I started writing an article on reviewing months ago. My goal was to provide some clear information about soliciting and responding to reviews. Authors, publishers, publicists, readers, and reviewers all benefit from understanding some basic facts about reviews. I was trained to write reviews in college and was graded on my ability by journalists writing for Canadian publications such as The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s. At times, I’ve been a paid reviewer for publications. I also write casual reviews in my free time. The two are very different, but I think my background and perspective inform my thoughts about reviewing.
Over time, this topic swelled into a short series of articles. I admit I struggled with whether to pursue publishing them, because every week it seems like there’s a new reviewing controversy. I didn’t want anyone to misinterpret this as a subcolumn, so I held off.
I could put this material out there and risk people thinking it’s about this author’s outburst or that author’s meltdown or the negative reviews for this or that book, or I could kill this miniseries. I decided to focus on my motivation for writing this and not worry about people’s assumptions.
Reviews are important.
Reviews help people make informed decisions. When I’m shopping for a new computer, I’ll check online reviews to see if there’s helpful information that can help me choose the right model for my needs. I’ll do the same thing for any product, particularly if I have concerns about quality.
As of 2018, 82 percent of people with cell phones used their phone to research products online before they made purchases. Reviews matter.
Reviews are tricker when we get to the creative arts because people’s evaluations are driven by their tastes, and that’s subjective. However, when people share reviews on social media, they raise the work’s profile and provide exposure that can generate sales. Reviews also feed the algorithm gods, which can help works gain more exposure on retail sites like Amazon.
What types of reviews should you seek?
There are four types of reviews authors, publicists, and publishers should seek. Let’s start with print reviews in reputed publications. There are some readers who’ll only consider critiques in the NY Times or genre magazines before purchasing books, and print reviews help works reach a wider audience.
There are also review bloggers and online review sites. These are valuable review venues because they have the potential of reaching a global audience. Consumers don’t have to pay for a subscription to see those reviews, and they’re often shared on social media. The value of online reviews shouldn’t be overlooked, and reputed book bloggers, booktubers, and review sites can generate sales.
The third type of review is an industry trade review. Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus are some of the most commonly known trade review sources. These reviews are extremely valuable because they’re produced by professional reviewers. They’re trusted sources, and libraries may rely on these reviews to decide which books to stock. These reviews are also harder to get. These publications have strict submission guidelines, which typically involve submitting print copies of the book at least four months before its scheduled release date. Some trade review venues also publish their reviews online, enabling them to reach readers directly.
The last type of review is the reader review, or consumer review These are reviews left by consumers who don’t share their reviews on a blog or review site. They’re people who’ve elected to take the time to read a book and share their thoughts about it.
Authors, publicists, and publishers should seek all four types of reviews. Getting reader reviews can increase your Amazon ranking, increasing your book’s exposure. Trade reviews can boost library sales, and with over 110,000 libraries in the United States, solid library sales can equal thousands of sales. Print and online reviews reach readers, who in turn may leave reader reviews.
What about NetGalley?
NetGalley is a great option for generating reviews, and publishers that can afford the cost often rely on NetGalley to get reader and online reviews before publication. There are collaboratives self-published authors can use, making NetGalley more affordable (as little as $50 per title subbed), but it’s still out of reach for some self-published authors and indie presses, so I’m not focusing on NetGalley in this article.
How can you decide where to submit a book for review?
Some venues require print arcs for review, and that creates a dilemma for anyone with a finite number of print review copies. While e-arcs have made it easier to offer more review copies, using the limited print approach can be useful because it helps authors, publicists, and publishers get suitable reviews.
Do Your Research
Getting reviews starts by reading review sites, blogs, and publications months before your book’s finished. Identify books similar to your own, and make note of the reviewers that like those books. These reviewers are more likely to consider a work that fits their wheelhouse, particularly if they’re unpaid review site or blog reviewers. They’re also more likely to give you a positive review because they like that type of content. While I can appreciate the notion of seeking a favorable review from someone who tends to be critical of your genre, the chances of getting that good review are slim and you’re potentially wasting time and money pursuing a review that will really only be meaningful to you if you turn a skeptic into a believer. Crime fiction readers aren’t turning to crime fiction review sites to read reviews about erotica, and they’re more likely to skip a review that covers something outside their typical reading interests.
Personally, I identify reviewers I trust and turn to them for their assessments to determine if I’ll like a book or movie. I was a little more Siskel than Ebert on most movies, for example, but my trusted sources don’t have to be industry insiders. If I discover someone on Twitter whose tastes seem to align with mine, I note any recommendation they offer and ask them for recommendations when appropriate. This is why authors, publicists, and publishers benefit from thinking beyond trade and print reviews.
How do you get the review?
Book bloggers, booktubers, review sites, magazines, newspapers, and trade publications usually have review submission guidelines posted on their site. Follow their guidelines to the letter. This means if the site has a form for submitting a book for consideration, don’t email one of the reviewers and ask them directly. If they ask for content warnings, supply them. If they ask for the back copy description, provide it. Don’t add three author blurbs and leave it at that. Many review sites have reviewers checking the forms when deciding what books to request. I once selected a book that listed no content warnings, and within the first 30 pages a character was graphically raped. While I can prepare myself for that type of content, I was bothered by the fact that the author didn’t respect the submission process and supply the requested information, and it left me wondering what other content warnings they’d omitted. The story and writing weren’t good enough to persuade me to continue, and combined with their omission, I abandoned the book. I likely would have finished and reviewed the book if the author had included the trigger warning.
Please note that most review sites and book bloggers write reviews in their free time. They choose to do this, but they don’t have to. For some, it comes with a cost, because they pay for site hosting. When authors, publicists, and publishers don’t follow the submission process, they often waste the site manager’s or reviewer’s time, and that’s disrespectful. It also increases the likelihood your book won’t be reviewed.
What about offering review copies on social media?
You absolutely can offer review copies on social media, but this should not be your first or only option. We all know how the algorithms go, and it’s easy for people to miss tweets or posts, which means you may not reach all the potential reviewers who’d consider your book.
Additionally, there’s no real screening for this process. Ideally, you’re prioritizing getting review copies to people who review the genre you write in, and you’re prioritizing reviewers who review works regularly. That’s one of the great things about book bloggers. You can see how often they’re posting reviews or posting about books they’ve read. People who review infrequently are less likely to provide coverage. Since reviews can have a significant impact on sales, it’s crucial authors, publicists, and publishers make an effort to pursue venues where they’re likely to get reviewed.
What about “bad” reviews and poorly written reviews?
Positive and negative reviews have prompted me to buy books, see movies, buy CDs, and watch TV shows. And, as authors, publicists, and publishers know, the volume of reviews you have on Amazon impacts your work’s visibility. Reviews are desirable. We want them. We spend money trying to get them. We need them to sell our works and continue publishing.
Authors should also understand that a 3 star review isn’t a negative review.
It should also be noted that readers are under no obligation to use proper grammar or write detailed reviews. We’ve elevated a system that relies on consumer reviews, and in doing so, we’ve abandoned a strict requirement for professional commentary. I’ll address that in another part of this series, but for this article, it’s only relevant to say that readers are only required to follow the site guidelines. This means reviewing content they’ve consumed and providing an honest opinion about the work.
You can report a review if the reviewer makes it clear they haven’t read the book. You can report a review that’s personally attacking the author. You can ask your friends to report it, although it’s best to do so privately to avoid a public attack on a reviewer. Remember, even if the review is violating the site’s terms or contains factual errors, perception is taken as truth by many people. This means if it looks like you’re bullying reviewers, you may deter other reviewers from covering your book. Readers may also decide to take your book off their TBR pile or TBP list. Consequently, it’s best to address factual errors or site violations through private channels.
It’s also crucial to note that your reviewer research continues book to book. Hopefully, you created a list of reviewers you approached and saved the pertinent information about subbing to each reviewer before you submitted a book for review. Ideally, you have a spouse or a trusted critique partner who can read the reviews and pull links and quotes you can use on your website and promotional material, or alert you to a source that you might not want to prioritize next time. Remember, you’re under no obligation to continue sending review copies to reviewers if you don’t feel your writing or subject matter suits their tastes.
It’s also crucial to remember that reviewers aren’t obligated to tell you how to fix issues with your plot or provide constructive criticism about how to improve the character development or any other aspect of your work. Reviewers should share their honest impression of the work they read, and it’s unreasonable to expect good grammar, expert insights, or writing tips from any unpaid reviewers. Professional reviewers aren’t responsible for telling writers how to fix their works, either. Their job’s to share their impressions to their audience can decide whether to read the work.
Negative reviews aren’t bad for books.
Reviews come in all shapes and sizes. Some are thoughtful pieces that take a deeper look at the content, while others are superficial recaps that endorse or pan the work. While artists want positive reviews, negative and mixed reviews are inevitable for most of us.
The same way I consider recommendations from people with similar tastes, I consider feedback from people who disagree with my views. If I discover someone whose view on every piece of art they discuss contradict my opinion, I’ll take their criticisms as a recommendation.
Yes, bad reviews sell books. Sometimes you read a review and you can understand all the reasons why the reviewer didn’t like the story or the characters, but those are the exact same reasons you know you’ll love it. It doesn’t mean the reviewer is an idiot or uncultured or cruel*. It just means their opinion differs.
Frankly, as a consumer, I’m nervous of most items that have wall to wall praise. I recognize my hypocrisy here, because as an author and editor, I’d love to have high ratings on everything. I think the main reason I find it suspicious as a consumer is the fact that few things are universally loved. And if a work only has a few reviews, and those reviews are all 5 stars, I’ll look to see that they’re consumer reviews. It’s usually pretty easy to spot the reviews written by the author’s mom or BFF. If there’s nothing left that endorses the work, it’s actually worse than having no reviews, because it could mean the writer’s trying to manipulate the rankings. I understand the temptation, but there are ways to get legitimate reviews authors can and should pursue.
When evaluating review sources, I consider their picks and their pans. Have you ever met someone who claimed they like everything? Every movie is good, every book is good, every music group is good. They never offer a different opinion about any of the art they consume.
I’ve never met such a person in real life, but I’ve seen reviewers presenting this image. And I ignore their opinions, because people are complex. Almost everyone has a favorite color, most have favorite genres, and it’s natural for people to prefer certain story types. There’s nothing wrong with loving an enemies-to-lovers trope or complex magic systems. Everyone should find what they enjoy and embrace it.
But that means there will be some things that just don’t rev our engines the way things we love do. And that’s okay. When a reviewer has wall-to-wall good reviews, I don’t know what factors would make them dislike a book, so it’s harder for me to trust their recommendations. It doesn’t mean reviewers need to be unnecessarily hurtful, but I appreciate it when a reviewer says, “This didn’t work for me, and here’s why.” Then I know how they evaluate stories, character arcs, plot twists. That helps me know if their recommendations will work for me.
After all, reviews are for readers, not authors. If not offending authors is a reviewer’s main concern, they shouldn’t be reviewing because they’re admitting they won’t be honest. This is particularly true of reviewers who establish themselves in any ongoing review capacity. It’s understandable for consumers to focus solely on what they love, but professional reviewers should have positive and negative reviews.
Should authors read their reviews?
Reviews are for readers, but authors, publicists, and publishers use them to promote books. This creates a difficult situation, because authors may feel they have to read their reviews to find quotes they can use for promotional purposes. Ideally, writers should ask their spouse or a trusted critique partner to vet reviews for them.
For a cautionary tale, let’s look at The Greek Seaman. A popular book blogger reviewed the book, and the author decided to jump in the comments and argue about the review.
At the top, you can see the final ranking the book blogger gave The Greek Seaman and their reason for that ranking. The author responded by berating the reviewer. Reviewers are never under any obligation to read a subsequent version of a book, particularly if they already finished the copy you originally submitted. Then they start flaming the comments with alleged reviews from Amazon. If you want to read how things deteriorated from there, many reader comments are still available, although The Greek Seaman’s author deleted some of hers. Head over to Goodreads, where the book has a 1.6 rating. Follow the link from there to Amazon. The book was removed from publication, and the original flame war was enough to elicit a rebuke from Neil Gaiman and more than one article highlighting the problems with the author’s response.
This serves as a warning for authors, publishers, and publicists today, and perhaps seeing such a condensed version of a flame war can serve to persuade industry professionals that it isn’t a good idea to attack reviewers. Have someone vet your reviews if it will keep you from attacking reviewers. I do tend to say this more to authors than anyone else, because they have an emotional connection to their work and are more likely to react when criticized.
Ideally, publishers and publicists should know to conduct themselves professionally. Yes, anyone involved with a book’s promotion may be frustrated by a review, but that’s what DMs are for. Venting online isn’t private, and not all publicity is good publicity, as The Greek Seaman’s author proved more than a decade ago.
*Please note, I’m not talking about reviews with factual errors, reviews containing racism/sexism/bigotry, or reviews that violate site policies. Another part of this series is titled “The Relationships Between Authors, Publishers, Publicists, and Reviewers” and discusses how to address those issues.