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’s 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 although they’re hardly the skeleton key to success, reviews are still important for a few reasons we’ll discuss below. Thus, I’ve assembled a comprehensive mini guide outlining the four primary methods that you can use to get legitimate, unbiased Amazon reviews (no black hat stuff here):
- Review services which distribute review copies of your book to their readers
- Asking your newsletter subscribers
- Creating your own ARC (advance review copy) team
- Setting your book to free and putting a review request with a direct link to the review form in your book’s back matter.
But before we get into the how-to, we first need to answer an oft-overlooked question.
Why the hell should we bother to get Amazon reviews at all?
Note: this guide was last updated in August 2020.
Why You SHOULD Bother
Let me be clear: Reviews don’t impact 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 some 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—many advertisers require either 5 – 10 reviews (with a 3.5 – 4-star average).
- Social proof is important. All other elements being equal—blurb, cover, writing quality—a book with 15 reviews will be purchased over a title with none. Despite this tendency, reviews are far less important for books than, say, socks or a new television. That’s because fiction quality is subjective and 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.
I want to be clear: There aren’t many good reasons to acquire reviews besides the those 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).
And about that criticism: a good critical review can improve your craft.
This point is important enough to warrant its own section.
Qualitative Feedback: Using Reviews to Improve Your Craft
Feedback is at a premium when you’re a writer. Most of your day is spent alone, at a keyboard, typing into what is essentially a void. It is not until someone else reads your work that you receive feedback—often weeks or months after a passage has been written.
This can make it difficult to improve, since feedback is key to building skill in any discipline.
Reviews can be a critical source of quality feedback.
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. As already mentioned, 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; on rare occasions, 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’ve already touched on how reviews can qualitatively be used to improve your work.
But they can also be used in a more quantitative fashion. Most people look at the review score to assess whether readers liked their book. This seems like a good idea; in practice, however, not all 4 star ratings are equal. That’s because the true measure of a book’s quality is whether the reader got to the end—and, after that, whether they go on to purchase the next book.
Nothing else really matters when you’re trying to make a living.
Enter expected reviews versus actual reviews.
Using these two numbers, we can compare our expected review numbers (using a rule of thumb) to the actual number of reviews our book has.
On average, you can expect 1 Amazon review for every 1,000 free downloads and 1 review for every 100 sales. This is just a very general rule of thumb; the review rate will fluctuate from book to book. However, if lots of people are picking up your book, but no one is reviewing it, this indicates they’re not reaching the end. This is a problem, since your career is built on sellthrough (that is, people finishing a book and then purchasing another one of your books).
Thus, if your review rate is dramatically below the rules of thumb stated above, there may be a craft problem lurking in the pages.
Take these numbers from actual titles:
More people are reviewing Books A and B than expected; by contrast, Book C has fewer reviews than expected. Again, this is a very rough estimate; making any decisions based on this exercise alone would be ill-advised. But a low review rate is cause for further examination.
When I looked at the sellthrough numbers (the % of people who go on to purchase Book 2): Book B’s sellthrough is the highest, while Book C’s is anemic. This suggests readers aren’t resonating with Book C.
In conjunction with the actual qualitative content of the reviews, you can use your review rate to troubleshoot craft problems. If it’s much lower than expected, dive into what people are saying to find out why.
But enough about feedback and improving craft. Let’s jump into getting reviews.
Common Practices to Avoid
We only want legitimate reviews. To that end, you should avoid anything that might get you into hot water with Amazon. In recent years, Amazon has cracked down on many 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:
- Do not ask friends, family and other acquaintances for reviews. This is not allowed under the TOS. Some of these folks will leave reviews anyway, without asking. Don’t be concerned about this (Amazon won’t punish you)—just know that these reviews can disappear.
- Do not offer to exchange reviews with other authors (known as a review swap)—e.g. you review their book and they review yours in return.
- 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.
On a semi-related note, if you interact with someone on social media, Amazon’s bots might pick this up and remove reviews of your work by this person. This is largely unavoidable and not something to be worried about; if the review count on a book suddenly drops by one or two, however, this might be the culprit.
Method #1: Use a Review Service
In theory, if funds were unlimited, you could book all of the sites below. Getting loads of reviews, however, is not the best use of marketing funds. Instead, 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. where the reader is receiving a true advance review copy) 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 a review copy of 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 immediately. 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.
The Best Option
Hidden Gems ($3 per reviewer)
- # expected reviews: 20+ (50+ in some genres)
- Setup time: 5 minutes
- About: The most effective review service in the business by a large margin (think of them as the Bookbub of review services). Not only do they generate a ton of quality reviews—the reviewers clearly have read the books, and often post multiple paragraph reviews—they even send you a follow-up email with selected additional comments from their ARC list. The only knock against Hidden Gems is the booking time, which extends out half a year or longer for most genres.
Personally Untested, But Good For Others
I don’t generally include things that I haven’t personally used, especially not this high. But in this case, I’ve worked with a client who has used BookSprout to generate a considerable number of reviews, which gels with the general overall author consensus.
- BookSprout (free trial, $10 – $20/mo)
- About: BookSprout is a subscription service that offers a combination of ARC list management and discovery features that connect you with potential reviewers.
I’ve used Story Origin before for cross promos, but not specifically for reviews. I found that part of the service useful, and have seen some promising results from the review section. So this is worth testing, especially since it’s totally free.
- StoryOrigin (free)
Unfortunately, much like with promo sites, where Bookbub reigns king, there’s a precipitous drop off in results from Hidden Gems to the rest of the pack. If you can’t snag a Hidden Gems spot, I’d start with these.
Library Thing (free)
- # expected reviews: 1 – 2
- Setup time: 2 – 3 hours (have to send winners files yourself)
- About: Library Thing allows you to run free eBook giveaways that help you get reviews. Set the giveaway to 100 eBooks (make sure you do eBooks and not paper copies) and you’ll usually get 30 – 50 people claiming it.
If you’re in a pinch, and need some reviews, you can look to these services. Their prices and results make them less appealing, however.
Uncarved ARC Builder ($52.50)
- # expected reviews: 3 – 5
- Setup time: 1 – 2 hours
- About: this is different than the other services, 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. You’ll 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.
Xpresso Net Galley Co-Op ($65/mo or $180/quarter)
- # expected reviews: 1 – 2
- Setup time: don’t remember
- About: There are a number of co-ops that allow you to book a Net Galley slot for your title. I’ve linked to the one from Xpresso Book Tours; to be 100% clear, I’ve never used their services, but they’ve been around for a long time (the co-op I used is no longer offered). You can search for alternatives on Google or ask around in author groups. You can also book directly from Net Galley, but that’s far more expensive. Reviews from Net Galley are fair, but tend to be harsher and with lower overall scores.
Reading Deals ($79 standard/$299 premium)
- # expected reviews: 1 – 2
- Setup time: 5 minutes
- About: this was good when I tried it in January 2016 (got 10 reviews), but less effective when I tried it in January 2017 (got 2 reviews). They provide you with updates via email on how many reviews your book has received from the program.
Book Review 22 ($250)
- # expected reviews: 1 – 2
- Setup time: 5 minutes
- About: Process took about 7 – 10 days from submission to when it was sent out to readers. They distribute all the book files. 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 when the price was $60. It has since increased to $250.
Goodreads Giveaways ($119 – $599)
- # expected reviews: 0
- About: for years, Goodreads allowed you to give away paperbacks for free (although the shipping and printing costs associated with actually delivering said paperbacks were fairly pricey). This was useless, but cheap; I never traced a single direct review back to such a giveaway. The new Goodreads Giveaways, alas, are still useless but have the added bonus of being expensive. You can use them for both eBooks and paperbacks, now, although I would simply skip this option and use them for neither. I ran one, gave away 20 copies, got zero directly attributable reviews, and called it a day.
Additional Options I Haven’t Personally Tested
- 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.
You may see these recommended by other posts or guides; they’re mentioned here so you don’t wonder what happened to them.
- Story Cartel
- Contacting Amazon reviewers (free): Amazon used to publicly 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.
- Book Razor: a number of review services sprung up that gathered the emails from Amazon profiles and sold them to authors. These were all shut down by the aforementioned change; Book Razor was the best known of these services.
Method #2: Ask Your List
If you have a mailing list (which you do have, right?), all that you need to do is send out a regular broadcast email to your subscribers asking for reviews. Explain the importance and include the direct link to the review form. Don’t incentivize people in any way; this is against the Amazon TOS. Just ask nicely.
Maybe you don’t want to send out a newsletter that solely ask for reviews. You could include the request as a “PS” at the bottom of one of your emails instead.
I like (and have used) the subject line “Can You Do Me a Favor?”
You can even automate this process by adding such a request to your autoresponder. The same principles apply: ask nicely and include a direct link to the review form.
Method 3: Cross Promo to Autoresponder
You can use sites like BookFunnel and StoryOrigin, or giveaways to build your list of newsletter subscribers rapidly. The idea is simple with cross promotions: you join forces with multiple other authors, share the cross promo to your list, and essentially share your subscribers with one another. You need a book that you can offer as bait for people to sign up, which is usually a free novella, story, or novel.
While this is a good way to start building your list, what you’ll often find is that the volume of subscribers is high…but engagement (and buy rates) are low. That does not, however, mean that these subscribers are necessarily useless, or that they’re not interested in reading your stuff.
Instead, these people might be interested in becoming ARC Readers (method outlined below) or to review your book.
How to set this up:
- Join a cross promo on BookFunnel or StoryOrigin. Or join an author giveaway.
- Make sure these subscribers are on a separate list or have a specific tag so you can clearly identify their source.
- Set up an autoresponder that all new subscribers from these sources receive. An autoresponder (also referred to as an “automation sequence” or “drip sequence”) automatically sends emails to these new subscribers on a set schedule. You write the emails in advance, set things up, and then it runs in the background forever (or until you turn it off).
- Within this autoresponder, have an email that requests a review for one of your books. It can be the one you gave away for free when they joined the list (especially if that’s a novel available for sale on Amazon) or it can be the book related to what they got free for joining the list (i.e., the full-length novel related to the free prequel novella). Link them directly to the Amazon review form.
- Or, you can ask if they want to join your ARC Team, which we’ll outline below.
By the way, this autoresponder process works with your organic subscribers (those coming from the front/back matter of your book) as well. The reason I highlight cross promotions and giveaways specifically? If you’re struggling to get reviews, your current organic list is likely small. This is a quick way to dramatically increase the number of people you can either add to your ARC team or ask for reviews from.
Method #4: Create Your Own ARC Team
Why keep paying for review services with each book—essentially shotgunning your book out to readers who may or may not like it—when you can instead build a team of mega fans who will review your latest release on launch day? Like the previous two methods, this technique requires a mailing list—but after you finish setting up your mailing list, one of the next steps should be to start building your ARC (advance review copy) team.
Luckily, building an ARC team is super-easy. And it works with organic and non-organic subscribers.
Way #1: create an automated email inviting subscribers to join your ARC team as part of your autoresponder.
Aside from a welcome email that delivers your reader magnet (the free novella, story, or novel mentioned in the previous section) and says what’s up to your new peeps, you can also have an email—further down the line—that invites subscribers 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 latest book—you want in? Reply if you do.
That’s it. You can do this for a specific release (e.g. respond if you want an ARC copy of my new book Magic, Vamps & Potions), or just as a general invitation to receive all future books. Add the people who respond to your ARC list (or segment/tag them, depending on how fancy you wanna get).
It is extremely important to follow up with your ARC reviewers. Here’s a basic schedule:
- 10 – 14 DAYS BEFORE LAUNCH: Send out the ARC copies. Deliver these via BookFunnel to increase the # of people who actually download the ARC. If you do the special trick outlined in the section below, you can include the review link to the paperback.
- LAUNCH DAY: Send out a link to the Amazon review form on launch day reminding people to review. Including the link is important—it makes things easier for reviewers, and will increase the number of reviews.
- 7 – 10 DAYS AFTER LAUNCH: Send a final message thanking all those who have left a review while reminding anyone who didn’t to review the book. Explain that reviews are critical 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.
On a closing note, never request positive reviews; I always emphasize that reviewers should leave honest reviews. If someone signed up to your ARC team, they are almost always a big fan of your work, which makes them extremely unlikely to leave a review lower than four stars, anyway. On a related note, I do not remove non-reviewers or people who leave me low ratings; this demands a lot of time that can be better spent elsewhere. And finally, always remind ARC team members to disclose that they received a free book with language a la “I received a free review copy of this book from the author.”
Method #5: Ask in the Back Matter and Then Set Your Book to Free
I don’t do this any more, but I’ll explain the technique first, then explain my reasoning for no longer employing it.
In the back matter, 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 by tapping here. Thanks.
This will increase the number of reviews you’ll receive. Make sure “please leave a brief review on Amazon by tapping here” links directly to the book’s review form. This increases the number of reviews you’ll receive.
A note: if you’re wide, use “please leave a brief review on your online bookseller of choice” and omit the direct link. Other retailers take umbrage to directly linking to 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.
This is the reason I no longer include a review request in my back matter. While such a request 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 them additional time 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. Here are the comparative stats for the back matter (back matter with the review ask on the left):
Ultimately, the goal is to sell more books and make more money—not collect dozens of reviews.
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.
However, if you are struggling to get reviews, you can use the review CTA + a free run on your book to generate some. I’d only do this if you have 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 5 days and have a review request in the back matter. Book some paid promo so that you generate at least 3,000 – 5,000 downloads during your run. As mentioned earlier, 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 sellthrough (e.g. people are finishing the book).
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. This is normal.
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 KDP Print 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 that you have the final draft of your manuscript available. This is critical because by publishing the paperback you will be making the actual book available for sale (at least for a couple hours), and thus you don’t want readers accidentally purchasing a placeholder full of blank pages.
- Publish your paperback via KDP Print.
- Once it’s live, 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 (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 purchase. You can “re-release” the print edition on the actual launch day by simply going into KDP Print and making it available again.
Using this guide, you should be able to get ten Amazon reviews over the next month without much trouble.
The ultimate goal, however, 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 or hope that readers will leave reviews. Better still, fans of your work tend to write in-depth, quality reviews (and, as a bonus, their ratings 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 author career; not just a shiny stable of gold stars on a platform (Amazon) that you don’t own.