paying people to review your book

This would seem transparently corrupt — but Patti Thorn makes at least a plausible case. Her company, BlueInk Review, retains the services of “writers from mainstream media outlets or editors who have worked at well-respected publishing houses” to write honest reviews of self-published books that can’t get the attention of reviewers at mainstream publications. Reviewed authors don’t have any editorial control over the content of BlueInk’s review, but they can veto it.

I haven’t actually purchased any of these books to compare to the reviews, but their content is consistent with what you’d expect of self-published work — the copy is usually criticized, there’s often the express or implied suggestion that the writer could really have used an editor. Most of them have the air of straining to find something praiseworthy, although there are certainly a few reviews that seem sincerely positive. The reviews also seem quite short on average, 3-6 paragraphs — maybe that’s not short; most of the reviews I read are from the NYRB, not because I’m a snob but because I don’t usually read reviews unless my dad passes them along. (Of course, my “review” of the site will fall well in that range — but I’m not getting paid for it.)

I have some misgivings about reviewer anonymity. (They do list their stable of reviewers, but any given review is anonymous.) BlueInk’s main rationales for anonymity are (a) “the value of each review rests on the weight of the company’s reputation, rather on the name of any individual reviewer,” and (b) “our policy of reviewer anonymity protects our critics from the wrath of angry authors or the accolades of happy ones. Thus, it further ensures the objectivity of the review, as the nature of the review cannot hurt or help a reviewer’s career.” But neither (a) nor (b) are endorsed by traditional reviewing venues, and it’s not clear why things are different for BlueInk. I care about this because I suspect the reviewers might be harsher if they had to maintain the critical standards of their signed reviews. And that plays into a subtlety of what otherwise seems like a very good reviewing model — people will only pay for reviews if they think there’s a reasonable likelihood of a positive review, which means that a reasonable fraction of published reviews have to be positive. This relates to another question about the site, namely: What proportion of reviews are suppressed by the authors? I’m a little bit surprised at how many authors have allowed their relatively uncomplimentary views to be posted — but that could, at least in theory, be the tip of a very large iceberg.

Anyway, the site certainly makes the prospect of paid reviews more palatable than I’d have expected off the top of my head, and I’d at least consider paying for a BlueInk review if I had a self-published book to which I couldn’t draw attention elsewhere. Which is really the fundamental issue. I don’t think I’d pay for a book on the basis of a BlueInk review — but I might download a Kindle sample. (And, really, I wouldn’t pay for a book on the basis of just about any review, given the availability of Kindle samples for almost anything in print and many things out.) So the site seems basically worthwhile. If any of you self-publishing people try it out, I’d be interested to hear your results.

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3 thoughts on “paying people to review your book

  1. Anonymous reviews can be surprisingly useful if the reviewers are competent and knowledgeable about the topic, and if the reviews are used to guide revision of the work. Most academic journals rely on one or two rounds of anonymous reviews to make sure that the articles are suitable for publication. Much like BlueInk, a journal rests its reputation on the choice of reviewers (typically experts who have published in the field, but not always). If the reviewer does the job appropriately, they might be invited to review articles in the future, otherwise they are not contacted again (i.e., trial by fire). By keeping the reviewers (and authors) anonymous, the journal (and authors) can expect unbiased reviews, where reviewers may be as candid as necessary. The major difference is, of course, that journal reviews are not published as marketing tools. If you’re interested in a much different angle on anonymous reviews, please read about my personal experience of reviewing for journals: http://colditzjb.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/peer-review/ (shameless plug)

    Based on the staff list at the BlueInk site, many of these individuals are probably highly skilled reviewers. On the other hand, I noticed that several reviewers have “reviewed books for the [now-closed] Rocky Mountain News”, with not much else in the way of relevant experience. I would not be comfortable paying for a review unless BlueInk assured me of my personal reviewers’ qualifications. How can I be sure that a relatively inexperienced reviewer isn’t doing most/all of the reviewing for my work? – I can’t. How much weight does a BlueInk review carry, as compared to a review through a major media outlet? – Probably not much.

    If I had to speculate, I would say that the most-notable reviewers on staff are probably the ones who do the fewest reviews. They have other priorities (e.g., managing the business, writing freelancing, vacationing). I would love to know how many hours each of the staff members spends doing reviews in an average month. How might those data reflect on BlueInk’s reputation?

    All in all, the anonymous review process can be quite valuable to provide feedback towards revision of a work, but I don’t think that it is appropriate for the marketing of finished works. If the cost were low, it might be helpful to use BlueInk services to compliment other marketing strategies (i.e., just to get on the radar of reviewers who are willing to use names and media affiliations). I’m sure that there are better ways of spending you hard-earned marketing dollars, though.

    Cheers,
    Jason

    • I’m an academic myself, so I’m familiar with anonymous reviewing and the conventional arguments in favor. I’m not sold. I understand the benefits of anonymity, especially for younger scholars and junior faculty, but I think it functions more to license bad behavior than to encourage good. It also removes a potentially valuable source of credit for good work from reviewers who’ve worked hard to give good reviews (although you could imagine designing a system to keep track of reviewers while keeping their identities anonymous except to e.g. tenure committees). But all the above is informed by a reasonably small set of bad experiences with anonymous review. If I’d kicked off my academic career with more thoughtful responses from reviewers, maybe I’d think differently. (And I think things would improve immediately if the practices enumerated in your blog entry on the topic were more widespread.)

      There’s something to your point about the usefulness of anonymous reviews as marketing tools — my cynical angle is that if you don’t think you’re depriving your reviewees by withholding their reviewers’ names, those names must not have meant much to begin with. Your ultimate assessment is reasonable, but it has to be taken in context of the other options. BlueInk’s entire raison d’etre is that mainstream venues (with signed reviews) won’t review self-published books. So the question is how much it’s worth to you to have blurb copy that’s credited to BlueInk Review rather than, say, someone’s blog (or no blurb copy at all), versus a few more dollars to spend on cover art or promo copies or whatever. I personally have no idea.

      • I noticed after responding that you are a postdoc at UPenn (didn’t realize that I was preaching to the choir). I’m not as far along in my academic career, so I am still pretty idealistic about the blinded review process. It is likely that future life experiences will set me straight. I do appreciate the kind words about my post, and I hope to hold myself to those somewhat idealistic standards moving forward.

        I like your idea of anonymously tracking reviews! It is truly a shame that good reviewers must be the unsung heroes in academia. A colleague sent me this link to a “sample cover letter” for resubmission to a panel of terrible reviewers. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did: http://web.mit.edu/ariely/www/MIT/Sample.shtml

        I’ve never thought much about the hardships of self-published texts before now, much less about the barriers to entering the world of mainstream review. BlueInk, or some company like it, might be a viable option for authors in this realm. If I were marketing a self-published work, I’m not sure what I would do.

        Interesting topics on several fronts. Thanks for the discussion and getting my gears turning!

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