Review-Only Virtual Tours: Are You Paying for Reviews?

I have to tell you that the whole time the sock puppet controversy was raging, I was cringing inside. The reason? I’ve paid for reviews. Kind of. Oh, not through some fly-by-night “good reviews guaranteed!” outfit. Instead, I’ve bought a couple of review-only blog tours.

I talked last week about virtual blog tours. If you missed that post, you can read it here. One of the flavors of tours that most outfits offer is the review-only tour, in which the operator recruits a number of bloggers to read and review your book. The tour operator asks you to provide a copy of your book, or a coupon or gift card so the reviewer can buy a copy, as well as the usual stuff: blurb, cover image, author picture, and buy links. If the reviewer hates your book, he or she can use the other materials to put together a book feature to run instead of a scathing review. Most of the time, bloggers will post their reviews not only on their blog, but also on Amazon and/or Goodreads, which of course helps your rating.

The question that nagged at me, all through the sock puppet brouhaha, was whether this practice equaled “paying for reviews.” After all, money has changed hands, right? The tour operator is the one getting paid, but the reviewer gets a free book. The reviewer promises upfront to give you a fair review, but has the option to run a feature instead of a one- or two-star review. So in reality, you’re probably only going to get decent reviews out of a review-only tour.

Of course, I suppose someone’s book could be so bad that every blogger on the tour declines to review it. That’s never happened to me, thankfully, but I would think that in that case, the tour operator might offer to give the author a refund.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided that indie authors are probably on sound ethical ground when buying review-only tours. The reviewers do read the books, after all, and they don’t promise five stars (or one star) for every book. That alone sets them apart from the sock-puppet crew. And too, the reviewers have their own established book blogs – blogs that they have voluntarily created in their spare time. They’re not anonymous hacks, writing reviews for the money; they’re doing it for the love of reading, and to help out authors who deserve a wider audience.

Phew. I’m glad that’s settled. Because the only sock puppets I want in my life are the ones I knit myself.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

16 thoughts on “Review-Only Virtual Tours: Are You Paying for Reviews?”

  1. Thank you for your honest and brave assesment for the alternative way some Indie authors promo thier books as they fight the painfully slow uphill battle for reviews. Conventional authors have their publishers staff post reviews and 100s of ARC go out to readers so the day it hits, they become bestsellers over night. God forbid an Indie author that comes along and manages to put 100s of ARC reviews together for themselves the same way. They will be vilified everywhere. I have been”spit on” by other Indies for running a review contest for reviews and offering a gift card or a kindle. Those that sit on their high horses claim they prefer the “honest way….organically from real fans.” Well when the review rate is somewhere around 1 for every 750 downloads, I will be in a wheelchair before I see any “orgainic” reviews of any number. And I am very happy to say, some of the gals I have met that entered my contest are now my biggest and most loyal fans. You can’t pay for THAT. All you can do is bust your butt to put your book in as many hands as you can and hope that the book is compelling enough to garner you fans. If an Indie is fortunate enough to get a review blog to take her book, I say, good going!

  2. An interesting situation, Lynne. This also presents a dilemma for the blogger. (There is a post and a discussion today on The Passive Voice about this from the blogger’s side.)

    The blog tours I’ve participated in have all been done differently, giving the blogger an option of different kinds of posts (guest post, interview, review, and sometimes other choices as well). However, the blogger commits to a particular date and post type in advance. So, for all practical purposes, those who pick the review option are in the same situation as a review only tour. All of those I’ve participated in say they want honest reviews and expect a review, not something else, on their day. Those who operate them also have some not so good reviews on most of the books they tour. If the operator expected me to run a promo for the book if a review was going to be bad, I’d never sign up for the tour. (I know there are some who do that.) I’ve been lucky thus far, mainly because I limit the blog tours I participate in and shy away from books that I’m concerned about, but I did give a 2 star review recently as a blog tour stop.

  3. Publishers pay the NYT and Kirkus for advertising… Those review venues know full well that if they start panning too many “next blockbuster” books from a publisher, all that ad revenue will begin going elsewhere.

    The reality is, most reviews are paid, and always have been.

    The real question ought to be not “did you pay for the review?” but rather “did you get a FAIR review, or did you pay for five stars?” Using a service like Bookrooster, for example (which may be defunct now, not sure, but at one time charged writers a set fee and then offered their book up to member-reviewers, who were NOT paid except that they got free books out of the deal) is probably fine. Going on Fiverr to find someone willing to give you five stars for five bucks is probably not.

    Likewise, publishers using Kirkus is probably fine, because Kirkus tries really hard to minimize the impact money has on their review process. However, hiring a PR firm to spam fifty 4-5 star reviews up for a new release is probably not, and many major publishers do that, too.

    When you cheat to try to better your review score by paying for good reviews, you undermine the system.

    1. As usual, Kevin nails it. The thing with Bookrooster was they made it very clear up front what they were providing. Yet, if they are defunct I’m willing to bet a part of that is the backlash when their member-reviewers gave negative reviews. There was a long thread on Kindleboards with some authors up in arms over getting a couple 1 or 2 star reviews from their reviewers.

      1. Bookrooster is alive and very well. I review books from Bookrooster (I’ve done about half a dozen so far, but I’m not telling you how many more I have to do). I get three or four ‘Invitations’ a day. Those that I’ve read have been exceptional. Authors forget though that reviewers can put their reviews wherever they like, so negative reviews will find their way into circulation. Google a book title and the review will come up. I feel very strongly that less favourable book reviews are vital for readers: they deserve to know what’s good, what’s bad. I, for one, am very suspicious about 100% 4/5-star reviews. I smell a rat instantly.

  4. As for the other comment about sending out ARCs to 100s of people, whether reviewers or regular readers, I sure don’t see anything wrong with that as long you ask for an honest review. A contest, as long as it is randomly chosen among all those who write and post a review, regardless of the review content, doesn’t seem like a problem either, IMO. I’ve seen some contests for reader reviews that a winner was based on “the best review” which seems to be crossing the line into encouraging a specific kind of review. Trad pubs may also cross that line in different ways. That doesn’t make it right.

  5. I won’t be in line to tar and feather you and run you out on a rail. From the other comments, no one else is either. It’s another one of those slippery situations where we cannot find a hard line that must never be crossed. I don’t think your situation crosses any line in my mind.

  6. I found another book club where their member-readers review books and do review honestly. They do free reviews but have a long waiting list so I have been wondering if it was all right to pay for a review. After this post, I’m still unsure, lol, but I am still thinking about it.

  7. The review guidelines on several blog sites suggest that they might you slip a book into the reading queue earlier if it’s part of a blog tour with a date certain. Considering that I just got a message today from one site saying they’d like to read my new book–if I don’t mind waiting until mid-2014–I’m thinking a review-only blog tour has a concrete time value that has nothing to do with sock-puppetry.

    1. Krista, you’re absolutely right. A blog tour can be a way to jump the queue if a particular site participates in tours and signs up for yours.

  8. Sorry for the mass response, guys, but I’m on my phone and there doesn’t seem to be a way to reply to individual posts.

    Anyway. I know that publishers have been playing the “get reviews any way we can” game for a lot longer than indies have. And I agree that a negative review that gives specifics can be as helpful to readers as a bunch of positive ones. Not every book will be to every reader’s taste, etc.

    I agree that Kevin is asking the right question — did you get a fair review? In my case, I believe all of them were.

    Cathy and Al, I really appreciate you guys commenting from the other side of the street, as it were. Both of you are straight-shooting reviewers.

    Speciesintervention, I don’t see a problem with your review contest, as long as you made it clear that everybody who left a review was eligible, not just the people who left you complimentary reviews. And you’re absolutely right that it’s hard for indies to generate the same kinds of review numbers as trad-pubbed books get.

  9. Great post, as usual 🙂

    I’ve paid for tours including reviews before. I think you’re right. It is ethically okay to do this. Part of me wants to say to the tour operator that I want all the reviews I can get, even if they are bad. I mean, yes, bad reviews hurt and I don’t like them, but everyone has such differing opinions on books and I think it’s healthy for a book to have a variety of reviews. Does that make sense?

    I’ve heard somewhere (I cannot verify if this is 100% true, I’ve just heard it) that 50+ reviews on Amazon helps gain your book a little more exposure. I’m not sure whether this is just 50 good reviews… or whether it’s a number that shows interest in the book and therefore is worth putting in customers’ faces. If the latter is true then I want all the reviews I can get… both good and bad 🙂

    1. Melissa, I haven’t seen anything that could be considered scientific to prove that more reviews means more exposure and I’m a bit surprised that no one has done a study attempting to determine that. However, in the post on the Passive Voice I talked about above ( if anyone is interested) one commenter, who from my observation usually knows what she’s talking about, made a comment that more reviews (good or bad) and longer reviews give a boost in the algorithms.

  10. Excellent post, Lynne, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Your article has raised a number of particularly valid points. As indies, we don’t have the weight of the trads and I’m betting we, in general, are far more conscious of ethical behaviour than the trads. I think that, for us, what it comes down to is getting ‘honest’ reviews any way we can.

  11. Excellent post providing plenty of food for thought. Traditional publishers have always used their might and their money to prmote their authors. I used to get so cross on the Amazon forums with the people who had hissy fits the moment an Indie so much as mentioned her/his own book.
    What bothered me the most about the sock puppetry was the authors who, as well as using fake reviews, tried to do down other writers’ work.

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