Friday, September 20, 2013

Guest Post by Paul Draker

How To Get Great Amazon Reviews For Your Brand-New Novel

First, a big thanks to Tess and Joe for launching this campaign in Tess's War On Alzheimers. You never know which bullet will end up winning a war, and with our help, Tess and Joe have already delivered more than $25,000 to the front lines. If you haven’t done so yet, please go visit her page and donate.

If you’re reading this, maybe you’re a newbie writer like me. A story idea sinks its hooks into your brain and won’t let go. You find yourself grinning into an open refrigerator, whatever you were going to grab forgotten as the perfect plot twist or high-concept hook reveals itself to you. Your spouse/kid/significant-other has to repeat themselves three times before you realize you’re still standing there with frost forming on you’re face. And still grinning like an idiot.

You go write the story. And rewrite. Study craft books. Rewrite. Join critique groups. Rewrite. People start liking what you wrote. Some even love it.

You make whatever sacrifices are necessary to get yourself a great editor. You do that because you know publishing unedited, unpolished, incoherent writing riddled with typos is unprofessional. It’s arrogant. If you expect readers to pay for your writing, they should be able to expect transparent prose and near-perfect copy from you, too.

You go get stunning cover art. A compelling blurb. Professional conversion to epub & mobi files. You upload your book to KDP, Nook Press, and iBookstore, and you “push the button.” Then you celebrate, and tell all your real-life and Facebook and Twitter friends your book is finally out. And you sell a few dozen copies. Your friends compliment you on how talented you are.

And all too soon—to paraphrase Animal Mother from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket—“…you’re fresh out of friends, Joker.” Because half of your friends don’t read, and the other half don’t like the same kinds of books you do.

So you start eyeing BookBub, Ereader News Today, Pixel of Ink, and the other great sites where we indies can get the word out. But that glaring “Be the first to review this item” link on your book’s Amazon page is an ugly roadblock. You need reviews. Good reviews.

Still with me? Great. Let’s go get those reviews.

Should we:

1)     Harass friends and family to write their first book review ever?
2)     Pay a service to bulk-email a hundred or a thousand prolific Amazon reviewers in our genre, blasting them with a generic mail-merged solicitation to review our book?
3)     Review other new authors’ books ourselves, just so we can ask them to review ours?

No. All three approaches are total bullshit. Worse, they will damage your credibility as a newbie author. And you’ll end up making the rest of us indies look bad, too. Here’s why.

The problem with friends-and-family reviews:

I’m not going to touch the ethics here; I’m only going to focus on the practicalities. When checking out a new author on Amazon, the first thing a savvy book-browser does is look at the distribution of ratings. A natural distribution of 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 star reviews is very easy to recognize. So is a pattern of friends-and-family-written 5-star reviews—even with a couple fake 4-stars and one 3-star thrown in to try to appear more authentic.

The next thing a savvy Amazon browser does is skim a few of the reviews. A quick glance at word count, specificity, and tone usually tells me right away which ones are honest, non-incented reviews by strangers and which ones are what the Amazon reviewer community refers to as “shill reviews.”

If there’s still any question about whether you’re looking at a shill review or not, the proof-positive check is to click on the reviewer’s name, and then the “See all my reviews” link on their profile. If the only three books he or she ever reviewed belong to that same brand-new author… or if five other titles got quick-and-dirty reviews that same day, but the reviewer reviewed nothing before or afterward… then you know.

And you move on immediately. Because the shill reviews look needy and sad, and the sour whiff of desperation makes you assume the book is lousy even when it really isn’t. You resent the author for trying to trick you. You make a mental note to avoid him or her in the future… if you actually bother to remember the name.

Hugh Howey’s WOOL has over 6,000 reviews on Amazon. (Go read WOOL, SHIFT, and DUST. Seriously. Then read ’em again slowly and take notes.) Hugh requires no introduction here, and he’s graciously allowed me to quote him on the topic of reviews.

Hugh Howey says:

I ask my friends and family *not* to write them (I had my wife delete some reviews for my older works)… It was over a year or so ago that I had to tell my father not to write reviews for my works. I love the man to death, and he was just trying to support a son that he was proud of, but he would get on and review my works as soon as they went up (he reads them in draft form before I publish them). At this point, I was aware of Amazon's review policy and the sensitivity toward authors soliciting reviews from friends and family. I never asked my dad to write reviews. He was just being nice. Same thing with my wife. What stinks about all of the controversy around the reviews is that my friends and family *do* read my books, and at least some of them actually like them. And they can't share their opinions.


We can learn a lot from Hugh. Every new author has to find his or her own path, but with selfless folks like Hugh and Joe lighting the way for us and sharing their experiences so openly, it’s a hell of a lot easier now.

If you are *still* tempted to go the friends-and-family-reviews route at this point, here’s a final caveat emptor. Amazon’s independent reviewer community doesn’t like authors who do, because it devalues and shows disrespect for something they care a great deal about: honest, impartial reviews. Amazon’s most influential reviewers are people like you and me who are very passionate about what they do. They put a lot of time into it. They hate it when you make everyone question the integrity and credibility of Amazon reviews. As a new author, do you really want to poke our new gatekeepers in the eye? Especially when those gatekeepers are some of our best customers?

The problem with spam-solicited reviews:

I ran across a few services that will spam Amazon’s Top-100 or Top-1000 “contactable” reviewers if an author pays them to. Some target reviewers by genre: Mystery, Thriller, Romance, etc. One predicts a 9% response rate and a 6% agree-to-review rate. But if you try this approach, your chances of screwing yourself good are also reasonably high. Here’s why.

If you’ve written a novel that evokes strong reactions—and if it’s good, believe me, it will—your true target audience will love it. But not everybody will. Some people will hate it, and that’s fine. Look at the most-successful novels and you will see a plethora of one-star reviews panning them, too. Look at Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl reviews. And who wouldn’t want her sales?

But you aren’t Gillian Flynn. If you are, call me—I’ve got a series idea we can co-write ;)

If you write “thrillers” as I do, you face a real audience-segmentation challenge. The term “thriller” can mean anything from a CSI-style procedural or a courtroom drama, to an apocalyptic end-of-the-world epic, a gore-drenched serial-killer hunt, or a guns-blazing spy-versus-spy technothriller. Each has a distinct audience, and they don’t overlap much. “Mystery” could be a parlor-room cat-sleuth cozy or a Hitchcock-style suspense story or splatterpunk noir. “Romance” could be sweet, soft-focus boy-meets-girl that makes you go “Aww…” Or it could be sexually-explicit erotica. Genre-mashups make the problem worse. Industry BISAC categories fail to delineate the real distinctions between what a given group of readers will love and what they are likely to detest.

An email solicitation that begins: “Dear iluv2rivu, because you like thrillers…” is more likely to net you a bunch of lousy reviews than good ones. Not because your book sucks, and not because the solicitation screams “spam,” but rather because you ended up soliciting reviewers predisposed to dislike your book.

Oh, and a lot of the top reviewers *do* find getting spammed by those emails annoying. Especially when they can tell the book is one they won’t like. Once again, caveat emptor.

The problem with you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours author peer reviews:

Amazon already has, or had, a policy of deleting reviews by other authors. Enough said. If poking the new gatekeepers in the eye is a dumb idea, what about biting the hand that feeds you?

Okay, so none of those approaches are worth pursuing and some can backfire. They can seriously hurt your author cred. But that “Be the first to review…” link is still sitting there like a big, ugly cankersore in the center of your product-page’s face. So…

How does a newbie author go about getting great, honest, real Amazon reviews?

You know your book is good. Really damn good. You know there is a specific group of readers out there somewhere who will absolutely love it. They are your audience. In fact, you even know the exact tastes of those ideal readers. You know precisely what books they read, what movies and TV shows they watch. You know which ones they’ve loved, and which ones they’ve hated. And you know what they loved or hated about them. You know all of this because you see one of your ideal readers every day. In the mirror.

You *did* write the kind of story you always wanted to read, right? If not, what are you doing here? Go write *that* book, then come back.

Because what comes next presupposes that you’ve already done your part. You’ve written a story that people will actually love reading, and you’ve had it professionally edited, and honed your prose to perfection before you try this. The reviews you’re about to get will be no-bullshit honest reviews. If your book isn’t ready for that, you should NOT be doing this at all. If you do, you’ll get reviews, all right—one and two star ones. Worse, you’ll also hurt the credibility of the rest of us indie publishers.

But if you did do your homework and wrote a good book, your audience is out there somewhere. Even better, some of them are honest, tenured reviewers who will love what you wrote and give you a heartfelt, enthusiastic review on Amazon. Your book may well be a unique and beautiful snowflake, but right now it’s invisible in a blizzard of brand-new books. Your ideal reviewers are busy writing Amazon reviews for other books. They have no idea that yours exists. You would love to tell them about it, but you have no idea who they are, either.

What you do know is the other books and movies they love. And which ones they hate. And why. So roll up your sleeves… it’s time to get to work. I didn’t say this was going to be easy, did I? But you already wrote a good book. Compared to that, this part is cake. And you’ll see—once you start engaging and talking to reviewers who are part of your own unique target audience—that it’s rewarding, gratifying, and fun as hell, too.

Let’s dive in. Here it is, step by step.

STEP 1: Make a list of books and movies you absolutely loved, and which some aspects of your book are similar to. Unique snowflake? Nothing else like it? Gee, sorry, but something inspired you to write that particular type of story. Figure out what your all-time favorite book and movie influences were and write them down. You need a statistically-significant spread, so write down at least twenty. The more distinctive they are, the better. The more unique to your taste they are, the better. Then make a second, shorter list of five or so books and movies your friends expected you to love, but you ended up hating instead.

STEP 2: Read five-star and four-star Amazon reviews of the books and movies you love first. Whenever a reviewer’s specific comments make you smile and think, “Yep, that’s exactly what I thought,” or, “that was the most memorable part/character/twist/setting for me, too. That’s why I used a similar one in my book,” click the reviewers name to pop open their profile. Some reviewers have email addresses listed, but don’t jump in and email them yet. A single book or movie on which your tastes are similar doesn’t mean much. Sending them a vague email implying that any five-star reviewer of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books should be thrilled to hear about your own won’t get you good reviews. At this stage, you would probably just be annoying the recipient with unwanted spam. You might even earn yourself a lousy review by doing so.

STEP 3: Read the reviewer’s “In My Own Words” and “Interests” which some have taken the time to fill out. Look at their frequently used tags. All these things will give you a better feel for whether this person is part of your audience or not. If you see red flags that apply to your book (no graphic violence, dislike profanity), or just get a general sense they might not be a good match for you, move on. Again, you’re trying to find reviewers who will *want* to hear about your book… and trying not to be that jerk spamming people who don’t.

Look for Amazon rank badges next to the reviewer’s name: Top 1000 reviewer, Top 500 reviewer, etc. Reviews from higher-ranked reviewers generally get more visibility on your product page, in the two slots for “most helpful positive review” and “most helpful critical review.”

But trying to get the higher-ranked reviewers to review your book isn’t necessarily the best approach. They receive tens of daily email solicitations to review this or that. Most are Vine Voices, often with a backlog of obligatory reviews they owe Amazon before they can even consider tackling yours. They are already jaded by the tons of free review copies big publishers throw at them every day, so many have adopted a policy of ignoring indie book review solicitations. Because they have to review so many books, they might only speed-read or skim yours, then write a generic review that reads like backcover-blurb-summarized-plus-generic-faint-praise. That’s not what you want, either.

Instead, look at the reviewer’s “Helpful votes received on reviews” percentage. Here, the higher, the better. 80%+ is good. 85%+ is great. 90%+ is stellar. Below 50%, and you are asking a person to review you whose reviews most people consider unhelpful. In other words, probably a troll. Move on.

Also, some reviewers’ profiles clearly state “I don’t accept review requests” or “no self-published books” or “no e-books” or “I don’t review fiction” or similar. If so, respect their wishes and move on. They aren’t your audience. But if the reviewer’s profile reads like something you might have written yourself, you’re getting warmer. Still, you have much more to do before you can decide whether to click that email link or not.

Many profiles are blank: a nickname, but no details and no contact info. Even that’s not a showstopper if the reviewer’s tastes turn out to be a great match for your book, as we’ll see shortly.

Some profiles have a website or blog listed for the reviewer, but don’t go there yet, either. Save that for last. We’ll come back to it if the reviewer still seems like a good match after the next—and most important—step.

STEP 4: Now click on “See all 114 reviews” (or however many this particular reviewer has done.) Page through them to find which of the other books and movies on your lists the person reviewed, how they rated them, and what they said about them. If they haven’t reviewed several of the other books and movies on your list, it’s an indication they probably aren’t a good match, because folks tend to review their favorite things. Look at their one- and two-star reviews, also, and read what they say. If the reviewer disliked a book or movie you love, that’s a big yellow flag. If you disagree with why they say they disliked it, that’s a red flag. Move on. But if their opinions on the other things on your list parallel your own opinions, too, and they say “should get seven stars” and “my all time favorite” or say “fell asleep halfway through” and “I wanted the annoying sidekick to die” about the same ones you would, then BOOM. You most likely have found someone who would want to review your book. Another good sign is when they make frequent references and comparisons in their reviews to yet other books and movies you love—like John Carpenter’s THE THING—too.

Take notes on the individual reviews and colorful comments that you most strongly agree with. Seriously, take those notes because you’ll need them when you contact the reviewer. And don’t forget, you’ll be looking at lots of different potential reviewers and tons of titles each have reviewed. If you don’t take notes, it will all blur in your head. And then you’ll embarrass yourself telling someone you loved what she said about the chainsaw flashback in Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter when it was actually someone else who said that. Did I mention to take notes?

If you see reviews you emphatically don’t agree with, it’s time to move on, because the reviewer is not your audience. But if you find that the more of their reviews you read, the more you believe their tastes match yours, it’s time to go back to their profile page and click the link for their website or blog.

One last thing: as you read reviews, look for the word Kindle: “I was turning Kindle pages faster and faster at the end.” “My Kindle battery died on the last chapter, and I almost cried with frustration.” “When I read that part, I wanted to throw my Kindle in the pool.” If you find references to their Kindle or other e-reader, then grin and make a note of that, too.

If this seems like a lot of effort to put in to get to know a single potential reviewer, just consider how many hours of *their* time you are asking for, when you ask them if they want to read your book.

STEP 5: Read the reviewer’s webpage, if they happened to provide a link to one. Browse their blog posts. Get to know them better. Again, look for red flags that have relevance for your book (“BF took me to see Joss Whedon’s CABIN IN THE WOODS yesterday. Yawn.”), and make note of interests that match yours.

If the reviewer didn’t include their email on their Amazon profile but listed their website or blog, you can usually find their email or other contact info there.

STEP 6: You’ve now gotten a good feel for how this reviewer thinks and talks, what gets them jazzed, and what annoys them. You’ve read so many of their reviews that you can practically hear what they’ll say about your book in your head already. If you still are convinced they’ll love it, it’s time to send that brief email. Include:

·         How you found them: by reading a bunch of their reviews on Amazon.
·         Which comments and reviews of theirs you enjoyed. You write books. They write reviews. They want folks to read and value their reviews just as much as you want people to read and value your book. Tell them which reviews you liked, and why. Be specific. But be succinct, too.
·         Why you are contacting them: because you think that, based on what they said in their reviews, they might enjoy your book, too.
·         A very brief teaser or blurb for your book. But provide enough information to let them know what to expect, plot-wise and tone-wise.
·         A statement that you are looking for honest, unbiased reviews of your book.
·         Offer them a free review copy of your book.

If you are sure they read on a Kindle or other ereader (check your notes), offer to email a free mobi file of your book. But do not send it until they tell you they want it. Many will decline and buy their own copy, which is even better. They do it because they love books and want to support you, the author. And also because they don’t like to put the FTC-mandated disclosure of a free author-provided copy in the review, which might cause someone to question the honesty and impartiality of what they said about it.

If you have a print version available through Createspace or Lightning Source, you can offer the reviewer their choice of formats. It’s a classy thing to do. But it can get expensive fast.

If you don’t currently have a print version, narrow your target to reviewers who have mentioned their Kindle or ereader in a review. Otherwise, you’re probably wasting their time. And yours. And disappointing or annoying them.

No email address on their profile? No contact info? No problem. That “Add a comment” button beneath their most recent review of a book you both love? Leave a briefer version of your review request as a comment instead, but make sure you tick the “Receive an email when new posts are made” checkbox when you do it.

Be courteous. Be brief. Be honest. Be yourself.

Remember, nobody can express what’s great about your book as well as you can. And you’ll also be talking to the most receptive audience possible: the reviewers most likely to love it.

But no means no. If a reviewer doesn’t express interest, don’t pester them. Don’t spam them. Move on. Reviewers are our most influential, most valuable, most enthusiastic customers. Don’t pee in the pool the rest of us indies are swimming in, too.

STEP 7: Shake. Rinse. Repeat.

Before you start, I also recommend reading How To Get Good Reviews On Amazon: A Guide For Independent Authors and Sellers by Theo Rogers. It’ll help you avoid shooting yourself in the foot. You’ll learn a lot about the Amazon.com reviewer community from it, and I’ve borrowed from it shamelessly here.

If your own book is good—if it’s polished and professional and people actually enjoy reading it—repeat STEPS 1-7 enough, and that ugly “Be the first to review…” will go away, replaced by pretty yellow stars. Lots of them.

The best part is: you won’t only be gathering honest, positive reviews from well-respected Amazon reviewers this way. You’ll also be planting seeds that will grow into your own eager army of Constant Readers, too. And you’ll be meeting new friends who share your enthusiasm for the books and movies you love, including your own. Reviewers are by definition the most active, outspoken readers, and they share what they like with their friends. They spread the word. Your reviewers are all unique and beautiful snowflakes, too. You never know which snowflake will be the one to set off the avalanche.

As I type this, I’m staring at my own book NEW YEAR ISLAND’s ugly “Be the first to review” link. But I’m grinning at that nasty little sucker, because it’s not going to look that way for long.

Does combing through Amazon reviews until you find honest reviewers who share your tastes sound like a lot of work? Then picture Joe in the pre-Amazon days, driving around the country from bookseller to bookseller, talking to several a day and doing back-to-back book signings. For years.

Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

If you’ve managed the hard part and written a book that some people will enjoy reading, then your own audience is out there, waiting for you. Now go find them.


60 comments:

Jim Kukral said...

Your method is dead on correct. It's a lot of work to do it right. Wanted to clear something up though. Spamming is when you send an email to someone through a list service that they didn't agree to get.

Spamming is not when you send an email to someone one on one. Big difference. Our tools don't help people spam. We help you save time doing exactly what you just said, go to Amazon and find the top reviewers. But we would never mail them for you, or put them on any list. You should personally contact people, as you said.

Jim Kukral
Author Marketing Club

Steven M. Moore said...

Paul,
I've been on both ends of this process (reviewer v author). After 12 books (soon to be 14), I'm inclined to give up on reviewers for my own books.
My attitude as a reviewer has been to give something back to the community of readers and writers. I'll still do my part, but I won't participate in review exchanges and I won't go chasing reviewers. I've listed my review policies on my website (again, in both directions) and list my books in authors-wanting-reviewers-lists, and still no review numbers in the hundreds--not even the tens.
My conclusion: my time is better spent writing! I have started to include a message at the end of my books to the effect that "OK, you've read the book--how about a 20+ word review on Amazon telling other readers what you think." That's all I ask!
r/Steve

Paul Draker said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks, and you're right. Author Marketing Club wasn't one of the services I came across before writing this post a month ago, but I've heard good things about you guys since then.

I agree a personal email isn't spam. We authors just need to make sure that it isn't perceived that way. If we don't take the time to first get to know the person we're emailing a little, and what their likes and dislikes are, the email can come across as impersonal and generic.

I received an email the other day from an author that began, "Because you write a lot of reviews of children's books on Amazon..." Which cracked me up. Because I don't. But if I was a reviewer who got twenty one-size-fits-all emails like that each day, I might decide to stop responding to *any* requests, and that would be a bad thing for all of us indie authors.

You aren't kidding about it being a lot of work to do it right, though :) But it's worth it, in my opinion. One great thing about being an indie is the direct relationship we develop with our readers when we go out and "meet" them this way. It's such a validating and emotionally rewarding part of the writing experience for me... I can't recommend it enough.

Paul

Paul Draker said...

Hi Steve,

With fourteen books out, you're already doing the best form of promotion possible--expanding your shelf presence with new books.

I probably did neglect my second book a little when I was seeking reviews for my first. But right now I'm back at writing with a vengeance, and the second draft of novel #2 goes to my editor this month. So I do see the value of focusing time on the writing itself, rather than the non-writing aspects of what we do.

But for newbies like me with a single book out, a lack of reviews can feel like a real showstopper--a blocker that prevents folks who might enjoy our books from even considering trying them.

It's a discouraging thing to worry about while you're writing the next book, so it's nice to know we have the power to change it.

Alfred Poor said...

Great post, Paul. Thanks for putting all that together.

Some people may find all that research intimidating and overwhelming, especially when they want to be hip-deep in writing their next book. I've had good luck farming out research projects through HireMyMom.com and eLance.com, and I suspect that it would be possible to find a "virtual assistant" to take on some of the work of researching the reviews as you suggest (including the part about taking lots of notes.) If you specify a similar taste in (or at least knowledge of) books in your genre, you could be able to trade a little money to save a lot of time.

Alfred Poor
www.alfredpoorspeaker.com

Richard Brown said...

I wonder where the line is between authors reviewing each other’s work and authors exchanging or soliciting blurbs, which has been standard procedure for decades. Why is it okay for an author to put a quote from another author in their books description, but not okay for the author providing the quote to leave a review? If the quote is, in fact, an honest representation of their views on the author/book.

J.P. Grider said...

This was one of the most helpful blog posts I have read in a while. I took notes, now I am excited to put this lesson into action. Thank you so much for sharing this very insightful and helpful blog.
Off to find myself some reviewers.

Garth Perry said...

Great advice. Thanks!

Paul Draker said...

Thanks, Alfred!

I love being able to give something back, or to pay a little forward, after learning so much from this blog. And not just from Joe. I've also learned a ton from the other guest posters, and from everyone else who comments here.

It does take a lot of personal time and energy to find reviewers one at a time, the way I describe. I actually considered drafting some help at one point, per your idea, but I decided against it. Tastes are too individual. I figured an assistant couldn't possibly know from reading a person's reviews whether his or her tastes actually match mine across a broad enough spectrum that they are likely to love my book, too.

On the other hand, in retrospect now, some of my best reviews have been surprises. They came out of the blue, from reviewers I never approached. So it's also possible I may have overthought this a little ;)

Paul Draker said...

Hi, Richard,

Good question you raise. I didn't really give the ethics side of review exchanges, etc. any thought, though. It seemed immaterial. Amazon disapproves of that behavior, and we're all guests in their house while we're selling from there.

And hello, J.P. and Garth,

Your comments both made me smile :) Thank you!
Please feel free to drop me an email at pauldraker@gmail.com, and that goes for everyone, too.

Lara Martin said...

I've got one review and it's from my mother. I asked her NOT to review the story for the very reasons stated here but she did it anyhow. She was simply so proud. I really wish she hadn't but to demand she remove it would hurt her feelings. So, hopefully, it will eventually get lost in the crowd... or be removed when I take down the short story and put it into an anthology with much stricter instructions to my mother.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Paul.

I had a long comment, but Blogger seems to have eaten it!

Paul Draker said...

Hi Lara,

That's a tough one. You're in good company, though... Hugh Howey faced the same dilemma, too :)

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks! It sucks that Blogger at your comment :( I've taken to copy-pasting 'em in a text editor before hitting submit, because that's happened to me a few times, too.

bettye griffin said...

Excellent advice! I've done something similar in that I rounded up some advance reviewers who belong to the same groups as me on Facebook, but this gives me an opportunity to branch out...thanks again.

David Glynn said...

hi Paul,

the anonymous above was me, and yes, usually I write my posts elsewhere—it's only when I don't that they seem to get eaten.

Anyway, I can attest to the success of Paul's approach—when I bought my copy of New Year Island a few weeks ago (which must have been when he began composing this blog) there was indeed that dreaded phrase, "be the first to review this item."

Now I see that there are 19 reviews, with an aggregate rating of 4.5 stars, which is pretty good by anyone's standard.

Unfortunately, I can't add my voice to the chorus of praise. Paul and I ended up buying each other's books on the same day, and as fellow Amazon authors it's really not appropriate to review each other's work.

Paul's point, made most saliently in this post, is that this is doubtless a good thing. Readers are in the main not stupid; they can quickly discern between praise and puffery.

Indeed any connection made with readers through reviews requires that those reviews are genuine. In the long run, nothing else is gonna succeed. And as Paul points out, to get good reviews you need people who are naturally predisposed to like your work.

It really is as simple as that. It just ain't easy.

David Glynn said...

D'oh!

I just re-read my comment and I really need to clarify: what's unfortunate is that it would be impolitic for me to post a review on Amazon, NOT that I am unable to praise Paul's book. Because I am, it's awesome.

Melissa said...

Excellent post. I chuckled over the part about family and friend reviews. One can spot those a mile away.

Richard Schiver said...

Great post. I have been looking into doing just what you described but wasn't sure how to proceed, thanks for the step by step.

Alan Spade said...

Very helpful post, Paul, thanks !

The other day when I was signing my books at a bookstore, I asked a guy who bought the second book of my trilogy to leave a review to support me if he felt like it.

I had met the same person just one time previously on another signing session, where he bought the first volume. I've met him again on a third signing session where he bought the third book.

He did leave a review on Amazon about the first and second book. Here it is for the first : "Meeting this author, it's whith hesitation that I did try, because I had given up with the genre. The style is different, convincing, and no impression of "already read". I'm won over !"

When you click on his name, there's just another review of him, and it's for my second book.

So, would you define this review as a shill ? Would you advise me not to tell my readers that if they like what I'm reading, reviewing me is an efficient way of supporting me ? (I tell them as an information, not to beg.)

With other authors, I have a principle of not doing mutual backscratching, except once : a young author contacted me on my blog, and I liked very much her first compilation of short story (the first thing she published on Amazon). So I did review it, not with my Alan Spade name, and stating I was an author in the review. She also left two reviews of my books despite the fact I told her I was against mutual backscratching and I could not give back the favor for the second book she reviewed.

I just did it because I know it's very hard when you are just beginning to obtain reviews.

Last question, Paul : we have a website in France which name is : "Adopte un auteur". With a quick research, I've found this site in english : http://www.adoptanauthor.com/

But it doesn't seem to play the same role as the french website : a mean for bloggers to adopt an author in order to review her/his books. You just have to provide your bio, a picture of you and your books, and a description and you can be picked up and receive sollicitations to review your books.

And you don't have to pay to be in this website.

It seems to me a much more healthy way to obtain reviews than solliciting reviews, don't you think ? Like a Bookbub, but for bloggers who can also leave a review on Amazon and other stores. To my knowledge, there is no prerequisite for being on Adopte un auteur.

By the way,I'm not against solliciting review (I do it), I just say it's not a natural process.

Carolyn said...

Great article, really wonderful advice. However, many writers have writing friends, writing, acquaintences, attend book groups etc. I believe that an author can truly give a honest review of another author. Not pandering, not overtly gushing, but open and honest. Many people who read independent (Indie)books, also write, illustrate or in some way aspect are involved in writing. I do not think they should be excluded because they are fellow authors. But I do believe that your article is excellent and certainly has given me a lot to think about. My family never even offered to write a review of my books so I am also quite envious of you and the wonderful support of your family!

Paul Draker said...

Hi bettye, Melissa, and Richard,

Thanks!

As bettye explains, the reviewers you meet this way, if they like your book, will gladly become advance readers for your next novel, too :)

I agree with Melissa that friends and family reviews are painfully easy to spot. It's almost subliminal the way it comes through in the tone.

Good luck, Richard! One of the best things about meeting reviewers this way is they tend to be people you will like and get along with, because your tastes are by definition similar. You'll probably end up with some new friends in the process, too. :)



Paul Draker said...

Hi David,

Great to hear from you, and thank you for your kind words! While it may not be appropriate for an author to share their enthusiasm for the work of another author in an Amazon review, we aren't on Amazon here ;)

So I'd just like to tell everyone how much I enjoyed David's book VIGILANT GUARDIANS. I have to admit I approached it with a fair amount of trepidation, and gave David fair warning about that, because it revisits the events of September 11, 2001, and brings to the surface some very hard-to-explain facts about the most traumatic event in our collective American memory. But as I read, my trepidation soon gave way to page-turning immersion as I delved into his skillfully crafted story. VG blends fact, speculation, and fiction seamlessly; David's a great writer, and he brings the characters to life and makes you care about them. And when the story is over, you are left with some disquieting concerns about the things we all remember so well, but most of us never questioned. Buy it and read it. You won't go wrong.

Paul Draker said...

Hi Alan,

Great to meet you, and I love your story about the bookstore fan.
The review that you shared comes across as honest and heartfelt.
But as a reader browsing on Amazon and considering buying
a book, I wouldn't give that review much weight. Here's why:
it tells me nothing that actually helps me make my purchasing decision.

A review by an experienced, tenured Amazon reviewer usually begins by sharing a taste of the plot. Then it describes (in a detailed but spoiler-free way) what aspects the reviewer liked and disliked about the book. Often, it will draw comparisons in story line or writing style or tone to other books and other authors. The very best reviews convey what the actual experience of reading the story was like, and what emotional reactions the reviewer had, while reading it. These are the types of reviews that tell me, as a reader, whether I'm likely to enjoy the book.

You mentioned including an afterword page which asks readers to consider leaving a review. This is an excellent idea! We should all do this, IMO. I remember David Gaughran saying that he quadrupled (I think) the percent of readers who actually wrote a review, by including the request at the end of his books. From my anecdotal experience, less than 1% of readers will leave a review, otherwise. Even if they love the book.

I didn't touch ethics in the blog post, because I don't think they change the discussion. As David said in an earlier comment, our readers are smart folks. They can tell.

adoptanauthor.com sounds interesting... will check it out. I personally tend to prefer taking the initiative and making contact, because I find it emotionally rewarding, but that may not be for everyone.

I respect your opinion, but would respectfully disagree with the notion that seeking reviewers is not a "healthy" and natural process. That's a value judgment.

I could make the opposite argument, and say that it's less healthy and natural to take a passive approach to finding readers and reviewers for a novel you poured your heart into creating. But that's me, and what approach is the right one for each of us might be different.

That's the beauty of being indie. Each of us can choose exactly how much time and energy we want to commit to the publishing and marketing side of the equation, versus the writing side.

Paul Draker said...

Hi Carolyn,

I agree that an author can give an honest review of another author.
We're all big-time readers, too, after all :)

But I don't think honesty makes any difference here. It's the perception, not the reality, that drives Amazon's policy of disallowing author peer reviews. Why poke the bear in the eye?

Besides, as a reader, I alway ignore reviews written by other authors.
Just like blurbs. I don't even try to figure out if they are honest.
Fair or not, I simply don't trust them, ironically because I know how generous and mutually supportive a community we writers are.

Paul Draker said...

And Carolyn, thanks for your comments!

Alan Spade said...

Paul, thank you for your response.

Forget the "healthy" and natural process.

What I should have said instead, is that we authors are at a disadvantage when we are solliciting reviewers who have hundreds of sollicitations by other authors in a given month.

All the preparation in the world will not help with reviewers who are buried with books to read.

And if it's the reviewer that choose you, it removes the big preparation work you told us about. Because he or she knows his/her tastes.

But I get your point about the level of expertise of reviewers, and yes, in the current state of things, the best reviewers do not have time or opportunity to pick by themselves books that would not be proposed.

I think, though, that some reviewers would be happy to work in a context with less pressure and more freedom.

Paul Draker said...

Alan,

Thanks! I totally agree.

The disadvantage you mention is a very real one. And I think the main part of the challenge is not that the reviewers are buried with other books to read, but rather the fact that *our* books are buried and invisible to them.

Like any other readers, reviewers have no way of knowing about our books, unless we can achieve some degree of visibility for them first and earn a good word-of-mouth reputation.

It's a chicken-or-the-egg problem.

Luckily, there's a way we can jump-start the process with a little effort.

McVickers said...

Seems like an awful lot of work. If you write a good book and you're selling copies, I don't see why you would have to go to such great lengths to get reviews. If your book is good and a lot of people have a copy, then your reviews should reflect that. If people aren't buying your books, then that would also be reflected in the small number of reviews. In which case, maybe it's a better idea to concentrate all your efforts on selling copies instead of digging around Amazon for reviews in HOPES of selling copies. But of course I'm saying this not knowing about your sales figures, since you didn't mention it in the article. (Or if you did, then I probably missed it.) I'd like to know, though, if all that work you did to get reviews has translated into sells.

Paul Draker said...

Hi McVickers,

You're right, it is a great deal of work. But I'm a newbie. When I wrote this post a month ago, my book was totally invisible. I was selling 2 or 3 copies on a good day--zero copies on a bad one--and my Amazon bestseller rank hovered between 30,000 and 200,000.

Even if someone stumbled across my book's Amazon page somehow, with zero reviews there was no indication that it was worth a second glance. That "Be the first to review link" was a showstopper. Promotion would have been a waste of time.

I think that's a situation a lot of us newbies face with our first books. And it's discouraging.

You asked about my sales figures. Right now, as I type this, New Year Island is the:

#1 Amazon Best Seller in Hard-Boiled Mystery
#4 Amazon Best Seller in Psychological Suspense
#21 Amazon Best Seller in Mystery
#32 Amazon Best Seller in Suspense
#33 Amazon Best Seller in Thrillers
#51 Amazon Best Seller in Mystery & Thrillers (the category I usually browse)
#184 Amazon Best Seller in the overall Paid Kindle store

Last night it was #114 overall, almost reaching the Top 100.

In the last 24 hours, I've had the privilege of gaining over 1,000 new readers. I am grateful to all of them.

But I don't think any of it would have happened without the reviews helping guide purchase decisions, so I am very grateful to my reviewers, too.

Do I think the extra work was worthwhile?

I wish I'd doubled my efforts.
And started earlier.

:)

believer said...

Hey,Paul.

I got a request from a new author today to read his novella. It was well written and I bought his book. He sent me a link to this blog.

Great job. Keep it up.

believer said...

And for the skeptics here, I hope they will read your only one star review.

The guy hated your book and wants his money back. He read for hours and hours, was emotionally invested in the story, but hated the ending.

That review is gold.

Stephen Leather said...

Two very nice (and clearly genuine) reviews on the UK site! You might want to pop over and set up an author's page on the UK site as you have done on Amazon.com. :-)

Paul Draker said...

Hi believer,

Thanks! It's great to hear some folks are actually finding this useful.


Hi Stephen,

Thanks for the heads-up :) I didn't realize the author profiles were country-specific. Will rectify that shortly... apparently my paperback isn't available in Canada, either. I need to get a lot smarter about how Amazon's international sites work.

Paul Draker said...

Hi Anonymous,

I really doubt it. Smells like bullshit to me, based on my own limited experience, and what I know of Joe, Hugh, and Blake.

I've read their books and you should, too; they certainly don't need fake reviews.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi again, Paul,
Thanks for reminding me that the best reviews I've received are surprise reviews. The worst ones were also surprise reviews. By "surprise" I mean not solicited (free ebook in exchange for an honest review) and not from a review exchange. I think this proves my point: it's probably not worthwhile soliciting reviews!
I see nothing wrong with authors reviewing books by other authors...all my reviews done for Bookpleasures or otherwise fall into this category. The books I review didn't write themselves! I think the question is whether the reviewer knows the author. Even in that case I believe I've sent ebooks to author/friends with something like "complimentary copy--no review is expected" in the message, so, if they give me one, what should I do?
There is absolutely no set of algorithms that Amazon can devise that will detect all these nuances. What Amazon (and other reviewing sites?) can do to "clean up" the reviewing process is simply up the min number of words (it's 20 now, I believe). I'd make the range 100-500 (maybe even increase their 500). Casual reviewers don't want to write very much and there seems to be a culture where people try to outdo everyone else in their number of reviews that also encourages short reviews.
r/Steve

Paul Draker said...

Hi again, Steve,

YMMV, but you aren't a newbie. You have a dozen books, and readers, and fans already.

This post is most useful to those of us who are new writers launching our first books from ground zero.

Paul Draker said...

Steve,

I was thinking about the points you made in the second part of your post.

I agree 100% with your proposal for longer minimum review lengths on Amazon (and other sites).

As a reader browsing reviews, and trying to decide whether I want to take the time to try an unfamiliar author, I get very little value out of: "Loved it. Awesome book."

Great suggestion. Hope Amazon implements something like it.

Joe Konrath said...

Just a friendly reminder that I delete anonymous trolls. Not pointing fingers at anyone here, but at someone whose comment I eliminated.

I'm not allowing my blog to direct my readers to liars.

Carry on.

Hugh Smith said...

I've seen variations on this method before but never one with so much details and specificity. Thanks! It's time consuming but I think ultimately more beneficial than hiring services like elance and Fiverr to do the grunt work.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi again,
Well, I am a newbie as an author in the sense that my books aren't selling or being reviewed. :-( I'd like to at least cover costs, which I've minimized. Readers download the promos (but not like the old days), so I guess I should just be happy that some of those downloads are read--same for my books donated to libraries. I'm entertaining some people.
I'm not much into non-productive whining, so I look for things that I could improve. Improving my writing is my responsibility, but I think I tell a good story from the beginning. I'm wondering if my blog scares people off? Most author's blogs are neutral in scope or restricted to the writing business like this one, but mine is op-ed. This relates to this thread only in that it might also explain why I don't receive reviews either--reviewers are readers, after all.
Chirp in anyone with an opinion--do political positions reflect on reader and reviewer numbers?
Take care,
Steve

John Erwin said...

Steven -- I keep all of my online writing stuff non-political. I'm not getting sales or reviews, either, so I don't think you should worry about the tone of your blog. You might even attract more attention by being opinionated and controversial.

Paul -- Thanks for the review-getting strategy. Your plan will lend some order to my usual haphazard approach.

Paul Draker said...

Hi Joe,

Gracefully and tactfully done.


Hi Hugh Smith,

Thank you. It's more work this one-on-one personal way, but I think you'll get a whole more value out of it.

Our readers are what makes it possible for us to get paid for writing. Hugh Howey hops in a car and drives three hours to surprise a fan on his birthday. He appreciates his readers. And reviewers are the biggest readers.

They can become the biggest fans, too. Most of us indies don't have a marketing department, so our readers and reviewers are it. I think taking the time to take the personal approach also shows our appreciation for what they do.

Lelaina Landis said...

This is a great topic and timely too, for me -- I'm releasing my first book in a couple of weeks and need a lot of guidance in the marketing department.

Along the lines of sending complimentary copies, I have had reviewers request copies from me. When I send these good folks a digital copy from Amazon, am I absolutely required to make a notation in the message that this is indeed a copy requested by a reviewer? I don't want there to be any confusion from Amazon's POV.

Paul Draker said...

Hi again, Steven.

I don't have a blog but I do have a website, and it doesn't get much traffic. Even when my sales are strong. I don't think a significant percent of our readers, fans, or reviewers ever visit our websites.


Hi John,

Thanks! The taking notes part is crucial; I learned my lesson early.

Paul Draker said...

Hi Leliana,

Don't gift your product to a reviewer through Amazon. Here's why:

A gift can be redeemed and spent on something else. This creates a potential problem down the road. Amazon may decide these are "paid reviews" if someone makes a stink... and technically a lawyer could make a case that they are.

Seems silly, I know... but the potential result might be Amazon's wholesale deletion of these reviews at a future date, the same way Amazon deleted a lot of author-peer reviews some months back.

Instead, email them a digital copy yourself :)

Paul Draker said...

Apologies for misspelling your name, Lelaina :(

Lelaina Landis said...

No problem, Paul — and thanks for the advice. I really do not want to run afoul with Amazon, as I've heard horror stories from other authors about valid reviews being removed arbitrarily.

Apparently, this marketing bit is going to take a LOT of work. I'm *so* not looking forward to it. :(

Paul Draker said...

Lelaina, it's a lot of work, but it can also be very rewarding and encouraging, too.

Amazon's reviewers love books, and thus are predisposed to like authors. Writing reviews is a labor of love for most of them. They enjoy hearing from us, as long as we treat them with the respect they deserve.

Do that, and they'll be super nice to you. Then this part of your marketing efforts won't seem like tons of work, because your interactions with reviewers and potential reviewers will put a smile on your face every day.


For everyone,

There's a flip side to this, too. Since I wrote this blog post and sent it to Joe a month ago, I've also seen writers whose actions and attitudes do significant damage to themselves and their reputations in the Amazon reviewer community, which can also be a brutal shark tank for "authors behaving badly."

But that's largely self-inflicted damage, and completely avoidable.

The reviewer subculture defines Authors Behaving Badly as:
1) trying to game Amazon's independent review system with "fake" reviews
2) trying to influence their reviews or ratings
3) contesting or arguing with them about what they say in their reviews
4) harassing them or being unpleasantly persistent when they decline to review
5) trying to set deadlines for their reviews
6) trying to draw reviewer's attention to your book through some "clever" trick or gimmick or bogus controversy (trust me, whatever it is, they've seen it tried a bunch of times before)

But if you engage the reviewer community honestly and politely, the process itself is a joy, and it can kick-start what is otherwise a slow and difficult process for us indie newbies.

Paul Draker said...

I wrote this blog post and sent it to Joe a month ago.

For the last two days, here in the comments, we've been discussing the downsides of friends-and-family reviews, mutual backscratching reviews, etc. and the value of seeking only honest non-incented independent reviews.

And... now this.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/technology/give-yourself-4-stars-online-it-might-cost-you.html

Granted, this crackdown focuses on full-on fake review mills and self-review campaigns for businesses. But you can be pretty sure it will also result in high self-scrutiny from Amazon.

For newbies in particular, when it comes to our reviews, now's a really good time to keep our Amazon reputations sterling and our noses clean.

Steven M. Moore said...

OK, mea culpa, but once I did get snarky with an Amazon reviewer who started out by saying he didn't even read the book. I'll give him credit, though, because the review was unsolicited. In this case, I hope he returned the book for credit.
This leads to another point: when I was soliciting reviews, I was gifting through Amazon. In some cases, I've never seen the review. Does this mean they "returned" the book for credit?
And thanks, John, for the kind words. Your opinion has been echoed by several other people. I even made an op-ed blog post once arguing that an author's views shouldn't influence our reading of his opus as long as he or she tells a good story.
Paul, I have a steady number of real visits (as opposed to hits) to my website and that's probably due to the op-ed (steady-state number), although 3 dB peaks occur, some due to interviews of authors or a candid post on the writing business. My "News and Notices from the Writing Trenches" tends to be popular too, but, as John says, none of this seems to make a difference. :-(

Lelaina Landis said...

Paul,

It's about time that a major news outlet brought this topic to the forefront. I used to be a freelance writer (primarily ad copy), and I have always been aware that the fake review mill is a thriving cottage industry that is only growing larger. Every now and then, one of them was taken down, but this is far bigger than most people imagine. It's not just for books. It's for *everything* imaginable that can be sold on the Internet. So when the NYT broke the Locke story, I couldn't help but to roll my eyes. Old news for those of us in the know.

The depressing aspect of this (and what gives me a lot of mixed feelings) is that a lot of less-established writers I came across in various writers' forums -- those desperate to feed families or simply stay in their homes -- accept this type of work just to stay afloat. It's not something they felt good about doing, but the economy has not recovered, and they had to make a living somehow. Me? I would rather abandon freelancing completely and work retail before I did that. But it's easier for me to do so, as an able-bodied person who has only myself to support!

Writing is like any other industry in the U.S. There are an insufficient number of quality jobs for our unemployed/underemployed writers and editors. I don't know if this will ever be fixed.

(Of course, all of this is probably in apropos of nothing ...)

Steven M. Moore said...

Lelaina,
I don't know which crime is worse for authors seeking reviews, so-called reviewers accepting books, but not reviewing and returning them to Amazon; or "reviewers" getting paid to write false reviews. I'd put both in the category of graft.
I wonder if I could get any satisfaction by writing people doing the latter and saying, "Say, you received my book on --what happened to the review?" Probably a waste of time, especially because I've stopped soliciting reviews. I only have a small amount budgeted for review copies of each of my books. I'll restrict it now to reviewers who solicit me and have a recognizable presence on Amazon or a book blog.

Paul Draker said...

Hi Lelaina,

Don't let it bother you. Just write the books that make you happy, and make sure your own reviews are honest.

But I'd say writing is not like every other industry in the US. It's a creative pursuit. And 100% voluntary.

Joe's said it here before, but no one owes any of us a living doing something creative on our own terms. That's not why we write. Or at least, it shouldn't be.

We should do this simply because we love it. Or we shouldn't do it.


Hi Steven,

My advice is don't send any reviewer an email like that. You have no idea whether a particular reviewer even redeemed the gift, let alone whether they used it for your book or not. Whether or not you intend it that way, the email you describe is exactly the sort of author behavior Amazon reviewers refer to as "Authors Behaving Badly."

They don't owe any of us a review. Whether or not we send them a book. Ever.

Keep in mind, they are doing us a huge favor if they give us hours and hours of their time to read our work, let alone review it.

You make a great point about also being reviewed on non-Amazon book blogs. One thing I've found, while working on getting paper books into bookstores, is that bookstores don't like Amazon (surprise, surprise). Our Amazon reviews don't count for much in their eyes. It helps to have reviews visible elsewhere, too.

Steven M. Moore said...

Paul,
No, I would never do that, but it irks me all the same because I do my writing on a shoestring budget.
BTW, I've had some great reviews at places other than Amazon. I do my own reviewing mostly at Bookpleasures, which has loose ties with Amazon. The advantage is that I can write a review there that's more than 500 words!

Paul Draker said...

Steven, that's a definite advantage. As you pointed out earlier, longer reviews tend to be more useful to browsers trying to decide if they want to buy.

Oddly enough, despite Goodreads being owned by Amazon now, bookstores seem to "trust" it more. I watched managers in 2 different bookstores check Goodreads when looking up my book, so it's worth it for us to have some reviews there, too.


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Great blog. I didn't know I needed an author profile on amazons other international versions