Most of us have been there. Acquiring reviews is the bane of the fledgling indie author’s existence. I struggled with it for years; hell, I only cracked the code in 2016, after heading down the review rabbit hole hard.
That was when I learned a surprising truth.
If your book isn’t selling, reviews are usually not the culprit.
That being said, if you have no reviews, or are staring at two reviews with a 3.5 Amazon rating, you likely don’t believe me. Only the ice-water of harsh experience convinced me otherwise.
But reviews are still important for a few reasons we’ll discuss below. Thus, I’ve assembled a comprehensive mini-guide outlining a number of techniques and services that you can use to get legitimate, unbiased Amazon reviews (no black hat stuff here).
Note: this guide was last updated in September 2018.
Why You SHOULD Bother
Let me be clear: I was convinced that reviews were the skeleton key to success. After nearly being tempted by shady, insanely dumb shit in the early months of my career out of sheer desperation (I know your review-less pain; trust me), I thankfully said screw that and went the opposite route.
Which was when I quickly discovered that reviews don’t play into sales nearly as much as many authors think.
Reviews do not:
- Directly generate sales. Reviews are largely a product of a book selling well; not the other way around. It’s easy to get this causality reversed, which leads to trying to hoard reviews like Gollum hoards the precious. This obsession is not productive.
- Trigger Amazon’s famed algorithms. While the official documentation for Amazon’s A9 algorithm suggests that verified reviews might be a factor, in reality, this impact is minor or nonexistent. There’s also an old myth still making the rounds that Amazon will only promote books with 50+ reviews. This is 100% false. Your book does not need to cross a minimum review threshold for Amazon to start recommending it via also boughts, emails, and other automated mechanisms. A book with 10 reviews (or zero) can easily outsell one with 70, or even 700.
- Have any other career-making mythical effect you may have heard about.
Why bother getting reviews at all, then?
Two marketing reasons:
- Qualifying for promo sites. This is the main reason to bother—many advertisers have requirements of either 5 or 10 reviews, at 3.5 – 4-star averages.
- Social proof is important. All other elements being equal—blurb, cover, writing quality—a book with 15 reviews will probably be purchased over a title with none. Still, despite this tendency, reviews are far less important for books than, say, socks or a new television. That’s because fiction quality is far more subjective. And, also, all other elements are never equal. A book with twenty reviews and a genre-relevant cover will likely trounce one with a terrible, off-genre cover and a hundred glowing reviews.
And one final, non-sales reason:
- A good critical review can improve your craft. You’ll no doubt get lots of unhelpful, vague reviews (“terrible” or “deleted it from my kindle”) if you pursue writing as a full-time career. But don’t ignore genuinely helpful feedback because of this. I’ve learned a number of things (both positive and negative) from a small handful of reviews—points like my overuse of expletives, poor endings, confusing tendency to mash-up disparate genres/tones, and (on the plus side) that readers found my work funny. This unbiased feedback is invaluable, as it is what paying customers (re: not your mom, writing group or dog) genuinely think about your work. I wasn’t aware of these problems (or positives) until I read my Amazon reviews.
Some authors never read their reviews and advocate ignoring them. I believe this is a borderline career killing mistake. Feedback is critical to building skill in any discipline. Unbiased feedback is the rarest of commodities for a writer; editors, proofreaders, beta readers, and so forth are inclined to say positive things about your work since they have a financial or personal relationship with you. This is human nature.
Paying readers – who are the arbiter of your success in this game – have no such biases, and will give you the straight truth. Sometimes that’s brutal; sometimes it’s unhelpful; sometimes, however, it’s gold. If you feel like downing a bottle of bourbon after browsing Amazon, however, then don’t read the reviews. Personally, I would work on building a thicker skin, because criticism is inescapable in this business. But that decision is up to you.
I want to be clear: There aren’t many good reasons to acquire reviews besides the three outlined above. A la Facebook likes, Amazon reviews quickly become a vanity metric. After you get past 50 for a given title, there are diminishing returns. That being said, is having 250 or 500 reviews better than 50? Of course – but remember, when a book has hundreds of reviews, it’s almost always a byproduct of it selling well. Spending hundreds of hours or thousands of dollars accumulating this many reviews is a poor use of resources.
50 is an arbitrary threshold, but chosen for the following reasons:
- Criticisms tend to repeat themselves at this point. You’re generally not learning new things about your craft from review #156 that you didn’t learn at #45.
- You qualify for all promo sites. Yes, that includes the mighty BookBub (which contrary to myth, does not have a minimum review requirement).
Amazon has cracked down on numerous review gathering techniques—from the obvious black hat ones to grayer areas. To keep on the right side of their TOS, it’s vital to abide by a few rules:
- Asking friends, family and other acquaintances for reviews is not allowed. Some of them will do it anyway, without asking. I wouldn’t be concerned about this—just know that these reviews can disappear.
- If you interact with someone on social media, Amazon’s bots might pick this up and remove reviews by this person left on your work.
- Always tell people on your ARC team and through other venues to disclose that they received a free book: “I received a free review copy of this book from the author.”
- You can’t compensate reviewers in any way, beyond the actual product (the book, in this case). This means entering contests, paying them, swapping reviews and other tactics aren’t allowed.
Knocking on Doors: Review Services
In theory, if funds were unlimited, you could book all of the sites below. That would cost around $450 and would likely net 35 – 50 reviews. If you’re in a popular genre, and your cover/blurb hits the right notes, you could see many more. Getting loads of reviews, however, is not the best use of marketing funds.
Instead, I would focus on getting 10 reviews, as this is the threshold where most paid promo sites allow you to advertise. Then invest the leftover money into paid advertising.
If you’ve been struggling with reviews for a long time, rest assured that you can use all of these services & options for any book, old or new. I’ve used them for brand new releases (e.g. during launch week) and for books over a year and a half old. Anecdotally, I haven’t seen any difference in reader demand for new titles as opposed to old titles; even pre-order books (e.g. true advance copies) don’t seem to generate more interest. Demand is mostly dictated by your genre, cover, and blurb.
Important: You aren’t purchasing reviews via these services. Instead, these sites play matchmaker between authors and prospective reviewers—matching your book with interested, unbiased reviewers who request your title based on its cover, blurb, and genre. These reviewers are not compensated, beyond the free copy of the book. If a site claims to compensate reviewers—either via monetary payment, contest entries or other incentives—run the other way. Due diligence is a must.
I’ve used the sites below without issue, but the song does not remain the same—so look into their current policies and make sure they’re on the up and up.
Goodreads Giveaways ($119 – $599): for years, Goodreads allowed you to give away paperbacks for free (although the shipping and printing costs associated with actually delivering said paperbacks was fairly pricey). This was useless, but cheap. The new Goodreads Giveaways, alas, are useless but expensive. You can use them for both eBooks and paperbacks, now, although I would simply skip this option and use them for neither.
I tried an eBook giveaway (the $119 normal flavor) for an urban fantasy novel, lasting ten days (you can do much longer, if you prefer). While you can give away up to 100 eBook copies, I decided to give away 20, to bump up the scarcity factor. I received 353 entries and 316 people adding it to their to-read shelf. No way to track reviews, since I used other services, have an ARC team, and have sold a decent number of copies of the book. But given that the old paperback giveaways netted me around 600 entries, and never more than 1 review, I’m not optimistic that cutting the interest in half will improve the end result.
Still my least favorite way of getting reviews. Placed first on the list, since it’s a service many indies are familiar with.
Recommended: Absolutely not
Time investment: 5 minutes
# of reviews: 0 – 1 on Goodreads (depends on # of books given away)
Hidden Gems ($3 per reviewer – e.g. $75 for your book to be sent to 25 reviewers): Hidden Gems started out as a romance-centric service, but now offers reviews in all major genres. They claim an 80%+ average review rate; in my experience, this is accurate, with between 70 – 90% of the sign-ups reviewing. Their FAQ indicates they accomplish this by being selective about who they send ARCs to and also by actively culling their lists of non-reviewers. They don’t guarantee any reviews, nor do they guarantee positive reviews.
I’ve used Hidden Gems for two urban fantasy books and a book that didn’t fit neatly into a genre (and was submitted to mystery).
The urban fantasy reviews went well. I received a mixture of 3, 4, and 5 stars – probably leaning toward a hair under a 4 star average. The content of the reviews made it clear that these were real reviewers; hell, they even send you a follow-up email with selected comments from their ARC list:
“I think if you were to include the novella in this first book, it would make more sense. The other option is to add information from the novella to provide some background for the characters and assist with character development. Thanks!”
For the book that did not fit cleanly into a genre, results were more mixed. A few reviewers were upset that it was more of a drama than a mystery or suspense novel, which was understandable. As such, if your book doesn’t fall cleanly into a genre, you might want to give Hidden Gems (and review services in general) a pass. Although the review average remained around 4 stars, the spread was wider – ranging from 2 to 5 stars.
Hidden Gems is the best review service I’ve tried. However, be forewarned: most genres are booked 6+ months in advance, so plan ahead.
Recommended: Yes. They’re the best service on this page.
Time investment: 5 minute setup
# of reviews: 10 – 50+
Reading Deals ($79 standard/$129 premium): tried their premium option in January 2016 for a sci-fi adventure book. Received 10 reviews (this took over a year; received 8 within the first 3 months); they guarantee 10 – 15 from their readers, and send you weekly updates, which I like.
Addendum, January 2017: tried this for a sci-fi space opera book. Got one review thus far, but of more concern, only one review request. Bumped down from a definite yes to a “maybe,” especially given the price increase to $79. Weekly updates are now every other week.
Time investment: 5 minute setup
# of reviews: 10 for a sci-fi adventure book set in Atlantis; 1 for a space opera book
Your New Books (Choosy Bookworm) ($129 standard/$299 premium): used to be called the Choosy Bookworm Read & Review program; they just rebranded the service and moved it to its own site. Tried their standard option; had to book it around 6 weeks beforehand, though. The premium option allows you to jump to the front of the review queue, and also gets you more email addresses. This service is a bit different than some of the others, as Choosy Bookworm will send you interested reviewers’ email addresses. You then have to send them the eBook files yourself (I send mine via BookFunnel), which is an added step. You’re supposed to follow up with the readers in about 14 – 21 days after sending; I haven’t done this, which might skew the results.
Recommended: Maybe; I like Reading Deals and Story Cartel more, though, since I don’t have to send the emails myself. However, Choosy Bookworm gave me better results (which is to be expected, given the price point).
Time investment: 5 minute setup; 5 – 10 minutes per batch of email addresses.
# of reviews: 5 – 7 reviews for a trilogy set that’s fairly niche.
Net Galley Co-Op ($50/mo; $125 quarterly): I’m listing the one via Weapenry (formerly Patchwork Press), which is well known; there are others, and you can also go straight to Net Galley (which is expensive). I believe I did this for three months for two different titles (a sci-fi mystery and a historical thriller). Got a couple reviews for each, but they were fairly critical. They were fair, just know that Net Galley reviews will skew lower.
Time investment: I forget.
# of reviews: 1 – 2 for a historical thriller and sci-fi mystery
Story Cartel ($25 standard/$125 featured launch): I’ve used the standard option for six books and the featured launch for one. They distribute the book files themselves, but also give you an Excel .CSV of the readers’ email addresses, if you’d like to personally follow up.
I’ve definitely gotten zero reviews a couple times; for other books, one or two seems to be the standard. The launch did better, but the reviews skewed a little harsher for that—granted, I messed some (minor) continuity things up in that book (which I immediately fixed – see why reviews are good?), so the criticism was warranted.
Time investment: 5 minute setup; optional outreach to reviewers afterwards
# of reviews (standard): 0 – 2 (variety of genres)
# of reviews (featured launch): 4 – 5 on a sci-fi adventure book
Book Review 22 ($60): I used this for an Urban Fantasy novel. Process took about 7 – 10 days from submission to when it was sent out to readers. They distribute all the book files, much like Story Cartel. Setup is super painless and the easiest of all the options.
Book Review 22 sends an update about two months after you order with links to the reviews procured by their service. I received two Goodreads reviews and an Amazon review for an urban fantasy book.
Time investment: 2 minute setup
# of reviews: 1 – 2
Library Thing (free): this is one of my favorites. It’s about the same amount of setup as the paid options, but it’s totally free. Library Thing sends you a list of emails after the giveaway ends, you email the reviewers the files, and that’s it. I’ll usually get one or two reviews out of around 20 – 30 entries. Just set the giveaway to 100 eBooks (make sure you do eBooks and not paper copies).
Time investment: 5 minute setup and 10 minutes sending out files to the winners.
# of reviews: 1 – 2
Uncarved ARC Builder ($52.50): this is different, in that you provide a link to your ARC (advance review copy) mailing list sign-up. Then they send out an email blast telling their list that they can join your ARC team and get a free review book.
I offered my latest UF book as a review copy. I got 120+ signups in 3 days.
Note: you want to set up a separate form/segment for these ARC reviewers. Don’t mix them in immediately with your regular ARC reviewers, as some of them won’t review or won’t like your work.
Anyway, I really like this because it gives you the opportunity to build actual fans, rather than get a few one off reviews.
Time investment: 20 minutes to setup a signup form/get the book files together
# of reviews: 120+ signups; 3 reviews in 3 days
Blog tours (cost depends): haven’t tried a blog tour; from the research I’ve done, tours used to be much better for generating buzz and reviews (e.g. in 2012/2013) than they are now.
Contacting bloggers (free): I sent out one email to one blogger, never heard a response, and decided screw that. Other authors have gotten reviews, but I’m skeptical of the required time investment required to get said reviews. This was a popular strategy four or five years ago, before bloggers got bombed with review requests as a result.
Contacting Amazon reviewers (free): you might see this recommended elsewhere, which is why I’m mentioning it. Amazon used to display the email addresses of reviewers who ticked a box to show their email on their profile. You could then email this person to offer them an ARC copy for review. Amazon no longer displays any reviewer emails publicly, so this method is no longer viable. A number of review services (like Book Razor) sprung up that gathered these emails and sold them to authors. These services were shuttered by this change.
Two Effective Techniques
These two review gathering methods are free and almost completely passive—set them up once, and you’re in business. And they’re not exactly well-kept secrets. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the fundamentals; oftentimes, they deliver the best results.
Method 1: Ask in the back matter. I don’t do this any more, but I’ll explain the technique first, then explain my reasoning for no longer employing it.
Right after “THE END” or “END OF BOOK 1,” on the same page, I used to have three things: a link to my mailing list; a link to book #2 with a brief, one-sentence description; and a request that goes a little something like this: If you enjoyed this book, please leave a brief review on Amazon. Thanks.
This will increase the number of reviews you’ll receive. Make sure you “please leave a brief review on Amazon” links directly to the book’s review form. This will help.
A note: if you’re wide, use “please leave a brief review on your online bookseller of choice” and leave out the link. Other retailers take umbrage to the direct mention of competitors. It’s not worth generating a different EPUB for each retailer, in my opinion, hence the more general language. If you’re Amazon exclusive, just say Amazon (or Amazon/Goodreads, since Goodreads is owned by ‘zon).
Finally, an important note: the more cluttered your back matter, the less likely a buyer will take any action at all. If you have a million requests back there—follow me on Twitter! Here’s this thing I’m doing on Wattpadd! Oh yeah, I do dope Kabuki theater with this awesome troupe!—readers will take no action at all.
As I said before, however, I no longer include a review request in my back matter. Why? Because while it increases the number of reviews you get, it decreases sellthrough. Instead of purchasing the next book in the series, readers leave a review. This gives additional time for them to be distracted by a different book, and purchase it instead. Additionally, an automatic pop-up now appears at the end of books read on Kindle devices asking you to leave a review. This makes the review request semi-redundant.
These days, I limit the number of CTAs (call-to-action) to one or two: a brief teaser with a link to the next book, and – depending on the series – a link to join my mailing list. Each additional link or request you add decreases the chance of the reader taking the desired action. That will almost always be purchasing the next book, so we want to make that link/teaser the focus.
Method 2: Build an ARC (advance review copy) team via your mailing list
You do have a mailing list, right? Not only is a mailing list critical for driving sales on launch day (as well as for promos), but it’s a great way to connect with fans and get feedback on your books. Luckily, building an ARC team is super-easy.
Way #1: have an automated email inviting subscribers to join. When you sign-up for most lists, you’ll receive what’s known as a “drip sequence” or “autoresponder” from the author. This automated series of emails, set up in advance, is delivered on a set schedule.
Aside from a welcome email that delivers your reader magnets and says what’s up to your new peeps, you can also have an email—further down the line—that invites them to join your ARC team.
A simple message—like hey, if you want free review copies of my books before they come out, reply and I’ll add you to the list—is really all you need.
Way #2: if you don’t know a drip sequence from a dripping faucet—or haven’t set up your autoresponder—then simply sending a regular message to your existing list works fine. Same format as above: hey, I have cool pre-release copies of my books—you want in? Reply if you do.
That’s it. Add the people that respond to your ARC list (or segment/tag them, depending on how fancy you wanna get).
A twist on these approaches: email your list regarding ARC copies for a specific release. I did this with book #2 in a series, to a list of around 60 people. All I asked was hey, here’s the cover and description—you want a free review copy? All you gotta do is hit reply, then later on, leave an honest Amazon review. I received 25 replies and 13 total reviews. Nearly all of them were four and five stars, since these people were already fans of the series.
Not only was it great to hear from fans—they sent lots of nice emails, spread the word about the launch, and got excited about being involved—it provided a nice launch platform for the new release.
Important: you need to follow up with your ARC reviewers. Email them a link to the Amazon review form on launch day. Send a final message 7 – 10 days later reminding them to review the book, explaining that it’s important to the book’s success. Most people are happy to do you a favor, particularly when you’ve already done them one by giving ‘em a free ARC copy.
Special Trick: Get Pre-Release Reviews
Unlike trad-pub authors, indie authors can’t receive reviews for their pre-order titles. There’s a clever way around this, though: setting up your Createspace paperback ahead of time and “releasing it,” then directing your reviewers to the review link for the print copy listing.
- Make sure your eBook is available for pre-order and it’s the final draft. This is only important because you’re going to be releasing an actual product, in the paperback (at least for a couple hours), and thus you don’t want people accidentally purchasing a placeholder full of blank pages.
- Release your print book via Createspace and make sure the distribution options are checked that make it available on Amazon.
- Wait for the paperback to be published and available for sale.
- Once it’s published, request for KDP support to link the paperback and pre-order eBook editions together, if they aren’t already.
- Send your reviewers the review link from the paperback edition’s Amazon page.
- Once the two editions are linked, unpublish the paperback by unselecting all the distribution options (if you want – or just leave it as is). If you do this, the review link will remain, but the paperback will no longer be available for sale. You can “re-release” the print edition on the actual launch day by simply reselecting the distribution options.
In Closing: One Last Review Technique
I’d only do this if you’re struggling with less than ten reviews. Otherwise, as outlined above, the review request will cut into your sellthrough too much to be worthwhile.
The “technique”: Give your book away free for 2 – 3 days (you can do all 5 if you’ve done a free run before and know how to set up a good promo stack), and have a review request in the back matter. Book some paid promo so that you generate a decent number of downloads and sit back.
You can generally expect one review for every 1,000 books you give away. For paid copies, you can expect around one review for every 100 books sold. However, those numbers can be much higher if your book has high read-through.
- Book A: 9300 copies given away + 10 copies sold (permafree); expected reviews = 9 reviews; total = 18 reviews; approx. review rate = 0.19%
- Book B: 12031 copies given away + 600 copies sold + 500 KU borrows; expected reviews = 23 – 25; total = 96 reviews; approx. review rate = 0.73%
- Book C: 9210 copies given away + 78 copies sold + 44 KU borrows; expected reviews = 10 – 11; total = 6 reviews; approx. review rate = 0.064%
Book B, and the series it’s a part of, sells much better (with dramatically better sell-through) than either Book A or C’s series.
If people aren’t leaving reviews, and you have a clear review request in the back, it’s a good indication that they’re not reaching the end of your book.
A note for the thinned skin: understand that review averages for free books generally skew anywhere from a half-star to a full star lower than reviews for paid books. People tend to judge free products harshly. You’ll also get people trying your book who don’t like the genre and wouldn’t normally pick it up.
The ultimate goal should be building your own team of ARC reviewers. This is a slow process, but one worth starting now. That way, you don’t have to pay for any services (and wait for them to get to your book) or hope that readers will leave you reviews. Better still, fans of your work will tend to write in-depth, quality reviews (as a bonus, the star averages will skew higher, too). And if you get something egregiously wrong in your latest release, they’ll likely email you in private instead of publicly eviscerating your book—possibly in time for you to fix your error, as well.
That’s it. Go and get some reviews. And remember, always be building your career; not just a shiny stable of gold stars on a platform (Amazon) that you don’t own.