Reviewers provide budding authors–and other readers–with an invaluable service, the unbiased consumer review. This is an especially precious service in an age when we can’t wholly trust the literary gatekeeper we had (traditional publishing) nor, even if we could, depend on it to keep up with the avalanche of indie books coming down the pike…and are going to continue receiving in the coming years.
The populist nature of reviewing, however–that anyone who reads and has an internet connection can become an reviewer–has led to some hit-and-miss talent in the field, just as it has for writing. There are traditions, accepted practices, and learned behavior, but no real rules or guidelines.
I’ve contacted a hundred or more book reviewers and bloggers in an effort to promote my books and stories, offering free copies in return for an honest review. Along the way, I’ve noticed trends and tendencies–good and bad–that get repeated. To bridge the sometimes considerable culture gap between writers and reviewers, I thought I’d compile a short list of best practices.
Writers Behaving Badly
I don’t mean to pick on reviewers exclusively. If I don’t mention a list of best practices for authors, it’s only because the solution is often very simple for writers: be courteous when asking for a review, respond promptly when asked for materials, and act gracious whether a review was granted or not–or whether the review was complimentary or not. It’s lousy that some writers will never comprehend those simple rules. For a great view from the other side, check out Ritesh and Alexia’s take on the issue.
Some writers may be a lost cause, but there’s still hope for reviewers! Independent writers are here to stay and, as long as we’re around, we’re going to need reviewers. We might as well get a few ground rules in place. There’ll be fewer headaches all around.
1. Post a Review Policy (…and call it that)
I recently approached a professional-looking review site that stated in their Contact information, We seek to review books for all ages across a wide variety of genres. When I requested a review, they turned me down, saying We don’t read a lot of crime fiction, and in order for book reviewing not to be a chore, we just read what we like, so we’ll pass, but good luck!
I take a lot of time researching the right sites to approach so I’m on target and not pestering the wrong people. This site squandered my time and courtesy by not posting what they will and won’t read up front…never mind the casual insult of my genre being “a chore” to read.
Please don’t waste your time and mine. Post a review policy that’s in your main navigation or easily found. List:
- What you prefer to read (including genre, length)
- What you won’t read under any circumstance (by genre and length)
- Whether you’ll read self-published works or not
- If you’re currently taking submissions or not. If not, when will you “open”?
- If you will review, when can you get to the book? A rough estimate is fine: 1 week? 3 months? Next year?
- Where do you post your reviews?
- How do you rate? What are your “tilts” or biases?
- Whether you will email or otherwise alert the author when the review is written (especially if it’s more than a 1-2 months out)
You don’t have to say “Yes” to everything on that list; be as restrictive as you want. But state your policies out front so that you help the writer and yourself early on.
2. Update Your Site
Review Policies are useless if you leave “Now Accepting Submissions” at the top of the page and “I CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE BOOKS. MY TBR PILE IS NINE FEET HIGH!” buried in the middle or at the bottom of that same page.
Take five minutes and update your site. Make sure the information is accurate and timely (writing contradictory information in all red or CAPS doesn’t count). If you’re afraid of losing your original page, copy and paste it into a .txt file and save it on your hard drive. Or name the original policy “_old.htm” and update the new policy.
Related to this: check that your email address or submission form is not only correct, but working. Test it and make sure by actually sending yourself an email or submission.
3. Write a Thoughtful Review
All reviews are appreciated, but two vanilla, milque-toast, cookie-cutter paragraphs followed by a “This book gets four out of five angels!” isn’t something writers will get excited about.
Don’t you want us to gush on our blog about what you said on your site? Wouldn’t you like to see an excerpt of your review printed on the back cover of our next edition? Or heading up the description on our book’s Amazon page? Don’t you want to get all of the “most helpful” votes on Amazon?
That’s what happens to great reviews.
You don’t have to bash the book to have a “good” review, either. You can say what you disliked about a book or where you thought it got weak without trashing it. Give the pros and cons, the ups and downs in a creative way.
4. Shout it out
If writers approach you for a review they will truly appreciate any shout-out you give them on your blog, but do you know what makes them dance and caper in their kitchens? When you take that same review…copy it…and paste it on other review sites!
You may not have ever thought about it this way, but every writer serious about promoting their book has to solicit separate reviews for almost a half-dozen sites if they want to accomplish even average outreach. The only major retailer that shares ratings that I know of is Kobo, which pulls in Goodreads reviews and averages them with their own (Kobo, you rock).
In other words, I have different review tallies on your blog, Amazon, Kobo, B&N, Smashwords, Goodreads, Librarything, and Shelfari. A handful of readers have posted to three of these sites, a few more on two, and almost every other reviewer has posted on just one. All for the same book.
If you want to increase your stock in your writers’ eyes (and your followers’, too), seriously consider posting your reviews far and wide.* At the very least, besides your blog, post to Goodreads and Amazon, but try Librarything, Shelfari and other sites to expand your reach.
*You may not be able to post everywhere (for instance, several retailers don’t allow reviews if the book wasn’t purchased there), but you can still hit the non-retail sites.
5. Act Professional (…even when it’s tough)
Writers, especially those new to the craft, can be defensive, vicious, and insulting when they don’t get their way. It can be tough–real tough–to take their vitriol with grace when you’ve spent considerable time reading and reviewing their book. You should be free to express your honest opinion about a book without fear of abuse, yet there are unfortunately huge numbers of immature and insecure people out there that will rip strips off you for anything less than a glowing, 5-star review delivered within the week.
Your readers and followers know trolls and idiots when they see them and many will jump to your defense. But you, in turn, will be judged on the tenor of your reaction. A deep breath and even-tempered response won’t feel as good in your gut…but you’ll score points with your readers. Which is more important to you?
Related to this: if you don’t read a certain genre, format, or theme, please say so courteously. “I do NOT read self-published books” is substantively the same as saying “I’m not accepting self-published books at this time,” but one makes you sound like a jerk and one makes you sound like a professional.
6. Announce Your Reach (…and expand it)
Blogging and reviewing as a hobby is perfectly fine, but I assume book reviewers review books so that others will read those reviews. If that’s the case, consider not only expanding your reach by promoting your blog, but show what your reach is. Devote a portion of your site to listing site rankings, visitor metrics, Technorati or Alexa ratings, and circles/rings/clubs/groups/partnerships you belong to.
Writers want to know that, if they approach you and send you a copy of their book, they’re getting some bang for their buck. Readers and followers would like to feel that they’re part of a larger community and that commenting and voting means something. You can prove to both camps that your blog is a place worth visiting by giving them some statistics to consider.
The relationship between writers and reviewers is intimate and inextricable. As self-publishing grows, readers are going to demand tools to help them sift through the sea of choices…not just the good from the bad, but through the thousands of different nuanced stories that are now free to hit the market. Reviewers are an integral part of that chain. Show just how valuable your reviews are to both readers and writers by upping your game.