So let’s talk about something we all want, but we’re not supposed to ask for. Something that for a writer is like water to a man dying of thirst in the desert, food to a woman begging on a street corner in Bangladesh.
When I was a naïve unpublished writer, I never imagined it would be difficult to get people to tell me what they thought of my books. After all, the agents and publishers sending me all those rejections were more than happy to tell me what they didn’t like about the premise in my blurbs or the opening chapters. Contest judges were free with their advice about the good and the bad points of my writing. Opinions were everywhere.
But now that I’m in the business of selling books, I find getting readers to share their opinions publicly is like pulling teeth. An informal poll of my friends who are readers indicates many of them are intimidated by the process (which couldn’t be easier—really) or they see it as a chore, like a book report from school. They seem to think it takes all the fun out of reading the book if you have to rate it afterwards. They whine if you ask them to help you out by writing 20 little words in a review. And Lord knows you can’t pay them! (NOTE TO ALL GOVERNING BODIES: Humor intended.)
|PLEASE! Just one little review! I'm begging you!|
It's even more complicated within the community of writers who are also readers. Amazon has obscure rules about authors reviewing authors. It’s not entirely clear whether you can or not, or whether you can get away with it or not under certain circumstances (like reviewing under aliases). The SFR community is particularly hampered by these rules because we have a disproportionate number of writers to readers (eg. many, if not most, of our readers are also writers).
There are plenty of blogs and folks who just like to review books for the fun of it. God bless them! I’ve requested reviews from them for my book launches, almost always with great success. The problem is requesting those reviews is cumbersome and time-consuming, requiring an individual email to each one, and scheduling, and back-and-forth. It’s nearly as difficult as the old querying process. And with the sheer volume of new books coming out these days, reviewers are overwhelmed. Wait times for reviews are now routinely four to six months.
Then there are the review services, like NetGalley. Ask any ten people about those services and you’ll get ten different opinions about whether you should use them, ranging from, “They’re great!” to “They’ll destroy your book forever!” I’ve never been brave enough to try, though lately I’ve come to believe that even bad reviews are better than no reviews.
And here’s why: Amazon has sales algorithms that are based on the number of reviews a book has garnered. At various levels, those algorithms kick in, triggering attention for the book in Amazon’s daily features, "you might like" recommendations, etc. So at ten reviews, you get a little notice, at 20 some more, at 50 quite a bit, at 100, wow! And so on. The algorithms are all computer-based—no one is reading the reviews to see whether they’re good or bad, though they are tracking the star ratings.
So let’s say you have five reviews and all of them are five stars. Great, you say! Not so great—Amazon will ignore you. But if you have 50 reviews that average out to 3.5 stars, Amazon will treat you like a wunderkind. Part of that is due, of course, to the fact that you sold enough books to get 50 reviews. But part of it is due to the stupid computer. (If you’ve ever questioned why so many books you think are not so wonderful are selling like hotcakes, this is part of the problem.)
Ah, but not all reviews are welcome, you say. What about trolls? And, yes, the trolls are out there. Not sure there is anything to be done about them except to develop a thick skin and never, ever respond.
I’ve done a little research, I’ve made some observations, but I have no real solution for the problem of what to do about the need for reviews. Suggestions, anyone? Because this book-selling business is tough going, and nothing eases the way more than a good review.