Are Amazon’s Five-Star Reviews the Road to Success?

I have a friend whose grown daughter teaches drama for preschoolers in DC.  I asked how she ended up doing that when all we’d ever heard about Casey for years was how she was going to be an actress. (She was gorgeous, sang, danced, went to Tisch at NYU, performed at Disney World every summer, and made it to off-off Broadway.) Her mother said Casey came to the point where she finally knew her big break probably wasn’t going to happen. (She was at the point where “ingénue” didn’t fit any more and she was now skating very close to the point where the go-be-a-wife-and-mother option was almost off the table, too.) So she bailed. Her mother said: “Casey never had that fire in her belly that you need to make it in a very competitive business. She didn’t have that stab-your-bestfriend, sleep-with-whomever, step-on-whomever, do-whatever you-need-to-do-to-make-it-happen mindset.” I think about Casey sometimes when I’m looking at some young, fresh faced actress (who isn’t related to someone famous.) I wonder how nice they are or did they have to kill someone to get their present measure of fame?

I bring this up because there is a thing that we authors believe (probably accurately) will help us in our quest to bestsellerdom (or at least a consistent fifty books sold a month). That is the Five-Star Amazon Review.

First, it’s amazing to me that we are still trying to directly control our sales numbers. We’re still trying to do the three-steps-to-amazing-book-sales thing because the alternative: writing the next awesome book while we’re waiting for success to happen doesn’t feel like it’s directly addressing the problem of low book sales. The key here is the word “direct.” Going back to the keyboard for another three months of labor isn’t directly affecting your book sales. It’s a slow, down-the-road kind of process. But we are a people who “want it NOW.” The idea that the best way to sell books is to write a great book in the first place and then turn around and write another one (all the while praying for one of them to “hit”) is just too passive to be believed, let alone lived.

We still want to believe we have direct control over obtaining book sales success. It’s just another demonstration of the fact that we can’t accept there’s not something we can do to ensure our success will happen. We’ve seen so many Disney movies, so we know how it all works out and if we have to help it along a little, like maybe lie or misrepresent the truth, well, since the happy ending is what we’re all aiming for, what does it matter?

When you’ve been fed a constant diet of “you can do it” and combine it with a national tendency not to put too many restraints on our desires or wants (witness our national obesity problem), you have a situation where cheating or lying can be justified in the process of achieving the Big Dream.

I know writing up a bunch of fake reviews for your pals to post on your books on Amazon isn’t treason or Sin with a capital “S,” but I do think it’s a little shameful. I know you can justify writing a glowing five-star review for yourself by thinking “if they would only give it a try I’m sure they’ll love it!” Plus, you know a lot of other writers are doing it, too, so it’s not unlike when you were in high school working your butt off to get A’s while the C students were cheating and pulling down the very same GPA. It wasn’t fair but climbing down into the hog pen with them wasn’t the solution then and it isn’t now.

I say, be passionate. Absolutely use that fire in your belly to write until the wee hours, push past exhaustion to make those deadlines, buck yourself up in the face of a few bad reviews, smile when your friends and family are condescending to you about being a writer—do what you can to keep your dream alive and keep your keyboard smoking. But have some self-restraint for pity’s sake. (And think about it: if you’re really asking your friends to do this, maybe there’s a reason why they don’t take you seriously as a “writer.”)

As Peter Bowerman, author of The Well-Fed Writer, said in an article in the November 2011 issue of the IBPA Independent:

“The currency of a five-star review is becoming devalued day by day…Focus on making your books as good as they can possibly be, in every way—better than they have to be, in fact (a part of the publishing process, over which, incidentally, you have 100% total control). Do that and the praise will be genuine and will come naturally. But, more important, your book will benefit from priceless word of mouth, which will build an enduring demand for the title. And that’s something the author of a mediocre book who’s resorted to fraudulent reviews can never hope to enjoy. For when real reviewers and real readers really read the real book, and speak the real truth, the jig’s up.”


17 thoughts on “Are Amazon’s Five-Star Reviews the Road to Success?

  1. I reviewed the Maggie Newberry series on Amazon, and I did so on my blog. They will also have a page on my blog for future reference from people stopping by. I’m currently working on a post related to the French Womans Diet. I hope this will help in a small way.

  2. You know what I’m liking the most about your posts is that they keep me grounded. When I think I’m not doing enough or the right thing to get to where I want to be as a published (book selling, self marketing) author, I read one of your posts and I come back to what it’s really all about – the writing. You give me good advice on how to market as well, but you help me keep that in perspective too. 🙂

  3. Agreed. Our country is shamefully full of control freaks with no self control. And the promise of monetary and ego fulfillment justifying dubious means is somehow acceptable. I’d like to believe there’s an internal compass we all possess that points to integrity. And that if you do your best, your talent will shine through. Thank you for the reminder that I’m not alone in these beliefs.

  4. The old story about putting lipstick on a pig. it’s still a pig. Then again, I like bacon, good bacon cooked just right, yummy little crumples sprinkled on salad or stuffed in a bacon and tomato sandwich. Sometimes being in the right market is more important than the a need to smear more lipstick on the pig. In the end it comes down to three things, a bang up good story, the right market and just enough make-up to get your audience interested.

  5. Very good post…. five-star rating even! I find as our morals get tested by desperation (whether in the writing field or in life) it’s the ones that stick to the values, even if it means being stepped on, being broke, being overlooked, being desperate some more, that can hold their head high whilst being that lowly toad waiting for a kiss. It’s better than a fake prince any day and everyday.

    • Exactly. Sometimes we can talk ourselves into believing that what feels like winning is really winning and it SO isn’t. You can’t separate the accomplishment from the glory for long without realizing there is no glory to be felt. You’re right, our morals do get tested by desperation. Makes them all the shinier when we’re able to raise them out of the muck unsullied.

  6. I love that last quote in your post. It reminded me of this quote by C. S. Lewis: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
    I think it’s the same with writing a good book. If we can just get over the NEED to succeed, we’ll probably succeed without even noticing it (but that doesn’t always equal monetary gain). But we can feel good about an AWESOME book and know that we truly are a writer (whether Amazon notices us or not)

  7. I’m of two minds about this. While I do think “the next book” is important, I also think an author needs to figure on dedicating time to promotion. The trick, I think, is finding a balance.

    Having said that, authors that try to shortcut the process by “salting the mine” with fake reviews are really missing the point. Even if they con 500 readers into buying the book, if the book isn’t as good as advertised (probably if it’s not a lot BETTER than advertised) all the cheating author is going to end up with is a lot (probably 50+) negative reviews.

    A different approach worked well for me. While I actively discouraged reviews from ‘friends and family,’ I worked like hell to get review copies in the hands of strangers. Library Thing & GoodReads giveaways, guest posting on any blog that would have me (followed by a giveaway), offers of reviews copies on KindleBoards and the UK Kindle Users Forum, etc. It took about six weeks, and I gave away probably 500 copies, along with a personal email to each recipient.

    It WAS a lot of work, and it did distract me from working on the next book, but I don’t regret it. Those free copies yielded between 25 & 30 reviews, all but one 4 and 5 stars, and those in turn bumped sales a bit. After that, the reviews grew organically. My first review on Amazon was on 15 July and now I have over 100, and over 80 or B&N.

    To me it boils down to 2 points:

    1. It’s all about the book (and the next one), and;
    2. Readers aren’t stupid, and if you try to trick them, you’ll pay for it.

    • Thanks for this! Specifics on sales are always so helpful in trying to assess things. I have to admit there’s an argument (at least for me) that all the effort of marketing the book–especially since the results don’t seem dramatic–is just such a pain and takes so much time, that I’m actively looking for an excuse to eschew it! You reminded me, also, of one thing I tried that seems to be delivering unexpected results and that is the experience of having a book exclusively with Amazon so that it can be offered free at certain times. I had heard of the “bump” and that was what I was aiming for. The unexpected result was that, when a book is offered for free, more people will read it and that increases your chances of getting an umprompted review. THAT, for me, has been the real boon of the Kindle Select Go Free experiement. Thanks so much for your helpful, detailed and content rich comment!

      • Susan. You’re most welcome. For some strange reason I seem to have less trouble commenting on other folks’ blogs than writing my own posts. My last post on my own blog has cobwebs on it. 🙂

        Thank YOU for the effort you so obviously put into your blog and keep the great posts coming.


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