The Ultimate Critique? — Reviews


Whew — ten days after the release of Single Witch’s Survival Guide, and I’m starting to return to the world of the living 🙂 (You can read the first chapter here.)

So, I laughed when I logged into Magical Words on Thursday and found John’s post, about pre-orders and release dates, and stuff like that.  I laughed, because I had already planned on writing a very similar post.  Not about pre-orders — they’re not as important in the new world of self-publication, because the only vendor who allows them is Apple.

But about reviews.  And why they’re important.

If you follow any authors online at all, you’ve heard them post about reviews.  We remind our readers to write them.  We say how much they mean to us.  We beg for just a word here, a star there.

And there’s a reason for all that.

But first, let me get one thing out of the way.  Reviews aren’t critiques.  I wrote about critiques in my last three posts.  Critiques are intended to be exchanges between authors and readers, with the goal of teaching the author how to make his or her manuscript better.

Reviews aren’t an exchange of information; rather, they’re readers stating their opinions about a published work.  It’s too late for the author to make any changes. 

In fact, shrewd authors ***never*** respond to reviews.  If the review is good and the author gushes thanks, then the author looks like s/he’s just trying to cozy up to fans.  If the review is bad and the author explains or denies or rants or raves, then the author looks defensive, angry, and unattractive to potential other readers.

So, if we can’t change our books, and if we shouldn’t respond, why do we even care about reviews?

Okay, we care, because we want people to like our work and, by extension, us.  But why, in a career-advancing way, do we even care about reviews?

Reviews are the key to free, online promotion at one of the (the?) largest bookseller in the world.  In addition, reviews are the key to valuable promotion that authors can purchase.

That bookseller?  It’s Amazon, of course.  Amazon has fancy, secret algorithms for promoting work to readers.  Many of those algorithms are triggered by a book receiving X number of reviews.  How many reviews?  I don’t know.  (Remember, I just said, the algorithms are secret.)  But once a book receives 20, or 30, or 50, or 60 (these are all numbers bandied about by those supposedly in the know), Amazon starts to promote the book.  That promotion can be the “Readers who bought X also bought Y” type promotion.  Or it can be emails sent to actual buyers:  “As a reader of X, we recommend that you buy Y”.  Or it can be placement in various ad slots on various website pages.

The other valuable promotion?  There are “advertorial” services that email interested subscribers about new book deals.  I used one — Bookbub — to promote Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft.  I paid them $240, and they sent out an email to more than 20,000 readers of women’s fiction, telling them that Girl’s Guide was on sale, for $0.99.  I sold enough copies to break Amazon’s top 100 (not top 100 women’s fiction, top 100 overall).  Those sales kickstarted sales for the rest of the series, and for my new series, The Jane Madison Academy Series.

There’s a catch for Bookbub, though.  They won’t take $240 from just anyone.  They’ll only take it from authors who have enough reviews on Amazon.  How many reviews?  Again, they don’t specify and exact number.  But all Bookbub books I’ve studied have at least 15 reviews, and many have hundreds.

So.  Reviews have concrete advantages for authors.  And it doesn’t seem to matter much whether they’re good reviews or bad.  The mere act of readers writing reviews empowers authors.

This issue is important enough to me that I’ve printed up business cards, which I hand out every time I sign a print book:

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Will you help an author today?  If you’ve read Single Witch’s Survival Guide or any of the other great books by our Magical Words authors, will you write an honest review and post it at Amazon, along with other review sites?

Do you regularly review books online?  Why or why not?



14 comments to The Ultimate Critique? — Reviews

  • For a about a year or so I wrote reviews of nearly every book I read on Goodreads, and a couple on Amazon. I gave it up because I wanted them to be thoughtful and helpful, and it just took too much time once I started working again. But from reading this, it sounds like a short 2-3 sentence stating whether or not I liked the book counts the same as a longer more detailed review. If even short “reviews” help the authors I like, I can probably find the time to post something on Amazon. Do the reviews in Goodreads help at all (other than possibly nudging a review reader to buy the book)? Does the number of reviews there play any role in any algorithm or decision-making process?

  • SiSi – I think Goodreads reviews help Goodreads members find and evaluate books. Even though GR is now owned by Amazon, I haven’t heard or seen anything that indicates that Amazon is doing its in-house promotions based on GR reviews; they seem to be keeping each platform completely separate. And I don’t *think* that Bookbub looks to GR; nothing in their information-for-authors points that way. Of course, I could be completely wrong 🙂

  • Nathan Elberg

    Are you saying that even if we don’t like a book we should post a review because it helps the author?

  • Nathan – It probably stretches things a bit to say that a one- or two-star reviews (especially in bulk) help an author. But three stars (out of five) and up? Yeah, that probably helps the author. Especially when they’ve already got a couple dozen other reviews and are getting closer to those “break points” — whatever the specific super-secret numbers actually are.

  • deborahblake

    Top 100! Whoo hoo! (Sorry, I just had to get that out of the way.)

    I never heard of Bookbub. Very interesting. I wonder if the reviews of my NF books will count towards the novel coming out next year…

    And I try to put up reviews for the books I really love. Mind you, at the moment I have a stack of about a dozen I WANT to review and haven’t had time to get to. I’ll try to get to yours this weekend! (Just a hint…it helps if you put something on your blog with a reminder and a link to Amazon. If it is right in front of me, there is a better chance I’ll do it–and that probably goes for other people too.)

  • Deb – with fiction, Bookbub does not generally consider the reviews for one book when evaluating another. I don’t know what they’ll think of your related nonfiction! As for posting with direct links to Amazon — I doubt I’ll do that. There’s a *tremendous* amount of backlash against authors who whore for reviews — I hesitated for two weeks before I made *this* post. I’d worry too much about the haters, and their subsequent drive for one-star reviews, if I said, “Here’s a link! Use it to post your reviews directly, on my book page, now!”

  • Vyton

    Interesting post. Congratulations on the Top 100. That’s great. I haven’t reviewed online that much, but considering your point, I need to rethink that. Thank you.

  • Razziecat

    I didn’t used to post reviews because I could never think of anything to say! For some reason I could talk my head off about how much I really loved a book, but when looking at the screen, the words just wouldn’t come. I’ve been working on that since I realized that it does make a difference to the author. But sometimes I need to let the book sort of “digest” a bit before I can pinpoint what I loved and what I didn’t. I don’t post super-negative reviews, though I am honest about whether I liked a book, and why.

  • Vyton – Each person needs to come to his/her balance with this, of course. There’s always the need to find the right amount of public exposure, public expression of feelings, etc. (And thanks for the congrats!)

    Razziecat – That’s interesting, that you feel a block between your thoughts and the (public) screen. I’m another person who doesn’t post super-negative reviews. (I also never post when I disliked a book so much that I set it aside unfinished.) Honesty is one thing. Keeping the public peace is another 🙂

  • Long ago, I used to write reviews of SF and fantasy novels for the local newspaper. I didn’t get paid for it, but now and then a fragment of my review would appear in the paperback editions of books I’d reviewed in hardcover, which was very cool. Once I reviewed a book negatively – I really didn’t enjoy it, and I saw no reason to lie. So I couldn’t help laughing when the paperback came out, and there was a two-sentence bit of my review, edited in order to seem like praise. Well played, PR people!

  • Misty – Sometimes I read reviews in magazines (Locus comes to mind immediately!) and it seems as if they’re crafted specifically to allow authors to sneak out a phrase or two for cover blurbs! Ah, the joy of ellipses… 🙂

  • Megan B.

    This is really interesting information. Thanks for sharing! I normally don’t think about writing reviews online (especially if I didn’t buy the book online), but now I will. I had no idea that the mere number of reviews on sites like Amazon mattered so much.

  • There’s also anecdotal evidence (which is to say not really evidence at all) that says that number of reviews helps books rank higher in the Amazon search engines and algorithms. I dunno how true or untrue this is, but I know that books of mine that have more than 20 reviews certainly seem to show up more in also-bought lists than others. Of course, these are also books that tend to sell better, so it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing.

  • Megan – I’m glad I could provide food for thought!

    John – Interesting! I had not heard that reviews relate to rankings (beyond the chicken/egg point that you note!)