Indie Wars – Reviews and the Four Horsemen

I belong to the Novel-In-Progress Group (NIP) of Austin, which has the distinction of being the oldest surviving writers’ conclave in the city. Eight-plus years of participation have taught me many things, the most basic of which is that the creative cocoon surrounding a writer’s desk is both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing, in that it’s a marvelous environment to gift your imagination with free reign to transport you far away into new worlds of your own making. A curse, in that if you never force yourself to leave, your words become chiseled in granite and gilded with gold. How dare anyone find fault! And have you ever tried to use a find-and-replace function on a stone tablet?

The year 2011 has brought a number of changes to NIP, the most significant of which is the relatively sudden shift of the collective group attention from legacy publishing (through an agent to one of the “Big 6”) toward doing it ourselves, now most commonly referred to as “indie” publishing.

One of our members recently shared the results of his attempt to get one of his books reviewed. He developed a list of blogs dedicated to that purpose, and after months of effort came to the conclusion that in terms of marketing success, it was not a good use of his time.

I think his experience is a perfect example of the challenge all writers face with the decision to indie publish, and it’s no different than the struggles of the vast majority of legacy-published authors who don’t make the bestseller lists. You’re pretty much on your own there as well.

At this point in my venture onto the indie battlefield, the focus has shifted away from how to create the product, package it, convert it into both eBook formats and print, and get it uploaded to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Smashwords, and BooksOnBoard. Now it’s all about climbing out of those five cellars so that potential buyers have the opportunity to consider the book.

They have to know it’s there to discover it, and there are only three ways that happens: a chance encounter while roaming the “stacks” of their favorite online book store(s), stumbling across a review somewhere other than the place they can buy it, or hearing/reading about it among their circle of social networking contacts. Absent discoverability, the book will never have the opportunity to create exposure, gain traction, and develop momentum.

If readers have never heard of the author’s name or title of the book, the connection can only begin with the “stumble” factor, certainly not the best marketing strategy. But unknown authors/books have to begin at the beginning, and one way to view that challenge is to consider what we can do to increase the likelihood that someone will “stub a toe on our titles.”

If you’re shopping online for books on your own, how does any book attract your attention? Without name/title recognition, is can only be the initial packaging (title and cover design). Barry Eisler describes this key element as the combination of automatic and acquired resonance, the ability of your “package” to elicit thought, memory, and/or emotion in the viewer.

Then what? Probably the summary, just as a shopper in a brick-and-mortar bookstore will pick up the book and read the jacket blurb or back-cover copy. If that intrigues them, then the excerpt has a chance to close the deal.

And at some point prior to the decision to purchase, what about those reviews? Statistics indicate a direct and exponential correlation between the number of (positive) reviews and the four horsemen of discoverability, exposure, traction, and momentum.

Dean Wesley Smith in his Think Like a Publisher series makes the point over and over again that you can’t indie-publish a book and sit back to watch the sales mount up. I’m dealing with that reality right now, the challenge of deciding what is the ideal combination of actions I can be taking to give my book the best chance to climb out of the cellar.

The BooksOnBoard connection has so far been the most effective. And if you visit my page on that site and take a look at my “special page” in the “Indie Suite,” you can see what the spotlight can do in the way of drawing potential readers into the cellar where indie authors are initially trapped with our books.

If writers want to help each other, the first step is to abandon any notion that we are in competition and recognize the far more beneficial condition of being partners. And in my opinion, one of the best ways is to write reviews and put them on every site you can.

Yes, that takes signing up for an account, and in some cases you have to buy a book from the online store to review it (Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, and maybe iTunes?). But Amazon and BooksOnBoard don’t, and Goodreads doesn’t sell books directly.

And I’m not talking about fabricating a false opinion of a book. It may not be something that you would normally read, and maybe there are some elements you don’t consider particularly worthy, but it doesn’t take much effort to find aspects of the story you can genuinely praise.

It’s like the standard “rule” about quoting reviews. Let’s say you got one from Publisher’s Weekly, for example, and it read, “Couldn’t put this book down. Literally stayed up all night. Then with my first cup of coffee and in the light of day it dawned on me that the book was a complete waste of time.” You can delete the last sentence and everyone knows that. We can do the same with our reviews and  limit them to praising the good stuff.

Supposedly, fewer than one in 200 visitors to a website or blog will ever leave a comment. This statistic doesn’t apply, however, to writers. It’s what we do. Nor does it apply to avid readers who love books and enjoy engaging with others about books they have read, are reading, and intend to read. And it especially doesn’t apply to those who create book-review blogs like my fellow NIP member searched for.

There are hundreds of them, along with lists that attempt to categorize the many choices. Most are free, which raises the very real possibility that you’ll receive value only based on what you pay for.

Rather than trying to pick and choose the blogs most suitable for your book, you can sign up for a paid “blog tour,” a service that supposedly does all the work for you. Over a specified period of time, your book will be featured on a series of targeted blogs with excerpts, author interviews, question-and-answer sessions about you, your book, and specific writing topics.

Blog tours aren’t cheap, at least not by my standards, and the cost represents a venture-capital investment that may well never be recovered. I’ve not yet decided whether to try one, and it’s not about making money selling books. I abandoned that fantasy a long time ago. But at the very least, I’d rather not have to pay for the privilege of sharing my passion for writing with anyone willing to read my stories.

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