In an over-crowded marketplace, we assume it’s reviews that sell books and, predictably, it’s now possible to buy “honest reviews”. Could paid-for reviews be a good investment? Possibly, but I think we should be asking ourselves a different question—how do books find their readers? Or, to put it another way, what makes a book visible in the marketplace?
For years now, research (conducted by Mslexia among others), has indicated that readers aren’t swayed by press reviews. Amazon’s flawed and vulnerable system has increased readers’ scepticism because they know it can be manipulated by authors and reviewers. That same research confirmed that book-buying decisions are based largely on the personal recommendation of someone whose judgement readers trust, or whose taste they share.
Once this might have been a friend or a book club. Now the source is likely to be a book blog, an online forum, or Facebook. This is where readers can discover our books and I suggest our time would be well spent publicizing our books online—not by pushing good reviews, but by interacting with readers. I call it self-promotion by stealth. It’s slow, time-consuming, and you can’t distil it into a Tweet, but it’s much more effective.
It worked for me. My fourth novel and first indie ebook, HOUSE OF SILENCE became a UK Kindle bestseller within a few months. I believe it sold because I’d built up a modest but enthusiastic following, particularly on book forums like BookCrossing, Book Club Forum, Read It Swap It, Kindle Users’ Forum, etc. Readers who liked the book spread the word for me and their enthusiasm—not mine—sold it to their friends.
I think readers promoted my ebook because I’d put in a lot of time on these forums, discussing writing, reading, my books & their issues. I write contemporary fiction, and its themes (mental illness, disability, bereavement, PTSD, romance in middle age) have provided fertile ground for lively forum discussions.
A good book might never get reviewed, but there's no reason why it shouldn't get talked about and this can lead to reviews. If you're on a forum where your book’s being discussed, it's easy to say, “I'm so pleased you enjoyed it. Could you possibly write a short Amazon review saying what you just said in the forum?” Readers are flattered to be asked and often happy to comply. They appreciate interaction with authors and they’ll talk about it. This gets your name out there without your having to resort to the kind of blatant self-promotion that has now become self-defeating. If you have a promotional signature on the forum and use a cover as your avatar, any forum post on any subject is a plug for your book. That post might be viewed hundreds of times.
Once you’ve established a rapport, you’ll find that readers like to help, but first you have to build that relationship, reader by reader. This makes huge inroads into your writing time of course, but doing this produced sales that now earn me a living as an indie author (and I don’t tweet, I don’t have a blog, and no longer have a publisher). Of course, I’d rather be writing, but I also want my books to find their readers. The trick is, to find a way to enjoy the marketing, do it without feeling it's pointless or a bit desperate.
Call me Pollyanna, but I regard readers as friends I haven't met yet. Where my labour-intensive system scores over blatant self-promotion is, even if your sales figures remain disappointing, you've still had some great online chats with potential readers. You’ve learned something—perhaps even made some new friends.
I believe it's more important to get our books talked about than reviewed (it’s certainly not good reviews selling the 50 SHADES trilogy!). Our biggest challenge is what indie author, Dan Holloway has called “discoverability”—making our books visible in the marketplace so readers find them. It can be done. It doesn’t cost money but it does takes time. It requires us to commit wholeheartedly to readers, so they in turn will commit to us. Many of my readers now express a willingness to buy anything I write, regardless of genre. This is what John Locke said we should aim for in his HOW I SOLD A MILLION EBOOKS: a loyal following that provides a guaranteed market for our books.
It’s not enough to just make our books available. No amount of 5-star reviews will make readers buy a book they don’t know exists. We have to tell them about our books, tell them about us. It helps if we’re interesting and I think we have to be sincere. That way, we’re offering something more. A person, not a plug. And that makes all the difference.