How (and how not) to solicit book reviews

The book industry has changed, in case you weren’t paying attention, and the downfall of the New York model has gone hand in hand with the changes in the game’s admission rules. The bar has dropped from ‘has to make the publisher money’ to ‘author has to be willing to shell out a little money or become a DIY publisher him/herself.’ If you don’t hire any editing, proofreading, typesetting, cover art or printing, there’s no noteworthy cost. It’s guaranteed to be lousy on some level, because just about no one who writes well does all the rest of that well, but congrats: you’re published.

In short, the ticket price has dropped to a sliding scale, but there is no parking or mass transit, and traffic is horrible.

If you self-publish, of course, you’re also the marketing department. (Even under other forms of publishing, you are still the marketing department, though it’s more comforting to pretend that you are not.) That means trying to get some book reviews up on Amazon, which probably has 90% of the market share, or on blogs or other bookselling sites. Most people will read at least a few book reviews before buying a book. A book with no reviews appears to be a book that has generated zero interest, and inspires like in the shopper.

Where this leads: if you’re written any Amazon reviews of any note at all, there are a lot more people seeking reviews than there once were. Naughty secret: for whatever it was worth, under the old Amazon review system where someone named Harriet Klausner ranked as #1 for years by writing about three book reports a day, my highest ranking (out of about 150,000 reviewers) was #73. In 2000, that got me about 1-2 review requests per month.

Today, under the new ranking system (in which my body of work is unremarkable) and having written about ten reviews in the last ten years, I get 1-2 review requests per week. It has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the exponential increase in self-marketers. Self-publishers, even those who hire professional assistance and produce quality work, are of necessity self-marketers. The self-publisher who is not also a self-marketer is either disinterested in making money, or disinterested in facing reality.

Some of those seeking reviews are doing it right, and some are doing it wrong. Here is how to do it right.

  • The approach must be personal and by name. ‘Dear Reviewer’ is of minimal worth; that tells me it’s spam, and should be deleted.
  • The approach must indicate why I was selected. A generalist approach (“as you have reviewed many books on Amazon…”) is a failure, because that tells me it’s spam.
  • The why must be credible and sensible. At the least, it should refer to a genre of material I have read, and better that it include specific titles. I’m not saying that someone needs to butter me up, just that it needs not to look like spam.
  • The offer must include a print copy of the book. Of course, this is not true for many reviewers, and is not possible for many books. To me, an author serious enough about wanting a review is serious enough to mail me a copy. Therefore, this one’s optional, as I have specific conditions that don’t apply to everyone else.
  • The offer must not involve a pre-publication version, a.k.a. a galley. Galleys may be rarer today, but I remember a number of approaches where someone wanted me to review a .pdf of the galley. I don’t think too many reviewers are interested in pre-publication galleys–they want to review the book after it’s gone gold.
  • The offer must include contact information beyond an e-mail address. This is business. We are real people. If you are an author, you’re a public figure on some level. Providing your contact information highlights your authenticity and encourages me to take you seriously. If you write under a pen name, you should provide your real name, or if not, explain candidly to me why you can’t (your ex-husband is a complete psycho, you are living under an assumed name in Ecuador, etc.).
  • The offer must not put me on a mailing list of people to spam later. I will generally remember who has written to me before, so if you send out a second round hoping for better results, you won’t get those results from me. I realize that this sounds implausible; who would do such a stupid thing? Please believe me when I say that some people are so desperate for publicity, they will do exactly this. When I see it again, I get very grouchy. I had to report one author to her ISP.
  • The offer must be phrased in your best writing. Because if you can’t write well when you step into my spotlight (and presumably are presenting yourself at your very best), that tells me that your book may be badly written. If I suspect that it is, I won’t proceed further.

Why?

Because my time is finite, and I don’t want to accept a commitment to read a book that will be torture to my brain. Especially when good practice demands that I drop whatever else I am reading and fulfill my commitment to read it.

Because I will then be expected to review it (and professional ethics demand that I do so in a timely manner), and I have zero fundamental desire to impale a book in public. The idea of harming an aspiring author’s prospects is completely counter to my line of work, my thought process and level of enthusiasm–it feels like a police officer ordered to slap around a nice elderly lady. Most would refuse.

Three, because I get nothing from this. I don’t have tremendous motivation to write book reviews, as anyone who looks at my body of work at Amazon (seven serious book reviews in the last four years) can tell. When I write a book review, I am donating my time almost for free, and to make it worse, Amazon is going to whore my review out to anyone it wishes (a major reason not to donate them free content).

Even if you do everything right, I may not end up accepting a review copy, and the reasons may have nothing to do with anything you said or did. I could just be too busy to do it right and on time. But if you do everything right, someone else will.

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