Bloggers’ Opinions Must Not Be Bought: A Cautionary Tale

I’m leery of accepting self-published work for review. If this is prejudice on my part, it’s not unjustified: I’ve reviewed hundreds of self-published books during my four years of freelance work for Kirkus, Foreword, BlueInk, Publishers Weekly, and The Bookbag, and although I do find the very occasional gem that could hold its own in a traditional market, the overall quality is poor. When self-published authors get in touch via my blog, I usually delete their enquiries immediately. But for some reason I decided to give a second look to a request I received through Goodreads earlier this year. (All identifying details have been removed.)

I’ll admit it: the flattery probably helped:

This was for a historical novel that had 4-star reviews from two Goodreads friends whose judgment I trust, so I agreed to have the author send a copy to my parents’ house in the States so that it would be waiting for me there when I arrived for my recent trip. When I opened the box, two alarm bells rang at once. First there was this. Uh oh.

Second of all: the author had taken the trouble of looking up restaurants in my parents’ area and ordered a $60 gift card from one of them to send along with the book parcel. Double uh oh.

I spent weeks wondering what in the world I was going to do about this ethical quandary. I even contacted a Goodreads friend who’d reviewed the book and asked what their experience with the author had been like. The reply was very telling:

I still feel unsettled over my interaction with [name redacted]. I’ve always made it a point not to review unsolicited books. But over a period of several weeks, [they] sent me a number of emails that ranged from flattering to fawning – and always polite and charming. Eventually, I, too, received a $60 gift card to a favorite restaurant that was within blocks of my home. I ended up, I believe, 4 starring [the] book, although the truth is that it was more of a 3-star read. Since reviewing, I have valued my independence – and honesty – and since then, have had the uncomfortable feeling of being “bought”, and for a low price at that.

I cannot tell you what to do. Obviously, I feel as if my own values were compromised. For me, it wasn’t worth what I still believe is a blot on my integrity. If you do decide to review, I’d simply encourage you to be honest because (I learned the hard way) the aftermath isn’t a good feeling.

Well, I’d promised to review the book, so I forced myself to open it, pencil in hand. After I’d corrected 10 problems of punctuation and grammar within the first six pages, I commenced skimming. There were some decent folksy metaphors and a not-half-bad dual narrative of a young woman’s odyssey and a small town’s feuds. But there were also dreadful sex scenes, melodramatic plot turns, and dialogue and slang that didn’t ring true for the time period. If I squinted pretty darn hard, I could see my way to likening the novel to the works of Ron Rash and Daniel Woodrell. But it wasn’t by any means a book I could genuinely recommend.

So when the author checked up a couple of months later to see whether I had gotten the book and what I thought of it, here’s what I replied:

I received the following abject apology, but no helpful information.

To my brief follow-up –

– I received this:

Note the phrase “self-promoted” and the meaningless repetition of “couldn’t put it down!”

And then they went on to disparage me for my age?!

I don’t believe for a minute that this person was ignorant of what they were doing in sending the gift cards. What’s saddest to me is that they have zero interest in getting an honest opinion of the work or hearing constructive criticism that could help them improve. They clearly don’t respect professionals’ estimation, either, or they’d be brave enough to pay for a review from Kirkus or another independent body. Instead, they’ve presumably been ‘paying’ $60 a pop to get fawning but utterly false 5-star reviews. Just imagine how much money they’ve spent on shipping and ‘thank-you gifts’ – easily many thousands of dollars.

And could I really have been the first in 180+ people to express misgivings about what was going on here? How worrying.

I was tempted to be generous and give the novel the briefest of 3-star reviews, perhaps as an addendum to another review on my blog, just so that I could feel justified in keeping the gift card and not have to face a confrontation with the author. But it didn’t feel right. If I want my reviews to have integrity, they have to reflect my honest opinions. As it stands, I have the gift card in an envelope, ready to be returned to the author when I’m in the States for my sister’s wedding next month; the book will most likely get dropped off at a Little Free Library.

If I was a vindictive person, I’d be going on Goodreads and Amazon and giving the book a 1-star review: as a necessary corrective to the bogus 5-star ones, and as a way of exposing this dodgy self-promotional activity. But that would in turn expose all of this person’s readers, including a valued Goodreads friend. And who knows how the author would try to retaliate.

So there you have it. My cautionary tale of a self-published author trying to buy my good opinion. What have I learned? Mostly to be even more wary of self-published work; possibly not to make any promises to review a book until I’ve seen a sample of it. But also to listen to my conscience and, when something is wrong, have the courage to speak out right away.


I’m curious: what would you have done?

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24 thoughts on “Bloggers’ Opinions Must Not Be Bought: A Cautionary Tale

  1. This is a great story about a difficult issues. Years ago I got a book from an author along with a nice note and a small gift. I skimmed the book and decided it was not to my standards. I considered contacting the author but in the end donated the book and the gift and left it at that.
    More recently I saw a book on Goodreads giveaways that friends had reviewed very positively and I entered the giveaway. The author sent his self published book to everyone who entered. The writing had some good points but overall lacked focus and clarity. I was generous but commented on the faults. The author did not take it well!
    I will be more careful in the future.
    There is a service for self published writers, IndieBrags, that solicits reviewers anonymously. My husband reads for them regularly and I have read a few books for them. The big problem the author contacting a reviewer is being honest in reviews. IndieBrags does not require a public review on a blog or retailer so reviewers can be very forthright.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nancy, thank you for commenting. I tried to think of other cases where I have been sent a gift by an author and the only instances I can think of are: 1) when I won a signed book in a Twitter giveaway and the author included a bar of chocolate (she did not expect a review; I happened to review the book on my blog because I liked it); and 2) when an author whose book I loved and gave a 5-star review on NetGalley and Goodreads sent me a signed copy as thanks for helping her get it more widely noticed. Neither of those bothered me because it did not feel like I was being given something in anticipation of a positive review.

      I too have found that Indie authors are extremely sensitive, and often have inflated opinions about the quality of their work. They can be quite vindictive against reviewers, which is why I’ve been very careful not to give away any details here, and why I’m sometimes grateful that I get no byline with Kirkus — you can hide behind the anonymity, and the editors will back you up as long as you haven’t made any factual errors in your reviews. I’d not heard of IndieBrags but it sounds like a good service. It’s so important for self-published authors to have an honest assessment of their work.

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  2. Uh. What a horrid situation. I made a blanket rule when I started blogging not to accept any self-published work and to obtain all my ARCs through the publisher only – not having unsolicited contact with authors keeps it all clear.
    Honestly, I can’t see how the $60 gift card can be viewed as anything but a bribe!

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    1. I agree. I think your rule is probably quite sensible. I can think of precisely one self-published author I built a great relationship with through Goodreads, and a few other times when I accepted a traditionally published book for review direct from the author. Luckily all those worked out well for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Difficult situation but I too think you did the right thing. It is obvious you are a really nice person but you must be true to yourself.
    As you might recall I’ve had a couple of issues with published authors not liking my Goodreads reviews. But I’m not going to stop giving a negative review if I feel it is justified!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think of myself as a people pleaser, so I think it’s more a matter of wanting to avoid confrontation and unpleasantness at all costs. I suppose in my honest reply I could have been a bit meeker to avoid the author getting their back up, but oh well.

      I can’t decide how I feel about authors interacting with their readers on Goodreads. On the one hand, it’s nice to have an author like my review or thank me personally for it; this sometimes happens on Twitter as well. On the other hand, authors then think they have the right to rebuttal against a negative review, like the ones who’ve contacted you — which I think is really undignified.

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  4. You handled it about as well as you possibly could. I’ve been in the awkward position of knowing 2 self publishing authors. One put out what I thought was a half-way decent first draft. The other worked for years on a book about a bit of local history. The best review was one I overheard in a local coffee-shop, one that covers so many self-published books, when a young man told the barista that “I wanted to like it.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I appreciate that. Luckily I don’t personally know any self-published authors who have tried to give me their books for review. That would certainly be tricky! When a friend had a fantasy work underway some years ago and wanted feedback on it, I managed to fob it off on another friend who is a writer and a dedicated reader of fantasy (whereas I basically don’t read the genre at all). I thought she’d be a better reader of his work.

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  5. Goodness me, what an awful and difficult situation, I’m so sorry to hear that this happened. I’d have been horrified to find that gift card and freaked out immediately!

    I am a self-published author myself, but I have never solicited reviews; the only thing I have done (I think twice) is done a review swap with another writer in a similar field (one reviewed my book, one didn’t). I do send out free copies of my books in ebook form if someone has, for example, emailed me about one of my other books to ask advice, etc. I have asked those people to put reviews up if they feel like it and they enjoy the book, but with no strings attached and no obligation.

    I have accepted one unsolicited ebook from a stranger; the book was quite good, I reviewed it but turned down her second due to the themes – she was fine about that. I have read and reviewed books by two authors who do self-publish but with high production values and having forged a friendship with them first – in both cases I went from beta reader to post-publication reviewer with them and that felt fine.

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    1. It’s good to have your perspective, Liz. I can see how difficult it must be for self-published authors to get their work out there, but it sounds like you’ve found ways to do it without being obnoxious! (And I’m sure your books are top-quality; I shouldn’t generalize about self-publishing as much as I do.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve edited some pretty good non-fiction stuff and a series of competent thrillers, all self-published, so there is good stuff out there but it’s hard to sort from the rubbish. I turn down quite a few requests for my editing services if I know I’ll be charging money they will never recoup, but sometimes people are so determined to publish but so either arrogant or gullible and if they seem really gullible I will give them advice and work with them to save them from the predators. All a difficult business.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. That is just awful. I’m so sorry that happened to you. I’ve had some very bad experiences with self published authorsvas well and I don’t accept them any more. I’ve gotten some very nasty emails from authors whose books I didn’t want to write a review for because I don’t write negative reviews. Any book below 3 stars I don’t bother with a review.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know many other bloggers who have a blanket policy of not reviewing self-published books. I think the wording on my profile is that I’m “unlikely to accept” self-published work for review, but I may need to adjust that. One thing I am always wary of is accepting Goodreads friend requests from authors who are clearly just collecting friends who they hope will review their indie book.

      I would tend to agree that there’s little point in publishing wholly negative reviews on a blog; I’d rather be recommending the books that I did enjoy.

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  7. What an awkward situation. I think you handled it well. It’s too bad that the author isn’t interested in constructive criticism. I had a self-published author contact me on Twitter about reviewing and I never responded to him! I guess that wasn’t the way to handle that, but it’s been so long now I’d feel silly writing back to say No. I have so many books on my TBR that I desperately want to read anyway, I have no time for self-published books on top of that. Anyway, kudos on handling that tricky situation.

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    1. Thanks, Laila. I frequently ignore review requests that come in via my blog, Twitter, or Goodreads. I suppose it would be courteous to respond, even if it’s with a no. Maybe if I make myself an e-mail template I’d be more likely to do so. I feel the same way — there are so many great books out there that I don’t want to waste time reading the duds, and especially not just to be ‘nice’ to the author.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting story – I’m glad you shared it! Sounds to me like you handled it well. Now I’ll have a good example to remember if I ever run across the same problem.
    On the one hand, I also find it scary to accept self-published books. But on the other hand, I like the idea of helping those authors out if they’ve written something of quality. It’s hard to know what to do and where to draw the line.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think you handled this very diplomatically and ethically. I don’t read/review self-published books as a rule, although I would make exceptions if I found/chose to read a self-pubilshed book, anything unsolicited I tend to just delete the request, unless I’m in a really good mood – then I might reply and explain why – but it’s all on my blog.

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    1. Thank you. I decided not to share this particular post on the FB group as I knew there were lots of self-published authors who might get their knickers in a twist! I should probably have a more definitive policy about reviewing self-published books.

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  10. This is so awkward, I’d like to think I’d have done the same as you because boy is that weird. I don’t think you could have done anything better than handling it how you did.

    Liked by 1 person

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