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Writing Shortcuts: Paid Interviews and Reviews

This is the first in a series of articles I’m calling “Writing Shortcuts (And How to Avoid Them)”.

Learning to write well can be a slow process. Creating a quality manuscript can be a slow process. Finding just the right agent or publisher can be a slow process. Building a name for yourself can be a slow process.

It’s no wonder that many writers get frustrated and look for shortcuts, but these may actually undermine their chances for eventual success.

Paid Interviews and Reviews

A writing acquaintance recently pointed me at an interview she’d done. I was happy for her, of course. I’ve been interviewed about my books and it always makes me feel like a celebrity. I even start checking the front lawn for paparazzi and scanning the supermarket tabloids to make sure my name isn’t on the cover of this week’s issue. For readers and fellow writers, an author interview is a chance to gain insight into an artist’s creative process, get the story behind the story, and celebrate some of the milestones along the road to publication. I love reading them and immediately clicked on the link for this one.

Most online interviews follow a fairly simple process: The interviewer provides a list of questions; the subject of the interview emails back a set of answers; and the result is pasted into a web page. A legitimate interviewer might do some pre-interview research to tailor the initial questions to the person being interviewed. A legitimate interviewer might also ask a few followup or clarifying questions. A legitimate interviewer will definitely provide some basic editing, proofreading, and rearranging to make sure the result is a polished and professional interview.

The site I’d been directed to did none of the time-intensive bits that most legitimate interviewers care about. Their submission guidelines were up-front about the fact that all interviewees received the same generic questions and were responsible for their own typos.

And there was something else I found fishy about the site. Ads on every page promised that I, too, could be “interviewed” in exchange for a small payment. And for an extra payment, I could have my book “reviewed” on Amazon as well!

The payments were described as “donations,” which I guess was intended to make the payment-for-interview scheme seem more ethical. Of course, it’s a common and accepted practice to encourage donations to a good cause by offering something of value in exchange. That’s how my Kidlit for Japan auction raised over $10,000 for Unicef’s efforts to help young victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In the case of this interview and review site, however, there was no charity organization identified–just an opportunity to “feed wild animals.” This plea was accompanied by a picture of a raccoon eating from a cereal bowl and another of a squirrel chowing down on a peanut. You know, the kind of wild animals that can be fed from your back porch. Also pictured was the site owner’s cat. I’m not even kidding!

How exactly does one distinguish a “donation” that isn’t optional, verifiable, or tax deductible from an ordinary fee for service? If you’re asking people to pay for interviews, and if you’re claiming that this is an ethical and legitimate service, why not just come out and say so? Unless you have something to hide… And seriously, if you as a published author have to pay people to talk to you, it’s time to change your brand of mouthwash.

It should be obvious that any review done for a fee is ethically compromised from the start. When the author slips the reviewer $50 under the table, there’s no incentive for that reviewer to provide an honest (and therefore trustworthy and meaningful) review. When the review is based on notes provided by the author, there’s no need for the reviewer to even open the book, or load it onto an ebook reader, or whatever. A promise that the reviews will be posted within five business days of payment is a virtual guarantee that the book will not be read carefully, or at all. There’s no need to even provide a review copy, nor in this case was there a mailing address for doing so. There was even an admonition against sending attachments to the site’s email address!

Unless it’s disclosed in bold print in the top paragraph that such a review was paid for or that the book being reviewed was never actually read, that’s an act of fraud perpetrated against the reading public.

All the interviews I saw, including the one I’d originally been directed to, were of self-published authors. What they had really paid for was a good feeling and a thin veneer of legitimacy: if you’ve been interviewed on a site you don’t own, you must be a real author; if your book has reviews from somebody outside your family, it must be a real book.

In reality, if you pay for an interview or review out of naivete, you are being scammed by somebody who is playing off your insecurities or vanity. If you pay for it to trick potential readers, you are an active participant in a conspiracy to scam others. Either way, I can’t say this any more strongly:

Interviews and reviews should be free. Do not pay for them! Do not compromise your values in exchange for vague promises of increased sales or unverifiable claims that a paid interview will exposure your work to “readers, literary agents, publishers and development executives from films, cable and TV.”

This shortcut will not sell books, raise public awareness, or advance your writing career in any way.

5 Comments

  1. June 13, 2011    

    This is a valuable piece, Greg. It approaches this aspect of our field very fairly. It’s almost painful hearing about the pitfall so many authors fall into. So much of ourselves go into our work and that fuels the desire to succeed. Don’t fall for it!

  2. June 13, 2011    

    Greg, I recently sent the site you spoke of answers to questions for an interview…though it’s not up on their site yet, and I’m NOT self-published. (I admit I do shameless self-promotion though). I actually Tweeted about this opportunity and put it on a FB authors’ site, only because I contacted them and they said their donations are optional. So while I agree with you that you should not pay for an interview, this particular site might give some authors an chance to get their book to more readers. And you never know where one new reader might lead. I think what you wrote is important in that we all need to be careful and thoughtful in relationship to what we do with our writing and book promotion. Thanks for all you do for sharing information with writers.

    • Greg Greg
      June 13, 2011    

      Thanks, Carol! I’ll probably tweak this page over time to clarify the differences between a required fee and a suggested donation and to emphasize that this is a trap that traditionally published authors can also fall into. I can sympathize with the need to promote and find readers in non-traditional ways but it’s always important to be careful and make sure you’re getting an adequate return for your time and money. If we’re talking about the same site, it looks like it’s been operating for less than a month and there’s little evidence they’ve attracted many readers or built much of a reputation yet.

  3. Greg Greg
    June 13, 2011    

    Carol– Maybe I can interview you about your experiences with interview websites. 😀

  4. June 13, 2011    

    Sure, I’m always up for another interview! Meanwhile, my interview went up on that site this afternoon.

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