Monday, August 27, 2012

On Paid Reviews

I saw a couple articles recently that turned my stomach, both as an author and a reader. The short story here is that there exists a service whereby an author can pay money to have a certain number of positive reviews appended to their books on popular sales venues. The industry is in such a state of flux, that I'm not sure there are any spoken rules against this, but I think it could certainly be considered "shady."

Here are a pair of articles describing the issue. One from Lee Goldberg and the other from the New York Times (as found through The Passive Voice). Both descriptions initially turned my stomach.

I should start by going on "record" as saying: I have not and will not pay for this sort of service. Very simply, it doesn't appeal to me. I would love to be successful, but not at the cost of my principles. There's something to be said about doing things right. It's something my father always used to say. If I'm going to succeed, I'm going to earn it, not sneak my way into it.

Before I get too far up on my soap box, though... let me play devil's advocate for a moment. In a digital world, it's easy to see the draw of such a service. Sales can hinge on the all-important "star rating." A solid stable of good reviews can certainly sell a book.

And haven't big-time publishers essentially been doing this? I'm sure there are a lot of truly independent professional reviewers out there, but aren't a lot on some sort of payroll... a payroll that might be added to by big publishers marketing departments? I honestly am asking this question. How do books get chosen for review in some of these publications? Is it truly unaffected by, say, how many advertising dollars the parent company spends with the publication? All over? Just some places? Does money ever exchange hands?

I know publishers buy shelf space in bookstores. Isn't that sort of similar? Not as shady, to be sure, but still using money to "one-up" every other book that doesn't get front shelf treatment. Does anyone feel swindled by this common practice? I certainly don't.

How many blurbs on the back of books are paid for? Any? All?

What about trading free copies for a review? I'd be guilty of this one, though I've always tried to make the review optional. I know most reviewers feel obligated, but I've only wanted them to review it if they felt so inclined. If they don't, well then they got a free read. There are worse things in life. I mean, we are asking for time, and time is valuable. Shouldn't reviewers be compensated in some way?

There are a whole bunch of questions I could throw out there that would muddy the waters. At the end of the day, I think there needs to be a line drawn in the sand. Sand, because it could shift as the industry and society shifts. So much is going on, that any line has to maintain a certain flexibility.

For me, the line is clearly somewhat before multiple false reviews on a retail site. There are just too many problems with this practice. It's a blatant attempt to game the system with false advertising. If they were honest reviews... maybe. If they were only one review per reader... maybe. If the compensation were clearly noted... maybe. But none of this is the truth. We have one guy, writing a whole bunch of different reviews so as to appear to be multiple readers, and clouding the fact that he has been paid by the author to do so. Does he even read the books?

It makes me sick to my stomach. I think of readers as friends. I am, after all, sharing pieces of myself through everything I write. And I have a hard time pulling a prank on friends on April Fool's Day. Honestly. I can only be a trickster if both parties get something from the trick. A shared laugh is enough, but it has to be shared.

Maybe the ends justify the means here. If every reader that bought a book with one of these fake reviews completely enjoyed the book... then is it really a bad thing? I can't help but think, at the end of the day, it still paints the author in a bad light.

Recently, as an Indianapolis resident and sports fan, we went through a bit of local upheaval. The Indianapolis Colts traded Peyton Manning away and acquired rookie Andrew Luck. The intent was as clear as it was simple. Peyton was nearing the end of his career, age-wise, and the Colts needed to begin rebuilding around a new Quarterback. It seemed to make sense for both parties, but I think many fans would say it left them with a bad taste in their mouth. I would be included in this group.

Now, I know football. I coach it. I've actually been fortunate enough to coach alongside former Colts coaches. I've been able to ask questions of "insiders" and understand a little about the business behind the game. I understand why they did it. At its very core, the decision was a business decision, in the best interests of both parties.

And that's exactly why it left a bad taste in my mouth. The sports fan in me wanted to believe, deep down, that it is only the competition that matters. That football is not an avenue for dollars to exchange hands. That the sport means something. That it's bigger than everyday life. That there is more.

I wanted the Colts to keep Peyton Manning because he was our Quarterback. He was the guy that led the team for more than a decade, and brought a whole bunch of success to our city. It would be appropriate for him to finish out his career here, in Indy. I wanted to believe that meant something.

I was naive. Business is business. The trade was like a big slap in the face. Stark reminders of the callousness of the world are often as unpleasant as they are shocking.

I feel the same way about this Paid Review business. It's not "illegal." Some could probable make a case that it's not even "unethical." But it hits me like a slap in the face. It's a callous way to do business that disrupts the fantasy of literature. I want to believe books mean more.

I probably won't go to a Colts game this year. Similarly, I won't buy a book that I know made use of paid reviews. That's all I can do.

That, and wait for the sting to fade.


Sonia G Medeiros said...

Paid positive reviews doesn't seem to have an upside for readers. If we look at the ratings and reviews when we think about buying a book, we want honest reviews. To be completely fair, I don't only look at the reviews. I looks at the book itself and consider any friend reviews above stranger reviews. But, paid reviews that focus on getting a book higher ratings can only hurt everyone in the long run. Once readers figure out that these reviews are there (and we can generally spot the over enthusiastic friend-of-the-author reviews too), it blows the credibility of the review process.

Matt said...

Definitely. And the key thing you said being "no upside for the readers." If it somehow helped readers, it's a bitter pill I could probably swallow. I tend to have a reader-centric approach to writing. I totally believe in the art and craft and all that good stuff, but entertaining a reader is the very core of what I want to do. The rest is icing.

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