There are a few mainstay bits of marketing wisdom that every author gets from day one. Email mailing lists are usually the number one prescribed marketing tip. A close number two, though, is “get as many reviews as you can.”
There may be some debate as to whether reviews are all that effective, but the fact is that there are those potential readers who use reviews to make their buying decisions. At the very least, reviews can help tip the balance for a reader debating over their purchase—if they can’t decide on Book A or Book B, the reviews may be the deciding factor.
Reviews are an important part of this nutritious Author breakfast.
For something that everyone seems to agree is important, however, it’s often difficult to uncover just how to get reviews in the first place, or even what to do with them once they start coming in. Let’s take a closer look at this important tool, and how it can help you.
Two Types of Reviews
We probably don’t need a technical definition here. We know what a review actually is—someone is publicly offering their opinion or viewpoint on a product or service (in this case, our book). Turns out, though, that there is more than one type of review, and each type has its importance and its own role to play in an author’s business. We’re going to discuss two types: Professional Reviews and Reader Reviews.
Professional reviews are those given by someone who is being paid to consider your work. Sometimes they’re paid by you, but more often they’re paid by a publication. For example, a review from the New York Times or USA Today would be a professional review, written by someone who’s job is to read an author’s work and offer their informed opinion. The author doesn’t have to pay for these, because someone else (the publication) has.
On the other hand, services such as Kirkus Reviews offer authors the option of paying for a professional and unbiased review directly, which will be printed in their magazine as well as given to you for your own use. Kirkus is one of the more respected and recognizable publications for book reviews. These paid reviews are generally accepted as credible by readers, largely because payment for a review is no guarantee of a good review. The magazine’s unbiased policies give it credibility.
Which brings up an important point: You should never (ever, ever) pay someone specifically to give you a positive review. This will play a bigger role in the next type of review we discuss, but it’s worth noting here as well. Paying someone to write a positive review of your book, regardless of its content and quality, is just asking for trouble. It can ruin your credibility with readers, and that is ridiculously hard to rebuild. But the consequences can go deeper than that, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
PRO TIP: Don’t cheat. Cheaters never prosper. Not for long, anyway.
Professional reviews are handy for things like including on your book’s product description online, or even on the back cover or inside flap of a print book. You can include the review or an excerpt from it in the first few pages of your ebook, if you like. These reviews add a bit of social proof to your work, showing that it has been vetted by professionals who should (in theory) know what it takes for a book to be “good.”
One caveat I feel needs to be emphasized here, however: As an indie author, you should always be the ultimate arbiter of the quality of your work.
Don’t pay someone to be a gatekeeper—handing yourself and your work to someone else, subject to their approval. As an indie you get to own every aspect of your work. That’s the beauty of it.
Produce the book that fits what you believe to be good and worthy, and use professional reviews to help you reach a broader audience. Don’t let those professional reviews be a barrier to putting your work out there. If you pay for a review and it turns out to be bad, just learn what you can from it, then stash it in a drawer somewhere and move on. No one else gets to decide whether you are “good enough to publish.”
Reader reviews, our next type of review, are a little different. In most cases, when you read about or hear authors talk about the importance of reviews, these are the reviews they mean.
A reader review is exactly what it sounds like: A review written by a reader. These typically are not being written by actual professionals, though there’s nothing barring a pro from writing a reader review. One important distinction, however, is that you never pay for reader reviews.
We mentioned this above, but I want to put very special emphasis on this. Because aside from jeopardizing your credibility as an author, paying for reader reviews is almost always a violation of the terms of service (TOS) for most online retailers.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo, for example, all have explicit terms against paying for reader reviews. Some of these retailers may even block and ban your book, if it’s discovered that you paid for reviews.
That’s how serious this is.
Ultimately, readers reviews are far more important for the independently published/self-published author than professional reviews. That’s because professional reviews aren’t native to the websites of the various sales channels.
To include a professional review, such as a Kirkus Review, on the product page of your book, you would have to copy and paste it into the description. Effectively, you are the “source” of that review, the one who puts it online for others to read. It has less impact with readers because you’re the one who put it there, but it also may not even be noticed by readers at all if they don’t expand and read your book’s description online.
Reader reviews, however, are part of the infrastructure of the retailer’s website. Similar to the comment section on a blog (such as the comment section on this post), anyone can log in and leave a review, and that review effectively becomes a part of the product page. The reviews are publicly visible and are given a somewhat prominent place on the product page.
Potential readers know that these reader reviews are coming from someone other than the author. They effectively represent the outside perspective and opinions on a book’s quality, from readers who might be peers. And while the quality and content of the reviews themselves may be questionable, potential readers may find them to be a good way to rule out a book or to go ahead and choose it as their next purchase.
You can see that the distinction between these two types of reviews isn’t subtle: They’re very different in terms of both their objectives and their implementation. In some sense, you as the author have a bit of control over professional reviews, at least as far as whether or not you include them in your book description. Reader reviews, on the other hand, are completely out of your control, in terms of content and inclusion.
So the bad news is that if someone writes a negative review for your book, there isn’t much you can do (unless it’s something abusive, which you can report).
The good news, however, is that the majority of readers don’t bother leaving a review anyway—unless they’re asked to.
Ask for What You Want
You want good reviews. That’s the point. Bad reviews are kind of part of the territory, and they’re going to happen. But good reviews will help wash away the stain of those one-star, negative comments, if you can get enough of them. And getting those reviews comes down to a super-secret, special magic formula:
The way to get more reviews is to ask for them.
That probably doesn’t seem all that super-secret-special, but given that the majority of authors never bother asking for reviews at all seems to indicate that there may be some magic involved.
Asking for reviews may feel awkward to some, and it’s usually because we’ve been taught that asking for things can sometimes seem rude or presumptuous. We’re worried we might offend someone, or put them out by asking them to review our book. We also may worry that they won’t like the book, and asking them for a review puts both of us in a particularly awkward position.
To be blunt about it: We’re all going to have to get over that.
It’s not unreasonable to ask someone who just invested the time and energy to read your book to carry it just a little further and write a quick review on Amazon.com or Apple Books or wherever they do their ebook shopping. In fact, a lot of readers are more than happy to leave a review, and might not have thought to do so until you’ve asked. That narrow margin of people who might be offended by the fact that you asked for a review—well, to be honest you don’t really want their review anyway. If they’re so easily offended, they probably didn’t like your book, and probably won’t have anything positive to say. They’re welcome to keep their opinions to themselves.
Asking for reviews can happen in a few ways, but one good and reliable technique is to put a call to action (CTA) in the back of your book. Just as the reader finishes the last chapter, you can include a page that says “If you enjoyed this book, I’d really appreciate a review! Reviews help more readers find me and my work, so a positive review can be very helpful. Thank you in advance!”
Simple. Direct. Kind. And you planted some psychological clues in there: That you want a positive review, and that they’ll be helping you out if they leave one. People like to have reasons for what they do, and they like to think of themselves as doing something good and positive in the world. Make them feel like a hero, and give them a good reason to help you out.
Another way to ask for reviews is to approach your mailing list. If you don’t have an email mailing list, you should (strongly, very strongly) consider building one. They’re the best way to nurture relationships with readers who will become fans, and thus will be one of your best marketing resources, spreading you around by word of mouth.
Building a mailing list is a blog post for another day …
If you already have a mailing list, you can periodically approach your subscribers with a note asking them to review your books online:
“If you’ve read [Book X] I would really appreciate it if you’d leave a review! Reviews help new readers find my work, so they’re very helpful. Thank you in advance for helping me build and grow my author career!”
Simple and direct. You can work a sentence like that into just about any email you send, so you don’t have to worry about inundating your subscribers with marketing messaging all the time. This is a simple and friendly ask from a friend.
Asking for reviews will get you better results than simply hoping people like your work enough to go leave a review. People mean well, most of the time, but they sometimes need reminders. Don’t be afraid. Put it out there that this is something you want and need, and something you will appreciate, and more people will be willing to give you the reviews you need.
Don’t Sweat the Negatives
Let’s just put this out there and make it crystal clear:
You are going to get negative reviews.
You are. It’s ok. Shhh … shhh… come out from under the desk. You’re going to be fine, Sparky.
Negative reviews are just something that a certain segment of the population likes to put out into the universe. Sometimes they’re kind of gentle about it, maybe even helpful, saying things like “The story was ok, but the author really needs to work on their grammar and punctuation.” Those can be useful, and you can feel free to heed that advice if you like.
Some reviews, on the other hand, seem to have the sole objective of ripping you apart, shredding you down to the molecular level, and leaving you as a puddle of ooze that will inevitably soak into the ground and disappear forever. The “raze the Earth and salt the ground” folks are out there. They’re vicious, evil, unfeeling, anonymous beasts.
And they don’t matter.
Remember earlier when we decided that you weren’t going to let anyone be a gatekeeper to your career? No negative review, professional or otherwise, is going to be the end-all of who you are and what you do. You, and you alone, will decide whether your work is good enough, whether this career is for you, and whether your books need more love and attention. You, and no one else.
Bad reviews can be helpful in that they may point out areas in your work that need attention. Beyond that, and maybe even considering that, negative reviews just aren’t worth allowing any space or time in your head.
You can negate any negative review by considering whether or not the reviewer is your ideal reader. You should always write with a particular reader or reader-type in mind—the person who will love your work, and get the most out of it. If someone is spewing vitriol and rubbish all over your work … well, they ain’t it.
So don’t sweat it.
Easier said than done, I know. But you can do it. You can develop a thick skin, and let the Negative Nellies have their say without it creeping into your soul. The key is to determine what “quality” and “good” mean to you, determine who it is that you are writing for, determine why you are writing, and then commit to doing the best you can to match your work to all of those determinations. Decide who you are and what your work represents, and live up to those ideals. As long as you’re doing that, no one’s opinion matters more than your own.
Reviews are a tool for helping other readers decide to pick up and read your work. That’s it. They aren’t meant to boost or crush your ego, or to tell you whether or not you’re doing a good job. They’re aren’t job performance reviews. They’re opinions, and often from people who aren’t qualified to offer them.
So don’t worry about the negative ones, and don’t put too much stock in the positive ones either. Use them as they were intended, and commit to producing the best work you can produce, with the resources you have.
Reviews are important, but they aren’t the only important thing in your writing career. Write good books. Ask for reviews. And repeat.