The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Show Me the Money!

What I’m going to talk about today may seem like a no-brainer for just about everybody reading this. Previously I’ve talked about a couple of things that are parts of an unwritten ethical code among reviewers, but this one has been written down, in dozens of places, and is pretty much a standard practice: Thou shalt neither charge nor accept money for reviews.

We pretty much all cling to this. To the point where many of us get angry when we find that someone did take money in exchange for their reviews. It’s seen as a betrayal of our code of conduct, a blemish on the face of amateur reviewing. It’s one thing to be doing this as a job, and getting paid from a magazine or newspaper or something similar, as part of legitimate business matters. But it’s another thing entirely to take money from someone when reviewing isn’t your job, when it’s a hobby.

True, many reviewers put in as much work on their blogs as they do on their dayjob. But we’re not paid by the hour, or the article, and we just accept that going in. It’s nice to dream about someday making money from ad revenue or affiliate links, and that’s typically accepted as okay even by those who choose not to do that themselves. But straight-up compensation in the manner of, “Hey, if you review my book, I’ll give you a free copy plus $20,” is just crass.

So where’s the dilemma part of this Reviewer’s Dilemma? Oddly enough, it was an author who recently got me thinking a little bit differently about this, who said that they have no real problem compensating people for their time because they know how much time reviewing actually takes.

Put that way, accepting a little cash now and then doesn’t seem so bad.

The problem arises, of course, when you consider that money is a great swayer of opinions. If someone pays us money to write a review, it isn’t that we’re likely to be more favourable toward the book. It’s that we’re likely to feel guilty if the book isn’t to our standards. How do you tell someone their book wasn’t that great when they just gave you enough money to pay your phone bill? (My phone bill is $29 a month, because I’m not all fancypants and pay for data or anything like all you crazy kids.) You feel like you ought to give them their money’s worth. Maybe the dialogue wasn’t that realistic or compelling, so you don’t mention that in the review. Maybe, if you rate on a 5-star system, the book warranted 3 stars, but you could add a line saying that some piddly little issue rubbed you the wrong way and that you think most others would rate it 4 stars. The bad becomes less bad when you feel guilty for saying it, so we seek to relieve some of our guilt by beefing the book up a little bit.

It doesn’t really hurt anyone. But it isn’t entirely honest, either.

Nobody has to know what you got in exchange for a review, if anything. Some of us get review copies, some of us just grab whatever looks interesting from the library, some do a mixture of both. We’re typically upfront about whether or not a book was a review copy, and in some places it’s required by law to state so because it counts as compensation for a service. But really, who’s to say? If you got a review copy but didn’t review the book until after it hits the bookstores, who’s to say you didn’t just go out and buy it? Similarly, who’s to say whether someone put money in your bank account?

But then we come to problem 2. If someone finds out you accepted money for a review, it practically destroys you. What you say becomes suspect. It doesn’t matter if a positive review would have been positive even if you hadn’t been paid, suddenly your words are called into doubt. You can say you’re honest, but you’d say that if you were dishonest, and people will point that out. Each word you wrote is now seen as less than truthful, bought and paid for, and the assumption is that you only said what you said because someone told you to say it. You sold out.


(Dammit, Supernatural, you really DO have a gif for everything!)

The problem, weirdly, comes down to perception. The change in perception within yourself when guilt may influence what you say, and the change in public perception when people find out you’ve done something that most of them won’t. It’s a standard practice because we all imposed the guideline upon ourselves, submitted ourselves to being held to that ideal by those around us. We may see the no-cash-compensation guideline as moral, but morality is often subjective to begin with.

I’m not advocating we start charging for reviews. I’ll never be doing that. I do happily accept review copies, and I consider that to be pretty much the same thing, given that a lot of the books I receive are books I probably would have bought anyway, so it’s the similar to just handing me the exact retail cost of a book and letting me get it myself. Only before it’s in stores. And with the bonus chance to discover books I might otherwise have passed over had I been left to my own devices. This is more acceptable than straight-up cash, even though logically, what it mostly does is cut out the middle man. But being subject to the social norms of reviewing the way I’ve chosen to be, I can’t deny that accepting a book seems better than accepting money, even if what I did with the money was go out and buy the book. Morality is weird sometimes.

But the author I mentioned earlier (who I’ve left nameless because if there’s backlash, I want none of it to hit them) does have something of a point. What we do as reviewers is work, and it is time-consuming. The public side of what we do, with reviewing and publicity on social media, that takes up enough time. But mostly it’s a fraction of the time it takes to actually read a book. Time isn’t the most important factor, though, since I think I can speak for everyone who reviews when I say that we’d be reading these books anyway even if we didn’t take time out of our days to write reviews and interact online. Reading is the source of our hobby. Nobody paid us to read books before, and I figure there’s no reason they should start now. It’s nice to think about being compensated for what we do, and it’s also nice that someone thinks enough of us to say we may deserve it, but I think the standard practice is the way it is for good reason. There are too many obstacles of perception to overcome, for one thing. And for another, logistically, if we didn’t write reviews unless someone paid us to do so… Well, let’s just say the vast majority of us wouldn’t be writing reviews. I’d rather keep doing what I’m doing, keep on reading and writing about it and learning more things than I can keep track of and not paying my bills with my compensation (the grocery store doesn’t accept books as payment, sad to say), than not doing it at all because nobody’s willing to hand me a $20.

5 comments on “The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Show Me the Money!

  1. “Time isn’t the most important factor, though, since I think I can speak for everyone who reviews when I say that we’d be reading these books anyway even if we didn’t take time out of our days to write reviews and interact online. Reading is the source of our hobby. Nobody paid us to read books before, and I figure there’s no reason they should start now.” This.

  2. I can kind of understand where the author is coming from, but no thanks, anytime money changes hands, it gets messy. Book reviewing is a hobby and I don’t care to be compensated for it, and even if I wanted to, it’s probably not worth walking into the minefield of complications that comes with it, in the situations you’ve so eloquently described.

  3. I think when it would be OK to be paid to review is when it is a neutral 3rd party paying the money. I know some of the large SF magazines/sights do pay for reviews, but they obviously don’t have a vested interest in positive vs negative, they just want a solid, well thought out and supported review that their readers will be interested in. I’m blogging because I choose to (and am a complete amateur). If there are people out there interested in what I have to say, that’s good enough for me. I also want to pick books I *want* to read, not the books that some one is paying people to read to try and drum up reviews/publicity.

  4. Another reason that I have no desire to be paid to review is because I want to be free to stop reading a book I’m disliking for whatever reason and either review it or not depending on how much I have to say. The second money is involved, there is likely a contract saying that I’ll write a review of such length by such date and who needs that stress??

  5. Pingback: September in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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