The Essential First Step for New Authors: Book Reviews, Not Sales

how to get book reviews
Photo credit: B Tal on / CC BY-NC

Today’s guest post is by David Wogahn (@wogahn) of Author Imprints and author of The Book Reviewer Yellow Pages.

You know how good your work is. You created it. You lived with it through the phases of publication gestation: idea, brainstorming, outline, research, writing, and rewriting. You have improved, enhanced, and polished your work to a degree you didn’t think possible. You believe it’s perfect.

Alas, your opinion is not the most important at this point in your publishing cycle. You need third-party confirmation to attract readers. You need (positive) independent assessment to convince readers to spend money and time—money AND time.

British sociologist John Thompson, an expert in the influence of the media in the formation of modern societies, identifies five resources or capital that are essential for publishing success in his book titled Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. Thompson writes that besides cash, the most important resource is symbolic capital, which he defines as “the accumulated prestige and status associated with the publishing house.”

Book reviews build symbolic capital

New authors—certainly self-published authors—have no symbolic capital. They are not (yet) known for producing quality books that seduce readers to the degree that they are willing to part with some of their disposable income, not to mention time. Is it possible for self-publishing authors to create symbolic capital? Absolutely yes, and many have.

In today’s increasing online world of book shopping, I argue it is book reviews that build symbolic capital. A shopper evaluating a book for purchase when it has no, or few, reviews is like the hungry guest walking into an empty restaurant. How good can this place be if no one is here eating?

Even traditional publishers with symbolic capital “in the bank” must actively solicit book reviews so their authors’ books can succeed in our unimaginably crowded retail market.

Where should you begin?

book review journeyThe key to a successful book launch is prospecting for reviews in safer territories first, and expanding in stages. The goal is to have some number of reviews in place—the book’s social proof and symbolic capital—before investing in general promotions. How many? As many as you can but 10 is a good goal.

Let’s walk through the four territories illustrated in The Book Review Journey.

Loyal Fans. These are people that know, like, and trust you. They are also the ones most likely to leave a review. For an established author, they are readers who reviewed previous books. For new authors, the circle can be very small indeed—it depends on the depth of their network, and the extent to which that network is familiar with the author’s writing. But be careful—approaching close contacts to review your book carries three risks.

  1. Amazon is good at spotting reviews from friends and family and may reject the review (or worse) if it is from a known family member.
  2. If your Loyal Fan network hasn’t left reviews for other books, their sole review of your book will carry little weight with shoppers who happen to look at who wrote the review.
  3. The third risk relates to number two. Some Loyal Fans go overboard and review the author rather than the book, or gush without including any meaningful feedback.

Addressable Audience. I define this group as those who have given you permission to contact them, in some way related to your writing or the subject matter of your book. This last part is important. It isn’t enough that someone gave you their email address, liked your page/profile, or follows you. If you run a dry cleaning business, and decide to tell your mailing list about your new romance novel, the level of engagement with this list will be proportional to their awareness of you as a romance author.

The purpose of having an Addressable Audience is so you can notify them when you do something they might find interesting, which is presumably the reason why they gave you permission to contact them in the first place.

Addressable Audience members become Loyal Fans when they buy something, and/or act to tell others about it.

Chosen Reviewers. The first two stages take time to build and nurture, but it’s friendly territory and engaging them to review your book should come naturally. Proactively seeking reviewers is different. There are many options and a successful strategy takes time, and potentially money, to execute.

The most important guidance is to seek reviewers who enjoy books like yours. These readers are far more likely to respond favorably to an invitation to invest the time to read your book and offer an informed view.

I call them Chosen Reviewers because you still have some measure of control over whom you approach.

  • Reviewers of comparable books. Look up books similar to yours on Amazon, Goodreads, and other retailers, and contact those who have left reviews about reviewing your book. Or use a service to help you harvest possible reviewers to approach.
  • Book bloggers are an excellent source of potential reviews. True, they must be willing and available, and even identifying them requires work, but the advantages are two-fold: (1) you’ll get a review, often posted in multiple places and (2) your book receives promotion when the blogger shares their review on their website and via social media.
  • Blog tour organizers are a third source. They help authors organize review tours—a type of tour where getting book reviews is the objective of the blog tour (as opposed to promotional tours). Some even offer co-op style arrangements for submitting books to a reviewer network such as NetGalley.

What about paid reviews?

I believe that it is too simplistic to say that “spending money on reviews” is bad, or unethical. There are several perfectly legitimate and ethical instances where spending money is necessary, or advantageous, even when pursuing reviews from reviewers associated with the above three categories. And review services such as Kirkus are an accepted and trusted resource by many in the book trade.

Rather than make a blanket statement, I say that it depends on the book, the author, and the marketing plans for the book, not to mention your budget. Also consider what’s important to your primary audience of readers.

Even if you can afford to pay hundreds of dollars for Kirkus to review your book about hiking in Colorado, it’s doubtful your readers will care, and concentrating on Amazon customer reviews is probably just the ticket for your self-published romance book.

For a more in-depth discussion of this topic see Jane’s post, Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It? Be sure to scroll down and read the comments, especially the exchange with one of the paid book review companies. It’s important reading.

The Public. Unfortunately, this is where many authors begin—the uncharted wilderness. Cold and unforgiving, we’re at the mercy of someone who does not know us or does not pay much attention to whether our book is a fit for their reading interests. And that’s if they even bother to take a chance since there are few or no reviews. We’re living on hope, and dying from despair.

The alternative is patience and prioritizing reviews before promotions

The point is that we do have control. Instead of a straight-to-the-public Hail Mary our intrepid explorer has blazed a path through the first three territories of their review journey, in the order outlined above. They have several—perhaps ten or more—reviews to show the public before investing in marketing programs to drive readers to their book.

Then when the general reader arrives they see social proof; the book has symbolic capital.

You cannot control what reviewers say, but approaching those most likely to enjoy your book will set the tone for reviews and sales to follow.

Let us know in the comments: How have you approached getting reviews for your books? Do you have a formula or strategy that’s worked?

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