Ask any author's group when you should pay for reviews, and the answer will usually be a resounding “NEVER!”
But is that true?
That depends on what type of review is involved, and how those reviews are obtained.
What Kind of Review?
Although there are several different types of reviews, most retailers distinguish between two clear-cut categories: customer reviews, and editorial reviews. Customer reviews are informal reviews from customers, whereas editorial reviews are intended to be professional, unbiased, critical evaluations of a work by industry experts.
Amazon applies different standards to each, and separates the two kinds of reviews into their own sections to avoid confusion in the customer's mind. Of the two, Amazon uses a much lighter hand in policing editorial reviews; these can be added to the Editorial Reviews section of Author Central and are entirely under the control of the publisher.
Customer reviews, however, are subject to intense scrutiny by Amazon. Fraudulent, incentivized, or otherwise biased reviews have been a thorn in the retailer's side from the start. As a result, Amazon has employed some heavy-handed tactics to curb abuses of the system, with frequent collateral damage to innocent authors and reviewers. A customer review originating from a paid service may attract the attention of Amazon's algorithmic and human screeners, which may lead to further scrutiny and deletions.
Additionally, there's the ethical concern of paying money to secure a supposedly unbiased customer review. With the exception of an advance reader copy of the book, any compensation offered to reviewers is a serious violation of Amazon's terms of service, whether that takes the form of direct payment, gift cards, credits, coupons, or other incentives.
So which types of review services are acceptable? We can divide review services into four major categories. Some are good, and some are a sure way to damage your career; all of them require caution.
Editorial Review Services
Reputable editorial review services rely on their reputation and experience to lend authority to their words. These are well-established organizations whose names are widely recognized, at least within the industry. A number of relatively newer services have also sprung up to cater to indie authors, and while these companies may not have the same cachet as giants like the 85-year-old Kirkus Reviews, they are slowly making a name for themselves in the industry.
A review that's dependent on the publisher's or author's money risks bias — or the perception of bias. Good editorial review services ensure the separation of the reviewer and the purchaser to eliminate that risk, and the best services are those with a reputation for honest, objective reviews.
Paid editorial reviews from a reputable provider are ethical and are permitted by Amazon when confined to the Editorial Reviews section of a book's detail page. However, the value of these services to the indie author is endlessly debated. We won't tread that same ground again in this article, but if you do choose to invest in an editorial review, you can find trusted, reputable service providers in our list of Best and Worst Self-Publishing Services.
Surprisingly, not all companies that offer customer reviews for a fee are an ethical lapse or a violation of retailers' rules. Matchmaker services fall into this slender zone of ethical paid review services.
Matchmaker services publicize a book to a list of interested reviewers, and so they're a closer cousin to marketing services than to reviewers.
As long as no compensation is offered to reviewers, and there are no expectations of a positive review or other restrictions placed on the reviewer, and reviewers are not reimbursed for purchases of the book, this practice does not violate Amazon's rules.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to distinguish the honest services from the ethically compromised ones — especially if you happen to be an algorithm. Even when legitimate, reviews originating from these services may attract unwanted attention from Amazon's screeners, and that could potentially lead to sweeping deletions of other reviews.
Ethically, matchmaker services may pass muster, but in practice, they are fraught with danger.
Proxy schemes attempt to circumvent rules against incentivized reviews by placing a middleman between the buyer and the reviewer. For example, the review service may pay reviewers for positive reviews, either with a gift card or direct payment. They may claim that this doesn't violate Amazon's rules because no money is changing hands between the author and the reviewer.
But that's sophistry. Compensating a reviewer is fundamentally dishonest, as the review is potentially compromised by the expectations of quid pro quo. Using a proxy is just as unethical as personally bribing the reviewer for a five star review. The fact that you've paid an illicit service to do the dirty work on your behalf does not change the equation.
Also note that services which reimburse reviewers for the cost of the book are in direct violation of Amazon's Customer Review Guidelines. The guidelines explicitly prohibit this practice, as it's considered to be a fraudulent manipulation of the Verified Purchase badge. This may lead to deletion of your reviews, or even lead to termination of your Amazon account for fraud.
Avoid these services at all cost.
Fraudulent Review Services
At the far end of the review spectrum lie the “black hat” services, those which fabricate fake reviews for a fee. A hallmark of this kind of service is a guarantee of a large number of five star reviews within a short time.
An honest review is dependent on the reviewer's personal taste, and is inherently uncertain. Any service which guarantees a specific number of positive reviews is highly suspect.
It's Legal, Amazon Told Me So!
As a final note, be wary of assurances that a company complies with all Amazon guidelines. Amazon's customer support is notorious for giving contradictory answers, and all an unscrupulous service needs to do to acquire this facade of approval is to submit a question multiple times, or word it in a way that's unclear and open to interpretation. Eventually, they'll get a customer service representative who misunderstands the question and responds that it's okay.
One prominent service displays a response from Amazon stating that “you may go ahead with the advertising of the product”, but doesn't disclose any correspondence leading up to this response. The client has no way of knowing what Amazon was told, or if that discussion accurately reflects the nature of the service.
That's no assurance at all.
Rather than secondhand responses, ask the service provider for the exact method they're using to acquire reviewers, and how those reviewers are compensated. Verify this information firsthand whenever possible. Look for other pages on the seller's website which invite people to become reviewers. Do they promise compensation, or reimbursement of costs? If so, the use of that service could land you in hot water.
The Bottom Line
Purchasing customer review services of any type is a risky proposition, one which ALLi's Watchdog Desk strongly discourages on both practical and ethical grounds. Editorial reviews are usually acceptable, but the guiding principle there should always be “buyer beware”.
Remember that it's your responsibility to ensure that you're using ethical services to promote your book. Do your homework, and steer clear of those services that sound too good to be true.
They almost certainly are.
Over to you
Have you ever purchased a review, editorial or otherwise? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Image credits: Adapted from art by Rzarek, via Shutterstock