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.