Is it cheating to pay for a book review?

A few days ago, I arrived home from work to find a package from Amazon. I didn’t recall ordering anything, and when I opened the package, I discovered it was book I’d never heard of by an author I’d never heard of. Included was a gift receipt and a note from the author. The note indicated the author was a member of SFWA and then asked for me to read the book and give it a Nebula nomination. It noted further that the book received high praise from a prestigious review outlet. As I’d never heard of the author, I checked the SFWA directory and found the listing.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sit right with me, being sent a book and being explicitly asked to consider it for Nebula nomination. Everything I’ve ever been told about this business is that an award season post, letting people know what you are eligible for is acceptable. You do not ask people for a nomination. Certainly you don’t send them a book unsolicited. If I give the author in question the benefit of the doubt, the book was sent to me as a gift with no obligation whatsoever. But the note clearly had a purpose and whether or not it was intended, it made me feel really uncomfortable. And why send it to me? Simple research would show that I am not a book reviewer. Was it because I am a SFWA member? Does that mean a book was sent to every SFWA member? I imagine that if a Nebula nomination was being sought, SFWA members would be the people to go to.

I’d pretty much forgotten about it until today when I was reading a newsletter from a prestigious review outlet and discovered the book I’d been sent featured rather prominently in the newsletter. Curious, I read the review and clearly the reviewer liked the book. But I also discovered that the program under which the book was reviewed was geared toward independent authors. An author can pay nearly $600 to have their book reviewed and then use that review for whatever purposes they like.

I suppose there is money to be made in the business of reviewing books, but to me, it seems kind of like cheating to pay for your own book review. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe paying for reviews is the new way of doing things, but if I get recognized, I want it to be because of the buzz my stories generate, not because I paid someone to review them.

I have not read the book I was sent. It may well be as good as the review indicates. But if it was really that good, why did it need a paid review in the first place? Wouldn’t I be hearing other people talking about it? And yet, I haven’t seen any buzz anywhere, not on Twitter, Facebook, not in the usual SF news and review outlets.

I come away from this whole thing feeling dirty for reasons I can’t quite explain. Both practices–asking for Nebula nominations and paying for book reviews–seem like cheating to me. If you want to be a writer, be a writer, work at it, earn your nominations and reviews, don’t pay for them. I would think you’d be more satisfied in the end.

Am I totally off base here?

12 thoughts on “Is it cheating to pay for a book review?

  1. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sit right with me, being sent a book and being explicitly asked to consider it for Nebula nomination.

    That’s…disquieting.

    Being offered books is one thing. Being sent books is another thing. (I’ve had a grand total of one of the latter. Confused me.).

    But to explicitly ask for a nomination? No. Sorry. It would be worse than asking me for a positive review.

  2. Maybe it isn’t as common nowadays, but it used to be that reviewers got paid — that is, as employees of or contributors to magazines, journals, etc. they were paid to read and review books for the benefit of readers and subscribers. It is absolutely cheating for an author to buy a good review of his/her book (I assume they wouldn’t be willing to pay for a poor one). My understanding is that people will do it because professional reviewers (employees etc. as indicated above)do not generally review self-published books. You don’t name them, but I question the prestige of the “review outlet” you mention.

  3. Violette, I understand that there are reviewers who are paid as employees and serve a good function and I have no problem with that. This instance, combined with the request for the Nebula nomination, felt different.

  4. I used to be dead set against paid reviews. On the other hand, as a freelance writer, I now understand better people have to earn a living. And I get free ARCS for SFFWRTCHT, which is kind of pay in a way. I still give an honest review. So I’ve revised my opinion. Paid reviews do not bother me as long as both reviewer and author do it in a way that allows people to discover what occurred. I think the situation you describe though, Jamie, takes it too far. That’s just really unfair to you. Sending you a book for consideration, well, they do that for the Oscars and Emmys with videotapes. I see no problem giving voters easy access. If you can afford it, more power to ya. I won’t be sending my book out that way and I’m elligible, I think. It’s just so expensive. Besides, the satisfaction of winning because your peers go out of the way to single you out is huge for me. That’s “making it” in my book. This sounds like attempted bribery to me and that’s really distasteful.

  5. Bryan, I empathize with the fact that writers do this for a living, and getting a good review can really help out. And maybe because I don’t write for a living gives me a minority perspective. (I write because I want to be just like my SF heroes who came before me.) And maybe paid reviews are the way of the future. What I wonder–and I ask this in complete innocence–is what a paid review buys you? I’ve been told by friends who’ve been SF writers for decades that reviews don’t make much of a difference in terms of sales, with the possible exception of a featured review on the front page of the NY Times Book review. If you’ve already got a fan base, a good review may attract a couple of new fans, but it’s mostly preaching to the existing choir.

    For new writers, maybe it is different. “It’s hard to get recognized.” I hear this a lot. I think it’s debatable. But setting aside that debate, I’ve got to ask, how did the writers we all know and love today get their recognition? I can’t believe it was through paid reviews. And yet at some point in their career, they were just as unrecognizable as I am today.

  6. My understanding is that years ago it was somewhat standard practice for authors to receive “for your consideration copies” of books from publishers during that Nebula nomination process. That tradition tended to vanish with the creation of the Nebula juries, at which time the publishers limited their book sending to the smaller group.

  7. Steven, I could understand if the publisher was making books available “for your consideration.” Indeed, many writers make their shorter work available in the SFWA forums for this purpose. But this clearly came from the author, and the intent, explicit in the note, was to get a Nebula nomination.

  8. Jamie, I’ve never had an issue with an author offering me a free book and asking me to consider it for an award nomination. But I’m curious. You say that the note sent by the author “asked for me to read the book and give it a Nebula nomination.” What language did the author use?

    If the author said something like, “Please consider this book for a Nebula nomination,” that would be one thing. If the note read, “Please give this book a Nebula nomination,” that would rub me the wrong way.

  9. I like the way HWA is handling this for the Stokers. If you have checked off the box in the directory that you are open to email, then authors can email you once to offer you the chance to opt in to receive their work. You can then reply and ask for a copy, or simply ignore the email. It’s rather civilized. I’ve received a few things that seemed interesting to me. As for the other works, the authors aren’t wasting their time and money sending them to me. I think it works out well for everyone.

    By the way, I hope you’ll nominate this reply to your post for the Hugo Award for Best Reply. 🙂

Comments are closed.