Why do book reviews matter so much to writers?

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“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
- Ray Bradbury
 

One great advantage of being an unknown writer is how liberating anonymity becomes. When you know no one is paying attention to what you’re saying, it frees you up to say anything you want! After all, you can’t offend anyone, if no one is listening. Right? Like most young authors, I once was saddened by the idea of low book sales and not earning a living; being ignored. Now I see the truth; if no one cares about your work, there’s no reason to pull punches!

When you do care about the work of a writer, it’s important to let people know. The general public, even those who love to read, fail to understand why it’s so important to writers to have positive book reviews in print and on the Internet.

Unfortunately, many readers mistakenly presume it’s just for ego. Right? You think authors want you to write a fabulous review just so that author can feel good about themselves.

Well, maybe some authors are like that, but for most of us, that’s not it. That’s not the motive at all.

The reason we need positive reviews is so we can maintain a career and write more books. For those striving to make a living as writers, that will obviously never happen if no one buys the things we write. Plain and simple, we have to sell our work. We have to make money with our writing. We can’t hand our landlord a stack of short stories instead of a check.

How do we assure that people will actually buy our stories?

Well, no matter what anyone in marketing or advertising tells you, the absolute best publicity for books and movies and theatrical performances and albums still remains word-of-mouth. It’s not about advertisements in magazines, or hits on websites, or television commercials, or billboards. After thousands of years, the greatest success for all the arts still arises from people talking to people. Friends telling friends to check out that new record, go see that play, watch that movie, or buy that book.

In December of 2013, I received a fanletter for my novel The Gothic Rainbow that read, “I found that it was the best book I have read all year. I have read quite a few this year, from Neil Gaiman to Stephen King and often feel that their work is sensationalist tripe with great marketing. However, with Gothic Rainbow it really lived up to my expectations and then some… I can honestly say that you’ve become one of my favourite writers, right up there with Anne Rice, Edgar Allen Poe and Robert E. Howard.”

That was a wonderful and amazing compliment. To be dubbed superior to Gaiman and an equal of Poe? Wow. I may be quite the narcissist, but even I wouldn’t dare to place myself in such company. I was truly humbled by his praise. But, if the author of that fanletter never posts a review in public, how would you ever know my readers react so passionately to my work?

I once read a quote from an author who talked about the fact that her readers are not obligated to kiss her ass and praise her work when they enjoy it. She’s wrong. We are all obligated to share things we love, to spread the word about those works of art which bring light and joy into the world. Discovering art which touches our soul is a rare gift. What is the point of having such an experience if we keep it all to ourselves?

One thing you may not know about, in the world of books and publishing, is this: on all the major bookselling websites, the more reviews we get and the higher our sales become, the more prominently we are featured on that site. Works the same way in a bookstore, right? The bestsellers by Stephen King are displayed prominently out front as soon as you set foot into the shop. There’s the latest hit novel, framed by huge posters, right in your face. Easy to find. Books that don’t sell so well, they’re stuffed on the shelves in the back of the store. Buried further away. You have to look for them. Lost in row after row of paperbacks. The Internet functions exactly like that too. For example, if you go to a bookstore online, just like a brick-and-mortar shop, they have categories for all their books – science fiction, romance, thriller and so forth. The top-selling and most highly-recommended books are the ones that appear first on those webpages. The worse your sales and reviews are, the further down your book gets stuffed into the virtual catacombs. Thus, just like a physical bookstore, popular books are given a display front-and-center on the prominent webpages while unpopular books are entombed with the dead, way in the back corner, down among the shadowy nooks and crannies of the Internet that no one ever sees.

Can you start to understand why good reviews are so vital to our survival as writers?

Not only is it important to be displayed out front where our readers can see our books, but there are multiple marketing and promoting companies that won’t even accept our business if we don’t already have some stellar ratings on them. In other words, if we don’t have ten good reviews, they won’t even promote our book for us. Our money is no good there. We’re not worthy.

I even faced this kind of rejection at an independent bookstore here in Los Angeles. I offered to supply them with my books and the owner of the bookstore said because of their limited space, he could “only stock books by writers people have heard of.” Ouch.

Since no one has heard of me, they won’t sell my books. But if bookstores refuse to sell my books, and promoters refuse to advertise my books, how will anyone hear about me?

Obviously, you can see the conundrum for writers here. Catch 22. Cart before the horse. No reviews without sales. No sales without reviews. What to do?

These are the kind of frustrations writers deal with. We need word-of-mouth. We need people to talk about our books and tell their friends how much they enjoyed them. When no one talks about them, when we don’t have any written reviews, the books get buried on websites and bookstores won’t even put them on their shelves.

This is why it’s so important for you as a reader to write reviews of books that you love. Even if that book already has 50 great reviews, write another one. Everything you do to help get the word out there, to help keep the dialog going, is helpful. On behalf of all writers, we apologize for pestering you so much. We’re sorry that we constantly ask you to “pen a wee testimonial” as Dr. Hammond said in Jurassic Park. We’re sorry that we constantly ask you to be sure to tell your friends that you enjoyed the book. You have to understand though, we need you. We need you to write those reviews. We need you to tell your friends. Not because of ego. No. We need you to tell your friends and write the reviews so we can keep paying the rent. We need you to help us and write those reviews so we can keep food on the table. Without you, dear readers, everything we create, all that we have made which you loved so dearly, will be lost. As a writer, I merely create the dream. As a reader, you are the one who keeps the dream alive. You and you alone can make a difference.

Now that I’ve appealed to your emotions, or at least attempted to, let me do something I shouldn’t do. This is something no marketing expert would ever condone. Let me go over the math. Wait. Wait. Please, hear me out. I’ll make it quick. As an author, if you’re selling a $3.00 ebook, you might only make $2.00 on each sale. According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2013, the median household income in the United States is $51,000 a year. At a profit of $2.00 per book, that means a writer has to sell 70 books per day, 365 days a year, to earn the same living as the average American. That’s over 25,000 books a year. Now, how many authors do you think are selling 70 books every single day? Hell, I’ve never even sold 70 books in a year, let alone 70 a day.

So, next time you read a book and really enjoy it, take the time to post some reviews. Write a paragraph or two and copy it onto a few different websites. Stick it up on Amazon and Goodreads and Barnes & Noble and whatever other websites you can think of. Post a link on your social networking profile. Mention the book on Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and whatever other social media sites are popular today. Word-of-mouth is everything.

Tell the world what you think. Maybe you feel your opinion doesn’t matter, but for some of us, our future is in your hands, and your opinion can change the world.

 
“Don’t ever apologize to an author for buying something in paperback, or taking it out from a library. That’s what they’re there for. Use your library. Don’t apologize to this author for buying books second hand, or getting them from bookcrossing or borrowing a friend’s copy. What’s important to me is that people read the books and enjoy them, and that, at some point in there, the book was bought by someone. And that people who like things, tell other people. The most important thing is that people read.”
- Neil Gaiman