WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

The cost of doing (shady) business

Cash

Book Launch Kickstart Boost – 50 Kindle Sales & Reviews for $250!

I don’t know. Doesn’t it seem slightly … unethical … to you? To pay $250 for 50 reviews?

(I’m not linking to the site because I don’t want to offer inadvertent promotion.)

Basically this is what Amazon has been cracking down on and what readers are rightly suspicious of. I happened on this deal as it streaked by on my Twitter feed the other day, noting that these folks promise to push your book to the head of the class in the Kindle rankings. It’s really just another pay-to-play scheme and must surely fly in the face of the Ethical Author Code.

Or does it?

Maybe it’s just a matter of degree, but if you can buy a review from Kirkus, why can’t you buy 50 reviews from this outfit? Neither Kirkus nor these guys promise positive reviews. You pays your money and takes your chances.

Is it deception if the 50 reviewers actually read the book? If the reviews are honest? How does it differ from a Kindle Freebie promotion that gives the book away and nets 50 new reviews? (And, incidentally, the reviewer gets a Verified Purchase tag on Amazon even though she didn’t literally “buy” the book. She did download it, though.)

What a thorny thicket!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point this out too: In addition to the 50 reviews (and sales), you get a “full analysis report of [sic] 130-point checklist – reviewing your specific platform – filled with recommendations to enhance and improve your author platform and marketing [as well as] 5 book marketing mockups of your book for marketing.”

Complicates things, because now you’ve paid for marketing advice, not necessarily for the reviews. At least that’s what you could say.

I’ve never purchased a review (not even from Kirkus because Kirkus is dead to me — a long story there), but I’ve given away plenty of copies hoping for a review. That seems acceptable, and ethical, provided that the reviewer alerts readers to the freebie. Guess what: That doesn’t happen very often. People mean well, but they forget to mention that they didn’t pay for the book. Hey, the New York Times Book Review doesn’t say, “By the way, we don’t pay for the books we review. The publishers send us ARCs by the thousands.”

As with most ethical issues, a little bit of a dicey thing doesn’t seem so bad. But where on the scale does it become just plain wrong?

And if it’s always wrong to buy reviews, then Kirkus needs to get out of the review-selling business.

What do you think? Is it legit to buy 50 reviews if the reviews are honest? For that matter, is it legit for publishers to buy prime point-of-sale locations in a bookstore? Or for an author to buy dozens of copies of her own book to get better visibility in the rankings? Or …

All I can say is, Caveat emptor.

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41 comments on “The cost of doing (shady) business

  1. curtisbausse
    February 23, 2016

    Well, the lines are blurred as you say, and doubtless will never be clear. Amazon clarifies according to their own policies, and they have the clout to make it seem that their policies are right. Whereas in fact they’re as subjective as anyone else’s. But blurred as the lines may be, paying for a review is one I’d rather not cross.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 23, 2016

      I’m with you. It’s like the days of payola in music…

  2. curtisbausse
    February 23, 2016

    Reblogged this on curtisbaussebooks and commented:
    To buy or not to buy? Another thoughtful post from Kevin Brennan.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 23, 2016

      Thanks for the reblog, Curtis! Seems like there are plenty of sharks in these waters, eh?

  3. islandeditions
    February 23, 2016

    To me, it’s unethical to pay for ANY reviews! Or for reviewers to charge the author to write a review for them. Period! I don’t even like it when authors offer a free copy of their book in order to receive an honest review. There should be no strings attached … “Here’s my gift of a free eBook. If you wish to review it after you’ve read it, I thank you. But you are under no obligation to review the book. I do hope you enjoy reading it, however.”

    But maybe that’s just me. I believe if we don’t harangue readers for reviews then those reviews will eventually come, from readers who genuinely want to share our book with other readers. Besides, there are many book bloggers out there offering to read and review books from virtually every genre, usually for a free copy. Lots of free semi-professional reviews out there. You just need to look for them. (By the way, I consider a professional reviewer someone who writes reviews for money that is paid to them by a third party, like a newspaper, magazine, etc. Semi-professional is a blogger who makes money from the ads they place on their blogs, but they do not charge authors anything to review books.)

    • islandeditions
      February 23, 2016

      I was always against the box stores selling “placement” (they actually call the space ‘real estate’) in the prime areas of the store – up front, on a special shelf or table display. It was only ever the big publishers who could afford that space and those displays made the books look to be that much more important to unsuspecting customers. When I worked in a Calgary bookstore, we always had a display set up with “Staff Picks” and they really were books we all enjoyed reading, not just stuff we had in excess and wanted to unload on the gullible.

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 23, 2016

        Yep, and usually the books at the front are by the usual stable of popular writers — as if they needed the product placement.

      • islandeditions
        February 23, 2016

        I know of a big box manager, back in the day, who actually instituted a “small press” section in his store, and recommended the debut novels and poetry collections by previously unknown authors. The section was so successful that the chain’s head office adopted it for a time and, you guessed it! They charged publishers to feature their new authors’ books in that selection. I think the chain no longer has that section in their stores.

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 23, 2016

        Deeeee-pressing!

      • islandeditions
        February 23, 2016

        Sorry! I’ll try to come up with something a little more cheery … Um, no. Nothing. Sorry again!

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 23, 2016

      Great points, Susan. I think, where reviews are concerned, the free copy is definitely the coin of the realm. But gee, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a class of book bloggers who actually buy the books they review (with the money they make from ads)?

      Someone should take the plunge!

      • islandeditions
        February 23, 2016

        I agree with that idea! Unfortunately, they’re used to receiving free copies to review, because of long-time practices by publishers’ publicists. It would be hard to convince reviewers to actually purchase our books, although I do know a few bloggers who make a point of purchasing indie books and reviewing them. A very few …

  4. kingmidget
    February 23, 2016

    Seems difficult to be against “paid reviews” if you aren’t also against Kirkus and Publisher’s Monthly (or maybe it’s Publisher’s Weekly). I have yet to pay for a Kirkus review because it really does just bother me — the idea that I have to pay for a review. I’ll never do the $250 for 50 reviews — that’s a scam as far as I’m concerned. But I may hold my nose and go the Kirkus route on my next published effort.

    On another subject … there are plenty more scams out there. One of my local writing friends has a daughter who bought her a publishing package from one of them. The entire editing they did of her manuscript was to ask her to remove the one remotely sexual scene from the book. Other than that, no editing was done. No fixing typos, punctuation. Nothing.

    Every couple of months I hear from somebody who is excited about a “publishing” offer they’ve received. I google the name of the “publisher” and get back to them … you may want to reconsider. There seem to be more scam publishers than legitimate publishers.

    All these people who have figured out a way to profit off of our dreams.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 23, 2016

      There sure does seem to be a double standard here, even if this deal is clearly a way to trick readers. If you happen to get a positive review from Kirkus, though, the reader is also tricked, unless she already knows you paid for it.

      Scams follow people in all kinds of artistic endeavors. All part of the pay-to-play world we live in. Annoying!

  5. francisguenette
    February 23, 2016

    So interesting how the social media world works. Earlier today, I saw the same ad you allude to as it flicked by on my twitter feed. I was curious enough to check it out and wondered. You present this issue well, Kevin. It isn’t one to have any hard and fast yes or no answers – though I agree with the take of most of your commenters that the idea of getting 50 reviews is probably a scam of some sort. The many, many things we all do to garner reviews may differ only in shades of grey from actually anteing up the big bucks to Kirkus and being open about the whole thing. I remain a fence sitter on the complicated issue of paying for reviews. Thanks for a great post.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 23, 2016

      It’s true, Fran — there’s a foggy quality about all of this. Maybe it’s a matter of quantity, in that the 50 for $250 is clearly designed to get a book high on the charts, whereas a single Kirkus review is just a blurb for your author page. I frankly would hate to think that many of the reviews for a book with more than 50 are bought and paid for.

      That said, maybe reviews are overrated, ultimately. If I read a sample of the book, I get a pretty good idea whether it has promise or not.

  6. sknicholls
    February 23, 2016

    I got some weird reviews from Reader’s Favorite who all claimed to have read the book. They were editorial reviews, not customer reviews, but left me scratching my head…”In my book? Really? I don’t remember writing that…and you don’t know history…there were no slaves in the fields in the fifties and sixties.”

    I gleamed some useful comments for my editorial reviews section, and called them on it. They were quick to rectify.

    I quit asking for people to review my book. If they do, great! But if they don’t, I’m okay with it, as long as it’s selling. Sales confuse me. I’ll get six in one day and go a month without any.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 23, 2016

      That’s a weird tale! Glad you got things ironed out …

      I don’t ask for reviews anymore either, except in a general way. “If you liked my book, post a quick review!” But solicited reviews haven’t really worked out for me … Oh well!

  7. John W. Howell
    February 23, 2016

    I would say paying hundreds of dollars for reviews is wrong. I agree with you on the sticky wicket. The review world today is such that reviewers are in a position to ask for ARC’s since every author is willing to give them. On the other side I can’t imagine a reviewer buying all the books they review in a year. So I draw the line with not paying huge sums for reviews. Kirkus and the like are really taking advantage of indies. I’m at a point when I see a Kirkus review I don’t even pay attention to it. Good post.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 23, 2016

      Well, a 99 cents a pop a reviewer could handle 50 books a year affordably, and the sales would actually help the author!

      What a concept …

      • John W. Howell
        February 23, 2016

        I’m sure they feel that a great review would be worth a free bee.

  8. Woebegone but Hopeful
    February 23, 2016

    Stuffy old fashion Brit here.
    So $250 for 50 reviews = $5 per review, which at Current Rate of Exchange is about £3.50p which in my world will buy me a nice ‘cuppa’ tea and a small pack of biscuits….ssssoooo by that logic some company is going to get 50 folk to conduct a genuine and in-depth reviews of my book and in return each will get a cup of tea and a small packet of biscuits.
    Call me picky if you like, but there would seem to be a flaw in this scheme.
    Anyway, it’s deuced un-sporting!

    No hard feelings about 1776, must dash!!

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 23, 2016

      Thanks for stopping by, WBH! Yes, I’m wondering about the “what’s in it for them” angle too. I have a feeling they’re speed-reading the books, so you probably get a “cuppa tea and packet of biscuits” type review. Hmmmm.

      What does it say about a book if you have to cheat to get it on the charts? Or am I just naive?

      • Woebegone but Hopeful
        February 24, 2016

        On the generous side you could have a case where someone is so very enthusiastic to get their good work out there, but I am guessing that this is simply a ploy to haul in desperate or naive writers (been there many years back- ‘reading fee’-ouch!)
        In consequence the victim will get an initial buzz ‘wow I am on my way’ only to see their hopes and dream fade in the reality of the reading market.

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 24, 2016

        Oh yeah. Been in those shoes … Damn uncomfortable shoes too!

  9. Carrie Rubin
    February 23, 2016

    I’m with King M–this seems more scammy to me. At least Kirkus and PW have a respectable name. How can they guarantee the reviews will be honest, or, as you said, that the book was even read?

    The whole review thing is thorny. We’re told as authors to connect on social media, so we do. But then when one of our connections reviews our book, it’s questioned. Well, what’s an author supposed to do? Seems to me reviews by social media contacts are more legit than paying $250 for 50 reviews.

    But now I’m curious about your Kirkus story…

    (Thank you for the Twitter share, by the way!)

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 23, 2016

      Yes, I’m very discouraged by the idea that Amazon is removing some reviews that appear to be “connected” to the author. That’s the name of the game these days! Honestly, I’d have 0 reviews for Town Father, I think, if my social media connections were snatched away…

      PS — You’re welcome!

  10. Parlor of Horror
    February 23, 2016

    I have many authors requesting reviews and wanting to send me copies, hard copy or kindle, of their latest release. I don’t accept them. I purchase what I want to read and write reviews of about half of them. If I get interested in a book I may ask them to notify me when they are having a 99 cents sale for kindle. But, I must say I am suspicious of reviews on amazon these days. I can tell when a friend has written a review of a book and sometimes I can tell when I’m reading a paid review. The whole amazon review system is tainted by those trying to game the system.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 23, 2016

      I don’t know why reviews have become the be all and end all in this biz. With books, as I said elsewhere in this thread, you’re better off reading a sample and judging the quality of the writing for yourself.

  11. Audrey Driscoll
    February 23, 2016

    I don’t have anything worthwhile to add, but just want to say thanks to Kevin and all commentators for an interesting discussion on the topic of reviews. Oh, well, I just thought of this — reviews (both positive and negative) legitimize a book. A book sitting there unreviewed (a literary wallflower) has obviously not attracted any attention, so is therefore not worthy of attention. But the presence of reviews means someone has taken the time to read it and express an opinion about it. Readers might then go on to look at the sample and perhaps purchase.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 24, 2016

      You nail the psychological effect of reviews. They suggest the value of a book to the reader. Lots of reviews averaging 4 to 5 stars? High value. No reviews? Pathetic.

      Maybe that’s the insidious part of a service like this. It makes readers think something that might not be true …

      • Audrey Driscoll
        February 24, 2016

        It’s part of the marketing game. Back in trad pub days writers could concentrate on the art and craft of writing, while publishers did the dirty work of selling their creations. Now that many of us are doing it all (to varying degrees), we are getting direct exposure to the seamy, scammy side of “moving product.”

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 25, 2016

        And it ain’t pretty, folks!

  12. cinthiaritchie
    February 24, 2016

    Great post! I think I may have to reblog this one. Because it’s gotten to the point that reviews, especially on Amazon, are almost meaningless. So many really, really crappy books (badly written, no editing, horrible covers) include a lot of positive reviews and it’s like, what? Who in the hell is writing these reviews? But if you actually skim the reviews you’ll usually find that they’re also badly written and vague. I call them generic reviews. Most appear to be mass produced, fill-in-the-blank with the title and author’s name and then the same review is reused for the next book.
    It’s really depressing out there for honest writers.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 24, 2016

      Hey, thanks, Cinthia! And thanks for reblogging this too. You da 💣!

      I haven’t really analyzed reviews on Amazon, but I’m sure the paid for ones are pretty blatant. I don’t see how that really helps a writer, but more than that, it has to have a negative effect on indie books all around.

      Then again, who says only indies buy reviews?

  13. cinthiaritchie
    February 24, 2016

    Reblogged this on Cinthia Ritchie and commented:
    A great post by What the Hell’s Kevin Brennan on the “cost” of paid-for reviews. Plus the question: Is it even ethical?

  14. Pingback: Paid reviews–is it shady business? – Cinthia Ritchie

  15. cinthiaritchie
    February 25, 2016

    Ah, heck, tried to reblog this on my site and it didn’t work so I copied and pasted the first part, with the link to the rest (I’m technically challenged lately, lol). Thanks for a great post!

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