The value of paid reviews: It might not be what you’d expect

This is a guest post by Susan Helene Gottfried

Recently on Facebook, a discussion came up about the value of paying for a review from a company like Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus, the two biggest names in publishing I know of that offer review services to us Indie writers (we won’t go into specifics, as PW’s Select program works a bit differently from Kirkus, and none of us really want to be here until next week.) Emlyn picked up on the fact that I know a bit more than I pretend to, and she asked me to weigh in with the two cents of a woman who’s been around publishing for a long time now.

We won’t get into whether or not it’s a good idea to pay for a review, because I believe that’s a personal choice each author has to make for him- or herself.

Rather, I want to talk about the value of such an investment—do you know what to expect? Many people in that Facebook post commented that the money hadn’t been well-spent, as the review wasn’t terribly in-depth. Some felt that it was a rip-off and the author would have gotten a better review from a book blogger.

I won’t argue that book bloggers write longer, more detailed reviews. They have the space to. They also exist for a different reason than the Big Four Reviewers (Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly) do. Book bloggers seek to share books with their readers, by and large. The Big Four seek to help bookstore owners, librarians, and anyone else who makes a living getting books into the hands of readers. The aim of The Big Four is, in a couple hundred words, to give the book buyer enough of an overview so informed buying decisions can be made.

Why limit their reviews to a couple hundred words? Why not expand now that we’re in the Internet age?

Well, two reasons. First is that before we entered the Internet age—and remember, some of The Big Four have been publishing for over 100 years now—space was limited. It cost money to print these magazines. Shorter reviews meant more could make each issue.

Second is time. Book buyers have to choose between hundreds (or more) titles, in a short period of time. They don’t have days to spend reading reviews. As someone who used to subscribe to PW, I can tell you that no matter how short the review, it still took me multiple days every week to read through all the fiction reviews, skipping the pages of non-fiction and children’s along the way.

That’s a lot of reading. And in today’s e-publishing world, there are more books being published, more decisions for book buyers of all sorts to make. Remaining with these short, concise, pointed reviews makes sense when viewed from the eyes of the publications’ audience.

Know what else I like about the short reviews from the Big Four? They are an art form unto themselves. I say that as someone who writes them herself.

Think for a second: even flash fiction is generally acknowledged to be as long as 1000 words. Words are precious. That’s why the criticism bites so deeply and the praise seems so faint.

Now, back to us: the indie writers. What benefit is there to us in these super-short reviews? Unless we have print copies enrolled in CreateSpace’s expanded distribution, libraries can’t buy our books. They often won’t, even once we are enrolled. And since POD books aren’t returnable, bookstores don’t want us, unless it’s on consignment.

That seems to limit the value we can get from a paid review. Right?

Not entirely.

Remember, they’ve had time to establish their reputations—and it’s this reputation that you’re really after. You’re not going after in-depth analysis. Nope. You are forking over a boatload of cash and hoping for a sentence or phrase that’ll be so stellar, you can redo your cover art to include that quote. You are hoping to make your book look like that best-seller you yearn to be, with quotes from the big-name reviewers. For some readers, that quote means a lot. For others, not so much.

As I said in the opening, it’s up to you to decide if you’re willing to roll the dice and pay for what’s being offered. Just make sure you walk in with your eyes open. Read a few reviews posted on each site. Talk to others who’ve had a review. Did it help their sales? Did they recoup the cash? Was it worthwhile?

The more you know going in, the better your experience in the long run. And we’re all in this for the long run, right?

About this post’s author: Susan Helene Gottfried is the author of ShapeShifter: The Demo Tapes — Year 1, ShapeShifter: The Demo Tapes — Year 2, Trevor’s Song, and ShapeShifter: The Demo Tapes — Year 3 and as of April 12, 2012, King Trevor. She can be found online at http://westofmars.com, where you can find The Meet and Greet, among other goodies. A tone-deaf rocker-at-heart, Susan worked in retail record stores, in radio stations, as stage crew, and as a promoter while earning two college degrees in creative writing. She walked away from a continued career in the music industry in order to write books, so it makes sense that most of her fiction revolves around rock bands. Once you get those record stores, radio stations, and fellow roadies and promoters under your skin, they never leave. To fill her spare time, Susan works as a freelance book editor and moonlights as a paid reviewer … possibly for one of the Big Four, but she’s not saying so fast. You can contact her on her website, Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, or via email.


10 Comments

  1. Great article – thank you! It definately sheds a different light on what authors should be considering when thinking about a paid review.
    Terri Bruce recently posted..Interview with Jessica KhouryMy Profile

  2. Great article. I opted to try the Kirkus review for my first novel, just released. I got lucky; it was good enough to include on the back cover. But…I have no idea if it will help sales. Time will tell about that.

    Thanks for the insight,

    Giacomo

  3. Great piece! I am considering paying for a Kirkus review (and maybe a PW) for my upcoming novel, and this was both eye-opening and informative. Thanks for the insight!

  4. Great article. I’m a reader that followers 200+ book blogs. I have to say that if I see a long review more times than not I’ll skip over it. I’ll spend 3-4 hours a day going through my Google reader. And that I’m skimming through it. Usually it’s around 300-600 posts a day. I’m not spending all my time reading huge reviews. That would double my time everyday and take away reading from my books. A few book bloggers I follow feel the same way and did some posts about huge reviews in the last couple of weeks. That’s my two cents anyways.

  5. I agree, DeAnna. If a review doesn’t catch my interest right away I tend to skim it, or pass it by. From what I’ve seen of some of Kirkus’ if they like it they grab your attention with the first line or two.

    Giacomo
    Giacomo Giammatteo recently posted..What I Learn From My DogsMy Profile

  6. This is a great article! It really helps with decisions I need to make for my books.

  7. GOOD ADVICE! I think those questions (at the end) are something every indie author should ask him or herself. Thanks for weighing in on the issue!

    Lauren

  8. Great post – interesting to see the issue discussed. X
    Shah Wharton recently posted..Calling ALL Y.A/Children’s Book Readers….My Profile

  9. Thanks Susan for a giving us another perspective on paying for reviews. As you mentioned, you’re paying for the reputation clout. Whether that’s worth it to you at the end of day… is on a case by case basis. But thanks for opening our eyes.

    Jonathan

  10. Just a note to let folks know that the Fearless Reviews, founded in 1998 and run for 8 years as a public service and then for a few more on a sponsorship basis, are now back online as a fee service. However, we’re a lot cheaper than Kirkus and Foreword, and we have a special focus on promoting and enhancing the work of the indie press. By “enhancing,” I mean that even our most critical reviews will be written with an attitude of helping less experienced writers and newbie publishers improve their work. Our reviewers are not anonymous, and all of them are published writers and/or professional editors.