Musings on Book Reviews – Cidney Swanson

Musings on Book Reviews

Barry Eisler recently posted thoughtfully (and thoroughly) upon the topic of sock-puppetry and other systems of paid and falsified reviewing in the book industry. (Actually, his article is more focused upon the recent rash of response to it, but includes thoughts of reviews as well.) I’ve been examining my own actions in this regard–something Eisler urged authors to do. His article was, for me, timely. I recently sent SAVING MARS to Kirkus Indie for a paid review. (This is Kirkus’s solution for books unattached to one of the publishers with whom they already work offering not-for-pay reviewing.) I’ve concluded, after consulting with writers whose integrity I trust, that Kirkus Indie provides a very different service from the kinds of services that have come under fire recently. In fact, in these discussions, that conclusion pretty much fell in the category of “self-evident.”  But what about my other review practices? Are they above reproach or not?

My practice has been to send review copies out fairly indiscriminately. Anyone who asks for a review copy gets one. Early in my indie-publishing career, I spent a great deal of time pondering big publishing’s ARCs review system and decided I didn’t have a good way of replicating it. That is, I don’t have the ability, time, dedicated staff, etc. to have a 3-6 month period prior to a book’s release during which I run a buzz campaign. In fact, the indie curve for buzz seems to run the reverse of the traditional curve. That is, a book starts out with no recognition whatsoever and builds buzz in the 3-6 months after it is released. Once I recognized this, I realized I would need a different approach in the buzz department.

I did what many writers do: I wrote to book bloggers and asked if they would review my book. Then, I did something I thought was smart marketing at the time: I added a sentence at the conclusion of my books inviting readers to leave a review so others could figure out if a book was right for them or not. I then offered to send review copies of the next-in-series to anyone who told me about their review.

Now I’m feeling uncertain about having done that, in light of all of the talk about sketchy review practices. Have I added to the number of errors it is possible to commit in the area of acquiring reviews? On the one hand, I want books in the hands of those who are likely to review them. On the other hand, I’ve created a system where there is some incentive (a free review copy) for posting a review. Does that invalidate the integrity of those reviews?

In looking through my reviews, I can’t see much difference between the reviews by those who posted and then requested the next copy as compared to those who post and never make the request. (Or those who post, tell me, and then say, “Don’t send me the next book—I already bought it.”) My books receive super-short reviews from all three groups. My books receive super-long reviews from all three groups. The rankings are all over the place. That is, there is not a pattern of higher rated reviews from the reviewers who wrote to request a review copy of the next in series.

However, in light of Barry Eisler’s musings upon the subject, I’m trying to come up with a better system of which I could say, “That’s above reproach.” Because his message to take the mote out of one’s own eye first sounded like pretty good advice. Do you have any ideas regarding what a better system might look like?

4 Replies to “Musings on Book Reviews”

  1. Great post, Cidney. I’m new to Indie publishing and just putting together a reviewers vetting system. Part of the process seems to be about a gut reaction. If it doesn’t feel good, then take a pass. I like the idea behind Goodreads, where the community is built around personal libraries. There seems to be a built-in trust mechanism for thoughtful and honest reviews because they’re linked to a person with a profile and book shelves. You also make an interesting point about when to offer review copies, you got me thinking, would it help if you took the focus off reviews and put it on other word-of-mouth advertising techniques? Reviews aren’t the only way to get people talking. Of course, as writers we also need time to write, so spending every minute on marketing would be frustrating. I look forward to hearing what others say. It’s an interesting topic, for sure. Also, here’s a link to a great NY Times article on this very subject.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/business/book-reviewers-for-hire-meet-a-demand-for-online-raves.html?pagewanted=all&_moc.semityn.www

    1. Hey Rhonda! Yup, that article was an eye-popper. I felt as if I were reading something from a sci-fi. It had that, “this can’t possibly be true,” feel to it, although, clearly, it is true. Very “squick” as a friend of mine says. I think she uses the word to mean something icky that makes you want to squeal a little bit. Thanks for the good suggestions, too!

  2. Yes! Squick is the perfect word here. I’m hearing more and more about this topic, and in fact, made a great contact at the Arizona SCBWI regional conference a week back that may be able to shine more light on the Indie review system. If I get any good info, I’ll share.

  3. I don’t see anything wrong with the system you’re using – offering review copies of the next book to those who review the previous. I’m a member of several big publishing firms’ book reviewer programs, where we receive free books in the mail in exchange for reading and reviewing them. Both the reviewer and the published know that there is no guarantee whatsoever of a positive review, just that there will be a review, and that positive vs. negative feedback plays no part in the reviewer’s future in the program. Your promise to send review copies of the next book to those who review the previous doesn’t seem much different to me.

    I’ve been on both ends of these programs, too. What I mean by that is, I’ve been the person getting free books and then reviewing; but I’ve also been a reader looking at others’ reviews through these programs. As a buyer I look at reviews from these programs as equal with those written by actual buyers.

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