The First 50 Reviews


In this guest post, Alison Morton takes us through a detailed strategy for authors who want to acquire their first 50 reviews. Alison is the author of five historical thrillers, which have been widely reviewed. Her novel SUCCESSIO was an editor’s pick in The Bookseller in 2014.

Recognition is something most people crave, admitted or not. Sometimes it’s an (un)acknowledged motivator for writing and publishing a book. People write for many reasons, but little beats the tingle of seeing your name on the front of a work you’ve created. Recognition takes many forms, such as a mention in the mass media, praise from your peers, congratulations from your family and friends and importantly, reaction from the consumers of your work, the readers, in the form of reviews.

But once they put your book down, over 95% of readers pass on to the next one in their ‘to be read’ pile. That’s fair enough; they’ve paid their money and read your book. The ‘contract’ is completed. If they post a review, they have made an additional, and generous, gift of their time.

Professional reviews that appear in magazines are exciting. My third book, SUCCESSIO, reached the dizzy heights of Editor’s Pick in The Bookseller. However, most reviews will be online at book review sites or retailer sites. Both are valuable, but like it or not, Amazon reviews are the ones most often quoted in any numbers game.

The first ten reviews are reasonably easy to acquire, the next ten harder.  The climb from 20 to 50 is the steepest and most arduous. I now have 81 reviews on Amazon UK (average 4.5 stars), 53 on Amazon US (average 4.3 stars) for my first book, INCEPTIO. This has taken over three years.

 Why do you want reviews?

Is it purely to trigger Amazon’s algorithm and sell more books? Is it to take part in a promotion with an entry requirement of X number of reviews? If you are indie, do you wish to attract an agent or publisher for some of your rights? Is it to show yourself and others that you have ‘made it’ as a writer? All, some or none of these? Whatever your goals, pursuing reviews will eat into your writing time and can be a slow process especially after a sudden initial rush around publication. So let’s unpick the process…

Phase 1 – Early preparation

Social media

You probably guessed this one! However, in talks I’ve given about social media at events even in 2016, I’ve been shocked to discover that some writers still do not have a website, let alone blog, Facebook or Twitter accounts, or were considering them only now they had books out. You need to begin much earlier.

Although I had no published book to promote, I started my blogsite in 2010 knowing it could be a considerable time before my first book, INCEPTIO, was published (which turned out to be March 2013). I charted my writing career, reported on news and conferences, shared rejections and decisions and accumulated a following. Ditto for Twitter and a Facebook author page. Whether you call them followers, a street team, loyal fans or a ‘barmy army’, these are likely to provide some of your first reviews, so you need to nurture them.

A word about ‘content marketing’

This is a fancy description for a softer form of marketing; giving followers excerpts, back story, tips, hints, insights, updates, etc. Occasionally you can write commercial posts with the ‘buy my book’ message and/or asking for a review, but 80% of your posts, whether on social media, your own blog or as a guest on somebody else’s, should be content marketing. In this way, followers will get to know you as a human being and be more sympathetic to buying your book and reviewing it.

Build up a mailing list

This is a resource you own; social media engines like Facebook and Twitter are not under your control. A mailing list, steadily grown, will be full of potential first readers and thus reviewers. You can offer a regular newsletter, a novella or if you have several books, a free book when people sign up. How to grow and manage mailing lists is a full subject by itself, but at the very least make sure you have buttons on your site and Facebook page which click through to a sign-up form.

Be a joiner

Whether a writers’ circle in your home town, a Facebook group or a genre society, join in and contribute. If other writers get to know you, they may recommend your book to their readers, tell you about promotion opportunities and be more relaxed about your review request.

Endorsements

Books with endorsements from famous authors are more credible than from an albeit talented unknown – a harsh truth. During my pre-publication years, I attended conferences, workshops and classes, participated in forums, went to writers’ meetings and parties. Apart from learning about writing craft and the publishing industry, I was networking, building up contacts and becoming a known face. In this way, Adrian Magson became my mentor, broadcaster Sue Cook became a firm friend of Roma Nova and Simon Scarrow and Conn Iggulden (amongst others) endorsed my books.

Result: A solid platform from which to launch, social credibility from endorsers and a pool of potential reviewers.

Phase 2 – Pre-publication and publication period

Production phase

The ‘buy – read – review’ cycle starts months before publication with the development of an enticing ‘hook’ for the reverse of a print book and online retailer product pages. A tactful request along the lines of “if you enjoyed this book, I’d really appreciate it if you would leave a review” can be inserted at the end of an eBook at this production stage. Traditionally published authors have little control over production, but it never hurts to ask! Indie authors have more freedom here.

Pre-publication

Now you have built up a group of writing friends and contacts, you should be able to ask them six to eight weeks before publication to read an advance (free) copy of your book and, if possible, to put an honest review online on or shortly after publication day. Writers understand what you are asking. This is not unethical, but normal practice. And please accept refusal gracefully. Do not ask your mum or best friend who have never reviewed anything on an online site to post a 5-star rave review on publication day. It’s easily spotted and discredited.

Two weeks before publication, send out an email to your mailing list and offer free advance copies (usually a neat PDF file). You can’t make a review a condition of receiving a free advance copy, but you can strongly suggest it!
If you are traditionally published, your publicist will contact magazines, radio, television, national newspapers ahead of publication to request an interview, review or mention. They will place your book on Netgalley where bloggers can download a no frills advance copy to review. The publicist may organise a physical tour or more likely a virtual blog tour, and they will have organised or at least supported a launch event. Independent authors, unless they hire their own publicist, will do this themselves.

Result: 10-15 reviews on Amazon/Goodreads and 5-10 from independent bloggers/printed magazines.

Post publication

All authors can claim their Amazon author page. In Amazon Author Central, upload a professional photo, a bio including website/blogsite URL. Check all your books including your latest are included.  Add your blog feed, Twitter feed and any book trailers.

A good post-publication way to receive reviews is to approach book bloggers. You may not get in the national dailies, but you can search out the hundreds of blogs, including genre specialists, on the Internet. Comment on previous reviews on the sites you think most appropriate. When you pitch to bloggers, read their review policies, always address each request individually and be polite and brief. If there are no specific guidelines, include the following information:

  • who you are
  • what the book is about – a brief synopsis
  • the thing that makes your book special
  • the what/when/where of the book’s publication
  • any awards, endorsements from extra special people and averages on the main retailer if it’s very good, e.g. 4.8 average on Amazon
  • whether you can offer an e-book or a paperback
  • how to get in contact with you

Result: A 10-15% acceptance rate is very good. Good bloggers will also post their reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

Tip: Keep a spreadsheet with contact name, site address, email address, date asked/pitched, date agreed, date drafted, date sent. And a final column for the URL for the review/guest post that resulted so you can repost it in the future.

Phase 3 – The long tail

The big publication push is over, perhaps it’s six months down the line. Hopefully you have 15-20 reviews by now, perhaps 25. This is very respectable. And equally hopefully, those reviews are spread over Amazon and Goodreads.

Blog interaction

The next stage is to maintain interest, spread visibility and hence be discovered by new readers. Comment on other people’s blogs, ask to write guest posts or answer Q&A interviews on these blogs and keep asking for reviews. Offering a free book, either eBook or print copy, as a reader giveaway is a good incentive for the blogger to accept your request. If blog readers don’t win your book in the giveaway, they may buy it anyway.

Back to social media

You may have done this already and I rather hope you have, but you should become active in social media groups relating to your book’s content and interact consistently. This is the modern word of mouth. Without being spammy you can sometimes introduce your book with comments such as ‘Oh, I discovered similar XYZ while I was researching [name of your book]’.  I’ve sold many a copy like that and received reviews as a result.

Recruit a wider circle

Now is the time for your nearest and dearest, your work colleagues and loyal friends to read and review your book. Ask them if there is any way they can mention your book when they are on social media, in the lunch queue or even at the hairdressers’.

Look up authors in your genre and Google them to see where reviews of their books appeared. Contact those book bloggers as above. Repeat.

Goodreads review groups

Search Goodreads for genuine review groups. As with any social media, you’ll need to watch them for a while and you may have to wait several months. Once your book is scheduled, you may get a real bump in online reviews.

Hand selling and reviews

If you are selling your print books at an event, you could insert a note in at the back of each book suggesting to readers that if they enjoyed it, they might like to write a review.

An update on Amazon

Amazon now lists reviews from ‘verified purchases’ separately from free advance copies and review copies. Only ‘verified purchases’ reviews are displayed unless a reader clicks on “All reviews”, but both are counted towards the overall number. Some reviewers offer to buy a copy of your book but ask you to defray the cost.

Press/online articles

Writing an article in a field you know enhances your reputation and profile. As with book bloggers, pitch politely and highlight what you can offer the blog/magazine readers. If you are offered a column in a local newspaper or lifestyle magazine then grab the opportunity with all ten fingers and thumbs. If you are lucky enough to be approached by a journalist, respond like lightning. They may introduce you to the book review editor…

Paid reviews

I’ve never paid for a review as I think that’s unethical. It’s also expensive. For a few hundred dollars or pounds, you could run a number of paid promotions which will give you exposure to thousands of readers and potentially several reviews.

Organic reviews

These come when you have done the hard work above. When you publish the next few books, readers already engaged with your work are more likely to buy your book and a higher percentage are likely to leave a review.

Result: Gradual addition of reviews, but do not expect more than one at a time, even one every month is good. But three years after its launch, my first book, INCEPTIO is still gathering new reviews.

In conclusion, gaining reviews is closely allied with marketing your book. A plan, hard work and patience are the key elements.