Sunday, August 26, 2012

Is the practice of paying for reviews of self-published books unethical?

The Business Day section of the Sunday New York Times, Aug. 26, has a long analytical piece by David Streitfeld, “The best reviews that money can buy.”  No, this is really not a good analogy to the New York Yankees of 1978. 

The article really gives a short history of self publishing, going back to subsidy and vanity publishing leading to the print-on-demand world of today.  Many “legitimate” media sources don’t review self-published books (I used to hear this all the time at writers’ conferences back in Minneapolis), but some entrepreneurs have indeed started services where authors can “buy” reviews.  The “businessman” that the article particularly focuses upon in Todd Rutherford in Tulsa OK.

The article traces how some e-book authors, who are likely to sell copies for very low prices, find that a volume of favorable consumer reviews has a big effect on sales. 

Now, according to the article, Amazon policy forbids paid reviews, and Google’s advertising program policies would prohibit advertisers who sell book reviews for authors. A comparison can be made with professional contractor review sites: Angie's List doesn't accept paid reviews. 

Is this practice unethical?  For one thing, FTC rules would require disclosure of paid reviews to consumers – unlikely to be very enforceable.  (It’s like requiring a blogger to disclose if he or she was paid for a blog review or got a free review copy of a book or film DVD.)  But paid review services don’t guarantee that the reviews are favorable, and sometimes they aren’t.   Savvy consumers are likely to realize than many reviews are paid or “arranged”; but it seems that to some point, the public hasn’t caught up with recognizing this practice yet.  In time, it certainly will, even with little or no government policy change or enforcement.
If you write a PhD dissertation, you, in a sense, “pay” (through tuition) to have professors “review” it.  The whole concept of education is based on paid review of samples of someone’s work. 

But I don’t engage in the practice of paying for reviews (my first book has just two), and neither have I hired on to write reviews for others.  The article discusses how, in difficult and changing times for the old fashioned trade publishing world, writers may find writing paid reviews to be a source of income.

I do reviews of films from sample DVD’s but there is no editorial influence on what I say. I do get a lot of emails with offers of free books to review and of people to interview.  Some people don’t realize I don’t have a staff or a whole media company with private jets to fly people around the world. Many of the books are about very specialized issues, and tend to play the “victim” card; although at one time, “don’t ask don’t tell” might have been seen as an overly narrow issue; I think I have showed that it was not.  I generally pick books that deal with important issues, whether they come from the mainstream trade publishing world (many do) or are self-published. 

Here is the Times link.
Near the end, the article talks about a newer effort, "Authors reviewing authors", Facebook link.

Next time, take user reviews with a grain of salt.

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