Readers’ Favorite is a book reviews and awards service owned by James Ventrillo, its president, who coordinates from Kentucky a global network of volunteers. It is known in publishing circles for its standing offer to review books for free, returning 250-word appraisals of submissions deemed worthy of four stars or a maximum five.
The reviewers are enthusiasts who contribute all but unpaid, and they browse submitted works until they find one that interests them. Readers’ Favorite does not guarantee that every submission will be chosen by someone, but says that more than half of the 2000 titles it usually has in its queue will be assessed in three months or sooner.
Publishers have long understood that books reach more readers when supported by credible critiques. Most authors who publish independently find it hard to attract reviews from professionals, who are flooded with titles from publishing houses.
Ventrillo told me last month that he had set up Readers’ Favorite in 2009 after producing a novel that he self-published through Amazon. “I learned a lot about the industry and wanted to try to offer something to authors that would provide more than I had received,” he said.
Other review services such as the established Kirkus and British newcomer Reedsy Discovery meet similar needs. Readers’ Favorite is distinguished by its not charging authors a fee to submit a book for review, and by its offering to guarantee, in return for a fee, multiple fast-tracked assessments.
On 13 September, I commissioned three Express reviews from Readers’ Favorite for my novel Bongs For Steve: A Memoir, which I had published through Amazon as an ebook in August. The fee totalled US$129. The submission page promised results in two to three weeks, but carried a notice that warned of delays due to heavy demand.
Bongs For Steve is structurally innovative, character driven, ironic, and subtle. Its plot resists easy summary, and it celebrates activities that many jurisdictions condemn. I wanted a reader who would pick up its humour, and thought I’d be more likely to find one if I invited judgment from three.
Authors can browse brief introductions to Readers’ Favourite reviewers, and may nominate those whom they see as good fits. I couldn’t find one who presented as hungry to read about smoking weed in good company.
Nevertheless when the first review arrived punctually on 5 October, it appeared that my story had scored an immediate hit.
“If you were high before reading Bongs For Steve, you’re likely to enjoy a stronger sense of ecstasy. If not, it will provide you with a relaxed, tranquil experience,” wrote Foluso Falaye, whom I imagined to be giggling as he awarded five stars. “Without question, it is a book that gave me the greatest euphoric buzz.”
A second review came in five days later, more sober but no less laudatory. “Hilarious at times and dark at others, Bongs For Steve is a cohesive and entertaining story of self-discovery,” wrote Rabia Tanveer. “The ending is so hopeful and clear that I felt a rush of satisfaction.”
On 20 October I queried Readers’ Favorite Support about the status of the remaining review. An apologetic email response urging patience arrived the same day. On 25 October came another thoughtful and maximally appreciative appraisal from Welsh indie novelist K.C. Finn, who highlighted the author’s having brought to life through dialogue “all the brightest and wittiest moments” of the friendships portrayed.
It is difficult to overstate how pleasing it is to have unknown foreign readers respond so warmly to your debut novel, and it does not much weigh on your buoyancy to know that these are not professional critics.
Asked directly whether reviewers were enjoined to be generous, perhaps so as to attract paid entries to the Readers’ Favorite Annual Book Award Contest, Ventrillo responded, with a hint of indignation, that to generate systemically dishonest reviews would be horrible, and also impossible.
“There is no way to run a book review or book contest site without honesty,” Ventrillo said. “The people who do the work would not stand for anything else.
“We pay our reviewers just $1 per review, so they have to love what they are doing. Getting to read books for free is the big draw, and then being able to share their opinion with the author is very exciting.”
An Express review – a small proportion of requests, Ventrillo said – earns the reviewer $10. Active reviewers also participate in a $100 monthly prize draw.
Authors are invited to review their reviews. Thus reviewers get feedback, and Ventrillo and his editors can evaluate their performance.
Ventrillo sent me an excerpt from the web page that guides Readers’ Favorite reviewers, which invites them to identify with an average reader picking the book off a shelf.
“As a company, we do not care if you give a review (Express or otherwise) 1 star or 5, we only require that it is your honest opinion,” reviewers are told.
“If you really liked the book, simply give it a 5. It doesn’t need to be the best book you have ever read or be life altering, it just needs to be a book you really enjoyed.” Four stars are for books enjoyed but not quite that much.
Books deemed worthy of only three stars (fair but needs work) or two (poor) are not reviewed. Instead, authors receive suggestions for improvement.
Ventrillo said the places of residence most represented among Readers’ Favorite’s 1500-plus volunteers were the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Canada, in that order, but that English-native expatriates submitted from other places, and some non-native users of English with good skills were accepted.
It is difficult to know what people shopping for books make of these critiques from low-profile reviewers. That’s true too of competitive awards conferred by Readers’ Favorite and other book award businesses that profit from entry fees.
I’m not aware that sales of Bongs For Steve have been boosted significantly by its page at the Readers’ Favorite website. But I can say that too of my own promotional website for the book at the time of writing, and the cross-links seem to have helped SEO.
It’s true that such amateur reviews don’t bring much context. None of my reviewers observed, for example, that Bongs For Steve was unique among novels for its realising of cannabis intoxication. But then, I’d feel lucky to read that in a review from a mainstream professional.
And so far, no mainstream professional has discovered the book. So I’m grateful to Readers’ Favorite for the service delivered. I’ll do my best to answer questions if you post them as comments.