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Ask the Readers: What’s Your Take on Paid Book Reviews?

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I got a request a couple of weeks ago from a company to see if I wanted to review a business book. I get a lot of these as my email address seems to have gotten out on some public relations circles. Usually, the pitch goes something like:

PR Person: Would you like a copy of [Insert Writer X]'s [Insert Book Title]?
Me: Sure, but I must warn you, I get a lot of books and have little time to read between a full-time job, this blog, and other side projects.
PR Person: It's okay, we'll ship you out a book and if you get to it, you get to it.

They are almost always happy to send out the book. They figure that if they get 100 potential maybes, it's worth it. Anyone who subscribes to Paperback Swap knows that media mail is fairly cheap and the physical cost of the book is cheap. If a few influencers write about the book it is likely to generate more sales and thus be more successful. (I feel like Malcolm Gladwell in the Tipping Point)

The request, I got recently was a little different. It was still a request if I wanted a book. However, the company wanted me to read it and review it within a certain time in a "book tour" with other bloggers. Out of curiosity I decided to visit this company's website as they didn't seem to be the usual PR folk. The company had a "Services" tab, which always draws my attention. This is where I learned that this company is basically the middle man between the author and bloggers. They charge authors around $40-45 (depending on bulk pricing) to get bloggers to review their books.

This left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. However, before I go down that road, I will lift a curtain and let you see a little behind the scenes at Lazy Man and Money. I get dozens of requests a day and it's not possible for me to service them all. When that happens, one of the first things you get really good at is asking two questions 1) "What's in it for me and my readers?" and 2) "How much time/effort is this going to take from me?" If it's giving away tax software to readers, that benefits you and indirectly benefits me (hopefully you become slightly more engaged or loyal readers and spread the word of how you won terrific tax software from this awesome blog). It's also easy to give away tax software. It's difficult for me to review books. It will often take me 8-10 hours to read a book and then another couple of hours to write the review. In those 10-12 hours, I can write about 7-8 posts. Unless it's a book that I'm really excited about reading such as The 4-Hour Workweek and Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw, it's not a really efficient use of my time and doesn't (IMO) maximize value of the content for the reader. You, the reader, get one post on a book that you may or may not like, versus 7-8 posts on other topics that you may or may not like... at the odds are more likely you'll find something useful in those posts.

So back to the bad taste in my mouth. I see what's in it for the author (more promotion). I see what in it for the company organizing the bloggers. They get paid for their time and effort. However, at the end of the day, the product provided is the blogger review... so isn't it natural to ask what's in it for the blogger? It seems to me like there should be. I posed this question back to company organizing the bloggers.

Their take was that they can't offer to pay bloggers, because then their reviews would be likely be biased and thus not honest. That seemed to be a very reasonable explanation. For instance, if you knew that an author paid for a review in a book review column in the NY Times wouldn't that cloud your judgment a bit? I think it might cloud mine.

I've gone back and forth on this a few times. If I was watching Siskel and Ebert (assumes I have access to a working time machine), I would have expected that they aren't paid by the movies themselves for their movie reviews. I think there's a difference between my website and Siskel and Ebert. (Well, there are a pile of difference, but one important, relevant one). If Siskel and Ebert weren't reviewing movies they'd have no sponsorships and no show, right? No one seems to care if I don't do book reviews. I still tend to get advertisements and have content (at least at times) for the "show."

So I went back and thought about it some more. Here was the workable solution I proposed... knowing full well that it wasn't going to happen as it's against the public relations' business model. I suggested that they paid bloggers a reasonable fee for their time to read to the book... not for a positive review. Any blogger looking to attract an audience is not generally selling their opinion for a reasonable price anyway. Bloggers would have to disclose that they've been paid for their time to read to the book. I figured this payment is a bit like bumping the book to top of my priority list. If you don't want to pay it, then you are free to give me the book anyway, but I make no promises on where it will fall with the dozens of other books that I received last year (which again fall after the books that I actually WANT to read).

As expected the company balked at that proposal and simply said that there are hundreds of other bloggers that would be happy to review it if I didn't want to. That kind of response seemed a little Grapes of Wrath-like, but it was truthful. With probably more than 100 active personal finance blogs out there, there should be no problems in finding 10 or 15 that will accept the terms.

So I ask the readers... what do you think? Was my proposal fair... on a scale 1 (completely off-base) to 10 (dead-on) where would you rank it?

Posted on January 28, 2010.

This post deals with: ... and focuses on:

Ask the Readers

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21 Responses to “Ask the Readers: What’s Your Take on Paid Book Reviews?”

  1. If I knew that a reviewer were being paid for his/her time to read the book, I would pay no attention to the review. I read books to educate myself. I’m sure you do as well. If the title or theme of the book doesn’t interest me (e.g., “Credit Card Secrets Revealed”), I tell the PR person I’m not interested. If I think readers would enjoy hearing about the book after I’ve read it (good or bad), I’ll review it.

  2. Moneymonk says:

    This just shows you have morals. I would not mind being paid for a book review but it HAS to be a good book!

  3. Lazy Man says:

    TML,

    Maybe that’s my thoughts on Four Hour Work Week. I think that’s a perfect fit for my readers. (I’m trying to get through it, but I’ve been busy lately. I paid my own cash for the book, I wasn’t asked to review it and given a free book, so I don’t count it as the same.)

    I get a lot of books like Last Chance Millionaire, that are mildly interesting to me and probably of interest to the general audience. I could probably spend the next 12 months reading about 30-35 books (I’m a really slow reader), so I’d have 30-35 posts to spread throughout a year.

    I can see why “Credit Card Secrets Revealed” would come across as perhaps over the top marketing, but the Last Chance Millionaire isn’t that… it’s just that even some good quality books don’t work for me because they don’t scale with my time.

  4. tom says:

    I partly agree with TML, if it’s a trusted PF blogger, such as yourself, I wouldn’t mind if you got paid for your time. If everyone is getting a cut, why shouldn’t you?

    So I rank it an 8.

  5. Craig says:

    Being someone who has pitched you for a review of our software in the past (not a book) like you say people want your honest truth and you would disclose the fact that it was paid, which would almost make it pointless in some respects. Maybe something you could have proposed to the company is instead of paying you a small fee, maybe they could offer some sort of reward for one of your readers. That way it would benefit you by helping out a reader, possibly a gift card, or book giveaways. The review would be honest, it would benefit you and readers and help you in the long run.

  6. Jim says:

    Any paid reviews should be discounted as biased.
    You simply can’t trust a system like that.

    Its like trusting representatives of Monavie for an unbiased opinion of Monavie.

  7. Lazy Man says:

    Craig,

    I think the company did offer to do a book giveaway. However, I’ve had problems with giveaways in the past.

    One time I had to chase a company for six months to make good on their offer and send out the goods after the winners complained that they never got their items.

    So I learned to ask for the goods upfront, but then it became even more work for me to literally mail them out (getting to a post office during postal hours can be rough for me). By the time I was through, I wished that I had just emailed Amazon gift certificates out (from my own pocket) and told readers to buy that book or anything else they want.

    I don’t want to sound overly “Lazy”, but after 10 hours of reading a book and writing a post, the last thing my wife wants to hear is that I have to package and mail out some copies to people (not to mention that it requires me getting a P.O. Box to keep anonymity, which requires me to present a copy of my rental agreement to the post office… it’s like every option has 4 or 5 dependencies on it.)

    [Wow I’m in a particularly whiny mode today. Sorry all.]

  8. Craig says:

    @Lazy Man Yea whenever I do book giveaways on our company blog I always have them send me the book upfront to send out. It’s not a big deal for me to go mail it out (Also company takes care of posting fees) but I can understand the hassle to keep doing it every time, makes sense.

  9. Clever Dude says:

    I’ve almost given up on book reviews. I get tempted because I like getting stuff in the mail, especially a large package like a book, but then I think “I have no urge to read this book”. Heck, I still have Ramit’s book sitting on my counter from last March, and that’s actually a GOOD book (I’ve gotten through 2 chapters so far).

    I think I’d just rather be doing something else than reading and writing reviews, especially since I don’t really get much traffic on those posts.

  10. Lazy Man says:

    Jim,

    I see what you are saying here. However, I’m pretty good at being quite a jackass as my regular readers know. If you say something stupid, I’m going to call you on it, whether you are paying me or not.

    I was being being paid to blog for Prosper (on their official blog, not here) and I wrote a post here about buying my endorsement there, because I thought it was stupid that Prosper was touting that loans with endorsements do so much better.

    I’m leaning towards you being right that in general such a system wouldn’t work as you say. I may just be feeling optimistic that I’ve earned enough trust where it could work.

  11. Ron says:

    Don’t feel too bad … I blew them off too!

  12. I enjoy reading, I’m a fast reader, and I’m STILL sitting on about a hundred books that I need to get to.

    Have you considered limiting yourself to books that have an audio version? You probably listen faster than you read.

    As for getting paid to review (regardless of whether it’s thumbs up or down) this reminds me slightly of the Payola scandal. The author pays you and gets “spins” (or in this case, gets mentioned on your blog).

    It almost seems like there would be a niche for a blog devoted to reviewing PF books (or maybe there already is).

  13. Wait a minute, I can MAKE money doing paid book reviews? NOOOOO! Why am I doing book reviews for just a free book for myself, and two free books each time for my readers then? :)

    Thanks for letting me know about getting paid to do this. I have no qualms mentioning what I dislike about a book review, and I’ll tell each person who contacts me so.

    Ahh, I’m learning so much. What an interesting world!

  14. Evan says:

    I get those offers ALL the time, and I don’t think you are way off. If I have NO interest in the book, I ask for payment, but if I have a slight interest in the book I let them send it to me.

    Knowing your blog, I wouldn’t discount a good recommendation even if you were getting paid, but I can see how that would get confusing if it was done all the time.

  15. Lazy Man says:

    Kosmo,

    I need a little mental downtime when I’m commuting (when I would listen to audio books). That time helps me process the ideas that turn into articles here. If I’m focusing on an audio book, I’m not sure where that processing time is going to come from.

    Thanks Evan, even if I was paid well, I don’t think I’d do more than 5 to 7 a year as I just don’t normally have time to read books.

  16. Jon says:

    I’d love to get paid to do book reviews. I do them for free all the time on my personal web site and livejournal blog. In fact, I’ve been thinking about starting a new book review blog, to get a little more exposure.
    I think the question of payment goes to personal integrity, though. Would these folks still want to pay me after I’d written a couple of bad reviews of books they’d sent me? I do tend to be brutally honest about whether a book was worth its money. I don’t think I’m likely to change that because someone is paying me to write a review.

  17. As others have said, if I know you and trust you, then I’ll trust your review. If I don’t know you, then I’ll be skeptical, although I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt with your disclosure.

    As for books especially, I’m totally with you – I’ve pretty much stopped accepting books for review because it’s just not a good use of my time.

  18. Jim says:

    If you were giving out negative reviews and paid for doing so then I’d trust it. If you can find people to pay you to bash their products then go for it! :)

    But if you gave out positive reviews and were paid to do so then that is when peoples natural cynicsm will undercut your review. People who trust you now might start to lose their trust in you for something that just seems like a payoff.

    You seem like a standup guy and I understand your logic here. Reading books takes time and ‘lazy’ is right there in the title so why shouldn’t people pay you? And I don’t think you’d intentionally try to set yourself up in business as a shill. But as far as that stuff goes its probably best to avoid even the appearance of being paid off for endorsements.

    In general though I really don’t think such a system would work for the world in general. There are just too many people with ethics problems out there who would say anything for an easy buck.

  19. JoeTaxpayer says:

    I’ve done two Book Tour reviews and here’s my thought. The person that asked me had looked at my site and offered a book that was right in my area of interest, an author I’d been reading on line.
    I’ve already written a number of book reviews, all for books I’ve either bought, or borrowed.
    So far for me it’s saved me the time or effort to do something I was about to do anyway. Only now, the tour organizer provides a link and sub extra publicity for my site.
    I’m told to be honest, a criticism isn’t going to get me booted from the relationship.
    For me, I’d rather not have a paid review, in a strange way, it’s either free or you can’t afford my hourly rate.
    Same with guest posts. Where I’d be paid, I direct the money to charity.

  20. Fred says:

    Most people who have a book independently published are desperate for publicity. The major publishing houses won’t touch their books with a ten foot pole even if it is an indisputable masterpiece. They want authors who are known and authors they can exploit so they can make their millions.Independently published books are not their cup of tea. Independent authors see a paid review as a means to get some publicity, although even with a positive review the publicity is negligible. And a paid review does not necessarily mean a positive review. I have paid over 350 bucks to a well known review company and got a lousy review. Not only that (and this isn’t sour grapes) but the reviewer had absolutely no idea what the book was about and made some really absurd observations. Now, I would have accepted an “unbiased” “objective” review(which many book reviewers pride themselves in saying) that was critical but a review from someone who was absolutely incompetent is a waste of time and money and is disillusioning.On the other hand I have paid for reviews that cost much less and got a positive review and more importantly it was obvious the reviewer took the time and attention to read the book thoroughly and make well judged comments on the book. So don’t automatically discard paid book reviewers. They may make good points or bad points or do a good review or bad review just as any other reviewer who hasn’t been paid a cent.Finally, independently published authors wish there weren’t so many obstacles in getting publicity for their books.

  21. Robert Lasher says:

    I just reviewed a book for free. Now I feel like a chump. I think I’ll tell the author she owes me dinner. Fortunately it was a good book and I enjoyed reading it.

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