Reviews: Just as important as sales?

When I released my first novella on Amazon back in 2011 I thought the only thing I would need to worry about in terms of success was sales. If I got sales, and people liked it, they would tell their friends, and eventually I would have a snowball effect. Then people started talking about Amazon ranking. The better your ranking, the better your sales—or so went the theory, anyway. This made me push hard for some sales, as ranking was directly associated with sales. But eventually, the sales push plateaued and as fewer people bought my book, my standing in the ranks sunk deeper and deeper into the abyss. But there was something the book was missing that I didn’t pay enough attention to.

Reviews.

As I finished the draft for As the Ash Fell, I started researching the publishing process again. After all, it’s been 4 years since I released Loose Ends, which is not even published anymore. I know Amazon KDP has matured even more since then, not to mention I would be experiencing my first Create Space process, and so I looked at the whole thing as if I had never published a book in my life. The research I’ve done, and the advice I’ve received, all pointed to the significance of your book’s reviews.

Having a general positive rating on your book will encourage people to click on the link when it shows up during their browsing. If you have a 2 or 3 star average, this may not help, but if you are hitting in the 4-5 star range, this will certainly entice people to read your book’s blurb, and either buy, or at least download the sample (at which point its up to your writing to get them to purchase). But more than just having a 4 or 5 star rating, you need to have numerous reviews. If a book has under a dozen reviews, and they are all pretty positive in nature, then there’s a good chance you’re looking at the author’s friends and family. Now this doesn’t mean the book is bad, but it also doesn’t mean the book is good, either. Friends and family are biased, and as such they will give a book a good rating in an effort to help their loved one out. To be honest, this is a double edged sword. On one hand, it’s great for people to rally behind and support their friends and family. On the other hand, it doesn’t really help them improve as an author to get insincere praises. It might taste sweet in the short term, but will become pretty bitter in the long run.

Regardless, most authors will get a surge of this kind of support after a book launch. It’s only natural. The amount of reviews will vary, but I’ll just peg it at around a dozen or so reviews from your supporters to help get things going. This can be great, as not everyone will be quite so cynical with reviews as I am, but you can’t let it stop there and just let nature take its course. Writing a review isn’t hard, it doesn’t have to be some professionally written, spoiler-free overview of the book along with your thoughts. It can just be a couple of sentences describing the experience you had with the book, along with the star rating. Yet, when Amazon sends that email saying “Hey, what’d you think of this book? Leave a review!” most people still ignore it. I’ll admit I am guilty of that, too. And this is why you, as an author, need to be proactive to encourage your readers to leave reviews. Chances are a good deal of your readers (at first) will be folks you interact with on social media (or perhaps friends of friends). So, as you see some sales of your book coming in, make sure you are vocal about reminding people to leave a review, as it will help attract potential readers for your writing.

Good reviews are always nice. If you are getting 4 and 5 stars—especially from people who have no reason to do so except that they liked your book—can be a jolt of energy and excitement. But what about the 3, 2, and dreaded 1 star reviews? Well, keep in mind your book is not going to appeal to everyone. And regardless of why someone bought a book in a genre they don’t normally read (for example), they are still entitled to their views on what they thought of your book. If they are decent about it, and offer true constructive criticism, then take their advice seriously. Consider how you might improve in the areas they mention, but be sure to filter out the comments that are subjective or personal taste. If someone doesn’t like your writing style, that’s just life sometimes. If comments are rude, ugly, and lack the maturity of a 3rd grader, just ignore it. People will hate just for the sake of hating. For all you know it could be a wannabe writer who has never put forth enough  of the effort and dedication it takes to finish writing a book of their own—they are just bitter. Don’t let reviews like this get you down. They genuinely do not offer any sort of help, except perhaps comic relief. Another positive about lower rated reviews is having a few on your book isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It tells people that you don’t just pay to have fake reviews posted so that your novel looks more impressive than it is. I have a sneaking suspicion that not only indie authors do this, but larger publishers do, and that is about the lowest thing an author (or publisher) can do. Let your work be reflected in the reviews, good or bad. And if it’s bad, improve on it and do a better job next time.

At the end of the day, if you write a solid book that people enjoy, the reviews will largely be positive. The hard part is getting people to actually review it. So make it known, as best as you can, to your readers the significance of leaving a review (especially if they enjoyed it). Authors understand the importance of reviews, but not all readers may. A reader may like your work and say “I’ll show my appreciation by purchasing future books.” We do appreciate that, but a good review can generate several more sales for the author, which in turn can generate more reviews, and ultimately lead to dedicated readers of your work.

So please, readers (especially readers who are authors, as you know better), leave reviews for the books you read. It helps much more than many of you realize.

Novel Postmortem

In the game industry we (typically) do a postmortem after every project. Essentially each person writes about their own experience on the project—the good, the bad, and the ugly. As I near the end of the project with As the Ash Fell I thought it would be fun—if not a little therapeutic—to write one about my first full-length novel experience.

I started writing Ash almost exactly a year ago (I think it was in the closing days of March, 2014). I set out a goal to finish the draft in just a few months, get my wife to edit during her last trimester of pregnancy with our son, and then get ready to release shortly after he was born. As you can see, that didn’t happen. So my first point is:

Slow and Steady Wins the Race!

Ugh, I really hate to use cliché phrases, but this is really the case here. When I first started the project, I wrote the first couple of chapters and decided I was done. After my wife read those chapters, she emphatically told me I wasn’t done, and that she wanted to know what happened with this story. So I continued writing with the plan I mentioned above. I wanted to ship this book and move on, but I had to deliver a high quality piece for my debut splash into the novel world. Unwilling to compromise on the latter half of the plan, I decided I needed to just take as long as I needed to do it right. Despite my disappointment that it’s a year later and still not released (almost there, though), it was the right call. Rushing something out the door, especially when there is nobody pressuring you to do so (except for yourself) is a really foolish move. No matter how many times I wanted to rush this area, or cut that corner, I felt the nag in the back of my head to avoid such lazy tactics. I am glad I did. I believe the end result is something significantly better, and I believe readers will enjoy the book much more because of it.

Eyes on the book before you release.

Once I finished the draft, I was pretty proud of it. I wanted to just get it edited and shipped (again, my desire to quickly publish it was taking control). I thought it was perfect the way it was, but I knew I needed some people to read it. So my wife/editor, and my good friend J.T. O’Connell read what I called an “Alpha” version of the book. The feedback from both of them was genuinely good, but they also both agreed: The ending needed to change! I won’t go into detail about this as to not spoil the story, but I was really surprised with that feedback. I disagreed, and it took a lot of convincing to change it. I eventually caved, and after I released the book to a handful of “Beta” readers they told me how much they liked the book, and enjoyed the reworked ending. When I told them the original ending, every single reader agreed with Lia and J.T. about the original ending not working. I would have never thought this would be the case, but their valuable feedback and insight made this book stronger. Get as many eyes on the book as you think you can before releasing it. Yeah, it might mean you get a few less sales, but if your book is better for it, the added sales in the long run will far outweigh the fewer in the beginning.

Edit, Edit again, and for a change of pace, edit some more.

When I finished the draft for Ash, I thought it might have a few little grammatical errors here and there, and certainly expected some punctuation issues. I thought there might be the occasional paragraph restructure to help make things flow more smoothly, but overall I knew it was solid. Then, before I let my alpha readers get a copy, I did my own edit pass. Wow! I spent a couple weeks reworking many areas, tweaking, correcting, and so on. It was rough, but that’s why it’s a rough draft. Then I gave it to my alpha readers. Lia printed the whole thing out and did red-ink on it as she read. Keep in mind her red-ink comments were more or less just pointing out places it didn’t flow well, incorrect word usage, details that were far too technical, etc. Essentially, it was not a line-by-line edit. I am surprised her pen didn’t run out of ink before she finished. It was bad. Real bad. Then, after I made those adjustments, I released to the beta readers and they found a plethora of mistakes, too. Some that I missed even on my second, more detailed read through. Lia is now doing the line-by-line edits and I know that by and large this release will be very clean and professional-level editing, I know that if I can find mistakes in big-house published books, there will likely be some in mine. But the point I am getting at is: don’t release a book plagued with little mistakes that will take the reader out of the story. One of the biggest stigmas indie authors have going against them is crappy editing. Take the time, edit carefully, and make readers go “Wow! This is an indie book? It’s so well written and has almost no grammatical mistakes.”

Cover Art.

Despite being encouraged not to, people do judge books by their covers. You need to make it a good one. In my case I actually do cover art for other authors, so I thought that would be a simple enough task. Except when it came time to put down the first pixels for my own book cover, I acted as if I had never opened Photoshop before. To those that have seen the cover, you know it’s a pretty simple illustration. Not a whole lot going on. However, it took me quite a while to reach that point. I almost contacted some artists I know from the game industry to have them do a cover. Thankfully, I feel I pulled it together in the last minute (thanks to some suggestions from Lia) and I am happy with the end results. But the big takeaway I have from this is, if you can’t create a professional looking cover, then hire a professional. You might have a great book, but if nobody looks inside how will they ever know? Indie books are in the middle of a sea of other books. You need to stand out in all aspects—that especially includes cover work. I was just a day or two away from hiring someone to do mine, which would not only be a hit financially, but a bruise to my ego as an artist. If it made my book more attractive, however, then it would have been worth it.

Writing your draft is only half the battle.

So, after you finish your draft you think you’re finished, right? Wrong! Besides what was discussed above, there is so much more to launching a book. Get ready to become a marketing major! I will say this—I hate this part of launching a book more than anything else. The amount of time I spend on Twitter and Facebook just trying to get a few people to share or re-tweet is very frustrating. I’ve also spent money to advertise posts, and will likely do a lot more of that in the future. It’s anything but fun, however, it is necessary. Yes, a lot of your sales will eventually come from word-of-mouth, but you will need that initial momentum to get people to read your work so they have something to tell their friends about. Once Ash releases, I do plan to do some advertising on websites which will cost money instead of so much time, but I also plan to give review copies away, offer prizes/giveaways on my social networks, find relevant websites and social media folks to try and get interviews and such. As an author, I would much prefer to spend my time writing and reading, but it’s a necessary evil so long as I am an indie author.

 

I am sure there is much more I could write about, but I’ve already rambled on long enough. The high-level takeaway here is that, as an indie author, it’s a lot of work to release a book, if you want to make a splash. I have seen plenty of indie books that have me shaking my head as I see awful covers, poor marketing techniques, and worst of all—terrible quality control on the writing itself. So many great ideas are dead in the water because authors rushed to get things out the door. Don’t make that mistake. Take your time (even if it means missing your own deadlines) and make sure you are making a great first impression.

A friend of mine posted a review about a book she enjoyed, and she started off by saying that she almost didn’t read it because she was turned off with the author’s first book. However, she gave him another chance and was glad she did. Unfortunately, most readers don’t give authors a second chance—don’t give them an excuse to write off (no pun intended) your books forever because you were just itching to release your work before it was truly ready.

Anyway, sorry for the long post. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you found it beneficial.

Until next time,

AJ