Straight Talk About Book Reviews
Book reviews are critically important. Have you ever read a book hoping it would get better, only to find that it never did? And how do you tell if an independently published book is any good? So many are poorly edited and primitively designed, but writing off the entire self-publishing establishment amounts to closed-minded literary prejudice. Good online reviews drive purchasing decisions by separating out the Shinola—whether it’s trade published or offered by a vanity press.
In today’s digital world, consumers interested in most any product quickly look for the appraisals of early adopters. Considering a book? Or a new stereo? Or one of those “new” Jimi Hendrix albums? Smart consumers always check user reviews before clicking the “buy” button.
But if the average book takes ten hours to read and the average review takes an hour to write and post, you’re asking for eleven hours of a reviewer’s time. So how do you get people to review your book?
How to Get Book Reviews: Ask!
Ask readers to post a review. At the end of my books, I write:
[This Book] was written, designed, produced and published by its author. Because independent publishers and writers should be held to the same high standards as the mainstream publishing industry, I encourage you to post an honest and objective review of this book in the online bookstore of your choice. Such dialogue only serves the cause of good writers and good readers.
Do not ask your reader to give you five stars or click a “like” button. Not only is it tacky, readers who don’t like having their tastes dictated to them will give you a low rating. To build relationships with readers, value their opinions—not their collective ability to manipulate a rating system to your benefit.
Ask friends to review your book; their opinions will be biased but still useful. Be sure to tell them you’re looking for real reviews—not gushing praise and a golden shower of stars.
How to Get Book Reviews: Buy Them
A commonly perceived conflict of interest suggests if reviewers are being paid, they’re unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them, though that’s only partially true. If a reviewer is paid to perform a one-time service, she doesn’t stand to benefit by patronizing her customers. Be aware though, that you get what you pay for. If someone is willing to review your book for $100, their time is cheap; they may only skim your book and the review may be superficial. Book review services like Kirkus Reviews charge $425-$575 to connect your manuscript with a qualified reviewer who routinely reads material in your genre. Kirkus also offers “critics picks” and other promotional services on their site, though it’s unclear whether these efforts result in book sales. Regardless, when you consider that the person directly receiving the funds is not the person reading the book and writing the review, the extra degree of separation promotes objectivity. The fee is not unreasonable given the time required to deliver the service, and a posted review from a respected third party review service suggests that the writer is confident enough to invest in an appraisal of the work and to make that appraisal public.
How to Get Book Reviews: Do Unto Others
As writers, we’re all readers. Whether you’re reading today’s best seller or an obscure backlisted title or an indie novel, post your own review. Your reviews benefit you as much as they affect the book you’re evaluating. What you write about other authors’ books speaks for the values and standards against which you judge your own work. Writing a few well-crafted, insightful reviews helps establish you as an evenhanded, sensitive, articulate critic—the kind of writer others will want to read. Are you an indie author looking for reviews? Start writing them; get your book review karma happening.
Book Reviews: Don’t Read Your Fate in the Stars
The number of stars in a review may provide some indication of quality if there are enough reviews to make a representative sample, but what about cases where people either loved the book or hated it? A book may earn five stars from people who liked it it, but be a one-star dud for others. But a two-and-a-half-star rating is a misleading average; what matters is the specific reasons why a reader liked a book or didn’t. At the time of this writing, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code has 4,124 reviews and three-and-a-half stars. 1,672 people gave it five stars, 751 people gave it one star. Who’s to be the final judge of whether the book is “any good?” It sold 80 million copies as of 2009, but that doesn’t make it “good” (unless you’re the book’s publisher). My last novel has no reviews yet, but that doesn’t make it “bad.” What is remarkable is that over 4000 people cared enough one way or the other to post an opinion. 4000 out of 80 million means only 1 out of every 20,000 readers, but we should all be so fortunate.
What Makes a Substantive Book Review?
Reviews that lack substance suggest that either the author’s friends all jumped in to boost the ratings or that a group of enemies (or a single person with multiple aliases) wished to impede the author’s success; both scenarios are common. Discriminating readers can tell shill reviews and defamatory reviews instantly, but not everyone is so discriminating. Sometimes good reviews backfire or the “bad guys win;” that’s show business.
It’s easy to praise or condemn but judgment without qualification is hollow and meaningless. Share what you liked about the book and what you didn’t. If you think the book will be enjoyed by people with certain tastes or interests, but not so much by others, say so—that’s not a strike against the book or the writer, and your review will help get the book into the hands of the “right” readers. Did you like the descriptions? The character development? Was the plot plausible or did the story require too much effort to maintain suspension of disbelief? Was the book too long? Did the story take a while to get going? If so, was it worth the wait? Have you read other books by the author or in a similar genre? How does this book compare? Did you find spelling errors and grammatical problems or was the book well-crafted? Do you agree or disagree with other reviewers? On what points?
Book Reviews: Snares and Pitfalls
I know a writer who used a Vanity Press to publish her book. She took the “publisher” up on its offer to send 100 prerelease copies of her book to its list of “qualified reviewers” at her expense. Not only did that fail to produce a single review, it resulted in an avalanche of cheap “used” copies of the book on eBay that made it almost impossible to sell new books on her own. If you do send out review copies, mark them as such and send them only to people who have agreed to read and review them. Whenever possible, send eBooks as review copies.
I don’t know why this is—I suppose it’s one of the “Murphy’s Laws” of publishing—but if you give away a book, it rarely gets read. I hate selling books to friends, but friends are much more likely to read and review your book after they make an investment in it. I explain that I’m heavily invested in writing and research time and production costs, and that as much I’d like to give copies to everyone I know, I simply can’t afford to. My real friends understand. I once made the mistake of offering free copies of a new book to members of my local writing group who agreed to review it. All were good people who meant well, but I received very few reviews.
Quality matters. I read somewhere that dissatisfied customers are seven times more likely to post a complaint than satisfied customers are to post a compliment. If “good enough” is your standard, be prepared to be publicly eviscerated as soon as readers discover your typos, grammatical oversights and low standards.
Book Reviews: Don’t Worry Mon
You can’t express any point of view without upsetting someone; sooner or later, someone will hate your book. If that negative review pulls your five-star average down, you may wish to respond but still that impulse. You can’t please all the people all the time, but few readers will write you off on the basis of a few bad reviews if those conflict with a stack of good ones. I’ve seen many bad reviews posted by people who clearly didn’t “get it.” In fact, a few bad reviews provide contrast against which the good reviews can shine more brightly. Take your lumps with grace—even if a reviewer posts evenhanded and well-founded reasons for not liking your book. We’re all growing as writers. Though it’s no fun to be chopped down in public, the voice of insight and experience is a gift. Nobody writes a perfect book and we can all learn from valid criticism (that’s why smart writers hire professional editors).
Book Reviews: Wrapping it Up
Whether you buy review services, ask readers to post their opinions, or become a reading-worthy book reviewer, understand that the process of gathering reviews takes time. As you encourage people to read and evaluate your work, consider the quality of your sources. Whether they realize it or not, your prospective readers will be reviewing your reviewers by considering whether or not their comments are useful; one insightful, articulate review is better than a dozen fluffballs any day. Ultimately, there’s one best way to get good reviews—write well enough to impress perceptive readers.
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