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 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.