In a time long ago in a publishing world far, far away the best way to sell books was with reviews. It was, really, the only way to sell books. Most marketing budgets were comprised almost totally of costs associated with distributing review copies.
Before the internet nearly every big city newspaper had a Sunday book review section. Many of the smaller papers and publications as well. And many of those book reviewers picked up a regular fancy restaurant meal by selling the review copies they received – usually unopened – at the local second-hand book shop.
When the online world burst open hordes of barbarous opinion holders wanting to tell the world about what they thought surged towards the established reviewers. Somehow the movie reviewers survived mostly intact. The book reviewers, however, were trampled. The New York Times Review of Books and a few industry publications carry on but not many more.
Where to find book reviewers today
The upshot is that book reviewers are everywhere – the traditional media, online bloggers, regular readers. The task is not finding reviewers so much as sorting through the morass to find the ones that can be potentially valuable to your book selling efforts. Here is what to consider:
Traditional Media Reviewers:
Newspapers and magazines still review books, but the writers are not always obvious. If your book is non-fiction it resides in a particular niche which can be appealing to features writers in that topic. If your book has a local angle it may well be of interest to publications that normally do not do book reviews at all. And there are still some professional book reviewers working in the print media. The Independent Book Publishers Association, formerly the Publishers Marketing Association, does periodic mailings to its list of more than 3,000 newspaper and magazine editors if you want to go cold-calling on the traditional media world.
Online Media Reviewers:
Book reviewers are lurking in writer’s communities and discussion forums and Facebook groups. Many bloggers do nothing but review books. Your job is to search for relevant online reviewers with a wide net and winnow vociferously for the most valuable targets. Study the posted reviews to ascertain if your book’s genre matches the books being reviewed. Dig into the sites to see what influence they are having – check Amazon sales of their reviewed books and look for reposts of the reviews on other sites.
When you find good matches follow all instructions for submitting material. Some reviewers will want the physical book, others want to see a PDF. Some reviewers will not consider ebooks, others take on all comers. Send a query letter ahead of the book if the requirements are not clear. Ask about the time frame involved in posting a review and follow-up – without being a pest – if the review does not appear as expected.
Most of these online reviewers are working for free. Some will offer tiers of reviews, amping up the “service” for paid reviews. Avoid these unless you determine that there is a proven track record of sales from a highly targeted, well-connected paid reviewer. And even then consider paying for reviews as your last resort.
Online Reader Reviewers:
Here is all you need to know about online reviews. MacKenzie Bezos gave The Everything Store, a book written by Brad Stone, a respected journalist for Bloomburg Business, one star. The book was an in-depth look at Amazon and founder Jeff Bezos. It was meticulously researched, completed with the co-operation of the company, well-written and alternately flattering and not-so-flattering. But apparently there was an ox being gored in Mrs. Bezos’ back yard.
Does that mean all customer reviews are biased and worthless? Of course not. If an author had to describe a relationship with online reviews it would be: “It’s complicated.” Think about what a strange beast an online review is. How many times have you felt so strongly about a product that you would sit down and surrender your most valuable asset – your time – to write about it
So where are these online book reviews coming from? The first place is the author and friends. If you see a book that gets 50 glowing reviews and no negatives that may all be friendly fire. There are people who don’t like The Godfather or Gone With The Wind, after all. Check and see if any of these reviewers have bothered to post reviews of other books to gauge their legitimacy. So you can get customer reviews by writing them yourself and recruiting friends on social media. This may violates the terms of agreement for many retail sites and may get you kicked off the site but it is not illegal.
Amazon has tried to combat fake reviews with “verified purchase” tags. These help authors, but only to a point. Some view an Amazon review as so valuable that it is worth the money to buy the product for a planted reviewer. On the flip side, ebooks lent out for free via the Kindle Unlimited program are not considered “purchases” but “borrows.” So legitimate positive reviews may not carry the stamp of approval of a “verified purchase.” The tags carry a bit more information but are hardly foolproof.
Another source for online reviews are competitors who are slamming rival books with negative reviews. Since it takes time and energy to smear a competitor or engineer a mass praise attack, known as “astroturfing” since you are spreading artificial grass roots, companies have sprung up that provide online reviews for a fee. In 2015 Amazon started suing reviewers it determined were guilty of posting spurious reviews. Not the companies that were farming out the work to “reviewers” but the writers who were collecting a few dollars for the reviews – it is much easier to scare the bejesus out of those folks than the slippery online operators.
It gets even more nefarious. There have been cases of institutional badmouthing of independently produced books by “reviewers” traced to the traditional publishing industry. It turns out there is manipulation of online reviews and best-seller lists going on from all directions. How many online reviews are fake? Nobody knows but the best industry guess is abut 25%. So you can hire a company to produce positive reviews for you on book selling sites across the internet. Again, it is not illegal and your book is good, right? So it is not exactly deceitful.
Human beings are also subject to a herd mentality left over from our caveman days when we huddled together to defend against predators. For consumers that means never wanting to miss out on the current big thing. If a book has hundreds of reviews people will naturally want to check it out for themselves. If you are an ebook publisher one way to get a lot of reviews is to take advantage of the Amazon Kindle free book promotion periods when books can be given away; it is not uncommon to distribute thousands of free books this way that can lead to reviews. You can decide whether the opinion of someone who has received something for free is as valuable as that of someone who paid for the book.
A Better Way Forward:
So the world of online reviews can be quite icky. But there is a way to navigate such murky waters. Many sites, such as Amazon, have herded top reviewers into special categories. Study these profiles and portfolios for a good match for your book, just like with traditional media. Begin putting together a target list. Also analyze online reviews of books similar to yours for potentially astute reviewers who are commenting on plot, character development, depth of research – clues that this may a potentially valuable contact.
Personal email addresses may not always be provided for those on your contact list so some sleuthing may be in order – a Google Search or Facebook check which can also strengthen the credentials of the reviewer. Approach potential reviewers with a personalized email query about your book. It is always good to toss in an observation from one of your target’s previous online reviews and work.
How valuable are online reviews, really?
Consumers have been dealing with online product reviews for more than a decade now and are getting more savvy. That one-star review because the book was delivered to the wrong address? People can see that as irrelevant to the quality of your book. Online shoppers are also clued in to overly flowery praise that says nothing.
And people are hard-wired to believe online reviews. We are trusting creatures who want to make connections with people who recommend things to us. Studies show that an overwhelming number of consumers read online reviews, trust them and act on them. This is true even if they know a percentage of reviews are not trustworthy.
Consider these findings from an analysis of over three million Amazon reviews. Over 60% received five-stars and another 17% earned four-stars. Only 9% were tagged with a single star. We like to be complimentary. But is it really that helpful when everyone says something is great?
Yes, with some caveats. Reviews from respected sources are always great tools in marekting books in promotional copy. Will a positive online review or a bunch of reviews, even with what we know about their possible origins, get someone off the couch to order the book? Probably not, but it can help move a potential buyer off the fence. And online reviews can also jumpstart word of mouth, the most powerful selling tool in a publisher’s toolbox.
What to Send to Reviewers
So you have explored the book reviewing landscape and are ready to proceed. What do you need to send to reviewers? The list includes:
- A copy of the book or a PDF with cover, or both.
- A short cover letter introducing the author and the book
- A full book announcement providing details about the book – this is where you do your best writing
- An author biography thats explains the qualifications to write the book
- Q & A; not just sample questions about the book and author but detailed answers as well. Do everything you can to make the reviewer’s job as easy as possible.
- Photos of both the book and author. Make sure you have high-resolution photos available for print reviewers and low-resolution photos ready for online reviewers.
To Sum Up
So to review, the industry-accepted ways to find reviews for you book are:
- Research print book reviewers and approach them with your media kit and your book or PDF.
- Research online book reviewers and bloggers and approach them with your media kit and your book or PDF.
- Court reviews from known customers.
- Court reviews from top reviewers at retail sites.
Less acceptable ways to find reviews for your book are:
- Recruiting friends to write online reviews.
- Paying reviewers for online reviews.
- Hiring companies to write online reviews.
And…a THANK-YOU. The most often omitted element of any publicity campaign is the most important – an expression of sincere appreciation. At every step in your pursuit of a review always include a thank you. Always.