How [not] to get Amazon reviews

I recently attended the 2017 Pennwriter’s conference in Pittsburgh.  Had a lovely time.  During a session on how to best use an online presence to get sales, several of the audience members had a basic question:  “How do you get Amazon reviews?”  The instructor had a similarly basic answer:  “Ask friends and family.”

Starting with friends and family makes sense.  They are the most accessible group of people who have read your book.  But there are philosophical and practical reasons why, sooner or later, you must seek out strangers to review your work.

  1. Eventually you will run out of friends and family.  I don’t care how popular you are or how big your family is, the day will come.
  2. Some people feel weird about “bugging” friends and family members for reviews.
  3. There is the concern that your friends and family will feel compelled to give you glowing reviews which will leave you with a 5.0 average rating.

This third point is the most important con to drinking heavily from the friends and family trough.  Nothing looks phonier than an author who has 50 reviews with a 5.0 average Amazon rating.

The following are the last 5 Pulitzer Prize-winners in Fiction along with their average Amazon ratings in parentheses:

(4.1) The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
(4.2) The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
(4.6) All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
(3.8) The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
(4.2) The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson
(3.6) A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

None of these books have a 5.0 average rating, and all have one or more 1.0 ratings.

How to get Amazon reviews…sort of

Now that you’re convinced you need people who don’t know you to review your book, how to you find them?  I had been using the promotional site Buck Books to do my $0.99 Kindle promotions when they published an article on this very topic.  They recommended finding 100 Amazon reviewers who have reviewed books similar to mine and then sending them each an email asking if they’d mind reviewing and advance copy.  They recommended several online tools that would facilitate this task.  I picked a company called BookRazor who, for $9, would mine the Amazon review data.  Seemed like money well spent.  All I had to do was give them names of books that were similar to mine.

BookRazor sent me back a list of the names and email addresses of 100 Amazon reviewers who ranged in rank from #48,000,000 to #4.  I emailed each one and asked if they would review my collection of short stories.

Of the 100 reviewers I contacted, 17 wrote back and said that they would review my book.  Of these, 4 have posted a review so far, and it’s been two months since I sent them the advance copies.

Manage your expectations

I wrote this post because I think what I’ve described is a good example of how important  it is to manage your expectations  in the book publishing world.  All of the parties in this story, I believe, acted in good faith.  Buck Book had a reasonable plan for getting Amazon reviews.  BookRazor saved me tons of time by finding the reviewers for me, and did it for  $9.  The reality is, if you contact 100 people to review your book, you can expect a 4% hit rate.  That’s not very good, but those four reviews I did get were  quality ones from people who had never read my writing before.  Maybe if you try this method you’ll do better than 4% (I was expecting a 20% hit rate).  The important thing is to manage your expectations appropriately and not get discouraged.


Hire an artist for your book cover art

For my first novel, American Zeroes, I licensed an image from Shutterstock and used it as the cover art.  The image perfectly matched the idea I had for the cover:  an image of the american flag that was composed of ones and zeroes.  This captured the major theme of the book, of how our thinking about laws and our dealings with fellow citizens has become binary, that politicians are trying to paint everything in black and white for their own divisive agendas.  I felt the image was a bargain at $15, and I was very happy about the way the cover turned out.

AZ FrontCover.png

Today, my wife received an email from a mutual friend who forwarded her a link to a BBC article that used the same image (Personal details of nearly 200 million US citizens exposed).  My initial reaction was one of validation, that because someone at the BBC used the same image it proved that the image was good.  But after thinking on it a bit, that initial feeling gave way to one dominated by a more pragmatic concern.  A book cover should be unique.  It represents a book more than anything else, like a company’s brand.

Even before this happened, I had decided to hire an artist to create original cover art for my next novel, Traffic Girl Wars.  Now, I am convinced this was the right call.  True, you can find many excellent images on sites like Shuttershock, and they’re really inexpensive, but I think it’s worth it to shell out the extra money and market your novel with a truly original cover.

Criticism: the Third Certainty

The title of this article comes from “Nothing is certain except for death and taxes,” a famous quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin.  To this I’ll add another certainty, the one of Criticism, which, if you’re an author, often comes publicly in the form of a bad review.  This review is usually penned by someone you’ve never met and who you never invited to see your Fringe Festival show in the first place, gosh darnit.  To many people, critics are the original trolls, predating the internet by millennia.  They are the party poopers who turn your much anticipated book launch into a chagrin-filled scat-fest.  They’ve been around since the first poets scratched cuneiform verse onto clay tablets, only to have them smashed over their heads without warning.  They’re not going away any time soon, and that’s a good thing.

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