Do reviews matter?
The answer depends on who you ask, how you define “reviews,” and what you mean by “matter.”
Ask a trade-published writer, and you’ll likely learn a review is first and foremost something written by a pro or semi-pro reviewer that will appear in an industry-supported or industry-centric publication. That sort of review is expected to (fingers crossed!) boost enough interest and offer enough praise to filter down to the general readership in time to impact sales in the first week (or month, on the outside) after publication.
Ask a self-published writer, and you’ll likely learn a review is first and foremost something written by a reader, directed at other readers, that will appear on the online retailer’s sales page for the book or (second best) on a site like Goodreads. That sort of review is expected to (fingers crossed!) boost enough interest and offer enough legitimacy to immediately impact the reader’s purchasing decision in the first week, the first month, the first year, and far beyond.
But no matter who you ask, the truthful answers all share one critical element:
We know visibility impacts sales. But visibility doesn’t create sales. That takes a connection between what the reader is looking for and how the reviewer expresses herself. Seemingly neutral words can make all the difference. Describing a novel as having “humor mixed with the action” gives the reader a different impression than “action-packed, madcap adventure.” I’d investigate the first one and ignore the second one, even though both phrases could accurately describe the same novel. I’m convinced the seemingly random impact of reviews on sales is due less to a positive or negative review and more to the language it uses.
For example, after its inclusion in StoryBundle, Sand of Bone began to be described by reviewers as military fantasy as well as dark fantasy. I haven’t noticed a big difference in sales, but I’ve noticed a sharp rise in reader engagement—the critical foundation to any writing career because an engaged readership is more likely to purchase your next book. The words a reviewer used connected me to a different segment of fantasy readers, and those connections were the best thing to come out of my StoryBundle participation. (The money certainly wasn’t bad, either! 🙂 )
In Bloggers: Wind or Windsock?, author Mark Lawrence speaks to the question of how much blogger reviews might impact sales. (Truly, it’s difficult for the trade-published to know. They lack direct and immediate access to the majority of sales data. Me, I can immediately see the impact or lack thereof because my sales data is mine to access at any moment. But I digress.) He puts some numbers behind his observations, but still comes up with the answer of, “Maybe it helps! Fingers crossed!”
Might the numbers Lawrence uses in his blogpost be more indicative of reader engagement than reviewer connections? Maybe. For those who are prevented by a blogger’s or industry publication’s policy from accessing many review venues, the answer is, “Fingers crossed!”
And that’s why I wanted Sand of Bone to be part of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Not because I think there’s a straight line between trade-publishing and reviewers and immediate sales and fame, but because I know visibility does the workaday job of increasing the likelihood a reader who likes what I write will find me.
But there is a second reason, and it’s a tiny tad more altruistic: I want the artificial barriers between trade-published books and self-published books to be smudged by the Blog-Off.
I will never forget the puzzlement of a genre professional first hearing the name “Hugh Howey.” Howey had at the time sold more copies of a single book than most genre writers will sell in their lifetime, but those who prided themselves in knowing everything about the industry had no idea who he was. Me, I would have been troubled to discover I’d not known about the work and writers who were impacting—and changing—the industry I worked within. Alas, what I saw immediately following the revelation was a doubling-down on the separation that left many readers understanding they had to access different sources to find complete news.
As I discussed in Women, Reviews, and Self-Publishing, the lamenting of diversity in industry-centric forums that pointedly exclude all self-published works frustrate me to no end. A large number of writers who have been shut out of the industry due to the documented biases in the industry are now self-publishing. Writers who didn’t even want to deal with those controversies opted to go directly to self-publishing. Writers who were tired of dealing with abuse within the industry decided to self-publish.
So anything that connects industry-centric sources, reviewers, and publications with the growing self-publishing community is a win in my book. After all, readers are purchasing, enjoying, and discussing self-published works from writers many industry sources haven’t even heard of, and the number of readers discovering self-published works is growing. Certainly self-published writers will benefit from connecting with an audience that looks almost solely to industry-centric reviewers to provide information on worthwhile reads. But the reviewer will also benefit from expanding her reading experience, sharing her discoveries, and connecting with readers who are largely ignored by many of the industry’s supporting resources.
SFWA recently enacted its policy to expand membership qualifications to include self-publishing income. As a SFWA member who watched the internal and public debate on the matter, I knew there were far more self-publishing writers who’d meet the income guidelines than most trade-published members believed, but also suspected the desire of self-published writers to join the organization was vastly exaggerated by those same members. It turns out both of us were right and wrong. Yes, the flood of self-published applicants surprised existing members with their sales numbers. Yes, the flood of self-published applicants who wanted to be in SFWA surprised me.
But one of the things I most remember is Locus Magazine’s reporting that SFWA “favored loosening membership standards by more than six to one.”
First, there is a load of bias in the phrase, “loosening membership standards.” There is no byline for the item, so I don’t know who wrote it, but do indeed know the genre readership has moved beyond that person’s knowledge and understanding. Just as I’d rather get my tech advice from folks who can tell me about cutting edge computing rather than the TRS-80, I’d rather get my industry news from folks who understand publishing opportunities that have been around for quite a few years now.
Second, take note of the phrase, “six to one.” I’m no math person, but I’m fairly certain that translates to around 85% of SFWA’s voting membership who approved of admitted self-published writers under earning standards equal to trade-published writers. Isn’t 85% a fairly significant majority? Isn’t a significant majority a fair reflection of prevailing opinion?
So if readers are purchasing enough self-published genre books to make writing them lucrative for many authors, and genre writers want self-publishers acknowledged as professionals alongside trade-published writers, it makes sense that reviewers would want to be part of the transition, if not on its leading edge.
Believe me—I get that reviewing is time consuming. After all, I’m a single mother who homeschools her teenage son, runs two businesses (one of which includes teaching karate four to six days a week), and sill wants to write stories.
So what might help bridge the transition? What might help connect up-and-coming writers outside the industry to reviewers within it?
Things like the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off.
Do I want Sand of Bone to fare well? Of course. Fuck yeah, I do. I want everyone to say it’s the best novel EVAH.
But in all honesty, I want the participating reviewers to enjoy many of the novels. I want them to be surprised by the stories and the production quality. I want them to be intrigued. I want them to be excited. I want them to be so pleased they’ll from now on look at good books versus bad books rather than self-published books versus trade-published books. I want their decisions to be difficult because of an abundance of good reads.
I would rather this open the door to increasing connections than be a token experience.
Yeah, I can be hopelessly unrealistic in my aspirations.
But, my darlings, this hope is totally reasonable.
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