Writing: Indie Savvy (Reviews and Reviewers)

Ana's Note: This is a piece in the ongoing Indie Savvy series.


So you’ve written the best book ever, but now it’s just squatting on its blank Amazon listing page, naked and reviewless, and you just know that the reason people aren’t buying your book is because you don’t have any reviews up. What do you do?

What I strongly recommend that you do is to tread very carefully here. Customers do not like to feel deceived or swindled, and a number of badly-behaving indie authors have unfortunately poisoned the well when it comes to self-publishing. If you appear to be engaging in deceptive practices or bullying reviewers — no matter how pure your intentions may be — the backlash can be epic and painful. Believe me when I say that a few 1-star reviews are the least of your worries when it comes to marketing your baby.

So let’s lay a few ground rules:

1. Do not get your mom to review your book. No, not even if she is the editor-in-chief of a prestigious publishing company and she read your book without realizing it was yours and she genuinely believes it to be the best book in creation without any bias on her part whatsoever. And, no, not even if she divulges in all honesty that she is your mom in the review. At best, customers will ignore the review entirely; at worst, they will feel the review is dishonest. Even if your mom gives the book a 3-star rating to go with her glowing review so as to not manipulate the review aggregate number, there will still be people who assume that you’re hoping the reader will miss the sentence saying “but do note that I am the author’s mom”. And this rule goes for anyone who will be biased in your favor by virtue of a close personal acquaintance: mother, father, spouse, child, best friend, etc.

2. Do not get a dozen Facebook friends to review your book. Yes, they are less likely to be biased in your favor than your mother. But they are probably going to leave “reviews” that are four or five sentences long, at most, and nothing says “review campaign!” more than a bunch of vaguely positive reviews, all dated within about a month of each other, and not a single one with anything substantial to say about the actual content. Customers tend to see that as gaming the system, and will probably pass over your book as a result on the assumption that it has nothing else going for it.

3. Do not respond to reviews. Ever. Similarly, do not ask your friends and fans to respond to reviews. Do not complain on the internet about reviews because if you do, some over-zealous fan is going to start responding to the reviews on your behalf, and you will not be able to convince everyone that you didn’t egg hir on with your complaining. If someone does respond to reviews on your behalf, you must distance yourself immediately with a public statement to the effect that you value all your reviewers regardless of rating and you absolutely do not support bullying or intimidation tactics against reviewers. And you must mean it.

Most reviewers are regular people who care passionately about books and want to share that passion with others. Most indie authors are regular people who care passionately about their books, and don’t easily understand that nothing is perfect for everyone. And a very few, but a very vocal, minority of indie authors have aggressively bullied and intimidated reviewers (and in some cases encouraged their fans to do the same) to the point where a huge number of hobbyist reviewers are legitimately concerned about reviewing indie authors because they never know if this one will be the one who will make a mega-fuss over their 3.5 star rating.

And it is because of this history of author intimidation that means that you can never, ever respond to a review. Not even if it’s factually wrong. Not even if you’re amazingly polite. Not even if you’re thanking the reviewer for their 5-star review. Never. Because the minute an author’s name shows up in a comment under a review, then there’s always the suggestion that the author is (a) watching hir reviews and (b) willing to Get Involved. Sure, you were nice and polite this time, but what about next time? It may seem unfair, but the best thing you can do as an author is to publicly pretend the reviews don’t exist while privately reading them and seeing if there’s anything there that you can or should keep in mind for the next book.

And incidentally, even before the authors started behaving badly, it was considered good advice not to respond to reviews, because authors who left comments on reviews were sometimes deliberately provoked by “troll reviews” in an attempt to see how the author would respond. The thinking was that if the author was saying “thanks for the review!” on even the 1-star reviews, what would the author say on reviews that were bombastically offensive and upsetting? So, again, even if you’re polite and kind it’s just better for everyone if you stay out of the comment threads on reviews and keep your thoughts on each review entirely to yourself.

4. Do not get hung up on numbers. Some of the most helpful reviews out there are 1-star reviews, and you need to learn as an author to embrace that. A reviewer who says “this was marketed as a modern paranormal thriller, but it’s a historical Christian romance and I don’t like those” is doing three things. One, she is telling you that your marketing for your book (whether it be on the Amazon listing or the review pitch or both) sucks and you need to fix that, pronto. Two, she is telling fans who do not like historical Christian romances to stay away — that may mean fewer sales for you, but it also means fewer 1-star reviews from unhappy customers. Three, she is letting the people who do like historical Christian romances that this is in fact what your book is about — they no longer have to trust the pitch now that a reviewer has confirmed the content.

Now, if you get two or three dozen 1- and 2-star reviews saying that your writing is horrendous and your book needs an editor, then it probably is time to get hung up on the numbers a bit. A graceful exit for the book and a trip to the nearest online editor may be in order. But 1-star reviews which deal with content of the book and explain why the book was Not For Them can be very helpful for readers who do like whatever it is that your book is about. So try to appreciate the negative reviews as a marketing strategy and don’t lose sleep over them.

5. Promote carefully. Try to get a few good (by which I mean “informative”, not necessarily “positive”) reviews on your book before you open the floodgates with unfocused promotions and mass mailings. If you have existing readers who know they like your work but aren’t related to you by blood or marriage (such as blog readers or writing workshop partners) then let them know that detailed, informative reviews are helpful for your customers since the Amazon pitch can only tell them so much (and then don’t pester them any further!).

When you have no review information about the book available, then mass promotions can be risky. Readers who opt for the free promotional copy without knowing anything about you, your writing style, or the book content can’t really guess at whether they will like the book or not, and they may well end up hating it — and saying so. Enough of those can bring your overall rating down and can hurt your sales with readers who just look at the aggregate score. Whereas if you have informative reviews up, or a really focused pitch, most readers who are looking for paranormal thrillers will know to pass on your offer of a free historical romance.

6. Promote honestly. Paid reviews are not a good idea; yes, some authors have used them to good effect, but pushing aside the issues of honesty and morality for a second, a lot of customers will be turned off by paid reviews and the potential for backlash is strong. Your average paid review reads like a book summary, and customers are both savvy to the signs of a paid review and are additionally not in need of a book summary if you crafting the listing pitch properly in the first place. So they’re expensive, unhelpful, unethical, and drive customers away. Review “trades” between your fellow authors are also a bad idea for much the same reasons — no one is going to think your review of John’s book and his review of your book (both of which went up in the same month!) were honest and unbiased.

7. Promote frugally. There are a number of paid services out there (NetGalley, BookRooster, etc.) which promise to get review copies of your book in front of dedicated hobbyist reviewers. I won’t tell you not to use them, but I will warn you to be wary. These services can charge anywhere from $50 to $300 to more, and usually do nothing more than make your book available for a few short months. Even if reviewers select your book from the absolutely massive catalog your book will be sitting in, there’s no guarantee that they’ll write a review at the end of the day. As a general rule, you can get better reviews and better promotion for free than you can with these “reviewer outreach” services.


We’ll look at how to approach hobbyist reviewers in the next chapter, but for now remember some general rules:

  • Be honest. Don’t do anything to promote your book that you wouldn’t want done to you as a customer.
  • Be patient. Reviews take time to accrue, and many readers never review their books.
  • Be silent. Reviews are a conversation between customers and you’re not welcome in the discussion.
  • Be thankful. Even most negative reviews contain valuable information in them. Find the silver lining.
  • Be focused. If the wrong demographic is reviewing your book, adjust your pitch to be more accurate!
  • Be detached. No matter how good the book is, someone will hate it. Try not to take it to heart.


You understand the basics of reviews, and you’re not going to enlist your mom, your Facebook feed, or a shady paid review service to pad out the listing for your book. But how do you approach all those nice people on Amazon with the “top 100 reviewer” badges next to their name? But before you fire up your email client and start sending mass emails, let’s talk about whether or not this is a good idea. And just hear me out for a minute, because I’ve been an Amazon “top 100 reviewer” for a good couple of years now and I know whereof I speak.

First: Amazon reviewers are, for the most part, not celebrity reviewers. You must erase from your mind the idea that we all send out review newsletters to hungry readers who then rush out to buy whatever we recommend, because that is not the reality. A 5-star review from most people on that “top 100 reviewers” list is not going to translate into immediate sales, because most of us don’t have any dedicated followers whatsoever. Some of us don’t even have blogs — which means that your shiny new review will sit neglected on your book listing and will only be seen by people who stumble onto it. And those of us who do have blogs with dedicated readers still do not have mindless automatons — each reader has their own preferences, their own budgetary concerns, and their own backlists of things they already want to read. For the most part, a celebrity review isn’t going to mean more in terms of sales than an equally well-written review from someone in the 1,000s or 10,000s at Amazon.

Second: The other thing you need to realize is that those “top 100 reviewers” are not receiving emails from just you and your writing group. They’re getting flooded with review requests, sometimes hundreds a week, and most of those get dropped in a to-do folder in their inbox that never gets looked at again because the bucket is constantly being filled with more and more letters. You can email every single person on the Amazon “top 100 reviewer” list right down to #100, and not receive a single review for your efforts.

So, okay, it’s a long shot. But it doesn’t hurt to try, right?

Well, no, not if you have infinite time that can’t be put to better use. But that probably isn’t the case. So let me propose an alternative idea: Instead of mass-mailing everyone whose name appears on the Amazon “top 100 reviewer” list, why not go down into the 1,000s and 10,000s and email those reviewers. The idea of receiving free review copies is usually still novel to them, and they tend to not already be swamped with requests. Or why not pick out a few books which you feel are a lot like your book (”if you loved Paranormal Thriller 3000, you’ll love my book!”) and email all the reviewers for that book, regardless of their Amazon ranking? This kind of directed marketing is meant to help you find reviewers who are most likely to like your book, as well as finding reviewers who have the time to read your book.

Whether you take my advice or not, you’ll eventually be firing up your email client. So let’s go over some rules.

1. Do not include attachments. After eleventy-billion years of experts warning people not to open email attachments, folks have finally caught on. And on the off-chance that your home computer does have a horrible computer-killing virus, you really don’t want to send it to a reviewer, now do you?

2. Do insert your book cover as a picture in the message. Covers matter to reviewers as much as they matter to readers. A good cover can convey genre and expected content, as well as how much effort and love (hopefully) went into polishing this book into a masterpiece. A pretty cover can hook reviewers where a text message would have otherwise failed.

3. Do insert a link to download your book for free. Your goal right now is to get the book into the reviewer’s hands as rapidly as possible before they have a chance to tell you ‘no, thanks’. A link to download your book (I recommend Dropbox or SugarSync) means that the reviewer can grab your book on a whim without having to write back an acceptance note (which takes time and can feel like an unwanted commitment).

4. Do be polite. Be respectful of the reviewer, her time, and her work. That means using polite language, helping her to understand if she will even like your novel, being as informative as possible about the contents of your book, understanding that she is going to need to be honest about the “free” part of the free review copy, and basically not treating her like a review-generating machine to whom you are granting the favor of a free copy of your epic masterpiece. Do not suggest payment in either money or services for her review, and do not suggest that she conceal that her review is based on a free copy from the author.

Above all, do not put her email on a mailing list or a newsletter without her permission, and do not share her email by including her in a mass email to one hundred other authors (unless you use the BCC line) because she does not deserve to be spammed to the end of time as a result of your thoughtlessness.

5. Use words economically. Your email should be short enough so that it doesn’t overwhelm the reviewer with a wall-of-text, but informative enough that their interest can be piqued. The whole email shouldn’t take more than the space of your home computer monitor.

The best progression of the review request looks like this:

  • Introduction
  • Cover
  • Pitch
  • Themes
  • Link
  • Thanks!

A. Introduction (2-3 sentences). The reviewer is not your friend, and you do not want to come off like a slimy salesperson pretending to care about their family. Do not pretend to have read their reviews or their blog if you haven’t done so, and don’t try to “prove it” by referencing their most recent post/review. Your goal is to briefly tell them that (a) you are an indie author seeking a review, (b) this is your first (second, third, etc.) published book, (c) the basic genre of the book, (d) where you got their name (Amazon listing, their review of Paranormal Thriller 3000, etc.), (e) and why you hope they will be interested.

B. Cover (~350 pixels high). This needs to be big enough to see, and small enough to not overwhelm the screen.

C. Pitch (1-2 paragraphs). The largest part of your email will be the book pitch, which you will have lifted from the Amazon listing and which should be the information you would traditionally get from the back of a print book. The pitch should be a one-or-two paragraph summary of what the book is about, and should convey the important characters, who they are, what challenges they will face, and why the reader should care. We’ll talk about pitch elsewhere, but for right now the best rule of thumb is to convey your book in a summary that leaves out the climax and ending. A good pitch is like a good movie preview: it should tell the reader what the story is about and leave them wanting to know how it ends.

D. Themes (1 paragraph). By “themes”, I don’t mean a high-brow literary analysis where you glaze over the reviewer’s eyes by comparing your novel to Herman Melville’s epic. This section is intended as a heads-up for the reviewer in case there’s something in your book that she won’t like or doesn’t want to deal with — and by showing that you’re aware of and sensitive to that possibility, you reassure her that you are a Sensible Person who is sending in a Serious Novel and not a terrifying screed of awfulness. Themes you want to warn for (not an inclusive list, but a good one): death, trauma (physical, emotional, psychological), serious illness, rape, forced marriage, racism, disabilities, political themes, religious themes, animal injury, reproductive issues (infertility, abortion, childbirth), excessive violence, and erotic elements. The goal here is to warn the reviewer of potentially sensitive issues up-front rather than after she’s written a 1-star review because she didn’t appreciate the artistry of the violent rape scene you included in your book.

E. Link (1 line). Do have a friend test the link from another computer before you send out your emails. If the link will only be active for a certain period of time (measured in weeks, not days — the reviewer has a day job and may not get to your email right away), let the reviewer know.

F. Thank you! (1 line). You’re asking the reviewer for a favor. Be polite.

Here is a sample review request for my novel Pulchritude:

I'm sure you must receive hundreds of review requests, but I'd like to ask you to review my debut novel Pulchritude. I'm a self-published author, and this is my first novel. I received your email from your Amazon profile, and I noticed from your review of Robin McKinley's Beauty that you enjoy fairy tale retellings, so I hoped you might be interested in my take on the Beauty and the Beast tale.

Experience a darker side of "The Beauty and the Beast" where, in a world of vindictive fairies and scornful magicians, not everyone will live happily ever after. Pulchritude tells the tale of Bella, a beautiful girl caught between her selfish father and an enchanted prince ready to sweep her into a dangerous romance built on deception and betrayal.

This debut novel by feminist blogger Ana Mardoll returns a classic fairy tale to its origins as social commentary and in doing so holds a mirror to our own world.

This book contains: some minor depiction of animal-on-human injuries, allusion to the fear of sexual assault (but no actual sexual assault), depiction of emotional manipulation within captivity, some minor discussion of mental illness and abusive parenting, and some depiction of involuntary body transformation.

If you're interested in downloading a free copy of my book, you can use this Sugar Sync link: https://www.sugarsync.com/pf/D434643_3420841_007498

I really appreciate your consideration of my book for review, as I know your time is valuable. I hope you enjoy reading my book as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thank you!


Ana Mardoll said...

If your email client converts embedded images to attachments, that's still usually okay since most modern email clients allow the receiver to "preview" image attachments without having to download them. But an ebook attachment has to be downloaded and opened in order to get at the contents.

You could also include the picture of the book via a link, as with the book itself. And, of course, the reviewer is still going to want to virus scan anything they pull off of Dropbox/SugarSync before opening. But email attachments tend to be viewed with more suspicion because that's been such a common delivery mechanism for viruses over the years.

Joe_Z said...

Thank you very much.

Joe_Z said...

I'd like to ask a technical question, if I may. How do you add an image to the content of an e-mail instead of as an attachment? Because I have no clue how to do it. Specifically, how do you do it in Hotmail? Or should I just use a different e-mail service?

Dav said...

Nothing scars me as a future reader/reviewer as much as Internet Drama that authors create themselves. (Plenty of my favorite authors have gotten inadvertently embroiled, because the Internet.)

It shows confidence in your work if you can let it stand alone. Besides, I find that stuff distracting ("oh, this is the author that keeps showing up on Fandom Wank") both before buying and while reading. And since there are a great many books in the world, it doesn't take much to send me to someone else. Which is a little unfair, but as a consumer, I get to be as unfair as I want to be, and that means that anything that affects my experience is fair game.

chris the cynic said...

And, of course, you know that in spite of everything you've said I will ask you to both beta read and review my book (which is probably counter productive as "For full disclosure I was a beta reader for this book" at the beginning of a review probably makes people discount all that follows as biased/propaganda/bribed/other-bad thing) should I ever manage to write one.

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