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Are Reviews Worth the Effort?

Between all the buzz lately about phony rave reviews on sites like Amazon and excessively harsh ones in places like the New York Times, what’s an author who’s considering reaching out to reviewers supposed to think?

It’s a valid question. Seeking reviews means investing time and usually money.  And there are plenty of new-fangled ways to get noticed these days.  As a publicist, I revisit it often.

Of course, the answer depends a lot on each book and varies according to book type: fiction or non-fiction?  Indie or traditionally-published? Niche genre or literary?   There’s also no single “right” approach.  But there are a number of pros and cons anyone trying to decide what to do about reviews should bear in mind.

Most of the “pros” are pretty familiar: they’re the reason authors want reviews in the first place:  Reviews bring invaluable third party validation.  Just the fact that a book is picked up by reviewer -- no matter what, exactly, she winds up saying about it -- is usually perceived as a reflection of it’s worth.  Reviews are a nice feather in the cap and hey, they always impress at cocktail parties.  More importantly, though, they help raise awareness, pushing books into the spotlight, into people’s “to-read” piles and onto high-profile lists like NPR’s great summer reads.  Even a bad review can get people all abuzz.

On the less familiar but more pragmatic side, reviews provide great raw material for marketing pieces.  A nice snippet can make a great tagline, becoming a permanent part of a book’s identity and an author’s brand.  For example, Andrew Goldstein’s novel, The Bookie’s Son, can forever be described as “hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as a ‘powerful debut.’” And by association, Andrew as an author is “critically acclaimed.”  Snippets can fit on business cards and bookmarks and posted to Facebook.  Not to mention that they’re highly tweetable.

On the “con” side, the return on investment in time and monetary terms is pretty low.  Efforts tend to yield just a small handful of reviews.  In all likelihood, these will NOT be with The Boston Globe (even if you are from Boston), The Washington Post or The New York Times.  And getting a bad review can ruin your day, your week or your year, spark self-destructive drinking or chocolate binges, wreck your sanity and your marriage.

Most people are aware of these things and try to manage their expectations accordingly.  But one lesser-known fact can make the review-seeking experience especially grueling: landing a review is not always a very *democratic* process.  Unlike news reporters, book reviewers rely a lot on personal connections and relationships with editors and agents to get information about new titles and decide which ones to read.  And there are politics involved.

To me, this suggests an ever-so-faint parallel between professional reviews, and phony readers’ raves....

So where does that leave us other than confused?

Overall, I do think the pros outweigh the cons and that some level of reviewer outreach is important for the majority of authors.  (And if your publisher is handling this, it’s just as important to make sure s/he’s following up with them rather than simply blasting off a batch of emails.)  Reviews are still very much part of the today’s book culture, and do carry clout.  The key is which specific type of reviewers to target in each case.

At the same time, I think any author seeking reviews should acknowledge from the start that they’re not the gospel.  Nor are they perfect, or perfectly reliable.  As Michelle Hoover pointed out here on the Grub Daily, “There are human beings on all sides of this equation.”  Even the most respected reviewers can have a bad day.  Or a manic one in which the mediocre appears stellar.  Whatever reviews you get and whatever their message might be, take them with the appropriate grain of salt, use them as a tagline, print them on a bookmark or a T-shirt if you’d like, then tweet them and move on.

As for online reader reviews: yeah, go out and get them.  But for goodness’ sake, please refrain from asking anyone to write fictitious five-star raves.

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About the Author

Sharon Bially is a professional publicist and founder of the boutique PR firm BookSavvy PR. In addition to BookSavvy, she directs media relations campaigns for businesses as a consultant to MBS Value Partners.  Author of the independent novel Veronica's Nap Sharon is an active Grub Street member and a regular contributor to the popular blog Writer Unboxed.

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