Comics, Creative analysis, Marketing and PR, Websites

Why indie publishers should never give out free stuff in exchange for reviews and why reviewers shouldn’t accept those freebies!

“Why look there, there’s an email in my inbox from a UK indie comic publisher. It’s their irregularly released enewsletter. Hmmm, I think I’ll take a look.”


“Oh you, [expletives].”

comic balloon no v1

That was how I now imagine my initial reaction, when I recall it, to an enewsletter I got from a real UK independent comics publisher this week. There had been no good expletives, there was nothing positive about my reaction.

The email said:

Write a review of something we’ve published, send us a link so we can promote it and we’ll send you a free ebook.

While this was mainly aimed at amateur reviewers, it still presents a real issue that is affecting all levels of review writing and blogging.

Why this is bad

If you’re an indie publisher reading this and wondering why the above is such a big deal… I hope you’re marketing efforts haven’t advanced too far. No offence, but you’re walking a slippery slope if you’ve set up something as I found described in the email.

And if you’re someone reviewing stuff for your own blog or larger website and are considering reviewing things for receipt of free stuff… Tut, tut. All a site or a blog has is its impartiality. If your readers find out that you’ve been accepting perks (a.k.a. bribes) from publishers (whether you’re writing about comics or videogames) for completing reviews of their products: they’re not gonna trust you or the content you create.

If reviewers don’t retain their credibility then it hurts publishers in the long run because their stuff will get fewer eyeballs on it, as readers/viewers head elsewhere.

What about review copies?

While not ideal, the reviewer isn’t being pressured to do something to get something from the publisher. However, it’ll be up to a site’s editor/blog owner to be upfront about whether they received a review copy and state so on a case by case basis.

There’s an expectation in some circles that you still can’t trust these reviews, because the reviewer/site might feel obliged to review more positively than is actually merited due to being afraid of losing access to future review copies. I think it depends on how willing a site/blog is to not bow to the, rarely uttered, but always assumed, demands of PRs. (The demands of sponsorship and advertising are also a thorny issue when it comes to impartiality.)

Erik Kain wrote a very good piece about all of this and how it affects games journalism in the wake of things like Dorritosgate. But this is an issue that increasingly is relevant to comics journalism – as comics go through something of a renaissance – plus geek journalism as a whole and something that indie publishers need to think about.

“But none of it’s really impartial”

Of course reviews are subjective pieces of writing. Pretty much all writing is subjective. But there’s a line of impartiality that accepting rewards for reviews causes reviewers to cross.

The temptation to chase swag and freebies is of course there due to how little or non-existent pay is in most corners of “cultural” journalism. And as more and more readers question who’s side journalists/reviewers/amateur bloggers are on… you really don’t want to look like your taking bribes from publishers of videogames or comics, however big or small the rewards or publisher are.

Maintaining impartiality

Publishers, small or large:

  1. Don’t offer reviewers rewards for reviews
  2. Don’t pressure reviewers to review one way or another
  3. Do offer review copies and information about your game/comic/graphic novel

Blog owners/site editors:

  1. Don’t let publishers dictate your reviews
  2. Don’t make false claims about what you’re reviewing
  3. Do ask for review copies in a timely fashion

If you’ve got any questions, ask me in the comments or below or on Twitter. And if you want to talk to be privately, you may email at the address listed here.


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