The following article is based on my own experiences as the author of seven books self-published through Amazon KDP and Createspace. Other self-published authors may have different experiences, and what worked or did not work for me might not be the same for someone else.
Most independently published authors are desperate for reviews. They want the praise and recognition of a good review, and they believe (or hope) that having lots of good reviews on Amazon, GoodReads and Barnes and Noble will result in sales. It is rumoured that Amazon takes the number of reviews into account when arranging the order in which books appear in categories. Clearly, being on page two is going to get you more sales than being on page 200. The actual number of reviews a books needs in order to get pushed up in the category and taken notice of by Amazon is a mystery. One of the ‘how to sell on Amazon’ books on my shelf reports the magic number to be around 25. My own experiences say something else.
I published my first book on KDP, the medieval romance/mystery The Heart of Darkness, in 2014. I published my second novel Beguile Me Not, a literary romance set in 19th century New Zealand, a few months later. I sold a copy of The Heart of Darkness the first day it was out. I had a website and author social media profiles, but had no ‘platform’ or fan base. A steady trickle of sales followed that first one, and I was getting quite a few Kindle Unlimited reads too. I was not making millions, but I knew I was doing reasonably well for a new indie author. My book was always in the top 200,000 paid in the Kindle store.
Than a reader commented on one of my Facebook posts, saying how much she had loved The Heart of Darkness. I thanked her, and said I would love it if she posted a review. She promptly posted a glowing five star (thank you, Kathleen!). This was about three months after I published the book. Sales increased a bit after this, and over time more reviews came in. TheHeart of Darkness now normally ranked 60,000 to 170,000 paid in the Kindle store. After three years, I have collected 28 reviews.
So, did Amazon sit up and take notice? Well…no, I can’t say it did. My book sold no better with a few reviews than it did with 28 – at least not that is obvious. Of course, it is always possible my book would be selling worse if it were not for them. But I cannot say I found it made much difference. So what is the magic number? Fifty? I don’t know. Although if you do, be sure to tell me!
And what about Beguile Me Not? The novel did not sell well when it first came out, and it does not sell well today, despite now having 13 reviews on it. Having those reviews made no difference to sales, although I did very much appreciate the positive ones I got, as it was great to hear what readers liked about the story. I have, however, seen a slight increase in sales (read: went from basically nothing to one now and then) after I published a Regency romance novella, In Want of a Wife, which sold okay. When I had In Want of a Wife ready for publication, I posted on a few Facebook Regency and historical romance groups, offering free digital advanced review copies. I had a good response, sending out around 15 copies. I then released the book on Amazon in paperback and made the Kindle edition available for pre order. The strategy worked quite well, as I had a few reviews posted by the time the Kindle edition came out, and a few more after. In total, I think got around nine or ten reviews out of giving away advanced review copies. I do think they helped the launch as, even though this was my first Regency, sales were not bad – but I did a really nice book cover too, which I think was an important factor.
So having a few positive reviews on your book can help it gain traction. Apart from giving out advanced review copies to readers and book bloggers, the other way some indie authors get reviews is through author review-swap groups. Some of these groups operate in a way which abides by Amazon’s terms and conditions, others do not. Early on I, like many indie authors, thought reviews were the way to get sales going. I tried out a couple of review groups – not the really dodgy ‘you give my book five stars and I’ll give yours five stars’ kind, but ones where moderators organise review rounds so authors are not reviewing the book of the author who is reviewing theirs, and reviewers are allowed to express their honest opinion in the review.
I do not feel these groups were worthwhile, and I would never use them again. Why? Firstly, if your book has no or few reviews and is not selling, adding a few more reviews is unlikely to change that. Secondly, if your book is selling, you will get some reviews from readers over time. They will not all be five star, but that is alright. Even getting the occasional one-star review is not a cause for panic, providing your overall rating does not drop too low – if it’s above 3.7, you are fine. I’ve had a few bad reviews, and while I would feel happier if they were not there, they had no noticeable impact on sales. The third issue for me is that, while some review groups do operate in line with Amazon terms and conditions, any form of organised reviewing is artificial in some ways. I prefer to have people reading and reviewing my book because they chose it, not because they were assigned it. People who have freely chosen your book are your target audience. I feel that their comments are more relevant than those from someone who is not a fan of the genre. And you know that it is completely honest, too. If you just do review swaps in groups aimed at promotion, you will get one-sided reviews which focus on the good points. This could give you an unrealistic idea of readers really think of your book. Even best-selling and award-winning books get some bad reviews.
On the other hand, groups focused on ‘honest’ reviews have their own problems. Having your romance novel torn apart by a 60+ male academic does not provide any useful feedback, when your target audience are women looking for an up-lifting and emotional read. If you are looking for honest feedback, I suggest you find beta readers who like your genre. But if you do decide to give review groups a try, some additional points I can offer from my own experience are:
Be careful with all-genres review groups which allow reviews of any rating to be posted to Amazon. You could get someone reviewing your book who dislikes the genre, setting or style, and would never chose such a book themselves. I tried such a review group on GoodReads, and had this experience.
If you are in a review group, never, I repeat, NEVER, post critical comments about the group or its mods in any threads, and the same goes for questioning the rules or ethics of the mods or group. They might sting you with a bad review. It has happened to me.
If it is an author group which does not just organise review rounds but is also a place for authors to network and share, be very careful what you say and what you post. For example, posting a link to your blog post about why you hate books with sex scenes might not be a good idea if half the group membership are erotic fiction authors. Another no-no is posting material about DIY editing, book cover design, or why you shouldn’t pay for professional services, on a group where the mod/s are trying to push their own professional services to authors. It is better to keep a review group for reviews, and chat/argue about politics, writing or publishing on some other group. If you don’t and things become heated, expect to get lower reviews.
Be aware that reviews received from authors involved with review swaps sometimes get removed by Amazon. In the Google+ group I was in, there were authors who reviewed prolifically and ended up having batches of their reviews disappear. It was a small group, so members were all over each other’s books and were involved with promoting each other’s books too. I believe the group owner also sold Amazon reviews using another account. The two reviews she posted on my books have gone, and I cannot find her reviews on other books I remember her reviewing – and just to be clear, I did not buy the reviews!
If you are a reader and are now thinking, ‘reviews don’t help much; I’ll not bother posting them’, that is quite wrong. A good review will really help a book with no or few reviews, and the author will be very grateful for the feedback too. I don’t think readers realise just how much authors value reviews. If readers did, they would post a review on every single indie book they read and liked. It is hard to get sales traction without a big publishing house behind you. And even if the book does already have quite a few reviews, the author still REALLY wants your review. A book needs dozens of reviews to help it get noticed on Amazon. In pursuit of reviews, I’ve read books I would never choose myself – think erotica, gory fantasy and chick lit – have had nasty reviews from irked mods, and been bullied by the owner of a Google+ authors review/promotion group. If more readers posted reviews, authors would never have to go through that.
If you keep to the points I made earlier, you should avoid some of these problems. But even if I got only great reviews and managed to keep clear of trolls, I personally still would not do review groups. For myself, I believe they are generally not worth it. If you want feedback on your writing, try beta readers.