Print on demand technology has done a lot over the past 10 or 12 years to change the publishing landscape. Among other things, it has created an explosion of fee-based publishing options, small publishers, and micropresses. These ventures in turn have driven an intense proliferation of services targeted to writers, all of them intended (theoretically, at least) to offset the minimal marketing and limited distribution that's typical of POD publishing services and small presses.
Among these new writers' services (or "services," depending on how incompetent or unscrupulous the providers are) are book review services that review for a fee. Many are independent, and often run by not-necessarily-highly-qualified people--for instance, Reader's Choice, which offers an Express Review Upgrade for $45 (you can pay more if you want a marketing package as well), or IP Book Reviewers, which charges between $50 and $90 depending on length.
Other paid review services are associated with a review publication that mainly does non-paid reviews. The "sponsored reviews programs" from San Francisco Book Review and the Sacramento Book Review cost $99 to $299, depending on how fast you want your review (if you're a writer, you may have been spammed by one or both of these magazines). ForeWord Magazine offers Digital Reviews for "worthy" books that can't be covered in the magazine ($99), and Clarion Reviews for authors "experiencing trouble getting your titles reviewed through traditional outlets" ($305). And of course there's Kirkus Discoveries ($425 to $575, depending on turnaround time). To preserve the appearance of impartiality, none of these services promises a positive review (and indeed I've seen some pretty negative ones from Discoveries)--and all of them segregate the paid reviews from the rest, publishing them only online or burying them in a special newsletter.
Is it ever worthwhile to buy a review? Not in my opinion. With independent paid review services, quality can be a problem; plus, there are plenty of non-professional book review venues out there that will review for free. With services like Discoveries, you may actually get a professional-quality review--but it will be a second-class review, stuck in some backwater on the service's website. Plus, no matter what altruistic motive the service offers to justify its fees, paid reviews are less an effort to expand review coverage to worthy books than an opportunity to make some extra cash by exploiting self- and small press-published authors' hunger for credibility and exposure.
Now there's a new entrant in the fee-for review arena: Publishers Weekly. This coming December, PW will launch PW Select, a quarterly supplement that will focus on...
...announcing self-published titles and reviewing those we believe are most deserving of a critical assessment...Each quarterly will include a complete announcement issue of all self-published books submitted during that period. The listings will include author, title, subtitle, price, pagination and format, ISBN, a brief description, and ordering information provided by the authors, who will be required to pay a processing fee for their listing. At least 25 of the submitted titles will be selected for a published review. There will also be an overview of the publishing trends that can be identified from among the titles from that reading period. We will also focus on the opportunities that the self-pub world offers. A resource directory will accompany the section offering names of companies providing services in the DIY space.The reading period for the December supplement will be September 1 through October 31. The processing fee is $149 (plus the cost of a book and postage), and includes a 6-month subscription to PW's digital edition (much of PW's digital content is available for free, so this is less generous than it appears). Finished books or bound galleys only; no ebooks or manuscripts.
The entire PW editorial staff will participate in a review of the titles being considered for review, and we'll likely invite a few agent friends and distributors to have a look at what we've chosen. No promises there, just letting some publishing friends take advantage of the opportunity to see the collection.
So, let's recap:
- PW, probably the best-known of the professional review venues, is opening its doors to self-published authors for the first time...
- For a fee of $149...
- Which will buy:
- a listing in a supplement (not the main magazine) that includes advertising from publishing services and fee-based publishers...
- Which may buy:
- a review, but no guarantees...
- a look-see from an agent or editor or distributor, though no promises.
PW Select is not quite like other paid review services. You aren't paying for a review--just for a listing and the possibility of a review. This may seem like splitting hairs, but I think it's a meaningful distinction, since it allows PW to, in its words, "maintain our right to review what we deemed worthy." Precisely because authors aren't buying a review, a review, if they get one, may have more credibility--assuming of course that it's a real review, not a couple of lines of summary, which we won't know for sure until the first issue comes out. And whether or not PW follows through on its non-promise to involve agents, etc. in the selection process, I think it's not a stretch to imagine that at least some industry people may be watching PW Select with interest--at least to start.
For a self- or small press-pubbed author with a quality book, therefore, PW Select could--just possibly--be an opportunity. Problem is, most writers believe their books are quality, whether or not that's so. Many, if not most, of the writers who pay the $149 won't have a prayer of getting a review (sorry, self-publishing advocates, it's true. Large numbers of self-published books suck). All they'll receive for their money is a listing--and while the reviews may attract attention, who will look at the listings? It's hard for me to imagine that anyone beyond the authors themselves will care.
Plus, there will be that "resource directory" of fee-based services and publishers--great for PW, which gets advertising income, not so great for anyone else, given how saturated we are already with these kinds of ads (and will PW vet them to exclude scammers?). Bottom line: as much as Kirkus Discoveries or any other paid review service, PW Select is a moneymaking venture that feeds on self- and small press-pubbed authors' hunger for exposure, in full knowledge that the majority of the writers who buy the service will not benefit from it.
Opportunity or exploitation? A little of the first. A lot of the second.
Possibly to PW's surprise, PW Select has generated some criticism from the self-pub community. And Lee Goldberg points out that there are conflict of interest concerns for PW review staff.