Monday, May 19, 2008

Reviewing Reviews

I just got a pair of reviews for my latest Jack book, FUZZY NAVEL (July 8, 2008), and it got me thinking about something:

Reviews sell books.

I know this for a fact, because I buy books after reading reviews. It doesn't even matter if the book was given a thumbs up or thumbs down. I read reviews for content, not opinion, and reviews alert me to the existence of the types of books I normally buy.

If this works on me, I'm guessing it works on other people. As a counter example, I've never bought a book because I ate a piece of candy with the book cover image glued to the wrapper. Because of this, I don't pass out snacks to potential fans. But I do try to get reviews.

Unfortunately, getting reviewed is becoming harder and harder.

The first reason: Too much competition. There are 200,000 books being released every year, and too little space to review them in. The bestsellers get preferential treatment, leaving the rest of us midlisters to fight for scraps.

The second reason: Too few publications review books. As newspaper circulation dwindles, so does advertising by publishers, which reduces or eliminates the book review pages.

I haven't gotten a lot of print reviews. No big ones like the NYT, ET, or People, and not many by bigger newspapers. My big hometown paper, The Chicago Tribune, has never reviewed me, even though my books are set in Chicago. Though my other two Chicago papers, The Sun-Times and the Daily Herald, have reviewed me, but in both of those cases knowing the reviewer probably had something to do with it.

Genre mags have been good to me, and I've been reviewed in EQMM, The Strand, Mystery Scene, and Crimespree, but they've each missed a few titles.

The trade mags (Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, PW) have all reviewed me, but again they've missed a title here and there.

The Internet has been very kind. Lots of book review sites and blogs have mentioned my books, and Amazon.com reviewers continue to post their comments about my oeuvre.

How does a writer get reviews?

Usually a publicist, either in-house or independent, sends out galleys or ARCs to reviewers along with a brief letter and perhaps a press release. Reviewers can receive over a hundred books a week, even though they only have space in their column to review six books.

Sometimes an author will send books directly to reviewers, and this personal touch may improve their chances. But it's expensive, time consuming, and there is still no guarantee you'll be reviewed.

A good way to get reviewed is to already be a bestseller. Then reviewers will seek out the book, because they know their readers are anxious to hear it. But even then, some reviewers might pass on reviewing the latest Patricia Cornwell if given the chance, and might embrace a smaller author whose book they adored.

Since competition for print reviews is so stiff, many authors are concentrating on the Internet. The World Wide Web has the advantage of being Googleable forever, which can lead people to your book for years after it's been published. But most of the review sites are small, getting very few hits. While it may be great that you're reviewed on 100 blogs, you have to consider the cost-effectiveness of it. Sending out 100 ARCs will cost about $500 (double if you have to pay for your own ACRs), and you may only be reaching an audience of 50,000 people total. Two million people read the Tribune, and it only cost you $5 to send the ARC.

I've seen authors offer free copies of books to Amazon reviewers, which seems silly considering the very small number of books Amazon actually sells.

I've also seen authors give free books to bloggers, which is a somewhat better prospect, but even then you have to consider cost-effectiveness.

It's a dismal situation.

Writers and publishers spend big money on ads and fancy multimedia websites, with unspectacular results.

They spend big money on galleys and ARCs, even though the overwhelming majority of them don't lead to reviews.

More and more books are being released, with less and less print venues to review them in, and Interent reviews are probably not cost-effective to procure.

So what's the answer? Here are a few:

1. Buy reviews. I'm not talking about paying a reviewer. I'm talking about getting a more famous peer to review your book, then using that as the basis for print ads. If your publisher has an advertising budget, it's a much better use of their money if they run 200 words about your latest, reviewed by a known writer, than the standard book cover/author photo/blurb.

2. Schmooze. Reviewers are people. Meet them. Be nice to them. Chances are they'll remember you, and you'll have a better shot at being reviewed than the thousands of authors they don't know.

3. Give away ebooks. While mailing out review copies to people with small blogs probably isn't cost effective, you can email them a pdf file of your latest for free. You'll have to clear this with your publisher first. Remind them how much they spend on galleys.

4. Become a reviewer. Many of us have blogs and MySpace pages. There is also Shelfari, Twitter, GoodReads, Amazon, BN.com, and many others. Review your fellow authors in as many places as possible.

What are some other good places to post reviews? I want to hear them. By the end of the week I'd like to have a semi-comprehensive list of all the major places fans can review books. Then I'll repost this blog entry with the list at the bottom, to the service of all writerdom.

In the meantime, I humbly ask you to review my books in as many places as humanly possible.

Yes, I'm serious. Review my books. Right now.