• Brooke Warner
  • Leveling the Playing Field—Why All Book Reviews Should be Pay-for Reviews
This blog was featured on 08/30/2016
Leveling the Playing Field—Why All Book Reviews Should be Pay-for Reviews
Contributor

Like a lot of things in book publishing, the system by which books get reviewed operates on an antiquated system. In other words, books get reviewed how they’ve always been reviewed, which means that: (1) the system has yet to catch up to the times; and (2) there’s a propagation of the idea that an unequal playing field in the publishing world is okay, where traditionally published books, automatically and without regard for nuance or circumstance, are viewed as more worthy than self-published books.

Although self-publishing’s reputation has significantly improved in recent years, self-published authors are still ghettoized by the industry for being self-published. No matter how good their books might be, they are barred from submitting their books to be traditionally reviewed in major review outlets like Publishers Weekly, KirkusLibrary Journal, and Booklist. Publishers Weekly and Kirkus have tried to offer a solution to this problem by setting up self-published arms of their businesses that charge authors anywhere from $150-$450 per review, but this only poses a new problem, which is that by the very nature of being reviewed by PW Select or Kirkus Indie, those authors are second-tier.

I get it. From a business standpoint, it makes perfect sense, of course, that PW and Kirkus would ask authors to shoulder the cost for reading and reviewing a book. The issue is that by not charging traditionally published authors for the same service, they’re only further polarizing traditional versus self-publishing.

Publishing’s growing pains are perhaps worse and more painful than other creative industries, like film and music. Publishing has been slow to embrace the indie artist in the way that film and music always have. The gatekeepers of the traditional publishing world don’t want to let go of the way things have always been done, so the industry’s response has been to create all kinds of systems and programs to tolerate self-published authors while not letting them into the club. Pay-for reviews are one such response. The traditional world sees itself as stepping up and offering a solution, and yet there’s an old boys’ club mentality at play here, and anyone looking at it objectively can see that at its core the divide is simply unfair.

Changing the way things have always been done is nothing short of radical. This has always been the case. And yet I’d like to offer a simple solution that would be easy to implement, but undoubtedly harder to swallow—that every review should be a pay-for review.

This change would not only level the playing field, but would allow for the possibility of all books that get submitted to these various outlets to be reviewed. As it stands now, the vast majority of books do not get reviewed. If there were a system whereby all books could get reviewed, readers would start to look to outlets like PW as even more of the gold standard they already are. Plus, review outlets are a business. PW receives an average of 1,000 books a week to review, and yet they can review only 700 a month. They absorb the cost of those 700 reviews, which seems like an insane business model—one that probably made sense (somehow) when they started reviewing books in the 1940s. Now those costs are possibly offset by the fact that self-published authors pay for their reviews, but that’s still a heck of a lot of resources, and a heck of a lot of books (3000+) being sent to PW each month that get ignored. Plus, Kirkus Indie and others charge well over $400 per review (too high in my opinion), and it seems possible that they might reach a more reasonable price if all authors paid. In the case of traditionally published authors, publishing houses could foot the bill for those books they most believe in.

The other obvious point that needs to be made here is that many authors are choosing to self-publish, or to publish alternatively (author-assisted, hybrid, and other such models like ours at She Writes Press). There are countless writers who’ve lost their faith in traditional publishing, and many successful authors who are becoming hybrid authors (meaning they’re publishing some books traditionally and others on their own). These are entrepreneurial authors, but they’re also authors who’ve bumped up against traditional publishing’s limitations. Should hybrid authors, or authors who choose to green-light themselves, be made to feel like they’re second-class by review outlets that segregate traditionally published from self-published books? And the wildest part about all of this is that the only reason self-published authors are segregated in the review world is for the mere fact that they pay for some or all of the editorial, production, and printing of their books.

Publishing is the only creative industry I know of that punishes its artists for believing in their work enough to stand behind it with their own dollars. The music and film industry celebrate people who fund their own work. Publishing, for all the good and committed people who are drawn to the field, holds fast to a particular form of elitism. It’s largely unconscious, actually, as many industry professionals would argue that they want self-published authors to have more opportunities, but self-publish-only spaces feel like the industry’s farm team. They want to draw from it, but it’s always going to be seen as second-tier.

Since it’s a known fact that excellent books have a very hard time finding homes, it begs a simple question: Why are we still using author subsidization as a measure of a book’s worth?

For the average reader, the line between traditionally published books and self-published books is already breaking down. Therefore, traditional review outlets that charge self-published authors but not traditionally published authors need to take a hard look at their business model. If there’s an overhaul in the way books are selected for reviews, it will trickle down to how we think about books in general. There are many trailblazers in this space, among them IndieReader, arguing that author-subsidized books should be treated no differently from independent music albums and films. Somehow in book publishing we’ve ended up in a black-or-white system—traditional vs. self—though this is not the reality of how books get made or paid for. The future of publishing is undoubtedly shared risk between publisher and author, as very few publishers can make ends meet by paying advances and hoping for a breakout book. New publishing models will be similar to the one we have at She Writes Press—giving authors much higher royalties on the backend to offset them paying up front. 

It might take a critical mass to upset the way things are done, but it will happen. As it is now, authors who pay for their books are made to feel sheepish about it, so they’re not putting up a fight. But more and more aspiring authors are seeking out third-way models as a first option, feeling disillusioned with traditional publishing, and proudly publishing their work on their own with the help of industry experts. Where the review outlets land on this question now will leave them either paving the way of the future or playing catch-up later.

 

What do you think about my radical proposition? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

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Comments
  • Hi Judith, I wasn't suggesting that PW and Kirkus implemented PW Select and Kirkus Indie to level the playing field. For sure they did not. I know that it's a money-making enterprise for them. The issue is that they were able to do this—thus segregating traditional from self in a way that should make all indie authors uncomfortable. And yet we are paying for these reviews. This post is clearly a big, bold post that will never actually work, but something needs to change. At least the criteria for how books are reviewed needs to be turned upside down so that there's not this clear divide, and so that self-published authors aren't barred from traditional reviews and awards submissions just because they support their own books. But like I said, we have to get upset about the divide enough first. Partly this will be changed by self-published authors knowing that they're books are as good or better than traditionally published books—when they are choosing self-pub as a first option rather than a back-up. And this is happening more and more, of course.

  • Judith Gille

    Kirkus and PW review self-published books not as a way to help level the playing field, but to boost their own bottom lines. My book was reviewed by Kirkus and I signed up with PW. Neither made much of an impact on my sales, but I now get weekly emails from their top executives offering to help me promote the book (for a very steep fee). Self-publishing is the fastest growing part of the industry right now, and everyone, including traditional publishers, reviewers, and packagers are just looking for more ways to milk the cow.   

  • Good points, Tiffany, all of them. Maybe my argument should have been that no reviews be pay-for, but that's not the reality of what we're facing. And right now the divide between traditional publishing and self-publishing is closing in some regards, but opening up to be quite bigger in other regards, with review outlets and awards committees in particular leading the charge to segregate traditionally published books from self-published books simply because the author deigns to put money behind their book. There's something very wrong about that.


    You pose this question:

    Think it through; can you see someone giving negative reviews left and right without a talking-to from the boss?

    Supposedly at review outlets like Kirkus Indie, PW Select, IndieReader, and BlueInk (all pay-for review outlets), they're impartial. I've seen negative reviews from these sites. So I don't know. I'm grateful to everyone for this spirited debate, and in some ways I wanted to pose something hairy and audacious just to see how it would land. A friend of mine in the publishing industry asked me last night, "Do you think NY Times reviews should be pay-for?" I had to agree that I did not. So.... again, thanks for your good points.

  • Tiffany P Keeler

    I'll agree it's unfair to charge one group of authors and not the other. But I see the entire idea as yet another simultaneously way to squeeze money out of self-published authors, not a viable business model. I do not agree in any way that paying for reviews will end up in an honest system. Think it through; can you see someone giving negative reviews left and right without a talking-to from the boss? Maybe that's ok with you. It wouldn't be ok with me. I'd always wonder if my positive review came because I filled a monthly quota, or conversely if my negative review would have occurred in a less busy month.

    I know the publishing world is changing. I know it's tough for authors now in a field that's always been rough. I do not think charging for reviews is a good idea in any way, shape, or form. I still think it's a terrible idea to change for ANY reviews. Pretending it would all be fair and honest with more money on the table is not going to fix things. Most likely, those who paid for reviews through those certain companies (provided the were non-paid options) would not be viewed in an equal light.

    I don't see this idea as a fix. I still feel it's a bad one. Even if all these companies switched to pay-for-play simultaneously, I think the integrity of the system would fall apart. There is a reason to look at who funded a scientific study as part of forming one's opinion of its veracity; it would be a shame if the same happened to reviews one paid for.

  • @Jo, I hear you. Thanks for sharing this. I'm not sure that reviews—paid or not—result in sales. If any of that surge was the result of the reviews then that's a good thing. But reviews "look good" to bookstores, to libraries, on Amazon. They can serve as a tipping-point kind of thing for authors. For me what's discouraging is the cost of some of the self-published reviews. $400+ is a lot for a single review, and if an author wants to get several—well, you can see where that leads them. At least PW Select is reasonable at only $150. But yes, the advertising follow-up is probably an inevitable piece of all of this. When my book was nominated for a Foreword award (which I did not win) I had to purchase a seal to put on my site. The contest cost $100 and the seal cost $150...

  • Sheila K. Collins

    Thanks for putting on the table a major issue for book authors - getting reviews. Your suggestion that everyone pay could work better than what we have now, though I'm sure traditional publishers would not get behind this idea.

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    If a reviewer is going to asked for pay, it should be applied to all authors whether they are self-published authors or traditionally published authors.

  • Joanne Barney

    Brooke, I bought both the Kirkus Indie review and PW review.  My book received a starred review from both organizations and I truly wanted to believe the reviews to be impartial because I finally felt validated as a writer--by folks who knew writing. Days after I was told of the wonderful results, I received calls from both organizations offering me space for ads for my book,on pages they said would be seen (by distributors, libraries, etc.).  At this point, I had spent about $500 for the reviews and more publicity seemed like a good idea.  Yes, I would do an ad in Kirkus and I did.  And then I waited for the surge of sales (after, of course, doing what I had to do on my own: to get the word out about the excellence of my book:, emails, blogs, internet book lovers).  The surge consisted of about one hundred sales.  I had sold that many from my bedroom office, to friends and folks I had talked to in readings, etc.

    The most revealing moment came when I sent out sixty news releases to local papers, radio station, etc. with my good news and the details of my book.  I had one response.  The local newspapers were silent; they review only traditionally published books, it seems.

    I have two more books coming out.  I want people to know about them, that they  be reviewed positively or negatively, but truthfully.  I know that reviewer-writers need to be paid to review;  I also realize that with 100,000 books being published a  year, a review journal would weigh a ton if it tried to review all of them.  No one would buy such a burdensome publication. I don't know what the answer is except that every one of us write a Wild or Hunger Games or Shades of Whatever__or we can just keep loving what we are writing and not get too concerned about the fairness of it all.  Our rewards often come from friends who say "It really spoke to me. . ."  which is almost as good as making the NY Times book reviews.  Almost.    Jo

  • If reviews are handled like a business, then the reviewers will be impartial. I guess I wasn't thinking of the little guy who runs their own website and does reviews when I suggested all reviews be pay-for. I was thinking about the bigger venues—Kirkus, PW, Booklist, Library Journal. Then there are a ton of review sites specifically for self-published authors that charge, like Blue Ink, IndieReader, and many others. These venues already charge (PW Select, Kirkus Indie, BlueInk, IndieReader), and the are most certainly impartial reviews. The author goes into it knowing they may get a bad review. The point I'm making, which seems to be lost among the comments of this being a horrible idea, is that it's unfair that traditionally published authors don't pay and self-published authors do. Our situation at SWP is frustrating, too, because we're submitting traditionally, but mostly not getting reviews. It's only going to get more and more competitive out there, and yet reviews are still really important to a book's success.

  • Tiffany P Keeler

    (Of course, that was supposed to read "Fat enough wad of cash."

  • Tiffany P Keeler

    This is a terrible idea. Brooke, you yourself admit you don't know how much reviewers make and wish them to make more money... It's admirable to stand up for the little guy, sure. But if this system were in place and a reviewer is honest by giving out 80% poor reviews, do you REALLY think the boss wouldn't come over and tell her she's jeopardizing revenues? Sure, maybe a few bad ratings would be expected, but this system would undermine the entire infrastructure of an impartial system like this one.

    Think about drug studies. Those funded by the pharmaceutical companies are more likely to give positive reviews for the new compounds because, hey, who's going to foot the bill for research that decries a decade of work and investment? (Just check out some of the old Phillip Morris studies if you think researchers can't be bought.)

    Just because someone is SUPPOSED to be impartial doesn't mean she will stay that way if you wave a fast enough wad of cash under her nose.

  • Juliet Wilson

    the idea behind reviews traditionally being done for free is as far as I'm aware to ensure that the reviewer's opinion can't be bought. Any review outlet that charges an aothor a substantial amount of money to do the review must feel they need to write a positive review, after all who is going to pay all that money just to see their work publically described as poor?

  • K. Diann Shope

    I recently read a self-published book with a Kirkus review quote on the cover that was very positive.  The book had a decent plot but was, in my opinion, very poorly written (I'm sure She Writes Press wouldn't have published it without substantial revision).  So what do I make of the review - a selective quotation on the part of the author, low standards on the part of the reviewer, a practice of positive reviews for those who pay?  There should be a way for professional reviewers (whose reviews mean something) to get paid for what they do, but I'm not convinced that having all authors pay will result in quality reviews.  It's a real conflict of interest situation.

  • Thanks for weighing in, Carolena. Right now when authors pay for PW Select or Kirkus they absolutely can and do get bad reviews. Paying for reviews might actually increase editorial quality control. What's worse, though, a bad review you don't pay for from PW, Kirkus, Booklist, or a bad review you do pay for from PW Select, Kirkus Indie, or another self-pub service like Blue Ink? I guess a bad review stings no matter what.

  • Carolena Torres

    THUMBS DOWN. No, I dont think so.  A review must be truly neutral.  If you pay for a review, they might tend to make it better.   And what if you paid and got a bad review.  Ouch.  Carolena Torres

    Author of 

    "DUST ON THEIR HEARTS"

  • Lynn, I think reviewers like you who review for blogs need to make a decision about the economics of your reviews, definitely. I think the more prestigious the venue, the more they can command. But I also think $400+ is too much for reviews, and that's what we're seeing out there from a lot of review sites—but only to independent authors. I think you could charge $15 for a review, or at least have a Paypal button on your site that encourages people to donate if they read your reviews. The economics of being a writer makes little sense, but the economics of being a reviewer...yeah. It's all passion, but reading and composing thoughtful reviews is very time-consuming. As you well know.

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    Hmmm. So that means that when I review a book for Writer Advice, www.writeradvice.com, I should ask for payment?

    I've always written reviews in exchange for a free copy of the book. Interviews too. Maybe I need a different business model? Maybe I need to rethink the concept "a service to writers."

    I've learned a great deal from reading other people's books, and I'm pretty sure the reviews I publish meet minimum daily (make that quarterly) requirements. 

    Still, reviewers need to earn a living, so maybe... 

    Thanks for putting a significant crack in the reviewer mold.

    www.writeradvice.com

  • You're sweet, Laura. I'm up for a spirited debate on all this mostly because something needs to change. Right now subscribership is down at all these venues, understandably, and lots of other kinds of businesses are trying to get into the review business. I don't know how much PW and Kirkus pay readers for reviews, but I think it's abysmally low, so people do this for the love of it—a good thing. But I think reviewers should be paid better, and then really good reviewers would be able to keep working as reviewers.

  • Laura Brennan

    @Brooke: But magazines need to pay for content, whether they're buying stories or articles or reviews.  They make money from subscriptions and ad revenue, and they wouldn't make that money without some form of content.  I don't think reviewers should work for free, but I also don't think authors should be the ones paying for reviews.  Who is making a profit from the magazines? - and you can bet they're making someone money or they wouldn't still be in business.

    That's really the issue I have, not at all with the idea of a level playing field, but with the concept that authors should pay for what are supposed to be unbiased reviews, instead of the people who are actually making money off the reviews paying fairly for them. 

    If the magazines want professional reviewers - who are, after all, writers in the reviewing genre - they should pay those writers fairly.  I have the same problem with anyone who thinks writers should write for free, or nearly free.  If you're making money of the writer's contribution, you should have it in your budget to pay them.

    But it's really not meant to be pushback against your idea per se!  I just grumble at the business of reviews, and the ethics they may (or may not!) have.

  • @Laura. Thank you! The problem with no reviews being paid for is this: who's paying those readers? They should be compensated for reading the whole book. It's super time-consuming, and if the reviews were more reasonable across the board—$100-$150—and we as a reading population knew that it was these people's jobs to give fair and honest reviews, then I think it would actually improve reviews across the board. But yeah, I'm anticipating a lot of pushback on my bold proposition. :)

  • Laura Brennan

    I absolutely agree that everything should be the same in terms of reviewing both self-published and traditionally-published books.  But I'm not sold on the idea that everything should be paid-for.  My problem with a paid-for review is the question of how fair and honest a review can be when someone is paying for publishing it -- and how mad some author might get when skewered by the reviewer, which must happen.  Plus, you might then have even more segregation between traditionally-published authors with real publicity dollars behind them vs. the vast majority of mid-list writers, who may find their publishers unwilling to pay for a review.

    I don't think reviews should ever be pay-for-play.  The reviewing magazines have set themselves up as impartial gatekeepers and arbiters of taste - a stand with which one may or may not agree - and I don't see an ethical way for them to hold that position if they're being paid by anyone for their endorsement - or, worse, for their disdain.

    Bold proposition, however!