Paid Reviews – Good? Bad? Meh?

More than a few indie authors use paid reviews as a promotion tool.

The big dogs in this business are Publishers Weekly and Kirkus.

PG understands that both PW and Kirkus use a lot of freelancers for their reviews. PG is not aware that either company publicizes the amount it pays freelancers for a review, but people who claim to be doing this work now or claiming to have done this work in the past few years report a range of fees earned. PG has not seen/heard of any number above $100 as the amount the freelancer receives. Other numbers bandied about include $50 or $25 per review.

Of course, PW and Kirkus charge indie authors much more for a paid review.

According to its website, Kirkus charges $425 for a “Traditional Review”.

Publishers Weekly says “BookLife Reviews will be written by Publishers Weekly reviewers.” On the Booklife.com website, one learns that the cost is “$399 for a complete review with takeaway, comp titles, and design and production grades, written by an expert Publishers Weekly reviewer, with a six-week turnaround time.” Four-week turnaround costs $100 more.

Seems like a reasonable deal. Including reviews in promotions, advertisements, KDP descriptions, etc., seems to help sell books for indie authors. Basically, the calculation goes something like this: “If I spend $425 on Kirkus, will placing an excerpt from a “Kirkus Reviews” reviewer in my book description sell enough additional books to earn back $425 in increased royalties?

Since both companies are continuing to offer this paid review service, PG concludes that a lot of indie authors are happy with the results they see from their investments.

So, beyond the blurb-quote, what does a PW or Kirkus individual (likely freelance) reviewer deliver for the $50 or so she/he receives?

PG understands that some reviews that indie authors have received have included factually-inaccurate statements about the book’s content. Something the reviewer said was in the book was not, in fact, in the book or other errors of a similar nature.

In other cases, some indie authors have wondered whether the reviewer read the book at all.

Perhaps most troubling, some indie authors have reported that the reviewer included some nasty criticisms about the book that have not seemed justified. The blurb was OK, but the remainder of the review was extremely disrespectful toward the author and his/her book.

According to what people in a position to know have told PG, even indie authors who have sold and continue to sell a great many books and earn very respectable royalties have received this treatment.

On a few occasions, the indie author has suspected that the only one-star review a book received on Amazon (accompanied by a nasty, sometimes factually incorrect description of the book) had been written by the same person hired by PW or Kirkus to write the paid review.

If these sorts of activities are taking place, a few questions arise in PG’s mind:

  1. Does anyone who is employed by Kirkus or PW on a full-time basis actually read the reviews that authors pay for to determine if they have any basis in fact?
  2. Is there any quality control built into the indie author review program?
  3. Is the difference between the $400+ the author pays PW or Kirkus and the $50 or so that the freelancer receives pure profit for PW or Kirkus?
  4. Does PW really use an “an expert Publishers Weekly reviewer” for its paid reviews?
  5. Do Kirkus and PW use the same reviewers for the paid indie reviews that they use for the reviews of traditionally-published authors that appear in the Kirkus (“Trusted since 1933”) and PW printed reviews and reviews that appear on the kirkusreviews.com and https://www.publishersweekly.com websites?
  6. Do Kirkus and PW have any written contracts with the freelance reviewers who write paid reviews of books by indie authors?
  7. If there are written contracts, is there any agreement by the freelance reviewer that she/he will write an accurate review after reading the entire book and not take any actions elsewhere that may reasonably be expected to diminish sales of the indie author’s book?
  8. Are any Kirkus or PW reviewers would-be traditionally-published authors who have drunk the NYC Kool-Aid that says all indie authors are trash?

A couple of additional questions arise in PG’s mind. He suspects he knows the answer, but he’ll ask them anyway.

  1. Do traditional publishers directly or indirectly pay for reviews of their books in PW and/or Kirkus?
  2. If so, how much do such Kirkus and/or PW reviews cost traditional publishers?
  3. Are reviews created for traditional publishers written by the same “expert Publishers Weekly reviewers” that write paid reviews for indie authors or is there a much different group of reviewers that write the TradPub reviews?

End of rhetorical questions.

PG doesn’t know if the descriptions of poor behavior he has heard about are isolated slipups in an otherwise honorable, fair, valuable and well-functioning service operated by PW and Kirkus or not.

He would be happy to hear about good or bad results from these programs from indie authors.

PG will note that some indie authors who are upset by one or more of the questionable activities described above say they will continue to use the Kirkus and PW services because they believe the blurbs still help sell enough books to more than justify the costs.

Feel free to share experiences, reactions, criticisms of PG or anyone else, etc., in the comments.

If you would prefer that such matters not show up in the Comments section of TPV, feel free to send a private message to PG via the Contact link towards the top of the blog. He not post any of the contents of those private messages without the express consent of the person who sent them.

While PG was obviously disturbed by what he heard about the Kirkus and PW programs, he hopes to hear that these are rare aberrations in a couple of publicity services that help indie authors sell more books.

Depending upon the response he receives from this post, PG may make further posts to correct, clarify or confirm what he’s described above.

5 thoughts on “Paid Reviews – Good? Bad? Meh?”

  1. I don’t know if my “semantics meter” is broken today or not, but I feel like the term “paid review” is a very large spectrum, and not at all what most people have complained about with respect to paid reviews and “indies” or at least “non-traditionally published authors”.

    It has always been the case that arbiters like PW and Kirkus get their pound of flesh from big publishers to review their releases. Sometimes it is direct compensation, sometimes it is “If you pay to advertise at an exorbitant rate in our magazine, we’ll also do a review”. The latter lets them cleanse their palate, and assuage their ethics that they are not guaranteeing a positive review. That is not, by and large, considered “paid reviews” in the slang, it is simply a direct fee-for-service. However, one of the kickers is that if PW takes the money of one of the big guys in the club, and then trashes their book, the big guys might not pony up quite so well next time. I seem to recall there was a review somewhere of all the PW reviews in a given timeframe and found they were by and large written positively. But there is nothing in the contract that guarantees that. As you noted, those reviewers tend to be in-house “professionals” who know if they always trash those who pay their salary, they don’t get their salary any longer. * (small caveat at the bototm)

    Equally, those who are with indies and pay for a review, often misunderstand the relationship. They are doing so because they believe the review will help them, they’re quite proud of their little baby and expect others to be so too, and are surprised that the real world is a harsher arbiter. They are PAYING to be REVIEWED, not paying FOR a review. If you paid FOR a review, you would choose whether you wanted 5 star, 4 star, 3 star, whatever. Paying to be reviewed, the only things you can pay for are publication, timing, fairness and accuracy.

    Normally, when people say PAID REVIEWS in the vernacular, they mean people who bought positive reviews through farms, trade, or just hiring individuals to write positive reviews. As someone who used to do reviews quite openly, and had lots of people send me their MS for a review, I was always very clear…I promise to review it fairly. I don’t promise 5 stars by any stretch of the imagination. One author who shall remain nameless has done okay for herself as a midlist author with numerous books and series was shocked and appalled that I wouldn’t give her automatically 5 stars in return for her sending me a review copy. She found that quite unsavory in fact. WHen I told her the rules, she was quite miffed and thus requested I not review it after all. I would have given her 4 in the end, but not a 5, after I read it. There was a huge PoV problem at the end, as numerous reviewers on Amazon and Good Reads have subsequently identified as a major letdown in the book. But she was not inexperienced…she had dealt with lots of independent / freelance reviewers in teh past, paid and otherwise, and many of them apparently had no trouble guaranteeing a 5 star result.

    I think those qualified as PAID reviews rather than a REVIEWING service, but again, maybe my semantics meter is broken today. I know what I’m seeing with a PW or Kirkus review and I know how worthless it is as an arbiter.

    The * caveat I noted above though is a bit of context. When I am reviewing, my reviews tend towards 3, 4 or 5 stars for books. Which would seem to imply that I’m generous when in fact, the reason is simpler…if it’s a really bad book, something likely to get a 0 or 1 from me, I don’t get past page 10. I can tell pretty fast if it is going to be crap from my perspective. So I stop. And I don’t review a book if I don’t finish it. Equally, if it was likely to come out at about 2/5, I probably stopped around page 50 and just lost interest. Too many other things to read. So I, myself, usually end up with 3 stars or more, a positive review. A lot of 4s in fact, but if I like an author and a genre, it’s not surprising I’m likely to be weeding out the chaff. Equally, PW and Kirkus are reading a lot of “big publishing” books. Their initial review is based not only it being interesting and compelling, but simply if it is well-written. Almost ALL of the books they’ll get from big publishing are going to meet that threshold — they’ve almost all been professionally edited and read by multiple readers before it goes out the door. The blatant stuff is already fixed. Someone has already culled it from a slush pile and thought it good enough to publish. That already puts them in the top 10% of the slush pile. And probably over the 3/5 threshold of any of the reviewing services. IMO, anyway. I’m not surprised they find stuff decent.

    I’m more amused than appalled when someone says, “I paid for a review and they said some not nice stuff about my book”. Errors in the review? Valid. Hatchet job? Valid. Didn’t like me? Oh, here’s a tissue. You didn’t pay for the review, you paid for a reviewing service. You take what you get.

    And, tbh, there have been some whispers that some of those 1 star nasty reviews on Amazon are indeed from freelance reviewers who thought your book was a piece of crud but couldn’t say so with the reviewing service because they won’t get hired & paid in the future. But they “ease their conscience” by balancing out their positive review in print with a negative one on Amazon.

  2. Here’s a comment from a long-time TPV participant who couldn’t sign in (Let PG know if any of you have registered and have sign-in problems. You have to register in order to have your comment show up)

    Here’s the comment:

    When I was applying to advertise a newly released book on one of the email-list sites, I told them that the book didn’t have the required 10 reviews because it had no sales.

    I was informed that writers are mistaken to think that reviews follow sales. Reviews must come first.

    If this is the new normal, all a writer can do is buy reviews.

    I’ve never been able to leverage my social media contacts into a ‘street team’ or whatever they call fans these days. Getting reviews has become more and more difficult for every writer I know. So that leaves buying reviews.

    However, I’m not going to buy reviews from PW or Kirkus. I can get a better deal on Fiverr.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.