Jane Friedman

Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It?

photo by StockMonkeys.com

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).

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:

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.