Reviews Matter for Author, Author!

I'm not a fan of recent Hollywood movies, haven't been to one in a decade, but I still enjoy "Author, Author!" when it comes up on T.V. Al Pacino is the lead role as a playwright with a highly confused family situation who ends up taking care of all of his ex-wives children, and needs a hit play to pay the bills. After the opening, the whole family stays up all night and waits for the Times to hit the streets, so they can read the theatre critics review and find out whether the play will be successful or not. I've never been part of any N.Y. scene, much less the theatres, but I'm told that critics do play a pretty big role in the success or failure of plays and shows, even though there are occasional prominent exceptions.

Maybe I'll get a flood of e-mails after this post, but I've never known a published review to make a difference for a self published book. I'm sure there are prominent exceptions could be found, but I don't know them, any more than I know any Hollywood stars. On the other hand, I know a lot of self publishers, myself included, who put a big effort into getting books reviewed, saw those reviews published every manner of publication at every level, and didn't benefit at all in terms of sales. I can explain this a number of different ways, including the lack of bookstore stocking for most self published books until after they prove their gold, but I think an important factor is that most reviews real purpose is to serve as a publication announcement. Seeing a review of your favorite author's book, be it fiction or nonfiction, be it a good review or a bad review, serves to inform you that a new book has been released. You don't need to read the review, you already know whether or not you like the author.

But many self publishers are review obsessed, because they believe that a good review will vault their book into the bestseller ranks.The discussion lists for small publishers and self publishers abound with stories about how a review in the Library Journal will usually sell a couple thousand copies, or how a PW review is the only way to break into the chains. I could never establish if the former was true, I think the publishers who have great success with the Library Journal may be more inclined to talk about it than the ones who have been reviewed there and still haven't sold any books. I know for a fact that PW reviews aren't required to get chain stocking, and it would be interesting to know what percentage of books stocked in a typical Barnes&Noble or Borders have ever been reviewed in PW, Library Journal or Kirkus.

What worries me about self publishers who pursue reviews is how it affects their overall approach to publishing. Sometimes they throw money away trying to act like the big trades, or make themselves nuts delaying publication by a half a year to meet some reviewers timing requirements. When it's literary nonfiction or fiction, the big trades grind their books out slowly, and they probably smile down their sleeves at self publishers who can't wait to get their books in print. It's no big deal for them to send out early review copies and ARCs a half a year before the book is ready to hit the street, it's all built into the production schedule. Let somebody famous expire and the trades will have tribute books out within two weeks, it's all a question of which game they're playing at the moment. Self publishers may also go over the top on the cover design budget in the mistaken notion that getting reviews is all about looking like money. A review copy with a cover like generic canned food may serve even better, as long as it's clear that it is a review copy. In some genres, the attempt to get reviews may even spill over into the titling and writing. The lowest level of hell is reserved for authors who write for critics.

I stopped sending my new titles out for review more than five years ago, but I know some self publishers who still put in a big effort, primarily because a good review makes the author happy. That's the danger of wearing two hats in a business. BTW, reviews have nothing to do with press releases and PR, which can be very effective selling tools for self publishers. Book marketing is a must, but advertising and chasing reviews are rarely effective.

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