Publishers Weekly is a trade journal read primarily by booksellers and librarians (although some authors subscribe because of the industry news, and book geeks like me will spring for a copy now and then). They review releases from large and small publishers alike, and their reviews are respected by industry professionals who use them to determine which books to order.

Last week, their reputation took a hit because of a new program, PW Select. PW describes it as “a quarterly supplement announcing self-published titles and reviewing those we believe are most deserving of a critical assessment.”

Authors have to pay to be included – without promise of a review. The listing will include include author, title, price, description, etc., which is not a lot to go on if you’re a bookseller deciding which books to order. PW explains “We briefly considered charging for reviews, but in the end preferred to maintain our right to review what we deemed worthy.” They also promise that at least 25 of the titles will get reviewed, but for now, there is no way to tell how many books will be listed. Will that be 25 out of 100? Or 25 out of 500? Or 25 out of 1,000 or more?

Although PW isn’t offering a “pay-for-review” service, PW Select is just as controversial. Rather than charging for a review, they charge authors $149 for a listing — and a chance to get reviewed. (For that price, they also get a six-month subscription to the digital edition of Publishers Weekly, but if you just want the digital subscription, $180 will buy you access for the whole year.) Some people think this is better because they are not “officially” charging for a review. Others think it’s worse because PW gets the money but doesn’t even provide a review. Won’t most authors will pay the fee anyway in hopes of getting a review? Sure, the authors will get exposure from the listing. But what exposure? How many booksellers will read this supplement? Even if they read the listings, finding something they want to order will be like finding a needle in a haystack.

PW Select isn’t the first service to create such a controversy. Several years ago, respected trade journal Kirkus Reviews started offering a program called Kirkus Discoveries where  “independently published” authors (for example, self-published authors or eBook authors) pay $350 for a review. The Kirkus Discoveries reviews are printed on a separate part of the Web site, where trying to find a specific type of book is difficult. (There are 67 pages of listings, and they are not organized by category!) Authors are not guaranteed a positive review. Still, from the start, many people were upset by the conflict of interest. How do we know the reviewer is being impartial when the company that hired him is being paid by the author? Also, how will these reviews even help the author? The reviews in Kirkus Reviews are published far ahead of the publication date so that bookstores and libraries can order the books in time, but Kirkus Discoveries is reviewing books that have already been published – making them less helpful to booksellers, especially in the case of timely books. Again, assuming booksellers even read the reviews.

Industry experts hoped Publishers Weekly would be able to keep their nose clean and stay out of the “paid services” camp. However, like so many other magazines, they are struggling. We’ve all seen our favorite magazines fold in recent years because of lack of advertising revenue, declining subscriptions, higher costs, etc. In fact, last year, Kirkus Reviews almost folded, saved only because it was purchased by the owner of the Indiana Pacers (yes, the N.B.A. team). I understand that many respected magazines, including powerful trade journals, are having problems making ends meet. I just wish they could find other ways to make money than on the backs of self-published authors.

I like the idea of giving deserving self-published books exposure. But just because an author spends $149 to get his book listed in PW Select, that doesn’t mean they are among the deserving. All it means is that the author’s payment cleared. You might have self-published a gem of a novel, but if you don’t have the money, your book won’t get listed. Then the small chance of getting a review goes to nil, no matter how good the book is. Many self-published authors will pay for the listing because they think it will help them find readers or get a contract with a publisher. Will it help? Probably not.

A couple of years ago, Boyd Morrison offered his thriller The Ark and several other novels as free eBooks. This experiment got a lot of attention and won him lots of fans. This May, The Ark was published in hardback by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster. What if PW Select had existed at the time? Morrison could have spent $149 into a listing, but he was better off building his Web site and blog, getting exposure online, attending conferences, chatting with readers on message boards, and garnering publicity on his own. Then again, Morrison does not echo the experience of your typical self-published author. Even before the buzz, he already had a respected literary agent working on his side. (Among others, his agent represents Linda Lael Miller and Karen Chance.)

Still, if you have a great self-published book, you’re better off putting your $149 into improving your Web site and marketing efforts or into getting a better cover. $149 will buy you 5,000 color bookmarks with change left over. For $150, you can get a small ad in small press magazines read by actual fans. Or better yet, why not get together with some of your fellow self-published authors and buy advertising, either on line or in print magazines? That way, you get to call the shots, and you can even target the ads.

-Anne AAR

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