It has been said that authors live and die by reviews. Nowadays, in the heat of the self-publishing revolution, this is truer than ever. ePublishing has ushered in the beginnings of a paradigm shift, where readers are becoming the new gatekeepers of the publishing industry. Well, maybe not the gatekeepers—more like the caretakers—as they are definitely more visibly involved in a book’s ranking. Reader reviews such as those on Amazon (and other sites) are becoming true indicators of not only popularity but also quality.
That said; there is no denying that the marketing machines behind the major publishing houses still reign in mighty ways. A press release for a new book coming out from Random House, for example, still has significantly more impact than an indie author tweeting about their blog tour. There are sure to be advertisements and reviews found in the major newspapers both funded and managed by the large publishers. Ignoring shelf space in bookstores, which is still a huge chunk of the market, we’re much more likely to see well-funded marketing efforts online with lots of “above the fold” placement for new “big six” releases too. When we see this, it really exemplifies the black hole of publicity that most writers find themselves struggling to escape. It is very hard to get even a little attention paid to the self-published book, regardless of the effort and expense the author may put into marketing it. The industry is simply not yet geared to allow an easy sharing of limelight with traditionally published authors, and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future it would seem.
This is why reader reviews are so important for the indie writer. While it’s obvious that there is a lot of “five star fluffing” happening, it’s my contention that with enough “thoughtful” reviews, a book will stand out as being worth a try for most readers. On a side note, thanks to the advent of the eReader, free samples make trying a new author completely risk free, and that’s a good thing. At the end of the day, the hope is that with enough reviews, visibility increases. If the reviews are stellar, a book might even get selected as an Amazon Editor’s Pick, which is like a shot of recognition in the arm for the aspiring indie writer.
The problem is, as I see it, that it’s a real challenge for indie writers to get enough reviews to actually stand out among the established crowd. If we take a look at some Amazon top sellers, we can see that Fifty Shades of Grey has ~7500 reviews right now. Hunger Games has ~8000. Interestingly, their star weightings are very different with FSoG having ~40% of its ratings composed from 1-3 star reviews (these are considered “critical,” or not-positive, according to Amazon), and HG’s 1-3 star ratings composing only 10% of its total reviews.
I think this is interesting because it somewhat underscores the concept that “any news is good news.” Or it may just be that there are quite a few people impassioned enough about how bad they think FSoG is that they feel compelled to express it. Anyhow, what I’m saying is that indie authors will be hard pressed to ever see these kinds of numbers. Even the legendary J.A. Konrath’s Amazon reviews are measured in tens (mostly) and hundreds (a few), not thousands.
So what can the indie writer do? Well, the first—and all-important thing—to do, IMHO, is to keep writing. Not just because that’s what we love to do, but also because the more books one has out on the market, the more one’s chances for visibility increases. It’s a well-known fact that Konrath has written a *lot* of books, and I believe that his large catalogue contributes significantly to his sales figures.
The second thing, I think, is to get a little bold and actually start asking for reviews. I mean, I don’t think it can hurt as long as you’re not coming across as a pushy twit. While it might feel smarmy to some, I’m pretty sure many readers don’t understand the impact that their review will have, especially for indies. I also believe that if they did, they’d probably care enough—provided they liked or disliked a book/author enough—to take the 5-10 minutes (or 5-10 seconds on Goodreads, which is a great site for readers, btw) out of their life to help be a part of the indie publishing movement. The fact is that there are quite a few great indie writers out there, and without the help of reader reviews they are likely to remain undiscovered amongst the ever-increasing torrent of self-published works.
I know that as a reader, before I ever published a book, I never even thought of leaving a review on Amazon for a book I’d read. Even after publishing FALSE POSITIVES, I still have to feel fairly passionate (good or bad) about a traditionally published book for me to take the time to review it; however, when I read a novel from an self-published author, I am more likely to leave a review, because I know it counts more for those without a power-house marketing machine promoting their work.
In some ways, reader reviews are the only “real” advertising an indie author has that’s worth a salt. Reader reviews are, in fact, a form of “word of mouth” marketing, and that’s the real power of the reader. The more readers that come to learn this, the better off the self-publishing eco-system will be. As a direct result of a more participative readership, more new authors will get discovered, more great authors will receive well-deserved praise, and a lot of not-so-good work will get justifiably punished.
It’s kind of like Darwinism if you think about it, where only the “fittest” writers shall survive, and I think that is a very healthy environment for both readers and writers. Yet I fear the indie movement will continue to thrive only if participative readership continues to increase and more and more readers come to understand their importance. After all, for whom do we write other than ourselves? We write for the reader, and that’s why their reviews are more important than ever.
If you have enjoyed reading FALSE POSITIVES and have a little time, please leave a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the iBookstore, or wherever you got it. Your support is most appreciated. Every little bit helps!