Thursday, 8 December 2016

The rise and rise of "reviews by proxy" sites - good news or bad news for book bloggers? A ReadItTorial

Competition, they say, is healthy. Competition promotes and provokes innovation and change, and can drive markets and individuals to improve what they do - sometimes by subtle force, sometimes not so subtle. Sometimes it can feel like drowning.

This week's ReadItTorial dips into the subject of community review sites which are a bit of a hot topic as more and more consumers come to rely on them to help them make informed purchasing decisions.

"Reviews by Proxy" sites aren't really anything new, in fact they're just about everywhere you look. If you consider a product, consider that somewhere out there on the world wide web someone will have come up with the genius idea of sticking together a reviews site for that product. Everything you spend money on, from getting your tyres changed on your car, to having some poor unfortunate individual unblock your loo invites you - the customer - to share your experience of that service online in some fashion.

Naturally there are lots and lots of book review sites (hey, you're visiting one now!) but the subject of our readitorial today are sites collectively known as 'review by proxy' sites.

Consumer reviews aren't really anything new. Amazon, to a great extent, has become the force to be reckoned with in global book sales not just on price but on the fact that each and every customer has the chance to offer up an opinion on a book (or a set of Pat Butcher fan-art plates) they've bought. It's as simple as logging into your Amazon account and clicking 'write a review' to submit a star-rated opinion of your new purchase.

Authors, artists and publishers have a wide range of opinions on the worth and validity of these reviews. Most authors and artists will find an Amazon review - a positive one at least - to be worth its weight in marketing gold whereas others might just wish certain reviews would evaporate and disappear. There's also a huge question about genuine reviews vs obvious 'seeded' reviews too but that's a whole other debate that we're not really aiming for here.

We've always chosen not to review stuff on Amazon for a couple of good reasons. 1) We run a book reviews blog site. Pretty much a no brainer that we'd rather you came here to read our reviews rather than go to Amazon and generate traffic for them and 2) we get the majority of our books for free so it seems a bit morally wonky to stick up a review of a 'purchase' when you didn't even buy the thing in the first place.

In any arena where the general public are allowed to have their say, you have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth. Some Amazon reviews are brilliantly written succinct and authoritative pieces that would make any author or artist proud as a 'back of the book' quote. Some are like hurling a cage full of mynah birds down a long flight of stairs while letting your favourite speech recognition software try to distil the resultant squawks.

So it is with the newer 'review by proxy' sites. These are consumer review sites but are subtly different in their genetic makeup. Essentially they start off with a mass mailout to various folk to invite contributions - before establishing themselves as a fully automated method of sharing opinions that's entirely community driven.

I've been struggling to come up with a catchy buzzword for these sites because it feels like they need one. (Proxviews? Revoxies? Come on, someone must be able to do better than me).

Collectively they're like a blog-o-matic machine, somewhere where you can submit an opinion without A) having to go through all the effort of starting a blog, B) having to establish an identity and a 'voice' for that blog, C) having to build a following and a reputation for that blog and finally D) going on bended knees to publishers to grab some books to review for that blog.

Sites such as GoodReads and Kirkus Reviews have been around for quite a while now. Both sites offer a huge number of reviews each day, covering the hugely diverse spectrum of adult and children's books from the very very beginnings of their reading adventures right through to the YA and grown up stuff they'll bury their noses in later on. Sometimes sites do this in conjunction with book charities and other reading organisations to promote diversity and variety, or to hone in on a narrower range of subjects so that they become the 'go-to' for recommendations of a fairly specific type.

Newer sites such as Toppsta have smartly recognised that the whole "Mummy Blogger" phenomenon is a reach seam of content generation to tap into. The site takes a slightly different approach, more like a social media site where each reviewer builds up a 'rep' and a social profile, group or network based around their reading and reviewing habits (which is a fantastic idea that you're probably surprised no one thought of AEONS ago - A facebook for books? How did no one see that sooner?)
For example, parents can write on behalf of their kids (like we do), or teachers can write on behalf of their pupils at school, grandparents for their grandchildren etc.

Each site relies solely on its contributors to provide content in the form of written reviews, which the site then categorises by various criteria.

The site provide the infrastructure but the content is purely down to the community's contributions and that's what makes it even more of a genius idea - ensuring that the site is always full of fresh reviews.

Folk who use the site can also follow each other, like each others reviews (or dislike them) and the whole thing perpetuates itself virtually. For "free".

So back to the original question, do 'review by proxy' sites damage book blogs? Will most book bloggers just end up chucking in the towel to take up residence on Toppsta or a.n.other reviews site instead? After all, why go through the effort of setting up your own blog and watching your hits dwindling to nothing year on year when you can (in 5 minutes flat) set up a profile on someone else's site, and get reviewing straight away!

It's a good question and one that's had us thinking long and hard. With several publishers actually advertising the fact that their titles are covered here (and on other proxy review sites), it feels like this is the future of book blogging - or at least book reviewing.

The main appeal of Toppsta is that a lot of the reviews are "written" by kids (I put "written" in quotes there simply because I know from first hand experience what it's like getting Charlotte to write a review. It's a long painful process so instead the reviews are still distilled from observations and notes made on what she thinks of books rather than watching her painfully peck away at a keyboard for several hours to come up with 50 words that basically say "I like this book, it's really good").

Kid reviews are both awesome and terrible. Some kids are capable of writing a really worthwhile opinion that's going to instantly tell an author, artist or publisher whether they're successfully hitting the right notes. Other kids are sweet and hilarious in what they write (and quite often brutally honest, which is always great to read on any reviews site).

But if there's one thing that review by proxy sites should establish early on, it should be some sort of  'reward programme' for its reviewers.

As an example, Toppsta (and I'm sorry if I keep singling them out but if you're the relatively "new" kid on the block garnering the most attention, that's the way the cookie crumbles alas) do offer the chance to win free books for the best reviews but it's not a done deal that your review will net you prize - though to be fair if you read Toppsta's FAQs they have made it abundantly clear there and have also laid out what their mission statement is plainly and clearly too (other sites should definitely follow by example).


Again with a but - there's one thing kids really do not need to 'get used to' though, it's working for nothing and reviews are work, no matter what your opinion is on the worth of the end result.

It feels exploitative in the same way internships can be in some companies, where an intern is basically brought in for little or no wage to gain some experience - but I guess no one would be quicker than me to point out that in the case of proxy review sites it's all entirely voluntary. No one's actually twisting your arm to write your content and you're free to come and go as you please or even (rather generously) propagate your reviews to other sites (which could lead to another question about the owner of your 'copy' but I wouldn't even want to try and legally pick that one apart).

It sounds a little selfish to imply that all parents and kids, teachers and grandparents should begin by asking "What's in it for me?" when someone asks you to write something for nothing, based on something you own. But let's get this straight. No site will survive without content, and you are providing that content and also giving up your most valuable commodity often for nothing.


Your time.

Your time which could be spent doing a multitude of other things - playing, climbing trees, riding a scooter or (heh) reading fantastic books. Without a huge willing free workforce to provide content, any site would be dead in the water within a very small space of time.

As well as asking "What's in it for me?" I guess you should also be asking "What's in it for them?" - After all they're footing the bill, going through all the hard work of setting up a site, registering with ISPs, hiring (we hope hiring) graphic designers and writers to make sure the site pops. So what IS in it for them?

Of course there is a buck to be made from advertising revenues, click-through 'buy a book' links (Again, very nice to see that Toppsta uses rather than Amazon which is a step in the right direction) otherwise sites just wouldn't bother would they?

So you can see the worth in establishing a brilliant social presence based on a love of books for all the other rewards setting up such a site will bring. Once again I really do wish to make it clear that there are many, many review by proxy sites out there all working towards the same aim of self-sustenance through content contribution and though I've mentioned Toppsta a lot here as one of the better examples of the direction you'd hope these sites will go in, you will find countless other sites doing a similar thing so I really don't want to single them out and sound like I'm being overly critical of what they're doing there. Not at all.

So, phew, there was a point to be made here somewhere - is this all good news or bad news for book bloggers? It really does depend on how much you're willing to "up your game". Some bloggers have been lucky enough to turn their passion into a career of some sort (hand up in the air, have failed miserably at this - no one wants an untrendy opinionated 48 year old baldy as any kind of a book person or children's reading consultant I'm afraid - unless you want to prove me wrong!) but quite a few will fall by the wayside when bigger sites eat into their hit counts, and I think that's a crying shame.

No one really wants to talk to an empty room though after all, and I think it'll be a sad day if the 'norm' becomes a proxy review experience rather than a beautifully written blog that someone's poured their heart and soul into (and we're not talking about ReadItDaddy, we do our best, but if you do want to find some real diamonds amongst the coal, go back to the front page and check out our Blog Roll of other fantastic book review sites that do a brilliant brilliant job in a far more personal way).