book reviewsHow important are book reviews?

Very, is the correct answer. Book reviews are a critical part of the decision-making process for book buyers.

However, after publishing your new book, and having your mum, sister and best friend post a review on Amazon and Goodreads for you, where do your next reviews come from? If you’re patient, well, very patient indeed, you will possibly get some reviews from readers who buy and read your book based on your very few family and friends reviews.

It is a ‘Catch 22’ that you need a lot of sales to generate reviews, but a book needs a lot of reviews to generate sales.

This solution to this problem has been addressed the same way by publishers for decades. Free advance copies of a new title were sent out to hundreds or even thousands of ‘advance readers’ and media companies to generate reviews ready to use at and after publication.

In recent times, this process has been streamlined with the advent of ebooks, and when scanning the reviews of a new title by any major publisher, it is clear from the similarity and keyword placement of the early reviews that various strategies were used to gather these reviews. With maybe hundreds of staff members who could post reviews or registered reviewers who are rewarded with free books, through to paid reviewers, the pool of reviewers can be staggering.

If you think paid reviews are not a common practice, perhaps this is worth reading.

A New York Times article about paid reviews gets interesting when it turns to John Locke, a writer of serial thrillers who sold a million self-published $0.99 e-books through Amazon. According to the article, when Locke’s initial strategy of building relationships with readers, one blog post and tweet at a time, didn’t move his sales ranking fast enough (he complains it took him “almost two months” to garner five five-star Amazon reviews — cue the sound of a thousand authors’ eyes rolling), he bought 300 reviews to make his fan base look larger than it was. It worked; his presumptive popularity secured, sales soared. Locke lands a Simon & Schuster distribution deal. Everyone’s a winner, right? (Source)

However, for most self-published authors, finding a pool of willing reviewers is next to an impossibility and paying thousands of dollars for reviews is usually beyond the budget of most. There needs to be another way. An Indie way.

As I also run Whizbuzz, which is a site dedicated to promoting self-published and small press authors and their books, the concept of offering a reciprocal review service for authors that will help garner book reviews would seem to be a logical progression to the site’s current promotional posts. Simply put, initiating contact between authors who would agree to exchange books and Amazon and Goodreads reviews.

I would be interested in reading comments or suggestions from authors and their reactions and thoughts about a service such as this before proceeding with this idea.

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17 thoughts on “How Important Are Book Reviews?

  • 28/08/2012 at 3:48 pm
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    We all have to look out for one another. Derek’s suggestion makes perfect sense. :)

  • 28/08/2012 at 3:50 pm
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    I found the New York Times article on paid favorable reviews very unsettling and was surprised to hear that John Locke — who seems to be the author everyone points to as a role model for self-publishing — had paid for a bunch of favorable reviews. My debut novel, BABY GRAND, has received, as of today, 37 straight five-star reviews on Amazon — the result, I think, of continuous (never-ending?) marketing, mostly through social media. Personally, I’m not sure a reciprocal review service for authors would be something I’d be interested in — I’d feel pressure to write a positive review and reluctant to write a bad one. In fact, that’s why I’ve made it a policy not to review any of my fiction writer friends’ books. I’m a firm believer that quality work will rise to the top. It might take long — or longer than we would like — but in the end I feel like it’s worth the hard work and the wait.

    • 28/08/2012 at 4:11 pm
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      I agree Dina. I was disappointed to read this about John Locke too. But it did drive home the point to me that the self publishing ‘success stories’ we read about are often misleading and omit some very relevant information. John Locke has been held up as an icon for ‘Indie’ authors, but by paying thousands of dollars for favourable reviews, can he be truly classed as such now? I suppose it also begs the question as to whether other successes were built on large investments in marketing and paid reviews. Have we been fooled?

      I have operated the same as you regarding reviews for my own books. Purely organic and gained over time with a lot of hard work and patience. However, there is a very real temptation to find a better way to compete, as self publishing seems to be moving towards being just another big business that those with deep pockets can exploit.

  • 28/08/2012 at 4:15 pm
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    Terrific post, paid positive reviewers alarm my fairness meter, although I acknowledge people want to be paid for their time. Each review I receive is a blessing and tells me something new about my book, Judge vs Nuts. My first reviewers were friends, several of the online author variety. In six months I have 9 reviews (10 when you count my editorial review).
    Thank you Derek!

    • 28/08/2012 at 4:28 pm
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      Thank you Una. I suppose I can understand someone being paid to read a book and post a review. It takes time, it’s work, so perhaps that’s ok.

      What concerns me most though about paid reviews is that there’s a probability that the reviewer hasn’t even seen or read the book. Just paid to post a positive review. Services offering this type of paid review can be found easily on the Internet and at a going rate of about $5 to $10 per review. I suppose it’s a personal judgement whether this can this be compared with paying for advertising such as blog tours or Goodreads and Facebook ads.

  • 28/08/2012 at 4:43 pm
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    Paid reviews do really pay. I have friend who also did the same thing as John Locke and sold a lot of books on Amazon. It is good that we look out for each other.

  • 28/08/2012 at 5:05 pm
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    The problem with “trading” reviews among indie authors is you really have to question the validity of them. If I review your book because you’re reviewing my book, what do I do if your book stinks? It puts an author in a very compromising position. You either give a better review than the book deserves or give a poor review and risk the other author getting upset, perhaps even reciprocating, regardless of the quality of your book. If both books are good, it’s not such a problem, because each author can write a nice review and feel good about doing so. But that won’t always be the case. It’s nice for authors to try to help each other, but I’m not sure this is really a good way to do it.

    • 28/08/2012 at 5:20 pm
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      In the end is a question about validity James. While there will always be the odd problem that could arise between authors reviewing each other, I would have to say that these reviews in general would be more valid than paid reviews. At least the two authors would have read each other’s book, and posted their review in their own words.

      • 28/08/2012 at 6:03 pm
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        More valid than paid reviews really shouldn’t be where the bar is set. On a scale of 1-10, I put the validity of paid reviews at 1 (more like 0).

        Not to sound too soap boxy, because I absolutely understand the desire to have more reviews, but are the reviews supposed to be for the benefit of the reader or the author? Primarily, in theory at least, it seems like they should help a reader make a decision about a potential purchase. Obviously a lot of positive reviews help an author as well, but that shouldn’t really take precedence over the reader’s needs. Any kind of compromised review, be it paid or traded, isn’t putting the reader first.

        • 28/08/2012 at 10:09 pm
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          James, I agree with the spirit of your post and certainly the reader should take precedence but fairness rarely wins out when doing battle with the bottom line. Most often a person has to find a less pleasant middle ground between the extremes. Perhaps the best compromise is trusting in the integrity of a community of writers all with the same goal of supporting and promoting quality works. Not a 10 kind of solution, I agree, but better than a 1 or 0.

          • 28/08/2012 at 10:34 pm
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            I get the gist of your comment I think MT. Being an Indie doesn’t mean having to be passive. There are no 10 out of 10 solutions, but you have to try to generate sales. Somehow.

  • 28/08/2012 at 5:38 pm
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    It goes against my moral compass to pay for a review. At the same time, as with any business, there are things you have to do to bring in sales. Advertising and word of mouth have always been the vehicle by which this occurs. I see nothing wrong with trading. I agree that it is a problem when you have to read a genre you may not want too. Or that book is not what you consider quality. But….I’ve always been able to find something positive to say. I look for the good. Even if it is simply one sentence. I still try to be honest. If it is a really poor book, I will, in private, contact the author and respectfully, gently, share my opinion. I think swapping reviews is a great idea.

  • 28/08/2012 at 5:57 pm
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    Totally agree with you Robynn. Especially about privately, respectfully and gently sharing your opinion when a book has problems. I have reviewed many books for authors I know, and never had an issue with doing so. After all, things have changed so much in the last couple of years. It is rare now that I read a book by an author I don’t know or can’t contact via social media.

  • 29/08/2012 at 10:19 am
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    I don’t think this idea will work. The biggest problem arises when a book is poorly written, has a poor plot, or format errors, or whatever. It would work only if the reviews can be guaranteed genuine.

    How about this: Form a group of indie writers (say 10 of them) and let each writer put one book into a pool. The reviews could be completed by one of the 10 chosen at random, so there is a measure of anonymity. That might work – for a while, anyway, until each of the 10 reviewers can be recognized by their style.

    I think this has been done already, btw, but I’m not sure by whom.

    My blog (which isn’t being picked up for some reason) is at http://euclid-thoughts.blogspot.com/

    • 29/08/2012 at 11:51 am
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      Or better still: The reviews could be completed by 3 of the 10 chosen at random. JJ

  • 29/08/2012 at 1:35 pm
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    The problem with the idea of trading reviews, is that it is considered to be gaming the system. And while not as bad as buying positive reviews it is one of the reasons why people don’t trust Amazon reviews.
    Basically, setting up such a service will make readers trust reviews of self-published books even less than they already do.
    The perception problem is what self-published authors have to conquer. This idea will only make self-published authors seem even more like people who care for sales above anything else, even to the extent of cheating to get them.

    I assume you are going to put these reviews up on Amazon and other vendors. i consider that a waste of time. Those that already trust Amazon reviews don’t really need more of them. And for those that have trouble trusting Amazon reviews could be what makes them ignore them.
    It will make Amazon reviews less trustworthy. And it will also make self-published authors seem less trustworthy.
    If these reviews are to go up on blogs, they will fall under the US FCC rules, and it will have to be stated clearly in the review that it is in fact a traded review. -In the interest of fairness and integrity, I think that should always be stated anyway.

    That I know self-published authors trade reviews, ratings, tagging, and helpful votes on Amazon makes me not trust Amazon. And by extension self-published authors.
    If you want trust, you have to make an effort to clean up the business you are in. And that means no trading of reviews etc. And you should make it clear that you will not be part of anything that is, or can be, seen as part of gaming the system.

    While I understand that authors feel a need to use reviews as a promotional tool, you have to remember that reviews are for readers and if you as an author do anything else than get review copies to readers/reviewers, it will be seen as cheating by many readers.

    If you want to fascilitate self-published authors getting more legitimate reviews, I would suggest you set up a site where authors can put up ARCs/review copies and reviewers can download them. A Netgalley for self-published authors. That way the author will have no direct contact with the reviewer, and the integrity of the review will be intact.
    This will of course take some work, it will probably need at least one administrator to check and approve reviewers. But I really don’t see any short cuts to self-published authors gaining respect. Once that respect is gained reviews will be easier to come by.

  • 30/08/2012 at 9:09 pm
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    I agree that reviews are important. I always write a review for the books I like whether or not they’re indies. I would hope that all indie authors would do the same knowing how hard it is to make a name for ourselves. I tried the swap idea – I’ll review yours if you review mine – a few times. Some worked well, but I also got burned. I read the book and wrote the review, but the other person did not reciprocate. I don’t think I will try that again.

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