Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Tyranny Of The Starred Review

Some day people will look back on this transitional period in the writing/publishing industry and they'll be able to map out the trends pretty clearly. But right now, in the middle of this mess, it's hard to figure out what works and what doesn't, especially for authors who are self-publishing. An excellent example of this is the reputed power of the starred review. I read an account from a successful self-published author in a Kindle newsletter explaining how she managed to build an audience by petitioning book review bloggers to review her book and then asking them to also post their reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, etc. This sounded like a great idea.

For a year I attempted to do the same thing she had done. I had a magic number in my head – 50 reviews might vault me into the spotlight and get my book under the eyes of readers. So I queried bloggers. In fact, I think I must have queried close to 1500 bloggers. After a year of hard work, I managed to get 6 reviews for one title and 9 for the other. The whole sloggy process forced me to recognize a few things.

1. Every damned writer out there is petitioning bloggers for reviews, 2. It takes way more than 50 reviews to get people to notice your book, 3. Some writers have compensated for that unhappy fact by paying for fake, glowing reviews or even by writing (sometimes hundreds of) fake reviews themselves, and 4. When you manage to get legitimate reviews, sites like Goodreads tend to drag down the average rating of even the best books.

When I made my original pitch to bloggers, I briefly listed my professional publishing credits and mentioned the fact that one of my books was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award. I hoped this would assure bloggers that I'm not an amateur – that I do, indeed, know how to write. I was a bit discouraged when so many of them ignored my query (though not hurt, because this is just the sort of experience professional writers have with publishers – you develop a thick skin). But as I read the review policies on these sites, it quickly became apparent just how hard bloggers were getting slammed.

I had become part of a massive wave, made up of professional writers and amateur writers alike. Or as an old writer friend put it, I found myself “down among the lepers.” So many scabby palms are extended toward these bloggers, many of them have flat-out refused to review any book that wasn't published by big publishing houses. And who can blame them? Even I'm getting requests for reviews from writers, and I don't have a review blog.

I invested so many hours in my quest for reviews, my writing came to a complete halt. One of my books did manage to get 33 reviews (as of this writing), but this was not even one of the titles for which I was requesting reviews. And sadly, 33 reviews haven't helped much to boost the sales of this book, even though all of them are real, genuine, un-paid-for reviews.

So I have to wonder: How much do readers rely on reviews to make their purchasing decisions? And now that reviews have come to seem like pure gold to writers and publishers, how much can readers trust those reviews?

Maybe not so much. One cardinal rule of entrepreneurship is that providing a service to someone who is trying to make money doing something is often more profitable than doing that thing yourself. Reviewers have realized this. So not surprisingly, some fake review services have sprung up. And – also not surprisingly – some writers are too cheap to pay for all of those fake reviews, so they just write their own. Most of these folks aren't even that clever about how they construct those reviews. You can spot the fakes pretty quickly by looking for one thing right off the bat: they have dozens, sometimes hundreds of reviews and their average rating is 5 stars.

Do a quick check on Goodreads and you'll notice that even the classics, the very best books ever written, books that have inspired people and changed their lives, usually have an average rating between 3.5 and 4.5 stars. Then take another look at a book that claims an average rating of 5 stars. If you notice that they all seem to be written in the same voice and use all the same key words, there's a good chance they're phony.

Conversely, if you notice a book tends to get good reviews, and someone posts a scathing review, there's a possibility this negative review was written by a writer trying to sabotage the competition. This has been going on for years – in fact, it's a major plot point in Dean Koontz's thriller, False Memory. Fake bad reviews may be as common as fake good ones.

So what's the verdict on starred reviews? Should I stop trying so hard to get them? Pretty much – yeah. All of that time I spent trying to drum up a handful of reviews could have been spent writing. Writing is what I would rather do. Remember that choice – whether you're a writer or a reader.

The wonderful and wacky illustrations for this post were stolen from my husband, author/artist Ernest Hogan, and he can do nothing about it.  

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