There seems to be an ongoing debate lately about authors paying people to review their books on websites like Amazon, Goodreads, etc. Some see this as simple commercialism: you have to get your brand out there, and you have to present it in the best possible light. Others see it as a violation of the trust between author and reader: the reader should be able to check reviews for honest feedback about the novel in question before deciding if they want to spend their hard-earned money on it, or something else.
So we apparently have a problem. Publishing is most certainly a business, and how does one promote a business? Advertisement, sponsorship, spokespeople… isn’t that what a reviewer is? A spokesperson? Don’t other businesses use them? What makes a published book any different?
Honestly, I have a hard time coming to a purely rational and logical conclusion that purchased reviews are inherently wrong and evil. How are they any different than a food manufacturer who tells you this product has less fat, but doesn’t bother to mention that it actually still has more calories and sodium? Or when an ambulance chasing lawyer pops on your TV screen and line of people tell you how much more money you’re going to get out of that guy who hit your car. Most of those people were never injured: they’re paid actors. So what’s the big deal?
The big deal, to me at least, is that it feels dishonest. It feels like the author is trying to trick readers into buying their book by falsifying the public’s reaction to it. Reviews are one of the strongest word-of-mouth generating media authors have, and anyone in publishing knows that word-of-mouth is what sells books. Sure a flashy cover will make someone pick it up off a shelf, and a good blurb will do a lot to get someone to buy it at that point, but word-of-mouth blows that away.
What these authors are doing poisons the well. It makes readers question the glowing positive reviews for the books out there that are actually that damn good. If a book has an overall 4.9/5 star rating, no one is going to believe it was actually that well received, even if the author never paid for a single damn review in his/her life. And the really shitty part is that author can never outright prove that those reviews are real without every single one of those people coming forward and saying ‘I’m a real person and I actually loved this fucking book!’
As an author, I have too much pride to pay for a review. I want my work to speak for itself. I don’t want to have to pay someone to write some bullshit smattering of nonsense that sounds like they might have read something one time, and leave a 5 star entry so someone will buy it under false pretense.
Those are my thoughts on it.
The other part of this is that someone out there decided it was a good idea to straight call out some writers for buying reviews. Now, I don’t know many of the authors on the list, but I’ve met a couple, and you know what? Some of those people are DAMN good writers. Good enough that they don’t need to purchase reviews because people already love what they do and tell all their friends about it. For my own edification, and because I like the guy, here’s a link to Hugh Howey’s response to some twerp calling him out for buying reviews. Personally, I think it’s bullshit. I met Hugh at WorldCon, and he was a great fucking guy. Top Notch. You know what else is top notch? His fucking writing.
That’s why he has a bunch of really high rated reviews. His shit’s good.
After all that, I want to close with this: Yes, paying for reviews seems like shady business. It makes me, and others I’m sure, second-guess what we see on these websites, and that can spell murder for someone who’s an author-publisher and trying to get sales based on the genuine ratings they have. Saying that, though, can we really look at it any differently than commercials in any other industry, or restaurant/auto shop/other business reviews on Google or Angie’s List?
Regardless, if you’re going to put out a list of people doing this shady business, you should be REAL fucking sure you have the goods on them before putting their names out there. Because if you’re wrong about them, you’re not only putting yourself in prime position for a lawsuit, but you’re recklessly putting their career at risk, and that’s the sort of behavior we should be condemning.