Paid Reviews and the Dilemma of Self-Published Credibility
by J. Edward Ritchie
One of the biggest challenges that every self-published author has to face is generating credibility. With over a million books released every year, how can a serious writer separate their work from the half-hearted dregs and vanity projects that are inundating the market? Desperate for their hard work to be recognized as legitimate by the community, many self-published authors turn to the deep-rooted practice of paid reviews. They shell out hundreds of dollars––often far more than they can afford––to obtain a quote from a brand publication because the industry tells them that’s what they are supposed to do.
I morally disagree with this outdated practice.
Self-publishing has changed the literary world and subverted ancient systems that are becoming obsolete by putting power back in the hands of the authors. Paying for a scant review based solely on a brand name is a backwards way of thinking that authors and bloggers need to band together to reject.
Recently, I was told that the overwhelmingly positive Amazon reviews for my fantasy epic Fall From Grace made it seem like I was working the system, as if I should apologize for not having negative reviews. I was advised that my book lacked “credibility” and needed a Kirkus review to be taken seriously. Kirkus is an acclaimed institution, but the idea that I need their review to achieve the perception of credibility is nothing short of an industry strong-arm tactic. For $425 you can purchase a 250 to 300 word review that has no bearing on the Amazon algorithm to raise your novel’s visibility. It is brand adherence no different than the materialism of the fashion industry. I have no issue with authors who choose to pay Kirkus and understand that the name has its solid reputation for good reason, but paid reviews are no longer the sole means of legitimizing the quality of your work. Case in point? Bloggers.
The fallacy that only paid reviews are credible also suggests that bloggers who review novels are illegitimate, that their views and opinions are somehow lesser than institutions like Kirkus. Again, I reject this notion. The content of paid reviews are hardly literary critiques of scholarly quality dissecting themes and character arcs. There is no training or prerequisites necessary to be an effective reviewer, just a love of books. Most serious bloggers read just as much content as any paid review service…but on their own time and not receiving a dime for it. They are strangers––not family or friends––whose passion for stories is the definition of legitimate. They are often backed up with requests 6 months or more, and any author is lucky to have their novel considered for review. For example, I contacted over 100 blogs for Fall From Grace and was able to find maybe a dozen who had the time to read it and write a review.
I cannot subscribe to the theory that a name brand somehow makes their opinion better than that of an active, honest blogger. If anything, a blogger review means more to me because it is a connection to a reader who had the choice not to review my novel because they weren’t getting paid. It’s the simple belief of doing something for love, not money. But because their website may not be as fancy, or their name not as well known, their opinion doesn’t mean anything? I will not support a system that perpetuates that elitist pretense.
Self-published authors are not New York Times bestsellers (yet!) with money to burn. While it is true that you have to spend money to make money, there are far better marketing avenues for authors to distribute their limited funds. We have to be very careful when and where to invest our money, and far too many authors are driving themselves into debt based on the pressures of an outdated system. The fact is, most self-published novels won’t turn a sizable profit, if any at all. Years later, when you’ve moved onto another project, what will hold more meaning––the scant review purchased in order to boast about the brand name alone, or the passionate praise from a reader who connected to your work and spread the word without any monetary impetus do so?
I was very hesitant to write this post because I felt the same pressure as my fellow indie authors to invest in paid reviews. I knew that if I wrote this, I could never pay for a review without being a hypocrite. I have decided to take a moral stand and hope that my example encourages others to do the same. The impression that paid reviews are the premiere means of establishing credibility is simply no longer true. But old systems die hard. The indie author and blogger communities need to support each other and spread this message––credibility is an intangible concept that money can’t buy.
About the Author
J. Edward Ritchie is a novelist and screenwriter specializing in epic world creation. He lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts with his wife and golden retriever.