When Forgetting English was first published by Eastern Washington University Press in 2009, I learned — after the fact and much to my dismay — that it had never been sent out for reviews. It wasn’t long before I also learned that half of the press’s staff had been laid off and that the press would close within the year, which answered the question of why — but I still had to deal with the fact that I had a short story collection to promote without a single review.
And that was a little depressing.
Authors (rightly) expect their publishers to send out review copies (if there’s ever any doubt, they should ask), but of course this doesn’t guarantee that their books will actually be reviewed. With some 200,000 books being published in the U.S. annually, it’s a challenge, particularly for new and emerging authors, to get reviewed by the major media outlets that can get your book the attention you want and need. So what can an author do to help create some publication buzz when the reviews aren’t coming in?
Among the best advice I got from authors when Forgetting English was published was to use my author copies for promotion purposes. I’d been planning to give them all away — what could be more fun than to shower friends and family with free books? — but then I realized that my fellow authors had very good reasons behind their advice.
First, if anyone’s going to buy your book with great joy and pride, it’ll be your friends and family — so let them. It doesn’t cost them all that much, and it’ll support either their indie bookstores or your Amazon ranking, and that’s nice, too. Second, you’ll need to send complimentary copies to those who were instrumental in the writing or publishing process, from those who helped you with research to those who offered blurbs; anyone who donated time and energy to you without asking anything in return certainly deserves a signed copy of your book. And, finally, whatever copies you have left are best used to help promote it — given today’s challenges, from the economy to dwindling attention spans, we authors need all the help we can get. And I don’t mean this in a pessimistic way, just a realistic one: As anyone who’s published a book will tell you, promotion makes writing look like the easy part.
Whether you’ve gotten those PW and NYT reviews or not, you’ll still want to take advantage of the myriad options for generating buzz and/or keeping it going. So here are a few tips for getting reviews and making the most of them…
– About six months before your book comes out, research book review blogs to see which ones might be a good fit for your book as well as receptive to reviewing it. You’ll want to approach bloggers with a good number of followers (these are your potential readers) as well as comments (which shows that the reviews are being read and responded to). Also be sure they read and review in your genre and that the reviews are of the quality and sensibility you hope for in a review. It’s best to query first so that you don’t send a copy that may end up in recycling; if a blogger is interested, he or she will get back to you. Because publishers often offer advance copies to book bloggers as well as more traditional media, check your list against the review list of your publisher so that you don’t send duplicates.
– If for any reason your book doesn’t get sent out for reviews, don’t give up: Send copies out yourself. You won’t get anywhere with Publishers Weekly, which requires copies months in advance, but your local newspaper will probably pay attention, and may even do a feature article along with a review. Target any publication you think would be receptive and a good fit. Alumni magazines and newsletters are a great resource, as are literary magazines, especially if they’ve published your work in the past.
– Think outside the box: Don’t limit yourself to traditional book review sections of publications but also look at other possibilities, from travel columns to cooking editions. Target radio stations, university publications, community newsletters — any venue or publication that might offer a good audience for your book and/or topic.
– If you are fortunate enough to get good press, add reviews to your web site, your Facebook page, etc. — get the good news out there. At the same time, avoid becoming tediously self-promotional; if you get several reviews at once, you might space them out a bit. I often link to reviews on Facebook by expressing gratitude toward the reviewer or publication, which always seems a bit softer than shamelessly showing off my book (even if that really is the point). It truly is a tough job … but someone’s got to do it.
– Remember that every day is book promotion day: Don’t give up on getting reviews six months past your publication date. When Forgetting English was reissued by Press 53, I reached out to new bloggers and even did another book tour — all of which led to many new readers, even though the book by then was two years old. Always keep an eye out for publications that might be a good fit, or for a local news story that you may be able to contribute to. There’s never any reason to stop promoting your book; there will always be someone out there for whom it’s brand-new.
– If readers tell you how much they love your book, ask for an Amazon/Goodreads/LibraryThing/Barnes & Noble reader review. Having good reviews on these sites will get the attention of online shoppers, and though it feels awkward to ask, you’ll get over it once you see a few nice reviews up there. You don’t have to beg or plead; simply let people know how much a nice review will help get the word out about your book and how much you’d appreciate it.
– And, finally, if you do happen to get a bad review, try to remember how subjective the process of reviewing is. This is especially true with book blogs, many of which are very informal — yet even professional book reviewers are human beings with personal tastes that may not align with what you’ve written. Recognize that no writer or book can satisfy every reader, and, because the book is out there and there’s nothing you can do to change it anyway, do your best to ignore anything negative. And don’t attempt to respond to bad reviews, even if you feel the reviewer was sloppy or missed the whole point of the book; this approach never goes anywhere good. Just let it go.
And keep in mind that, in the end, while reviews are wonderful and helpful, they won’t necessarily make or break your book. Many bestsellers have been made by word of mouth alone, so always remember what you can do for your book, focusing on what is in your power to accomplish rather than what’s not.