One of the handiest tools in an author’s marketing toolkit is the reader review. In fact, gathering reviews for your work may be the best marketing move you can make—and a far better strategy than most other marketing approaches.
Asking for reviews, however, can be an uncomfortable experience. It feels like shilling, or begging. It’s awkward and icky. Most authors have decades of cultural voices in their heads telling them to be modest, to keep their accomplishments quiet, to never boast. And asking for reviews—it feels like asking people for praise.
On the flip side, some authors avoid asking for reviews because they’re afraid of what they might hear. A negative review could feel crushing to them. It could speak to all their basic fears, and put them in the awkward position of having to consider their choices. What if they aren’t good enough? What if that negative review is right, and the book is terrible?
Negative reviews are certainly a possibility, but we can learn from them. And as for asking for praise—we need to rethink that. We ask for reviews so we can use them to help other readers find our work. We owe it to those readers to make it as easy as possible to find and purchase a book they will love. That’s the main purpose of a review. Let’s look at a few more.
Reviews serve multiple purposes for the savvy author:
Humans like shortcuts. We build them into every decision process we have. We buy the same brand of cereal or the same brand of computer for the same reasons: We know what to expect from that brand, and we’re good with it.
But when we don’t know what to expect, we have another shortcut that helps: We look to see what others are doing. We look for social proof, to help us decide whether buying a book will be the experience we’re after.
Reviews provide the reader with that social proof. A reader can pop onto a book’s product page, read the description, and check the price, and may still have reservations. So they scroll down to see what other people think of the book. If they like what they read, they’ll hit the buy button.
Refining Your Work—
Feedback from family and friends can be helpful, but nothing beats the sharp-edged blade of a critical review when it comes to cutting away all the fluff and revealing the rough bits of your work. Reviews give us a chance to see our work from a new perspective, and to know what’s working and what isn’t.
We’ll get into negative reviews in just a bit, but it’s worth mentioning that negative reviews can be your best tool for improving your craft. Just don’t let them convince you that you’re not good enough—I promise, you are good enough.
Social proof helps nudge the purchasing process, but a related benefit to reviews is that they increase your discoverability—they make it easier for readers to stumble across your work.
One way is through adding keywords to your product page, that aren’t strictly included in either your book description or the finite number of keywords you’re allowed to add (this number varies between distributors, but is generally between five and seven words).
While reviews are (apparently) not included in some distributor search tools, they do often get picked up by major search engines, such as Google.
A potential reader may stumble across your book after searching for random turns of phrase that only appear in the reviews of your book. In this way, the more reviews you have, the greater the opportunities for discovery, from means outside of the eBook retailers themselves.
Learning How to Market Your Work—
One of the trickiest things about marketing books is determining the interests of the target audience. Ideally you want to figure this out before you start marketing, but sometimes you learn more from feedback than from research.
Once you start seeing more reviews, you’ll start getting a feel for what resonates with the readers (see Refining Your Work above). That feedback is invaluable for going back to the drawing board a bit, retooling your marketing message in ads, in book descriptions, in blog posts, and anywhere else you’re talking about your work.
Your readers will tell you exactly what they like about the book, and you can use that to help target similar readers.
Now that we’ve covered why reviews are handy, let’s look at some best practices for asking for them from you readers.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of a pushy salesman. There’s nothing more uncomfortable (and more infuriating) than someone interrupting your day just to shove an offer in your face. That’s why “sales” has such a bum rap.
But just as there are “good” sales techniques, there are ways to do this without being intrusive or insulting:
Approach People Who are Already on Your Side—
It’s a bit crazy to ask someone to review your book if they’ve never read it. So, let’s get that “technique” out of the way right off: Do not ask someone to review your book unless you know they’ve read it.
On the other hand, there’s a good chance you know several people who have read your book. And there’s nothing at all wrong with approaching them for a review. As with bowling a strike or pitching a curveball, however, it’s all in the technique.
Offer an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) for a Review—
Certain distributors have rules regarding what you can and cannot offer in exchange for a review, but all vendors allow you to give away ARCs. Guidelines vary, of course, but you should be fine across the board as long as you ask your reviewer to mention that they “received a free copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.”
A review from a “verified purchase” carries a bit more weight, in terms of social proof, but any reviews you can get are helpful. Consider giving copies away to readers who have a track record of leaving reviews online. Ask them to send you a link to one of their past reviews, to show that they follow through, and then give them a copy, trusting they’ll do the same for you.
NOTE: Some readers will take your free book and never leave a review. It happens. When it does, do not get angry and confront them. You can nudge them, gently, and ask if they’ll get around to it soon. But if they don’t, your best plan is to quietly mark them off the list of people who get special favors from you in the future, and move about your life. Going negative won’t get you anything good.
Put a Call to Action (CTA) in Every Book—
For writers, we sure are forgetful. We almost always forget to ask for what we want during the most opportune time to ask it: Immediately after the reader has read the book.
Make it a habit to add a CTA to the end of every book, asking readers to leave a review. It’s the perfect time and place.
Mention Reviews in Your Newsletter—
There are two places where I would recommend mention reviews, in terms of your newsletter:
Your email newsletter is valuable real estate. You should always consider how to use it strategically.
Don’t Forget About Your Website—
You likely have a website or blog or some other online presence. This is a perfect place to insert a message to readers, asking them to review your books. Go out of your way to make this as easy a process as possible, linking to your books (via UBLs) from a central place.
You can include a note about reviewing your books on your social media profiles as well. Anywhere you have a presence online, make sure you ask. Asking is the important part.
“What if I get negative reviews?”
You will. It’s a fact. There are people who will read what you’ve written, and regardless of what anyone else may love about it, they will feel compelled to tear it down as publicly as possible.
There is an old-standing ideology about bad press: We worry that if someone is talking negatively about us and our work, others will believe it. And often, that’s true. There will always be those who are willing to believe the worst, based on the opinions of strangers.
But there are ultimately three things you need to do when you get a negative review:
Learn from it—
Negative reviews can be very instructional (even if they aren’t always very nice). You can often learn vital things about your work by considering the negative observations of others. Particularly if you are getting several of those negative reviews, and they’re all mentioning the same things. Those may well be weaknesses for you to shore up.
Go Get Many More Reviews—
Negative reviews can bring down your overall ratings, knocking you off the five-star ladder, but they don’t have to determine your future. The answer to negative reviews is to go find even more reviews. Use that negative as motivation to get three more positives.
And it’s important to note, you shouldn’t do this in a “revenge” mindset. Don’t go out and ask people to trash the poor sob who trolled you online. Don’t report him or her as spam or abusive unless they really are spam or being abusive. Instead, fight negative with positive.
Nothing says you have to even read a negative review. They’re not all helpful. In fact, sometimes it’s better to just adopt the rule of never bothering to look at negative criticism or feedback.
It’s true you can sometimes learn a lot from critics. But it’s also true that a large percentage of what a critic has to say may have little to nothing to do with your goals and strategy as an author. If negative reviews have a big impact on your sense of motivation and personal value, the very best practice is to skip them.
If you want the value of them, without having to put something hurtful or negative in your brain, ask someone who can be objective, and who knows your goals and your business, to read them and take out the useful bits for you.
Repeat after me: “I will never pay someone to review my book.”
Swear to it. Take an oath. Etch it into the glass of your mirror. Paying for reviews has always been and will always be a bad idea.
For starters, nearly every distributor has rules against it. The biggies, like Amazon, may even take actions against you, such as pulling your book or even suspending your account entirely.
This just isn’t a good idea.
There is one possible exception, however.
There are third-party services, such as Kirkus Reviews, that will give you a completely unbiased review if you pay them for it. Their rates are generally high—thousands of dollars for an in-depth review of your book. But they do have a commitment to writing something that takes no heed of the fact that they’ve been paid to do it. They can and will be brutally honest about your work. So tread lightly.
These types of reviews are different from what we’re discussing here, in general terms. For starters, they aren’t posting these reviews on the product page of your book. These are generally given to you to use as you see fit, and will sometimes be included in a third-party publication.
These can be good for you, if the review is favorable. You are welcome to include it as part of your book description, which can be posted on the product page for your book. You can also use it on the back cover or on an interior page of your book. You can post it on your website, share it social media, and do whatever else you like with it.
The value of this kind of review is a bit dubious, in my opinion, but there are authors who swear by them.
However, as far as paying someone to go and review your book on Amazon, Apple iBooks, Nook, Kobo, or anywhere else, forget it. Don’t even entertain the thought. It is entirely possible that a paid review could ruin your chances for a successful book. It’s not worth the risk.
Book reviews are the heart of every author’s marketing efforts. They offer so many advantages, and make things much easier. There’s no downside to asking for them—it’s all upside.
Why are we so afraid to ask for them? There are plenty of reasons, but the most common is that we worry what people will think. We worry that if we ask for something we want, people will think we’re greedy or we’re trying to pull one over, or we’re immodest. We think people will judge us as being full of ourselves.
Some people are bound to react that way, but if someone has read your work and loved it, they’ll be happy to say something nice about it. And we, as authors, owe it to readers to ask for these reviews. They help new readers discover books they’ll love, and that’s a great service.
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. As in all things, even if the answer is “no,” there’s much to be gained simply by asking. You see that a no isn’t as scary as you thought it was, for starters. And you discover that you will likely get a yes more often. You’ll particularly get a review more often when you ask for one than you will if you never ask at all.
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