Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

Author Struggles: Gaining Reviews

by Jami Gold on March 30, 2017

in Over-Achieving Perfectionist

Scattered yellow stars with text: Reviews: Gathering Stars for Amazon

There’s no end to the struggles we face as a writer and author. We struggle to learn all the aspects of craft, we struggle with self-doubt, and we struggle to get published. One other struggle we’ll likely deal with sometime during our writing career is gathering reviews for our books.

In the old days, a review of our book might have been simply an ego-thing, proof that someone read our story. Now, however, with Amazon’s algorithms, the quality, quantity, and recency of reviews can affect whether potential readers even see that our work exists.

So it’s more important than ever to encourage reviews of our story. Let’s take a look…

Amazon: The Two-Million Pound Gorilla

Although other reader-focused sites exist to talk books, such as Goodreads or LibraryThing, those communities are tiny compared to the general readership who purchases at Amazon. Most readers are far more aware of checking reviews on Amazon than on any other site.

In addition, Amazon is where those algorithms take reviews into account for discoverability. So between those realities, Amazon reviews are what “count” most for our sales success—currently, at least—so that’s what we’ll focus on today.

Two Types of Reviews

On Amazon book pages, there are places for two different types of reviews. The first is known as editorial reviews, and the second type is customer reviews. Authors need to understand the differences, as we go about collecting these types of reviews in different ways.

Editorial Reviews:

Edititorial reviews are often thought of as being “professional” reviews. Think of sources such as Kirkus, Library Journal, NetGalley, or book blog reviewers. Pursuing many of these sources for reviews might cost money, either to request a review, to post our book for reviewers to grab, or to work with a review-blog tour organizer if we don’t have the time or inclination to do it ourselves.

These reviews need to be manually added to our book’s Amazon page, such as through Amazon’s Author Central (if our publisher doesn’t take care of it for us). Amazon has several rules about how reviews should be listed in this section, but because they’re manually entered, we have tons of control over which reviews to list, what excerpts to highlight, which order to put them in, and how to format them to best catch the eyes of a potential reader.

Some readers pay attention to these reviews, and some don’t. They also don’t seem to affect Amazon’s algorithms (as far as we know), but any element that can help sell our book is a good thing. *smile*

Customer Reviews:

Customer reviews are what most people think of for book reviews. Customer reviews are further down the page from the rest of our book information, but many potential readers make the scroll to check out what others thought of the story:

  • Is the story any good?
  • Are the characters too stupid to live?
  • Does it end in a cliffhanger?
  • Does the writing need editing? Etc.

Anyone can leave a customer review for a book, rating it from one to five stars and offering their opinion. That’s both good and bad.

Good because that means even a customer who received the book as a gift or who purchased it elsewhere can leave a review on Amazon to help other readers make up their minds. Bad because that means we, as authors, have no control over issues like misleading reviews that mess up facts about the book (inaccurate accusations about flubs, incorrectly labeling the genre, etc.) or fake reviews that attempt to harm the competition, etc.

That lack of control also means that we’re at our readers’ mercy when it comes to gathering these reviews. There’s a reason some authors succumb to the temptation of purchasing “customer” reviews or trading reviews with other authors, both of which can get us into trouble with Amazon.

The results of these customer reviews show up at the top of a book’s Amazon page (as well as in many formats of lists on Amazon) with an average star rating posted in an eye-catching graphic under the book title. The number of reviews going into that average is also listed, so readers browsing for a book can easily see what others thought of the story.

Most importantly, customer reviews are what we know affects Amazon’s algorithms:

  • Quantity: Authors have seen a rise in their book’s visibility after they hit certain milestones, such as 50 reviews.
  • Quality: Amazon weighs “Verified Purchase” reviews (reviews by those who purchased the book through Amazon) more heavily in an attempt to counteract fake reviews, and other aspects (review length, number of reviews by reviewer, top reviewer, etc.) might play into the weighing as well (we just never know with Amazon).
  • Recency: All other things being equal, books with recent reviews (such as in the past month) are often more visible than books with only older reviews.

How Can We Get Our Readers to Leave Reviews?

As with many aspects of publishing, there’s no one right answer to this question. *smile*

Some of the ideas I’ve seen for where we can ask for reviews include:

  • in the backmatter of our book
    (This is often the easiest approach and grabs readers while the story is fresh in their mind.)
  • in our newsletters to readers
    (Readers who like us/our writing enough to have signed up for our newsletter might be more likely to do us the favor of leaving a review.)
  • on our social media or other platforms
    (These requests often work as a reminder of the importance of reviews, especially to readers who might not know, but is unlikely to lead to many reviews directly.)

Other ideas focus on getting reviews from those who might not otherwise do so, with authors taking a less-passive role than just waiting for reviews to simply show up. While many “active” methods, such as buying or trading reviews, are against Amazon rules (and can get us into trouble), some techniques are safe.

For example, we can…:

  • give away a copy of our book with the “bribe” of receiving a second book if they leave a review (within limits—Amazon can get cranky if it’s too quid pro quo, with requirements of a certain number of stars to count, etc.).
  • hold a contest/giveaway when we reach a certain milestone of reviews, such as advertising in our newsletter and social media that we’ll give away a signed copy of our book or an Amazon gift card when our book reaches 50 reviews.
  • establish an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) team, who receive a new release early in exchange for leaving a review at release time.

Case Study: My Struggle for Reviews

Well, struggle is probably the wrong word, as I’ve had too many health problems over the past 14 months to actually put much effort into trying. That said, my review numbers are admittedly dismal. *sigh*

I’ve done the easy passive technique of including a request in my backmatter. Yay, me. But other than that, I’ve asked for reviews in my newsletter or blog less than a handful of times, gave out just a few copies of my first novel for review, and I haven’t tried anything else at all. Oops.

So between my ongoing health issues and my low starting point, I’m ready to give myself a double high-five for taking the first step to more reviews—all because I set up the organizational structure for an ARC team. Woo hoo, go, me! *grin*

A couple of days ago, I sent out a message to my New Release newsletter subscribers, letting them know about my new ARC Interest List and how to sign up. I also set up an automated message to go out to new subscribers of my newsletter to grow that list over time.

(Want in? If you’re a current subscriber to my newsletters, click the link in the footer of one of my emails to edit your subscription, check “ARC Interest List,” and then save. If you’re not a current subscriber, sign up for my New Release newsletter, and you can follow these same instructions. *smile*)

*whew* I need a nap now. *snicker*

ARC Team Options: What Do We Want?

But even with something as common as an ARC team, we still have to make decisions about how we want to set it up. (And note that there’s no right or wrong answers, only pros and cons.)

  • Do we want to limit who we invite to participate (such as inviting only those already subscribed to our newsletters) to attempt to avoid freebie-seekers who have no intention of actually leaving a review?
  • Or would we rather open our invitation to anyone willing to participate, sharing the signup link on social media, etc. to create a larger team?
  • Do we have prerequisites, such as they must have left a review for one of our older books (so we know they’re familiar enough with our work to think they’ll like our new stories), or they need to be able to review on Amazon (and not just Goodreads or other places that don’t “count” as much)?
  • Or do we not want to limit our team building process?
  • Do we care if the review they leave is just a basic “I liked it” to hit Amazon’s algorithms?
  • Or do we request a more significant review that will be more helpful to potential readers?
  • Do we keep a list of approved ARC reviewers or a blacklist of those who didn’t follow through?
  • Or do we not care about broken promises for failing to leave a review? (Some authors figure a missing review might save them from a bad review, as a reader might rather say nothing at all, or they might figure the reader will try another one their stories later that they’d enjoy more.)
  • Do we expect a certain number of stars for them to remain on the team, such as leaving only four- or five-star reviews?
  • Or do we care more about honest reviews and figure readers who don’t like our work will drop out on their own?
  • Do we care about encouraging “Verified Purchase” reviews? (Some authors offer their book for a higher discount for the first couple of days of preorders to encourage ARC team members to purchase it before the price is raised and the preorder is announced to others.)
  • Or do we figure that potential readers don’t pay enough attention to that label to be worth the hassle?
  • Do we expect them to review every book we release if they want to remain on the team?
  • Or do we keep a separate list of interested readers for each book?
  • Do we have the ability (time, organizational skills, etc.) to distribute the ARC files to those on the list ourselves?
  • Or will we use a service, such as BooksproutBookFunnel, or Instafreebie, to handle distribution and download tracking? (Some services cost money depending on the size of our list or other limitations.)
  • Do we want to send out ARCs to an unlimited number of team members to gather lots of reviews?
  • Or do we want to limit the team size and focus instead on quality of the reviewers or ensuring all our fans don’t get our work for free (and if so, what’s our limit)?

Personally, I’ve decided for the time being to lean toward a quality list rather than a quantity one. (Those aren’t judgments, just labels.) That means I’ve limited signups to subscribers only, have prerequisites, encourage honest reviews, etc. I’ve also signed up with BookFunnel for distribution.

We can all have different goals, so the choices that make sense for one author might not make sense for another. The point is to think through our goals and set up our team to support that effort. *smile*

Some books and authors gain reviews seemingly without effort, but for the rest of us, we have to come up with a plan. That means figuring out where we can ask for reviews, how we can encourage readers to leave reviews, and brainstorm ways to expand our review-leaving readership.

In general, the more reviews we can accumulate, the better. Reviews help the machine algorithms at Amazon increase our visibility, and they help potential readers find books they’re more likely to love. *smile*

Have you left reviews on books before? What encourages you to leave a review? Have your struggled to gain reviews on your books? Do you have other ideas or suggestions for how to gain more reviews? Have you thought about what to prioritize and why for your ARC team?

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7 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Jennifer Jensen March 30, 2017 at 12:48 pm

Hey there, Jami! I read your blog often (three cheers for WANA 1011), but don’t comment much. But thanks for consistently good tips!

I think I”m headed for a more formal ARC team soon, just don’t have time to think about it yet. And I’ll admit I’ve been one of those who doesn’t leave a review (even though I said I would) because it wouldn’t be a positive one. I don’t mind saying that something needs better editing or that the plot didn’t make sense if there are other things I can compliment, but I hate to leave one that’s all negative, especially if the poor indie author only has three other reviews. It just leaves it too skewed.

I have a question for you, and for other commenters. With my last book, I asked my few ARC readers to write a review just after they finished it, save it on their computer, and then post it on the day the book went live on Amazon. Most who said they would, did. But if I have a larger team other than people I personally know, do you think that would work? And if not, how do you get them to post reviews early?

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Laurie Evans March 30, 2017 at 1:43 pm

It’s hard to get reviews. I set up an ARC sign up and that helps. I’ve done it for 5 books now, and each time only about half the people who sign up actually do the reviews.

It’s a lot of work to keep track of everybody. I’m looking at Instafreebee or Bookfunnel for my next book.

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Sieran March 30, 2017 at 3:54 pm

Hey Jami!

Though I am nowhere near ready for this stage, I found this post a very interesting read!

I especially like your point that if the reader has reviewed another book of ours before, they may be more likely to enjoy our new works. Though for my own novels, I might put in a caution note if I write something that deviates from my usual style quite a bit—I am actually considering writing one or a few sex scenes in a future book…I never write sex scenes in my books, so that might ruin it for readers who are more used to my more innocent romance style. ^^ However, I feel like I would still not have the courage to write full-blown sex scenes, so I might just do implicit ones instead, i.e. having summaries of the actions, with metaphors, etc. So I might put in an “implicit sex scenes” warning. XD

Though I understand the thing about author branding, I also don’t want the “reputation” I’ve established for myself to limit the styles and subject matters I can write in the future…

Hmm if I do set up an ARC team, I think I would do the more flexible kind in that readers can choose which books to review. And I know ARCs are supposed to be for on-time reviews, but I would like to offer an option for a reader to review anytime they can. This would be helpful for people like me, who would be more than happy to leave a detailed review, but may not have the time to read the book that quickly, thanks to school or work. However, you do bring up a good point that some readers may promise to review your book later, but never do… One solution could be to only offer that “review anytime you can” option to readers who have kept their promises to review in the past, or readers you know personally (even if only online) and trust to help you.

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Anne Kaelber March 31, 2017 at 12:56 pm

Hi Jami!

You mentioned LibraryThing early in this post. Have you see the Early Reviewers? http://www.librarything.com/er/list They do this once a month. There is a member giveaway as well: http://www.librarything.com/er/giveaway/list

This post also reminds me I have a review to write. 🙂

Anne.

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Dave withe April 2, 2017 at 7:32 pm

Jami;

I love your blog posts. Always thought provoking / practical.

I’m more of a revlew giver than getter. Makes sense since I don’t have anything up on Amazon yet.

I buy a lot of books from Amazon. I typically review the ones I really like, with details; And books /authors that I think have potential but need work. (too many years running an online critique group I guess)

The formulaic middling skill ‘literary cotton candy’ I usually don’t bother to review.

Keep up the good work sis.

Dave

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