Why I Paid for a Book Review and Why I Won't Do It Again
The greatest difficulty for a writer who has chosen to self-publish their work is publicity.
Amazon has created a distribution and profit model which makes self-publishing something more than the sheer vanity of the old days. In fact, Amazon's ability to give such a high percentage of the profits back to the author has created a situation in which many are now able to make a living where they previously couldn't. This has been great for the literary community, as many more people can now devote themselves full-time to improving their craft.
However, as great as the Amazon revolution has been-- and it is hard to underestimate its value-- it has created its own set of problems. For instance, Amazon itself is quickly turning into a new version of the literary agent's slush pile. When anyone can publish a book, anyone can and will do so. In and of itself, this isn't a bad thing. However, there is a great deal of inferior writing hanging out on Amazon, competing for the visibility other books need. I am less optimistic than some that Amazon's system of recommendations and ratings will always cause the cream to rise to the top. I tend to think that as more people publish their work, many gems will be overlooked due to lack of exposure, and many mediocre books will climb up the bestseller list.
Crowd-sourcing has been shown to be a great way to find an accurate average answer to a question, but I am not yet convinced that it does a good job of ferreting out and bringing forward high-quality work. For instance, apparently a great many of us like watching a paunchy man sing about his girlfriend in Korean while dancing-- slightly more than the number of us who like to watch The Bieber fling around his gorgeous locks. PSY and Justin Bieber are no doubt somewhat entertaining to the largest number of people, but this is much different than saying that they would be voted the MOST entertaining or to have the HIGHEST quality videos on Youtube. If everyone could see all the choices available and THEN vote on their favorite, I highly doubt that Gangnam Style or a Justin Bieber video would be the top two choices. (That isn't to say that my choices would come anywhere near the top. I know that my tastes don't often run with the majority.) These videos benefit because of their visibility; their virility propels them forward at the expense of other content.
Amazon's crowd-sourced system for choosing which books are rated the highest on their site, and therefore receive the most visibility in their rankings, works on the same principles used by Youtube. Those books with the best ratings and best sales get the most recommendations in the Amazon engine. This in turn produces more sales and more rankings.
So it isn't enough for the self-published author to simply write great content, put it on Amazon, and expect the world to come knocking at their door. That can happen. It has happened to some indie authors, but I suspect there are great writers putting out spectacular work who may wait their whole lives and never see that work take off.
Getting enough buzz about your book to prime the Amazon referral pump can be quite difficult for newly self-published authors. Unless you have an already existing social network of fans and readers ready to go at the launch of your book, getting the online attention you need to take-off in the Amazon referral system can be quite difficult.
Reviews matter in the Amazon system. Amazon doesn't give up the secret sauce on how the system works, but reviews are clearly part of the mix that creates visibility on Amazon. One trick new authors might be tempted to try is to pay for book reviews that appear either on Amazon or in other venues. This can be especially tempting since positive reviews are so helpful in the Amazon ratings system.
When I launched my first book, I paid for a professional review— sort of. And while my story is just one more anecdote, perhaps it can help new authors have a better understanding of the dilemmas they can create by paying for book reviews.
To understand how this happened, we have to take a step back and look at the current situation in the world of book reviews. Indie published books are nothing if not a slush pile of varying degrees of quality. There are diamonds to be found, but they are definitely surrounded by an incredible amount of dross. However, these gems can be especially precious if a reader can find them. They can be quirky, innovative, and downright unusual, all because they haven't been through the grist mill of a big publishing house's editing department. The big guys are all trying to make the same book—the bestseller. Authors who publish themselves have the freedom to write what they want, without having to try and make their book appeal to the widest possible audience, which in traditional publishing often means girls between the ages of 13-20.
Readers don't want to sort through the slush pile to find the precious gems. That is where book bloggers and others willing to review indie content come in. They provide an invaluable service by sorting through the indie slush pile and highlighting the stuff they believe is worth reading. This is what I do when I write on indie authors over at GeekDad on Wired.com.
One of the most popular blogs which reviews indie content is Indiereader.com. Amy Edelman and her staff do a fabulous job helping people find well-written, quality indie books, mostly of the fiction variety. Amy is extremely polite, and every time I have emailed her she has responded promptly.
The problem with writing reviews of indie books is that there isn't much money in it. Making even a small living this way is almost impossible. Indiereader has an innovative concept which helps them pay the bills and allows writers like myself to get a review in the process. They host an annual contest which writers pay a fee to enter. One benefit of entering their contest is that your book may get chosen for a traditional publishing contract. Another benefit is that your book gets reviewed on Indiereader by a publishing professional.
As a new author, nervous about gaining traction in the Amazon machine for my first book, entering the contest at Indiereader was quite attractive. I needed publicity, and this was a way to get it. So I plunked down my money and began the wait between March when I entered and June when the contest results would be announced.
In the meantime, the financial book I submitted to Indiereader made some progress on its own. It got great reviews from people around the country. Sales were nothing to write home about, but I was maintaining my visibility on Amazon and beginning to gain traction. By the time June rolled around, I had 9 reviews on Amazon, nothing below 4 stars.
When my review on Indiereader didn't come out before the contest in June, I knew I was in trouble. That meant that I hadn't been given a four or five star rating. I emailed Amy and she graciously thanked me for the mail and said that my review would be posted shortly. When my three star review was posted on Indiereader, I was quite pleased. I felt that overall the review was quite positive when it referred to the content of my book. If the reviewer felt it could use some reorganization and that the content occasionally got lost in the anecdotes, that seemed fair to me. It was my first book. I didn't expect to win a Pulitzer.
The problem was that when that review was posted to Amazon, my sales dropped, noticeably. Somewhere there was a disconnect. The book impressed its target audience, who read the book to learn more about everyday personal finance. It didn't connect nearly as well with the reviewer, who read it for its qualities as a book. When that disconnect appeared on Amazon, it hurt my bottom line.
I was still quite pleased with the review myself, but I recognized that it wasn't helping my bottom line. Over the summer my book took off on its own. A credit union in Omaha Nebraska included a review in their newsletter which helped drive sales, and I had a great time interacting with some moms-to-be at babycenter.com, who I found had started a discussion thread around my book. All of that led to a great number of positive reviews, and the books sales have been growing since.
Except for one period in time. In the middle of September, as my sales were increasing, the Indiereader review on Amazon recieved 8 helpful review votes overnight and appeared again on the front page of my reviews. Sales dropped. I hemmed and hawed for a few days because I actually liked that review, but the bottom line for my book came first. It was working for the people it was designed to help, and I didn't want an outlier review to get in the way.
After it reappeared on the front page of my reviews this September, I emailed Amy and explained the situation. She wrote back and said that posting reviews to Amazon was done as a favor to the author and that she was happy to take the review down. As always, she was gracious about it and wanted to help. I have nothing but positive things to say about Indiereader. They provide a great service.
So what lessons did I learn from my foray into paying for a review?
1. Make sure you are submitting your book to the right person. The biggest mistake I made was submitting my general purpose personal finance book to Indiereader. The vast majority of books they review are fiction and even those non-fiction books they review are nothing like my book. It is no wonder that their reader approached it from the standpoint of a person looking for a great read and not as someone looking for financial help.
2. No matter what anyone says, all publicity is not good publicity for the indie writer. If I am J.K. Rowling, it doesn't matter what anyone says about my first novel after writing the Harry Potter series. I am still going to make a mint. That is not the case for those of us just starting out in our writing careers. Bad publicity can hurt. It can directly hurt the bottom line. So be careful about the publicity you seek.
3. Good content will win out over a bad review. While a bad review can hurt the bottom line in the short term, it can't undermine good content. My book ended up taking off all on its own without any attention on my part. I can spend all day trying to massage the ratings and get my book in the hands of the right people, or I can put my head down and keep writing and revising. That would probably be a better use of my time.
Will I pay for a review again? Probably not, but I don't look back on it as a bad experience. I learned enough to make the review pay for itself, even if it didn't help my sales.
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