Monday, August 17, 2020

Sometimes no review IS the review

Reviews are the ultimate chicken/egg for authors. We need sales to get reviews, but we need reviews to get sales. Lack of reviews, or more precisely, lack of positive reviews, can kill a book launch.

Take The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo for example. Maybe I suck at marketing (a non-zero possibility), but I just couldn't get that one off the ground. The reception when I submitted it to places like Net Galley was crickets. Whereas Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed resonated there. In fact, the thoughtful reviews Sorry got there (not all four- and five-star, but detailed and informative) really helped it find its audience. No coincidence it's my best-selling book. And I can't move First World Problems--or Dispatches from a Tourist Trap, its sequel--to save my life. There will someday be a third book to finish off the trilogy, but it's hard to prioritize that project when it seems destined to die in its crib.

I am a very regular (read daily) consumer of Carolyn Hax's advice column in the Washington Post, and have been for years. Friday, during her weekly live Q&A chat, someone wrote and asked for advice on how to deal with an author acquaintance who had asked for a review of a book they didn't care for.

Q: Honesty in Reviews?

Here's one I don't think you've tackled before. I know at least 4 people who have published books on Amazon. All have asked me to please leave a review. Three of the books were fairly good (one was really great), but one was really hard to slog through. Three would have benefited from being trimmed to half their length. I have navigated through real-life situations by finding something honest and positive to say about most situations ("What do you think of this dress?" etc.) and I can do that with written reviews. But what do I do about star ratings and remain honest? They're pretty black and white. If I can't lie (and I won't, because then reviews are worthless), should I decline to leave a review at all? So far I've just put it off, but I'll be asked again. Is there any way I can decline that's not hurtful?

Carolyn gave a lengthy and thorough answer, but the thrust of it was this bit:

The success of a book is unfortunately dependent on these reviews, and so it's common practice for authors to ask everyone they know to leave a review. But, because of just the kind of awkwardness you describe, these requests are only friendly if they don't put people on the spot.

Spot on. And trust me, it's awkward as hell to ask for reviews.

I've also been on the other side. I've encountered other authors who, while they may not have explicitly have come out and said it, essentially proposed a you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours review swap. And you know they don't want to trade a positive review of my book for a critical one of theirs.

The moral dilemma is much easier to whistle past when their book is legitimately good. But when it's not? Awk-ward. Sometimes I'm suddenly too busy to post anything on any social media account. As one of the followup commenters put it, "Sometimes no review IS the review." If I'm honest, I've wondered/assumed this from time to time when people have promised me they'd post a review of one of my books on Amazon. And then haven't.

Or have they? I've noticed recently that there seem to be a number of "hidden" reviews for some of my books. Sorry was stuck on 27 total reviews for a long time, which I always found a bit suspicious, considering how steadily it sells. I moved 400 units on Amazon last year and got three reviews. I mean, if we're accepting the premise that no review can be the review, surely someone must have hated it enough at some point to actually say so.

Then, last month, within the span of 10 days, I got two new reviews (both five stars, btw), giving me a total of four for 2020. And then the review count kept climbing ... 30, 31, 32, 33, 34. But the strange part was, no actual new reviews were visible on Amazon. It's as if their totals don't match up with the number of actual reviews. I saw the same for The Greatest Show on Dirt and Nine Bucks a Pound, whose totals both rose without visible new additional reviews.

Are they catching up with a backlog? Is there a glitch in the system? Is something sinister afoot?

I'd put my dollar on a combination of #1 and #2.

And while I'm on the subject of reviews and Carolyn Hax, a hearty F-U to the reader who said, "RE: "Such a raw deal, that authors have to do so much of their own marketing"--AUTHORS don't. the people who do their own marketing on Amazon, etc., are the self-published people who know little about writing and couldn't get even a small local press interested."

This may still be the case for some writers, but this is a 2005 mindset. Many authors much, much more successful than me in terms of both writing income and books sold choose to go indie these days. Unless you have one of the big houses pounding on your door waving six-figure (or seven?) advance checks, it can be hugely advantageous to put yourself in charge.

I spend way too much of my time stalking other authors and their books on Amazon. It's almost become a hobby in itself, but the goal is to find suitable advertising targets. I want to find books that are compatible with mine, where if I place a sponsored ad on Amazon, a reader is likely to click it because if they liked Book A, they might want to buy Book B (mine). I came across a book that was released a year or so before I published The Greatest Show on Dirt. A book I reviewed for Baseball America back when I reviewed books for them. I gave it a positive review, because it was really damn good, and I wasn't alone. It got a lot of very positive press when it came out.

Fast forward to now ... its sales rank is 1,117,708. Which, sadly I know firsthand from First World Problems' rank, means it's selling in the low single digits each month. Its list price for a Kindle book is a whopping $14.49. And the small publisher that released it a decade ago: out of business.

The kicker is there's another baseball book out this year that is selling very well and certainly shares much of that same audience. If you created a Venn diagram of the readership for the two, the circles would overlap quite a lot. If the author of that 2010 book held full control over his rights, he could price it somewhere in the $3.99-6.99 range, set up an ad campaign to target that new book's readers, among others, and likely see a huge renaissance in sales.

But he's not in control, and whatever advance he would have received back in 2010 is almost certainly not worth the premature death of his book.

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