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Self-Publishing Lessons 9: About Reviews, Part 1


The traditional wisdom on reviews is: reviews sell books. And it’s true, conditionally. So let’s think about this a moment.

The big houses are masterful at using reviews.

Self- and small publishers tend to be terrible at using reviews.

I’m seriously guilty of this, even though I know better. Unlike many people though, I understand why, and I have some ideas on how to do better — although in the changing world of modern self-publishing, there are no guarantees that what worked yesterday will work tomorrow.

In fact, it’s a safe bet that it won’t work, because over the last hundred years or so, the big houses have built the system that is currently in place. It works well. It will always work well, because the foundations are sound and quality-based.

But self-publishers don’t have the same advantages as big houses, and all the marketing shit (which I hope to not deal with too much in this blog) comes down to that system the big boys use.

Amazon Reviews

A lot of people don’t realize just what a wrench in the works the Amazon system is.

Before Amazon, most reviews that people read or heard, be they related to books or movies or any other form of entertainment, carried some weight. The fact that a review for a book even existed in some form of media which was disseminated to the public meant that the book itself had some legitimacy.

This is the flip side of the “traditional publishing is dying” argument I presented earlier on this blog. This relates to one of the good aspects of traditional publishing: the fact that you could buy a book, back then, meant that you could be sure it had been selected from similar, competing titles based on someone’s idea of quality.

Published reviews, therefore, meant that whoever thought this book was good, also thought that it was good enough to send to an impartial, qualified reviewer — in other words, someone who knew their shit and could speak to the tastes of a large cross segment of the populace — with the full expectation that this reviewer would give an honest evaluation. Since the publisher had full confidence, or at least high hopes, in their choices, the system theoretically advanced quality and punished lack of the same.

But now, in the Amazon world, it’s just a numbers game. 50 right now is the magic number, and this is only going to grow higher as more people participate. This has given rise, since around 2001, to the paid review concept.

Paid Reviews

What we have now is a clusterfuck of self-publishers desperately trying to register on the Amazon marketplace. This has naturally given rise to a cottage industry of paid reviewers, who will guarantee a good review in exchange for cash.

I think this is unethical and repulsive, and I personally won’t participate.

I understand the temptation to. I understand the market forces involved. I understand it’s not by definition “criminal.”

But is it deceptive? Fuck yes it’s deceptive. Even the big houses would only rarely take steps to ensure positive reviews, and they have the clout and the resources to do so consistently if they so choose. So why didn’t they? Why didn’t — why don’t — they make sure that all their stuff gets good reviews?

Because, until recently, they knew people just weren’t that stupid. (Clarification: they still think this, but until recently, they were correct; now, I’m not so sure.) There were not that many reliable sources of reviews, and they were reliable because they are accurate. When PW or Kirkus or Locus said a book was of a certain quality, or lack thereof, their particular audience could take that advice to heart.

What is your opinion on Roger Ebert’s reviews? If you grew up with him like many of us, you have an opinion. Based on your track record with his reviews, you knew if his tastes aligned with yours. You even learned where you would disagree with him, and whether you could take his advice on any given film.

Publishers Weekly is the same way. Kirkus Reviews is the same way. And now, even they are charging for reviews, although they have maintained their integrity.

Quick Conclusion For Self-Publishers

So how do we get out of this quagmire? What should we do? Should we just cave, buy the reviews from internet nobodies and fiverr ‘professionals’ and Amazon Customer #X974368, and get our ratings up there by playing the system?

You can do that if you want. Business is unethical more often than not. You’re not supposed to by Amazon’s terms of service, but it’s not as if they police this kinda shit. They look the other way. They don’t care very much, as long as you’re selling and their ass is covered.

But I think time will tell that quality wins in the end. If you’re going to buy a review, do it right. Pay Kirkus the 500 bucks and use the shit out of that review. Everyone will take it seriously. And if you’re smart, which most people aren’t, you’ll get more mileage out of that Kirkus review than you get out of the hundred fiverr, nobody, barely-have-a-platform five-stars that you buy with the same amount of money.

Me? I’m doing this on my own. The only reviews I’ll seek out are from people I believe know what they’re doing and will review me honestly. If I pay, I will be waiting with bated breath and hoping for a good review. I love my readers, but I won’t pay some semi-pro unknown just to rubber stamp my work.

Yes, it’s slow going, relying on authentic reviews from everyday readers or those I can believe when I read them.

And yes, it’s organic, and small-scale, and won’t catapult me into any limelight anytime soon.

But it’s fucking honest. My reviews were earned by the work I did, not by how much I can drag out of my wallet.

If we’re going to do this and compete with the big boys, who are hardly famous for their ethics, let’s do it with more god damned integrity than they do, not less.


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