books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How to Query a Book Review Blogger—and Combat Paid-Review Mills

The literary community was shaken this week by an article in the New York Times revealing how many "reader book reviews" are written for hire by book review mills. The most shocking revelation involved John Locke, one of the self-publishing movement's greatest stars.

Locke admitted to buying hundreds of reviews from a review mill because "it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience."

But other people weren't all that surprised. The NYT article quoted University of Illinois data-mining expert Bing Liu, who said, "about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake."

According to the article, Mr. Locke seemed to think purchasing reviews was OK, because he specifically asked the reviewers to be "honest." But once you're in review-buying territory, you're on a slippery ethical slope.

Things are complicated by the fact that Mr. Locke wrote a book about how to sell books in which he instructed writers in specific detail on how to go about "cultivating an audience." The book didn't mention this particular rung on his ladder to success.

To be fair, exchanging goods and services for book reviews is a time-honored practice. Most reviewers get free books, and reviewers in print publications are generally paid—not directly by the author, of course—but the publisher may have to purchase advertising in that publication in order to have that company's books considered for reviewing. And authors have always reviewed other author's books (not always favorably.) But there has always been an attempt to avoid a blatant quid pro quo in order to provide unbiased reviews.

When the respected Kirkus magazine started offering reviews for hire to self-publishers, a lot of people got uncomfortable. Does putting a price tag on a Kirkus review diminish its value to readers?

Some people think so. In the comment thread on an in-depth post on this subject on Porter Anderson's Writing on the Ether this week, Barbara Rogan said. "The only reason writers buy those reviews from Kirkus (at $425 a pop!) and the only reason readers respect them, is because of the reputation of the original Kirkus, respected for its (sometimes scathingly) honest reviews. They are degrading their own brand."

However, this is not only a self-publishing issue. Thanks to Nathan Bransford for pointing this out in his August 29th blogpost.

The traffic in fake raves is not the only way the review system is being abused. Fake negative reviews are up for sale too. And an article in the UK's Daily Mail this week reports some publishers are being sued for planting negative reviews for other publishers' books. Even academics are getting into the negative-online-review game, with rival scholars panning competitors' work on Amazon. The article also cites negative reviews given to books by somebody who dislikes the author's spouse or associates.

I've seen "reviews" like this myself. I have also seen sites for review mills that offer to write—for a slightly higher price—a batch of negative reviews for better-selling books in your genre.

Which brings me to what happened the day after the NYT article about the review mills came out:

A gang of cyber-vigilantes decided to voice their displeasure with Mr. Locke's behavior by writing one-star reviews of his books.

Um, people, how does abusing the review system give a message that abusing the review system is bad?

As the sensible Chuck Wendig pointed out Bad Author Behavior in Response to Bad Author Behavior is still Bad Behavior.

If you use Amazon reviews for ANYTHING other than giving your honest opinion of a BOOK, you are disrespecting the reader and further degrading the review system.

I don't care if the author is an ax-murdering, sulfur-spewing, puppy-eating alien from the planet Zog: using Amazon reviews as a tool for vigilantism is JUST PLAIN WRONG.

When you see this kind of abuse of the system, hit the "report abuse" button and let Amazon know. They are finally cracking down on the review mills, and they will crack down on the vigilantes, too. We all benefit from keeping customer reviews useful and relevant.

Amazon does seem to have been a little slow on the crackdown, and a new article by David Streitfeld on today's NYT blog says manufacturers have been steadily buying reviews for years with very few repercussions--like the Kindle Fire carrying case whose buy page exploded in 100s of ecstatic 5-star reviews last January. (Thanks to Jay Strouch for that link.)

But Amazon does respond to specific reports of abuse, so if you think an author (or a corporation)  has done something unethical, do report it. And there are many other ways to voice your outrage. Rant on your blog. Tweet and Facebook about it until the steam comes out of your fingers. Start a petition to have the author censured by the professional organization of your choice.

But if you haven't read a book, don't review it. Full stop.

Instead, how about doing something positive to fight the degrading of book reviews? Here are some suggestions:

1) Write reviews of the books you read. If you like a book, say so. If you don't, say that. (Unless the book is simply not your cup of tea and you don't feel like giving it any more of your time.)

Every time you write an honest review—even a couple of sentences—you're helping to balance out the phony ones. If you're my age or older, it may seem daunting, but it's really pretty easy. It's not like writing those book reports you hated in grammar school. All you need is an Amazon account and twenty or more words.

2) If you're an author, revel in your one-star reviews. Don't complain. Welcome them. They're a badge of honor. A wonderful piece on Galley Cat this week pointed out that all the big bestsellers have hundreds of them.

When you get your first one-star, break out the bubbly—you're in the big time now. When you get over 400 one-stars, you'll be up there with George R. R. Martin and Steig Larssen. Get to 1300 and you might be the biggest bestseller ever, like E. L. James. A one-star shows your reviews are real. If you're good-humored about bad reviews, you're more likely to encourage honest reviewers.

3) Encourage review sites to change their policies if they require books to have a certain number of 4 and 5 star Amazon ratings to be featured. Sites like Pixel of Ink and Digital Book Today are great—but they insist on 10 four-or five-star Amazon reviews for a book to be considered for review. Not easy if you're a new writer launching a new book. Easy if you're a fat cat who uses a review mill. Because these ratings can now be purchased so easily, the arbitrary barriers do nothing but exclude new authors who don't cheat.

4) Read traditionally paid professional reviewers.
Yes. They still exist. I still read the New Yorker reviews and even the NYT Book Review, (although I admit I skip a lot of the middle-aged male angsty stuff.) Let's hope these publications will join the 21st century and get out of the Big 6 pockets pretty soon. But some remnants of print culture are worth keeping. In this week's Guardian, Paul Laity wrote a great piece on the value of the professional critic. (Thanks, Porter Anderson, for the link.)

5) Hug an independent book review blogger today! Read their blogs!! Buy books by clicking through their ads!!! An honest, unbiased and independent reviewer is an author's best friend.

Most book review bloggers are not paid. They usually get the book free, or may receive a small click-through payment from Amazon or other retailer, but their work is mostly a labor of love.

However, I know reviewers who have received hate mail and threats after giving a less-than-stellar review. This is absurd, people. If you're that thin-skinned, you're not ready to publish.

I've recently had personal experience with the disrespect book review bloggers get. Since this blog was a finalist in the IBBA awards in June, I have been inundated by queries from publicists, agents, and publishers who don't bother to take the 20 seconds to click through to see this is a publishing industry advice blog, NOT a review blog. These people never personalize, never treat the blogger as an individual, and send a mass-query that says nothing but "review this book!"

No wonder book bloggers can sometimes sound a little cranky.

So how do you get a blogger to review your book?

That's supposed to be my subject for today, so I'll finally get to it.



Book Review Bloggers: How to Find Them and How to Treat Them Right


How do you find interested book bloggers?

The best way is to check similar books in your genre—especially those that have been recently released. Do a search for those titles with the word “review” and read as many reviews as you can. Make a list of the reviewers you like and read the review policy.

Almost no blogger will take all types of books. Some only read traditionally-published paper books; others want only indie ebooks for Kindle. Some specialize in Nook. They almost always have specific genre requests, so read carefully, and always follow them. Even if the blogger agrees to do a review outside their genre, you won’t reach the right readers. People don’t go to a chick lit review site to discover the latest zombie gore-fest.

How do you approach them?

You should make initial contact with a query—the same way you approach other gatekeepers like literary agents and editors. This means you send a professional letter—not a Tweet or wall post on Facebook.

Here are some general rules for scoring a review:

  • Read the guidelines carefully. 
  • Then, um, follow the guidelines carefully. 
  • Never send an unsolicited book: query first. 
  • Don’t query with books outside the prescribed genre. Personalize the query. 
  • Keep queries short and intriguing. 
  • Don’t take it personally if they turn you down. Reading takes a lot of time and most of them are swamped. 
  • Understand the review is for the READER, not the writer, so negative reviews happen. 
  • If you get a less than stellar review, mourn in private and move on. NEVER respond to a negative review.
Last November I interviewed popular childrens' book blogger Danielle Smith of There's a Book, and she gave some great advice on how to get your book reviewed by a blogger. She says the best way to approach a book blogger is to keep your query professional, but show some personality.

Reviewer Danielle Smith's guidelines for authors:

  1.  Make sure you address the blogger by name
  2. Include a two to four sentence synopsis—no longer
  3. Keep personal information to a minimum. And don’t guilt-trip.
  4. Attach an image of the book cover
  5. Give the age range of the intended audience
  6. Include the page count (for print books)
  7. Provide the publication date and expected time frame of when you'd like to see the review posted for scheduling purposes.
  8. Don’t ask for a review outside the blogger’s genre
  9. Don’t query if you don’t have a website or a blog. (That screams “unprofessional” to a blogger.)
In other words, treat the book blogger like a professional and she will reciprocate.

If you want to know more about book bloggers and how to approach them, Danielle Smith is leading a panel at the Central Coast Writers' Conference with several Book Bloggers, including Amy Riley of My Friend Amy, and Pam Van Hylckama Vleig aka Bookalicious Pam who is also an agent with San Francisco agency Larsen-Pomada.

And if you want to read some genuine, not-paid-for Amazon reviews, here are some hilarious ones for a set of Bic pens.

How about you, scriveners? Would you ever consider paying for reviews? Does this change your opinion of John Locke? Do you read book review blogs?

56 comments:

  1. Excellent post, Anne, and very balanced. You're right that abusing the review process to punish those who abuse the review process is inappropriate. A review is supposed to be an honest set of thoughts about a book by someone who has read it. I really hope we can find a way back to that. I think potentially we can, but these discussions are crucial. And, as you know, I'm a huge fan of book bloggers, so I loved seeing reminders of how to treat them right.

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  2. Great post! I think the arguments presented here for authors and reviewers are super well balanced. I tweeted it!

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  3. Great post!

    It's not just Amazon reviews that can be abused, either. I once looked at a indie-book-collective site where, if you wanted to get on it, they required that you get a four-star review from one of their little stable of reviewers. All well and good, except that when I looked at the reviewers' sites, half of them wanted you to buy something from them (marketing or editing services), and one just flat out requested a donation. Scary.

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  4. Great post, Anne.

    Hard to feel sympathy for John Locke when he seems not even to have regretted the move with hindsight.

    One of the simplest ways to restrict the abuse would be for sites like Amazon to only allow reviews from accounts that had paid for the product through them.

    So long as you can go to Amazon and leave a review, good or bad, for a product you have never actually seen / used / read then the abuse will continue.

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  5. Ugh- this issue is so disturbing. I NEVER received any compensation for any of the reviews I did. If someone wants to argue that the copy of the book was the compensation, I'm befuddled; that was the means through which I could review the books when asked (and if we're evaluating the quality of some of those books... trust me, it wasn't compensation).

    Most of the long-time reviewers on Amazon are honest and are probably tearing out their hair over this. The whole thing is calling into question the value of reviews, period.

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  6. Catherine--Yes. We need to dial the whole thing back and start using reviews as they were intended--not as advertising billboards or punishment pillories. It took some soul-searching to decide to speak out against the cyber-vigilantes, because they're irrational and often wildly misinformed, but as you say, the issue needs to be discussed.

    Pam--Thanks for stopping by. Your Bookalicious.org site is one of the best review sites around. Thanks for all you do!

    Mary--I wasn't aware of that kind of abuse, so thanks for sharing it. I'm very unhappy to see the proliferation of sites exploiting new writers, and that sounds like a bad one.

    Mark--What a great suggestion. If Amazon buyers reviewed on Amazon, and Kobo readers reviewed on Kobo, etc, we'd get a much better range of reviews and Amazon reviews wouldn't be so valuable to buy and sell.

    Deb--It's good to hear from another book reviewer. I agree the idea that a free book is some kind of compensation is silly. Considering that it takes 10+ hours to read the book, then a couple of hours to write a well-thought out review, the "compensation" of a $10 book would come out to a few cents an hour. But I see this argument all the time. I agree that the people who are most hurt by this are the real Amazon reviewers, who put time and effort into honest, well-written fair reviews and are suddenly having their integrity challenged.

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  7. Thanks for posting this. I never knew paid-for reviews were invading the territory of legitimate reviewers. At least you put the word out
    and awareness is the pre-curser to change.

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  8. With much respect to Mark (hello Mark) there is a problem with trying to solve the problem with verified purchase only reviews. All of John Locke's paid reviews were verified purchases. This is a direct quote from the original NYT article: "He also asked that the reviewers make their book purchases directly from Amazon, which would then show up as an 'Amazon verified purchase' and increase the review’s credibility."

    So if that limitation on reviews gets locked in, a person who read my book from the library can't share his or her thoughts, but the John Locke's of the world can easily circumvent it.

    Not sure what that means the answer is, but I do know we need one.

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  9. I first became aware of these pay-for-review services when I downloaded a book that was at the top of the Kindle charts. It had glowing editorial reviews and everyone unanimously agreed that it was the best book they'd read in a long time, except for one or two who complained it was dull and slow. So I trusted the majority and gave it a try. It wasn't awful, but it was riddled with cliches, headache-inducing dialogue, and inconsistent characters. And it was, indeed, dull and slow.

    I didn't understand the dozens of reviewers and journals who had nothing but praise for it. So I looked up these journals...and every single one of them offered their services for a substantial fee. Oh, but they were all above-board, because they didn't guarantee positive reviews. According to one, only "98% of our reviews are positive." So it's legit, see?

    But I'm not going to call for an Amazon crackdown on these things, because Amazon really has little way of knowing what's an honest-to-goodness reader review and what isn't. The last thing I want is for some bot to decide that my reviews aren't legitimate because I happened to post on the same day as ten other people, or my language fits a certain pattern, or I've only had the book for a couple of hours so I couldn't possibly have read it. I don't want them to use any criteria other than solid evidence that particular individuals are cheating the system.

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  10. Spot-on, Anne! I can't imagine ever buying a book review.
    I have approached book bloggers and forwarded their requests to my publisher. Met some really amazing people in the process.
    And reviewing books you haven't read is just wrong.

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  11. Amen.
    Behave well.
    Respect others.
    Contribute honestly.
    I'd like to simultaneously say that the industry desperately needs this advice, while noting that it's a sad day that adults need to be reminded to behave well, respect others, & contribute honestly.
    Excellent post!

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  12. Marilee "Awareness is the precursor to change" I like that. Yes. First people have to know there's a problem. A lot of people (me included) were surprised by last week's NYT article.

    Catherine--Very important point. I'd missed that. If review mills verify their purchases through Amazon, a verified purchase means nothing except that people who shop at the local indie brick and mortar shop are penalized.

    T.K. Thanks for sharing a personal experience where you were duped by these scammers.

    And that's a great point about the bots. As I said, Amazon is cracking down on some of these and as a result, some legit reviews have been taken down in error. I thought the collateral damage might be OK since they are weeding out the baddies. But if it's all done by bots, then all kinds of abuse can happen. And the review mills will figure out how to outsmart the bots long before legit reviewers do. So reporting abuse when you see it is probably the best way to help Amazon fight them.

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  13. I'm a book blogger, but I also work for a book review company. Authors and publishers pay me for a review at the company where I work, but I do not accept payment for reviews on my blog. However, I treat the books the same, whether I am paid or not. I NEVER let my opinion be swayed by the offering of money. The purpose of a review is honesty. Providing a negative or positive review because of something other than the quality of the book is absolutely unacceptable, no matter the circumstances. Sharing my opinion about the books I read so that others may enjoy the the books and learn from them is my passion, and I am always honest in my reviews. Amazing post!

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  14. I had never heard of review mills until all this stuff with John Locke (and no I haven't read any of his books). I was shocked by it. I can't imagine paying a Mill for reviews of my stuff, let alone thinking it out enough to purchase negative reviews for other people's works. What a racket!

    The one good outcome of all this publicity however is it is getting the word out to some writers/bloggers (like me) that didn't know there were even legitimate book review sites/agencies out there - besides begging all your bloggy friends for reviews.

    Thanks for all the excellent info Anne. I appreciate the time time and effort you put into this post because I didn't have the time to really follow all of this, but I think it is important to aspiring writers like myself to be aware. You've helped me considerably.

    This has also helped me resolve one of my personal issues I've ran into lately which has stopped me from writing ANY reviews over the last few months.

    ......dhole

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  15. Thanks for this post. This information is really helpful to me. As someone who is just starting to self publish via Amazon Kindle, I find it challenging to know how best to market my books in light of all the problems with reviews. Now I see some more options, so thanks again.

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  16. Seriously, I'm a fan of this blog by now. Despite only having a post 4-5 times a month, you and Ruth put quite some effort into them by conveying information in an easy yet entertaining to read way.

    At least one of my avid blog followers is a book blogger. Maybe I should give her a virtual hug tonight once she responds to an email I sent her.

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  17. Sounds like a lotta low life thugs out there! Maybe I'll try to start taking time to write reviews. As you say, two or three sentences can suffice. Honest words, who would've thought there'd be any other way? There are a lot of ways to make a buck, but just as many ways to do so while keeping your integrity. Thanks for another great post!

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  18. Alex--Book bloggers are fascinating people. I've made some great friends that way too.

    CS--You're right. Everything we need to know about ethics we learned in Kindergarten--so why is it so hard for people when they're grown-ups?

    Aimee--Thanks for weighing in here. I don't know anybody who reviews for money, although I've certainly written articles for magazines that also paid reviewers. There's a big difference between paid reviews for a magazine and paid fake "customer" reviews. I know that Kirkus paid-reviews are said to be as honest as the ones that don't charge the authors. I'm conflicted about it, but it sounds as if you have the integrity to keep what you write unbiased. Thanks for being a book blogger!

    Donna--Your blog had such great reviews--always very personal and useful and never phony. I hope some badly behaved author didn't stop you from writing them.

    Maggie--Yes, it can be a jungle out there for the newbie writer, but certainly there are lots of ways to get your book known that don't involve buying fake Amazon reviews.

    Chihuahua--Yes, do hug your book blogger friend. They deserve lots of encouragement. Thanks for the kind words about the blog.

    Yvonne--I do think that if we all do our part and take the time to review the books we read, we'll be going a long way to balance out the unethical ones.

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  19. As usual, an extremely well balanced critical look at a relevant situation. This is a fantastic post Anne! Thank you so much for the inclusion and for everything you bring up. And yes! Go hug a book review blogger! We love authors, especially those that listen to the advice given here. :o)

    PS...I decided to post a little about your post (even if it is a little late in the day, sick kiddo):
    Book Reviews and the Central Coast Writer's Conference

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  20. Came home after a long day and although its late ... I must thank you and Porter Anderson for your fair and balanced "review" of this issue.

    Being a bit on the tainted side and having lived through lots of scandalous news about Payola in the music industry ... this did not come as a surprise.

    There is a fine line we draw when we enlist the paid services of someone to arrange a blog tour, or to pump up reviews on our behalf.

    The process is not broken because Locke took unfair advantage and as so many have said ... it is not the responsibility of Amazon to ferret out false or paid reviews.

    What is at the bottom of this is a man's integrity ... and although Porter and others who contributed to Ether regarding the Locke issue want Amazon and the FTC to take action ... there is little that can be done. Locke is not the first, or the only ... he just got caught publicly and obviously doesnt care. A shame !!

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  21. Thanks for putting together a thoughtful article with some great links. I was also pretty steamed by that NYT article, although I really should not be surprised.

    I just read through reader reviews of an up-and-coming book that's gotten a lot of buzz. The reviews were so polar opposite -- many of the one and two stars were nuanced and pointed out promising story points but they couldn't get over the poor writing and gimmicky concept. A mix of reviews like this is great, but what triggered the red flag were the many 5 star reviews that declared it the best book they'd ever read, that every inch of it was amazing and typically lots of exclamation points followed. Basically, I saw one star reviews and 5 stars, but hardly any in the 2-4 range. To me, that reeks of paid reviews.

    You're right that the answer is noy to bash a "bad" book but deliberately countering falsely positive reviews. I barely read amazon reviews these days because I no longer trust the quality. I depend on bloggers, the people who review books because they love them.

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  22. One of the corollaries to Murphy's Law is that anything made by humans can and will be scammed by humans. (For this we got big brains?)

    When I read some of the reviews for the Bic woman's pen, I first laughed - and then shivered: if people are going to scam Amazon by running pranks and posting ridiculous reviews, how are we going to tell what is a legitimate review by an actual user?

    Some people can actually be subtle (not like the pen reviewers) - and plausible.

    Thanks for the link - but it got me thinking! And not in a good way.
    ABE

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  23. Hi,

    Great post. Simple fact being there are three factions within the literary world: critics, reviewers & authors.

    1) Critics who look for faults and rarely enjoy books other than their own and best buddies works. Often as not bear a bloody great chip on their shoulder, not unlike *if you can't do, teach/preach.*

    2) Reviewers who summarise and only post a review if they liked a book, and most will overlook minor hiccups such as typos, the odd misspelt word and or missed word.

    3) And of course the author who wants to see glowing reviews and lives in fear of snarky ones.

    best
    F

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  24. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  25. Great post. I think you wrote a blog some time ago about Amazon's rating system and how if you got anything less than 4 stars you were doomed, that they wouldn't move your book up some algorithm list or something? And that's why writers told all their friends to never, ever give less than a 4 star or the author's life would be ruined! O Woe! & etc. If that's Amazon's system, then they've helped create this monster as well.

    I remember reading the witty term "log rolling in our time," referring to all the fake back-scratching "praise" that would appear on a new book's back cover, written by the author's author-pals (and, tit for tat, he'd do the same fake praise for them when their new book came out.) So, clearly this is nothing new.

    We do seem to live in the Gilded Age of The Accountability-Free Liar, so the average person needs to remember that 50% - 90% of everything they read or hear is likely crap, I guess. Too bad.

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  26. You know, Anne, the John Locke problematic has derived a lot deeper into authors' misbehaviors. Spy-thriller novelist and internet's own Rex Stout, Jeremy Duns found an alarming number of authors were "sockpuppeting". They created alter-egos accounts on Amazon, gave themselves five star reviews and give one star to the authors they deem "competitors". This idea of scarcity is so destructive. Why concentrate on somebody else's work when your own is the key to your success. Recently, Duns found out RJ Ellory sockpuppeted. R.J. FREAKIN' ELLORY. I'm scandalized. There is no excuse for such a successful writer to do such malpractice.

    Also, as an independent book blogger, I gotta tell your readers that my pet peeve is when I get email stationeries asking me to review a book. It means the author didn't read my guidelines and borderline didn't read my blog. If they did, they would know I'm currently closed to unsolicited reviews (until 2013) and I DON'T DO YA ROMANCE.

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  27. Seriously awesome post. I am so going to link to you in on my Policies page -> Tips for Authors.

    Bravo. Thank you.

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  28. 1st Daughter (Danielle) Thanks for all your help with this post. You and all the other hard working book bloggers out there do so much for authors. Authors (and especially their publicists) should learn basic courtesy before they contact you! Excellent post on the subject. I've just tweeted it.

    Fois—You're right that this is nothing new. Thanks for the reminder. Way back in the early 1960s, the music industry was driven by "Payola"—record labels paid radio stations to play certain singles and buy the 'top 40' listings. I'm annoyed when people say this is a self-publishing phenomenon. 1/3 of ALL online reviews are paid for, and the vast majority are paid for by corporate manufacturing. Amazon can't change this. They can crack down on the most blatant offenders, like the review mill mentioned in the NYT article. But they can't change human nature. We need to learn to educate ourselves and tell the phony review from the real one.

    Stephco—It sounds as if you've got some good instincts in telling the honest reviews from the phony ones. BTW, I'm not saying you shouldn't give bad reviews to books that have obvious faux reviews—just make sure you read the book first—and critique the book, not the author.

    Anon—I suppose those Bic pens aren't "honest" but they're also not intended to fool anybody. They're intended to entertain. A number of mundane objects sold on Amazon get these comic "review" threads—because nobody really needs a review of a Bic pen or a quart of milk.

    Francine—That's an interesting distinction you make between critics and reviewers. But I'm not sure most reviewers would agree. I think they mostly consider themselves critics—in the original sense of the word: not somebody who finds fault, but somebody who judges and evaluates a work of art. I think a good reviewer does more than summarize a book. Of course we authors want everybody to love our work, but many won't. An honest statement by somebody who doesn't like it helps us find our audience. People looking for gritty, world-weary action aren't going to like Agatha Christie. If a noir reviewer says Christie has too many tea parties, the reader who's looking for something darker can move on and find Raymond Chandler.

    Churadogs—You're right that Amazon itself has encouraged this in a way, but using algorithms that only picked up highly rated books for the coveted "also boughts". The algorithms do change, and the star system isn't as weighty as it was a year ago, although it still is a factor. Now Amazon also favors books in the KDP Select program, and doesn't give as much value to 99 cent or free books.

    Ben—I first heard about these sockpuppets who give one-star reviews to "competitors" about a year ago. At first I didn't believe it, but then I saw on the buy page of a big name thriller writer at least a dozen one and two star reviews with almost identical wording—criticizing a novella for being "too long and boring" I hit the report abuse buttons and I assume others did as well. They were taken down almost immediately.
    And I hear you about publicists and authors who don't even look at your blog before querying. Anybody who took 20 seconds to look at your blog would see it's very gritty and noir (And, um it's got "Dead End" in the title.) Sending you teen romances is just saying "I'm a clueless narcissist who can't bother to do my homework."

    JuJu—I'm honored to be in your links. :-)

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  29. Like so many here, I had no idea this was happening and yet...am not surprised. There will always be those who look at anything that the human heart strives for and figure out a way to make a buck off of that striving. Illegitimate agents, the old-fashioned vanity publishers and now, I guess, the best review you will ever receive for the low, low price of... So sad.

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  30. Thanks, great advice. I'd never pay for a review, even if I had the money to do it with.

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  31. Christine--After I wrote this post, we got the news Ben alluded to above: award-winning long-time successful (trad-pubbed) thriller writer RJ Ellroy has been writing his own rave reviews for years. Also panning his rivals. And data mining experts tell us this has been going on forever. It seems corporations have been buying "reviews" of their products since the early days of the Internet. The first fake review was probably posted the day the first online retail store opened. If there's a way to make money by cheating, somebody will do it.

    Steven--I hear you. It's not an option for most starving artists. Which is another reason it's so insidious. One more way the rich and corporate can cheat the little guy.

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  32. Good post, as usual.

    I'm an author and have never have a zillion reviews. I'm thrilled with each one I get. I'd never pay for one nor write phoney ones. I also write lots of reviews of books I've read--good books and not so good books. I always find something that I like or I don't write the review.

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  33. To be honest, I didn't give the whole 'reviews issue' a lot of thought until this past week or two. It's like the querying game all over, but this time quite public! Yikes.

    So far I have one review of Uncharted, and in a way, I'd be happy if that were the only one I ever received. I can't imagine actually hiring out positive reviews. I have a hard enough time just approaching someone I know or am acquainted with to 'maybe do a review...if it isn't too much of a bother...and if you have the time...'

    Yeah, I need to get into a better mind-set--this article on How To Approach Book Review Bloggers is a HUGE help and a boost for my floundering marketing persona! Thanks, Anne!

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  34. Marilyn--You're so right that it's a thrill to get a positive review from some stranger--somebody you've never even met online who loves your book for itself. Nothing better than that. And "paying it forward" by reviewing authors whose books you enjoy is the best way to perpetuate a good thing.

    J. B. Turning from shy author to enthusiastic marketing professional sure is a major leap, isn't it? And I'm as guilty as anybody of being lazy and not leaving reviews. Authors don't want to appear to be soliciting reviews, but we also want to give people a gentle nudge, especially if they send you a tweet or an email saying how much they loved your book.

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  36. Whoa, I've been out of it. Whaaat?--you can BUY a review? How silly. So the more "popular" books are those written by writers who have more money? Hmph.

    Good suggestions to balance out that idiocy. Great point about embracing the 1-star reviews! As a writer, you have to realize your book will NOT be everyone's cup of tea.

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  37. Carol--I felt pretty naive, too. I knew about the paid review mills, but I didn't know successful writers used them. (And I sure didn't know successful, award-winning authors like Ellroy wrote their own raves. Yuck.) I thought paid reviews were for pathetic losers. This is going to get me off my butt and writing more reviews as soon as I have a second. It's more important than ever.

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  38. Well balanced post, Anne. It definately had a lot of food for thought. Cheers!

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  39. Hi Anne - this is a really helpful post for negotiating the book review dilemma.

    On another note, I wanted to say, I've tried to sign up for email posts a couple of times, went through the subscription process and it said it was all approved. But I'm not getting updates? Would love to follow, but it won't let me :( Is there anything I can do my end to fix this?

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  40. Christine--I do think we need to look at the whole picture in a rational way and do something positive instead of joining every angry mob of villagers with cyberpitchforks.

    Alma--You're the second person who's told me that Feedburner has stopped sending email notifications, so something's definitely up with them. Unfortunately, they are some mysterious corporate entity I can't even contact. I just tried to sign up myself, but I won't know until Sunday's post if it's working.

    If you'd like to send me your address to annnerallen@yahoo.com, I'll put you on my personal blogfriend list and make sure you get an email every Sunday. (And I don't send newsletters or anything spammy--just the once a week announcement of a new post.)

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  41. Just this evening I was having a chat with another writer about how to do this very thing. Thank you!

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  42. This review thing has become quite the hop topic, hasn't it? After I wrote on my blog (then on HuffPost Books) about not trusting online reviews, I got some scathing comments from book bloggers who felt I was being unfair. Then articles like the one about Locke came out, and I have to admit I felt even more justified. Not that I WANTED to be right. I wish the review system was more transparent and trustworthy, but I know it isn't.

    Anyway, also wanted to note that after my article ran in HuffPost I was inundated with requests from self-pubbed authors to review their books. Meanwhile, I'm not a book reviewer and blog (and that article itself) stated that clearly. Goes to show that it's important to know who you're pitching!

    Great post as alwalys Anne.

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  43. Nina--I warned you it's kind of a "third rail" topic, didn't I? Touch it and you die. Both sides get mad at you. Book bloggers can be awfully defensive, since they've been dissed so much, and some self-publishers--god love them--can be soooo clueless. Actually, publicists at publishing houses can be just as clueless.

    Hang in there. You sure were validated. Right after that post, we had the John Locke review-buying revelation AND the R.J. Ellroy sock-puppet scanda. Neither one puts Amazon reviews in a good light.

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  44. Anne, this is a great article. So glad I saw it. Having just published my first book, this is so interesting to me. Thank you for the great work you do reporting on publishing issues. It's an exciting time to be an author.

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  45. Hi.

    Great article. And I agree with the unethical part.

    1. But, (bordering on being cynical), it's not surprising. In today's world VOTES are bought (which is much more serious), why should it be different with reviews?


    2. What is more bothering? The fact that money are involved or the fact that reviews are not truthful?
    If one reads a book written by a friend, would his/her review be honest? When the friend's book is not good or is simply mediocre, 99% the review will not be honest in public. It's normal and human.

    I put myself in that category too. If I don't like the book of a friend or a person whom I respect for other reasons, especially regarding the writing, then I will say so in private, not in public.

    3. Is the NYT list honest? I bet it isn't. Marketing is the most powerful tool in all products, books included. Many of best-sellers books, are best-sellers because of the marketing involved, not the quality of the story and writing.

    Are money "transactions" involved in making those books best-sellers? Sure. Are connections involved in making them best-sellers? You bet.

    I agree with you. Unfortunately, today, there is a thin border on ethical and unethical.

    Thank you for an interesting article, which gave me food for thought :D

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  46. I. J. I find paid review mills (especially paid negative reviews) more offensive than friends and family reviews, because they seem more cynical to me. But that's just one more reason for writing honest reviews of the books you read. The more honest reviews there are, the better chance a reader has to tell how good the book really is. And everybody should remember and USE the "peek inside" function. Decide for yourself if the book is good before you buy.

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  47. Excellent! Thank you for a great article.

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  48. Very valuable info!

    When I was reviewing a lot, I was inundated with requests. Very few stood out, and rarely did anyone address me by name. These days, it's pretty easy to spot a mass mailing. Now that my book is set to come out in May, I'm working hard to cultivate relationships with the bloggers I want solid, truthful reviews from.

    Thanks for sharing this info!
    Jen

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  49. Book reviews are not the only area suffering from the paid reviews (good and bad) and misuse. I've been fortunate to get most of the books I review from publishers, and I state that in the review. I also agree with others who commented that the cost of a book is *not* compensation for the time it takes to do a thorough review.

    I review business related books on my business site and other books on my personal blog site, after I read them cover to cover. Maybe I'm lucky that I don't get inundated with requests from authors within a specific genre. It sounds like more of a problem than a pleasure.

    On the other hand, I wonder about some of the review sites run by a single blogger who posts a review daily. I'm a very fast reader, with excellent comprehension, and it would be a impossible for me to read and review a book every day. Of course, some books are quick to read, but novels, business books, and most adult books don't fall into that category.

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  50. Patricia--I'm glad you found it helpful.

    Jen--Cultivating actual relationships with reviewers is the best plan of all. If people recognize you, they're much more likely to pay attention to your query. And I hate those mass mailings. I got two this morning. Read the blog before you query, people! We don't write reviews, ever. (Although we're in awe of people who do.)

    Penny-This new idea that "it's unethical for a reviewer to be paid" is ignorant and silly. And a book is not payment--it's an assignment. Do we say sportscasters shouldn't be paid because they get to see the game free? Journalists and reviewers have been paid since publishing was invented. They were usually paid by magazine publishers, who get their revenue from advertising. But the Internet makes so many things free, people forget writers deserve to make a living.

    I see those daily review blogs, too. I think their reviews usually tend to be more "spotlights" than reviews. Anybody who reads a book a day isn't going to give a very in-depth look at any of them IMO.

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  51. I think that some authors have decided it is just easier to write a mediocre book and pay for reviews, than it would be to write a good book and then actually have it reviewed honestly. I am both a writer and a review blogger. I have been burned by dishonest reviews in the past. I have had an author approach me and tell me how I should review their book. I think that something needs to change in the world or we are all going to be in really big trouble.

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  52. Lisa--Amazon has cracked down hard on paid reviews and reviews that look as if they've been traded, so hopefully things are better now than they were when I wrote this post. I hope you won't let a few bad hats (and their publicists) turn you off to authors in general. Most of us work very hard to write the very best book we can and we may not have many reviews, but we know when our readers visit our buy page, they'll read honest opinions from real readers.

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  53. To be fair, exchanging goods and services for book reviews is a time-honored practice. Most reviewers get free books, and reviewers in print publications are generally paid—not directly by the author, of course—but the publisher may have to purchase advertising in that publication in order to have that company's books considered for reviewing. And authors have always reviewed other author's books (not always favorably.) But there has always been an attempt to avoid a blatant quid pro quo in order to provide unbiased reviews.
    and the I think that some authors have decided it is just easier to write a mediocre book and pay for reviews, than it would be to write a good book and then actually have it reviewed honestly. I am both a writer and a review blogger. I have been burned by dishonest reviews in the past. I have had an author approach me and tell me how I should review their book. I think that something needs to change in the world or we are all going to be in really big trouble.

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  54. Reviewer--First, many thanks for doing the hard work of reviewing books. You do a service to all authors and readers and you deserve our thanks and respect.

    I'm sorry you've run into authors who don't understand that. I agree that the review system is in a muddle and readers have to read between the lines to figure out whether a book is professionally presented, or just some first draft an amateur has thrown on Amazon.

    Honest reviewers can help us figure that out, but often they find it's best to refuse to write a review because the negative ones get backlash from immature writers. There has been bad behavior on both sides.

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  55. Thank you so much for posting about this. Since publishing Consulting Fees, I've been encouraged by many people in publishing to go hire people to review my book. I refuse to do this, given the ethics. But people also need to know that the FTC prohibits this sort of marketing without disclosure too. Apparently even giving someone a review copy should be disclosed. I've been approaching bloggers recently and noting this, as I work as a marketing consultant and want to do things on the up and up. It makes me wonder if some of the "you review my book, I'll review yours" offers on various forums would also be frowned on by the FTC, given that people are receiving a review in exchange for a review. I've been fortunate that my book, Consulting Fees, has consistently ranked in the top 20% or so of Amazon for the past month and picked up by B&N and Powell's and so on, in spite of me choosing to do things the right way. It is disheartening, though, to see what has come of the book industry and these fake reviews - both positive and negative. There are also some weird things that happen because of online technology. Right now, if you look up my name on Amazon, the second result is for a very racy DVD, because someone who bought that video also happened to endorse my book. LOL. Oh, well - you can't win them all! :)

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  56. Unknown--Trading reviews is strictly forbidden by Amazon's TOC. People do it, but if they get caught, they can lose not only the reviews, but get banned from reviewing ever again.

    Lots of people rob banks, too, but that doesn't mean it's a smart thing to do.

    Paid, traded, and bully reviews are a huge problem in the industry. I just got a negative review from somebody who has never reviewed a book before, but has reviewed over 100 cheap plastic watches--all 5-stars. Obviously this person is being paid to promote the watches and probably also to bring down my ratings.

    Thing is, paying people to give bad reviews to your "rivals" usually backfires. When I got two one star troll reviews on one title, the sales soared. The reviews showed that I was being bullied, not that anything was wrong with the book.

    It's true that reviewers must disclose a free review copy, but that's a new twist. Reviewers have always been given review copies. But the problem is the blurring of lines between professional reviewers and amateur "customer reviews."

    A person with a niche business manual like yours might do best to get professional "editorial reviews" which you can then quote from in that section of your Amazon page. Getting hundreds of random customer reviews doesn't really affect sales, but if the CEO of a major company says "Everybody needs this book," That's going to make sales. You can take that quote and put it into the "editorial reviews" section yourself.

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