Pay per (Re)view? Ali Bacon discovers how hard it is for small publishers to get press coverage.

This month has delivered another hard knock as regards the realities of life with a small publisher. I’m talking about book reviews, not on Amazon or Goodreads or the fabulous efforts of book bloggers (to whom I'm eternally grateful), but the world of the main-stream press, or the bits of it I thought would be accessible to the author of a small but perfectly formed (though I say it myself!) piece of Scottish historical fiction.

Print copies don't come cheap
I like to think neither myself nor Linen Press took anything for granted as far as reviewers were concerned.  Before Blink was published we made a list of potential review media from the general (Guardian, TLS, Scotsman) to the more niche photography journals. Rather than send review copies unsolicited, each of the reviewers  was sent (as were many personal contacts, bloggers and bookshops) book, author and cover info. I was buoyed up by the fact that we got replies from several large circulation publications saying ‘yes please, send a copy’ which we duly did (all print of course – no ebooks for this sector, apparently.) 

A few months down the line, I considered many reasons why reviews from the ‘yes’s’ had not been forthcoming: - maybe the whole thing just took longer than I imagined, or I was overoptimistic in thinking Blink would be considered a masterpiece by anyone other than those close to home?  What has disarmed me is the discovery, in fits and starts, that the book is unlikely to have been seen by most of these reviewers, never mind read or reviewed.   According to one contact, the TLS, for instance, has mountains of books in a kind of review slush-pile and I guess this is par for the course.

Poking a few arts correspondent contacts on social media (nothing ventured!) didn’t seem to work and I believe Linen Press made some calls to no effect. So it was an admission of defeat to ring a Scottish magazine of international standing (who had accepted a review copy but published no review) to ask about placing an advert. I saw this readership as my main audience. Speculate to accumulate?

Needless to say the cost of even ¼ page was eye-watering, but a special deal was offered for the upcoming issue with favourable placement next to the book review page. And, wait a minute, if we were advertising, the book would also get a mini review into the bargain. Now I was sitting up and taking notice. However Linen Press had other commitments which made the spend a no-go and as I earn only a standard royalty from sales through Linen, I didn’t imagine I would recoup £200+ from paying for the advert myself. (If I’d been self-publishing, my money would, I think, have been on the table – discuss?) But while all this was in the air, I had a think. Wasn’t placing an advert with a review guaranteed tantamount to paying for a review?

We few, we happy few
This led me to examine the other worthy-looking contenders for reviews in the issue of the magazine I had to hand. Clearly they favoured reputable Scottish and local history publishing houses - and why not? But with my hackles raised, I was suspicious enough to think why? In fact 16 reviews in that issue were spread over a small number of publishers.  FB friends suggested it was standard practice for publishers to keep review editors sweet: friends in other sectors said it was common for ‘advertorial’ to be offered (i.e a feature article) only if an advert is placed. And what about the coverage in the same issue of books from a reputable but expensive self-publishing  provider Matador? Is this what the author pays for in that ‘publicity package’? If so I am actually more impressed than I expected to be!

Overall, of course I’m dispirited. We all know about publishers paying for bookshop placement etc but I naively thought reviews were reviews. If I got the book in front of someone sympathetic to the genre and style, bingo! Well the scales have fallen from my eyes in that respect as in one or two other matters of indie publishing. 

6  out of 5. 110% success!
But rather than give in to sour grapes I’m trying to look on this as simply a reality check and of course to count my blessings,especially with this latest stunning review from author Mari Howard (whose Oxford novels are well worth a look). If you don't have time to read the whole review I can tell you She has given In the Blink of an Eye 6 stars out of 5!  So huge thanks to her and to all my other reviewers wherever you may be.

Of course I’d also be interested to know of any other strategies available for storming the citadels of the mainstream press and leave you with a foretaste of my next preoccupation – book prizes!

Ali Bacon's In the Blink of an Eye (Linen Press 2018) is a fictionalised account of the life of Scottish artist and photographer D. O. Hill told through the eyes of those who knew him.  
In e-book and paperback, best prices direct from the publisher. Also from other reputable bookshops and online outlets. 

Her contemporary Scottish novel A Kettle of Fish is also available from Amazon and through bookshops.



Kit Domino said…
This little known fact about reviews and the media is important and certainly one that the majority of self-published or small press authors do not realise. We regularly see books reviews in newspapers without ever giving a thought to the fact the publisher has actually paid to have the book placed in the publication by whatever means. It's a harsh world we writers work in as we strive for recognition. Thank you for bringing this to everyone's attention.
AliB said…
Thanks Kit - a harsh world indeed! A.
I'm slightly cynical about the whole big media review lark. When Dot Dash got a nice review in the Independent on Sunday (on the same page as George Saunders's Tenth of December!) I was monitoring Amazon to see if I could detect any new sales as a result. As far as I could tell, there was absolutely zilch. I think it only works if EVERYONE says how wonderful the book is, which means you've somehow got to persuade every single newspaper/magazine to take an interest, and that's a bit of a tall order if you're a small fish.
AliB said…
Thanks Jonathan - sort of reassuring - or not! and well done for The Independent on Sunday anyway. A.
I can't remember the publication now, but I was browsing through a xmas books round-up (a good selection with cover images and mini reviews) when I noticed the small print "sponsored content" at the edge of the page. I assumed that meant the featured books were paid for by publishers, though I guess non-publishing people might not pick up on this.
Enid Richemont said…
I know it has to be commercial, but does it have to be so brutally commercial? Probably yes (weeps).
AliB said…
thanks for your support, ladies!
Umberto Tosi said…
I'll get myself a copy and be glad to write a review. Just as a reassuring word about your reviewer access travails, BTW, they boost a writer's reputation and can provide nice cover line for one's next opus, but really don't sell all that many books. Better to build up one's base of followers... adding to one's list and discounting previous works as one goes along. Reviews used to be good for book store sales, but even Barnes & Noble is for sale now and it's all online, mostly Amazon. That's the bad news - and the good news in that we can display our books indefinitely giving time for sales to accumulate rather than appearing then disappearing from store shelves in a month. Good luck with your fine efforts.
Kathleen Jones said…
It is really depressing isn't it? The book trade has become industrialised at the expense of book lovers and small publishers. Good luck Ali! We need more publishers like you.
AliB said…
Many thanks for offering to read Umberto, and hope it turns out to be up your street. Jonathan has made the same point abut reviews - though I think this particular mag does have a good record for sales take-up it's best to accentuate the positive rather than get stuck in the slough of despond! A.
Griselda Heppel said…
Re Matador (who are my publishers) - their marketing package includes creating a Press Release and sending it out to a good number of relevant publications. They clearly build up good relationships with some publications which makes them more confident of a possible review, and send them review copies straight off, but mostly it's just the press release with review copies sent out if requested. I got quite good coverage for both my books on some (not the elite!) children's book reviewing websites, and a couple of national magazines (Aquila, Juno) but no national newspapers. Some of the websites were definitely thanks to Matador, but mostly I did all the follow up emails/phonecalls myself - I've done enough work in publicity in publishing to know this is hugely time-consuming and not something I could expect Matador to do. If there'd been a question of paying for an advertisement/review, Matador would charge the author direct for that!
For instance, I paid £300 to have Ante's Inferno considered by Amazon Vine reviewers - the top Amazon reviewers, did you know there's a cost for that? We are assured the reviewers don't get a penny, just a free copy of the book, and the fee is to cover Amazon's administration costs for sending out the 20 free copies the publisher (author, if you're self-published) has to provide. Nice little earner for Amazon, eh. That did get me half a dozen very positive reviews from those reviewers who presumably have more clout than others, and would have had no qualms in being negative if they felt the book deserved that - which was a good result, as I could have paid all that money and not got a single one. Did it help sales? I think it did, but not enough to offset so much outlay!

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