Amy Edelman of Indie Reader (IR) recently posted a story, “Why Do Indie Authors Pay for Consumer Reviews?” on the IR blog. It attracted so much heat in the first twenty minutes that she took it down (as her lead, she made the unfortunate mistake of citing an unverified story). But her larger point, she insists, remains valid: it's understandable that indie authors, in certain cases, might pay for reviews. The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) invited Amy to our first Head-To-Head (a new occasional series) to debate the issues with Orna Ross, who “cannot imagine any circumstances” under which she'd pay for a review.
AMY: I am, if nothing else, a realist and at this point in time — while I don’t condone it — I totally get why indie authors are likely to reach for their wallets in order to generate reader reviews and/or to call in favors to their peers. Indie authors are already at a disadvantage when it comes to promoting their titles, even — or perhaps especially — when their books are actually good.
Remember, indie authors are running the same race as their trade-pubbed brethren, except with one leg in a cast and their hands tied behind their backs. Despite the total absence of reviews by mainstream media, their ebooks are still bought by the hundreds of thousands and then fought over by traditional publishers.
ORNA: I've got my own personal feelings about this but we’ve also had to give this a lot of thought at ALLi. There are ethical issues at stake and it is an important question, not just for indies, but for the wider literary culture. There are three different kinds of reviews that are often confused in the heat of the debate: 1) Customer, aka consumer, reviews on online bookstores like Amazon; 2) peer-reviews, by other authors and; 3) the paid-for reviews from organizations like your own and BlueInk Review, where indies can pay to have their book independently reviewed.
I guess the key point to make, first off, is that buying fake customer reviews is disallowed by our Code of Standards on ethical grounds.
AMY: I get that, obviously. But remember the hoo-ha around David Streitfeld’s case study about customer reviews in The New York Times awhile back? The fact that there are very few products or service industries — from tooth brushes to travel sites — that don’t solicit pay-for-good- reviews was mentioned in the piece. And Streitfeld had covered that subject in greater length in a previous post, describing how the enormous demand for reviews — on everything from hotels and restaurants to car dealerships and handymen — has led to a kind of review-factory involving little evaluation of services and products. He said, and he’s right, that the boundless demand for positive reviews has made the review system a sort of arms race. As more five-star reviews are handed out, even more five-star reviews are needed. Few want to risk being left behind.
But the news that you can buy positive feedback on TripAdvisor didn’t draw nearly the same outrage reserved for indie authors. Why is that?
ORNA: Maybe we expect more from writers than business owners?
AMY: Perhaps. But I think it’s easier for people to condemn an individual than it is a business. But—as I stated above—I think indie authors have few other choices. Because even though indie books have repeatedly cracked the most respectable bestseller lists—and I’m talking The New York Times and USA Today—they are still considered “lesser than”. Despite all the success of the Amanda Hockings, Hugh Howeys and Sergio de la Pavas—there have been at least sixteen indies who have been picked up by Big 5 publishers already just this year—the trad media still believe the propaganda about self-published books being crap (basically, I think they’re snobs).
On the other hand, you have trad published books being reviewed by trad media because the publishers—via ad dollars—support them. What we need to remember is that trade publishers can get their authors' books read and written about by mainstream reviewers, indies can not. Trade published authors can get their books touted in the trade and consumer magazines, which in turn leads to (potential) sales, which in turn leads to (potentially) more customer reviews. Indie authors can not.
ORNA: Indies do have other tools to get customer reviews. Many of my own early reviews have come from free promotions through the KDP Select program—and many of our members use Select for the first three months of a title’s life in that way. Also, I ask at the end of my books for readers to leave feedback on the website where they bought the book or on Goodreads. And I have a similar call on my website.
AMY: That’s true. But what of the third type of review you cite above? The reviews that take the place of those earned by trad pubbed authors from the trades? Indie authors are criticized for buying them, even if it’s from a respected outlet like Kirkus or BlueInk.
ORNA: Or Indie Reader.
AMY: Yes. If the review is positive, it is treated as suspect because it’s paid for, or it won’t make a big enough splash over at Amazon or GoodReads, where it counts.
ORNA: This is a choice each writer must make for themselves. I do appreciate that reviewers, and the people like yourself, who do great work foregrounding indie authors, need to eat. Somebody has to pay, somebody always does. And I understand that payment to IndieReader or BlueInk doesn't make the review any less impartial than it would otherwise be. But for me, personally, I just wouldn't feel the same about a paid review as I would about a spontaneous review from a reader, or a review in a publication that takes its payments from advertisers. Illogical maybe, but there it is. I can't imagine any circumstances under which I'd pay for a review.
AMY: What about reviewing other authors or being reviewed by them? The response to that too seems to depend which side of the book shelf you’re on. To many, a review is considered fake if it’s swapped or traded between authors. Tell that to The New York Times!
ORNA: Definitely. The back-slapping on the review pages of all the mainstream books press is scandalous too — but that doesn't make it right for us to do it. Two wrongs… and all that. My own policy is that I never review a book by somebody I know personally, and personally in this context also means through online social media. This was my response to the sock puppet controversy you talked about earlier. When it comes to ALLI members, we have a number of schemes in place to foreground their books in different ways, but I no longer review books by ALLi members.
AMY: I was interested in Zoë Heller’s recent article in The New York Times, “Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists?” She wrote: “…the real reason for encouraging novelists to overcome their critical inhibitions is that their contributions help maintain the rigor and vitality of the public conversation about books.” And further, “Whenever a novelist wades into the critical fray, he is not only helping to explain and maintain literary standards, but also, in some important sense, defending the value of his vocation.”
ORNA: I do agree with that. I want to be part of that conversation. I like to review. The way around it is to review books by authors you don’t know. It’s very difficult, I’d say impossible, to give a reader-centered review—which is what all reviews should be—if you know the writer. I used to review books for a newspaper years ago and it was policy never to commission a review from anyone who know the writer personally. But journalistic standards—especially in literary journalism—have fallen badly in recent years. Now “reviews” are often no more than a regurgitation of the publisher’s press release.
AMY: The sad fact of the matter is that, like the blood spot in Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost: no matter how hard an author-publisher scrubs, the indie taint remains. And until indie authors are able to become a recognizable and desirable niche to book-loving consumers — akin to indie films and music — they’ll remain at the mercy of traditional publishers (who buy them up once they've succeeded) and the establishment media (who ignore them). So why do indies pay for reviews? In the end, it’s because they can. And because up till now, it's worked.
So there you have it. What do you think?