A few weeks back the New York Times ran a piece on the inherently dubious business of paid book reviews. If you’re an independent author or are writing a book for any reason other than personal interest the article is a must-read, but not for the reasons you might think.
As anyone knows who’s ever tried to search the internet for the best spatula or best toaster, finding credible reviews on the internet is impossible. No amount of persistence and no set of keywords will ever produce what you’re looking for because keywords are the life blood of both search engines and the soulless, SEO-driven marketing weasels who exploit them. The only chance you have of getting an unbiased opinion about anything is to already know sources you trust, and to hope they’ve reviewed the product you’re interested in. For many products ConsumerReports provides that kind of objective, metric-driven coverage, but when it comes to books there’s little chance a title you’re considering will have been reviewed by someone who doesn’t have a personal axe to grind or who isn’t part of the publisher’s own extended marketing effort. Worse, if you’re an independent author there’s almost no chance that you’ll be able to have your book reviewed by a reviewer who has established their own credibility.
The internet workaround for this problem has been to allow customers to post reviews of products they’ve used. The practical result of this workaround in the book world is that authors and their friends and family salt and sock-puppet their own positive reviews when a book comes out, while competitors and griefers and put-upon students post scathing negative reviews about books they have often never read. The resulting noise can be sifted through endlessly or judged in the aggregate, but even then it tends only to reinforce whatever sense of the work the prospective customer already had.
As the article notes, almost all of the current paid-review options are not in fact reviews at all, but sponsorship and marketing. And consumers of reviews are not confused about this transactional relationship. In fact, whether you pay for a review or not, the default assumption by the public is and must be that your review is corrupt. And since it doesn’t matter how sincere a paid reviewer is, that consumer bias only corrupts the process that much faster, with the lion’s share of the paid-review business going to the most corrupt reviewers. (What authors are paying for when they buy a reviews is a positive review, and paid reviewers know this.) I have no doubt that the best of paid reviews are better than the worst, cleverly avoiding, for example, over-the-top claims of grandeur, but the goal is always the same: to help sell, rather than to independently judge.
Made almost comically explicit in the article is the idea that traditional arms-length reviewers do not have this credibility problem because they do not participate in the review process as adjuncts to marketing and sales. But that assertion is patently false. It’s true that the New York Times Review of Books doesn’t take checks or cash up front, but they certainly take phone calls from publishers, and it’s a fair bet that the people at the highest levels of the traditional publishing industry all know each other and how business is done. If the good friend of an editor writes a book it somehow ends up on the top of that editor’s stack. If a book is written by a despised peer the title somehow gets lost, or savaged by a hostile reviewer chosen for exactly that purpose. If there are humans involved, and money and power hanging in the balance, you can be certain that the process is inherently corrupt no matter how squeaky clean the press releases are.