When Keith Donohue’s novel "The Stolen Child" came out, the critics weren’t impressed, even though his publisher was Nan Talese at Doubleday. In fact, not a single major newspaper reviewed the book. Ask any big publisher, and they’ll tell you: A novel stiffed by the critics has no chance of becoming a bestseller.
But the story wasn’t over. A review copy ended up in the hands of Linda Porco, Amazon.com’s merchandising director. She passed it around in the office and everyone loved it. So Porco tried something new. She got more copies of the book and mailed them to Amazon’s most active customer reviewers, the ones who review books on the site as a hobby, assigning five stars to books they love and one star to books they hate, and providing essays explaining why.
Within weeks, all but one of those Amazon Top Reviewers posted a rave review. Promptly, Stolen Child became Amazon’s bestselling fiction book, and it reached No. 26 on the New York Times extended bestseller list, an unbelievable climb for a novel with no big newspaper or trade reviews. Now the book is in its eighth printing and the story is being shopped to Hollywood. And -— oh yeah —- now Stolen Child has plenty of professional reviews.
All this caused quite a stir in publishing circles, but it didn’t surprise the folks who actually buy books. Increasingly, readers turn to online reviews written by peers to find out if a book is worth buying.
Critics argue that amateurs’ reviews are meaningless, that they don’t apply the professional critics’ intellectual rigor. But whatever the amateur reviewers do or don’t lack in highbrow sensibilities, they make up for in credibility and relevancy.
Good reviews on Amazon are particularly crucial for books by new authors and for niche books, and it stands to reason that they boost sales not only at that site but everywhere people are buying books, although we don’t yet know what percentage of buyers at brick-and-mortar bookstores made their choice by reading Amazon customer reviews.
HOW TO REACH AMAZON REVIEWERS
Traditional book marketing strategies call for mailing hundreds of copies to reviewers at magazines and newspapers. But for a new author and/or a niche book, chasing print reviews can be little more than a distraction. A better way to launch your campaign is by identifying and contacting 100 to 300 potential online reviewers and sending a copy of your book to each respondent who expresses willingness to look at it and perhaps post an honest critique.
If you spend two or three days contacting about 300 potential Amazon reviewers, you can expect to receive about 40 to 50 responses, and wind up with perhaps 35 reviews, a quite satisfactory result.
(Author's note: Recently Amazon seems to be restricting communications between authors and readers, and not all Amazon Friends invitations have been going through. Whether this is a policy change by Amazon or simply a glitch isn't known.) 4/13/2009
TRY THE TOP
Look for potential reviewers on Amazon’s Top Reviewers list -- which you will find at http://www.amazon.com/review/top-reviewers -- and target the people who regularly post reviews of books similar to yours.
Top Reviewers have a special badge accompanying their pen names, such as Top 1000 Reviewer, Top 500 Reviewer, Top 50 Reviewer, Top 10 Reviewer or #1 Reviewer. Having one of these badges displayed among your book’s reviews isn’t the same thing as an endorsement by Amazon—it’s better. It’s a vote by a recognized community leader -— someone who takes reviewing seriously, and has earned a reputation for helpfulness.
Rankings of the Top Reviewers are determined by a point system based on the number of reviews written and the number of positive votes those reviews receive when people click Yes in response to “Was this review helpful to you?”
Many Top review several books a week -— sometimes at the invitation of an author or publisher, but usually by just following their personal interests. Despite receiving no payment, they compete furiously to climb the rankings ladder.
Clicking on a top reviewer’s pen name takes you to the reviewer’s Amazon profile. Some reviewers use their profiles to explain what types of books they prefer and whether they accept unsolicited books. Some provide postal or e-mail addresses.
Try Googling the Amazon reviewer's name, which will often point you toward their Facebook page, or some other source of contact information.
A soft-sell approach works best with Top Reviewers. Offer a complimentary book in return for their considering it for review -- no obligation. Carefully screen out reviewers whose profile indicates they won’t be interested in your book. And don’t ask reviewers to return the copy you send.
Here’s a sample script you might use to approach Amazon Top Reviewers:
Dear John Doe:
I got your name from the list of Amazon Top Reviewers. I’ve written a book, “How to Grow Organic Strawberries.” I noticed from your Amazon profile that you frequently review gardening books. If you think you might be interested in reading my book and posting an honest review of it on Amazon, I’ll gladly send a complimentary copy if you’ll reply with your postal mailing address. There is no obligation, of course.
Only a small percentage of the Top Reviewers are likely to respond to your offer. Some are inundated with review copies from publishers who already have their mailing addresses and know their reading preferences. And some make it a practice not to review a book from a new author unless they can honestly give it a rating of at least three stars out of five.
An increasingly popular way to distribute complimentary review copies of your book is by using two popular book social-networking sites, Goodreads.com and LibraryThing.com. At LibraryThing, you’ll want to sign up as a “LibraryThing Author” and then participate in the “member giveaway.” Gently request that they also post a review at Amazon. Of course, there’s no obligation. Some reviewers are happy to do so, but perhaps two out of three will not.
USE SUBJECTS AND STYLES TO TARGET
Amazon users who have reviewed books with subjects or writing styles like your book’s are also worth contacting. You can use the techniques outlined above and click on the pen name displayed with a review to get the reviewer’s Amazon profile. Then use the Amazon Friends invitation to send a personalized message, such as:
Dear John Doe:
I got your name from the Amazon book review you posted of the 2003 book “Complete Guide to Organic Fruit.” I recently wrote a book that appeals to the same audience, “How to Grow Organic Strawberries.” If you think you might be interested in reading it and perhaps reviewing it on Amazon, I’ll gladly send a complimentary copy if you’ll respond with your mailing address. There is no obligation, of course.
These readers may consider it a treat to discover a new book in their field of interest. And positive ratings from them can surface your book in Amazon’s recommendations to buyers of similar books.
OTHER PROSPECTS WORTH APPROACHING
Don't limit yourself to Amazon's Top Reviewers. Other good potential reviewers are:
* acquaintances and colleagues interested in your book’s topic.
* participants in Internet discussion boards and mailing lists relevant to your book.
* visitors who registered on your Web site and people who read your blog.
You can find still more prospective reviewers by posting a message on Amazon’s discussion board dedicated to customer book reviews: http://forums.prosperotechnologies.com/n/mb/listsf.asp?webtag=am-custreview
Don’t ask for reviews from people who haven’t actually read your book, not even if that group includes your mother. The result will be an unconvincing review that will detract from your book’s credibility rather than bolster it.
Once your book is selling, you’ll have a steady stream of potential reviewers. Whenever you receive e-mails from readers who praise your book or request further information, you might respond this way:
Thank you for the kind words about my book. If you ever have a spare moment, it would be a great help if you could post a review of it on Amazon and let other potential readers know why you liked it. It’s not necessary to write a lengthy, formal review—a summary of the comments you sent me would be fine. Here’s a link to the review form for my book: http://www.Amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/write-a-review.html?asin=[ISBN]
The link at the end of the message will take the reader to Amazon’s Web form for book reviews. To customize the link for your book, replace “[ISBN]” with your book’s ISBN.
Will giving away several dozen copies of your book hurt its sales? Perhaps you’ll lose a sale or two but gain much more from word of mouth. Readers who enjoy the book will recommend it to friends, and those new readers will keep the chain of recommendations going.
Although it’s perfectly ethical to seek reviews, don’t do anything to suggest that you’re expecting favorable treatment. If you succeed in getting lots of reviews, you can expect some negative ones.
“I see a fair number of books that I don’t like, and I say so -— including those sent to me as review copies,” says Jane Corn, one of Amazon’s top 150 reviewers. “Anything else seems unethical to me.”
You can safeguard yourself a bit by requesting that Top Reviewers not post a review if they simply hate the book. But it’s the reviewer’s call. Sometimes reviewers are willing to give prepublication feedback, providing valuable advice on fixing a book’s weaknesses. Don’t expect that, though, and don’t ask for it.
You might want to avoid sending your book to reviewers who usually post harshly negative reviews, but don’t shy away from those who offer frank criticism. These voices lend credibility to a book, Corn says.
Obviously, positive reviews can help your book but negative reviews on Amazon can have a bigger impact, according to a study published by the Yale School of Management.
Multiple glowing reviews for a book tend to be dismissed by shoppers as hype generated by the author or publisher, the study found. Negative reviews are taken more seriously because buyers usually believe they represent honest criticism from disappointed readers.
Buyers understand that no book pleases everyone, and that any book reviewed often enough will get an occasional thumbs-down, but a single detailed, critical review can still be devastating, particularly for a nonfiction how-to book.
The study, The Effect of Word of Mouth on Sales: Online Book Reviews, examined random titles from Global Books in Print and bestsellers from Publishers Weekly. You can read it in its entirety at www.WeberBooks.com/reviews.pdf
Early on, Amazon’s decision to allow readers to post negative book reviews infuriated publishers, chief executive Jeff Bezos recalls. “We had publishers writing to us, saying, ‘Why in the world would you allow negative reviews? Maybe you don’t understand your business -— you make money when you sell things. Get rid of the negative reviews, and leave the positive ones.’”
Yes, negative reviews can hurt sales in the short term, but over the long term, allowing criticism builds credibility and helps shoppers decide what to buy, Bezos says: “We don’t make money when we sell things; we make money when we help people make purchase decisions.”
RULES FOR REVIEWS
Amazon polices its book review system but depends on community members to report abuses. Because Amazon reviews can be posted anonymously, nothing prevents the occasional malicious review or practical joke.
Familiarize yourself with Amazon’s guidelines for acceptable reviews so you can request that its Community Help department delete inappropriate comments.
Generally, Amazon requires that reviews critique the book itself. Reviews that focus on the author or outside topics are often deleted. Amazon also deletes reviews deemed “illegal, obscene, threatening, defamatory, invasive of privacy, infringing of intellectual property rights, or otherwise injurious to third parties.” And it prohibits “political campaigning, commercial solicitation, chain letters, mass mailings, or any form of ‘spam.’”
Reviewers are not allowed to impersonate other people; to use profanity, obscenities or spiteful remarks; to solicit votes of “helpful“ for their reviews. Also prohibited are the inclusion of phone numbers, mail addresses, URLs, information on product pricing, availability, alternative ordering or shipping.
Amazon has also been known to delete negative reviews posted by competing authors, reviews that contain inaccurate information about the author or publisher, and off-topic reviews.
You can request deletion of an inappropriate review on Amazon by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Specify the book title and ISBN, the pen name of the reviewer, the first sentence of the review, and the date it was posted. State why you believe the review is inappropriate, and you should receive a reply within a few days.
AMAZON SPOTLIGHT REVIEWS
Popular books on Amazon can draw dozens or even hundreds of reviews. But no matter how many reviews a book gets, the pair designated Spotlight Reviews have a special impact, by design.Because they’re usually the first bit of independent information buyers see about your book, Spotlights are crucial. Many browsers read only those two reviews before deciding whether to buy.
Spotlights don’t appear until your book has several reviews posted. When a book is new, the first reviews appear about midway down its detail page. Additional reviews bump earlier ones down a notch and when the sixth review appears, Amazon selects one review as a Spotlight and places it on top. After your book receives a few more reviews, it selects another as the second Spotlight.
The selection process for Spotlight Reviews is automated. The review with the most “helpful” votes from customers usually gets the top spot, although reviews written by Top Reviewers count for more than others.
Subsequent reviews appear in reverse chronological order below the Spotlight reviews.
POSTING TRADE REVIEWS ON AMAZON
Amazon has licenses to publish prepublication reviews from major trade publications, so if you have secured reviews there, make sure they appear on your title’s Amazon detail page.
Condense reviews published in newspapers or other publications that Amazon doesn’t have licenses to reprint. Amazon will publish 20-word summaries on your book’s detail page, relying on the fair use provision of copyright law.
Information on submitting reviews and other descriptive content appears at www.Amazon.com/publishers.