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?

Author: R.E. Donald

Author of the Highway Mysteries series

7 thoughts on “The art of the book review: should good reviewers turn pro?

  1. Hey R.E., I found this from a link on the ALLI discussion. Nicely done. Lots of good stuff.

    For me, as a new self published author, I’ve used sites to give me paid reviews. They do not guarantee a ‘good’ review and they post the reviews they commission regardless. Interestingly, they don’t indicate the review is paid for anywhere.

    This has been an excellent service for me. I’ve gotten good, honest feedback from people who have no ties to me and no agenda. They just want to read a good book. It’s been very helpful and I believe that that a perspective reader can get a good idea on the quality of my book from these review.

  2. As an avid reader, I find this to be an interesting topic. I would, however, like your perspective on the practice of “not publishing negative reviews.” If you are paying a reviewer for a “positive” review, specifically for an indie publication, how does this serve the customer? I agree with the compensation arguement. I’m just not sure that independent paid reviews are the answer. Would you purchase a product whose only review is from their marketing department? I suppose as a customer, I might feel a little cheated. Perhaps it comes down to transparency. If I know it’s a paid infomercial, then I can make a buyer decision. I just don’t want to be duped into thinking I’m getting a objective perspective when it’s really synonymous with a paid ad. Great topic and thank you for sharing your insight!

    • Thanks for your comment. Quite frankly, I don’t think that giving a dishonest review serves the reader, or in the long run, the writer or publisher, and ultimately the reviewer’s reputation. I think to be a credible professional for both writer and reader, the reviewer would have to adopt the same policy as Kirkus does, meaning not publishing a paid review that was for the most part negative unless the writer who paid for it wants it published. To be worthwhile the review should be honest without being unkind, and the writer or indie publisher should have the option of using part or all of the review in their own literature, ads, etc. Publishers already do that. They’ll snip out the best part of any published review to include on or inside the cover, and leave out the bad parts. If a reviewer isn’t honest and just makes up a positive review in exchange for payment, I guess they’re really an ad copy writer and not a reviewer! They aren’t likely to develop much of a following.

      I think for a professional reviewer with a following of readers who share his or her tastes, it’s paramount to gain and keep the trust of those readers by publishing honest reviews. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to a writer to publish a very negative review if they have paid for the service. I would hope that any writer who receives a negative review from a professional reviewer the writer believes serves his intended market would take the review seriously. Either it’s the wrong market, or the writer should take more time to revise, rewrite and improve their writing skills. It’s kind of like taking an exam, getting a low mark, and realizing you have to work harder to pass the next time.

      Should a reviewer publish a negative review on a book he chooses to read without being paid? I don’t have an answer for that. As a reader, I appreciate knowing if a book is likely to be a waste of my time. However, as I said in my original post, opinions on a book can be so widely divergent, you wonder if everybody was reading the same thing.

  3. I absolutely love your idea! I think it is the solution to the dilemma of many writers – Being able to ask my book any good? And the ability to read a book that’s reviewed by that person and just for yourself just how good the reviewer is – before shelling out the cash – great idea!

    In my opinion, much preferable to the idea of publishing without something like this and then having a group decided whether it’s good enough to read – a seal of approval – which I’ve been pretty verbal about. Much better to get the truth or at least an opinion you trust from someone before publishing. I’d scrap up my pennies for that.

  4. R.E.,
    You have raised many interesting questions. I review books from time to time and have a backlog of books to read and review right now. I have never charged for a review, but do not find the concept abhorrent. As you noted, Kirkus charges for reviews and gives the author/publisher a “veto” right if the review isn’t one he wants to see the light of day. It would not surprise me to learn that there are other sites which do the same thing.
    Indie writers are often working on a shoe string. So, the idea of paying $350 for a review they can’t use is a hard sell.
    There is a huge difference between the average customer review and a professional review. A reader can put up a sentence or two on Amazon that only expresses whether she liked the book or not. That is a great thing for an author, and I am always humbled by it and appreciative that a reader would take the time to post the review.
    A professional review along the lines you described in your post is a horse of a different color. It requires a significant amount of time and effort. Since authors only have a finite amount of time, they realize that time spent reading someone else’s book and reviewing it takes away from time they have to spend on their main priority, writing books.
    Another issue is this. I recently received an email from a site where I review books as a volunteer. The gist of the email was that some reviewers have recently seen Amazon remove all their reviews if the reviews mentioned the sponsoring site. Apparently Amazon is adopting a policy that it will not allow the posting of paid-for reviews. In other words, Amazon is removing reviews that carry even the possibility of being paid-for. I guess this means that Amazon will only allow true “customer” reviews.
    This may mean that professional reviews that can be found on stand alone review sites will become more important in digital publishing. Of course, I suppose an author/publisher could still use snippets from professional reviews in product descriptions of her book.
    Pardon the long comment. I guess the bottom line for me is that I don’t see anything wrong with paid reviews. To me they are a situation where the author/publisher is basically reimbursing the reviewer for her time and effort, time and effort expended on the author/publisher’s behalf.

  5. Interesting question, Ruth. I thoroughly support the idea of publishing professionals being paid, especially as reading a book and considering it thoughtfully takes time and expertise. But – to play devil’s advocate – surely a reviewer should only read the kind of book that is to their taste? If they’re not the target reader, they’re not going to speak for other target readers.

    • I agree. I wouldn’t even pretend to be able to review a sci-fi or fantasy novel. Which is why a reviewer specializes in a certain genre or sub-genre, and is followed by readers who share their tastes. Would liking their jobs make them any less of a professional? Actors like to act. Musicians like to play music. Football players like to play football. Do the best of them do it for free? (Playing devil’s advocate to the devil’s advocate ;->)

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