Over the course of two years, the landscape of social media changed.
In Fall of 2014, I went to the only two sites that appeared to be the "it" places at the time: Goodreads and Facebook Groups (there are many books dedicated to Romance). I needed to find honest reviewers who would accept my offer of a free book in exchange for an honest review. But how would I find the readers? On Goodreads, I went to my favorite author and her most popular book--a book that I "modeled" mine after. The beauty of viewing a book on Goodreads is that you can isolate the star ratings and text reviews. I selected 3-star reviews: reviews that were in the middle ground because of their honest opinion. I wanted to get "honest" reviews where the reviewer wasn't a "super fan" who gushed over every single plot point in the story. In my opinion, no book is perfect, having a subjective flaw. And if those honest reviewers picked up on the flawed nuances, then I wanted those readers to give me the same type of feedback.
I crafted a "form" letter and sent it to reviewers through private message. When I sent one too many cold requests, Goodreads would have a pop up warn me about sending too many messages to members who weren't my "friends." Often I had to enter extra information to ensure I wasn't an "Autobot." Despite being limited to 25 messages a day, it was a lot of work to research the reviewer, compare our books, send a message, bypass the Autobot, and start again with another reviewer I did it every day for weeks. The acceptances trickled in after several days of waiting. I'd send them a book directly to their Kindles and waited. And waited. I found other books to poach reviewers, more 3-star readers, and did the process all over again--and waited.
After a paperback Giveaway on Goodreads, I accumulated over five-hundred requests, only 5 won. The hope was that the winners would leave a review. A couple did. A few of the honest reviewers wrote reviews. But it wasn't enough. After feeling tired of poaching readers, I decided to reach out to those Giveaway entrants by sending an email message, offering a digital book. Many responded and the transaction was completed. Despite giving away hundreds of eBooks, I received about 25 reviews on Goodreads and a fraction on Amazon. Keeping with my plan, I returned to sending private message requests. As a means of keeping organized, I created a Google form and directed potential reviewers to fill out the form. I could check in and remind them of our "deal." But that's where I went wrong. There's no moral code on the reader's end to complete the offer and transaction--I'm a former Law professor, so sometimes contract terminology rears its ugly head. I sat around waiting for reviewers to read and review my book because we had a deal. Indie publishing does not work when Indies sit and wait.
The goal was to get organic readers. I found several. But they weren't enough. I attempted to get blogs to write reviews. Some came through, but more often than not, I was silently rejected (by silent, I never heard from them). I came to the conclusion that I needed to go directly to readers who couldn't care less about followers and obtaining cash incentive through Amazon affiliate links. I gave my previous reviewers subsequent books as an incentive to keep reviewing. Many came through, and I did the same with the third book in my series. The readers who followed through went on a perpetual list of readers who would always get my books because they know the value of reviewing. However, I needed more reviewers. Lots and lots of new reviewers.
On Facebook, Romance readers social groups prevail. The memberships range from tens of people to thousands. Many of those groups required Author engagement--not just dropping a link and scurrying off to the next Group and repeat. I made honest review requests, publishing my form link and I waited. Honestly, I didn't trust this method because I still felt disconnected from the members. Truthfully, I heard crickets chirping whenever I posted an honest review request. Even when I posted links to a FREE DOWNLOAD, I rarely received downloads. If they did, I didn't get a review. I didn't care if the book wasn't rated a 5-star, I always asked for an honest review--like it or not. I desperately wanted my 50 Amazon reviews.
Over the course of two years, the landscape of social media changed. When I published my fifth book in 2016, I went back to Goodreads, selected Readers from "comparable" books and tried to send the first message. Instantly a popup told me that it was against Goodreads' rules to send Spam emails to non-friends and that I could lose my membership if I did so. Paused--fingers retreated from the keyboard, and I felt lost. I mentioned that I'm a lawyer--I follow the rules. I don't like to make waves. I don't want Goodreads to ban me. I don't want to be labeled as an "Author Behaving Badly." Goodreads, who was purchased by Amazon, limited my ability to find new reviewers without "friending" them, yet, Amazon was removing reviews from readers they deemed to have a personal (friendship) relationship with the author. So if I "friended" potential reviewers, then Amazon would find us in collusion to boost my "visibility" on their site and they would censor the review. And many readers have found themselves banned from reviewing on Amazon too. What to do? What to do?
Facebook had to be the panacea for finding honest reviewers. I needed to engage more, link more. I posted links in my Author Page and Profile, then post the same to an insane number of groups. I did it daily then reduced it to a few times a week until I burned out. I couldn't keep up with the "requirement" of linking my books or my honest review forms. They weren't working anyway. I wasn't getting reviewers. I may have completed the transaction of giving away books, but readers weren't reviewing them. At that point, I concluded that my writing wasn't at the level necessary to get readers to publish reviews. Later, authors learned that FB was limiting book links, essentially hiding them in the Algorithm--if you use words like "SALE," "FREE," "DOWNLOAD," etc. Why?
Money. Facebook wants to be paid to show links. "Okay," I thought, "Let's do paid ads." Well, I crafted paid ads, boosted ads posted to my Author Page. They rarely worked, even if a free offer. I received a lot of clicks, but very few downloads. From many posts read, I learned that often (despite injecting keywords and demographics), the target groups weren't narrowed down enough. The keywords were often too broad, finding the sweet spot of keywords was too difficult. I watched videos on how to craft FB ads. I tailored my direct ads to encompass the theory of FB advertising. I failed to make my ads narrow enough to get readers. Essentially, roadblock after roadblock was put up. It felt like a conspiracy.
Recently, I found that popular groups (the ones with thousands of engaged readers) created rules to limit drive-by linking. Many of the popular groups require administrator approval or they don't allow links at all--often deleting the posts. Groups want word of mouth book recommendations. But word of mouth seemed to be of books that were already performing well, often hitting book lists. My books or even my other Indie friends' books never achieved the same recommendations.
I returned to contacting blogs, but I failed to properly request without spending hours of every day crafting a direct message that didn't appear generic. Bloggers wanted me to engage with their blog, learn their names, contact them directly, give too much book detail, give too little book detail. At what point was I going to have time to write the next book? But I watched other Indies that I came up with, and they were thriving. They had "it" down. I never had it or never gained enough traction with it to make it bigger than 54 Amazon reviews and 174 on Goodreads. My colleagues were in the hundreds on Amazon and thousands on Goodreads. What was the difference for them?
They had multiple methods of obtaining honest reviewers--bloggers, readers in groups, readers on Goodreads, readers from takeovers, signings, and an enviable online presence. But they also learned all of these things before publishing their first book. They got a head start. Reviewers and their word of mouth are the keys to a successful book launch. They couldn't have done it without Readers publishing reviews on Amazon on publishing day or far in advance on Goodreads. Honest reviewers matter. They are the bread and butter of the Indie publishing industry. But with the changing tide of social media, it's becoming harder to attract readers without name recognition, and name recognition isn't possible without readers who have already read and reviewed through a reviewer request. It's a vicious cycle, isn't it?
I could write a book on the many follies, but the takeaway is having readers understand the importance of their contribution to an Indie's work--reading and reviewing. And it doesn't have to be a glowing review. It has to come from the heart and mind without being divisive and destructive to an author's career. Classic authors don't receive all 5-stars from readers, so Indies shouldn't expect them either. A low review legitimizes an author's book, giving a clear indication that the reviews were indeed honest, and not from biased readers. Whether love it or hate it, I encourage readers to review all books.