Saturday, February 16, 2013

On Reviews

Reviews are going to be the #1 way you sell books after you've exhausted "personal" sources (that is, friends and family) and before you've become successful enough to get into the top tiers of bestselling lists (preferably top 10 in a niche category, but at least top 20; for major categories, just getting on the list is probably good enough).

Even if you've enough personal sources to skip straight to the bestselling list in a niche, chances are this will not be sustainable without you driving traffic to your works. There are many ways you can do this, but I really believe that soliciting reviews is going to be the best use of your time.

There are some commonly given dos and don'ts, which I will mention in passing along with any thoughts, but I feel that the benefits of reviews can't be understated and I haven't seen many analyses done or personal experiences given on them.

For the record, I am not talking about Amazon reviews here, but rather reviews that come from some professional source (be that bloggers, newspapers, magazines or whatever). Amazon reviews (and whatever reviews you get on other stores) are nice to have, but after the initial set-up of a few dozen reviews, the main thing you are going to be looking for from them is an aggregate scorecard. That's not to say that the reviews don't matter, but the star average is what most people are going to be looking for and then only AFTER getting to your storefront or book page.


For the record,  
Do:
  1. solicit reviewers that are "indy-friendly"
  2. check their other reviews and see if you think they would like your work (honestly like it because of their preferences, not just 'cuz everyone should like it!)
  3. check their submission guidelines and follow them
  4. query first (unless their guidelines say otherwise)
  5. personalize your queries to the reviewer
  6. keep a record of reviewers you've had success with
  7. maintain a professional tone and treat the reviewer with respect and professionally
  8. offer a free review copy in their preferred format
  9. ask permission to use quotes from their review
  10. ask permission to tell others about the review (this is probably almost guaranteed to be OK, but it doesn't hurt to ask and it could hurt to not)
  11. get pre-publication reviews if possible to coincide with the release of your story
  12. continue to solicit reviews while waiting for others to review and finish your story
Don't:
  1. trash a reviewer for a bad review 
  2. pay for a good review
  3. steal from the reviewer
  4. send unsolicited free copies
  5. require the reviewer to buy your book
  6. take it personally
  7. accept everything they say about your writing/book
  8. refute everything they say about your writing/book
I'm sure I missed some, this was just supposed to be a quick list, but please feel free to comment with more and if I agree I'll add them to the list. There are a lot of sources out there how to get reviews, I'm more concerned with what happens once the ball is rolling.

First thing to bear in mind is your review copy. If you are sending out a pre-publication galley, good for you! Most of us will probably be sending out an electronic version of our books to help save us the expense of printing and shipping. There are clearly ways you can do this for next to no cost, but I recommend spending the 30-65% cost of your book on Amazon (or BN if they're Nook-readers) to purchase the reviewer a gift copy.
(Aside: More reason to not send unsolicited gift copies: the recipient can choose to spend the money on something else instead of your book)

This shouldn't cost too much in the long run: it'll require the investment of the list price of your book, with the remainder paid back to you in royalty form a few months later (assuming you're selling the minimum amount to be paid royalties).

Why on earth pay for your book when you can send them a free electronic copy? Well, because it counts as a sale, mostly. In the beginning, every sale you get moves your book hundreds of thousands of places in the overall ranking on Amazon. In the niche bestselling categories, this can translate into getting on the list much sooner than otherwise.

Now, you sit around waiting for them to finish your book and publish their review, right? Wrong! There are literally thousands of bloggers out there, and you can probably find a few hundred that may be interested in your book. It takes time, so this will never amount to more than a few dollars a day investment from you (and usually more like a few dollars a week), and over time, you should start to see some sales from this to offset further investment.
(Note: I recommend that whatever bank acct you are buying the books from also be the acct your royalty checks are deposited into).

The way I figure from my brief forays into reviews and the like: every 4-star or greater review on a not-unknown blog can translate into one guaranteed sale. At the beginning, this is going to be what you're shooting for. If you can't get 4-star reviews, that's OK, your book may not be for everyone. On the other hand, if you can't get *ANY* 4-star reviews, maybe you should consider reading some of those reviews to see what they have to say?

A review is not meant to be defended or attacked. People that review regularly are rarely spiteful and generally criticize for what they see as real flaws. Likewise, they are not your mom and if they say something encouraging or praise you or your story, then you can know that it was not said just to placate you. People are entitled to their opinions. If you find yourself getting worked up over every line of a review, take a breath and come back to it. If you find yourself ready to send off an angry e-mail, stop—some ask not to be contacted by authors at all after the review goes live by the way.

Ask yourself if what they are saying is something that you should consider seriously. In the first review of my novel, The Throne of Ao, a reviewer criticized a scene where I had these fantastical creatures talking about adrenaline and endorphins. Somehow this had gotten past beta readers and editors without a question. I realized that although the scene made sense in the setting, it didn't make sense to the readers of the book, so I adjusted it and re-published.

On the other hand, don't take it personally. There are things in reviews that I went o_O over (comparing my works to LotR comes to mind—really? Maybe the movies, but not Tolkien's books! Throne of Ao is written for action!). Everyone has their own personal biases and opinions, and that does not make them wrong and you right or vice verse.

Anyway, so by this point you have given out 5-10 free copies of your story and are starting to get the 4-star reviews that will translate into sales. This should be more than enough to put you in the top 100K of Amazon. Keep at it, don't give up. You'll get better and more efficient at querying and responding, and as your books become more popular, more reviewers are going to want to review your book. You may want to set up a "request review copy" form on your website or blog (don't make a bunch of terms here, just ask them to tell you why they are requesting a review copy and what you need to decide if they are a fit for you). I make a point of not denying any blogger on the basis of size (although if they just made a blog two minutes before writing to me...), but you may want to avoid blogs/reviewers that have nothing to do with your chosen genre (for instance, a reviewer of erotica reviewing your young adult fantasy novel, "When you said fantasy, I thought you meant sexual fantasies!").

Once you've moved up the ranks in your niche categories, you will start to get sales from that as well, but this is no excuse to avoid selling to more bloggers. I view getting reviews as an evolved form of hand-selling each copy. Instead of selling to one person, you give your product to one that is going to in turn sell it to at least one more (assuming your work is good enough and a good match for them).

Thoughts on this? Anything I missed?