Writing Book Reviews? Want to support your favourite authors? Here’s how to really make a difference:
Book reviews are vital to authors’ success, both independent and traditionally published. Here I explain in simple terms how you can supercharge your reviews, and maximise your impact in supporting your favourite authors.
Getting reviews posted to retailer websites is the primary focus of many authors’ daily struggles. Marketing psychology dictates that for most people, book sales are made on three primary criteria: cover, the star rating, and the reviews (both the number and the quality of the latter, though number is more important). Yes, we’re already told that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but this is absolutely how books are sold and to ignore this fact would be disastrous.
The same goes for reviews. A book cover is relatively easy to get right: if the author is willing to put in the effort and investment, knows their market, and works with a professional, it’s a done deal.
Not so with reviews. To vie for big-name reviewers, large blogs or even paid reviews (which are totally not cool), takes an enormous amount of time and almost always end in failure—all time that authors should be using for writing and delivering new content to their readers.
As such, authors rely on their readerships. It’s the generosity of those who give up their free time to provide a word on their thoughts on the book that make authors’ livelihoods possible. If you bought a book and enjoyed it, posting a review really is enabling the author to keep writing, putting food on the tables for their families.
The real key, however, is that these reviews be honest. A dose of inflated adulation here, a splash of vendetta-hate there, and the whole body of reviews can be marred beyond repair. It’s not just your review that matters, but all of them together, providing a cohesive body of opinions that lend clarity and informative context to a potential reader. This mustn’t be misinterpreted as advice to ‘stick with the crowd’, but rather to say what you mean without muddying the water by going on an unrelated rant or arguing with other reviewers. Just be honest. If most of the reviews are five stars and you would give two stars, then give two stars.
Range is healthy. Think about it: if you found a book with 100 reviews and you find that 100% of those reviews are five stars, would you buy? I wouldn’t. Something’s fishy, there.
Blog posts, Tweets, and Facebook Shares
Let me state something really obvious: word of mouth is powerful.
Really, really powerful.
In fact, it outstrips every other marketing method anybody has ever come up with. Think about the last time you saw a banner for a book in the subway. Those things are everywhere. Sure it works, but it’s a scatter-gun approach, and they’re so numerous that they seem to blur into one vague image of this summer’s blockbuster detective thriller or romance holiday read. How many times have you seen those ads and immediately felt a need to buy?
Now think about the last time a friend or family member stopped a conversation to tell you about a book they read and just loved. They tell you about how they couldn’t put it down, how it sucked them in and took them away life’s troubles for a while — how you just have to read it!
Yeah, I bet you felt at least a twinge of craving.
Like I said, word of mouth is powerful.
So if you work up a review, it really does help to put it up on your blog, tweet a link to it, or share it on Facebook. The people you’re connected with via social media are likely to share your interests and values, and so they’re far more likely to be the author’s target audience than, say, the targets of those aimless subway billboards.
Reposting to Amazon Territories
Amazon is, at the time of writing, the dominant e-book retailer in the world, and the territories with the most traffic are the US and UK stores.
When you review on Amazon, however, that review is only visible on that specific territory’s website. Bummer.
But there’s a quick remedy for this: your log-in details work for both sites. You don’t have to sign up again, or go through any hassle. Just highlight and copy your review, hop on over to the other website (i.e. replace ‘.com’ for ‘.co.uk’ in the URL in your browser, or vice versa), go to the book’s sales page, and paste. Easy peasy.
Other stores like Canada and Australia are also up-and-coming (again, at the time of writing), so if you have the time, posting to these sites can be a leg real up. Of course, nobody expects a reviewer to post to all the territory websites (there are dozens in total!), and in any case there are minor numbers of sales being made outside the four big hitters listed above. So there’s a vanishingly small benefit to reposting to these other sites — unless you live in one of them, of course, in which case by all means do. Every little helps!
Goodreads is just as important as a retailer website. In some cases, it’s even more important.
The website and others like it, notably places like Library Thing, are forums where readers can network and just talk about books. Goodreads is, thankfully, not set up to be a sales channel—it is primarily a safe haven for book lovers to meet other book lovers, and to talk booky stuff about books. We should all be grateful to Goodreads and give them our love (not just because they exist, but because they’re lovely people, too).
As such, reviewing books here is very powerful, indeed. Recommending books you enjoy to friends and posting about them in groups you’re a member of is a great expedient that can really make a difference to the sales of even the biggest authors.
Something that those who enjoy getting into the nitty gritty should take note of, is that Goodreads is an opportunity to post a longer, more comprehensive review. While people on retailer websites are usually looking for reviews that will tell them whether or not to immediately click that Buy Now button, potential readers perusing Goodreads are looking for something more subtle: whether or not they will connect with this book. They’re relying on people very similar to themselves, people in their friends list or groups, to report the elements of the book that make it especially attractive to you; for some it’s dynamic relationships, others it’s a relentless pace or non-gimmicky twists.
Here’s your chance to really put across what made the book special to you, and why you’re willing to bet others will think the same.
Retailers like Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Apple, Sony etc. have different standards in rating to those of Goodreads and independent book reviewer websites.
Retailer reviews tend to be a tad more flashy, a little sensational. That’s okay. We’re selling books here, not recommending them. As so many other products are sold on these sites besides books, we have to stick to the presiding pattern of reviewing: if you think it’s a great book and want others to enjoy it as much as you, four or five stars is the norm.
If you want to make a splash, it’s great to include a catchy customized title for your review. Think about what would drag you in and cement your gut instinct about the book, if you were looking to buy – what would assuage any lingering doubts and get you clicking the Buy button?
Trolls and unhelpful reviews
Don’t reply to trolls. Never argue or respond to a troll’s comments via your own review, even if you see the author has been upset or are themselves responding.
Unhelpful reviews are usually nothing to do with the book itself. They will be about delivery or a technical error or a mistaken order, or the fact that they tried a new genre and confirmed that they do hate all fantasy… on a poor, random author. Remember that these sales pages dictate an author’s income, and that readers decide whether to buy or not based primarily on the cover, the rating, and the reviews. A poor rating and a scathing review for, say, a retailer failing to deliver the book in a timely manner, directly impinges on the author’s livelihood. That’s like warning a neighbourhood that a particular electrician is terrible, because on the day they came to fix your pipes, the hardware store caught fire.
ARCs & R4R vs. Paid
Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) and Read for Review programs (R4R) are completely above board and have been commonplace for donkeys years. The former is where volunteer readers are given a free copy of a book before its release so they can review it in time for the launch (it lends credibility, and gives the book a platform to build on). The latter can occur at any time, and again involves free copies being distributed on the agreement that a fair review will be given in exchange (meaning that if the reader hates the book and gives the book a one-star review, that’s cool, so long as they do review.)
Paid reviews, mrr. Naughty authors do this. Many services exist that act as brokers and provide services that essentially mean buying positive reviews. This is not only dishonest, but downright disrespectful to an author’s readership. If you know somebody who does this, I bid you roll up the nearest newspaper, and beat them on the nose with it.
The problem is that these two kinds of solicited reviews are sometimes conflated by the reviewers themselves. It’s rather easy to do, especially if the reviewer isn’t overly concerned, or loves/hates the book so much they forget anything but their opinion, and insert a vague note about getting the book free. But this can be devastating, especially if several reviewers make this mistake.
Think of coming across a book that looks great, has good ratings, a great sales blurb and a cover to die for—you’re excited, you’re hovering over that Buy Now button and just want to read a quick review or two to lock things down… and then you see that the reviewer is talking about their relationship with the author, being sought out, being coaxed to give positive comments, etc.
Yep, that’s the end of that sale.
Of course, let’s not put the onus on reviewers. Some authors do indeed pressure reviewers, even under the guise of an ARC or R4R program. If you find yourself in this position, walk away. If you feel you can communicate it without being rude, inform the author of the error of their way—but only if you really do feel confident in doing so. It’s probably better to just dust your hands of it immediately.
Assuming it’s all good, and you’re an ARC/R4R reader, great! All you need is to mention it clearly somewhere in there. You don’t need anything fancy or sensational. Keep it simple and snappy, but transparent. A simple: “I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review” at some point in your review (wherever it feels natural) is perfectly adequate. But do put it in.
And if you’re a paid reviewer… well, I suggest you find that newspaper and start beating yourself on the nose, post-haste.
Dos and Don’ts
DO be honest. If you hated the book, say so. That’s cool. If you absolutely loved it, say that. Variety is totally natural, and healthy. Look at any of the greatest masterpieces and you’ll find a vast spectrum of opinions. The only thing that can really hurt an author and their readers is a page full of dishonest reviews.
DO mention specifics, if you have some in mind: quote your favourite lines, or make note of that feature that really made it special for you.
DO post your review to social media.
DO — if you are reviewing on a direct sales channel — give a star rating appropriate to the idiom followed by similar works and reviewers. (i.e. It’s great if you have your own system, and by all means use it! But if the consensus on, say, B&N’s website, is to rate a heartily recommended—yet not quite perfect—book at 4 stars, go for that, else your review only serves to dilute a new reader’s impression).
DO let your review sit a while, once you’re done with it, should you feel uncertain. We all end up venting frustrations that have nothing to do with our current activity, but it’s hard to see it in the heat of the moment. Go for a walk, or save it in a document and come back to it after a few hours.
DON’T give spoilers (if you must, in any way, make sure it’s clearly marked in caps and separated from the rest of the review).
DON’T refrain from reviewing through fear of not making a difference. Every single review counts, it really does.
DON’T mention technical difficulties or other errors of e-commerce due to the retailer. Contact IT support and quietly resolve the issue, rather than needlessly assaulting the artist.
DON’T bring your own politics or philosophy into the review. Whether the book confirms of runs against it, to be quite frank, nobody cares. It will only harm the book’s sales.
Cheat Sheet – A quick checklist
- Did you read the whole book? (Unless your review is centred on how you quite simply couldn’t, go do that.)
- Did you mention what you enjoyed, what you didn’t, and what could have been better?
- Did you mention specifics? (Similar works, pastiches or homages you picked up on, elements you felt were best/worst developed, etc.)
- Were you honest?
- Did you give a suitable rating to match your review? If you’re reviewing on a website not in your control (a sales channel, or readers’ website like Goodreads) have you made an effort to match your rating to conform to any conventions on the specific website?
- If you were given the book free in exchange for a review, mention that. You don’t have to shout about it, or hide it at the end; again, we’re just shooting for honesty.
- Have you shared your review on your social media?
- Have you reposted your reviews to different territories’ websites? After reading it afresh, does it still look good, or can you see any semblance of an axe being ground, or irrelevant frustrations being vented? If so, back you go.
- Have you let it sit a while?
- Have you left things better than you found them? This is the real kicker. Never mind whether you’re helping that author to sell more or fewer books; that’s irrelevant. Reviews are for potential readers’ benefit. Have you come away with a sense that your specific contribution lends greater clarity and ease of forming a balanced and accurate opinion of that book? If so, big thumbs up; have a drink, or a cookie.
You can take away the checklist for later: click here to download.
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