Confessions of a (Paid) Book Reviewer

Thursday, November 15, 2012
I read for pleasure, and sometimes, I read for profit. As a book reviewer for various publications, I can peruse a list of available titles and select the books that interest me. My pay = the books I select. It's a great gig for a bibliophile.

And with a few publications, I have the opportunity to earn money by reviewing a sponsored book.

What is a sponsored book? In most cases, an author (or perhaps a small publishing company) pays the review publication a set sum - or purchases a package (various options available) - to have a qualified reviewer critique the book. Before the review ever reaches publication, the author (or person who purchased the review) has a chance to read the critique and decide whether or not the review ends up in print.

Herein lies the dilemma: does the reviewer have the responsibility of offering a balanced, truthful review? Or should the reviewer sugarcoat the analysis, giving the author what he or she "wants" to hear? After all, the author has paid for the review.

I found myself in this predicament a few years ago when an editor sent out a list of available sponsored reviews. A particular title intrigued me, so I offered to give my opinion.

Big mistake. Huge.

First, the book was self-published. Now, I'm not bashing self-published works. A lot of quality reading material available is self-published and quite a few self-published works have a home on my bookshelves.

But this was different. First, the book was of poor quality: light-bond paper meant ink soaked through, making it difficult to read, 10-point Lucida Handwriting made it difficult to focus on the text, and hundreds of grammatical errors per page screamed "amateur" or at the very least, "No proofreader available."

What did I do?

I wrote an honest assessment of the book. I pointed out the negatives, but I also gave praise where it was due. The final section of the book would have made an interesting stand-alone piece. I told the truth, for a simple, common-sense reason: If I am shelling out $45+ for a book, I expect the quality of the final product to meet a high standard.

A few weeks later, my editor sent the voice message this book's author left on the review site's telephone. The author thought I was too critical. The author thought I should rewrite the piece. The author thought another reviewer should read and review it. The author thought since his/her first book received a great recommendation from the review publication, it needed to carry over to this review.

I said 'no.'

As a book lover, I value books and the stories told. As a book lover, I could not justify telling readers the piece was perfect when it clearly lacked in detail.As a book lover, I could not warrant a positive, glowing review when multiple issues existed.

It took some convincing, but my editor finally understood my point of view and the importance of not being swayed by an author who believed a sponsored review guaranteed a red-hot review.

Yes, authors rely book reviews because they DO help sell books. But authors also need to take a realistic look at the story and the construction of the book before it reaches the hands of a reviewer.

Have you used a "sponsored" book review service? What has been your experience?

by LuAnn Schindler


Sioux Roslawski said...

LuAnn--What an interesting post. I'm glad you stuck to your guns and didn't let your convictions be swayed.

If the author wanted a glowing review, perhaps they should have written it themselves?

Anonymous said...

Also a good warning about self-publishing and the responsibility of producing quality, readable work.

Not hearing glowing praises of our work is a blow to the ego. I think the same thing every time I don't win or place in a story contest. But, if we can find that place of humility, it's a fertile opportunity to learn, grow and improve. I hope the author gets to that place eventually.

Tamara Marnell said...

LOL Sioux--I'm sure a lot of them do that!

Any author who pays for his/her reviews instantly loses my respect. I know how tough this game is--I self-publish my own novels and most bloggers, newspapers, etc. stick their noses in the air and say they only review "real" books--but that's no excuse for fraud. And it is fraud. It's tricking people into believing they're reading unbiased reviews when they're really reading glossy ads.

That editor shouldn't have accepted "sponsored" reviews in the first place. And that author should have used the money she wasted on shady reviews for an editing service instead.

Unknown said...

Where do you get recruited for this kind of business? I've definitely considered it as a possible side venture.

Angela Mackintosh said...

@Tamara, so are you saying that people who write book reviews should never be paid for it? I pay our ladies to write book reviews and I don't consider it fraud. Our bloggers deserve to get paid for anything they take the time to write--whether it's a book review or blog post. I also know they'll be completely honest with their review.

We also sell author promotion packages and blog tours, but we don't take any book like a lot of places do. We read through the book first to make sure it's a good book, edited properly, and a fit for our audience. If not, we pass.

As an author, you're most likely going to have to pay for marketing and promotion services, and those services may include blog tours or promotions where bloggers review your book. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think it's up to the editor and writers to make sure they are writing unbiased reviews. We avoid having to write bad reviews by pre-screening the books we choose to promote.

@Annie, that book sounds crazy with the paper and fonts!

@Brit, I know Kirkus pays reviewers for their Indie services. I'm not sure how much the reviewer is paid, but the authors pays over four hundred to have her book reviewed...which seems excessive to me. Anyway, I think one of our staff members reviews for them.

LuAnn Schindler said...

@Sioux and @Julie, I learned a lot about self-publishing from this venture.

@Tamara - I'm not sure how this is considered fraud. An author purchased a review package from the review publication. The editor queried which reviewer would be interested in reading it. I wrote an honest reaction to the book. That's considered fraud? I received a whopping $20 for the review, plus the copy of the book.

You also say most bloggers, newspapers, etc., stick their noses in the air and review only real books. I know that the newspaper I work for receives at least 200 calls, press kits, etc., from authors who want us to review their work. Some does get reviewed; most doesn't. Why? Because the book doesn't match our readership demographic. And sometimes, it's a matter of space and finding a reporter on staff who has time to read and review.

@Angela - Like I said, the last third of the book was interesting - and honestly - the best part of the story. The fonts, lack of editing and color just frustrated me because I know how much it takes to self-publish a novel.

A strange, but wonderful, learning experience!

Maude Lynn said...

I review books, too, and I am so glad that you didn't change your review!

Margo Dill said...

I have a book review column in a newspaper in Illinois. Their policy is not to review or feature authors of self-published books. They also don't do any books that are e-books only--traditional or self-published. My editor explained this is the case because they had to set some limits on book reviews because I can only do one a week, and that means only 52 a year. These limits help me not have to choose one person over another, basically. It also saves me from getting e-mails about how I am unfair in whom I choose to review. Instead my editor gets those--and he just states the policy.

I think what is important is to never, ever, ever jump to conclusions about why some publication or paper does things the way they do. Most people are not trying to be mean or selective or unfair. They are just trying to do their job the best way they know how.

Reviewing books is not easy--especially when you are an author yourself. And everyone is going to have a different opinion-I think it is also important if you review different genres like I do that you have to be fair to the genre. Although romance is not my number one pick for reading, when I review one, I have to review it as a ROMANCE, not compared to my favorite mystery author, etc.

Anonymous said...

If your "dilemma" is whether or not to sugarcoat a review (for any reason, but especially because you were paid), then you're not an honest reviewer. Period.

Honest reviewers don't even have that thought cross their mind and are willing to take the heat for critical reviews. (I'm an Hall of Fame Reviewer).

LuAnn Schindler said...


I didn't sugarcoat my review of the book. I gave an honest assessment - it was bad on multiple levels, especially considering the $45 pricetag. And I took the heat for my review and stood up for my opinion.

But, as I read more and more "sponsored" reviews on various websites, including reviews on Amazon, you can spot the "sugarcoated" opinions that paint a work in glowing terms but don't point out any flaw or concern.

Another example - I also review for a large blogging site and its book club. In one review I wrote, several people attacked my review because it was less than glowing. I didn't connect with the characters, the storyline had plot holes large enough to drive our John Deere combine through, and the timing/pacing was jerky. I'm not going to praise a book that doesn't deserve it. I'm going to be open about my reading experience and how that particular book affected me.

As a reviewer, I don't want to hurt or discourage an author, but when the product isn't worth the price, I owe readers the truth.

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