R.E. Donald

author of the Hunter Rayne Highway Mysteries series


The art of the book review: should good reviewers turn pro?

The publishing industry is in a state of flux.  Self-publishing is on the rise, especially in digital format, and many good fiction writers, as well as not so good writers, are choosing to bypass the traditional publishing gatekeepers, meaning  literary agents and the editors in publishing houses.  Discerning readers may choose to ignore the thousands of new titles that haven’t been vetted by publishing professionals, but in doing so, they may be denying themselves access to good books.  Where is this leading?

First let me say that I have never worked in the industry.  I am not an expert.  I may have made a living in other industries during my life, but I have always been a reader.  Since last September, I am also a self-published mystery writer.  I am enjoying the adventure of self-publishing, and am intrigued by the changes taking place in the industry.

I recently joined a number of writers from around the globe at the online launch party for the Alliance of Independent Authors, a new organization founded by author Orna Ross in the U.K.  There were some interesting and useful discussions during the launch, and the organization is already making strides in the support of independent authors, but one discussion that surprised me somewhat was a very forceful objection to paid reviews.  It was considered somehow unethical for any reviewing agency, such as Kirkus or Publishers Weekly, to charge independent authors for reviewing their books.

As someone new to publishing, I found this puzzling.  I absolutely agree that it would be unethical –it would eventually be fatal to a professional reviewer’s career – to write glowing reviews about bad books because they were paid to do so.   I assume that eventually a dishonest reviewer would lose all credibility with readers.   (Granted that beauty is in the eye of the beholder;  I’ve recently been struggling through a print novel by a well known mystery author that has 17 five-star reviews and 18 one-star reviews on Amazon.  Were they all reading the same book?)

However, as the industry changes, I can’t see why reviewers shouldn’t step into the roles previously held by agents and publishers.  Isn’t it a service to readers to indentify the best of the independently published books?   Isn’t a good reviewer’s time and expertise worth money?  As writers expect their own time and effort in writing a work of fiction should bring them some financial rewards, shouldn’t a reviewer performing a service for readers also be allowed to seek compensation for his or her work?  Have you ever struggled to finish reading a novel that was boring, confusing, annoying, unpleasant or just difficult to read?

Guess what?  Reading a book you don’t enjoy is a lot like WORK!  Then writing a well-considered honest review on top of that?  Shouldn’t that be worth something?

I guess part of the question is who should be paying for this service by professional reviewers?  I would assume that Kirkus and Publishers Weekly are supported primarily by advertising dollars from publishers.  They are, after all, businesses with staff to pay and overhead costs to cover.  The reviewers might not be paid directly by the publishers for each review, but the publishers are still the ones who put bread on their tables, albeit indirectly.  The other businesses in the supply chain also support them financially, either through subscriptions or by supporting the publishers by buying their books.  It only makes sense that they are willing to review traditionally published books over indies, and that they charge upwards of $350 for reviewing an independently published work.  (They do agree to not publish poor reviews of indie books.)

I started to speculate on what that could mean for reviewers in the future.  I suspect the average reader will still be happy to share their opinions on books they’ve read via non-professional reviews on Goodreads or Amazon or other online book retailers.  They might also post reviews on personal blog sites.  Readers will want to find a reviewer they can trust.  To have access to good reviews from a reviewer who shares their taste in fiction, they might be happy to pay a small monthly or annual fee to subscribe to those reviews.  Independent authors who feel that they have a novel that will appeal to those readers won’t object to paying for that reviewer’s time to read and review their novel.  I suspect that the author would have the option of withholding a poor review from publication.  They also have the option of seeking out a reviewer whose tastes run more to their own, or reworking the manuscript to improve it based on the reviewer’s comments.

How much does a professional editor cost?  I believe the going rate is around $0.03 per word, although it varies tremendously.  That means a writer might have to pay $3000.00 or more to have a 100,000 word novel professionally edited.  What if a writer could pay a competent reviewer to read that book and write a comprehensive review?  Did the plot work?  How was the pacing?  Were the characters well developed and likeable?  Were there spelling, grammatical and typographical errors that made it hard to read?  It might not be as detailed as an edit, but it could certainly help an author improve the book.

What would a reviewer’s time be worth?  How long does it take to read a 100,000 word novel?  Let’s say the reviewer can read relatively quickly – not just skim – at a rate of 400 words per minute.  That would require over four hours of continuous reading.  I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty difficult feat for me.  Most likely, it would take the better part of a day.  How long would it take to write a competent, well-considered review?  What’s an educated self-employed professional’s time worth?  I’d say that $35 an hour is on the low side.  It would seem that $350 is cheap for a solicited professional review.  And what about covering the reviewer’s expenses to publish and distribute that review?

As a writer, I feel a tremendous debt of gratitude to those readers who have taken the time to read and honestly review my novels.  I’m sure there are many readers who haven’t gotten past the first few pages, and that’s fine, too.  Why?  Because there are hundreds of novels by established and popular authors, let alone by self-published authors, which I haven’t wanted to read.   Most of the time, it’s because the story is just not to my personal taste.  I’ve never even started reading a Stephen King novel.  I understand that he is an excellent writer, but I don’t enjoy horror.  I love Dean Koontz’s writing, but I don’t want to read about his villains.  I’ve never read a Harry Potter book either because fantasy just doesn’t appeal to me.

Will professional reviewing lead to abuse?  Of course.  It’s quite possible – you see it already in friend reviews, or fellow writer reviews, and in some of the published professional reviews – for a reviewer to say only nice things about a book to please the author who has asked for the review, and conveniently leave out the negatives – but market forces usually prevail.    I can see that readers will eventually settle on reviewers whose opinions they can trust.  The buyer will still, as always, have to beware.

Is there a bright financial future for a new breed of independent professional reviewers?  Just sayin’.

What do you think?