Yesterday, my friend Kriss Morton wrote a blog in which she wonders whether it is worth it to continue reviewing books by indie authors. You can read it here.
Summarizing briefly, she and other book bloggers are finding it increasingly frustrating and difficult to review indies, because the authors contact them and complain about the reviews they get. Evidently, there are even authors who complain when they get a four-star review, upset it wasn’t five stars. And of course, if a four-star isn’t good enough, you can imagine what happens on reviews of three stars or less.
All this got me thinking about the nature of the review process. Saying Amazon.com has changed the way books are published and sold is about the biggest understatement of the decade. Not only has eBook publishing through KDP made it possible for thousands — tens of thousands? — of people to get their books into the hands of readers, Amazon’s system of reviews has turned ordinary readers into book critics. Not only can anyone publish a book now, anyone can review one too.
In fact, Amazon encourages buyers (not just readers) to review all the products it sells. Whether you’re getting books, clothes, or kitchen appliances, Amazon wants you to leave your opinion. When you buy something from them, they’ll prompt you via email to review it a few days later.
In a very real way, Amazon.com has created a populist movement that has taken publishing and reviewing out of the hands of gatekeepers and experts and put it squarely in the hands of everyday people. You don’t need to have a contract with a major publishing house to get your book out there. You don’t need to have a master’s degree in literature to become one of the top reviewers at the largest online retailer on the planet.
So what does this mean for indie publishing?
To answer that requires understanding two other key components of publishing in the Brave New World. First, discoverability is critical to getting a sale. This was always true, but the business of it has changed. When most books were coming from big houses, they were shipped to bookstores, who stocked them and displayed them according to whatever deal the stores and the publishers had.
Amazon’s deal is this — no matter who you are, from the biggest house to the tiniest indie, they will feature your book in accordance with its sales. The more copies it sells, the more Amazon’s algorithms will push it out in front of shoppers. Thus, getting those sales are critical to getting discovered. You’ve got to make sure people are seeing your book, so they can buy it. To do that, you need to have other people buy it.
Second, thousands of books are published every day on Amazon. Unlike a brick-and-mortar store, Amazon has millions of choices available. Competition is stiff. Getting seen is really hard. So the surest way to get people to notice you is to advertise. There are a number of third-party web services that do this, catering to readers hungry for discount books.
And that’s where reviews come in. The best sites want to make sure they are only offering the best books to their subscribers. That’s their competitive advantage.
So they’ve chosen review scores as the measuring stick for whom they’ll accept. The best sites have high standards. Many of them require a minimum of 10 reviews with at least a four-star average.
This is not how it is done in other industries. You pay your money and you run your ad. If the material sucks that’s not the host’s problem.
But BookBub, E-Reader News Today, Kindle Books & Tips, Books Sends, and the other top sites recruit subscribers by promising the best of the best. So reviews are critical.
And so authors, desperate to get noticed and needing good reviews to be able to even place an ad, start stalking book bloggers, begging for reviews and demanding they be four and five stars. Even a three-star review can be devastating. Just like your GPA, a C takes a lot of A’s to overcome. It’s easy to drag that average down and difficult as hell to push it up.
You begin to understand why some authors go crazy over bad reviews. They hurt their chances for breakout success.
But that doesn’t excuse the behavior.
I know from experience how frustrating it can be get to a three-star review or worse. It’s doubly irritating when the review seems to be without merit. I’ve gotten a few one- and two-star reviews where I am not convinced the person read the book I wrote.
But I’ve yet to complain publicly. I don’t bitch about a review here on my blog, on my Facebook page, or in the comments of a book blogger’s site. I don’t even vote them down on Amazon or ask to have them removed.
The reason is pretty simple — I don’t want to look bad. I consider myself a professional. I write books for a living. It’s my vocation. I don’t want to be considered an amateur, a prima donna, or a pain in the ass. I want to be seen as a thoughtful adult.
Railing against bad reviews of my books does the opposite. It makes me appear like a child throwing a tantrum. It makes me seem like someone who should not be taken seriously.
Moreover, it makes it look like the reviewer was right.
No matter how I want to, I can’t change the opinion of someone who didn’t like one of my books. They didn’t like it; they said so. If I’m lucky, they might even have given fair criticism (many bad reviews do). There’s nothing to be done about it.
But if I act like an idiot, I can convince other people they shouldn’t buy the book. I can convince others the reviewer had the right take.
I’ve yet to publish a book that hasn’t gotten good reviews. I get four- and five-star reviews in addition to worse ones. And I want people who discover my books to be convinced that those reviewers are the ones they should heed. I want them thinking the reviewers who wrote good things are the people to whom they should listen.
So, yes, it sucks when someone makes the effort to trash my book with a one- or two-star review. But if their complaints are well reasoned, I shouldn’t be arguing. And if they are trollish, I trust readers to pick that out for themselves.
Yes, it hurts my review average and makes it harder for me to get advertising. But I can’t imagine attacking someone for rendering an opinion on my book. I certainly can’t envision accosting them for “only” giving me a three- or four-star review. (And some of the things Kriss reports as having been done to her and colleagues are appalling.)
I’ve cursed reviewers, but only in the privacy of my own home. (Hey, I’m only human too!) That’s where it should stay, folks. It doesn’t go public.
So how about we all remember that the world doesn’t owe us a living? As authors our job is to write the best book we can and put it out there for people to read and consider. After that, we have to accept what people think of it. Sometimes, that’s not very fun. Sometimes, that negatively impacts our livelihood.
But if we want to be taken seriously, if we want to write for a living and have indie publishing be considered legitimate, we have to behave professionally.
And that includes accepting the public’s judgment with as much grace as possible.