their VOOK line. And, unlike Kirkus that will do the review and let you choose if you want it to go public or not, your money does NOT guarantee a review with PW.

And yet folks were up in arms to find out that someone was making it easier for indies to game the system that legacy publishers have been gaming for years. Do I agree with everything Todd Rutherford was doing? No. But then I don’t particularly agree with paid reviews. But for folks to act like this hasn’t been going on for, well, ever, blows me away.

The reality of the situation is that books, whether they are published through the traditional route or indie published, need reviews. Reviews are the word of mouth means of promoting our books. The percentage of readers who post reviews is abysmal. So it is no surprise there are enterprising folks out there selling their services as reviewers. It is nothing new. I repeat: it is nothing new. But this outrage just shows the double standard that still exists between indie/small press and traditional publishing. Maybe I’d take the outrage more seriously if it included condemning the old standards for charging for their reviews as well.

Of course, many of those condemning Rutherford and those like him also point to the Bowker report about the price of e-books not rising under the agency pricing model as evidence the Department of Justice is wrong in claiming prices will rise under the agency model. As noted before, the Bowker report doesn’t take into account the fact that there was a larger proportion of indie/small press e-books published during the reporting period than there were e-books published by those named in the DoJ’s price fixing suit. Nor does it note that these e0-books are traditionally priced lower than legacy published e-books. Guess what, guys, if you have more books published by authors and publishers not following the agency model and their prices are lower than agency model e-books — often substantially lower — e-books prices will appear to be lower overall. It’s math, so simple even I can do it.

Finally, I can’t close out today without a warning for authors. If you have a beef with your editor or publisher and don’t want it to get back to them, don’t talk about it on your blog. I woke up this morning to the sight of a so-called fan of several authors I happen to like and admire reporting back to their editor/publisher on that publisher’s site what the authors had said in their blogs. Even though this so-called fan didn’t name the authors, enough information was given, including a direct quote from one, that a simple google search would turn up the names without any trouble. In this case, the authors were complaining, rightly so, about slow payments and other issues that are rife throughout the industry right now. But what this so-called fan didn’t think about was the trouble they could be causing these authors. Sure, the authors ought to be thinking long and hard about what they put online because this is what happens.

As for the so-called fan who reported all this back to the publisher, they might not have thought about what sort of trouble they could be causing for the authors. Or maybe they were just upset with comments from other posters on the site who weren’t appreciative of their earlier comments and this was an attempt to prove up what they’d been saying. Either way, harm may have been done to the authors and, honestly, to the editor/publisher because this so-called fan doesn’t know the whole story.

Okay, guess I’m crankier than I thought. Time to stagger off to find more coffee.