Beware Of Publishers Bearing Gifts
OK…this is an exceedingly rare problem, but I learned this Rule the hard way.
A few of you reading this may be old enough to remember the payola scandals of the 1950’s. Many more may be familiar with the events through research or just general interest. In short, the term “payola” refers to the practice of paying someone for a favorable placement of some product.
In the 1950’s, a number of radio stations and on-air personalities were accused of—and in some cases prosecuted for—accepting money and other “gifts” for playing certain songs more often than others in order to make the song more popular. You can read more about the payola scandal on Wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Payola
At some of the less-than-reputable publishers—particularly in the e-publishing arena—the practice is still alive and well…
There are publishers who will pay for reviews. In some cases, the payment amount is tied to the number of stars (or whatever) that the reviewer gives the book. In most cases, the writer never even knows this is happening…the publisher sends the book out to a number of reviewers, and it all just sort of happens.
A new author with their first few books will always think that their book is the best ever written by anyone. After you have a number of books under your belt, you will know when you write a really good story and when you write crap. Also, you will sometimes see a bunch of reviews with two or three stars, and then out of the blue comes a five-star review. None of the issues addressed in the two-star reviews are mentioned by the five-star reviewer, and it seems they think your story is the best thing since War and Peace. And there will be patterns where all of the reviews done by a particular person or review group will be good, no matter what the story.
All of these are red flags…it’s not hard to see why you should be suspicious of this, but the real question is, “So what?”
In a nutshell, should someone in the Department of Justice (or similar agency in another country) decide to get pushy and look into this, you—the author—could be in deep shit.
Think about this…
Can you PROVE—in a court of law—that you had no idea this was going on and that you did not have a hand in the deal? That whole idea of being innocent until proven guilty is a crock…in most countries there is no such legal protection, and in many that do have it, it is a farce. You must PROVE that you are innocent against government charges.
If convicted, the penalties range wildly from one country to another. In most cases, we’re talking about a fine at the worst. In others, you might do jail time.
The best defense is to stay alert.
Stick with reputable, well known publishers. Odds are that they don’t do this in the first place, and they would never risk their reputation.
Look for the red flags. Don’t get hung up on reviews, but pay attention to the big picture and look for patterns. If you see things, ask the publisher point blank about this, and do it in writing (email is OK) so you have a record of it. Just in case. Also keep in mind that many reviewers of e-books are just readers. They have no standards in place for objectively reviewing books, so it is all 100% personal opinion and nothing more. It is possible that a particular reader will love your book while pretty much everyone else thinks it sucks.
If you have an agent, you can mention your suspicions to them. They won’t do anything, but you can ask.
If you have a real representative, definitely ask them. Odds are they have vetted the publisher and won’t touch the bad ones with a ten-foot pole, but things change. They will look into the matter.
And then we have the other side of the coin…
The number of publishers who do this kind of thing is exceedingly small. Just as a rough estimate, I would say that 0.01% of all publishers is too big a number. The odds of you hooking up with one of this tiny fraction are pretty slim.
And the odds are very much against someone actually deciding to look into the practice and taking legal action over it. Frankly, governments have better things to do than get in the middle of a few reviewers and publishers…like fixing their failing economies.
If you only self-publish, this shouldn’t be an issue at all. Well, unless you actually ARE paying for a good review.
More common in the self-published world is the so-called “review trade”. It often goes by other similar names, but the idea is that two writers review each other’s books. The (usually) unspoken rule is “I’ll give you five stars if you give me five stars”. I would avoid this practice. While not illegal, the ethics are very questionable. Any decent prosecutor will hang your butt out to dry.
Finally, don’t get all wrapped up around the axle on this. There is an old saying where I come from in the Ozarks…
Don’t sweat the petty things…and don’t pet the sweaty things.