Should book reviewers expect cash or gifts?

Our featured guest blogger this week is Kathryn (Bob) Etier, a professional book reviewer who has almost a thousand reviews in print. She tackles the issue of ethics and asks: Should reviewers expect gifts, or perks or cash in exchange for a good book review?

Want to fast-track your book to a glowing review?  Take a copy, paperclip a $100 bill bookmark to the first page, and send it to me.  In all honesty, it would just break my little heart if an author sent me a book with a $100 insurance policy. Why? Because it would absolutely kill me to return the cash, but to keep it would mean it would haunt me for the rest of my life.  Am I being overly dramatic? Of course I am, but—jokes aside—$100 isn’t adequate compensation for the loss of ideals and values, so back it goes.

Do reviewers observe ethical considerations?  Yes. Not all do, but most have principles (or an old-fashioned and out-of-fashion conscience) that prevent them from engaging in unethical behavior.  Does that affect writers? Is it worth risking your reputation or alienating reviewers? For example, if a writer did send me a book with a $100 bill attached, I would not only feel conscience-bound to return the money, I would be unable to review the book (which is why I’ve never given the advice that opens this column to an author or publicist. Not everyone recognizes a joke when hearing one).

How can a writer court internet reviewers without overstepping unclear borders?  One way is to avoid the embarrassment of insulting a reviewer or damaging one’s own reputation.  Regardless of their spiritual beliefs, ethical reviewers do unto others as they would have done unto them.  They don’t review books because of big bucks to be made; they review books because they love them and they enjoy writing. Since they maintain certain values and don’t write just for the money, they aren’t necessarily looking for perks.

Other principles that reviewers observe include publishing honest reviews, reviewing titles they request, writing original reviews (attributing quotes from other sources such as press releases and press kits, or setting them apart with quotation marks), taking responsibility for their work by writing under their own names, acknowledging the source of review materials, and refusing payments from authors and publicists. Not every reviewer shares the same values, but there is an ethos that binds the ethical and separates them from the rest.

Are all “gifts” to reviewers verboten?  Branded, promotional items (caps, T-shirts, pens, candy, pencils printed with a book’s title) and novelty items –press kit filler—are all acceptable. Sending a thank-you note after receiving a thoughtful review can’t influence the review, and authors sometimes send copies of the finished product (usually signed) when they especially appreciate a reviewer’s input. The United States Postal Service allows mail carriers to accept gifts of negligible value, a guideline that might well be applied to writer/publicist-to-reviewer giftables.

Although influencing reviews with thinly-veiled “bribes” (higher-ticketed items) may seem an easy way to get the type of reviews one wants, the best way to get a reviewer to deliver a glowing review is to present him or her with a well written, beautifully copy-edited book.

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  • Barbara Fifield

    An interesting comment since I have paid a number of reviewers to review my books. Some were glowing reviews, but others average. I would think just receiving a free copy of the book would be enough compensation since it cost money to mail it to the reviewer as well. Barbara Fifield

    • Barbara, if a reviewer is offering a service for a price, then that’s a business. If he or she is being paid by a third party (such as an e-zine or a newspaper), it is unethical to charge for the review. I can think of few professions in which double-billing is an acceptable practice (except to those who do it).

      While receiving a free copy of the book should be compensation enough, keep in mind that not all authors write books for which reading is its own reward. I have been lucky in that it’s only a small minority of books that make me roll my eyes to the heavens and ask, “Why am I being punished?,” but there have been some for which no compensation would have been adequate. –KEE

  • Okay, Kathryn, here’s the deal: I’ll allow you to review my book for just $100. Please send the money by cash or money order and then purchase the book.

  • Kathryn, Okay, I’ll play the Devil’s advocate. You probably anticipated that. Kirkus Reviews in its Kirkus Indie section will review any book an author wishes to submit for an upfront charge of $425 ($575 if the author chooses express service). When the review is finished, Kirkus sends it to the author who has the right to veto the review, i.e., not have it published, or to give Kirkus the go ahead to publish it. Where does a practice like this fit in your spectrum of ethical considerations for reviewers?

    • Stephen, if a writer is willing to pay a service to review his or her book, I can’t object, however, that writer is one who “pays for reviews,” which sounds an awful lot like someone who is afraid of what he or she will get from random reviews. Writing a book is a gamble, publishing it even more so. I’d prefer to roll the dice and get a number of different opinions then pay a service that is nearly guaranteed to please. When I see that a book’s review comes from Kirkus (or any other paid review service), I don’t read it.

      While I don’t like review services, one of my points is writers/publicists should not pay reviewers for work for which they are already being paid. Another point is that overly generous gifts are perceived as bribes. In writing a review, mightn’t the fact that the author surprised you with a two-week trip to the Bahamas influence your review?

      The likelihood that anyone will find out that you offered me an SUV to review your novel is unlikely to become public knowledge, but if it did my reputation would be damaged. More importantly, I’d know if I accepted, and even if I didn’t accept, my opinion of or respect for you would be lowered. On the other hand, if you’d like we can test this theory… –KEE

      • If Georgia beats Alabama this week, would you consider waiving the SUV? LOL, SW

        • Stephen,
          Miss Bob often, especially on Saturdays, dons a red and white “Roll Tide” T-shirt!

          • In light of what lawyers sometimes call “new facts recently developed,” please delete my prior comments and insert the following: “Notre Dame sucks.”, SW

  • Sheila

    Well said. I have be a book reviewer for almost a year now. My payment, as stated at the end of each review, is hugs and kisses from my children. I love books and I love the opportunity to talk about them with other book lovers. Author’s approval is appreciated but not required for most of us. Thank you for this article.

  • I will play Devil’s advocate along with Stephen. There is a real demand for reviewers in the marketplace. I easily average more than 1 request per day and am probably at 500+ requests for the year. I have done approx. 40+ reviews this year. If a person or group can do objective reviews, then they could be charging a fee.
    OK authors don’t shoot me. A book is just another product in the marketplace. Most products require intellectual smarts to create it – the same as a book. All kinds of products are reviewed by “professional” groups and most are done for a fee. Some may not charge a fee but they get the product for free and they make money selling their evaluations. (Consumer Reports? don’t know if they charge a fee.)
    A book reviewer in a paper is getting paid by their employer who is getting revenue by advertisers. Often book ads on the same page. Check out USA Today.
    I guess the real question is: If a reviewer can do an honest review is it wrong to be paid? Obviously not for many other products. What would make books an exception to this rule?
    As always – good luck to all indie authors!

  • I completely agree with everyone’s (divergent) comments here: reviewing books can be a bona fidae business (it takes time and effort that should be compensated) and paying for reviews should not be necessary and can be viewed as a (demeaning) bribe. Personally, I prefer reviewers who simply review for the fun of it, just like some readers write reviews on Amazon because they enjoyed your book. That situation is the best one in the world! But book discoverability has become a nightmare with the onslaught of self-published authors (some 250,000 titles last year compared to 120,000 in 2010 – when will this tsunami ever end?) Some authors become desperate and seek reviews in any way they can, including paying. Can you blame them?

    It would be nice if reviewers – the honest, professional kind that won’t take bribes or any payments – banded together, set up a site making money on that site in other ways than reviewing books (for example taking small cuts on books sold on the site or selling book events or whatever) and published their reviews in magazines and newspapers across the country to strengthen their reputation as objective critics…In short, some kind of institutional gate-keeping needs to be set up now that this gate-keeping role has been largely abandoned by traditional publishers as they find themselves over-run by the tsunami of self-published authors…

  • I agree. I have done many book reviews; I actually stopped because I was being harassed by people who I chose not to write a review rather than a poor review. A band of bonafide reviewers who are respected as professionals is the way to go.
    Excellent article

  • August McLaughlin

    Fantastic insight here and a brilliant conclusion. I’ve heard that some book reviewers and “contest junkies” (which relates more to blog tours and giveaways) are solely interested in material or monetary prizes, which does little to support writers’ art. I’m grateful for the many exceptions and posts like this one!

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