Beware the keen reviewer!

I learned this one the hard way. Hopefully by sharing my experience I will spare a few indie authors the sting of the keen reviewer – you know, the Goodreads reviewer who has some sort of ranking, a blog, and seems to get an awful lot of novels for free; the reviewer who messages you and asks if they could pretty please have a free copy of your book in exchange for an honest review. Some want PDF formats only (my e-reader is broken, so I’m having to use my computer), others insist on paperback (my computer is broken, I can only accept paperback), and the ones that will accept .mobi or .epub just, somehow, never get round to reading it (my life is so busy right now, I just can’t cope with all these novels I’ve requested).

Despite any reservations about dishing out your novel for free (and not only that, but in the case of paperback, paying for it), it’s impossible not to consider the what-ifs of sending out your novel to unknowns because, if they do review it, it will hopefully generate book sales. There may be the added risk of the reviewer disliking your novel and slating it (or worse, leaving you with a DNF), but that’s the part of the deal referred to as ‘honest’. The latest obstacle is Amazon’s updated Terms of Service – Authors can no longer send out their book for free with the agreement of a review, only with the possibility of one (they can’t demand, or expect, or request it: only hope). I gave away copies of my novel before these ToS came into force, and have yet to actually see a review from a reviewer who requested to review my book.

At first I only sent out .epubs and .mobis, refusing to distribute PDFs. Anyone with a phone or a computer can read PDF, and if the only version you have is the one you formatted to print, you’d be giving them free rein to print and sell your own novel for you. Ebook files feel more controlled, excluding when it appears in a ripped version, helpfully created by the people who make their living  converting self-published ebooks into PDFs for distribution around pirating websites (side note: society demands to be constantly entertained yet bemoans actually paying authors, artists, writers, directors and musicians fairly for it). The ebooks went out to two or three people early last year, and I’m still waiting for the promised reviews a year later.

Not yet stung by the above agreements involving ebooks, and still believing the reviews would materialise in time, I sent out a couple of paperbacks. I’ve come to admire the cheek of the emails essentially declaring that the person can’t be bothered to pay for your book themselves, but that they would like to read a hard copy, and can you please send it to them posthaste. Usually accompanied by the excuse of a broken e-reader, a few do have the honesty to admit to just preferring paperbacks. Telling them a paperback is currently impossible due to lack of funds, I offer an ebook instead – but no – they brightly insist they are happy to wait until I have more money. After a bit of research to determine that, yes, they did have a reviewing blog, and yes, they were regular reviewers on Goodreads, I decided I was willing to shoulder the cost for the promise of a few more reviews, and sent them the paperbacks.

The reviewers received their paperbacks last year. If a review doesn’t materialise within the first six months the whole process feels like a waste of money – yes, the review may happen eventually, but once you approach the one year mark the reviewers could have arguably just bought the book themselves.

One particular reviewer sent me an email telling me there would be an extra charge to pay if I wanted my book read within a year. They had received my novel a few days before, and were just too busy to read all the books they had requested. I wasn’t the only author stung by this – several complaints appeared on Goodreads from other affected authors. Not only was this reviewer essentially ransoming books for money, they were suddenly declaring themselves a paid reviewer (which is against Amazon and Goodreads’ terms of service), so if a review did materialise there was a very real possibility that Amazon and Goodreads would assume I had paid for the service (I hadn’t), and that I might then be banned.

Three months pass, then six, then nine. Ever hopeful that a review may still appear, you send polite emails prompting for updates, only to be met with radio silence. The ones that do get back to you seem to all be reading off the same script – this year has been manic – I’ve been unwell – your book is next on my review pile – I started reading it but something came up – I’m hoping to get back into it soon. Reasonable excuses, if given the once. Less so, and less believable once given again, and again, and again.

These reviewers need to be aware that when they are asking for a free paperback, most writers probably can’t afford it to send them one, even if they agree to send it anyway. Margins will already be minimal, if there are any profits at all. Just because a book is published does not mean that it is selling, and just because a book is selling does not mean it is profitable. If the reviewer receives the free book as discussed but then doesn’t produce the honest review in return, as discussed and agreed, it is essentially stealing.

Of course this doesn’t apply to the legitimate reviewers on Goodreads, of which there are many. I’ve sent paperbacks to several reviewers who were gracious, kind, prompt and considerate – all of which I, or a friend, approached. If someone approaches you, however, and asks to review your book in exchange for a ‘free’ copy, my advice would be not to do it. It may be tempting, but my experience so far shows me that the review will never materialise. If they’re trying to build their portfolio as a reviewer there’s no reason why they can’t start with free books in promotions, offers from Kindle Unlimited or even just purchase the novels themselves.

If you’re one of the reviewers I sent a free copy to and you happen to read this – I’m still waiting hoping.

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10 things I have learned whilst promoting my novel

  1. Advertising works, even when you are not getting clicks. Spend sixty dollars on a Goodreads campaign and play with the text every now and then to test the traction. Link straight to your retailer page – you want people be directed to where they can buy your book. If they click, the fund goes down. If they don’t, they’re seeing the cover of your novel, even if they’re  not directly looking at it. Thousands of people will see your book advertisement each month. Never underestimate the power of the familiar subconscious.
  2. Get on Goodreads. Without Goodreads my novel would be sitting sadly on Amazon, all alone, with two or three reviews. Granted, it only has six now but lots of people are seeing it through my regular giveaways and over 1,400 people have added it to their ‘to read’ list. That means something, right?
  3. With reference to the above, run regular giveaways. Just list one copy of your book, make the eligibility worldwide and let it run for a couple of months. Then when a winner is chosen put the next one up. It’s not exactly free advertising but it’s pretty cheap advertising – your book is being continuously advertised in the giveaway section. People’s friends will see when they enter thus spreading the word.
  4. Tweet! I do not Tweet nearly enough, but I try. If you’re doing giveaways or Kindle Countdown Deals let the users of social media know. Make a Facebook event, mention it in blogs, email group organisers on Goodreads and (responsibly) ‘spam’ the relevant folders in the forums. Just let readers know what’s happening, when; and share your excitement about your book as often as you can.
  5. It seems to be the thing for authors to follow five thousand people on Twitter in order to get five thousand people to follow them back. Except at some point they start to unfollow those five thousand people to make themselves look established. If they’re all doing it, it probably works, but it’s entirely false. Mostly they’re all just DMing each other asking one another to read their currently free book (yes, I know they’re probably selling more novels than me).
  6. Time is money, money is time. Do you have the money to splurge £500 on your latest advertising campaign? Can you pay for verified reviews from top reviewing/endorsement agencies? No? Do you have 36 hours a day to make the posters and find the reviewers/endorsers yourself? No? Do you have the money to get someone else to do it all for you instead?
  7. Promotion is time consuming and time spent not writing, but it works. 17 ratings on Goodreads may seem a low amount to most authors (shh, I’m going somewhere with this), but there are plenty of self-published (and agency-published) books out there that go their whole first year without. one. single. review. Oh, the horror.
  8. Visual aids help even the most learned of readers. Have a promotion? Then declare: FREE EBOOK! Now let’s try something more visual:

    FREE EBOOK!

    Slightly more eye-catching? no?

  9. Free ebook giveaways are better than discounted ebook sales. Whilst this is true for unknown authors like myself, someone like J. K. Rowling would probably benefit more from a discounted ebook giveaway bonanza. When I ran my Kindle Countdown deal with a discount on my novel, I achieved a grand total of 3 downloads. Better than none, obviously, and those people are probably more likely to leave a review. When I ran the free equivalent I got over 500 downloads. Have any of those people read my novel yet? There’s no way to tell. But it got me in the top five of the Arthurian books category for a couple of days at least (side note: Harry Potter is NOT ARTHURIAN!).
  10. Try to keep up with your social media appearances. Homely images of your novel next to coffee on Instagram will draw attention, or pen a declaration of how actively you are living the life of a writer. Share something like: New ideas for new scenes today. Writing from the heart, with a picture of you gazing out of a coffeeshop window. I haven’t tried it yet, but I see other people posting such stuff on Instagram and they get more likes than me, so they must be doing something right.