Sunday, June 16, 2013

Read for Reviews-Pros, Cons and Etiquette

Have you ever logged on to Amazon or another bookstore and decided to buy (or not to buy) a book after reading the reviews?  I sure have.  In fact, if I'm going to dish out money, especially for a paperback, I want to know that the book I'm buying is something I'll like. Reading a book is not only an investment in money but also in time, and reviews provide excellent investment research.

That being said, as an author, I've discovered it's incredibly difficult to get reviews passively.  If you put your book out there for free, you may "sell" hundreds of copies without a single resulting review.  If you don't put it out for free, the odds are worse.  Add to that selective shoppers who, like myself, want to know what they're getting into before they buy.  Without reviews, they may not even download a free copy (or if they do, they may not read it).

So, what's a new author to do besides make all their books free and cross their fingers? One good option is the Read for Review.

Read for Reviews come in several different flavors, but most have a few things in common.

1. The author submits a title for review.
2. Readers sign up to review the book.
3. The author gives a free copy of the book to the reader.
4. The reader reads the book and leaves a review.

Pretty simple, really; or is it?  I've participated in several varieties of read for review programs, and I've noticed that not all review programs are created equally.

Book of the Month (BOTM) in a book club
Description: Members vote for a book, buy their own copies, read and discuss the book and then leave (if desired) a review.

Pros: The readers chose your book.  That's awesome in itself!  It means you're doing something right and your book has been noticed. It also means that the readers are going in expecting to like the book, and that they're probably already into the genre.  This might work in your favor (or it might not). Plus since everyone bought a copy, your ranking jumps and you get a nice boost in sales.

Cons: Besides suggesting your book as one of the options and voting for it yourself (which probably isn't the best approach), the author has little say in whether their book will be selected. Book clubs are for the readers, and the readers will do the choosing. And, keep in mind that the club will discuss your book thoroughly in all its greatness and its faults. Finally, leaving a review is probably optional, so you may not get many.  It depends on the book club and the people who participate.

Etiquette: Stay out of the conversation, even if you don't agree with what is said. Remember, this is about the readers, not about you.  Let your readers discuss your book freely.  Learn from what they say, but don't argue, and above all be gracious and positive in all your interactions.

Read for Review submissions to a Book Club
Description: Authors submit their titles to a book club moderator.  The author specifies how many free copies are available, in what format the copies are available, how long readers have to read and provide a review, and where reviews should be posted.  Members sign up to read titles that they find interesting and the author (or moderator) sends them a copy of the book.

Pros: This form of read for review puts a lot of control in the hands of the author and is easy to track.  Just monitor the message board for new requests.  Another great thing about these programs is that the choice of what to read is still in the hands of the reader.  This means people are more likely to request books that they would normally enjoy, boosting the chance of a positive review.  Finally, unlike the BOTM programs, Read for Reviews are just that.  If you request a book, you are expected to leave a review. Moderators typically monitor the threads and may follow up with readers who go silent and possibly ban them from participating in others if they fail to provide a review.

Cons: This is still a rather passive program.  Once your submission has been announced, it's up to the readers to jump in on it. If your description isn't catchy or your review requirements are too stringent, it might discourage readers from giving your book a shot, even for free. Also, some book clubs keep an enormous running list of active Read for Reviews, adding to it at a breakneck pace.  In these clubs, you've got a limited time to make an impression before your submission becomes buried.

Etiquette: As an author, be polite and be prompt.  Monitor the thread for new requests and jump on them as soon as possible.  Always thank the requester for their interest in your book and try to provide the book in their preferred format.  Never confront a late reviewer directly.  Instead, bring concerns to the moderator and allow them to follow up with the reader.  And if that fails and a reader never manages to leave a review, let it go. Better to let it slide than to throw a fit and make a poor impression of yourself.  Most readers will leave their reviews and you're still getting an incredibly better turnaround than you would for simply selling your book for free.

Non-reciprocal Reviews in Author Groups
Description: Authors sign up for reviews and either select or are assigned another author's book to read and review in return.  Reputable groups are set up so that no author will be asked to review the work of someone who has already reviewed their own work.

Pros: You are pretty much guaranteed to get a review.  Even though each author is getting a non-reciprocal review out of the process, they'll only get one if they complete their own review obligation.  These groups are proactively moderated and those who fail to stick to the rules are usually expelled from the group.

Cons: You have to keep your end of the bargain.  As mentioned before, you won't last long in the group if you fail to give the reviews you agree to provide.  As for the reviews themselves, don't be surprised if you receive some heavily critical reviews.  After all, the reviewers in these groups are authors, and they will notice things that the typical reader will not. Plus, remember that each author is required to post a review or they won't get one for theirs.  This means that if they don't like your book, they'll post accordingly (unlike in other forums where the reader may have the option to simply not post a review). Add to that the chance that some of these groups assign the book reviews as part of the mechanism to prevent non-reciprocal reviews.  If your YA fantasy book is assigned to someone who hates YA fantasy books in general, you're not likely to impress them, and the review will reflect that.  You'll see a lot of these reviews starting with the phrase "this isn't the kind of book I usually read," and if you participate in this kind of a group, you'll probably find yourself using that phrase a few times as well.

Etiquette: Don't sign up for a review or round of reviews unless you have the time to complete them. If you have something come up that impacts your ability to meet your obligation, communicate that to the author and the moderator immediately (and apologetically). If possible, find someone else to complete the review in the allotted time. As with the Read for Reviews in book clubs, contact the moderator if a reviewer fails to post their review in time. If you send a nasty-gram to the reviewer, you're not helping your cause. Finally, post a balanced, well-written, constructive review of the books you're reading for your end of the bargain. Quality reviews on your part send a positive message to your peers and show them that you respect their work. Poor reviews (or inflammatory ones) will harm your reputation and make others less likely to want to review your work or give you feedback privately.  Keep it civil!

Besides these three types of read for review programs, there are some things to watch out for and avoid.  These will lead to nothing but trouble.

1. Never "swap reviews" with another author. One, it's a conflict of interest.  You may find yourself inflating your rating or review in hopes that the other author will do the same for you (or in fear that a negative review on your part will result in a negative review on theirs).  Two, even if you and your counterpart post 100% honest reviews for each other's books, people will still perceive the results as less than honest.

2. Never pay someone (or a group of someones) to spam their praise of your book all over the place. Apparently, this happens with some frequency on the Amazon message boards, and readers hate it. People participate in book clubs and message boards to hear what real readers think about books, not to fall prey to a deluge of one-sided messages about "the greatest book ever."  Even honest posters should be careful how they post to these boards, because frequent users are quick to call foul if a post reads like a commercial.

3. Never spam snippets of your book's reviews in places they don't belong. If you post something like that, people will label you as a spammer and will likely disregard your posts or even go so far as to call you out on them or avoid your books. Most online communities will set aside message boards or sections for authors to promote their work, so if you stick to those, you should be fine. It's a great idea to participate in other conversations, but don't use them to promote your work.

In summary, read for review programs are a great way to proactively obtain reviews for your book(s), but consider the pros and cons before committing to any one option. When participating in any read for review program, be civil, be responsive, and be honest.

Finally, protect your reputation. Don't sweat missed reviews and don't retaliate against reviewers who didn't like your book.  Avoid the temptation to swap reviews, pay others to spam good opinions of your book, or post your own praises where they don't belong.

Have you participated in a Read for Review program?  What were your experiences?  Tell me in the comments.