Part 27: a review of ebook review sources for indie publishers and emerging authors. (We have to go deeper.)
This article rates the usefulness of commonly mentioned ebook review sources and four Google shortcuts which might get your ebooks in the hands of trusted reviewers a lot quicker than by traditional searching methods.
Reviews from friends, family* and acquaintances
Welcome to the first grey area of reviewing. However, handing review copies to people you already know and asking that they judge them impartially may be the only way you can initially connect with people who give enough of a damn to even look at your novel.
* Family members cannot review your book. If they share your surname, they’re going to be blocked by Amazon’s review algorithms.
Edit: Well, that’s just not true. My cousin bought my book in July (without my prompting, honest) and his Amazon Verified Purchaser review has been live for five months now. Combine this with the continued success of paid reviews (see below), Amazon’s relaxing of its reviewing rules in other areas, and that Amazon subsidiary Goodreads has a fairly cruisy reviewing policy … well, you can see the pattern here, can’t you?
Anyone can enter reviews and/or ratings on your Goodreads profile. The great thing here is that (1) you know that your Goodreads contacts actually like to read (giving them slightly less of an excuse to turn you down) and (2) they can simply leave you a rating, rather than a review.
Reviews from ebook forums and groups
There are a myriad of groups and forums out there, and the trick becomes finding which ones are active, receptive and worth investing time in.
No matter the group or forum you decide to join, study their posting etiquette – or, as people say, ‘lurk more’ before you post. It’s most often found in the FAQs. You don’t want to go steaming in yammering about your books left, right and centre, because in many groups this is terrible etiquette and will quickly see you ignored or banned.
Shortcut #1: using Google to search the Amazon forums
The Amazon forums section has an obsolescent structure and are difficult to navigate. You can ease the way you search through them with a small Google hack, by making your search term:
+(site:www.amazon.com/forum/kindle/) search term. This means that you are confining your search term to the Kindle Forums hosted at Amazon.com.
By comparison, Goodreads Groups section has an attractive and intuitive design, allowing you to quickly search via keywords and understand just how large and active a particular group is.
Reviews from other authors
Because of a bit of skullduggery carried out via little review cabals of authors who to promoted their own work and skewered that of rivals, Amazon has banned authors from reviewing books that belong to their ‘own genres’.
What might that be, I hear you ask? Can picture book authors review young adult lit, or thriller writers review horror? Does it matter if the book in question is a verified purchase or not? These are all very good questions, but as the goal line is constantly shifting as Amazon finetunes its review policy, watch how much effort you sink into sourcing author reviews (except, of course, for your Editorial Reviews section, where they can add authority to your novel). Goodreads, on the other hand, allow reviews and ratings from any of your contemporaries.
Edit: As of May 2013, Amazon has softened their stance on reviews by fellow authors, stating the following: “We very much welcome Customer Reviews from authors. However, if the author reviewing the book has a personal relationship with the author of the book they are reviewing, or was involved in the book’s creation process (i.e. as a co-author, editor, illustrator, etc.), that author is not eligible to write a Customer Review for that book.”
Reviews from social media and aggregator sites like Reddit
It may seem strange that I’m lumping these all in together, but I believe that, without some compelling factor that makes you stand out from the sea of comtemporaries (i.e. you’re already famous, in which case what are you doing scrabbling for reviews?), there is only one time that it is really worth expending energy through these channels, and that is when you organise a book giveaway, such as the five day promotional giveaway allowed through the KDP Select program. People love free things.
More on book giveaways
It’s worth finding and joining as many forums as you can for this (keeping in mind the individual board’s rules for promotion and spamming). For me, that is as simple as googling ‘middle grade book forums’. Remember to tell people that you’d appreciate those reviews – by now, hearing the words, “Oh, I reviewed your book,” should make you start spontaneously salivating.
Of course, you also want to look at sites which promote free ebooks, such as this list. It’s probably worth searching for a few of these free ebook aggregation posts to get an idea of the big sites, and then target these and any specifically dedicated to your genre.
Reviews from Amazon top reviewers
While it’s a fact that Amazon authors, as a group, are obsessed with reviews, there is also a group that is obsessed with reviewing – the Amazon top reviewers. A couple of years ago, authors realised that they had a potential goldmine because reviews from top reviewers are marked as such and garner additional prestige for an item. For a while, the system worked well, until word spread too far and the top reviewers found themselves inundated with review requests.
If you look at the top reviewers today, you’ll see these warnings again and again: “I’m sorry, I am way overbooked on book reviews for now,” or, “I receive about forty book review requests a week, so please be understanding if I can’t get to yours.”
Many have removed email listings from their profile and why not? Traditional publishers target these reviewers as well, so place yourself in their shoes and ask which you would prefer: a 50 Shades of Purple promotional pack with the hardcover, coffee mug and commemorative spanker, or your piddling indie ebook? (This is not suggesting you should spend your hard earned on printing up teeshirts and badges.)
Okay, so say you want to go via the top reviewer route anyway? How do you do this? The top reviewers page lists 10 authors at a time, and you have visit each of their profiles to find out if they are:
1. interested in your book genre
2. review Kindle books (many don’t)
3. are currently willing to accept reviews
4. have an email contact on their profile
It’s a slow, laborious process.
Shortcut #2: view any section of the top reviewers list in moments
You can try to target top reviewers lower down the chain, who may not suffer the same sort of bombardment and may be more open to requests. Here’s a tip to quickly view any section of the top reviewers list:
http://www.amazon.com/review/top-reviewers/ref=cm_cr_tr_link_2?ie=UTF8&page=2 shows you top reviewers 11-20.
If you change the last digit:
http://www.amazon.com/review/top-reviewers/ref=cm_cr_tr_link_2?ie=UTF8&page=10, you’ll see top reviewers 91-100.
http://www.amazon.com/review/top-reviewers/ref=cm_cr_tr_link_2?ie=UTF8&page=100 will display top reviewers 991-1000.
This should work even if Amazon change the page URLs – just change the page number at the end of the URL to see that reviewer range, times ten (given that there are ten shown per page). Naturally, if you are searching sites other than the US Amazon (amazon.co.uk, amazon.ca), you’d modify the URL accordingly.
Shortcut #3: using Google to find suitable Amazon top reviewers fast
Amazon doesn’t have a mechanism for sorting top reviewers by keyword, but here’s the thing, as noted by the amazing people over at Stack Exchange: Google does.
If you use the search term
+site:http://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/ (or the more elegant)
+site:amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/, Google will only return results from the part of Amazon where user profiles are kept.
Next, add keywords to the end to narrow your search criteria. If I add
children ebooks, I’m going to see profiles where those keywords are mentioned.
Top reviewer will display the top reviewer rank (with the proviso that reviewers ranked in the high five or six figure range are increasingly likely to be rarely active or inactive).
email: (yes, the semi-colon is meant to be there) will display profiles that list an email address.
You can experiment with your own combinations of keywords, remembering that you could be picking up keywords from all areas of the screen, i.e. if I search for
+site:amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/ children books email: top reviewer, the search will pick up random profiles rather than those specifically interested in children’s books because of the teeny-tiny ‘Bookworm.com’ ‘Books For Children’ references in the page footer of all Amazon profiles.
Reviews from Amazon genre reviewers
Another school of thought is to check the review of books in your genre, and then approach these people to review your own work, with the idea that they are already receptive to works like your own. This is fine in theory, but the reality is that many of the reviewers will be relatively inactive (no account activity in the past few months), and most will not have a public email address attached to their account. Still, if you have the time and inclination, it’s worth a try.
Reviews from book blogs
There are hundreds of book review blogs out there, with the added bonus that some crosspost to both Amazon and Goodreads, as well as the additional exposure of being featured on the blog itself. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that these blogs are targeted by publishers just as heavily as the Amazon top reviewers. Many have restrictions on their submission windows, many don’t accept ebooks or indie publishing, and the rest are just run off their feet keeping up with request emails. I went fifteen pages deep on my Google search, eventually found a dozen blogs that matched may books, merrily sent out requests and received one reply to those enquiries – an apologetic negative. Your mileage may vary. I barely left the garage.
Shortcut #4: using Google to find active book blogs
You will find that many blogs you visit are dead or dying. A common figure bandied about is that 90% die within the first year of use, because blogs are wonderful fun until they become a chore. Come back here in a year’s time and see if you can make me eat crow over this paragraph. A tip for winnowing the dead blogs is to use Google’s search tools on your search term (i.e. ‘middle grade book reviews’), and change ‘any time’ to ‘past week’ or ‘past month’.
Reviews from paid review services
With the premium placed on reviews, it should come as no surprise that a cottage industry has sprung up around providing these to authors, for a price. There are paid review services which guarantee five star reviews, and those, like BookRooster and Bookplex, which offer unbiased reviews in which you may well be awarded one star. These sites say that their reviewers are not ‘paid’ per se, but provided with free copies of ebooks while the site takes the payment as a ‘facilitation fee’ to distribute them.
However, they are all operating outside of Amazon’s terms of service, which you sign as part of the process of publishing your book. If Amazon detects those reviews, they will strip them. At worst, they could terminate your profile (but see below). You’re playing in their court, by their rules. They’re hunting for the paid services, as are most large companies which rely on user-generated reviews, simply because paid reviews destroy the trust of genuine users and therefore hurt the bottom line. You can bet there isn’t a company out there which is happy when this happens.
Of course, the paid review companies seem to be staying one step ahead of Amazon’s detection strategies, for now. However, will they be able to do this in the future?
Look, let’s not pretend about this, though
The temptation of paid reviews is still very much there, especially for new authors who would murder family members in cold blood for even a scrap of positive publicity. BookRooster has testimonials from current Amazon authors in plain view on its front page. Thriller author R.J. Ellory was caught up to his shoulder in the cookie jar, using sockpuppet accounts to give his own books glowing reviews and one star his rivals. His professional standing may well have suffered but he still has a healthy Amazon profile, and you know what P.T. Barnum said about bad publicity.
Whether you think paid reviews are a bad idea, and plenty of people do, or a ethically grey but ultimately legitimate avenue for publicity, I would shy away from the practice. Your goal as a career author is to drive people to your books, plural. Spend your time and money building a solid list of titles for sale before you stump up for potentially costly marketing. Authors, like any form of creative businessperson who relies on an audience for both critical and financial validation, suffer from audience amnesia. If you spend all your time creating a brand before you have enough product, you’ll find that most people forget who you are in the interim.
One final idea for reviews
If you have quite a good relationship with a potential, unbiased reviewer, it is worth your while to ask them to actually buy a copy on Amazon (buying it yourself or reimbursing them for a bought copy is ostensibly against the review guidelines). That may seem cheeky, but consider that most indie Amazon ebooks are the price of a cup of coffee.
These sales will bump your book up the Amazon charts for your particular category and the reviews will be marked as made by a ‘verified purchaser’, a critical point of difference in a system groaning under solicited reviews.
Proceed to Part 27: ‘Managing social media, part 1’, or return to the article index.
While I’ve endeavoured to provide you with accurate information, what is considered ‘accurate’ will change over time. If I’m wrong, or you’d like to ask a question or share your thoughts, I’d love to hear your take on things.