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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Thoughts On Book Reviews

By James M Jackson

What are authors to do when they and their work aren’t sufficiently well-known to allow them to potentially win a National Book Award, or a Pulitzer, or in the mystery field an Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, or the like? Unfortunately, there is no Excalibur we can pull from a stone to prove our worth. Instead we (and more importantly, our readers) must rely on book reviews for external verification of our work.

An author’s publisher may provide review copies to newspapers and national review sources (such as Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly), but what are Indy authors to do? A Kirkus review costs a minimum of $425. Library Journal requires proof copies three to four months before publication. The necessary money or timing required might be beyond an author’s means.

It’s a thrill to have a newspaper review one of your books. Cabin Fever scored an excellent write-up in the Portland Book Review. And I was over the moon when my nonfiction One Trick at a Time: How to Start Winning at Bridge was reviewed in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune bridge columns. Over the years, most newspapers have severely cut back the number of books they review, and with online books sales being dominant, many people find their next book online. Regardless of the method used to arrive at the book’s online page, they will look to the star rating and the number of people who have provided ratings as first blush verification that the book is worth reading.

After that, they may look at the distribution of ratings and read a few reviews. All of which leaves an author with the dilemma of how to encourage readers to write reviews. I hope you will let me know what works for you. I find the most straightforward approach is to ask. Many Indy authors include at the end of the book a specific ask for the reader to write an online review. (If it’s an electronic book, they provide the link).

I’ve concluded that for some people, writing a review rates right up there with going to the dentist. I have friends who loved my books, promised to my face they’d write reviews for Amazon and Goodreads, and . . . nothing ever appears. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

An issue with books in a series

I’ve noticed that in a series, books tend to have fewer reviews the later the book is in the series. Partly, this is because many people hear of a series and prefer to start at the beginning, so that first book is the one most read. I suspect, with no proof, that series also suffer from review fatigue. If you’ve already reviewed one or two or three books in a series, is it worth the reader’s time to review another? Every author answers that, of course, please, please, please—but readers, not authors, are the ones who write the reviews.

To illustrate this series die-off, I looked at three series: Multiple-award winner Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Jane Ryland series (big publisher), fellow blogger Tina Whittle’s Tai Randolph series (medium-sized publisher, Poisoned Pen Press), and my Seamus McCree series (various publishing entities from Kindle Press to small independent to self-published). For each book, I looked at two sources of online reviews: Goodreads (, an online community for readers of all kinds, and Amazon, the largest online book retailer.

Goodreads members have a choice of leaving a review with a star rating (the number in the parenthesis) or simply leaving a star rating (the larger number); to leave a star rating on Amazon requires at least a minimum review.

Hank and Tina each have five published books in their series. I have four (with numbers five and six scheduled for 2018 publication). Here are the stats:

The Other Woman
2058   (415)

The Wrong Girl
1418   (249)

Truth Be Told
691   (140)

What You See
444   (93)

Say No More
384   (69)

The Dangerous Edge of Things
623   (105)

Darker Than Any Shadow
171   (22)

Blood, Ash & Bone
141   (31)

Deeper Than The Grave
111   (32)

Reckoning and Ruin
53   (14)

Ant Farm
64   (25)

Bad Policy
45   (20)

Cabin Fever
31   (15)

Doubtful Relations
9   (4)

Our distribution outlets may affect the ratios of Goodreads to Amazon reviews. All of Hank’s and Tina’s books have been available on a wide distribution of online and retail platforms. Of my books, Ant Farm and Doubtful Relations have only been available on Amazon; Bad Policy and Cabin Fever were widely distributed, but are currently only available on Amazon to be included in the Kindle Unlimited program.

With two more books in the Seamus McCree series, I will need to find a way to turn this statistical trend around or I’ll have fewer than zero reviews by the time I get to False Bottom (Seamus McCree #6)!

A more realistic and serious concern is that because marketing efforts are often pointed to the most recent book in a series, and if that book has only a few reviews—either because of series review fatigue, as I’ll call the “disorder,” or because of inadequate sales advertising—readers are likely to get the impression the series isn’t one to consider and quickly move on to some more popular series.

My work is cut out for me with Empty Promises. I must develop better strategies to promote it than I did for Doubtful Relations. Fortunately, I still have time to do that, as Empty Promises is not scheduled for publication until Spring 2018.

In the meantime, if you’ve read one of my books and haven’t left a review (or star rating on Goodreads), I sure would appreciate it if you’d take a few minutes and provide a review.


E. B. Davis said...

Here's the thing--I don't read book reviews on Amazon or any other retail site. ( I do read blog reviews when I have time.) I look at the title, cover, author's name, and then read the book jacket. If it appeals to me, I buy it. If it doesn't, no matter what reviewers say, I won't buy it. So leaving book reviews on these platforms has little significance for me especially now that I'm aware of the false ones planted. For example, I'm not into the Southwestern part of the U. S. When I see a book is set there, most of the time I will pass it by. I know--that's just me. But that's the point--what one reader thinks doesn't make it appealing. Fifty Shades of Grey was popular, but that doesn't mean I'm going to buy or read it--not my thing. A book about a child abduction can have fifty five-star ratings--nope--won't buy it.

I found your statistics interesting. Hank had almost twice the reviews of Tina, who had twice or more than your reviews. What it proves is that getting a big publisher helps get reviews and sales--what we knew all along. But it does prove that you are an established writer who can sustain a series. There are very few series that get past three books. You now have a resume to take to a big publisher--maybe not with this series because you'd have to have the sales figures to entice them, but it would give you a shot at a book proposal with a new series with a big publisher. Back to find an agent who will get you the best contract, establish a platform, etc.

Jim Jackson said...

EB -- Your points are well-made regarding the importance of the cover, blurb, and reader preferences. The cover and blurb are under the publisher/author's control. Reader preferences is all about finding the folks who like what you are writing, not trying to convince you that your really should read a book about the southwest.

Authors (as least legit ones) can't control reviews and online shoppers look at them, book promotion sites look at them, agents look at them, and I wish I had more of them!

~ Jim

KM Rockwood said...

Jim, thanks for doing some helpful research into this, and I hope u discover a solution, both to getting more reviews and to bringing books into the sight of the reading public. It doesn't matter how good a book is, if buyers don't see it, they can't buy it.

I hope you share the results of your efforts!

Kait said...

Interesting and helpful. Like Elaine, I don't read the reviews for fiction--I do for books on writing, or the like to see if the book is geared toward the question I am asking. For fiction, if a book captures my attention in a blog, or comes recommended by someone whose taste I trust, I will check it out on Amazon and read the blurb. If I'm still interested, I'll buy. Likewise in a bookstore, I'll read the jacket and make my decision.

I generally review on Goodreads, although not always and now that Amazon owns Goodreads, I wonder why they don't share reviews between the two venues (platforms?).

Reviewing on Amazon is a dicier option. When Amazon asks me for a review, which they do every six months or so, I'll usually do catch up reviews, which may be as simple as cut and pasting my Goodreads reviews. Periodically Amazon will dump all of my reviews when its bott decides I'm an author who is personally acquainted with every other author (living and dead) in the universe. That's disheartening to me as a reviewer, and to the author who is losing reviews. Sometimes the reviews return, sometimes not.

Marketing is clearly the key to getting books in the hands of the reading public and some of the best marketing outlets are tied to reviews. Catch 22. Marketing itself is shifting sands. What works today is old news in a week. You have been incredibly generous in sharing marketing results and blazing a path for those of us who are following. Kudos!

Tina said...

As one of the authors in your study, i can tell you that the secret to the 130 Amazon and 600+ Goodreads ratings on the first in series was a Bookbub featured deal (for free). That got the first in the series into the hands of a lot more readers, which resulted in an uptick in sales (enough to more than justify the cost of the Bookbub promotion, according to my publisher anyway). But it didn't result in an uptick in reviews for those later books. Satisfied readers, yes, more reviews, no.

Warren Bull said...

If everyone who said they would review my books did, I'd have a million reviews

judyalter said...

Jim, do let us know if you find the magic solution. I worked much harder to promote my most recent title, Pigface and the Perfect Dog, and two months out it has one Amazon review. Like you, I have many friends who praised it and some who promised reviews. It's only the second in a series.

I also wonder about the life of series. My thinking--and my reading preference--is for long series, where I know the characters and can easily slip back into their world. Yet much of what I read mandates against that. I'm not statistician enough to compare my three series--one with seven titles (I'm working on the eighth), one with three, and one with two.

The publicist I've consulted thinks all authors are suffering a lack of love right now--readers are too distracted by the state of our nation and the natural disasters. Possible, but I don't know.

Grace Topping said...

One of the most valuable things I read about giving reviews was that it is the number of reviews that count--not the length of the review. So one writer urged readers to just go online and write one line, something like, "I read and enjoyed this book." Enough said. Lots of readers would like to leave a review but feel uncomfortable writing something for public consumption. Some reviewers insist on recapping the story, which doesn't help.

I sometimes read the reviews of a book after I've read it to see what others thought of it, especially when I've been disappointed in it. Was it the book or just me? I usually discover that others agreed with my opinion.

Mary Feliz said...

Did you look at # of reviews per month on the market? Every book 1 has been out gatheringing reviews significantly longer than other books in the series.

Gloria Alden said...

As an Indie author, I'm sure I get less reviews, but the truth is I rarely if ever check for reviews. I also heard Amazon won't accept reviews unless the book was bought through them. When I do and they ask for a review I always leave one, and a good one too. I sell books out of my car, too, and through a local book store. I have got several reviews through Goodreads, but didn't know that until someone let me know. Although I know I have a following, I have no idea how many reviews I get other than what people tell me.

Jim Jackson said...

KM -- You can bet I'll be sharing what I do for promoting Empty Promises!

Kait -- I suspect the reason Amazon does not aggregate its reviews with its wholly-owned subsidiary Goodreads is because Amazon wants to encourage "verified-purchaser" reviews.

Tina -- interesting insight -- thanks for sharing.

Warren -- wow -- Millions -- I'm impressed :)

Judy -- There is certainly a subset of readers who like series and prefer there be a bunch of books in the series. What I don't know is how large a group that is and what percentage of sales they generate.

Grace -- Excellent observation about the length of reviews. Perhaps I need to consider that in the "ask" I include in my ebooks. Thanks.

Mary -- I did not do a reviews/per month kind of analysis. However, each of the series have published about 1x per year, so the comparison between authors is not compromised.

Gloria -- Amazon accepts reviews from non-buyers. However, they do weight known buyers higher than other reviews.

~ Jim

Mary Feliz said...

Sorry, Jim, I wasn’t clear. I meant that, when looking at any one author’s books, the first book out will always have had more time to collect reviews because it will always have been out the longest. And that it may be most useful to compare how many reviews Author A’s Book 1 had at six months post release to how many reviews Author A’s Book 2 had post release, etc.

Jim Jackson said...

Mary -- gotcha and you are correct, but I have no way to get at those stats. Just to confuse things a bit, the first in my series (Ant Farm) was actually published third -- but it also went through the Kindle Scout program, which has the effect of giving away a lot of books at the start of its life.

~ Jim