Reviews, Sales and Marketing

NotepadLast week, I ran across many folks talking about reviews. Some are writing about how to ask for them.  A few are delighted or profoundly unhappy about feedback they’ve received.   Another posted on Facebook that the best way to thank an author you like is to leave a review.

Now there’s no question that reviews are important and can be helpful.  If you aren’t a well-known author, good reviews might help sell your books.  Still, I’m not sure that the world completely revolves around what people say about a given title.  After all, a review is the opinion of a single reviewer.  A bestseller with crappy reviews is still a bestseller.

E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey got plenty of bad reviews on Amazon.  In fact, when I checked the book as I was writing this post, the very first review bubble I saw read:

Please don’t waste your time, money and brain reading this book. – Jo G

That one-star review was a definite thumbs-down.  Still, the book sold 100 million copies and was made into a major motion picture.  It doesn’t matter that the book has received a total of more than 10,000 poor (one- and two-star) reviews or had a somewhat mediocre average rating of 3.5.  It sold like crazy.  Even now, it has an Amazon Best Sellers rank of #253.  That’s not so bad.

By contrast, my favorite vampire book of all time, Suzy McKee Charnas’ Vampire Tapestry only ranks #438,193 with an average rating of 3.9 over 49 reviews.  Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is at #15,505 with an average of 4.3 over 914 reviews. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Hôtel Translyvania ranks #146,852 with a 4.0 rating over 61 reviews in the Kindle store, while the paperback edition ranks far behind at #1,034,893.

Now it’s not  entirely fair to compare Fifty Shades’ sales numbers with the books I mentioned, mainly because they are titles that were originally released quite some time ago.  Vampire Tapestry was first published in 1980, Interview with the Vampire in 1976, and Hôtel Transylvania in 1978.  Still, it’s worth noting that the books that have more reviews also have higher sales rankings.

So, based on my little informal survey here, there appears to be some correlation between the number of reviews a book has received and its sales.  Clearly, I haven’t done a scientific study, and someone who has the time and inclination to investigate this further might be able to prove me wrong.

Based on this, I’m left with the impression that what matters more than reviews is the marketing of a book.  E. L. James got lots of crap reviews, yet her story somehow hit the public consciousness and took off.

Sometimes, it takes a lucky break for something to be noticed.  Years ago, I worked for a firm that did custom web programming.  The company designed and built a web site for a local music store that wanted to buy people’s used CDs.  Until that point, the store had problems getting enough secondhand stock because the demand outstripped the supply.  We built the site, the store was happy, and everything went along swimmingly until it was written up in a national magazine.

The next thing we knew, the site was crushed with an overwhelming amount of traffic.  It had been designed to handle a handful of sales per day, not the thousands per hour that were suddenly pouring in.  The store owner couldn’t believe the number of sellers that were suddenly knocking at his virtual door.  Instead of having too few used CDs, he now had too many.  He ended up building a second web site to get rid of all the stock that he couldn’t sell in his store.

All it took was one lucky mention in a national magazine.  He hit the lottery.

So what does that mean for the rest of us who haven’t hit the publicity lottery?  It means, keep trying.  Do what you can to make yourself visible online with your web site and social media.  Do what you can to get your name out there.  If one person likes your book, maybe they’ll share it with others.  Don’t give up.  Keep writing.  Keep trying to generate publicity for yourself.

And, if you read books, leave a review.  Here’s another author’s perspective on why book reviews are important.

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4 Responses to Reviews, Sales and Marketing

  1. Shirley Roark says:

    Well written Alex. Here’s another useful tip. Encourage your readers to share this post to Facebook, Twitter, etc., as I just did. You’re on the right track.

  2. I often see authors who get bad reviews go into a whirlwind of depression. They don’t realize that a bit of “controversy” and dissension about their book can actually fuel sales.

    Fifty Shades of Grey has loads of 5-star reviews and loads of dissenting votes … this serves to keep the conversation open and actually gets people “curious” and therefore “buying.”

    Of course, if ALL you have is 1-stars, you are in trouble!

    • Alex says:

      I’m not sure that an author who has ALL one-star reviews might necessarily be bad. He or she might be the unfortunate victim of a coordinated group of trolls whose sole purpose is to make the author look bad. Here’s an example of an author who ran into that problem on Goodreads.

      But yes, if your book is attracting legitimate one-star reviews, then you have a real problem.

  3. Bren Murphy says:

    Hi Alex,
    It’s called a breakthrough moment – and you see it with regular suburban nobodies hitting the big time with a few hours on reality TV and suddenly they have a social media following that can potentially funnel ongoing work to them for a few years.
    It’s a big momentum jolt of energy – and something we should all be looking for.
    I know personally I have two main targets for my book release – but like most people it is fear and just not believing that it could possibly happen that is stopping me at the moment.
    Marketing and all the little details can be blown out of the water if you are, as one of my friends is – able to catch this opportunity.
    Great Post!
    Thanks,
    Bren Murphy

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