Fraught with Dangers, Writing Reviews Can Also Be Great Marketing Tools

What Writers Should Know Before They Take on

Reviewing as a Marketing Tool or an Income Stream

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of How to Get Great Book Reviews Frugally and Ethically: The ins and outs of using free reviews to build and sustain a writing career

Reputable reviewers have been writing (and being paid for) their reviews for decades—at least back to the 1920s.  The ones that get paid collect their checks from literary journals and other media industry including journalists who have steady jobs or freelance for newspapers. They do not get paid by authors or publishers. This model works well primarily because 1. The reviewer gets paid and 2. The reviewer will not feel obligated to be positive about a book when they otherwise would choose to be more critical.

This is an ideal setup because the reviewer does not “owe” the author of publisher anything but an honest and fair review and, in return, readers and audiences of this kind of media can trust the reviews they read. The model has worked for a long time, but the Internet has changed things. Yelp. Rotten Tomatoes. How do we know which reviewers can be trusted, which have an agenda other than telling it like it is. Which have the kind of knowledge to judge a work of art including books beyond, “I just liked it,”  or “I just hate…” You get the idea.

As authors or other writing professionals, our reputations are at stake when we write reviews, even when we weigh in on what Amazon calls “reader reviews.” The readers of our reviews should feel confident that we are abiding by journalistic and publishing standards. We should feel completely free to get paid by a third party or to review at no charge, but we need to be cautious about writing fair and honest reviews. That means we should avoid trolling (or accepting) writers and publishers as our clients. Reputable review sites exist and we should protect our reputations by reviewing only for those that have ethical guidelines and was should maintain those same standards when we review free or as unprofessional readers online.

There is a debate going on right now about how college athletes have been denied access to honest opportunities to earn money by endorsing products while they are still in college. People are finally seeing that this is a different thing—that by denying them their right to use their talents when they are in their prime, they are also denying them lessons learned in a capitalist society where entrepreneurship is encouraged and sometimes denying them a lucrative adult life because of it.  I see quite a few parallels here for new reviewers, too.  Would we want to deny a child one of the pleasures of reading—and or learning early on that writing is a worthy talent.

Most fourth-grade teachers use writing reviews as a valid learning tool.  I’m sure a standards board would say it is fine line. Here are the advantages of writing reviews and using them as a teaching tool.  

1.    Reviews encourage young people to read.

2.    Instructors can use reviews to teach analytical skills.

3.    Instructors can use reviews to teach ethics.

4.    Reviews can give writers a sense that their skills are valued in monetary ways, even by the culture at large.

When choosing a media to write reviews for a writer should check to be sure . . .

1.    That there is a third party who stands between the publisher and the author. That keeps the professional reviewer (anyone who get paid for a review is a professional) ethical just as there is an editor at fine Literary Journals or reputable newsletters who acts as a “dividers” or “protectors.” They see to it that their magazine’s style choices are adhered to and enforce that the reviewer is doing a professional / ethical job.

2.    That the medium they have choses—online or print—has a reputation. Perhaps by doing a Google church or asking other professionals about their reputation.

Parents have also been known to use reviews as a teaching tool. I had a friend who, ahem!...bribed . . . her kids to read books. It was a pay-per-book book approach to encourage reading. I was not crazy about this kind of child rearing, but I became more accepting when I discovered that the paid-activity often encourages children to go on to become writers or editors. Obviously, such a plan works as an opportunity for teaching ethics and for carefully selecting suitable reading material. This kind of bribe isn’t very different from the idea that kids have earn their grades by reading books for eons, right?

All reviewers—the ones who write for ethics-minded entities either for-pay or on Amazon or other entities for free, often receive a free review copy of the book. There is a new ethical standard that asks them to add a disclaimer in their reviews to that effect. All reviews have a commercial aspect about them (remember the grades the fourth-grader is earning), but they are also about encouraging reading, building an informative Amazon buy page, networking, sharing.  In other words, they are great marketing tools when used appropriately. They should influence the sales statistics only in ways that true professional reviews have for years. No agendas. No slash and burn. Did I say, honest and fair? Throw “balanced” into that equation!

Artists of all kinds may use the magic of “free” to boost their careers.  It is a way to get exposure.  It is a feel-good activity.  Those of us who do it make it easier to eventually get paid for what we do, but we may also make it harder for professionals to charge for similar work.

Look at accomplished writers and speakers who are often expected to offer those services free to writers’ conferences, podcasts, TV, radio, etc.  Those media could pay, but they don’t because they don’t have to.  That makes it harder for people in the arts to make a decent living. So when I do it, I am aware that I am depriving my fellow writers an opportunity to use these services as an income source.  But I also know that my refusal alone wouldn’t help them one iota. It is a hard decision to make.  After careful consideration, we must always decide for ourselves.  

If you are considering writing reviews, learn more about the plusses, the dangers, and the how-tos from my very fat volume on the subject, the third in my HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers
How to Get Great Book Reviews Frugally and Ethically: The ins and outs of using free reviews to build and sustain a writing career .

Whether you are writing reviews or trying to find reviewers to assess your book—fairly and ethically—you may be surprised at how much more there is to know about reviews, including dozens of ways to let reviews make your book a classic or boost its sales.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the author of the multi award-winning #HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers. The flagship book, #TheFrugalBookPromoter, was recently released by Modern History Press in its third edition. calls it “a classic.” Tweet with her @frugalbookpromo.


Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, this is an interesting post. Not many realize the pros and cons (and even dangers) of writing book reviews. Thanks for shedding light on this.

lastpg said...

Carolyn, I have bought your Frugal series and consider it my Bible of how best to edit, promote, and request reviews for my book. The advice you shared in this post takes the process one step further. You've given us valuable pros and cons and much to think about. As always, I appreciate your willingness to share your expertise, such a help for beginning as well as experienced authors.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I wrote #MovieReviews (and reviews of plays) for my local paper in my hometown and learned what a special skill it is. And even then, I was a bit surprised at how much I needed to say to authors about many other aspects of getting reviews, managing reviews on sites like Amazon, and writing them when I began to write my How To Get Great Book Reviews, Frugally and Ethically. I mean, I had to add all the things I had learned about reviews from the perspective of being the author of books for it! It is the fattest book in my HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers. I even covered how to excerpt blurbs from the reviews we get; sometimes they are the best, most useful ones we get as we move along the publishing path! I even covered how those extracted blurbs can be used to our advantage in getting books placed in commercial catalogs. And that's a profitable stream of income most authors haven't even been introduced to! Thank YOU for the chance to tell my story!

deborah lyn said...

Wonderful post Carolyn! Thank you.

Terry Whalin said...

Carolyn thank you for these important insights about reviews. I've been writing reviews for years--and continue to do so. It is an important way I connect with other writers and support their work.


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