Whatever your opinion about the online giant Amazon, it’s hard to dispute this recent statement by founder Jeff Bezos:
“Amazon is not happening to book selling. The future is happening to book selling.”
As the future happens, discoverability and social proof are two words you hear a lot. These concepts have always been part of the book industry, but they’re evolving with the digital revolution, and that includes the good old-fashioned book review.
Reviews have been around pretty much since the first cave person drew on a rock and the next cave person pointed it out to his buddy. These days, discoverability and social proof in reviews is split between established industry insiders and regular readers in what amounts to a large-scale democratization of the process that raises a whole lot of interesting questions.
Last week, I mailed out the first round of review copies of my next new release, No Returns, to four traditional reviewers. The process took a lot longer than I expected, which is why I like hybrid projects where I can work with traditional publishers on print editions. I’m also trying Story Cartel to encourage more honest, genuine reviews of my first novel, A Distant Enemy, a digital reprint which has suffered from a case of stale-reviewitis.
This week, my pointers on ethics and etiquette for book reviews. Next week: where and how to get your book reviewed. Note that here I’m talking only about actual reviews, not author blurbs (sometimes called endorsements) or beta reader responses.
- DON'T buy phony reviews. Never. Ever. I don’t care how many you can purchase on Fiverr or who else is doing it. It’s slimy and wrong. Incentives for real, honest reviews? That’s a different story. Publishers do it all the time. They send free books to traditional reviewers. They invite reviewers to fancy parties they throw at conventions. They probably do other schmoozing that I don’t know about. That’s why I don’t feel bad about offering giveaways for reviewers who take the time to read my books and share their honest opinions with the world.
- DON'T ask (beg, plead with) strangers to review your work unless they’ve identified themselves as reviewers who are open to such queries. When you approached the proclaimed reviewers, do so in a sincere and professional manner, and pay close attention to the reviewer’s submission guidelines. The response might surprise you. My friend Don Rearden landed a review of his book (Penguin, 2013) in the Washington Post this way, and it’s now made the Post’s 50 Best Books of the Year list.
- DO keep your friends and fans appraised of your book news, and let them know that you welcome reviews.
- DON'T pester people. Never. Ever. Repetition is acceptable on social media (to a point—no more than four times is the rule I try to follow when I’m announcing something new), but that should be information, not pleading or demands for reviews. One follow-up to people who requested your book for review is my personal limit. We’re all busy, and we can’t always follow through on our good intentions. And believe it or not, there are some lovely people, maybe even members of your own family or your close friends, who simply don’t want to review your book, no matter how much they love you. (Not to mention that Amazon tries hard to filter out reviews by your nearest and dearest.)
- DO exchange reciprocal reviews (honest! genuine!) with your closest author friends. At first, I wasn’t sure this was good practice. When Amazon first came on the scene, a friend who writes for young readers asked if I’d post a review of her book on Amazon to help counter a bad review that appeared to have been written as a school assignment. I did the review, but it felt a little weird. Then I started getting school assignment reviews of my books, like this one written in 2000: “I usually read science-fiction books so I really don't know how to compare this book to others very well.” Now I understand that one of the best ways to help a writer’s book get discovered is to post an honest review, or even to write one for your local paper, as my one of my favorite authors Bill Streever did recently. (Bill’s an accomplished reviewer, by the way. See his post on how to write reviews for major publications.)
- DO thank reviewers when you have a personal relationship with them. You might even want to thank all reviewers, regardless of whether you know them. I have friends who do this, although I think it’s best done privately, if possible.
- DO make a practice of reviewing the books you enjoy on Goodreads and Amazon, whether you know the author or not.
- DO consider sending out no-strings-attached copies of your book to people you appreciate. I received a book this way from one of my favorite authors, David Vann, with a nice note saying he simply wanted me to have a copy. Of course, I reviewed it.