By Patti Thorn, BlueInk Managing Partner
This blog entry is written in response to a Facebook post questioning our business model of fee-based reviews.
An official of the Independent Publishing Resource Center wrote: “… The IPRC is all for helping independent authors and getting more reviews for self-publishing books, but we must admit we’re a bit skeptical about paying to have your book reviewed. Blue Ink, how do you avoid conflicts of interest when you’re accepting payment from the very authors you review?”
As the issue is likely to come up often, given the newness of this model, I thought it best to post our response in my blog, where others can see the question addressed, as well. Sorry to be so long-winded, but the subject requires some background and depth. Here goes…
We realize this is a new way of approaching reviews and, as such, is bound to be controversial. But we are adamant in our answer to the question you pose: Can a fee-based review be trusted to be objective?
Fee-based book reviews can be trusted if the company delivering the review operates with utmost integrity – just as with any other kind of review.
Ultimately, no matter the funding model, the “trustworthiness” of a review comes down to those in charge of making decisions: ensuring that each book is assigned to the appropriate critic and that each review offers fair and ample evidence to back up its assertions, positive or negative. Whether the reviews truly reflect the worthiness of the book is only proven over time, as readers try the books recommended and come to trust that they are getting decent guidance from that publication’s reviews.
Our business model is not only based on providing reviews to authors; it’s based on promoting those reviews to readers and industry decision makers: librarians, booksellers, agents, publishers. We aren’t just aiming to be a review service, but a place people go to find the best that self publishing has to offer. If, as some skeptics suggest, we decided to attract self publishers by offering only rave reviews, we would turn off the other half of our audience, those potentially buying the books, and our service would quickly become useless to all.
We believe over time, you will see that our reviews are trustworthy and that we are operating with unimpeachable integrity. In our former careers in the traditional book world, we have proven that integrity time and again, and have earned the respect of those who have worked with us, as well as readers at large.
Furthermore, to think there is no conflict of interest in the traditional model is simply being naïve. Traditionally, print publications (consider Publishers Weekly or even The New York Times Book Review) have been financed in large part by advertisements from the publishing industry. Thus, there has always been an inherent tension between the needs of those advertisers and the goals of critical objectivity. The key to ensuring objectivity in those publications has been in maintaining a firewall between critics and advertisers.
At BlueInk, we work under the exact same premise. As with print publications, we manage the conflicting agendas of the person funding the review and the critic by strictly maintaining that firewall between the two parties. Our critics have no contact with authors submitting books for review. And authors have no knowledge of which reviewers have been assigned to critique their books.
While we charge a fee for each review (which goes to fund our business operations and, most importantly, to pay reviewers – who, after all, deserve fair compensation for their work), the reviews are in no way influenced by that fee. (For example, authors cannot pay more to get a Starred Review or BlueInk Best Book Award – or even a few glowing adjectives thrown into their review for good measure.) Authors pay up front; no refunds are given unless the review contains substantive factual errors.
In producing our reviews, we follow strictly the same standards used by any reputable review publication.
Our critics – who come from the traditional publishing world and are well aware of traditional review ethics – follow written guidelines instructing them to craft objective, honest reviews and to note both the positive and negative points of any book. They are asked to judge each book on the merit of its content (not on the quality of its production) and to judge that content against the publishing world at large, not simply the self-publishing world.
They are also instructed to notify us immediately if they have any conflict of interest with a particular book so that we can replace them with a different reviewer.
We use highly qualified reviewers, and authors can see who those reviewers are. Their bios are listed on our site and on our Facebook page. We also post the letter we send instructing reviewers on how to craft their reviews, so everyone can see what is being communicated. We hope this kind of transparency will allow those initially skeptical to feel more comfortable with our service.
In the digital world, it has become a necessity to find new ways of supporting editorial ventures. No one is more aware of this than I am (as a former book review editor who lost her job when the Rocky Mountain News closed, falling victim to the crumbling business model for print publications). This is a particular dilemma in the self-publishing world, as the enormity of the pool of material and its vast unevenness in terms of quality makes screening such work a huge and potentially expensive undertaking. (This is why, until recently, self-publishers had little access to reviews of any kind. Most mainstream publications are overwhelmed with titles from traditional publishing houses, and even authors published by traditional houses can’t be assured of getting a review – especially in this climate, as book sections in newspapers across the country are downsized or eliminated, and newspapers close. Most mainstream publications have policies rejecting self-published books, as it’s simply too difficult to cover all those bases with the limited resources they have.)
We feel it’s not unfair to ask self-publishers to assume some of the burden of this cost. Self-publishers are, in fact, publishers. And in addition to bearing the cost of producing a book, publishers have always taken on the expense of getting the word out about their books, as well. One of the most powerful tools an author can have for marketing a book is a critical, objective appraisal.
BlueInk offers a solution for self-publishers who have been frustrated at their inability to attain honest reviews. Perhaps it’s not the only solution, and another model may evolve. If so, we weren’t able to envision it at this time.
In any case, we have worked hard to provide a service that will justify our fees – one tailored specifically to the needs of self publishers. We have spent endless hours debating the best ways to address those needs. For example, we realize that many self publishers want to attract traditional publishers. Thus, we thought they should have a way to let publishers know if their book is earning accolades, or selling particularly well, as these are things agents and publishers look for in acquiring new material. Authors can do this on our site (yes, it’s an added fee, but well worth the cost if an author has solid bona fides to promote).
We also realize that they might want the attention of librarians; thus, our special search allows librarians to sort books by region in order to determine if particular titles by local authors would be worthy of putting on their shelves.
And we know, being book lovers ourselves, that readers don’t want to buy a book unless they can browse through it first. We make Google Books Preview available for all books reviewed on our site – a service that allows visitors to read directly inside the book. We also provide links to the author’s websites so readers can learn more about each author.
We hope to offer other features as we get feedback from those who use our site — authors, readers and industry professionals alike.
We feel all of these services warrant the fee and hope self-publishing authors will see the benefits as well. Bottom line: we are committed to producing reviews that adhere to time-honored ethical standards and are worthy of our web audience’s trust and respect at all times. We just ask that you keep an open mind and give us a chance to earn your trust as time goes on.