I knew they existed, but I never went out of my way to find them. Then, one day, they smacked me right in my own backyard.
Somebody was pasting “reviews” all over the comments section of a book listed on the Foreword Reviews website. Researching it a bit more, I saw that all the “reviewers” were affiliated with a site that hosts ads for people who will perform various services for five bucks a pop. I was completely shocked that there are companies out there that charge authors money to write positive reviews of their books and post them on sites like Amazon and, in this one case, briefly on Foreword Reviews before I immediately slammed the door on them. That’s not what we do.
Unfortunately, these sleazy services give the phrase “paid reviews” a bad name and tarnishes them all. So, with that in mind, I want to give a brief tour of what we do at Foreword Reviews, particularly our Clarion fee-for-review service.
First, a bit about me: I’ve been a journalist for thirty years, beginning my career at small newspapers and working my way up to larger newspapers and magazines. I’ve worked as a writer and editor and, while I may have been accused at times of turning an inelegant phrase, I have not once been accused of compromising my journalistic integrity. In fact, I’m pretty sure I annoy my coworkers when I hyperventilate at even the smallest hint of financial interests trumping objectivity. It simply doesn’t happen on my watch, and it’s one of the reasons I was hired here (aside from making the coffee every morning).
Authors Get a Seat at the Table
That out of the way, let’s talk about our fee-for-review service. For Clarion Reviews, the fee simply assures that you’ll get a review. It pays for our reviewers’ and editors’ time. The fees help keep the lights on at Foreword and ensure that we’re around to provide this needed service. There’s a revolution happening in self- and indie publishing, and our Clarion Review service provides a way for authors to get the attention of bookbuyers, librarians, and booksellers.
We receive about 1,200 advance review copies of books per quarter for possible review in Foreword Reviews, our print journal distributed for free to librarians and booksellers. Of those, we pick only about 150 to review or feature in some way. Foreword is advertising supported (with a small amount of paid consumer subscribers and newsstand sales in Barnes and Noble and Books a Million). Nobody pays for a review. We’d do more reviews in the magazine, or go bimonthly or monthly, if we could afford it. In fact, we’d love to review every great book we see.
I’d go even a step further and say that even the “bad” books deserve to be taken seriously. Good book or bad book, what a paid review buys authors is respectful treatment and consideration. I don’t buy into the argument that not everybody has a book in them. I believe in ideas and in people. And I believe that it all should be written and published. All of it. I’ve expanded on this idea before in a previous blog post (I Will Not Join in the Snooty Trashing of Self-Published Books; Here’s Why) so I won’t repeat it here.
There is a misconception that reviews in any publication are “free.” What is supporting them is advertising revenue. This is true of Foreword Reviews and the New York Times Book Review. The traditional model is that advertising and subscription revenue offset the costs of printing the magazine or newspaper, paying the reviewers and editors, shipping the books, etc. So, the authors, themselves, are not paying, but somebody is. It’s a model that worked well for more than a century, until recent years when declining ad and subscription revenue forced many magazines to either close down or severely cut back.
In short, I’m proud of our ability to help authors who otherwise would be ignored by literary publications while also keeping our doors open.
Strict Standards for Reviewers
Still. I understand. There are many who believe that if you write any review for money, you are tainted. End of story. How can we combat that? By showing what we do, by building trust over time. I work with more than one hundred freelancers filing reviews every day. My associate editor and I spend a good chunk of our day making sure each review follows our standard rules for a complete, objective critique. Just ask our reviewers how annoyingly strict we are. Among these rules:
Snark-free zone: We ban “author assassination.” For some books, it is difficult for reviewers to refrain from clever sarcasm and cutting insults. There is nothing that offends a reviewer more than bad writing. So, I advise our reviewers to write the sarcastic piece, curse the day the author’s parents ever taught them the alphabet. Get it all out of their system. Then delete it and write a critique that informs the author how and why the writing doesn’t work. And where perhaps it does. And we don’t hammer away at the same critique over and over again. Many of the books we work with are from first-time authors, have no editorial support system, and have not developed the hardened shell of a professional writer. Who exactly are we benefiting by being insulting?
No plot synopsis: What the authors want is a complete, constructive critique of all aspects of their work. They already know what they’ve written. Other review services actually charge money to have a plot synopsis spit back at them. Not us. We limit synopses to approximately one paragraph. The rest is all critique. This is a hard-and-fast rule and our writers have had enough reviews returned to them to know that.
Full, Objective Review: The hardest thing to do, at times, is to read views you personally disagree with, or graphic material that offends you. What we do, though, is review the entire book in a nuanced way. Who is the target audience? Aside from a disagreement with the conclusion or presumptions, what does the reviewer think about the quality of writing? Documentation? Research? Also, we match the genre with a reviewer who understands the topic. For example, our sci-fi reviewers won’t dismiss a book because “faster-than-light space travel is impossible,” or our romance reviewers won’t berate unrealistic love scenes.
I’m quite proud of what we’ve done at Clarion Reviews in the three-plus years I’ve been at Foreword. I think authors and publishers appreciate the opportunity to be reviewed by our carefully chosen, professional writers who provide a needed service. We charge a fee for the service to allow it to be self-sustaining. If anybody is getting rich off it, it’s certainly not us. The real reward is the voice we are giving to the previously voiceless.
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy