Gatekeepers are part of the book publishing ecosystem for good or ill. In traditional publishing, agents and acquisitions editors are arbiters of literary quality and commercial value. Without their blessing, your book won’t be printed. By self-publishing, you’ve bypassed them. Congratulations.
Book reviewers are also gatekeepers.
With about 700,000 books self-published annually (Bowker, 2016) and another 300,000 traditionally published (Bowker, 2014), awareness of your book is its central marketing challenge. No one reads most books. Reviewers may create visibility by validating your book’s quality.
In Utopia, reviewers thoughtfully and dispassionately critique every new work, lauding the good and chastising the bad. In reality, of course, the situation is more complex. For starters, reviewers come in diverse flavors, some you pay, some you don’t.
Critics not paid by authors include those at prominent, ‘traditional’ on-line or print literary journals with wide readership and significant credibility. Conversely, niche bloggers read by virtually no one and valued by even fewer, also evaluate new works. Between these two poles, are well-produced, on-line fanzines which focus on readers of a specific genre (e.g. fantasy or romance). Some of these fanzines have longevity, substantial readership and significant credibility within their communities. Alas, there is an inverse correlation between a reviewer’s prominence and their likelihood of reading a self-published work due to the perception that self-published works are poorly written, lackadaisically edited and amateurishly packaged. Notable reviewers don’t help their own reputations by evaluating unknown and sloppy work. Even if you’ve produced a masterpiece, independent authors as a group are tarred with the brush of mediocrity, deserved or not, and are unlikely to be featured in a ‘name’ literary publication or indeed even in a major fanzine.
Businesses that charge authors for reviews have filled this gap and essentially commodified traditional literary criticism. Though the utility of paid reviews is learnedly debated on independent author forums, some writers believe that paid reviews raise the profile of their books. However, authors are advised to perform diligence before selecting a review service as the cost isn’t cheap. For example, Kirkus’s fees start at $425 for a ‘traditional review’. Prices vary for other services. However, advertising a book isn’t cheap either. The question then becomes which is a more effective spend of your limited marketing budget. As noted below, your marketing plan should guide you on this point.
Besides cost, paid reviews may be perceived to lack the objectivity of an unpaid critic though the services argue that their evaluations are impartial. Nonetheless, many paid services allow authors to suppress a bad review. Further, the reviews, even if unbiased, may read like plot summaries and give little insight into the tone and worth of a book. In addition, the larger services review hundreds of books monthly and your evaluation won’t be prominently displayed unless it is somehow flagged as a book of merit. Even then, the sheer volume of reviews can mask a glowing critique.
Of note, the audiences are somewhat different across the spectrum of reviewers. Prominent unpaid reviewers are read by the public as well as buyers at libraries and bookstores while niche reviewers focus on readers of a specific genre or subgenre. Paid reviewers may be primarily read by buyers at libraries and bookstores.
However, who needs critics, paid or unpaid? Can’t independent authors get by with positive ratings/evaluations on Goodreads or Amazon and similar sites? Indeed, these help, but as a neophyte author, most social media ratings/reviews probably come from the author’s friends and the numbers will likely be small. Positive reviews from a source believed to be somewhat dispassionate and discerning (i.e. an independent reviewer) enhance authors’ efforts to reach readers beyond their own small tribe.
Finding paid review services is relatively straightforward; they want your business, so they make themselves obvious. Do a careful evaluation of your fellow authors’ recommendations for reviewers or search out Goodreads groups that focus on the writing process in your genre. Other bibliophile social media sites have similar groups, but the sheer scale of Goodreads makes it a reasonable place to start with multiple groups specializing in most genres. For unpaid reviews, periodically, some public-spirited author in one of the discussions may list blog or fanzine reviewers that will evaluate self-published work. Or ask for recommendations. Prioritize the most established of them in your genre and read their past reviews to assess their professionalism. Also, be aware that many of them may be backlogged for months.
Importantly, the odds of benefitting from any type of review improve if your marketing plan prospectively assesses how to target your book’s audience. The plan should consider whether getting reviewers is worth your time and money in the first place or are there alternatives including advertising that are more cost effective. Look at the competition in your genre for guidance. Next, consider the audience you hope to reach with a review of your book. Is it the reader? If so, a blogger or fanzine whose reviews target your genre’s readership could be appropriate – assuming that they review independent authors’ works. If you are trying to reach librarians and bookstore buyers, a paid review service may be appropriate. Perhaps you’ll opt to seek both paid and unpaid reviews.
Though it is difficult to precisely gauge the success of any given marketing tactic, if possible try to correlate reviews with changes in sales by using the metrics available on your sales platforms (Amazon/Kindle, IngramSpark, etc). You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
So, like other aspects of the publishing world, the reviewer landscape is complex with unpaid and especially paid reviewers performing a more explicitly commercial function than in the past. This presents opportunities for authors if they develop a marketing plan that accommodates a role for reviewers as part of a broader marketing strategy and designates at least a modest budget for reviewers or an alternative like advertising (subject of a later blog). Doing this puts your book at a competitive advantage relative to many other independent authors. After all, being independent doesn’t mean you’re an amateur.