Fee-For-Review Versus Vanity Reviews


Young woman reading book

Probably one of the most controversial topics still in the book publishing industry is the idea of an author (or publicist) paying for a review of their book. It’s an offshoot of the self-publishing versus publishing industry argument that comes from the old vanity presses of the past.

A vanity press, for the younger readers, was a publishing company that would charge an author for the entire print run of a book. The publisher might make attempts to sell the book, but their profit had already been taken in the print run of the book (and sometimes ongoing storage fees of the unsold books). The publisher often kept rights to the book, provided little to no support (cover design, marketing, etc.), or charged excessive fees for those services. The books usually didn’t go through an approval or editing process, the only things required being a manuscript and the money to pay the publisher.

So, the stigma of the vanity press was a hold-over into the era of self-publishing. While many of the vanity press companies morphed into self-publishers, other companies truly did provide a cheap, effective way for an author to get a book into print and platforms to sell it to an audience apart from the traditional publishing route. And even with many self-publishing authors reaching best-seller status with their books, there still is, in the book industry, that same lingering stigma of the vanity press for self-publishers.

Leading from that is the issue of paying for reviews. As more print publications reduced or eliminated their book sections, the competition for authors and publishers to get attention for books escalated. So, in 2001, ForeWord Reviews launched Clarion Reviews, which charged a fee to provide a review for a book. From there, fee-for-review services popped up, and with the rise of Amazon, services that would provide as many 5-star reviews for your book or product as you could afford.

Over the years, paid review services have become more acceptable, though still controversial to some. Even Kirkus Reviews, the oldest book review service in the U.S., has a paid version for authors or publishers that can’t be reviewed through general submission. But the sigma of the vanity press has also rolled over into the fee-for-review programs. And in some cases, for good reason.

For every professional review company offering a neutral, professional review for a fee, there is another company offering a glowing 5-star review for a fee. While they couch their program in vague generalities about placing a book with the perfect reader or that they only release 4- and 5-star reviews, they’re really just going to write up a review guaranteed to make the author happy. Kirkus reviewers have always been anonymous, so they have the freedom to say what they think without potential retribution, and because fee-for-reviews isn’t the primary income stream for Kirkus, they also don’t need an author to be happy with a glowing review so they’ll come back with the next book the author writes.

City Book Review started in 2008 with a policy that they only reviewed books that had been released in the last 90 days. That kept the focus on new releases, but authors looking for a review from the Sacramento or San Francisco Book Reviews started asking for their book to be reviewed from outside of that period. That was the initial impetus to start charging, first for books outside the review window, and then authors who just wanted to make sure they received a review from us and didn’t want to go through the general submission process for free. Less than 30% of all the books received by City Book Review get reviewed, so the Sponsored Review program worked well for authors or publicists needing a review or blurb for a new release.

Over time, the City Book Review Sponsored Review program became more involved, but followed the same original guidelines – the review was done by one of the regular reviewers who was free to say whatever they thought about the book, and was paid regardless of the author accepting the review for publication. Our reviewer names are attached to the reviews they do, and any author can look at previous reviews by our reviewers to see what else they’ve reviewed for us. Publisher’s Weekly moved away from their old PW Select program where self-published authors had to pay a fee to get a chance (25%) of a review, and now just charges authors for a database listing and some general promotion of their book within the PW and BookLife ecosystem.

One good sign if a review program is more “vanity” than “fee:” does the company review any other books or only books they’re paid to review? Much like the vanity publishers whose only business model was being paid by authors to publish their book, not sell the book to bookstores or the public for the author, vanity review services only review books they’ve been paid to review. That creates both the impression that they’re only in the business of providing “feel good” reviews for authors and getting them to come back book after book, but also reduces the credibility of the review to bookstores, libraries, and other readers.

Reasons to pay for a review:

1. It can get you that first review to kick-start your marketing and to give you something to include on your book cover and media kit (if you get the review done pre-publication).

2. You’re looking for an independent, critical look at your book, outside of your friends and family who have read it so far.

3. Your local newspaper or media outlets don’t do local book reviews (or any book reviews).

4. You need a professional book review (or several) to get your local bookstores or libraries to carry the book or set up a local author appearance for you.

Things to watch out for:

1. The fee-for-review service only reviews books they’ve been paid to review, or the majority of the books they review are paid reviews.

2. They don’t review books and authors you don’t recognize (all of the books reviewed are self-published or very small press).

3. Industry professionals recognize and recommend the service and don’t get a referral fee for sending business to them (not something easy to discover, but an important issue).

City Book Review takes a lot of pride in their work, our reviews, and reviewers and the authors they work with. Whether they’re paid for a review or not, they want to make sure the review is accurate, honest, and reflects a good general view of the book and isn’t a generic three-sentence review that could have been generated by reading the back cover or a couple of other reviews online. And while not every author likes their review, they’re the only company I know of that offers a something for the author that declines to use their review (an ad on the website).

The only companies that I can find that do more than just fee-for-review, i.e. the majority of the reviews done are not paid for by authors are (in order of when they began offering the service as far as I can tell):

  1. Forward Reviews – $499 a review
  2. City Book Review – $199 – $350 a review
    San Francisco Book Review
    Manhattan Book Review
    Seattle Book Review
    Kids’ BookBuzz
  3. Kirkus Indie Reviews – $499 – $599 a review

What are you waiting for? Go get a book review today!

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