The Ethics of Paid Reviews

The writing blogosphere is ablaze this week with the scandal of paid reviews. In an article for the New York Times, David Streitfield revealed that various businesses have been posting fake 5-star reviews for hire.  In his short tenure, he produced about 4500 reviews, most of them farmed out to people who spent only a few minutes glancing over the book in order to include the relevant details in their glorious review. The people buying the reviews were typically indie/self-published authors.

The response I have seen from the writing blogs has been damn near universal condemnation. This is wrong, unethical, and downright shameful. Authors should never buy good reviews.

I agree, and to make it clear, I have never paid for a review, good or bad. The fact that my book presently has only one review on Goodreads and one review on Amazon should be testament to that. Also, while I do post reviews here on my blog and over at Goodreads, I have never been paid to do so.  (Heh, though if you have read my book, feel free to take this as mournful plea to go post a review.)

But over in the comment thread at The Happy Logophile, blogger Jo Eberhart asked why we are all so mad about it:

…I wonder whether we’re actually so incensed about this issue because the reviewer is being paid, or because the reviews are guaranteed to be positive. Is it the unethical behaviour of the authors in “bribing” someone to read their book? Or is it the unethical behaviour of lying about the quality of the book?

It was an excellent question, and it got me thinking. Where is the ethical line? Is it that the reviewers were paid, that the author was the one paying, or that the review was guaranteed to be good?

I don’t believe it’s a problem for reviewers to be rewarded in some way, even in cold hard cash. The New York Times pays staff writers to review books. Newspapers, magazines, and even booksellers do this all the time. For that matter, Consumer Reports pays its staff to review toaster ovens, and I think we’d all agree there’s no ethics violation there.

But these purchased reviews were not commissioned by a neutral party. They were commissioned by the author himself. That’s getting into murky territory. Can an author pay someone and expect a genuinely honest review of the book? “Here’s your $50, no strings attached. Read the book and post your honest opinion, good or bad.” Unfortunately, it’s hard to really cut those strings. Even if the author uses this reviewer only once, a reviewer who gets a reputation for posting bad reviews won’t get much future business from the other authors either.

But promising to post a good review no matter what? Ah, that seems to be the real ethical line, because the reviewer is willing to tell a lie for that money. Even if the reviewer truly liked this particular book, his willingness to fall back to a lie somehow invalidates the true reviews.

This problem shows up even outside of this current scandal of paid reviews. There is often a quid pro quo arrangement between authors of “I’ll review/blurb your book if you’ll review/blurb mine.” From what I hear, even in traditional circles, this carries the expectation of a good review. The release valve for honesty seems to be that if you can’t give a glowing review, you don’t post a review and simply tell the other author, “Sorry, I wasn’t able to get to it in time.” Even that goes over poorly.

Ultimately, I think the problem is that reviewers receiving compensation is not the problem. The problem is when that compensation leads the reviewer to lie about the book.

Still, it would be nice to find a way around this ethical dilemma, particularly for indie/self-published books. Why? Because there are real economic benefits to solving this, both for authors and for readers.

Namely, indie authors who have quality books need the endorsement that comes with multiple good reviews. They have eschewed their chance at getting the “gatekeeper” endorsement of traditional publishing, so reviews and word of mouth are the only endorsements they can get.

Meanwhile, shoppers would like to be tipped off to all the indie crap that’s out there. Glowing reviews by the kind of service mentioned above cloud this issue, and it would be nice to see them buried by real readers’ reviews.

And finally, readers who are capable of putting out a decent review might like a little reward for putting in the effort. There’s not enough money available to pay the equivalent of a million New York Times columnists, but as e-book pricing moves up out of the 99-cent basement, there is at least a little bit of money available to throw at them.

But can we find a way for authors to pay that money without giving the reader a reason to lie in the review? It seems that the best way to do it is to insert an intermediary between the author and the reviewer to see to it that the reviewer is rewarded for writing a review but not punished for writing a poor review.

I think Amazon could be such an intermediary.

Here’s how I think that could work. I’m looking at this specifically from their KDP Kindle publishing program, but I think elements could be carried to other platforms.

I, as an author, could say that I want some more reviews for my books.

You, the reader, could buy a book and post a review.

If you are reviewing a book that an author has requested reviews for, you would get some percentage of your purchase price back. Maybe you would get back 20% if you simply gave it a ranking, i.e. how many stars? Perhaps you could get back as much as 50-60% if you actually wrote a text review.

The review/rating you gave the book would not impact your payment or keep you from reviewing other books.

If an author decided he had enough reviews or that he did not like the reviews he was getting, he could turn off the pay-for-review option.

Here are some of the things I like about this:

  • Amazon could ensure that the payment was truly a refund by only offering to those who bought the book from Amazon. This would also limit the paid reviews to one per customer per book.
  • The author would have no control over the kinds of reviews he gets. Once the review goes up, the author automatically pays for it. He gets no choice on which reviews he pays for or who gives those reviews.
  • The only real choice the author gets is whether or not he wants to pay for any additional reviews. He might decide after fifty good reviews that it’s enough. On the other hand, he might decide that after eight one-star reviews that he’s better off not paying for any more of them.
  • The author pulling the plug does not prevent more reviews. It only stops the payment for future reviews for that book.
  • Offering a refund percentage of less than 70% would keep the payments less than the author was making from the book, so Amazon would not so much be charging the author as discounting the royalty in exchange for the review.
  • Likewise, keeping the payment to less than the cost of the book would keep readers from abusing this as a get-money-from-starving-authors scheme, since they could only get back part of what they had already spent.
  • Since authors would likely turn the option off after receiving some number of reviews/ratings, there would be an incentive to review new books that did not yet have many reviews.
  • Amazon could hold the reviewer’s payment as a discount on future purchases, thus encouraging future sales for themselves and eliminating service charges on small financial transactions.
  • While it doesn’t stop an author from paying people to go post false reviews, it would make those less valuable by providing good books a more legitimate path for reviews and drowning bad books in truthful reviews.
  • Hopefully, the possibility of paid reviews would increase reviews overall, even on the crappy books that do not want honest reviews.


So, some questions:

  • Do you think this dodges the ethical issues around an author paying for a review?
  • If you are an author, would you use such a system?
  • As a reader, would this encourage you to write more reviews or post more ratings?
  • As a shopper, would this make you trust Amazon’s reviews less, more, or about the same?

Or am I crazy for even suggesting it?

9 thoughts on “The Ethics of Paid Reviews

  1. That’s an interesting idea. I think it does. I’d test something like this at least.

    As a reader I try and review every book I read. This would make that easier. It would in theory make Amazon more of an aggregator like RottenTomatoes so I’d likely trust it a bit more if it did result in more reviews across the board.

    • I hadn’t even considered Rotten Tomatoes. I’ve used their score at times to get a general gauge of a movie, but I’ve never looked at how they actually gather their reviews.

  2. That sounds as though it could work. Now you just have to convince Amazon that there’s something in it for them 🙂

    “Do you think this dodges the ethical issues around an author paying for a review?” Well, as you say, the problem with the author paying is that the reviewer has a strong incentive to give the book a better review than it deserves, or even just write whatever the author tells them to write, without bothering to read the book. If someone else is paying, who has no interest in how positive or negative the review is, the reviewer still has an incentive to say something, but should be willing to be more honest.

    “If you are an author, would you use such a system?” I am an author, and would certainly consider it.

    “As a reader, would this encourage you to write more reviews or post more ratings?” I usually post a rating anyway, because this takes at most a few seconds (I read almost entirely on my Kindle now, and it asks you to rate a book when you get to the end). I probably would write more reviews if I could get paid for doing so.

    “As a shopper, would this make you trust Amazon’s reviews less, more, or about the same?” I don’t know… I don’t pay a lot of attention to reviews of Kindle books. I just download the sample and, if I get to the end of it without wanting to throw my Kindle across the room, I usually buy the book. That said, I have been burned a few times by books that started off really well (no doubt polished for submission to the traditional publishing industry) and fell apart later, so maybe I should be more careful.

    The system you’re proposing might be vulnerable to trolls deliberately posting bad reviews to drag the author down, though they still have to buy the book to be able to do this, so they’re probably not going to do a lot of it. If someone does manage to post a lot of bad reviews, there’s the “was this review helpful?” button, and if they get a lot of reviews flagged as unhelpful, Amazon could hide or delete their reviews.

    Anyway, thanks for posting – it’s an interesting idea.

    • Yeah, I don’t think this does much to address the troll issue, and Amazon does allow people to review who didn’t buy through Amazon. I think their “was it helpful” feature is about as good a guard for that as I can think of.

      As for convincing Amazon… I don’t know where to start other than sending it to some kind of feedback queue. I think the only real argument I could make on how it benefits Amazon is that it might lend greater credibility to indie authors in the KDP program since it would get them more credible reviews.

  3. Hi Dan. I read this a couple of minutes after you posted it (when your pingback hit my site — and thanks for that!), and have been considering it ever since. I wanted to spend some time seriously thinking about it before commenting in return.

    Overall, I think it’s a good idea. Certainly, it provides enough distance between author and reviewer to make it more likely to produce a genuine review, and I’m sure most readers (certainly people who describe themselves as “avid readers”_ would jump at the chance to get future discounts in return for writing a short review.

    However, there are some downsides.

    (1) The biggest is that I can’t see any good reason for Amazon to want to do this. Now, I could be wrong, (I don’t show with Amazon, so don’t really know how their system works particularly well.) but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of incentive in it for them. They would have to adjust their system, design software, and create a group of people responsible for monitoring the system and all of that costs money. So while the discounts to reviewers wouldn’t come from Amazon’s pocket, they would be paying for infrastructure and staffing. (Even with an automated system, you still need staff for troubleshooting and handling complaints — if it can be handled by their regular staff, then it means a cost in training and possibly upstaffing.)

    While I imagine the cost would be relatively small, they are, at the end of the day, a business. If there is no ROI, they’ve got no incentive to shell out money in the first place. And I don’t honestly see how more reviews will make them more money. I can see it meaning that they sell different books, but would it sell them more books?

    (2) This system only works if people buy from Amazon. As I said, I don’t shop with Amazon. In part that’s because I tend towards the “support your own community” model of shopping, and in part that’s because Amazon’s postage charges to Australia are crazytown. But moving on… By making reviewing on Amazon lucrative for regular shoppers, it gives people an even greater incentive to shop with them rather than support their local independent bookstore. While I’m by no means jumping up and down and saying Amazon is evil, I do hate losing small bookstores. Especially because so many of the people who commented on my post talked about choosing books based on bookstore recommendations and browsing physical stores rather than reading reviews online.

    So, as I said, I like the way you think. I just wonder about those two points. Any thoughts?

    • Excellent points on the downsides.

      Probably the biggest incentive I can think of for Amazon to do this would be for them to include it as an option ONLY in their KDP Select program. For self-publishers, they have two options: KDP and KDP Select. KDP simply lets you into their Kindle store. KDP Select offers a few other promotional options, includes your book in their lending library, and requires you to not sell your book to any other e-book outlet, i.e. no Nook, no Smashwords, no Kobo.

      Quite a few indie’s have balked at the exclusivity required for the KDP Select and have stuck with the basic KDP. I’m one of them, though to tell the truth, I’ve hardly sold anything through the Nook. However, if they added a few more features to KDP Select such as… oh, I don’t know, a system to encourage more reviews, I might make the switch.

      So, they might have some incentive to do it if it would drive more authors into their KDP Select program, solidifying their position in the indie/self-publishing market.

      Personally, I like Amazon, but I live in the US and with Amazon Prime, shipping charges aren’t really an issue. (I’ve got to tell you, the deals they have on diapers make the local supermarket look like scammers.) But in Australia, that probably doesn’t work. (I always had you pegged as a Brit from the various spellings, but I suppose only we Yanks bastardized the language.)

      However, I would much rather see this as an independent program, out of any particular sellers hands, but I don’t know where else to put it. Goodreads maybe? But without the proof-of-purchase from the reader, I worry about it being more open to someone gaming the system, posting 100 fake reviews just to grab some cash.

      So, I don’t really have a solution for generalizing it to a non-Amazon audience. Frankly, I’m hoping someone smarter than me reads this (or a similar idea) and sees the better solution.

      • Okay, here’s my thoughts.

        (1) Take a new or established independent review site — Goodreads is the obvious answer, but there’s nothing to say that some enterprising young people out there couldn’t start another one.

        (2) Authors who wish to encourage reviews contract with the the review site directly. The contact essentially says “I will pay for xx number of reviews.”

        (3) Each review costs a standard amount (no negotiating with different authors). Let’s say $2.50 per review for the sake of argument.

        (4) At the time of creating the contract, the author pays the total amount to the review site PLUS a 10% admin fee. For example: Author contracts for 20 reviews, and pays 20 x $2.50 = $50.00 + 10% = $55.00.

        (5) The book/author is then listed on a page somewhere on the review site as being open for paid reviews. The book page itself also has a note saying it is open for paid reviews.

        (6) When a reader posts their review, the review is confirmed by someone at the review site (because “it’s awesome!” doesn’t qualify for payment) and then the reader’s account is credited with $2.50.

        (7) Once the reader has a minimum of $5.00 credit s/he can purchase gift vouchers for a number of book retailers for use online and/or offline.

        (8) Book retailers need to opt in for this service, and they pay a monthly service fee to be included on the site.

        So, overall:

        Authors are essentially giving the reviewers a $2.50 voucher per review they write, and the site is kept operational due to the 10% admin fees paid by the author and the service fees paid by the retailers. The reviewers don’t have to have purchased the books, but a quality control check would ensure that they are leaving a real review.

        Aaaaaaand that’s the best I’ve come up with in regards to minimising Amazon’s involvement and making the project financially lucrative. (Although I have no real idea of $$ figures.)

  4. Good posting, Dan.
    Excellent idea, although I agree with Jo that the cost of establishing such a system might outweigh the benefits. To Amazon, that is. As a self-published author, I would find it very helpful.
    Word of mouth from authors, urging purchase of books from Amazon could mitigate the cost by encouraging more business (not that I think Amazon is hurting for business). I would certainly participate in a program like this.

    • Jo definitely raised some good points. The only real advantage to Amazon I could see would be for them to make a competitive advantage to using their exclusive KDP Select program rather than their broader KDP basic program.

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