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?