Do Authors Obsess Too Much About Book Reviews?

by Anne R. Allen

Whether we're newbies or superstars, traditional or self-publishers, pretty much all authors stress about reviews: getting them…and surviving them.

Getting Reviews is Tough  

From the time our first book launches, we're told our number one job is to get reviewed. We send out ARCs, desperately query book bloggers and give away as many books as possible in hopes that some kind soul will write a few lines saying how they liked the book.

Some authors also use the new pricey book review sites—the ones where you have to pay $30 a month to be listed on a site that gives away free copies to people who probably won't review anyway.

Or they pay to get reviewed at Kirkus ($400-$550) or Publisher's Weekly ($149). (These are not illegal like paid online "customer reviews," but many experts, like Joel Friedlander, consider them a bad idea.)

For a report from the review-chasing front, here's a great post from Molly Greene that includes her experiences with one paid review site. (Spoiler alert: it wasn't all Kumbaya and rainbows.)

We start out hoping for a bunch of rave reviews from big name book blogs or prestigious print journals, but after 100s of rejections from overwhelmed sites, we're grateful for a lukewarm mention on a blog with a readership of two people and a parakeet.

And then there's the biggie: getting reviews on the all-important retail and reader sites.

Nothing looks sadder than a naked, unreviewed book on Amazon or Goodreads. So we plead for people to accept free copies of our pricey, expensive-to-mail paper books on Goodreads and give away as many ebooks as we can on Amazon and Smashwords.

Some desperate authors even cross ethical lines. This is dumb and can get you kicked off Amazon permanently, so don't succumb to temptation to do stuff like:
People do these things because they're told they gotta, gotta, gotta get those reviews. They've probably heard that they need a certain number of Amazon raves—maybe it's fifty, or a hundred, nobody's quite sure—to make the bestseller lists and get promoted by the algorithms. (A myth: more on that below.)

But we all try to reel in as many reader reviews as possible, begging everyone we meet to read the book and write something. Anything. Preferably something nice.

Only mostly they don't.

Most sales and giveaways generate very few reviews. Lots of scammers use Goodreads and other sites to get free hard copies they can sell on EBay. And the few who do write reviews can be downright nasty.

There's a bizarre reviewer subculture in the Amazon-Goodreads jungle that revels in giving nasty reviews to books they haven't read. It's a game for them. They'll glance at a few lines in the free "look inside" sample or simply reword other negative reviews. They often buy and return an ebook within minutes so they can get a "verified review" stamp on their one-word one-star.

The motivation of these people isn't entirely clear to me, but apparently some are competing to rack up a lot of review numbers—some write dozens per day—which can make them eligible to get free products to review. Others are playing Amazon like a videogame. The rest are just mean people who must be having terrible lives.

But the thing is, none of this stuff is helpful to readers looking for their next read. The abuse also hurts the reputation of genuine reviewers and sends authors into despair.

Surviving Bad Reviews is Tougher

The first time you get a snarky, negative review, it feels like a personal attack. When somebody says cruel things about the baby you've spent years bringing into the world, you hurt in a way that's impossible to convey to non-writers.

You'll be overwhelmed with the urge to punch out the reviewer and/or run away to live out your days in some Unibomber cabin.

But the truth is, bad reviews only mean one thing: you're a published author.

All successful authors get terrible reviews. Every. Single. One. Here's a hilarious sampler of one-star Amazon reviews of classics from the Huffington Post.

But Bad Reviews Don't Always Bring Down Sales.

In fact, bad reviews can actually stimulate buying.

It happened to me.

I got a swarm of one-stars on my buy page for my Camilla Mysteries Boxed Set as "punishment" for standing up for a bullied writer on a high profile publishing blog. Probably not a wise thing to do at the time my mother was dying and I'd been diagnosed with a breast tumor, but I thought I was in a safe place when I wasn't (there are no safe places).

Even though the blogger wisely deleted the troll-infested thread almost immediately, the mean girl army had already been deployed and had orders to swarm.

"Swarming" a buy page with one-star fake reviews is a major sport on Amazon. It has even happened to the Zon itself. Its new Fire phone has over 1500 one-stars, apparently as a protest from Greenpeace, who don't like Amazon's environmental policies.

But when it's just you and you're already stressed this stuff can be pretty upsetting. I dreaded booting up my computer every morning for months. I knew better than to go to Goodreads, the native habitat of that particular denomination of meanies, but I had to go to Amazon occasionally. 

Each time I had a new review it would be one or two stars, containing a veiled personal attack that also showed the reader hadn't read anything but the "look inside".

Then a weird thing happened. 

My sales started to climb. And climb. After a couple of weeks, it hit the bestseller list in humor.

One day I woke up and found I was ahead of five Janet Evanovich titles and my favorite humor book of all time, Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The book sold over 2000 copies that month and stayed on the bestseller list for half a year.

Thanks, Mean Girls!

Of course if I'd reacted online to the bullying, the attacks would have escalated and might have done damage to my career. (The Manners Doctor is going to do that in the next Camilla mystery with hilarious results).

I knew better than to acknowledge these people in any way after having a run-in with them a few years before when they took offense to this blog. The gang still wields power. Several well-known authors who have reacted publicly to their cruelty have been the recipients of nasty backlash. But I have reason to hope the power of the review bullies may be diminishing.

For one thing, your own target readers will probably read between the lines, which is what I assume mine did.

Plus negative customer reviews that stress what some people consider a book's flaws may give other readers a reason to buy.

"This book is unrealistic and went by so fast it was exhausting" can get somebody who loves a fast, funny read to press the buy button.

"There's bad language and too much sex" can be a ringing endorsement to somebody who's looking for some racy entertainment.

But I think a lot of people have stopped paying attention to customer reviews entirely. Lots of retail sites, like Kobo, don't have them. Besides the bullying and swarming and paid review scandals, there are other issues:

Are Reviews as Important as We Think?

There was a time when one review—the kind written in the New York Times Book Review or The New Yorker—could make or break a book.

But these days, book discovery happens in hundreds of ways, online and off, and studies show reviews aren't high on the list.

I think many readers have figured out they're better off not reading them at all.

As author Barbara Morgenroth said on The Passive Voice earlier this week,

"The flavor has been chewed out of the review gum. Reviews are like freebies/free days–they don’t work like they used to. Abuse will kill off almost everything."

I fear she's right. In a study reported by Smashwords' Mark Coker two years ago, only 7% of readers reported they browsed and read online reviews before they bought a book. And I think the number has only diminished with the abuse.

So how do people discover books now?

The old fashioned way: word of mouth.

A friend recommends a book she thinks you'd like. You go to the store, maybe check the cover, blurbs, and a page or two, and unless something is horribly off-putting, you buy it. Because  you've already decided you wanted to read it because of your friend's recommendation.

Usually the store is online these days (although there's also been a resurgence of the independent bookstore) but our basic buying habits haven't changed that much.

I know it's true of me. I never browse around Amazon looking for a random book. I go and search for a specific title or author.

Coker's survey said the same thing. Even in the digital age, word of mouth is what sells books. 29% of readers—by far the highest percentage—bought based on recommendations from friends in forums, blogs and message boards. 

Plus, in spite of all the rumors that spread in indie-land about how you can't get on a bestseller list without X number of reviews, plenty of books with only a handful—even if some are one-stars—make the bestseller lists.

Again, I know this from personal experience.

My "prequel" Camilla comedy, The Best Revenge hit the humor bestseller list last spring and stayed there until I changed publishers last month. It only has 14 reviews, including a couple of one-stars from my little friends. But it was in the top 10,000 on Amazon for six months. Why? It's one of my oldest books and I think word-of-mouth buzz took that long to reach critical mass.

(Not that I wouldn't be eternally grateful for some more reviews for The Best Revenge. The one thing nice reviews are guaranteed to do is raise the author's spirits. And more reviews would allow me to advertise in the bargain newsletters.  Unfortunately a new publisher and ISBN puts your book back at square one.) 

Alternatives to the Review-Go-Round

So what if we all let up on the review pressure for a while and start simply recommending books to our friends?

Rather than lament the fact the online reviews don't work any more, Barbara Morgenroth suggests we start a movement to "tell a friend" about books we enjoy.

She put together these two lovely photos for readers to share on FB and other social media sites to spread the word.

Here's what I suggest an author can do:

1) Before a book comes out, or after a "soft launch," offer it to selected fans and a few reviewers you've established a friendship with. Always write a warm, personal email, not a mass mailing, ever. (Asking for a review is like querying an agent. A mass-mailing gets an automatic "no.")

2) After you get 20 or so reviews, stop worrying about it. Yes, you need between 10 and 20 reviews to be eligible for the bargain book newsletters like Fussy Librarian, KND, and ENT—and BookBub wants thousands, but more are not necessary to make good sales. Bookbub has become so expensive that lots of authors aren't breaking even on it anymore, so maybe that will be a blessing.

(And if you see that a book you love has only a handful of reviews, do write one. Every helpful review fights the the abuse of reviews and scores a point for the good guys.)

3) Promote your books in other ways, like guest blogposts, spotlights and interviews.

4) Present a helpful, pleasant persona on your chosen social media sites. Keep promos to less than 20% of your interactions. Be a friend, and you'll make some. Then they might read and recommend your books.

5) Build your readership with a helpful (not just promotional) blog or newsletter. Obviously I personally prefer a blog, but as long as people actually sign up for a newsletter or mass mailing it can be a good alternative. But they must choose to subscribe and you must provide a way to unsubscribe, always. Don't assume your readers have nothing to do but promote your books for you.

6) Recommend books you love…and spread the word about "tell-a-friend."

7) Put all that energy  you were using to beg for reviews into writing your next book.

8) Keep chocolate and/or wine handy when reading your own reviews...and your fingers off the keyboard!

In fact, really successful writers advise us not to read our reviews at all. I can't say I take their advice, because the nice reviews really brighten my life, but I try not to take the snarky ones to heart. And some negative ones are actually helpful.

But we'd probably be better off if we all followed Laurell K. Hamilton's advice. She said on Goodreads recently,

"I seldom, if ever, read reviews…I've found that even good reviews can mess with my muse and me, so I've learned that simply not reading is the only sane way to go."

I am not telling readers not to write reviews! 

The world still needs book reviews. I'm simply saying as writers, we shouldn't obsess. We can live with fewer than we think.

NOTE: In-depth book blog reviews are very different from most customer reviews on retail and reader sites. A book blog review is more like telling a friend. Book blog reviewers are some of the hardest working people around, and I encourage them to hang in there, in spite of idiotic mass-mailings and entitled, rude authors and publicists. (They contact me, too, because I officially have a "book blog," and they drive me nuts.)

If we stop obsessing, book bloggers' lives will be easier too.

And remember that every time you put on your reader hat and write a sensible, honest customer review, you are fighting the abuse and giving real reviews more power and credibility.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you obsess about reviews? Are you influenced by them? Do you write them? Do you tell your friends about a book when you've finished it? To start this ball rolling, why don't you recommend a book you've enjoyed recently in the comments? 

I'm going to start by sharing a "tell-a-friend" book. I've been meaning to write a review and hadn't got around to it.


TELL-A-FRIEND BOOK: The Goddaughter

Award-winning mystery author Melodie Campbell is Canada's "Queen of Comedy" according to the Toronto Sun. She's one of the funniest people I know. How do I know her? She comments regularly on this blog! I liked her comments and went to Amazon and bought the first book in her series. Her "Goddaughter" Gina Gallo is the Mafia princess version of my own loopy sleuth, Camilla Randall. Want great laughs and a fast-paced plot? You can count on Melodie's books. (And Melodie will be a presenter at the L.A. Bouchercon in November.)

The Goddaughter is the first in Melodie's Goddaughter series. (Her Rowena paranormal series is hilarious as well.)  And it's only $2.99 right now on Amazon US and Amazon CA. Also available at NOOK and Kobo

THE BEST REVENGE: Now only 99c!

This week I'm re-launching The Best Revenge, the prequel to the Camilla Randall Mysteries, with my new publisher, Kotu Beach Press (Mark Williams international has closed its doors.) It sure would be nice to get the sales started up again. So if you know anybody who likes funny mysteries: 

THE BEST REVENGE: How it all began! When Camilla Randall, a 1980s New York debutante, is assaulted by her mother’s fiancé, smeared in the newspapers by a sexy muckraking journalist, then loses all her money in the Savings and Loan Scandal, she seeks refuge with her gay best friend in California. But her friend has developed heterosexual tendencies and an inconvenient girlfriend, so Camilla has to move in with wild-partying friends. When a TV star ends up dead after one of their parties, Camilla is arrested for his murder. She must turn to a friendly sanitation worker, a dotty octogenarian neighbor and the muckraking journalist who ridiculed herwho also happens to be her boss. 

The Best Revenge is on sale for only 99c at Amazon US and Amazon UKAmazon CASmashwords, AppleKobo and NOOK


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