Reviews: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

book_nerd1Remember when you first started writing your book and your overriding thought was, ‘I just hope somebody reads it!’?  All authors, whether self-published or traditionally published, are increasingly responsible for the promotion and marketing of their books (when I say increasingly, can the self-published authors at the back stop sniggering!).  Time was when marketing departments did the dirty work for their authors and readers often found their next read by word of mouth.  But things have changed drastically in the digital age and we’ve been making up the rules as we go along.  These days, the almighty review has become the holy grail for authors, fueled by Amazon’s marketplace mentality.  While I do encourage readers to leave a review (you can read my post about it here), it seems to me this whole review thing is getting a little out of control and needs a bit of rethink.

As I said, Amazon is essentially a marketplace, where you can find anything for sale from a hair dryer to a wonder woman outfit (I won’t tell you how I know that).  Amazon uses an algorithm to categorise it’s products in order of ranking, which takes into account the price, keywords, sales and of course reviews.  We’ve all seen those tweets stating that 50 reviews or more can kickstart some magical booster on Amazon, propelling your book into some undefined stratosphere.  While I do believe that reviews help, I am starting to see that it is your sales in any given 24 hours which really defines where you are ranked on the list.  However, in order to get sales, it helps to have a healthy amount of reviews.  The words chicken and egg come to mind.

When you launch a new book, you can’t have it sitting there all naked, wearing nothing but a ‘Be the first to review this item’ sticker.  Readers need to see that other readers have invested in your book and as a consequence, in you, the writer.  As customers, we think to ourselves, ‘Is it any good?  Who else bought it?  What did they think?’  Even if we turn around and ignore everything the reviewer has said, we still like to see a bit of activity in the review section.  The chances of a reader buying a book off Amazon with no reviews are almost non-existent.  But how do you get reviews without readers?  How do you get readers without reviews?  You could bribe your friends and family, but that’s a little bit soul destroying and ultimately transparent.  So, as an author who desperately needs reviews in order to increase visibility and sales, what can you do?  If only there were a group of people out there who loved reading and reviewing so much, they started writing a blog about it and posting about the books they’ve enjoyed reading.  Kind of like book-clubs, but a million times better!  Well guess what, these people already exist.  Cue the book bloggers!

There has been a lot of talk about book bloggers on social media recently, so I won’t rehash the entire discussion (check out #bloggersarerealreaders), but the main gist was that people were extremely misinformed about what book bloggers actually do.  Some people seemed to be under the impression that bloggers get paid for their reviews.  Well that made me laugh.  Have they met authors?  WE’RE BROKE!  Where would we get the money to pay for reviews?!  And apart from that, do they really think that authors who slave over a manuscript for a year or more, making it the best it can be, would tarnish their artistic integrity with a paid-for review?  Yes, there are people out there who produce books purely as a business venture and yes there are some shady spots where you can buy reviews, but they are not book bloggers.  Book bloggers read, review and promote books of their own free will.  They are real readers who have found the perfect platform for their love of books, which means they get to interact with authors and other readers.  And then they put great time and care into crafting an honest review.  And then they share it on social media.  And then other book bloggers share that.  For free.  For the love of books.  Really!  The whole reason authors tend to gush about bloggers is because they go out of their way to help you promote your book and ask for nothing in return.

However, on top of the misconceptions people have about book bloggers, it would appear that bloggers are also getting hassle from authors too.  This is where I think the obsession with reviews has pushed some people into unacceptable behaviour.  I recently read a post by Cat, a book blogger over at Happy Meerkat Reviews, which addressed the dark side of reviewing.  I was genuinely shocked to hear that she had been bullied and harrassed by authors (she particularly cited indie authors).  Even in the comments section, she had to plead with people to keep a civil tongue in their heads, such was her bad experience.  I think all sides need a bit of a crash course in what book bloggers do and what to expect (or not to expect) when requesting a review of your book.  It’s a bit like asking someone to dance; basic rules of common courtesy apply.

  1. First off, if you are asking someone to read and review your book for free, the least you can do is supply them with a copy of your book.  I mean, that’s just basic, right?  But that doesn’t mean a book blogger is suddenly under  your spell and working as a member of your promotional crack team!  Anyone who thinks a free book somehow guarantees a review at all, never mind a positive one, obviously hasn’t done a giveaway before 😉
  2. Book bloggers decide what they will and will not read.  Period!  Just like normal human beings, they have their own tastes in books and while the majority are pretty open to most genres, they often provide a helpful list on their REVIEW POLICY page of what they do and do not accept.  You should probably read that page.
  3. They do not guarantee a positive review.  However, some reviewers will go so far as to not publish the review if it is negative and may (potentially) harm your book launch.
  4. They may not reply to your request, for any number of reasons.  That’s the point where you move on and politely ask someone else if they would like to dance/review your book, instead of harassing someone who isn’t interested.  On several occasions I have had book bloggers agree to read my book, but then I never hear from them again.  People change their minds.  That’s life.  You move on.
  5. You know what’s really nice when somebody asks you for a favour?  If they use your actual name!  I can’t believe the amount of book bloggers who receive requests addressed to Miss/Mrs/Madame.  Come on people, if you want someone to show your book some love, show them a little respect first and at least find out who they are, the kind of books they like to read and just maybe don’t bully them.  M’kay?

So there you have it.  It’s a simple contract – you offer a free copy of your book to a reviewer and  all they ask in return is to have the freedom to give your book an honest review.   But hey, book bloggers aren’t the only reviewers out there, are they?   Well, I did a little research of my own regarding reviews and asked the members of an online bookclub if they ever leave reviews on Amazon.  As you would expect, the majority of replies were were an overwhelming no.  Some said that it never occurred to them and it wasn’t something they had ever considered doing.  Some said they would feel self-conscious writing a review.  Some said that they had considered writing reviews, but on reading book blogger reviews (which tend to include plot summaries and in-depth analysis) they felt intimidated and as though their review wouldn’t be as good.  They felt there was no point in contributing a short review of a few lines, when compared with the lengthier book blogger reviews.  I felt really disappointed by that, because while we’ve come to rely on book blogger reviews in order to gain exposure, other readers can be put off by them and don’t feel ‘qualified’ to air their own opinions.

There was also a feeling that book bloggers are somehow part of the author’s promotional team and that it’s all a bit of a marketing scam (especially if the reviews are positive).  I think they feel this applies equally to self-published and traditionally published authors.  Publishing houses have always sent ARC’s (advance reader copies) to reviewers and with services like Netgalley, this is now open to all and sundry.  This is standard practice and does not mean that the publishers are ‘buying’ reviews, but some people do see it that way.  I think we really need to address these misconceptions and make people aware that, far from being an industry, writers and bloggers are just individuals with a mutual interest in promoting books.

But then I got the answer to my question that changed everything.  One woman said that writing a review felt like having to do a book report at school and she said it would ruin her reading experience.  I was so glad to hear that, because it reminded me of a very important point: readers do not owe us a review.  They have already paid us the ultimate compliment of reading our book – which is the very outcome we wished to achieve at the start.  It’s when we are expected to turn into authorpreneurs and take sole responsibility for promoting our books that we feel under pressure to ask for more.  We’re desperate for reviews, because that’s what we have been told matters most.  And maybe it does matter, but at what cost?  As writers, we just want people to enjoy our words.  I want people to get swept away in one of my stories and fall a little bit in love with the characters I’ve created.  All of this algorithm, ranking and visibility stuff just sucks the joy out of the relationship between the writer and the reader.  I think we need to take a Buddhist approach to reviews (disclaimer: I know next to nothing about Buddhism!) and just let go.  Yes, by all means send your book out for review and and stick that bit in your back matter about how leaving a review would be lovely, but then just let go of the outcome.  And get back to writing your next book!