A few days ago a friend who's an excellent writer but new to promotion asked me a bunch of questions about reviews. How do you go about asking for them? Whom do you ask? Where do you get the books to send? There must be a tutorial on this, he commented.
Well - there may well be, but given the scattered nature of the web, it might be tough to find. Since I wanted to post to my blog today anyway, I figured I would kill two birds with one stone and talk about what I've learned regarding reviews and marketing.
Let me start with a caveat: in no way am I claiming to be an expert in this realm. I am just sharing what I've learned so far in my twelve years of publishing. I hope that commenters will add their own insights. I should also say that given the dramatic changes wrought by the Internet, best practices will undoubtedly continue to change. However the principles remain the same:
1. Get your book out and reviewed as many appropriate places as possible.
2. When you receive a favorable review, broadcast that news widely.
I've divided my comments into four sections: finding potential reviewers, requesting reviews, using reviews for marketing, and follow-up.
Finding Potential Reviewers
Where can you send your book for reviews? Clearly this depends on the genre. There are dozens of websites that publish reviews for romance of various flavors. I know a few for erotica (specifically the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, Erotica Revealed and Erotica For All). I strongly suspect that there are similar sites for mystery, suspense, young adult, chick lit, and other genres.
In addition to websites, many individual readers post reviews on their blogs. Some focus on particular genres while others read more widely. Some individual book blogs get as much traffic as the major sites.
Thus, your first step has to be research. Use the sub-genre or topic of your book to narrow the possibilities. For example, if you have an erotic story set in Japan, look blogs or sites devoted to Japanese-related topics. If you write speculative or science fiction erotica or romance, spend some time searching out sci fi reviewers. If you have a book set in Pittsburgh (as I do), maybe you can find some dedicated fan of the city who'd be interesting in reading and reviewing it.
Be somewhat selective. It won't do you any good to send your book to an inappropriate review site or reader. If a site focuses on gay erotic romance, don't send your heterosexual book. If a site does not review fantasy, or historical, or paranormal, and that's what you write - skip it, for now. Target the review sites in the same way you'd target a publisher. Look for a good fit with your book.
It can be dangerous to send a book to the wrong sort of reviewer. For example, a reviewer who expects romance will be upset by erotica that does not have a happy ending. He or she may still review your book, but express negative opinions because of lack of understanding or failed expectations.
What about print reviews? For most of us, a review in print is an unrealistic dream. If you can get a reviewer from your local newspaper interested, great. I've more or less given up on the New York Times! A digital review has some advantages in any case. Despite the volatility of the web, an electronic review tends to have greater longevity than print. You can link to it. You can tweet or share it.
And what about reader reviews on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or other bookseller sites? I know some authors and editors who solicit such reviews from friends and family, to the point that they'll give away a free copy of the book to anyone willing to do a review. Reader reviews do help book sales, from what I've seen. However, I find myself a bit uncomfortable with the notion of actively soliciting them. It's a slippery slope. At what point does it become unethical? At what point are you "paying" someone to give you a favorable review?
Your mileage may vary, as they say. I'm always delighted to get a favorable review on Amazon. I have had situations where a reader contacted me raving about a book he or she had already read and I gently suggested that they might share their opinions on Amazon. That's my limit.
Once you have a list of target reviewers, you need to submit your book to each one. Read the instructions provided by each review site or blog. In some cases, they will have a special email address. In some cases they will provide a web form. Pay attention to the details. Do they want a blurb? A buy link? A cover? If so, what size? Sending a 1200x1600 JPEG to someone who wants 200x320 will not win you friends.
For review targets that don't use a web form, develop a simple, professional query letter that includes:
- Book title
- Author name
- Publisher, publication date and purchase information
- Book length in pages or words
- A blurb - 100-300 words briefly summarizing the book (but not revealing the ending!)
- Your contact information (email at least)
- Your links (blog, website, etc.)
Do not talk about how your other books won awards. Do not discuss the other five star reviews this book has received. Really, the only message you need to convey is: I have a book with these characteristics - would you like to review it?
Don't beg or grovel, either. A review site needs books to review. Often they support themselves via ads. The reviews are the content that pulls visitors who will see the ads. The sites are not doing you a huge favor for which you must be eternally grateful.
Do you send a review copy with the query letter? That depends on the site. Some sites will want only print. In this case, definitely wait until you get a confirmation of interest. Mailing print books is expensive. Ebooks are great because they are so easy to distribute. Watch out, though. When you send out free copies of your book, you are definitely increasing your risks of being pirated. Weigh that risk against the benefits of a positive review.
Some publishers regularly send out review copies to a pre-determined list of sites. Find out whether your publisher does. Don't duplicate your publishers' efforts. But at the same time, don't just sit back and assume that they're going to do all the work. My publishers tend to send books to the big, general romance review sites. I try to find smaller or more specialized venues to complement their work.
Some publishers will send out review copies upon your request. Others require you to send some of your author copies. Find out the policy for each of your publishers and make sure that you follow that policy.
When should you request reviews? Ideally, you'd like to have reviews hit the cybersphere around the same time as your book is released. So lining up your reviews ahead of time can be useful. There are some potential problems with this strategy, however. If your release is delayed, the review may come out before readers can actually buy the book. Talk about frustration! Also, if you are soliciting reviews in advance, you will need to send what's known as an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) or "uncorrected proof". If this pre-release version of your book has too many grammar, spelling or formatting problems, the reviewer may react negatively.
One more thing: keep track of where and when you send out review copies. You can make a spreadsheet or just have a simple list. You don't want to send a book twice to the same place!
Using Reviews for Marketing
So you've received a stellar review of your book from SuperReviews.com. Now what do you do?
First of all, how do you find out in the first place when the review is posted? The Google Alert service does a pretty good job of informing me of newly published reviews. Set an alert on your name (if it is distinctive), your title, or some other diagnostic phrase. Sometimes the review sites will also send you a note, but in my experience that is pretty rare. Some review sites (like Erotica Revealed) schedule their reviews months in advance, so they'll be able to tell you when to expect yours.
Once you have a review, you want to share it with the world. Post a quote and the link on your website, your blog, your Facebook page, or whatever. Talk about the review in your monthly newsletter. Tweet it to your followers. Announce it (with a quote and a link) on Yahoo groups or email lists that are relevant to the genre.
Oh, and make sure that you send a copy or link to your publisher. They will want to keep track of who reviewed you, and may want to add favorable quotes to your buy page.
What else? Is that it? I've used review quotes to develop advertising banners. "Edgy, dark and smoking hot..." one reviewer said of my vampire ménage Fire in the Blood. I've used that quote in two animated GIF banners so far.
You can use review quotes in a trailer. Include them in your email signature. Order pens or keychains or other promotional material with the quote included. Seriously, when you get a favorable review, flaunt it! Don't be shy. Wallflowers don't sell books.
What if the review is not so favorable? First of all, don't get discouraged. There's no book that every reader will adore. Sometimes a reviewer won't understand what you're trying to do. Sometimes a review will hone in on real flaws. View that as a learning opportunity.
Even reviews that aren't 100% positive can be used for promotional purposes. Focus on the complimentary things the reviewer says. You don't have to post the link to the full review. Does this seem dishonest, taking things out of context? Well, maybe, but as I see it, marketing is the art of accentuating the positive and de-emphasizing the negative. You should always cite the source of review quotes. If a reader is really interested, he or she can find the full review.
Once you've got a review and you're actively using it to promote, you're mostly done. Here are few additional actions that I recommend as follow-up:
1. If possible, write a quick note or leave a blog comment thanking the reviewer. Do not defend yourself, if the review had negative things to say. Don't gush if the review is positive. Just be polite, positive and professional.
2. Update your list or spreadsheet to indicate that the review was published. Add the date and the URL if possible. You might want to make a note of the specific reviewer. I definitely have repeat reviews from people who seem to like my work.
3. Make a local copy of the review web page if possible. I used to simply bookmark reviews, but I've found that over time, every site or blog needs to reorganize and to purge old content. Just choose "Save As" from your browser's File menu. Create a special place on your computer for storing copies of reviews. And be warned - they can take up quite a bit of space because the browser will normally save all the images and other content.
I know, I know. Writing is hard enough work as it is. All this promotion stuff just seems like a distraction from creating new books. It does pay off, though. Personally, I don't spend nearly as much effort as I probably should on promotion (including soliciting reviews) but I have increased my activity over the last year or two. My sales have increased, too.