Sunday, June 9, 2019

Where ELSE Do Reviews Come From

Authors know that third party endorsements, otherwise known as reviews, are key to book sales. They represent the word-of-mouth push that is the most important piece of marketing. Last week I talked about many mainstream reviewers but there are other options.

Amazon reviewers might comment on your book at any time. The Amazon Top Reviewers carry quite a bit of clout, so it’s smart to pursue them soon after your book is released. When you approach them, you need to be thoughtful and courteous. You can’t assume you’re owed a review. Just send an introductory email with a little of your background and ask if they would accept a complimentary copy of your book. Ask if they prefer hard copy or an electronic copy. Just remember that you’re asking a big favor of a stranger. So be sure to send a thank you note if you do get a review.  And afterward, vote that the review was helpful.

Another group to start pitching early is bloggers. Most of them list pretty specific guidelines and you need to stick to them closely.

You can find these bloggers on several directories, for example, / and However, these lists get outdated faster than the owners can update them so it’s a good idea to Google “book bloggers” and do a search on Twitter. 

Don’t send a mass email. Bloggers appreciate emails addressed personally to them. Mention a recent review so they know you have read their blog. Otherwise, everything I said about approaching Amazon reviewers applies.
Of course, reviews from readers are priceless and the more your book has, the better it will sell. But unlike bloggers or Amazon reviewers, you can’t send a note to each person who reads your book asking for a review.

Or can you?

Adding a letter to the back of your book addressed to the reader, inviting them to contact you, brings them right to you. It’s a good place to mention any awards won. And this is where you can ask them politely for a book review. In your letter, remind your reader that you need their help and they would be helping you a great deal if they were to post an honest review. Include the link to your book on Amazon so it’s easy for the reader to get directly to the right place to leave the review.

A wise reader will reach out to people in all the groups I’ve mentioned in this blog and the last. One thing no author has ever had is too many reviews.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Reviews: Do you Really Like Me?

At Intrigue Publishing we send 25 Advance Reader Copies of each new book to a carefully curated list of reviewers. Why? Because ultimately, almost all books sales are the result of a personal recommendation, and reviewers are powerful recommenders. However, some of our books might get one or two reviews while others get 10 or 12. I’d love to know why… but it remains a mystery to me. We were stunned when we got the first couple of Publishers Weekly reviews, and just as stunned when other books were ignored.

One thing we DON’T do is pay for book reviews. I have always been skeptical of the value of praise that you paid someone to give. However, I can’t deny the truth that there are a lot more books coming out than the reputable reviewers could possibly read and paying the reviewer is one way to move to the front of the line.

Of course, authors can pursue reviews without their publisher’s backing, but those who choose to pay for them need to look closely at the sources. There are paid review sources that are held in pretty high esteem. Kirkus Reviews is probably at the top of that list, followed by IndieReader, BlueInk Review and a few others. Readers may not know, or even care, that you paid someone to review your book.

Before paying for a review, consider the quality of reviews you’ve seen from that source, and how many people will see it without your efforts. As an example, IndieReader offers more exposure for better books. They posts reviews on their site and they are shared by Ingram. Books that get a 4 or 5-star rating are included in a “Best Of” round-up on their site every month and are pushed to an email list of about 5,000 readers.

Quality matters, in part, because if Amazon doesn’t think your review is legit they’ll delete it. Short reviews that don’t refer specifically to some aspect of your book  could disappear. “Great read by this exciting author” could apply to any book. This is the kind of thing Amazon may well pull down.

Of course, the most treasured reviews are from professional sources, but they tend to want the book well in advance. When authors ask us why it takes so long to bring their books to market I mention, in part, that if you want a review from Publishers Weekly, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal and other professional publications you have to get the book to them four months to six months prior to release. It is of course a crap shoot, but it’s well worth the wait for a chance to be reviewed by any of these sources.

We’ll explore getting reviews in more detail next week.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

To Blurb or Not to Blurb

As an author I greatly value blurbs for my books. A “Blurb” is a short description of a book, a review written for promotional purposes. Blurbs from other authors are valuable, but they are even more valuable if those authors write in my genre or can be viewed as subject matter experts for some reason. So, when I wrote The Orion Assignment, a thriller set in Ireland with a native Irish protagonist, I thought the blurb I got from native Irishman and crime fiction author Ken Bruen carried a lot of weight for potential readers. Beyond saying that he liked my book, it sent the message that I got the Irish characters and setting right.

And what about the subject matter expert angle. If someone requests a blurb from me because their protagonist is ex-military, or African American, or a senior citizen, are they taking advantage of me? After all, they hope my endorsement will increase sales. And is my third-party endorsement a lazy way around doing their research? Don’t they have any ex-military, or black, or older friends of their own to show their manuscript to?

Well, just because they asked me doesn’t mean they haven’t already gotten other experts or members of those groups to read their book. But maybe my voice will carry more weight than theirs. Or maybe he trusts my feedback more than theirs.

That’s a lot of maybe. But I do feel a responsibility to repay the universe for all the blurbs big-name authors have written for me. And I feel a responsibility to help other writers I respect to get their seniors, ex-soldiers and African American characters right. But it’s still me doing a favor for another author, so in general my rule is simple. It’s something I do for writers who are respected friends.   

Monday, May 20, 2019

Make Your Protagonist Shine

Sometimes we at Intrigue Publishing receive a manuscript from an author who tells a great story, writes wonderful prose and has a fine touch for dialog, yet we have to reject the book. Despite all else being perfect, a weak protagonist will sink a novel.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a weak hero. In fiction, heroes often have astonishing abilities, although anyone who does good deeds for others can be a hero. The protagonist is always the subject of the story. It’s the person who the story is about. He or she is the person who grows the most, takes the big risks and makes the big sacrifices. If those things don’t happen your protagonist is a weak one, even if he’s Hercules or Superman.

The very center of every story is change, and that has to revolve around your protagonist. In some stories, especially science fiction, it is common for the protagonist to change his world. More commonly, it is the hero who changes, grows, matures or learns an important lesson. This is why you often hear that a hero needs to be flawed. Your protagonist should at least start out with serious flaws. In the best stories, the obstacles the hero overcomes during the story teach him to overcome those flaws.

Also, a good protagonist is not ALWAYS positive. Neither Indiana Jones nor James Bond is a cheerleader. They know the world is tough and they have to be tougher. Like all of us, your hero needs to have an off day once in awhile, and make the occasional stupid mistake. And when he makes those mistakes, he should learn something from them. That’s a lot of what leads to the growth. (It took Dorothy a lot of missteps to realize there’s no place like home.)

You should also make sure your hero’s personality is the result of his or her past experience. You need to know this person so well that you know exactly what caused him to be the way he is. And at an appropriate time you can share that with the reader to officer added insight.

And, since this is the focal character, your protagonist needs to be the person who drives the plot. This is the person who walks headlong into the greatest danger. Who takes the big risk, who makes the big decision. And ultimately, this is the person who undoes the villain. Gotham City has a huge police force, but it’s Batman’s story so it must always be Batman who ultimately defeats the Joker.

If you can do all this in your story, you can be sure your protagonist will shine!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Leave Your Novel's Past in the Past

When I teach my class on creating characters I stress that the author needs to know everything about the people he creates including their entire life history. But as I read submissions to Intrigue Publishing it occurs to me that I should put more emphasis on the fact that you need not share all you know with the reader.

The thing about backstory is, it isn’t always relevant to your current story. As a reader I want to story to keep moving forward. If you stop to explain too much history, it just slows things down.

There’s a reason we reject novels with what we consider too much backstory. In real life, people just don’t think about past events that often, unless they’re tied directly to something that’s happening to them right then.  If the writer is solidly in his or her point of view character’s head, they will know what past events are relevant to the moment.

No matter how fascinating it is to the writer, readers don’t really want to know all about the character’s past. Readers want to be surprised from time to time. They want to discover more about the character as the story unfolds. So it’s more fun to drop hints to the past. As a reader I like to be thinking, “why did she react so strongly to that? Why did he say that? Why did he laugh at THIS situation?”

My best advice to writers is to write the whole story without ANY backstory. Just ignore it and let the characters do what they do. They, when you go back to read through the manuscript for your first re-write look for places where the scene doesn’t make sense unless you give the reader more information. If they need that backstory to understand the scene, find a place to reveal it. If it doesn’t really help that scene, you can reveal it later so the reader gets a chance to say, “Ah! So THAT’S why…”

I think important backstory is defined by how it affects the character now. It’s not about recorded history. It’s about the impact of that experience. For example: My detective Hannibal Jones listens to a lot of Classic Rock. I show this to the reader and let another character ask about it later on. That gives Hannibal a reason to reveal that he grew up in Germany listening to the American Forces Network radio. He was a child when his father died, and he had clung to the mix of music AFN played in those days.

So put that backstory in the background and help your readers (and editors) enjoy your story more.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Deep Feedback from Beta Readers

My remarks in the last two posts explain how a writer can make the best of their early readers. But some of those readers may have even more to offer. You may have writers who work in your genre among your beta readers. Or perhaps readers who are self-declared experts in your genre because they consume almost every book published. If you have people like this, whose knowledge and judgement you trust, they may be eager to go deeper and offer more specific critique, generally looking at two sides off each writing issue. For example:

What characters did you best connect with?

What characters need to be better developed?

Which lines, or scenes, that you particularly liked.

Which bits did you dislike, and why?

As you read, what did you meet that confused you or wasn’t clear?

What should I have elaborated on more?

What section did you want to skip over?

Where in the book did you think it was a good place to put the book down?

One last point: If you follow this plan you may get a lot of valuable feedback. You will need to consider it all, but not reflexively accept it. If you get any recommendations that you just can’t agree with, ignore them. But if a comment is repeated by more than a couple people, seriously consider it.

After reviewing the suggestions it’s time to get down to serious rewriting. And be sure to thank those people whose input was most helpful.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Help Early Readers Help You

So-called beta readers can really help a writer see his work with fresh eyes. Did you say what you meant? Is the story as strong as you think it is? An outsider (or five) can help you improve your writing if they know what to do.

So don’t just give them your manuscript and ask for their opinion. “It’s great!” feels good, but it won’t help you find the flaws. The trick is to ask specific questions. I like to make it easy by starting with a list of yes / no questions. These tell me if I’m generally hitting the mark.

Did the story hold your interest from the beginning?

Could you relate to the hero / heroine?

Did you know whose story it was and where you were quickly enough?

Were all of these people believable?

Was there enough tension, suspense, and conflict to hold your interest? In other words, was it intriguing?

Did you find the ending both believable and satisfying?

After I get those responses, in writing, I ask my early readers if they’d be willing to give me some more detail. For those who are still interested I have a list of questions that ASSUME a negative answer. These make it harder to be nice.  For example, I COULD ask:

Was there a point where you began to lose interest about what would happen next?

But it’s too easy to just say no to that one. So I actually ask:

Where did you start to lose interest and become less excited about what would happen next?

That makes the reader really think about it.  Likewise, these questions:

What inconsistencies did you pick up – places, characters, time lines…

What confused you? Annoyed you? Frustrated you?

Which character’s dialog did NOT sound natural to you?

Where was there too much description? Or not enough?

What mistakes jumped out at you In terms of spelling, grammar or punctuation?

I actually have more in-depth questions for those early readers who are (or want to be) writers themselves. I’ll share some of them next time.