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Riding the Review Roller-Coaster

03 Nov 2014

by Simon Denman


photo of PortAventura - China Dragon Khan roller coaster There are few topics in the world of book marketing that are as broad and emotive as the whole tricky business of getting reviews: Why do they matter? Is it ever worth paying for them? Is it ethical to have friends or fellow authors post them? What makes people post them in the first place? Should we ever respond to them? And of course the big one - How can we get more of them?

So why do reviews matter?

If you're reading this, you probably already realise, or at least suspect that they do indeed matter a great deal, and there are at least three reasons for this:

  1. In the absence of prior experience or personal recommendations, most of us are simply more likely to buy a book that appears to have been enjoyed by lots of other people.

  2. Even if the review count is low, a few genuine, well-written customer reviews may still provide sufficient additional information to help a reader decide if she'll like it and can therefore make all the difference between a sale and no sale.

  3. Reviews probably influence Amazon's recommendation algorithms insofar as new positive reviews appear to increase your sales rank, and therefore lead to more sales. And of course, if correct, the reason for this would be linked to the first point – Amazon knows that given an opportunity to show two similar books to potential customers, they will get more sales by showing the one with more positive reviews.

Is it worth paying for professional reviews?

There's little doubt that good objective reviews from renowned professional review services such as Kirkus have some value. The question is simply whether that value justifies the cost. I think the answer to this depends on what you're hoping to achieve. If your objective is to persuade libraries and bookshops to carry your books, or you simply want some credible quotes to print on the jacket, then perhaps the answer is yes. If however you are expecting it to increase your sales sufficiently to cover the cost, then you could be disappointed, especially if like most indie authors, you rely on Amazon for the bulk of your sales.

Since Amazon prohibits the posting of paid customer reviews, such reviews do nothing for your sales rank and even if you include their quotes within your book description on Amazon, names like Kirkus mean nothing to the majority of potential buyers.

Is it ethical to have your friends and fellow authors post reviews of your book?

For many, the answer here is a resounding no, but I tend to view it differently. For a start, all the big-name authors and their publishers do this all the time by writing forwards and providing quotable endorsements to be displayed on each other's book jackets.
But as an indie author, since most of us are unlikely to have celebrity friends so ready to endorse our books for us, I see no reason why our non-famous acquaintances shouldn't be allowed to do us a favour by posting genuine reviews on Amazon, provided of course that they have read and enjoyed the book as much as they state in the review. In fact, I think most people assume that the first 3 or 4 customer reviews on any book probably came from those who received early copies of the manuscript.

Swapping reviews with fellow authors is perhaps a little more tricky from an ethical point of view, since if you're not careful you could end up feeling obliged to write something that is less than honest, but as long as both parties agree to only post a review if they feel they can be both helpful and honest, I see no real difference between this and having a friend post one.

Why do people post reviews in the first place?

Having researched this quite a bit, I've concluded there are at least six different motivations:

  1. The rule of reciprocation

    Having benefited from other reviews, we feel a social obligation to contribute to the system that helped us.

  2. The need to share

    The product was so extraordinary (either in a good or bad way) we feel compelled to share the experience / story, because that is what we humans do.

  3. Social capital by association

    This is a cool product that I just bought and so by association I must be a cool person. Posting a review therefore becomes evidence of this.

  4. Good Samaritan

    I realise that posting a review will really help this debut author and I like to help people.
    Or the flip side of this:
    I hated this book and want to save future readers from wasting their time and money, because I like to help people.

  5. Bad Samaritan

    I am jealous of this person's success and derive a perverted sense of satisfaction from knocking him down a notch.

  6. Attention seeking

    I may not have published a book of my own, but I can point out the flaws in other people's work better than any literary critic. Just watch me.

For a more detailed exploration of some these motivations, see a previous post on my own blog here.

Should authors ever respond to reviews?

In almost all situations, consensus here is a definitive 'No”. After all, reviews are written for the benefit of other readers, not the author, and for this reason, any author engagement is generally regarded as unprofessional.
The only conceivable exception to this in my view, is if a reviewer poses a specific question, the answer to which you feel might be useful to others.
But as a general rule, no matter how unfair or incorrect you consider a review to be, don't engage, and of course never stalk and confront your reviewer like this author did.

All you can reasonably do, as Belle Ami amusingly suggests here on her blog, is to try and grow a thicker skin.

So how can we get more reviews?

  1. Get the ball rolling.

    Few people like being the first to stick their neck out in public and so one of the hardest things about getting reviews can be getting the first few. This is where those early review copies can be so important. Presumably, having written and edited your book, you have sent the manuscript to a whole bunch of people whom you think will enjoy it. I say 'presumably', because if you haven't tested the book on anybody but yourself, what makes you think it's even worth publishing in the first place?
    So, assuming you did this and that a proportion of them wrote back with suitably glowing praise, you could ask this smaller latter group as nicely as possible if they would mind doing you a huge favour and posting a few words on why they enjoyed it, as an Amazon customer review shortly after it launches. Only a small percentage of those you ask will actually do so, but that's okay, you only need a few to get things started.

  2. Submit your book to indie reviewers and bloggers who review books like yours. For some insights on this process see How to Get Book Reviews - Insights from an Indie Reviewer

  3. Give the Kindle edition of your book away for free for a few days.

    Try to lose any false notion of price and quality being inseparable here. Offering your book for free (or with a significant discount) for a few days does not mean you don't value it, it is just an effective marketing tactic for getting known. As an unknown author with no reviews, your book is the proverbial needle in a giant Amazonian haystack. Unless you actively promote it, very few people will ever chance upon it and those who do are unlikely to take the risk of buying it.

  4. Use your network

    Unless you already have a list of literally thousands of potential readers, don't try and get revenue from your own network. Just email everybody you know and tell them how they can download the kindle version of your book for free (including links to the Kindle apps for those who don't have Kindles). If you're lucky this will result in a surge of downloads from Amazon which may just be enough to wake up Amazon's recommendation algorithms. If then, for the duration of the promo, you promote it through all the available book promo sites (including this one of course) then with luck, you'll create a snowball effect and Amazon's algorithms will take over and do the rest.
    If you achieve a good volume (several thousand at least) then the reviews should start trickling in within a few days, peaking at around 2 or 3 weeks and trailing off after a couple of months.

    My own experience is that I get one review for every 300 or more sales / downloads, so do the math(s). For every 30 reviews, I need around 9,000 sales / downloads. Maybe your ratio will be better or worse than this but my guess is that eventually most people's ratio will settle in the 200 – 500 range.

    And don't think that once your book has been free, nobody will want to pay the full price anymore. Thanks to Amazon's recommendation algorithms and the way sales rank in free titles eventually translates to sales rank in paid titles (though not directly and often with a day or so lag) the reality can prove quite the reverse. My sales spikes usually start one or two days after the free promo ends and then last anything from a few days to a couple of weeks.

  5. Always thank readers for any direct feedback

    When your readers take the time to tell you how much they enjoyed your book, whether via your website, Facebook or Twitter account, then always thank them and occasionally, if it feels right, mention that if they feel comfortable spending a few minutes to post a few words to the same effect as an Amazon review, this would really help.

  6. A caution on signed Paperback giveaways

    As an author I only really want a review of my book if the reader happens to like it, and of course I know that not all readers will. For this reason, I am wary of setting up any perceived obligation to review by suggesting that this is the reason I'm giving away signed copies of my paperback for example.

    Also, due to the small percentage of readers who actually do post reviews, paperback giveaways, such as those frequently promoted through Goodreads, are never going to increase your review count as effectively as a free Kindle download, but that's not to say it won't help in other ways. If you set your criteria for entry to be something useful like gaining followers for your author page, Facebook page or blog, then it can be a good way to create buzz, get yourself known and expand your network.

    However, don't be surprised if following such a paperback giveaway, a few copies end up for sale on eBay.

Photo courtesy of Joao Maximon's Flickr Photostream


Christa Polkinhorn commented at 08:11 03 Nov 2014:

"Good points, Simon! Thanks for sharing."

Leonard Rattini commented at 09:11 03 Nov 2014:

"Very good article."

K. J. Farnham commented at 09:11 03 Nov 2014:

"Simon, your posts are always so informative and useful. Thank you!"

Don Maker commented at 04:11 04 Nov 2014:

"Always good to read information from someone with actual experience. Thanks for your POV."

Simon Denman commented at 04:11 04 Nov 2014:

"Thanks guys.
If you have specific topics you'd like to see covered in future posts, just let me know.
One exciting one I have planned for the week after next is a real book campaign case study that'll lay out the pre-campaign plan and then follow up afterwards with real data about how it went."

EN McNamara commented at 05:11 04 Nov 2014:

"Thank you - wonderful article"

Nicholas Rossis commented at 02:11 06 Nov 2014:

"A great post, that examines this all-too-common question from every possible angle!"

Jan Hurst-Nicholson commented at 01:02 18 Feb 2015:

"Thanks for this useful info. However, I would give a word of warning about free books. Writers have found that one-star reviews often follow a 'free' book offer.
There are some readers who download anything that is free whether or not it's in a genre they usually read, resulting in one-star reviews when the reader discovers the book is not to their liking."

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