Elsevier Won't Pay for Praise

As if the textbook industry didn't have an image problem already...

June 23, 2009

As if the textbook industry didn't have an image problem already...

Elsevier officials said Monday that it was a mistake for the publishing giant's marketing division to offer $25 Amazon gift cards to anyone who would give a new textbook five stars in a review posted on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. While those popular Web sites' customer reviews have long been known to be something less than scientific, and prone to manipulation if an author has friends write on behalf of a new work, the idea that a major academic publisher would attempt to pay for good reviews angered some professors who received the e-mail pitch.

Here's what the e-mail -- sent to contributors to the textbook -- said:

"Congratulations and thank you for your contribution to Clinical Psychology. Now that the book is published, we need your help to get some 5 star reviews posted to both Amazon and Barnes & Noble to help support and promote it. As you know, these online reviews are extremely persuasive when customers are considering a purchase. For your time, we would like to compensate you with a copy of the book under review as well as a $25 Amazon gift card. If you have colleagues or students who would be willing to post positive reviews, please feel free to forward this e-mail to them to participate. We share the common goal of wanting Clinical Psychology to sell and succeed. The tactics defined above have proven to dramatically increase exposure and boost sales. I hope we can work together to make a strong and profitable impact through our online bookselling channels."

The e-mail message was not intended, of course, for potential purchasers of the book. But one of the contributors -- George Tremblay of Antioch University in New England -- e-mailed his friends and colleagues his response, which isn't what Elsevier's marketing division was looking for:

"As a contributor to an Elsevier textbook, I received the invitation below," he wrote (above the text of the e-mail from Elsevier). "You might want to reconsider any weight you accord to those Amazon reviews, considering the probability that at least some of them are being bought. I told them this one backfired, as I'd be forwarding it to a listserve of academic psychologists -- the very potential audience for the book (which I hasten to add, I actually do hope will succeed, but Elsevier should be ashamed of themselves)."

Tremblay said he has received two calls from Elsevier officials telling him that the e-mail did not reflect company policy and that the officials were "eager to appear responsive."

Cindy Minor, marketing manager for science and technology at Elsevier, said that the e-mail did not reflect Elsevier policy. She called the request for five star reviews "a poorly written e-mail" by "an overzealous employee." Minor said that the concerns over the marketing pitch have been discussed "at the highest levels" in the company and that nobody favors paying for good reviews. The situation "is not being taken lightly," she said.

"We want unbiased, honest reviews," she said.

Tom Reller, director of corporate relations for Elsevier, issued a statement distinguishing between what was and was not acceptable under company policy. "Encouraging interested parties to post book reviews isn't outside the norm in scholarly publishing, nor is it wrong to offer to nominally compensate people for their time, some of these books are quite large," he said. "But in all instances the request should be unbiased, with no incentives for a positive review, and that's where this particular e-mail went too far."

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