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:

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?

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