Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Ch 4.6 Reviews and How To Get Them

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)

Ch 4.6 Reviews and How to Get Them

Two reviews of Open Minds (Mindjack #1)

"This is a brilliant young adult novel unlike any I've read. It is a great sci-fi page-turner and I can't wait to read the rest."

"I really didn't like this book. It was a little weird and boring. That's just my personal opinion though. It was also kind of slow."

They can't both be reading the same book, can they?

One of the great revelations about publishing, for me, was that each reader genuinely has a different experience of the same written work. Of course this is because they bring their own experiences to the page, their own expectations and preferences. This isn't my opinion, people, it's science!

Scientific American article, "In the Minds of Others":
"We do not actually experience the character’s emotions—after all, the character is an abstraction. Rather we feel our own emotions in response to the yearnings, actions and circumstances the writer describes. The trajectory of these emotions keeps us turning the pages or glued to the screen."
"As with all good literature, Chekhov’s story prompted people to think and feel in new ways, but the particular feelings and thoughts it evoked depended on the reader."
There's a saying that the book isn't finished until a reader reads it, and I've believed it from the first time I sat in a book club, listening to people's reactions to my story. I knew what I wanted to say with that story: thankfully, some people "got" it, but the most amazing part was when readers found more than what I thought I had put there. It touched some part of them, drawing that experience out and imbuing the book with it. That was when I realized the power words truly hold to move people's hearts.

How To Handle Bad Reviews
For a long time I've said reviews are for the reader, not the author. Lately, I've been adding, write for your fans, not your critics. Reviews help readers sort through books to see which ones they will enjoy. It's not a straight-up "5 stars I must read this" assessment either - many readers see the negative reviews and buy based on that. If every bad review complains about language in the book, and language doesn't bother me, then I'm more inclined to read. So even bad reviews aren't always bad.

But let's say they are. Say a review is a ridiculous shredding of your book that makes you wonder if the person even read the darn thing. First, I generally advocate not reading reviews, at least not before doing anything important like writing or shaving with a sharp blade. Second, if someone loathes your book with the heat of a thousand suns, then that book clearly wasn't meant for them. (Or, more subversively, maybe it was intended to provoke exactly that reaction from that kind of person.) Ultimately, the book is meant for the kind of person who gobbles it up and snaps up your other works as well.

Know your audience.

Part of knowing your audience (and marketing to them) is knowing who will enjoy your book. A good review is a pretty good indication the reader is in your target audience. Listen to that. Give your target audience more of what they love, and the people who tripped in and bought your book, even though it wasn't really their thing? Well, be thankful they were willing to try it - that probably speaks well of your marketing - and wish them a merry life. (And hope they don't read and review any more of your works.)

Why Do We Want Reviews?
Beyond giving readers a way to judge your work, reviews provide two things: 1) wherever the reviews are (blogs, Goodreads, Library Thing, etc.), they provide social proof that your book is worth the time of a new reader, and 2) reviews on Amazon feed the algorithms that give your books more visibility, and thus more reach to new readers. I specify Amazon, because the algorithms at the other retailers (Barnes&Noble, Apple, Kobo) are so pitiful that I don't think reviews actually have an impact on them one way or the other. So, when you're focused on getting reviews, keep those two objectives in mind: social proof on a given platform, and reviews to feed Amazon algorithms.

How Do We Get Reviews?
The where and how of getting reviews is a constantly evolving thing.

When I first started publishing, individually querying book bloggers was a great (albeit time intensive) way to establish relationships with bloggers and find the ones who would be naturally inclined to like your work (because they only accepted for review books they were at least interested in). Now, book bloggers are overwhelmed with queries because there are simply so many people self-publishing.

However, no problem lasts long without someone stepping in to provide a solution.

Book Blog Tour Companies
The rise of intermediaries to arrange book blog tours (I've used and recommend Xpresso) provides a more efficient model: instead of authors having to individually query and book bloggers having to individually accept/reject, now authors can purchase a service and bloggers have their choice of who to sign up. It's more efficient on both ends, but comes with a price tag - and for authors just starting out, it's painful to outlay  that money. Make sure you're using a company that will provide good exposure for the cost (get a recommendation from someone who has used them!), and know that book blog tours are not the only way to get reviews (or exposure); they're just one way. It is a "pay for access" type service, but it's also a true service. I spent countless hours arranging my own blog tours back in the day. Now, I gladly pay for that service, which is both less time for me and more effective. (Note: I haven't personally used blog tour companies for reviews as much as exposure - cover reveals, release announcements, that sort of thing).

Caution: be careful how much time you spend writing tons of blog posts and interviews and such for blog tours. It's time-consuming and generally you won't get massively more exposure for the time spent writing tons of blog posts vs. the minimal effort that a cover reveal requires.

Give Books Away
Another advantage indie authors have is in giving books away. I've been liberal in my giveaways - both on blogs and Goodreads and my own social media - and they help not only to give people a reason to share information about your books, but also to reward the people who are your fans. I always include a brief note for the winner with an easy-click link to review when they're done, as well as signups for my newsletter and information about upcoming books. This is a great way to build rapport with your fanbase, and a lot of winners have gone on to review as well.

Ask for Reviews
There are three items constantly jostling for dominance in the back matter of my books: 1) a polite request for a review, with a link, 2) a link to subscribe to my author newsletter, and 3) a description and link to my other works. They jostle because I can never decide which I most would prefer the reader to do, but politely asking for a review when someone has just finished reading your work is a pretty ideal time.

When you're just starting out, your fanbase consists mostly of your mom and your hairdresser. While it may be tempting to ask them to review, it's not really going to help you much. Yes, it might feed the algorithms a tiny morsel, but the only way you really gun the algorithm machine is by having 20 or 100 or more reviews (I don't know what the magic number is; I know it's more than the number of relatives you have unless your family is massive.) But once you have a fanbase, especially if you're on to publishing your second or third book in a series, don't be afraid to ask your followers, readers, fans to review your work. A small request every once in a while is unobtrusive, and no one will hate you for it. And chances are they will review without you asking anyway. Just remember: most people don't review, but they may talk up your book to other people. This kind of word of mouth is more valuable than a review, so count your blessings and move on.

Caution: Do not ever, ever, ever hound people to review. Serious. Once that review copy is out of your hands, that's the last you should worry about it. Either they will review or they won't. And be flexible - my answer to reviewers who say, "I'll get to it, but it might be six months" is always, "Whenever you can review is perfect!" Because it is.

Buying A Review
Don't do this. (Full stop.)

NetGalley for Authors
I started a NetGalley co-op that makes it more affordable for indie authors to participate (NetGalley is a clearinghouse where authors/publisher upload their ebooks (ARCs or older titles) and reviewers can request a copy for review. If approved, NetGalley readers will read and review the titles.). NetGalley gives authors fast and easy access to the 120,000 bloggers, journalists, librarians, booksellers, and media people who use NetGalley - and it's efficient. Rather than you having to query reviewers, they come to you and request a copy for review. I have an extensive post about NetGalley, but here's the upshot:
* For $300 (in a co-op of 20 authors), you get a slot for one title for one year - but you can swap out as many titles as you wish. For example, an indie author with 12 titles out, you could put up one per month. If you only have one title, NetGalley is probably not the best use of your funds.
* Some genres get more requests than others, but everyone gets some
* Reviewers tend to be harsher on NetGalley than Goodreads, which in turn is harsher (in general) than Amazon and Book Blogger reviewers
* The good reviews on NetGalley tend to be outstanding, and you have access to people who may not normally get online, troll Goodreads, or visit book bloggers (i.e. librarians, teachers, etc.)

To ARC or not to ARC
One of the advantages of being indie is that you can give out as many ecopies as you like at no cost (I send out almost exclusively ebooks, not paper copies). I continue to give out review copies all the time - long after any given book has been released. For the first six months after Open Minds was released, I was still querying book bloggers and sending out review copies. I'm convinced that liberal use of review copies helped get that book noticed in the world.

When I sent out ARCs of Open Minds before publication, those were fully-publication-ready copies, not true ARCs (which are generally not copyedited) - in essence, I held back the publication of the book to get early reviews. Which was fine, and it worked well enough, but since then, I generally do not hold back publication - when a book is ready to release, I release it. Partly because word-of-mouth grows best when people actually have the book in their hands, and partly because of a change in my thinking from the scarcity model of traditional publishing to the abundance model of indie publishing (see Scarcity vs. Abundance Thinking). Advanced buzz is great, but your book doesn't need it to succeed - what it needs is people having access to your book (to buy, to review, to recommend). For that, it needs to be published. So I tend toward soft publication now (publish first, market second), with the caveat that I talk about my books when I'm working on them, so my existing readers know what I'm working on and anticipate those releases.

In other words, I release first and worry about getting reviews after... or more accurately, I don't stress about reviews in general.

Thanking People For Reviews
I generally thank people for reviews if they've let me know they've reviewed. If they haven't made first contact in some way, I tend not to pop in from the blogosphere and haunt their blog, commenting about the review they just wrote. We authors tend to think of ourselves as the least intimidating people on the planet, but reader discussion about you and your work can easily be squashed if you're in the room. I try not to do that, if at all possible. When people are talking about you or your books, it's a good thing. Best to not mess with that!

Don't Stress About Reviews
I had a friend who was selling her new book like gangbusters, but not getting any reviews. She asked me how she could get more reviews - I asked her why she needed them, when she was already selling well! It may seem like getting reviews is the key to success, but it's truly not. Getting people interested in picking up the book and reading it is the key to success. If you have enough of that, the reviews will come on their own (from fans). You can use reviews to fish outside your own backyard (by having book bloggers review, and thus give you exposure to other ponds), and reviews will eventually feed the Amazon algorithms, but they are not going to make or break your book. This is especially important to remember when you have a bad review. Don't be that psycho author that has a public meltdown about a review. Don't give that much power to your critics. Your life and writing will go on after they've had their fifteen paragraphs of spleen-venting about your prose... unless you self-immolate over it.

To Sum Up
Make some effort to get your book out there. Ask nicely for reviews in the back of your book. Be liberal with review copies and giveaways. Know that a lack of reviews or a bad review will not doom your book. Then let that birdie fly and concentrate on writing the next book.

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)


  1. Great tips on getting reviews, Susan. Thanks for sharing it. Will tweet it for you.

  2. Ha! Good timing! I am definitely going with a 'giving it away' approach, especially the first in this serial, but I plan to thank my early reviewers with the next episode, too (shhh--that's a secret)--just a little reinforcement and appreciation.

  3. Well said. I'm looking at a soft release for my next book, but gunning for reviews before doing any kind of heavy push in terms of marketing.

  4. How do you embed your links into the ebook?

    1. I code the HTML in my books, but you should be able to embed links in your Word document and have them upload intact.


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