Saturday, February 25, 2017

Tough Truth About Reviews by Cj Fosdick

Reviews are to books what “Consumer Reports” is to electronics. A book can live or die by review buzz—whether written or by word of mouth. Reviews are important for new releases, especially important for debut authors. Authors understand this; readers not so much.

     With my debut novel, The Accidental Wife, I didn’t know about marketing early for pre-orders or even that an ARC was an Advanced Review Copy. Blogging, tweeting, street teams and book tours were foreign terms and interviews were something you did only when asked—after your success was validated. Trolling for reviews and endorsements was something extroverts did, and swapping reviews was almost as uncomfortable as paying for them. It took a year of discovery and networking with other authors to learn the truth.

      For my earliest reviews, I trusted my most important Beta readers—both of whom were experienced writers and editors. I was married to one, but had lost touch with the other —a colleague who co-produced a Minnesota anthology with me thirty years ago. After reading my finished manuscript, both Betas gave me the equivalent of five star reviews.

     Could I trust them to be impartial? Hubby—not so much. More to lose there, according to his POV (point of view). Also, his left brain talent at IBM had him editing technical manuals; He never even read a time-travel historical romance, though he does love history and suspense and epic storylines in movies. Plus, he is great at editing grammatical errors and relentlessly honest in the larger picture.

     My old colleague labeled me a “helluva writer” and admitted she laughed and cried while reading The Accidental Wife. Known for her encyclopedic mind and creative fantasy, she had poems and two published books of her own: Minnesota Trivia and Growing Wings. It had been years since we touched base after she moved to another state, but I trusted Laurel Winter and loved the review she offered.

     I warmed up to inviting others to read and review IF they liked the book, but I hesitated to ask other family members to even read it. Particularly my 80 year old stepmom and my daughters, as I worried about their reaction to the sex scenes WildRose Press rated “spicy.” All were fine with the sex, but my stepmom said she did not believe in time travel. Still, she got a print copy accepted in her local library in Wisconsin. Sometimes nepotism has a silver lining.

  Though my short stories and articles were published for decades, many people knew me only as a horse trainer. Discovery and Acceptance precede sales which precede reviews. Fishing for reviews for a novel was going to be hard for a new “minnow” suddenly swimming in an ocean of writers all hoping to hook readers. Harder still for a technophobe inept at posting in Facebook and new to Twitter, Goodreads, and other social media apps and opportunities.

     I celebrated my debut by ordering “Novel CJ”—a vanity license plate for my car, then spent months of self-education, embellishing my website, writing a newsletter titled “Accidental Connections,” even distributing business cards and stocking up on print copies to sell. At a Historic Home Ec Club appearance, I laughed when an elderly member asked if I thought sex sold more books. (I side-tracked her with my cookies.) Both Accidental books have scenes involving historic cookie recipes. Armed with recipe cards and baked samples, the cookies were always a hit at subsequent Book Club appearances. I also donated a dozen copies to my local library for their book club program, reasoning discovery is more important than sales, then followed through by giving away as many debut books as I sold.

Whichever way a copy found a new reader, I couldn’t count on an instant review. Busy people took longer to read and when I ginned up the courage to ASK for a review, I sometimes got an intimidated deer in the headlights response: “You want ME to write a review?” Some readers felt unqualified to write one, some didn’t know where to post or how to navigate online. Eventually, I plugged little cards into all the print copies I sold, explaining the importance of reviews and listing the link sites. I even sent a “click list” to one reader who told me her grandchildren might be able to show her how to add a review on Amazon.

     There are three other review sources, aside from betas, family and friends:
1. Unsolicited reviews, also termed “organic.”
2. Paid Reviews.
3. Swapped Reviews.

Every writer is happy to collect unsolicited reviews, especially if they are three to five stars. Paid reviews vary in cost and value, along with results. The WildRose Press publisher warns against them.

If time is money, swapping reviews also has a cost factor beyond the fact that Amazon and other sites frown on them. I thought swapping was an inexpensive way to add reviews, even though I read as deliberately as I write. My editing eye zeroes in on errors, and faulty research. Knowing first-hand how much work the writer invests, however, I always find something affirming, and try to suppress the niggling dishonesty that gives four or five stars to a review that merits less. Isn’t it tacitly understood that getting five stars means giving the same in a swap? Wouldn’t it be less of a head game if we gave a STARLESS critique? It might increase the number of reviews with no risk to writer or reviewer, especially if they share a connection!

     Recently, I was asked by a fan to endorse her friend’s Indie fiction book for her cover. This helps to sell the book if the endorsement normally comes from a successful writer or celebrity. I was flattered into reluctantly agreeing, telling myself this was only to save a fan. It turned out the first 67 pages were an info dump. Dialog was stilted, with hundreds of he said/she said dialog tags, even with two people conversing. Supporting characters were more sympathetic than the main characters, and the ending drifted. I affirmed that she had an editor, and asked her if she truly wanted my honest opinion. Her editor also worked with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and since Watergate, Bob has written eighteen non-fiction books. Okaaay. I emailed my notes anyway, with suggestions. For three days of work, I received NO RESPONSE back. File that under A valuable lesson learned…on so many levels!

  Endorsements and good reviews aside, ultimate best sellers—even those by well-known beloved writers seldom hit the mark with everyone. If you are counting reviews, even bad ones can be a plus. Think about the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L. James, which hauled in more than 60,000 reviews over the last six years Over 30% of them earned 1 to 3 stars, with even the five star reviews holding some objection. Lower ratings usually indicate disregard for subject matter or writing skill. But Fifty Shades got people talking, saved a publishing house and planted erotic books firmly into the mainstream. True then, some best sellers are the gift of public curiosity—niche readers who take a chance on a book outside their favorite genre because it has an intriguing hook and a lot of buzz. Refute the idea that only good reviews pay off. Mixed reviews mean a broader reader base penning those cherished unsolicited reviews.

     With The Accidental Stranger—the new sequel to my debut book—I’m working the review game smarter, investing more marketing time...and money while still conceding that reviews come easier to veteran writers with devoted fans and a broad base that may take years to cultivate. Unless, of course, I come up with a novel hook that flutters through demographics like a contagious flu.

     My favorite series author, Diana Gabaldon, has sold 26 million books in more than 40 countries. Outlander, her first book published in 1991, has accumulated over 22,000 Amazon reviews, with only 7% of them pulling one or two stars. I met Diana twice at HNS Writer Conferences. She has said in interviews that she won fans “ten at a time,” until she caught on. Inarguably, she may have the largest fan base of any popular author today. She is my social proof and inspiration. We both love character-driven time-travel with multi-genres in the mix. My dearest fantasy is asking her for…an endorsement!

Cj Fosdick--would LOVE reviews of her new release, The Accidental Stranger
www.cjfosdick.com

4 comments:

Charlotte O'Shay said...

Congratulations on your releases. I have your books on my TBR. I'm on a big learning curve in my author life especially with reviews and promo. I have one book baby in the world and two more on the way. Happy writing!

Cj Fosdick said...

Thanks Charlotte, It truly is a learning curve--sometimes a "bouncy ride" trying to figure things out. Patience and persistence seems to be key, along with adjusting to the bounce which forces you to balance writing with promoting--in a schedule. Discovery is just baby steps. Check me out on FB and Goodreads!

Hywela Lyn said...

Thanks for a very interesting and enlightening post, Charlotte. It took me a long time to learn the importance of reviews, and I'm afraid I didn't try too hard to get them with my the first two books in my trilogy, being a complete novice the first time and not much wiser the second, but was lucky to have several four and five star reviews from 'professional' review sites (TWRP sent copies to these sites as a matter of course which is their usual practice). I tried harder to solicit reviews for the third book and actively requested reviews and this time received none from the 'official' sites TWRP sends to, trying to figure that one out - I'm still on the 'learning curve'!

Cj Fosdick said...

Hywela Lyn, I think most authors ride the learning curve for years. So much seems to depend on public tastes and trends in books. I'm hoping time travel and historicals that actually enlighten the reader with a fair amount of "history" and suspense will find more love in the market today! (I was not aware that Amazon UK and Amazon US had differences in cost and review dynamics.)