Straight talk. Reviews are a measure of an author’s success. Now, they aren’t the only measure of success. Not in the least. But, particularly for new authors, they are a tangible thing to track, to obsess over, and to panic about. So we wanted to give you the REAL story on reviews: how you should approach them, what you should think about them, and when, if ever, to panic about them (hint: the answer to that last one is almost never).
There are two primary sites that readers use for reviews: Amazon and Goodreads. Sure, your mileage may vary and you might get a significant number of reviews on Barnes and Noble, Kobo, or Smashwords as well, but Amazon and Goodreads are the primary sites readers use, at least in the United States.
Both sites use a rating system of one to five stars. But, here’s one key difference. The stars mean different things on each site!
- 5 Stars: “I love it” on Amazon and “It was amazing” on Goodreads
- 4 Stars: “I like it” on Amazon and “Really liked it” on Goodreads
- 3 Stars: “It’s okay” on Amazon and “Liked it” on Goodreads
- 2 Stars: “I don’t like it” on Amazon and “It was okay” on Goodreads
- 1 Star: “I hate it” on Amazon and “Did not like it” on Goodreads
Because of this, most authors see a slightly lower average rating on Goodreads than Amazon. We’ve also seen that for some reason, Goodreads reviewers tend to be harsher. We’re not sure why that is, but we’ve seen it time and time again. The user bases overlap, but they’re not identical.
Five, Four, Three, Two, One
Every author loves five star reviews. Those fives can be gold. You need them for advertising opportunities, you want them for bragging rights, and they make you feel better about your own writing. We all have those days when the words just don’t come, and seeing a new five star review can be what we need to make it through. But don’t knock the three and four star reviews either. Depending on what site you’re on, a four star review either means a reader liked the book or they really liked it. That’s saying a lot. A significant number of reviewers refuse to give anything five stars because they’re saving that elusive number for the book they can’t put down, the one they buy for all of their friends, the one that makes them rethink their entire life and buy an island in the tropics. Okay, we might be exaggerating there. But still, don’t knock those four star reviews AT ALL.
Three stars are also good. Yes. Really. Go take a look at some of your (or others’) three star reviews. They often contain the best constructive feedback about your book. No, you can’t write your book for readers. The best books are written for you, the author. They’re what you need them to be. But we’ve seen some wonderful three star reviews that made us better writers. Maybe your readers feel the book moves too slowly in the beginning. Maybe they don’t feel that you handled point-of-view shifts smoothly. All of these gems of feedback can frequently be found in your three star reviews. You don’t have to take all of the feedback to heart, but take a look at it and decide.
The one and two star reviews…well…no one really loves those. These are readers who, for the most part, didn’t like your book. Unless you’re getting a lot of them, don’t dwell on them.
Dealing with the negatives
Your first one or two star review can hurt. We’ve seen authors (including ourselves) cry over them, curse over them, and re-evaluate their entire career as an author over them. But here’s a trick. When you get one (and most authors will get several of them in their careers), go find your favorite popular book on Amazon and go look at the one star reviews there. There are one star reviews of Shakespeare, of Holden Caufield, Anne Frank, and J.K. Rowling. No book will appeal to everyone, and when you get that first one or two star…think of it as a rite of passage. You’ve made it. You’re an author now.
The most important thing to do with negative reviews is to avoid responding in any fashion. Do not reply to the reviewer. Do not engage with them at all. It never ends well and you’ll usually come across as the bad guy or gal in the exchange. Respect that a reader doesn’t have to like your book and if they don’t, they have the right to say so.
The one exception is blatant personal attacks on the author. You can report those to Amazon (or Goodreads). This doesn’t always result in the review being removed, but if you have a reviewer saying you kick puppies for a living, it’s worth an email to Amazon or Goodreads customer service. But still, don’t engage with the reviewer. Never engage. Ever.
When to be concerned
A handful of one and two star reviews isn’t a bad thing. But if you’re getting a fair number, or if they’re consistently saying that your book is poorly edited, offensive, or hateful, then you might want to reevaluate your publishing plan. We’ve seen books draw high numbers of bad reviews for several reasons.
- Poor or no editing: This is a big one because it will dramatically affect the readability of your work. We’ve seen countless books fall prey to this, many of which would have been brilliant had the grammar and punctuation errors not been present. This is, quite honestly, also a way to vet your editor. Ask them for a list of books they’ve edited and go look at the reviews. If the reviews consistently call out poor editing, run and find yourself a different editor. Every book needs professional editing, even if the author is also an editor. Drop us a line for your free editing sample.
- Mis-categorization of genre: If you’re selling your book as a romance, it MUST have a HEA (happily ever after). Love stories that end in tragedy will often be poorly reviewed because readers want that happy ending. If you’re selling a book as “Clean Romance,” then it can’t have graphic sex. Your reviewers will jump on you for this pretty quickly. We even saw some books recently categorized as fairy tales that were clearly erotic retellings of fairy tales (and didn’t have the erotica category on them). Not cool, folks. Parents search for fairy tales with their children.
- Offensive or highly controversial subjects: Now, we don’t want to squash anyone’s beliefs. If you really do believe that Elvis discovered the moon, you’re entitled to that truth. But, if your beliefs run to racist, homophobic, or really, anti-any-large-group-of-society, and you write about it, you’re going to get haters leaving poor reviews. This might not bother you. Controversy can sell books. But language evolves constantly. And words that weren’t offensive when we were growing up are now. Maybe you totally missed one. Or maybe you left out a letter or two in a word and changed it from something innocuous to something offensive. Do you know how easy it is to change the word shift to something totally different? Now consider writing a children’s book and leaving out that letter. It’s mistakes like that you’ll want to fix ASAP.
How to get reviews
Now, the big one. How in the heck do you get reviews? Well, the short answer is…you ask. But you’ve got to do it in a nice, not-whiny, grateful way. If you’ve got a Facebook page, pop a message up there something like this.
Hi everyone! I want to say a big, huge thank you to everyone who made my book launch such a success. I couldn’t do this without you. If you haven’t yet, and you have a minute or two, I’d love it if you’d leave a review for my book on Amazon. Reviews help authors succeed and they let us know that you want us to keep writing. You all rock!
You can also put something like this in the back of your book, preferably with a link to where readers can go to leave a review.
What you don’t want to do is berate, beg, or pay for reviews. Yes, there are sites that require you to pay for an editorial review. Kirkus is one of the big ones. And that’s okay (though we haven’t seen a huge benefit from it). But never, ever buy reviews. There are sites out there that sell them and while it’s tempting, it’s dishonest and ineffective. Not only can readers often tell when you have a high number of fake reviews, but the book sites can too and they could penalize you for it, up to and including pulling your book off sale. Buying reviews is against the terms of service for bookselling sites and it’s just not worth it.
When you’re starting out, it’s going to take a while to pick up reviews. Less than 25% of readers will leave a review. Sometimes it’s even less. There are a lot of reasons for this. Many readers don’t understand that reviews are important. Others aren’t comfortable writing reviews. And still others just don’t want to take the time. So don’t panic if you release a book and the reviews don’t come pouring in. Don’t panic if your first review is a four star review. Or even a three star. Be patient, gently ask your fans once in a while (but not too often, or you’ll seem spammy), and keep writing good books. Your reviews will come.
Are you a reader who loves to review? Email us with your favorite genres and we’ll add you to our list for future review opportunities.