09/05/2012 12:05 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Everybody Pays For It

A version of this article first appeared on

I first wrote about the topic of paid reviews on IndieReader last week, spurred by David Streitfeld's case study, "The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy", on the front page of the business section of The New York Times, about a shleppy-looking guy with no scruples who sold bogus book reviews to indie authors.

That story was quickly followed by another, this one breaking in the British media, detailing the crimes of RJ Ellory. Ellory's story is a bit different, in that he is a traditionally published author caught writing fake reviews for his books on Amazon, leading me to conclude that--trad pubbed or indie--some authors are more hard up for attention than a Kardashian (pick one).

But back to the NYTimes story. It seems, based on the well over 300 comments received, that the point in the article that had outraged most people--even though it's as common as the cast of "Honey Boo Boo"--is that (gasp!), authors knowingly paid a hard-up freelancer, living in a hotel in Las Vegas, to give their book a positive review.

The fact that there are very few products or service industries--from tooth brushes to travel sites--that don't solicit and/or pay for good reviews is mentioned in the piece, albeit fleetingly. But Streitfeld covered that subject in greater length in a post he wrote last year for the Times, In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5, describing how the enormous demand for reviews--on everything from hotels and restaurants to car dealerships and handymen--has led to a kind of review-factory involving little evaluation of services and products, writing, "the boundless demand for positive reviews has made the review system an arms race of sorts. As more five-star reviews are handed out, even more five-star reviews are needed. Few want to risk being left behind."

But the news that you can buy positive feedback on TripAdvisor didn't draw nearly the same outrage reserved for indie authors.

Why is that?

Perhaps it's because, even though indie books have repeatedly cracked the most respectable bestseller lists, they are still considered poseurs by many (conveniently those, like the New York Times, in the position to commission such an article), who survive on the kindness -and the ad dollars--of traditional publishing.

As bestselling trad pubbed author Sue Grafton recently said, "Don't self-publish. That's as good as admitting you're too lazy to do the hard work" and " seems disrespectful...that a 'wannabe' assumes it's all so easy s/he can put out a 'published novel' without bothering to read, study, or do the research."

Well that sure puts indies in their place, doesn't it?

The other point that gets lost in "The Best Book Reviews" piece is that paying for book reviews is not just the pervue of indie authors. Professional reviews for all published books--whether trad or indie--are, directly or indirectly, paid for. Traditional publishers not inclined to paying outright for services find other, more socially acceptable ways of racking up positive reviews. On an author's behalf, publishers, editors, agents and PR people may attempt to develop relationships with reviewers before a book has been critiqued. There are fancy lunches and plenty of swag. If a book has been reviewed favorably by a critic in the past, you can bet that the publisher will send new manuscripts in their direction in the hopes of receiving another good review. As George Bernard Shaw put it, "We've already established what kind of woman you are, madam. Now we're just haggling about the price."

But bad reviews of traditionally published authors don't seem to have as negative of an impact as those for indie books, especially if they appear in prominent publications. In fact, there are many instances in which bad press has served to bring in higher sales. These authors, if they have achieved a certain level of fame, often have media outlets, such as radio and television, in which they can promote their work and obtain additional consumers. The above marketing strategies are generally not available, or are financially out of reach for the indie author. It's like pitting the Sylvester Stallone from Rocky with the Sly Stallone from The Expendables.

In spite of this, indie books continue to make their mark all over the bonafide bestseller lists. Their books are being scooped up almost weekly by one of the Big 6, at which time their authors are welcomed into the club (cue secret handshake), their books given a new cover and sent out to presumably legit reviewers with the process starting all over again.

The moral of the story?

Even if a review is legit, it is subjective. Even if an indie author pays for a few positive reviews, if their book is badly written the truth will prevail. Or, if its 50 Shades of Grey, everyone will know it sucks but will buy it anyway.

Rebecca Nichloson contributed to this piece.