How to Get Reviews for Your Novel: One Author’s Experiment

Posted: September 16, 2016 in fiction, science fiction, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

(Or…The Best Book Promotion Sites: What Do the Data Show?)

I expected something to happen when I self-published The Farthest City, my first novel—internet accolades, awards, maybe even a parade. Yeah, not so much. New books are published on Amazon every day, and mine was just one of them. After an initial, minor flurry of downloads, my novel sat there on its virtual shelf gathering dust with only the occasional download.1280px-military_laser_experiment

I wasn’t expecting to make much money. What I really wanted, craved, was for someone to read it and tell me they liked it (or even that they didn’t like it). Very few reviews materialized despite my incessant checking.

After doing some research, I found some common approaches other authors recommended for getting those much sought after reviews:

  1. Ask your family and friends for reviews. Some authors advocate this approach. Others say it’s a waste of time and only results in questionable reviews that Amazon might reject anyway. I side with the latter camp for the most part. I didn’t want people I knew to feel obligated to review a book they might not even like. I decided I really wanted genuine reviews.
  2. Pay a review service. This seems to be a huge trend. You’re connected to readers, give them a free copy, and hope they leave a review. At the urging of the review service, these reviews typically come with a “I received this book free in exchange for an honest review.” I tried one of these (one for a fee, one free), and received some good reviews. However, I’ve seen some books where the majority of the reviews contain the disclaimer, and I suspect readers may be wary upon seeing too many of these.
  3. Request book bloggers review your book. This seemed promising, and it has worked for me to some extent. It really becomes a question of how much effort you’re willing to devote, and possibly how much mass appeal your book has. Based on my searches, the majority of book bloggers review either romance or young adult. For my novel, a work of adult science fiction, and not a typical one in some ways, I found the majority of book bloggers weren’t interested. Either they declined after reading my plot synopsis, or they had too many books to read already, or they just never responded at all. That being said, from the reviewers who did agree to review my novel, I received some wonderful reviews. Book bloggers tend to write more in-depth reviews which is nice IMO, as it gives prospective readers more information than the typical 1-2 line reviews most readers leave (I’m happy to get those as well, of course!). In the end, as of the date of this blog post, I sent out 157 e-mail requests to book bloggers (after reading their review criteria and thinking my novel might fit) and received 8 or so reviews. Overall, a lot of time spent searching through book blogger lists, sending e-mails, and in some cases mailing books. I do recommend this method, if you’re willing to put in the time.
  4. Get genuine reviews from people who read your book without any interaction with you whatsoever (I call these spontaneous reviews). By this, I mean either they bought it, or downloaded it for free during a promotion. For me, this proved to be another crucial route to getting genuine reviews. But how do you get these? I wasn’t getting a lot of sales, and I hadn’t found Amazon free and countdown promotions (limited to Amazon Select members and even then you only get 5 promotion days for every 90 day period) to be very helpful. A typical Amazon promotion netted me a few hundred free downloads and almost no reviews. Of course, there are myriad promotion sites available that will run e-mail, Twitter, and website campaigns to promote your book for a fee. But which ones are the most effective? Other than reading accounts by other authors, I had no clue (many authors run multiple promotions simultaneously which doesn’t allow them to differentiate performance). Eventually, I decided to try an experiment. I made my novel “perma-free” (many other excellent articles explain how to do that) and ran a series of promotions (mostly paid) through the summer one by one to compare how effective each was. Throughout this experiment, I tracked daily downloads and reviews.downloads-summer

In the end, I spent $406 on promotions, 12 paid and 2 free, yielding 12895 downloads and 47 Amazon reviews over 104 days (including reviews on Amazon UK, Canada, and Australia). The baseline average daily downloads (excluding all promotion dates and following two days) was 57. The best predictors of promotion success were Alexa ranks (global and US, lower ranks being better), although neither was a perfect indicator. Neither price nor change in Alexa rank were good indicators (although my best promotion, for $70, was also the most expensive). For comparison, Bookbub (generally talked about as the best promotion site, as well as being very expensive) had lower global and US Alexa rankings than any of the promotions I used. My own Reddit and Twitter blasts (both free) yielded 236 downloads the day of. As an aside, a few of the promotions included Twitter blasts of their own; however, despite the flurry of tweets, I never saw a corresponding increase in downloads.downloads-table

You might say: you just gave away over 12,000 copies of the novel you spent years working on. And I would agree. But my realization was, if I wanted people to read The Farthest City, not to mention review it, I had to get it out there, into people’s hands. How better to do that than by offering it free? Through that process, I’ve received some amazing reviews from people who clearly enjoyed reading it enough to write glowing reviews and even to e-mail me. That’s gratifying, and in a way, makes it all worth it to me.

One drawback I have to mention is if you’re giving your novel away free, there will be people who download it, hate it, and leave a stinging review (as opposed to book bloggers or review services where, I believe, reviewers are less likely to leave really bad, 1-star reviews). I received some 1-star reviews. Generally, they’re very short reviews, and I think they validate all your other reviews in a sense. Clearly this book is getting out to unbiased readers. So even there, you have a silver lining.downloads-vs-price

Another caveat is I am writing this post from the perspective of a completely unknown self-published author (no fan base, no e-mail list, no publisher support or connections). Although I’m happy with the resulting reviews, it’s still a daunting fact I only received one Amazon review for every 274 free downloads.  This could be a measure of the book: the better the book, the more likely people are to write reviews. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if professional, full-time authors simply produce better books that people are more likely to review. Alternatively, it could be people are getting burned out by frequent requests to review every product they purchase.downloads-vs-alexa-global

However, I suspect it’s at least as much about marketing and publicity and that sought-after viral marketing. Is your book good enough for one reader to recommend it to another? Have you had a lucky break and had your book receive some media attention?

Many authors say it also depends on how many books you’ve written, what kind of footprint you have out there in the marketplace of books. A one-book author probably won’t draw as much attention as an author with several. Maybe it takes several books for a reader to get really committed to and excited about a series and its author.downloads-vs-alexa-us

After accumulating 47 reviews on Amazon (and a smaller number on iBooks and B&N), my guess is the distribution of reviews (5- vs. 1-stars, etc.) won’t change that much, and I’m happy if that proves to be true. Now that the experiment has concluded, The Farthest City is no longer free. I’m now trying out advertising (Google AdWords). If I learn anything interesting from this new phase, I’ll be sure to pass it on.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m assuming you’re an author yourself. Do you have any book promotion experiences you can share? What worked? What didn’t?

  1. Kell Inkston says:

    You sure as hell did. Thanks again!


  2. I’m glad you liked it! Detailed book marketing info (as opposed to the usual simplistic suggestions) is hard to come by, so I was happy I could contribute something.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kell Inkston says:

    Hey you,
    Just saw this tangling through the ether. Wonderful, wonderful post with some fantastic information. Thanks so much!


  4. FrankandBob says:

    Awesome Stuff, thank you!


  5. Excellent data, thank you!


  6. Thanks! I’m glad you found it helpful. I think book marketing *is* a mad science now that you mention it. 🙂


  7. Kieran Song says:

    This post is brilliant. I love mad science experiments and research done for book marketing.


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