The Passive Voice has a piece on the subject of paid reviews. It is extremely frustrating for self publishers to find themselves unable to get their books reviewed in the mainstream media (it’s frustrating for regular publishers too). As a result many self publishers consider paying for reviews. Is this a good investment?

Well it does cost quite a lot. I’ve heard up to $575. The Passive Voice quotes $399 for Publishers Weekly and $425 for Kirkus. There are quite a lot of places where you can buy a review. Publishers Weekly published an article about the pricing at various services a couple of years ago. However the Passive Voice post focusses mainly on the quality/qualifications of the reviewers you’ll get if you pay for a review. This is all well and good, but there’s larger issue: the issue of what might be the value of having a review published at all.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus may well be the leaders in the business of paid review publication, but our writer fails to make the distinction required in analyzing this business. Publishing reviews is a service: a service to a publication’s readers and to the authors and publishers of the books reviewed. But publishing paid reviews is a business. If Publishers Weekly can get $400 from a self-published author to arrange for and publish a review of that author’s book, who are we to say they are wrong to do so? But a paid review, even one by a qualified reviewer who’s actually read your book, carries a different message from a review in The New York Times Book Review, say. We are all conditioned to cynicism by log-rolling on Amazon.

The Passive Guy (PG), as the writer of The Passive Voice likes to refer to himself, wonders what discount traditional publishers get from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus for their pre-publication reviews of their books. The answer is 100%. No regular publisher pays any journal any sum for the publication of a review. There are two sections of reviews in PW: Book Life Reviews where authors purchase the reviews, and their regular review section where reviewing is carried out in the normal (unpaid) way. Reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus tend to have scant detectable effect on the sales of books.

In fact the sales boost from any book review (and advertisement) is something which the public is inclined to exaggerate in the most extravagant way. Only the most enthusiastic review by the most prominent reviewer in the most important publication will generate detectable sales activity. (A radio review on National Public Radio can move the dial too.) Books sell for a whole variety of reasons — and we’re not really certain what they are — recommendation by a friend; luck or serendipity; a topic you need/want to know more about; an author whose other books you’ve enjoyed; eye-catching appearance catches your eye; it’s there and you just want to buy something and get out of the store. Reviews are probably less important than any of these reasons. In the academic world reviews can be more significant — obviously if Professor X thinks it’s good, maybe you should look at it. Maybe we could propose a theorem: “The more non-fiction-ish a book is the more pronounced will be the effect of a good review”. Popular non-fiction books like Barack Obama’s forthcoming A Promised Land don’t need reviews to move them out of the warehouse. A good review of The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline in a prestigious journal might double the sale (which of course will be comparatively tiny anyway). Any publisher would regard spending $400 to have review published in PW or Kirkus as nothing but a quick way to throw away $400. Maybe some librarians may glance at these reviews, but mostly they are getting their information elsewhere, like for instance Library Journal (in its unpaid review section).

Now of course, what I’ve just said must be open to exception. It would be interesting to hear from authors who have seen a sales pick-up from reviews they’ve paid for. I have to believe that there may well be one or two. PG notes “some indie authors who are upset by one or more of the questionable activities described above [in his piece] say they will continue to use the Kirkus and PW services because they believe the blurbs [by which I believe he means reviews] still help sell enough books to more than justify the costs.” But this isn’t real evidence of value. Just because some authors keep on doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good plan. Frankly I don’t really see how you could ever measure the effect of a paid review. You can’t do an AB test: it’s impossible to publish the book twice, once with a PW review and once without one. Maybe the sales you made would have been made anyway even if you’d kept the $400 in your pocket: correlation is not causation.

There is of course some mathematics available to help a self publisher in deciding whether or not to pay for reviews. You know how much you make on every sale of your book: let’s say it’s $5. If you think you will sell 81 extra copies by paying $400 for a review then go ahead. How you’ll ever know whether these 81 extra sales did indeed result from the review seems utterly opaque to me, but there are clearly quite a lot of authors who think the investment is worthwhile. I say caveat emptor: as The Passive Voice warns, you’ve no idea ahead of time whether the reviewer’s going to be any good, or indeed the review.

See also Sock puppetry and Reviews sell books don’t they?