Reviews. The bane of an Indie Author's existence in the eBook market. There are many facets to this subject which I could discuss but today's tip will touch on only one: how seriously to take reviews, given that the only thing out there which we can control is ourselves. Click through the jump-break to read on.
Good News, Bad News
Reviews are created in many, many ways. They come from multiple sources, have multi-colored opinions and result in just as diverse an influence on the product "reviewed" as there are sources of the reviews themselves. That's the good news.
Some of the bad news: there are people out there selling "reviews" for $5 a pop, churning out canned comments (some good, some bad) over and over, making money off doing nothing but copy/pasting words onto the product page for a book they've never seen (let alone read). Then there are the real reviews. These may be part of the good news or part of the bad news, but good or bad, they come from two sources:
1) Reviews by professional organizations and reviewers whom some publishing industry bigwig decided years ago is somehow "qualified" to pass judgment on the worth and value of a book. Credentials unverified by any public reckoning.
2) Reviews by actual customers, people who decided to buy a book for whatever personal reasons and then took the time to read it and then as if that's not enough, actually took the time and effort to write about the book and how they experienced the reading of it. No credentials claimed at all.
Today's tip is going to discuss what an Indie Publisher should do about these things called reviews - or rather, how to cope with them.
This Club is Restricted
The publishing industry has had gatekeepers checking unauthorized attempts at entry into the "club" for decades. This behavior of "filtering at the door" was called "restricting undesireable elements" in the 1950s when Whites refused non-Whites entry to their country clubs. The club was, thereafter, referred to as "restricted," meaning "restricted to Whites Only." That's flat-out racism and not a good approach to "world peace," so to speak.
Another blatant example of "restricting undesireable elements" is in the filtering of applicants to institutions of higher education. Everyone should have access but the truth is, money talks. Children of graduates of Ivy League colleges (called "legacies") are given admission despite poor grades while highly-intelligent poverty-level students are rejected despite being intellectually gifted. Not having the "right" pedigree (or sufficient bank account) somehow causes them to be filtered out. So-called "affirmative action" policies were allegedly instituted to battle this favoritism, but creating and filling "quotas" doesn't address the problem of financial advantage.
In publishing, we also have a system which gives preference to those with the biggest, fattest, most-easily-opened wallets. It's called "being reviewed" or worse, being included in (or excluded from) the "Best Sellers' List." Isn't it ironic that those terms are no longer carrying the positive connotations they did 50 years ago? But then, it's obvious that when "Snookie" is a Best Seller and reviews by professionals are "restricted" to those books with the biggest wallets behind them, it's impossible for the filtering process not to turn negative. No "world peace" here.
Now, let me be clear: I have not "been reviewed." I don't even have a book out (yet--well, I don't count Dicky's Story despite shifting 1000+ copies of it last year. It was an experiment used to discover how all of this works). I'm not talking from a place of sour grapes or resentment for mistreatment. I got a college education, and I'm White so I don't claim minority prejudices often (I'm not Christian and have been subjected to religious bigotry and racist attacks, prejudice against my religious minority).
Point is, I don't have any personal investment nor am I trying to right some great wrong done to me. I'm not trying to "change the world"; I'm trying to see the world (the publishing world) as it really is. It'd be nice if it weren't so elitist, but if wishes were nickels.... :^)
In my own lifetime, I've seen the publishing industry change. When I was a child (in the 1960s) the New York Times Best Seller List actually referred to books which sold the best--the highest numbers of copies shifted to actual people. Book critics actually had something to say and people actually listened (The New Yorker book reviews were discussed over the water cooler!) People bought books and reviewers reported on what the people bought.
Nowadays, book store "Buyers" purchase books from Publishers and people are not in the equation used to determine the "best" titles to appear on the NYT List. There's not even a critical evaluation done prior to placement on that much-lauded list. It's all "sales-based" numbers and as noted, the publishers and bookstores are the sales, not you and me and our neighbors. The positions on the NYT "Best Seller List" are, basically, bought.
The closest any author could come to "earning" a position on the list by selling copies of their story to real people is to "pre-sell" copies of a book prior to its release date (vis a vis Amazon's "pre-order" button, forex). But whoops, Indies are not allowed to do this, only the established publishing houses with established accounts. Amazon actually screens who even gets those accounts so just creating a publishing company name won't gain you access to "pre-order" capability. Again, the gates are restricted.
There are also reviews which come out prior to a book's publication: Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Library Journal being the big three whose attention I want to get, but I know I won't. These reviews are also "restricted" by gate keepers. Publishers Weekly states in the very first line of their submission guidelines that Indies (whom they insist on calling "self-publishers" a term which has taken on intensely denigrating connotations over the years) won't even be considered.
Like the children's table at a wedding reception, PW filters us out onto an entirely different list, PW Select (notice the URL links to a "DIY" or Do It Yourself directory as though Indie Publishers are some kind of home improvement project). And does that name sound familiar? Is that PW Select like Amazon's KDP Select? Yeah, that's no accident. Money talks.
The epitomy of irony came several weeks ago when I saw this article on the Publishers Weekly site allegedly discussing whether or not authors and agents should discuss reviews with "Citizen Reviewers." That's what they call actual people who have intentionally bought a book, read it and then spent time, effort and emotion communicating with the author (and agent and publisher) about their reading experience.
Citizen Reviewers. Is that like the opposite of "Government Reviews" such as their own? Does PW perceive themselves as the rulers of this realm, the governing body empowered to regulate and control who can and cannot review books or what can or cannot be said about a book in a public forum? I'm glad they didn't condone the "mean girl" mentality and online bullying discussed in the article, but they didn't really quite "get" it either.
Worse is the subtle application of emotionally-charged adjectives designed to stilt the perception into believing that PW knows best--that Publishers Weekly really is some kind of regulating body ruling the book world. Now, I'll grant you, the author in me would practically kill to get reviewed by PW, I know it's like gold to get a positive PW reveiw, but I won't surrender my ethics to do it. I'd only "kill" in self-defense (grin)
And I would never "defend" myself or my book against a reviewer who didn't like the book. They paid good money for it, spent time on it. If I didn't deliver them a positive and rewarding Reader Experience at The End, then the least I can do is allow them to vent a little frustration over that.
So if you cannot get "professional" reviews without paying for entry into "the club" (and often that still isn't enough), and reviews by real people are hard to distinguish from the "make money fast" scammers who are selling reviews for $5 each, then what's an Indie Author to do when it comes to reviews?
Just let go and focus on writing another book. As an artist, we Indie Authors have this need for external validation, so reviews are incredibly powerful over us and can leave deep-cutting emotional scars on our souls. The problem is, we cannot control what reviews are written or even where they might appear.
I got started on this whole discussion after reading Jeff Bennington's (@TweetTheBook) blog article on the inability to remove PW or Booklist reviews from a book's product page on Amazon. He sounded truly surprised that we authors do not actually control our own book's "page" on a book seller's web site.
It's not our page, Jeff. It's Amazon's. It's their site. We don't pay them for the content on the page. Why would we control what we don't own or buy? The reply Amazon sent to Jeff (see his article for a snippeted quote of the email) is pretty clear that PW and Booklist (and I assure you, others like the NYT or USA Today) are paying to get space on book pages.
These companies want their reviews to matter so they need their reviews to get exposure. They don't write reviews for us, the authors; they write reviews to make money. It's their business model.
They might sound like they're oh-so-altruistic, trying to help readers find the "best" books but they are totally subjective and stilted, reviewing only those books which are selected after a filtration process has "weeded out the undesireables." I guess the bottom line is, they want you to feel elated that you got a review at all, even a scathingly bad one.
You know, no press is bad press. Any publicity is good? I don't buy into that marketing model but I'm a stalwart fan of the Ries/Trout model of marketing. It's not for everyone.
We Can Only Control Ourselves
Since we cannot control what others may or may not say about us or our products (books), nor where it may or may not appear (and the internet is forever!) we should focus on what we can control: ourselves. If our #1 goal is to broaden the readership of our books, then the #1 method to achieve that goal is to write more books. Here are some things we can do:
1) We can read reviews, but if that's having a negative impact on our ability to write more books, we probably shouldn't keep reading them.
2) We can solicit reviews, but if we're not getting more than a 50% response rate to our solicitations, then we're spending time on something that is no longer helping us write the next book
3) Those who are rich, can even buy reviews but if you spend money on falsified reviews, it will come back to bite you, I guarantee it. Falsified reviews or paid-for "honest" reviews will never carry as much weight as unsolicited candor from actual customers. Even PW, Booklist and LJ reviews, even appearing on our book's Amazon page, will never ever carry as much weight as the viral marketing response of writing a great book and having real people talking about it.
4) We can write the next book. I'm working on this one right now!
As I said yesterday, since I write Romantic Suspense and haven't snippeted anything sexy here in forever, being so busily distracted finishing up the edits on my first release, Conditioned Response, a SciFi Technothriller (Book 2 in the Phoenician Series), I'm going to snippet out a sexy scene for you this weekend. Check back either SciFiSaturday or SampleSunday - or better yet, follow me on Twitter @webbiegrrl or @phoenicianbooks to get the linky tweet delivered to you, personally.