05 Dec 2016
Reviews and awards can be an effective tool in spreading the word about your book. Readers can encounter them on your web site, Amazon Author’s page, and your Twitter, Facebook, and other social media feeds. But buying book reviews has risks as well as rewards.
They come in two flavors: reviews and blurbs. A blurb is a short hit, praise for your book that you solicited from a (preferably) famous or authoritative person. If you write horror, it could be a blurb from Stephen King or Clive Barker. For a work on current affairs, a blurb from Meygn Kelly or Anderson Cooper could carry weight.
1. Pay to Play?
Reviews are an important component of any marketing plan. The opinion of a disinterested, knowledgeable reader can have an important carry-on effect. If the reviewer is well-known, it can convince readers to try your work. Even an extensive well-argued review from an unknown could be just as effective.
Before widespread self-publishing, publishers sent copies of new books to reviewers, who would pick and choose according to their taste, the buzz behind the work, their knowledge of the author, or other factors. Things outside the author’s control could come into play, such as the publicist’s relationship to the reviewer. In 1931, a publicist paid Alexander Woollcott $500 to promote William Faulker’s “Sanctuary” on his popular radio program.
Now that newspapers and magazines have slashed or eliminated book reviews, a new class of reviewer has appeared, this time with their hands out. Some of them are noted names, capitalizing on their reputation such as Kirkus.
These services operate on similar lines. You submit your book and pay a fee. They review it and send it to you. If you approve it, it is released. They put it up on their website (and any publications they have a relationship with) and you use it any way you like. Rejecting it buries the review, but they keep the money.
Are these pay-for-play services worth it? That depends on the answers to these questions:
1. The quality of the blurb. A look at Kirkus’ recent indie reviews shows what you can expect:
“Relishable lead characters front an enthusiastic, jaunty adventure.” (Landfall by Jerry Aubin)
“A promising first effort—filled with strong characters—that shines despite its ponderous writing style.” (Calypso Sun by Clay Alexander)
“A well-researched and enjoyable, if flawed, historical novel of American pioneers.” (The Promise Seed by Jody Glittenberg)
Are these useful blurbs? Will they convince a reader to pick up your book?
2. The chance of getting a good blurb. Reputable outlets have some stake in giving an honest review. It’s on a continuum: an average book getting a great review might not cause much damage, unlike a terrible book. And isn’t one person’s “average” book is another person’s “must read”?
Still, everyone can agree that if you can’t get a usable blurb for your book, you’ve wasted your money.
3. How you will exploit the blurb. You can’t influence #1 and #2, except by writing a damn good book. The only thing more useless than a bad review (unless you’re Norman Mailer who displayed the slams for one novel in an ad in The New York Times) is a great review that doesn’t appear anywhere else. If you’re considering paying for a review, make sure you know where you’re going to display it, such as your Amazon book page, your Amazon Author’s Page, prominently on your web site, in ads, your GoodReads’ page, etc.
You will find plenty of arguments on both sides about the value of paid reviews. There have been best-selling indie authors who do not use them. Genre authors, as a whole, will probably not benefit from them, at least not as much as enthusiastic Amazon reviewers.
Here are some services offering to review your book for a fee. This is not a recommendation. You need to visit their site, review their policies, and decide for your self. It may be helpful to read some of their reviews to get an idea of the quality and detail of their writing, and if you would be happy to see their words on the cover of your book.
Kirkus Indie Reviews
Foreword Clarion Reviews
US Review of Books
San Francisco Book Review (also Seattle and Manhattan)
PW Select Publisher’s Weekly does not offer book reviews for pay. They offer a number of book marketing services through BookLife, including submitting your book to them for possible review.
One tactics for getting reviews has been to ask Amazon reviewers who have liked books similar to yours. They would go to [DESCRIBE PROCESS] and search by genre.
The key to a successful solicitation are several fold.
Do NOT use automated services that spam reviewers on your behalf. I have received numerous requests from one such service. They are easy to identify in Gmail because they come from “Fantasy Author” or “Mystery Author.” The text is the same, as if the author filled out a form and included a paragraph with their book’s description.
I kill these email without looking at it. Why? Because I don’t like spam. I know that the author does not know my work. And I don’t do that much reviewing. In fact, if they saw my Amazon reviewer’s page, which states specifically that I don’t review books anymore, they would know not to bother with me.
So if you want a reviewer to look at your book, pick a number of them to approach. Read a few of their reviews to get a sense of their work (and if you want them to even read your book!).
Write them a personal e-mail, mentioning then you’ve seen their work. It doesn’t have to be a long email, but long enough to make your point, give ‘em your pitch, offer them a copy of your book, and bail.
After that, if you don’t hear from them, it’ll be all right to ask again, mentioning in the first graph that you had sent them a request but hadn’t heard back. After that, leave them alone. Clearly, the answer is no.
Because the purpose behind this is not to get a hundred reviews, but several very good reviews.
3. Handling bad reviews
It’s bound to happen: Someone will not like your work, and they want to tell the world.
It’s easy to feel hurt. Your book is your baby, and no one wants to be told their child is ugly or his character is shallow and not well thought out. The impulse to lash out is difficult to control.
Resist the impulse unless there are some very specific reasons why not. Such as:
* The reviewer is your ex-spouse, or formerly good friend.
* They dramatically misrepresent your book.
* There’s some other specific reason not covered by the above.
Other than that, it’s best not to feed the trolls. What are they? They’re shit-stirrers. They’re out to cause trouble. Wrestling with them risks getting some of that on you. Plus, it wastes mental energy better put to other uses.
Don’t confuse them with reviewers who have read your book and are simply disappointed with it. The difference between the two can be found in the review itself. If it is long, detailed, and quotes from the book, it was not written by a troll. If the opinions are short, misspelled, crude, and even personal, it was.
What can you do about a bad review? If countering them with your own opinion doesn’t help, you’ll need to step up your reviewing game. The tactic is called “flooding the zone,” and consists of getting positive reviews for your book that can counter the negative. A potential reader who sees the 1-star review will be more likely to discount it when he sees a number of 5-star reviews.
It’s not a perfect or ideal solution, but it’s the best one possible. Meanwhile, shake it off and work on your next book.
4. Awards: Scam or Fraud?
Welcome to the nebulous, slightly shady field of spurious awards.
Most literary awards carry some authority. Readers have heard of them. The National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Hugos and Nebulas (science-fiction and fantasy), the Ravens (mystery), the Bram Stoker (horror), and RITAs (romance).
Now, you can’t swing a convention goodie bag without metaphorically hitting an award. In one online interview, the author bragged her novel was shortlisted for a speculative fiction and a historical fiction prize, and that it will be considered for no less than three more prizes in horror, fantasy, and “alternative fiction.” That’s a lot of categories.
You see them in interviews and Amazon book pages, a list of awards that sound impressive: “Best Genre Book, [Big City] Book Festival”, “The Balzac Award for Historical Fiction”, “MouthSounds Magazine Award for Best Poem.” You even hear of a “Pulitzer-nominated” book, a distinction of no distinction because anyone can “nominate” a work for the Pulitzer by sending it in and paying the entry fee.
But when you look into them, you find websites in the business of judging awards. One site offers awards in more than a dozen fictional categories, with a “shortlist” that ranges from 23 to 35 works.
A shortlist, by the way, seems to have been adopted from British book awards such as the Orange and Booker prizes. In addition to the winner, these competitions also announce the books that were on the “shortlist” for the prize, like how the Oscars are awarded from a list of nominees. But a list of five or six shortlisted books sounds much more impressive than the ones I’ve seen that list 25 or more. It sounds like paying the entry fee guaranteed being on the shortlist, which is not much of an honor.
Then there are the city-based book festivals that also award prizes. Winning an award from a longtime event, such as the Los Angeles Book Festival, could actually mean something more than an award from a company that sponsors festivals in a dozen cities.