Of course, I’m not entirely sure how this is too much different than getting on the NYT Bestseller list. Sure, the route that the indie authors are taking is pretty nakedly unethical. Simply put “I’ll give you $15 for a positive review of my book” makes you a cheater. I think that’s obvious to most people.
But then there’s that NYT Bestseller List. Granted, many of the books I’ve read from there have been better than most of the Indie Pub stuff I’ve read. Having copy editors and fact-checkers and not having to worry about the business end of writing as much as an Indie author tends to give you more time to generate a better product. But, really, the books that end up topping the recognised lists do so not necessarily on quality.
The list-makers do pay particular attention to certain bookstores (most certainly not just independents, although most indies report sales to the NYT), so publishers tend to focus promotional efforts on those stores. Which stores are in the mix is unknown to the general public, but I gather that publishers are well aware of which stores count and are counted.
When you have millions of dollars riding on a book’s success, as the Big Houses often do, you are going to make it your business to know how to squeeze the most sales out of the thing. Why do you think the Big Houses have been so generous with frontlist discounts for booksellers for the last decade and a half? Sure, it’s not outright saying “I’ll pay you $15 for a good review”. But it is saying “I will only charge you $10 for this $25 book if you buy enough copies to make sure it ends up in the top 10 bestsellers.”
Yes, the books have to be good enough to sustain the model. There has to be enough demand for the bookstores to know they won’t end up with a million unsold copies of Her Heart Belongs To The Duke Of Transylvania and there has to be enough demand so that when you approach them next quarter with The Pantone Chips Of Sadomasochistic Erotica the bookstores’ buyers take you somewhat seriously. It helps if you dump another few million dollars into magazine ads, big posters and–heaven forfend–the book trailer. And don’t forget to send out a few thousand Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) so that the reviews can already be up on Amazon when the $10 book hits the shelves under the big poster. Those reviews always skew heavily positive if for no other reason than people enjoy feeling like insiders and are predisposed to like a book if they feel favoured by the publisher enough to get an early peek. That’s why the day the book comes out for us plebes you can go to Amazon and read a hundred gushing reviews about how I Am A Teenage Ghost With Cancer is The Book Of The Summer.
So is it somehow less okay for Susy Nobody to cut through all the hedgemazes and just say “here’s $15. Review my book on Amazon positively”? I honestly don’t think I know for sure.