Tuesday, August 16, 2011

High-Priced Book Reviews: Can You Buy Status?

A new, very expensive, fee-based book-review service proclaims itself "the best, if not the only solution the problem of vetting self-published titles." How credible is her claim? The writer, Patti Thorn, was the books editor of the now defunct Rocky Mountain News, where part of her job was to reject all self-published authors who requested reviews. But now that she's started her own online book-review service, BlueInk Review, self-published authors are her bread and butter.

Just as an aside, it's interesting to note that reviewers of self-published books are quick to jump all over typos like Thorn's omission of the word "to"--as in "solution to the problem"--in the above sentence. In fact a recent BlueInk review lamented the "numerous grammatical and typographical errors" in the book. And the author of that book paid $395 for that review--or $495 if he wanted it done in 4-5 weeks rather than 7-9 weeks.

Thorn would see this as an indication of the quality of BlueInk's reviews. And maybe it is. Except I never see that sort of criticism in reviews of traditionally-published books, even though I often see typos in those books as well.

Thorn says her reviewers are "highly credible reviewers--critics who have had their work published in high profile publications." She pays them well and instructs them to write honest reviews, noting both the book's positives and negatives.

Thorn's ultimate goal is for BlueInk to become a filter for self-published titles, such that readers encountering a new self-published book will ask "Did BlueInk like it?" or "What did BlueInk say?"

But her potential customers are self-published authors, who she says face the problem of convincing readers that their book is worth reading. Authors who want their books reviewed must pay the $395 or $495 in advance. If the author doesn't like the review, she can choose not to have it posted on BlueInk's website, but it still may appear in industry publications like Ingram iPage and will not be removed under any circumstances.

In my opinion, Patti Thorn represents the old guard. She wants to be a gate-keeper who tells readers what is worth reading. She says her goal is to vet self-published titles. She denigrates other systems of discovering good books. Customer reviews? Untrustworthy opinions. Ebooks that are bestsellers? Mass opinion does not equal quality. Websites that offer free book reviews? Resulting reviews are often sophomoric. Book bloggers? Too overwhelmed to accept self-published titles.

Kirkus Indie (formerly Kirkus Discoveries) offers a similar high-priced review service (standard review $425; express review $575), as does Foreward Clarion ($335). These two have been around for a while, but as far as I can see, they don't post their reviews on Amazon. Probably because Amazon Guidelines prohibit reviews done for any compensation other than a free copy of the book.

Why would a self-published author pay hundreds of dollars for a book review that won't be posted on Amazon, that will be recognized as a paid review by publishing insiders, and that is from a source most readers have never heard of? I figure authors who buy these reviews are still hoping to make it in the traditional publishing world.

I have no problem with review sites charging authors a nominal fee to cover costs, but these fees seem exorbitant. These review sites are attempting to sell status. Do authors need that in this new age of publishing? Many readers--especially readers of ebooks--trust customer reviews more than professional ones. It's the modern-day equivalent of a friend passing on a favorite book.

I'd like to see sales figures from books that used these review services vs. those that didn't. If the reviews don't translate into sales, they're not worth the price. In today's publishing world, most authors have to promote their own books. Those who write books that appeal to a segment of readers, and who promote their books in a way that reaches their target audience, sell lots of books. That's all the status they need.