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New Ways to Get Reader Reviews

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As you may know, Amazon.com recently received its share of negative press after a temporary glitch at its Canadian sitereleased the names of anonymous reviewers for all to see–including authors who had written positive reviews for their own books and friends and family of authors doing the same.

The publicity, however, also emphasized how important reader reviews are to consumers who are deciding whether or not to buy.

Amy Harmon of The New York Times, who broke the story, noted, “Despite the widespread presumption that the reviews are stacked, both readers and writers say they affect sales, especially for new writers whose books are not widely reviewed elsewhere.”

And an Amazon Top 100 Reviewer, observing the fray on www.dancingbadger.com, wrote, “Getting a reader reaction to a book can be a decider for me, especially with computer books (since professional reviews in that industry are notoriously unreliable).”

Amazon’s reader reviews currently number 10 million, according to The New York Times, which also quotes an Amazon spokesperson’s comment that the reader reviews are the most popular feature of its sites.

Sensible Sources

What if you’re one of those new writers–or publishers–whose books are not widely reviewed in the traditional publications, and your sense of ethics (or fear of a similar technical glitch in the future) prevents you from asking your mother to post a biased review praising your book?

If you’ve gotten positive feedback about one of your books from a reader, take time to bask in the glow of the compliment but also ask that reader to post a review for you. Even a short review at one of the online bookstores can help, especially if it comes with a high-star rating.

Consider, too, building a link into your Web site that gives simple instructions on how to submit a reader review of a particular book to an online bookstore, and that takes the reader directly to the book’s page on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com.

You may also want to consider taking advantage of a new resource. In January 2004, a member of the Yahoo! Group Self-Publishing list forum posted a note about the power of online reader reviews. In the ensuing talk, a small group of publishers, authors, and others agreed to form a volunteer review exchange to support the small press and self-publishing industry by posting reader reviews when needed.

Since January, members of the group have reviewed an average of one book per month. “I’ve reviewed three books for others from this list, and responded to two requests from another group who heard about this list and knew that I was a member of a reviewers’ exchange,” says Jane Roa, a freelance writer and professional reviewer. Her own book is a work in progress, but she expects that the review exchange will be there when it’s published. “It has been a great experience for me,” she reports.

Stringent Standards

The group holds itself to strict standards. Members must abide by a series of guidelines to participate, and membership is limited to those who are willing to review as well as eager to get reviews. Members who submit their work for review are warned that reviews will be objective and honest, although several have said that if they feel they cannot give a book at least three stars, they will not review it. And to ensure quality and accuracy, reviewers submit their reviews to the author or publisher for proofreading–to correct grammatical and factual errors only–prior to submitting them to Amazon or Barnesandnoble.com.

“While I’ve had plenty of success getting reviews from traditional media, I’m a great believer in the power of third-party recommendation–and therefore, it wasn’t hard to decide to participate,” says Shel Horowitz, author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First and five other books. “The quality of the reviews I’ve received has been very high, and it’s nice to have an organized method of bringing superb but overlooked books into wider circles of new readers.”

Surprising Benefits

Members have received several unexpected benefits too.

“I have reviewed one book,” says H. L. Nigro of Strong Tower Publishing, “and because the author is in the same market as I am, when I needed a quick blurb for the inside of my newest release, she turned one around for me the next day. I was on deadline, and if it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have gotten the quote I needed in time. So it was really a blessing for me.”

Another member, an instructor at a prominent university and owner of her own press also reports reaping “other rewards apart from the very welcome feature of being included in the review exchange process.” As she launches her own book, she has “received very helpful suggestions, including the occasional well-deserved whack” and “had the benefit of looking at the book through a stranger’s eyes and discovering if certain issues were successfully addressed or not.”

The Yahoo! Group SP Review Exchange now has 30 active members and is open to any interested party who agrees to abide by the guidelines. To date, the group has offered membership to one other publishing list forum and to the Greater New York Independent Publishers Association.

No matter what your marketing plan, don’t discount the importance of reader reviews. Consumer reviews of books and other goods and services–CDs, DVDs, restaurants, even travel destinations–are exploding on the Internet precisely because consumers do trust the opinion of users like themselves.

Use this tool ethically–and to your advantage!

Tiffany Jonas is editorial director for Aio Publishing Co., LLC, in Charleston, SC, and the current coordinator of the Yahoo! Group SP Review Exchange. For more information, contact her at trjonas@aiopublishing.com.

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