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Reviews Aren't as Great as You Think

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about reviews, especially book reviews.

A cartoon image of a man typing angerly on their computer
An author reading reviews about their book.

See, one of the main drivers of visibility online is interaction. On YouTube it’s comments, likes and the number of people who subscribe on a particular video or post. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, they all rely on this kind of interaction to gauge what content is “worth” promoting to users.

And it isn’t just social media platforms, search engines and other platforms use metrics like clicks, comments and shares to decide what to show people. Online interaction has become a form of currency in a way, with people and organizations doing whatever it takes to get those interactions.

In a way, this new way of doing things can be very beneficial for those looking to grow a business or presence online. If you can make posts or content that gets a lot of interaction, it signals to the algorithm on whatever platform you are on that the post is “good” and should be promoted.

The thing is, interaction doesn’t equal quality.

Controversy online tends to draw the most interaction. Make a post that enrages people and you’re likely to see some big numbers. People will hate-watch a video on YouTube, leave an angry comment on Facebook or make their frustration known by sharing an article and writing up their own post. All of these actions are considered engagement, and the people or companies that made the original post will typically ignore the hate and laugh all the way to the bank.

That’s because interaction online equals money. The more clicks, views, likes, comments you get, the more money you can potentially pull in from various sites in the form of a share of the ad revenue the site generates. That share is available because the only thing anyone online cares about is exposure. Companies will pay tens of thousands, or even millions of dollars to get their brand in front of eyeballs, all in the hope that some of those eyeballs will convert to sales.

But this post is about reviews, so why am I explaining the way internet marketing works?

It goes back to something I’ve noticed over the past couple of years, since I really started focusing on writing and building an online community. As part of my attempt to grow and meet new people online, I started following other authors on Facebook. Some of them write in genres similar to what I write, and some are writing things I wouldn’t really enjoy. Even if the genre they write in is outside of my interest, their experience in writing and things they share on Facebook interest me as a writer.

Maybe they’ve learned something the hard way that’ll help me make things easier for myself. Or perhaps they’re personality is just as quirky as my own. Though we may be very different, one thing we typically have in common is a desire to have people read and enjoy our work.

But we also share a common struggle. How do we get our work in front of people?

That’s where things really get tricky, and that’s where I come back to the ultimate point of this post. You can’t just post about whatever book you’re working on or past releases. People don’t respond to those kinds of posts online, especially from an unknown author.

You have to post memes, and posts that have nothing to do with writing to get any chance at exposure. Not only that, you have to make the occasional controversial post to drive engagement and grow your reach. But posting on Facebook will only get you so far, you also need to have accounts on other platforms like YouTube and TikTok to increase the chances of being seen.

Those platforms are only the social places, though. It’s incredibly difficult to get people to leave one platform for another, and since your book is more likely than not listed on Amazon or another platform, you need some exposure there as well.

And that brings us to reviews.

We’re trained to ask for a review from anyone and everyone that reads our books. It’s a vicious cycle, where you need reviews to make sales and you need sales to get reviews. Sure, Amazon will promote books on their “best-seller” ranks, but chances are that if you’re on one of those lists you’ve got a good number of reviews already.

And that’s because everything online, just like in-person, is a numbers game. In general, a set percentage of people are likely to review your book after reading it, or attempting to read it. If, for instance, 1% of readers will leave a review in general, then 100 readers will lead to 1 review. If you can get enough eyes on your book, you can get a ton of sales and reviews.

But do reviews do anything else?

We’re told that they are for readers, to help them decide if they want to read a book or not, but isn’t that what the blurb is supposed to be for? Your marketing is supposed to be the thing that sells books. The cover, blurb and anything else you put together is what entices a person to make a purchase. So why are reviews so coveted?

I know there’s at least one person out there that will try and say reviews do help make sales. People are more likely to buy things they see other people enjoying after all, and the reviews on a book can serve that purpose. I would argue this isn’t really true though.

We all know that opinions online are not to be trusted. Companies will pay professional reviewers, even when it’s against the ToS of a platform, to leave positive reviews. There are even companies built on removing negative reviews. Reviews from people with a “verified” purchase on a platform might be helpful in some ways, but a stranger’s opinion about a book or movie isn’t exactly going to sway a lot of people.

And that’s where we look at the other side of this coin. Recommendations.

Maybe you follow a YouTube channel that reviews books, and you trust their opinion on a new release. Maybe there is a blog you know provides honest and straightforward feedback, or a website that offers reviews you’ve found helpful in the past. These sources are considered more trustworthy to us because we’re familiar with them. And even if you’re seeing them for the first time, they can seem a lot more reliable than some stranger in a review section because of their history and platform.

And recommendations are something we’ve leaned on since well before the internet was a thing. Movie and book reviews from sources considered “experts” used to be used in newspapers and other media to share info on new releases. These were flawed in their own way, mostly because they were limited in scope and could be paid for by companies as a marketing ploy, but they weren’t the only sources.

Book clubs, friends and family and co-workers have always been a great way to find new reads or things to watch. And these sources are a lot more reliable because you know they aren’t being paid or compensated in any way to sell you the book, they are sharing it with you because they actually enjoyed it and think you will too.

And that’s why I think people tend to give less weight to reviews than most of us might think. You don’t know the motivations behind the review you’re reading on a website. Maybe they hate the author and left a bad review just to try and bring them down. Maybe the author paid them to leave a good review. Or maybe they actually loved or hated the book and wanted to let others know.

That does still leave us with the question of how to promote our books and get them in the hands of readers to start out. You might get lucky and get people from a platform like Facebook or YouTube to buy, but in reality it’s gonna be nearly impossible to make enough sales and get enough reviews to actually reach a larger audience.

I’m working on a future post to discuss selling offline, as I think that’s a lot more relevant and reliable than most people realize. As authors, we have to think like small business owners and plan out marketing beyond the internet. This isn’t 2014, you can’t just set up a website and social media account and expect to make a living on that alone. Some people might get lucky and make it work, but the majority will need a lot more.

You need to be what is known as omni-channel. Selling online, in-person and wherever you can. But more on that later :)

Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts and experiences with selling online and reviews in general. Do you use reviews? Do you leave them?

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