The Myth Of Reviews

While I'm pottering about in my writing shed, I frequently come across the myth of reviews. Generally it follows the form of "How do I get more reviews for my book?" This question is a symptom of the more pernicious problem - buying into the myth that reviews generate sales.

It's an understandable myth that's been caused by confirmation bias getting passed along as causal relationship. It develops like this:

  1. You publish a book.
  2. You don't get many sales.
  3. You do a little promotional activity
  4. You get more sales.
  5. You notice you have more reviews.
  6. You seek reviews with ARCs, giveaways, pleas at the end of the book.
  7. You get more sales.
  8. You notice you get more reviews.

The confirmation bias comes into play because you took an action - requested reviews. You believe that action resulted in more reviews and that those reviews generated the sales.

Here's the thing: If you want more reviews, sell more books. Only people who read the book will review it. If you're seeing more reviews, it means more people are buying your book.

Here's the other thing: When it comes to Amazon reviews - the ones most people seem concerned about - the potential reader who sees those reviews is already on your page. You've done the heavy lifting and it's up to the cover and blurb to get them to sample.

My opinion is that reviews only matter in the edge cases - those situations where the potential reader is either on the fence or is looking for confirmation for the decision they've already made. If you haven't hooked them with both the cover and blurb, the reviews aren't likely to convince somebody to overlook that pair of sins and take a sample. They'll have already clicked 'next.' If they've decided to maybe give it a try, they'll look at reviews to justify their decision. If they've decided they probably should pass, they'll look at reviews to confirm their choice.

There's one other factor at play - the sophistication of the potential reader in navigating the Amazon ecosystem. People who understand the jungle know how the Amazon review game gets played. They tend to go with sample over review in order to make up their minds before they pull money out of their debit accounts.

Just to forestall the argument about Goodreads or Bob's Book Blog or Kirkus or whatever, those are lovely. Getting reviews there by convincing a reader to talk about you is good buzz. I'm not convinced that Kirkus is worth the dosh, but I'm miserly. My point is that nobody's going to review your book if they haven't read it. I know it's common advice to send out ARCs and generate pre-publication buzz and all that, but spending time and energy pursuing Amazon reviews is not likely to pay off anywhere near as handsomely as getting that next book out.

If you're doing anything that stands between you and release day, stop doing that.

I realize this is the minority opinion, but if books with more reviews got more sales, then my book with 700 reviews would have more sales than my newly released title with only 70. While that is, in fact, true, the reality is that the book with hundreds of reviews was released years ago and sells a couple of units a day. It has sold a hundred times more units in its lifetime than the new release, which generated a lot of reviews. The new release - with only 70 reviews - is selling a couple of hundred units a day. It hasn't been around long enough to generate many reviews but it's still selling much faster than the older titles.

I use this handy mantra:

Reviews do not drive sales.
Sales drive reviews.
If you want more reviews,
sell more books.

The best way to sell more books is to release more books for readers to buy and not spending time and effort chasing the review rainbow.


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA 2.0 License
Nathan Lowell
Nathan Lowell has been self-publishing his science fiction and fantasy since he started releasing his books in podcast form in 2007. He frequently writes about social media, marketing, and the life of a full-time self-published author.

9 thoughts on “The Myth Of Reviews

  1. All good points, Nathan, about having attracted readers to the product page. Another consideration is the almighty Book Bub and others that require a certain number of reviews before you can gain access to their impressively large group of avid readers. As always, I appreciate your generosity in sharing!

    • The Bub’s acceptance policy is whimsical at best. Yes, they require a certain number of reviews with a minimum average. While it might be a necessary condition for them to take your money, it’s not a sufficient one. With more and more traditionally published authors getting screwed out of rights reversion with BookBub ads, there are fewer and fewer slots open for the little people.

      As a strategic move, BookBub is not really a “release day” tool. I see it used most effectively as a kick to a mature title (particularly the first book in the series) when the new book is about 60 days old.

      But that’s me.


  2. I always enjoy your blogs, because instead of telling us all these non-writing “things” we need to do to ensure our books sell, you remind us that without more books to sell, a one hit wonder with a ton of reviews is still 1 book, which history shows over and over is not enough to buy you a Starbucks knock-off drink a couple years from now. Thanks!

    • It’s difficult to get traction – even with the best marketing in the world – with only a couple of books.

      Your back list is the lever you will brace against the fulcrum of marketing. If your lever is too short, you’ll have a hard time getting purchase.

      And you’ll have a limited catalog to amortize the costs against.

  3. Your post really resonated with me because it confirmed my own experience.
    I self-published 3 books in a mystery series last fall, and I worked hard to get reviews. I did manage to collect over twenty with a high average, but my sales were typical for a new author, which means disappointing. Then in the late winter, I published 3 books in an urban fantasy series. I had a lot of trouble getting reviews, and some of the ones I did get were not favorable.
    But the series took off anyway. The first book has been in the top 5K in the Kindle store for months, and the other two books are consistently below 10K, and the series already has almost two million page reads in KU. The thing is, I still have fewer reviews than the mystery series, and the average isn’t as good as the mystery series where sales remain slow.
    I’ll be releasing a new book soon, and the last thing I’m worried about is reviews.

  4. As a reader trying to choose her next good read, I rarely look at the text of a review, but I do look at the range of star ratings on Amazon and Goodreads for a book when the cover and blurb interest me. I still think sales are all about the buzz, and it’s a complete mystery to me how that buzz is created. Word of mouth from reader to reader? Manufactured pyramid started by the author? What do you think, Nathan?

  5. Thanks for confirmation of something I’ve been feeling lately. Especially if you have limits on your writing time, it’s more important to spend it writing the next book than chasing after reviews.

  6. Okay, you’ve made a good point, Nathan. Sales matter the most. Reaching readers. BUT, and I have to be the dissenting voice, reviews do matter. Here are a couple of reasons:
    1. The algorithms that get your book in the face of buyers — you know, those pesky banners right below whatever you’re looking at buying on Amazon that say “Customers who bought this also bought…” It’s numbers of reviews in proximity to release date, blah, blah, blah that get you boosted to areas like that. Review #s help get you visual placement.
    2. If you ever decide to do a Book Bub, Fussy Librarian or other giveaway program to generate sales, they care about reviews. Book Bub actually looks for high numbers and a star average of 4.5 before they’ll accept your payment to discount your book to help generate sales for a new release. The key here is, people I know who have done Book Bub (and paid for it out of their own pocket vs. the publisher’s paying for it) earn their outlay back and keep earning on the new sales. Which means, the books are circulating and more and more people are reading them.
    Bottom line, while I agree we should all spend less time worrying about reviews and just writing and selling good books, it’s a part of the business. And, while I can’t speak for the Indie pubbed authors, I know that my publisher cares about whether or not I’m getting reviews.

    Still, I know we all agree, what matters most is writing a good book and getting it into the hands of the reader.

    Good post!

    • Thanks, Chris.

      I’ve heard that algorithm argument before. There is no evidence to support Also Bought generation based on the number of reviews. My last release had Also Boughts before it had 10 reviews. It has to do with the number of sales – because sales drive reviews. Reviews do not drive sales.

      You’re right about the advertising. I still maintain that’s not a “first day” tactic but more of a “late first quarter” tool. Anybody with a fanbase should have the requisite numbers of reviews by the end of the first quarter and the book can use the kick in the ranks that by then.

      Advertising – especially BookBub, when you can get it – can pay off handsomely. It’s not a strategy I personally pursue as an indie.

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