Book reviews can be enormously helpful to an author. Those who decide what new titles to order for a bookstore or the library often consult reviews first. Readers, too, may be persuaded to pick up a book based on what they read in a review. And we’ve all heard the urban legend that you need to have 50 or some magic number of reviews on Amazon to trigger the algorithm in favor of your title.
But not all book reviews are the same. There is an enormous difference between a customer satisfaction report on Amazon and a starred review from Kirkus. Below, I’ll return to reviews from your readers, but to begin, let’s focus on book reviews.
A book review is a form of literary criticism, although criticism varies between description (summary review) and analysis of content, style, or literary merits. Editorial independence is key and your book will not be reviewed by someone with whom you have any personal connection. Book reviews are typically published 30 days before release to 90 days after publication. That means your Advance Review Copy (ARC) needs to be in the hands of the reviewer two to three months prior to your book’s launch.
Publishers Weekly, Shelf Awareness, and Kirkus Reviews offer independent, unbiased, critical reviews of notable books being published weeks before they’re released. Their primary audience includes booksellers and industry professionals. Reviews are also published in Library Journal, a trade publication for librarians, and School Library Journal, targeted to media specialists and librarians who work with young readers. Your publisher will determine which of these publications they will submit your book for a review and cover the expense. If your publisher indicates they do not have a budget for these reviews, discuss sharing costs with your marketing contact at the publishing house.
Your publisher is responsible for sending Advance Review Copies but the author is responsible for telling them where to send ARCS. There may be other publications which are also national in reach but narrower in scope. For example, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books is only appropriate for new children’s books. Some publications may also be national in reach, but their content goes beyond books reviews. For example, if your book is about current affairs, then a review in Perspectives on Politics is apropo. If you have a science book for middle-grade readers, then you may want to solicit book reviews from Archimedes Notebook or Mrs. Mommy Booknerd. There are a wide assortment of venues which offer book reviews. Books by, for, and about women are reviewed in Story Circle Book Reviews. There are many book review venues today. BookList, BookForum, BookPage. And my personal favorite, Books Q&A with Deborah Kalb.
How do you figure out where your book might be reviewed? First, take a look at your list of comparable titles. Do some online detective work to search for where these books were reviewed. Use a search engine with the title and author for your keywords. Fewer newspapers today have a book sections or book reviews. Check the large metropolitan papers in your area. Not all reviews are in print publications these days and you will find a good number online. You can also search Reedsy’s Best Book Review Blogs of 2019. This will give you a running start to your list.
When you compile your list of places to send your ARC for a review, pay close attention to the submission guidelines. Some require you submit a query letter first to pitch your book for a review. Follow their book review policy carefully. Some require a hard copy delivered by post, while others want an electronic galley. Much of this information is gathered by authors during the proposal-writing stage but it continues until you are ready to check-in your manuscript and marketing materials with your production editor.
When you are ready to query book reviewers (about four to six months before release) never send out a generic letter to multiple recipients. It helps enormously if you can customize your query letter in the first paragraph. What comparable title had previously been reviewed in this publication, or what new related title that has recently been reviewed? Why is this the best venue to review your work?
In your short query letter there should be four concise paragraphs. The first is customized to the recipient and will include your title, publisher, date of release, and genre or category. The second paragraph is a brief description of the book; a product description, your synopsis. The third paragraph is a snapshot bio of the author. Finally, specifications on how to receive an ARC from your publisher.
Let’s now turn back to those customer satisfaction reports. Amazon and GoodReads are the two most popular sites for book reviews written by readers. Goodreads is owned by Amazon and the largest social media site dedicated to readers. Amazon is a sales platform which lists reviews on the same page as the product.
Self-published authors have perennially tried to game the system on Amazon—usually also their publisher and only distribution channel. Seven years ago, one in three product reviews on Amazon were considered fake. The problem of fake book reviews has not gone away but Amazon has implemented new policies which are enforced using identity integration technology. What that means is that if you have a social media connection through Facebook, for example, you will not be permitted to post a review of that person’s book, even if you bought it from Amazon. However, strangers who have neither bought the book nor read it are permitted to leave vile reviews, unless others report the abuse. It’s understandable why authors think it important to have lots of positive Amazon reviews to stay afloat.
The dirty little secret about getting Amazon reviews is how hard it is. You have to ask your readers. Sometimes you have to ask again. When someone says they enjoyed your book, ask if they left a review at Goodreads and Amazon. If they did, you can thank them, and if not, your personal request is a reminder. At the book launch for Marcel’s Letters, Carolyn Porter distributed bookmarks which asked readers to post a review if they liked the book.
One of the best ways to think about getting reviews, is to think about giving them. Thoughtful and generous reviews are always appreciated by authors. Pay it forward to authors whose books you’ve enjoyed, not only before your book is released, but after. Elizabeth Rynecki, author of Chasing Portraits, mentioned in February’s newsletter her new policy of not posting reviews of books she couldn’t champion. Carolyn Porter also follows this policy and I highly recommend it. Don’t post a review online for someone else’s book that you wouldn’t want to read about your own.
A book review requires a critical assessment of a book’s strengths and weaknesses. Critical does not mean negative. Evaluating a book in terms of whether it succeeds on its own terms is more important than whether someone had a positive emotional reaction.
Don’t wait until publication day to think about where your book will get reviewed. Start your list today.
Six or seven years ago my advice to aspiring authors of nonfiction books was to build an audience platform by blogging. An example of how critical blogging could be to securing a publishing contract can be found in the case of Ann Marie Ackermann, author of Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee. After an initial assessment of her manuscript, I had recommended she start a historical true-crime blog, and she did. In fact, the editor of the ideal book series at Kent State University Press became a fan ofRead more…