Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It?

paying for book reviews

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Paying for professional book reviews remains a controversial topic that very few authors have practical, unbiased information about. In fact, it’s not even well-known in the author community that paid book reviews exist, and even less is known about the value of such reviews.

Before I discuss the pros and cons of paid reviews, I want to define them (strictly for the purposes of this post).

  • Trade book reviews. Trade publications are those read by booksellers, librarians, and others who work inside the industry (as opposed to readers/consumers). Such publications primarily provide pre-publication reviews of traditionally published books, whether from small or large presses. Typically, these publications have been operating for a long time and have a history of serving publishing professionals. However, with the rise of self-publishing, some trade review outlets have begun paid review programs especially for self-published authors. Examples: Kirkus Reviews and Foreword Reviews.
  • Non-trade book reviews. Because of the increased demand for professional reviews of self-published work, you can now find online publications that specialize in providing such services. These publications or websites may have some reach and visibility to the trade, or they may be reader-facing, or a mix of both. Examples: Indie Reader, Blue Ink Review, Self-Publishing Review.
  • Reader (non-professional) reviews. It’s considered unethical to pay for reader reviews posted at Amazon or other sites, and Amazon is actively trying to curb the practice.

This post is focused on the first two types of paid reviews; I recommend you stay away from the third.

Some of you reading this post may be looking for a quick and easy answer to the question of whether you should invest in a paid book review. Here’s what I think in a nutshell, although a lot of people will be unhappy with me saying so:

The majority of authors will not sufficiently benefit from paid book reviews, and should invest their time and money elsewhere.

However, this can be a more nuanced issue than this broad statement indicates. Here are three questions I ask authors when advising about the value of paid reviews:

  • Do you have a well-thought-out marketing plan that targets librarians, booksellers, or schools?
  • What is your overall marketing budget, and does it include hiring a publicist or outside help?
  • What’s your book category? Are you trying to market a children’s book?

Let discuss each issue in more detail.

1. Are you targeting the trade?

It makes little sense to pay for a trade book review if all you’re going to do is make your book available for sale on Amazon or other online retailers and consider your marketing job done. This is a huge waste of your money, yet this is what many authors do, because what they’re mainly after is validation, not a marketing tool.

Ask yourself: Do you want this review because you feel it’s part of having “real” book published—that having it gives you some additional credibility? If that’s your only motivation, you are paying to feel better about yourself and your work, not to sell books.

A better way to sell more books on Amazon, or through online retail, is to generate as many reader reviews as possible. Some might argue that having a professional review as part of the book’s description on Amazon (and elsewhere) adds a sheen of professionalism and leads to more readers taking a chance on the book. But I believe readers are generally not persuaded by one professional review when there are few reader reviews and/or a low star rating. Like it or not, purchasing behavior online is driven by quantity of reviews that help indicate a book is worth the price, assuming no prior exposure to the author.

However, if you have an outreach plan that involves approaching libraries to consider your book, or if you’re trying to reach independent booksellers, then having a positive review from a source they know can help you overcome an initial hurdle or two. It will not guarantee they will carry or buy your book, but it may help make a favorable impression. (That said, they may know your review was paid for if your book is self-published. This probably won’t matter to them as long as they trust the review source.)

Another thing to understand is that even if you pay for your trade review, that doesn’t mean it will have as much prominence or visibility as other (unpaid) reviews from that publication. Paid reviews are typically segregated and run separately from unpaid reviews, so a bookseller or librarian may have to actively seek out reviews of self-published books. How much attention these reviews receive from the trade, in aggregate, is anyone’s guess. One thing is for sure: there’s a ton of competition even just among traditionally published books.

All of this assumes that the paid review you receive is positive or will make a good impression. The review may, in fact, be negative, and you won’t be able to use it. (In such cases, the trade review outlet allows you to suppress publication of the review altogether.)

If you are targeting the trade, and you’re operating on a professional level, then consider approaching trade publications just as any traditional publisher would: four to six months in advance of your book’s publication date. (Since the focus of these trade publications is on pre-publication reviews, they won’t review your book if you don’t send the copy several months in advance of your pub date.) Send an advance review copy along with a press release or information sheet about the book, and cross your fingers that your book is selected for review (for free). If not, later on you can consider paying for a review if necessary.

If you’re not targeting the trade, sometimes a paid review can still be helpful. That brings us to the second question.

2. What does your overall marketing plan look like?

If paying for a review consumes all of your marketing and publicity budget, stop. This isn’t what you should spend your money on. You’d see far more sales from spending that money on a BookBub promotion or on other types of discounts or giveaways to increase your book’s visibility.

On the other hand, if the paid review is just one piece of a larger marketing plan to gain visibility, then you’re in a better place to capitalize on a positive paid review. If you can see it as a steppingstone—as a way to get people on board quicker—that’s the right mindset. A positive review from a known or trusted source can help lead to other reviews—or interview opportunities, or other media coverage. Or you could use the review in advertisements to the trade.

With paid reviews, remember: steppingstone. It’s not paid review = book sales. A good marketer or publicist can help open doors for you, and they could have an easier time if they’re armed with some good blurbs or coverage (including that paid book review) to start.

If all you intend to do with your paid review is add it to your book cover, your website, your Amazon book description, or other online marketing copy, then it is not likely to have any noticeable effect on your sales. (And frankly, in such cases, there is no way to measure if it really did make a difference.)

3. What’s your book category?

The children’s market is one area where I think paid reviews can make the most sense, because you’re not typically marketing directly to readers (children) but to educators, librarians, and schools. The children’s market highly values trade publications such as School Library Journal or Publishers Weekly; these publications help them understand what’s releasing soon and make good choices about what to buy, often on a limited budget.

Here’s the rub: you can’t buy a review in either of those publications I just mentioned. You would have to submit to them through the traditional channels at least a couple months (or more) in advance of your publication date.

I spent more than a dozen years in traditional publishing and oversaw the publication of hundreds of books. During that time, only a handful of our titles received professional trade reviews. By and large, our company did not submit books for review, and pre-publication reviews did not perceptibly affect our sales when they did appear. That’s because our books were mainly in instructional or enthusiast nonfiction categories, where sales aren’t typically driven by professional or trade reviews.

If you don’t have industry experience, it may be difficult to figure out if a paid review might make a difference for your particular book category. Here’s what I recommend: Using Amazon, find books that would be considered direct competitors to yours. Take a look at their Amazon category or genre (e.g., paranormal romance, cozy mystery, etc.), then look at the bestsellers in that category over a period of a week or two. (If you can, make sure you research a good mix of both traditionally published and self-published titles.) Read the books’ Amazon page descriptions and see what review sources are quoted. Many times, you’ll find (free) blogger reviews and a variety of (free) niche publication reviews, rather than reviews from the companies I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Taking the time to pursue free reviews or reader reviews is the preferred method of established, career indie authors; they’re rarely concerned about courting the traditional gatekeepers, unless their work is of a literary bent.

Paid Book Review Benefits That Don’t Really Mean Anything

Most paid review outlets promise that your review will be distributed to Ingram, online retail sites, and all sorts of important-sounding places. This type of review promotion doesn’t discount any of what I’ve discussed above. Again, just because the review is distributed or available doesn’t mean it will be seen or acted upon. And I don’t recommend that you pay these companies for extra promotion or advertising of your review unless you really know what you’re doing and a marketer or publicist thinks it will get your book in front of exactly the right audience. Too much of online advertising is like flushing money down the toilet—whether it’s done through these companies or not. If you’re interested in quality and targeted advertising for your book, consider M.J. Rose’s AuthorBuzz service, but even then, make sure it’s only one part of a larger marketing plan, not the only part.

Are Paid Book Reviews Tainted?

Yes and no. As I said at the outset, this is a controversial topic, and perceptions about the practice widely vary. I’m not typically an advocate of paid reviews, because in most cases I think that authors fail to capitalize on them and also that authors can achieve much the same results if they put in the (time-consuming) effort to secure the many types of free reviews available to them. It’s not that I’m morally against paid reviews, although I do think paid review services can make it sound like all sorts of wonderful, influential people will suddenly take notice of your book when that’s seldom the case.

If professional trade reviews are very important to you or your work, I highly recommend (as suggested before) that, rather than paying for a review, you send advance review copies to trade review outlets four to six months in advance of your publication date and proceed through the process just as other publishers would. While your chances of getting a review might not be as good as the chance a recognized press would have, you still have a shot if your work appears to meet professional standards in every other way. Darcy Pattison has shown that it’s possible, and so have many others. Too many self-publishers don’t have the patience to wait, yet still want the same review consideration or coverage as traditionally published authors. Fortunately, I think many self-publishers don’t need the same kind of professional review coverage or attention that traditionally published authors receive; you have other tools at your disposal that can be just as effective in driving sales.

I’d love to hear in the comments from authors willing to share their experience with paid review services—positive, neutral, or negative.

Additionally, The Alliance of Independent Authors has posted their anecdotal findings and research into the issue in the following two posts, which have interesting comment threads. So far, they’ve only focused on Kirkus.

Posted in Marketing & Promotion, Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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46 Comments on "Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It?"

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[…] The majority of authors will not benefit from paid book reviews, and should invest their time and money elsewhere. Here's why.  […]

TK Greenleaf
I bought a paid review from Kirkus for my speculative fiction novel, Duo. While the review was largely positive, so much of it was devoted to outlining the plot, I felt anyone who read it would be be deprived of enjoying the discovery of the story for themselves. And, I could be wrong, but the tone of the comments led me to believe that the reviewer had speed-read the book (which, if they’re getting paid by the review, would make sense), and that led to conclusions that none of my other reviewers, who had read the story for enjoyment, agreed… Read more »
Diane O\'Connell

One of my authors (I’m an independent editor) had the same experience with Kirkus. The review was positive, but was 90% devoted to detailing the plot, including spoiling a major plot twist. There was nothing really “quotable” in the review, so the author was unable to use it — even though he got a good review.

Marcy McKay

My novel has been all of five weeks, and I have 43 reviews…all four-and-five stars. Not one of those has been paid, and it’s fun that so many reviews came from strangers. I’m VERY proud of what I’ve accomplished, but getting those reviews has been harder than writer the book (not really, but sort of).

I’m trying to get 60 reviews and saving my money for BookBub for the very reasons you laid out. It’s interesting because my first inclination about “paid reviews” was it’s unethical, but I do respect Kirkus. Thanks for really making me think, Jane.

Cathey Nickell

43 is fantastic! I’ve only gotten 23… it is HARD WORK! You’re right.

Marcy McKay

Thanks, Cathey. I knew it’d be hard, but even so much harder than I expected. I can name 8 people who’ve read my novel and liked it (they told me through email, Facebook, Twitter) and SAID they would write review, but haven’t. Grrr.

Good luck with you and gathering reviews.

Adam

Hey there, can you give me some advice on getting reviews? I’ve approached a metric ton of bloggers, emailed 800 top reviewers, posted on all sorts of communities asking for reviews over the last 4 weeks, and I have 5 reviews total.

Thanks

Frances Caballo

I am so glad you published this post. There’s something about paying for a review that has never appealed to me. And when authors promote a Kirkus review, I tend to dismiss it. I would much rather promote my readers’ reviews than a review I had to purchase. Reader reviews are authentic, more meaningful, and, of course, provided without compensation.

Paul Ottley

Thanks for that Frances, I think I will follow your lead. I write books, and of course I also want to sell my books, to help people get inspired by what I have written for them.

Cate Baum
As an expert in paid reviews, and the COO of Self-Publishing Review, one company you linked to, I feel I need to get into this – you could have come to us, the specialists in the field for advice and comment; instead you have drawn conclusions without reliable data. I saw your post on Facebook where writers were saying paid reviews were useful to them, but I’m not seeing that here. You have not reported it. Some said it wasn’t useful as well, but this seems to be a blanket dismissal of something that works for a lot of writers,… Read more »
Cathey Nickell

This IS a good point for all of us to remember, Cate, when you say, “Reviews of any kind cause a cumulative effect and not a direct sales to review ratio.” I think that’s important to remember. I just really love all the information I’m gathering here. Thanks.

Cathey Nickell
Thank you for all this information, Jane! What a great article. I’m an indie author of a children’s picture book, and I’ve been working hard to get free PR wherever I can. It pays off; I got a big story in our newspaper, but I just got lucky (my news release hit the right person at the right time). I’ve gently prodded my book buyers to provide free reader reviews, and it does start gradually paying off. But it’s gradual … it’s hard to get a reader to sit down and write a review. I’m now considering purchasing a Kirkus… Read more »
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[…] Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It? […]

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[…] Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It? (Jane Friedman) Paying for professional book reviews remains a controversial topic that very few authors have practical, unbiased information about. In fact, it’s not even well-known in the author community that paid book reviews exist, and even less is known about the value of such reviews. […]

Richard
Anyone considering paid review services should read a recent article in The Huffington Post entitled “Book Reviews: Should You Pay for Them?” which you can find here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristen-houghton/book-reviews-paidfor-or-n_b_7903594.html It’s a very refreshing article that concludes that “if you have the money to pay for a review, and feel comfortable doing it, then do so. It pays to remember that getting reviews for your book is akin to getting publicity for it. Time, effort, some money spent, and being tenacious are needed.” Self-publishing authors are at a big disadvantage over traditionally published authors. So is it any wonder they pay for… Read more »
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[…] one of her regular posts for the author corps, Jane Friedman titled a Monday article Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It?. Friedman is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest and Scratch magazine. She is teaching at […]

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[…] Explica Jane Friedman que algunas publicaciones de relativo prestigio (trade book reviews) a cambio de dinero dan hueco a ciertos libros que, de otro modo, por la saturación del mercado o una solicitud tardía, no se plantearían comentar. Asimismo, se están creando sitios específicos para paid reviews de obras autopublicadas. […]

K.M. del Mara

Jane, as an indie publisher, I have found some nugget of wisdom in every one of your weekly posts. This latest one, on paid reviews, was the most helpful so far. I appreciate the advice of someone who has worked in publishing, as well as the links to others’ opinions. Great article!

K.M. del Mara

One more personal viewpoint: I paid for a standard Kirkus Review for my first book, Whitebeam. I waited two weeks more than the promised timeframe and finally had to prod them to produce a review. That did not sit well, though I was pleased with the review when it came and have been able to use it to leverage sales.

Greg Marcus

wish I’d seen this 3 years ago. That money went down the tubes

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[…] you’re at the stage of marketing and selling your book, Jane Friedman wonders whether paid reviews are worth it and Mary Kole ponders the importance of writing clips, especially for kid lit authors. Jane […]

Kristen Steele

This is a great article. There are clearly many pros and cons to consider. I especially like your point about considering your marketing budget. If it’s small you need to make it work for you and reviews are just one piece of the puzzle.

John Iles
I’m sure that I’ll take your Do Your EBook Right course in March, but I don’t understand the process of publication properly at this point. My question is, I have submitted my MG novel (well received by two MG teachers at this point) to a self-publisher. In spite of my wife asking me virtually daily if the book is published, I don’t want the book released until I understand how to get the novel available for MG school libraries. But, I have to have copies of the book available for someone – whoever someone is – for the publications you… Read more »
Gippy Adams Henry

Hi Jane,
This is such great information. I’m still like a sponge trying to get as much information as possible. I just published my first suspense novel for kindle and print at Amazon. It’s about a week and a half and I only have a few reviews, but I’m wondering if you’ve written anything on getting one’s book into a library. I’m not sure how to go about that. Could you please let me know or where I can get that information? Thanks so much!

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[…] one of her regular posts for the author corps, Jane Friedman titled a Monday article Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It?. Friedman is the former publisher of Writer’s Digest and Scratch magazine. She is teaching at […]

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[…] package provides, as one of its promised book reviews, one from SPR. In recent discussions both here at JaneFriedman.com and at the website of Porter Anderson, you’ve defended the paid book review as a critical first […]

Julie Petersen

Jane, thanks for your opinion on the topic!
I don’t really believe that paid reviews can work out well. I think its better to spend time and money on real personal communication with your audience.

Daniel
I have a few options available to me that others without my experience don’t have. I live on a disability pension, which is nice, as it means I don’t strictly need a job for money and have time to write. It’s minimum wage, though, so after all the bills, there’s not a huge budget to work with, and my immediate family haven’t ever known anything but poor. My University’s alumni program contacted me, because I graduated Creative Writing (it’s pretty rare at my campus, and a LOT of writing students do drop out, so I hear). They wanted to know… Read more »
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[…] with the first one, even though we all know people’s tastes are different, and for that matter, those reviews might have been bought. The fact is, there aren’t a hell of a lot of ways to research a book without reading it, and not […]

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[…] can pay outside reviewers to read and post about your book but oftentimes this is a major turn off to fan bases because it does not come across as a genuine review. A better way to go about it would […]

Sue Morris
I’m reading this several months after it initially ran, so my comment may go unnoticed. Still, being a children’s book reviewer for the past 8 years, all free, I am beginning to wonder if it is time I charged a fee for a review. Why? Because it takes time to read a book–MG books run into 250-300 pages–even a picture book (which I read several times for a review); it takes time to write a review, giving it an honest, thorough review (I average 500 to 100o or more words, depending on the book); and it takes time to post… Read more »
Simon
Another issue to do with Paid Reviews which is rarely discussed is that most of them are conducted by people not necessarily qualified to do so and I have not found anywhere how these reviews are moderated or otherwise quality controlled. The output you pay for is a bit of a lottery and if your reviewer is having a bad day you might get a poor review unjustly or, more likely, something which is not a review at all. A good review should be critical of the narrative, plot, characters and style. In my early days the paid reviews failed… Read more »
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[…] Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It? (Jane Friedman) […]

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[…] Jane Friedman wrote an excellent post on paid reviews for indie authors, and PW has a recently updated article on the same subject by Daniel Lefferts and Alex Daniel in the BookLife section for self-publishing authors. Some authors find that paid reviews do create additional book sales, while others do not. […]