In previous posts on this subject, I focused on finding a publisher, finding an agent and finding your voice as an author. In this post, I will be looking into the technical details of one of the most important contributors to finding a publisher and finding an agent – getting reviews, one of the first inputs into your sales funnel. “Oh, meh”, you say. Read on, though. This is interesting stuff. You’ll meet Nofu, Tofu, Mofu and Bofu, the Four Brothers Buksalesnikov.
Once created, you have to market your book to sell it
A great deal of the success of anything depends on how it is marketed. A book is a product, like anything else that’s sold. Yes, it is an art product, but it is, nevertheless, a product that is created to be used and shared. (Which again raises the question of how meaningful the Future Library Project is – considering the books in it will only be read in 100 years’ time.) How many people get to do that, depends on how well the book is promoted.
Reviews is one of the primary methods a writer can use to make their book look good to a potential publisher or agent. They have to get some of the reviews before the book gets published.
What does a first time author have to do to get people to read and review (and buy) their book? Firstly, and primarily, like with perfume advertising, they have to get people to TRY it. After having tried it and liked it (hopefully) some readers – not all – will spread the word to other readers, and voila!, you and your book have a following. This process is part of the “sales funnel”.
The book marketing sales funnel
Book marketing and sales is a specific application of the classical “sales funnel” or “business development funnel” concept.
According to the funnel concept, the sales process is like a funnel – a lot in, a little out. At the top end, you create wide awareness of your product (Hey, this book is great!), then you promote specific engagement with your product (Read an extract! Rate this!), then you propose a direct transaction of your product (Buy me?), and someone buys your product (Would you like your receipt emailed or in the bag?).
Here’s a simple way to remember all this: Nofu, Tofu, Mofu and Bofu, the “Four Brothers Buksalesnikov”. (Get it? buksales = book sales? Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov = The Four Brothers Buksalesnikov? Oh well, I still think it’s clever.)
- Nofu (no-funnel content),
- Tofu (top-of-the-funnel content),
- Mofu (middle-of-the-funnel content), and
- Bofu (bottom-of-the-funnel content).
The idea is to create a variety of content to get someone to try your book. There’s a long process before a reader or a publisher buys a book: – awareness, followed by engagement, followed by consideration and intent, and then evaluation and purchase. In all these phases, reviews influence the potential reader quite substantially.
The Nofu layer is the easiest, widest form of communication – if you have a dedicated, personal website, blog or webpages, most internet or media users would be able to get a hold of you online. As your content gets more technical and focused, your reader pool also gets more defined and the barriers to consumption get more. By the time you are offering a “platform statement” to a publisher, most readers would not be interested. (Well, I would, but that’s me.)
How to get started with publicity
The main idea behind the publicity side of marketing is to build a base of readers, who will talk about your book and spread it by word of mouth. The caveat on this is that, according to writer and editor Janice Hussein, “marketing pays off when it’s done consistently and over time.” Book promotions, such as reviews, the most effective form of promotion, if they are the real thing, “usually starts with local media, moves to regional, and then national.” (Janice Hussein, in Writer’s Market 2018, p.84, 85). Publicity is free editorial about your book in the media. It can be a review or an interview with the author, or the author’s opinion on an industry or genre issue.
“As part of publishing Break in Communication, I set up a website, Facebook and Twitter account and contracted a marketing lady to give it a kick start. She was really good and modestly priced. She got published reviews and a couple of local radio interviews.” (Jon Gliddon interview, 8 July 2018)
Jon’s reviews, and the discussions about the book, did gain him publicity, though some focused on the local content rather than the literary value of the work itself.
Ruuf Wangersen comments:
Ruuf Wangersen, author of The Pleasure Model Repairman, also knows the value of reviews to guide readers towards the next book they will read. He explains:
“As for the frets and warnings of certain groups and the large publishers about self-publishing trends, I see all of that as sort of a fading background radiation to the interstellar event that is publishing today. The powerful tools now available to authors to get their work out there are only going to become more powerful, prevalent and easy to use. To my way of seeing it that’s a good thing. Even if it means more books end up in print, as you point out the gems that never would have had a chance are also making it. I think readers are compensating for the higher volume of available books by increasingly turning to quality reviewers, magazines and blogs (like Seven Circumstances) [his words, not mine] to find the books they want to read.” (Ruuf Wangersen interview, July 2018)
A warning through: If you get a review, but do nothing with it, or just let it sit on your website or the publication where it first showed up, you are not communicating! Something that stays in your head is not a communique. You have to get it out in as many places on the Internet and in the real world (wherever books are sold and readers and writers gather) as you can. That makes you and your book findable.
How do reviews help an author?
The logic goes that, in order for an agent to take you on and present your work to a publisher, you need to have an “established reader base”, and in order to get that, your book needs to be read and reviewed. And to be read and reviewed, your book needs to have been – somehow – published or put into a reader-accessible format. You have a few options:
- Self-publish a few advance copies to hand out to early readers and reviewers
- Get crowd-funded to have your book self-published in parts (Unbound is one such – but there are pitfalls the same as with any kind of crowdfunding)
- Publish extracts or teasers on your website
- Publish chapters in instalments on your website
- Have a few chapters read by a voice artist in a regular podcast
- Stick to e-book format but make them freely available – yes, a giveaway (seriously, it’s not that expensive, and the more you produce, the lower the unit cost)
- Have your book translated real quick and reviewed in different languages and markets – it is handy if you as an author are fluent in more than one language. Being fluent in French in Canada definitely helps, and Afrikaans in South Africa.
- Have a really fancy-schmancy print edition, complete with beyootiful artwork (or fan-art) and author’s inscription, and run a competition or draw for reviewers or fans to win copies (that is a really popular idea)
- Be super-nice to the bloggers who read what you write, and just ask politely for a review. You’ll be surprised how many will say yes to a roughly printed advance copy.
According to technology e-handbook publisher, Packt;
“Reviews can really help boost conversion – everyone who looks at your listing can discover readers’ unbiased opinions about the excellent quality of your work, combined with the description and any other important information about your book. Reviews can help customers make the easy decision to buy your book based on what’s been said about it already. And, unsurprisingly, the more quality reviews your book has, the higher the chance that potential customers will make the purchase – and turn into your readers! (Your Packt Book Promotion Toolkit)
On the assumption that you would, like Ruuf Wangersen and Jon Gliddon did, have your book for sale on Amazon – now the largest bookseller in the world – Packt further recommends that, along with your book reviews, you make yourself an Amazon Author Page.
“Amazon is the world’s largest bookstore – yet very few authors take advantage of promoting themselves by setting up their Author Page on Amazon. […] Creating your page on Amazon is an excellent way to promote yourself and the work you do. Your Author Page allows you to group your Amazon titles together, along with photos of you, your biography, blog feeds, videos, and any tour or conference events you might be taking part in. Every little bit of promoting your activity and the work you do really does help – it’s a sure-fire way to generate online interest in you and your titles.” (Your Packt Book Promotion Toolkit)
(The Packt Book Promotion Toolkit can be found here: Your_Packt_Book_Promotion_Toolkit)
Goodreads offers a few strategic insights in their Case Study: How Penguin Press Made ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ a Roaring Success (May 31, 2018). At first glance, like with Packt, it might seem like a case of self-promotion, not really help for the author, however, what they say does align with best practice:
- “Getting copies of the book into the hands of as many readers as possible months before publication to generate reviews
- Leveraging the power of social amplification on Goodreads
- Building a fan base on Goodreads and targeting those fans with book marketing tools
- Using the early Goodreads reviews to help fine-tune marketing copy
- Adopting a snowball effect, where multiple activities in different channels combined to create a bigger impact” (Case Study: How Penguin Press Made ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ a Roaring Success, Goodreads, May 31, 2018)
Build an established readership base
Goodreads and Packt both refer to the requirement to build a “fan base” or “established readership base” to provide word-of-mouth promotion and reviews, and so do publishers. What do publishers mean when they say you have to deliver proof of an established readership base?
“At a minimum, to land a basic book deal, meaning a low five-figure sum, you’ll need to prove that you’ve got 15,000 – 20,000 fans willing to follow you into hell and through high water. For a big six-figure deal, you’ll need a solid base of 100,000 rabid fans plus access to hundreds of thousands more. If not millions. Depressed yet? Don’t be. Because we live in a time when things as trivial as Angry Oranges or as important as scientific TED talks can go viral and propel a writer out of obscurity in a matter of seconds. It is only your job to become part of the conversation.” (S.J. Hodges, in Writer’s Market 2018, p.38)
These numbers are pretty scary, but remember, the Internet is your Friend. A scary friend, full of Freudian Weirdness, but also your Bestie.
In the Goodreads case study on Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, they describe how the reviews of the book, led to engagement and interactions of different types – interviews, emails, giveaways, live promotions, and awards – led to successful sales in the critical 8 weeks after publication. Look at the number of “followers” or “want to read” people after only 8 weeks. Ultimately, around 800 people per day were reading the book and indicating this on Goodreads. I should think Ng easily got to 100,000 fans.
(Download the Case Study: How Penguin Press Made ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ a Roaring Success, here: Goodreads Case Study: How Penguin Press Made ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ a Roaring Success)
Types of reviews
“There are two types of reviews: a review by someone else and a ready-made book review – the mock review [or “blurb”] written by the author – which the author can just insert into the publication [or into the website, promo pack, platform statement, or book cover]. (Janice Hussein, in Writer’s Market 2018, p.84, 85)
I find it helps if a successful author in a particular genre has read and reviewed your book, and is quoted on the book cover or in the media. The ready-made book review, written by the author or paid for by the author, can work if it is well done and balanced.
That being said, it is a different matter to promote your book through “paid for” reviews, such as can be purchased on websites such as Kirkus Reviews or the subscription-based Romantic Times (RT) Review Source, which closed down in 2018. The fact that the review is paid for guarantees that it won’t be negative, and that it will be nicely written. However, it is not a strictly objective review – it does not come from that “pact of generosity” between reader and the text that develops when a reader honestly reflects on their experience.
Remember also that it is not professional for your agent to ask you to pay for them to write a review, or for them to require you to buy a critique or manuscript assessment.
Needless to say, fake reviews is not on. Anyone with half a brain cell can see if a review, for instance on Amazon or Rotten Tomatoes, is a fake.
With professionally written reviews by authors and critics, like those published in The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, etc., you, as a debut author, have not a hope in hell of getting a mention. The writers in those magazines are professional writers and journalists and get paid for their work. Getting your name in there is a very long-term goal at the very bottom end of the funnel.
I read The Guardian and the London Review of Books, to find out which books my favourite authors have read, and how they rated them in their reviews. (My reasoning goes something like this: I like Haruki Murakami and he likes Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe character, so, I’ll go buy The Big Sleep and the others in the series, and I should like it too.)
“He reads a lot and widely, from Dostoevsky to Agatha Christie. Raymond Chandler is another favourite. ‘Philip Marlowe is Chandler’s fantasy but he’s real to me. Partly, he made me.’ When he was younger, he explains, after a turbulent time as a student, ‘I just wanted to live like Marlowe.’” (Matt Thompson, Nobel prize winner in waiting?, The Guardian, May 26, 2001, rtrvd. Sept. 23, 2018)
Book blogger reviews
But there are many, many readers like me who review books in a competent manner and republish those on review aggregator sites like Goodreads. Just Google them and you’ll find someone willing to give your book a read just for the sake of getting a book for free, or working with an actual author, depending on their motivations.
The caveat on getting an unpaid review is that the reviewer might actually dislike your book and publish a negative review, and, as I’ve often pointed out, it’s no use moaning about it. There will always be people who you thought were in the right niche demographic for your book, but turned out not to be.
So, don’t give a Sci-Fi reviewer your historical romance to review. Unless of course, they also love and review historical romances. I am a reviewer but I know my limitations. For instance I rarely read or review, family dramas, youth fiction (teen novels), and horror Sci-Fi.
So, when it comes to reviews, it’s courses for horses. Advance praise really only counts if it is from someone who relates an honest and interesting reading experience.
Advance praise from people who matter
“Will blurbs make a difference in the size of your check? ‘I would include as many in a proposal [to a publisher] as possible, says [Maura] Teitelbaum [an agent at Folio Literary Management]. ‘Especially if those people are willing to write letters of commitment saying they will promote the book via their platform. This shows your efforts will grow exponentially.” (S.J. Hodges in Writer’s Market 2018, p.38)
Author Ruuf Wangersen comments:
“I tend to think the generalized answer in this area [about building a reader base] lies in developing as sophisticated an understanding as you possibly can about who your real reader is, then sketching up and cobbling together a plan to get the word out by laser-guided pony express straight into that niche, however slender or wide it might be (hoping it exists at all, of course). One of the very best and luckiest ways this can happen is for a well-respected and followed critic, reviewer or book blogger who happens to take an interest in your particular genre or multi-genre-straddling subgenre, to decide to reach down and pick up your book. I’ve been very fortunate in this area.” (Ruuf Wangersen interview, July 2018)
Amen to that. Can’t put it any better myself.
Take his advice, dear Debut Authors. Ruuf’s novel, The Pleasure Model Repairman, is particularly niche. It is daring in subject, futuristic in concept, and written with unusually poetical flair. To find reviewers and readers, he has had to play it smart.
Reviews of your book, of you and of your process
As I explained in my previous post, the “product” you are getting reviewed and talked about is the book, and it’s you. You have to be able to expand on the comments of reviewers by explaining, or discussion, your subject, settings, voice and your process. Readers seem to find the process of writing endlessly fascinating. It’s their way of getting more out of a book that they love, by identifying with the writer. This can lead to an outbreak of Infectious Literary Tourism, with readers flocking to the place the novel is set or (worse) the home of the author. So, it’s best to sit down and word, as it were, your creative process, as part and parcel of your product.
George Saunders, author of the seriously wondrous Lincoln in the Bardo, writes:
“Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt ‘on several occasions’ to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà.
I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.
We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.
The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.” (George Saunders, What Writers Really Do When they Write, The Guardian, March 4, 2017, rtrvd. Sept. 23, 2018)
Saunders writes, hilariously, of how this process he uses has made his writing seem much less dopey. (He uses another word, actually.)
But the point is, producing a book and having it reviewed is akin to ripping open your own chest with a sword and having your heart chomped on by a monster, who may yowl, “eh, nice heart”, or “yuck, tastes nasty”. And there you are, guts out, bleeding all over. And, well, that’s it.
- Research, research, research!
- Have a plan. Do the funnel. Make friends with the “Four Brothers Buksalesnikov”.
- Get many reviews
- Choose your reviewers with care
- Prepare your information and be forthcoming with it
- Be prepared for a negative outcome, but avoid poor, ill-balanced, unjustified, amateur reviews like the plague
- Publish and republish balanced, well-written reviews
- Be nice!
- Back those up with interviews and other forms of engagement with readers
- Think about your process and your voice and how to describe them
- Once you have the fans, the reviews, the blurbs and the advance copies, an agent may approach you
- Or you may approach an agent. Remember, there are lists of agents and agencies in writers’ guides like Writer’s Market 2018.
- But don’t bank on it – chances are good you’ll have to self-publish
A special thank you
I thank, from the bottom of my literature-loving little heart, authors Ruuf Wangersen and Jon Gliddon for having been so kind as to let me pick their brains and for having trusted me with their candid points of view. I am gleefully anticipating their next books.