Roundel.Yin.Yang.png 105In a rational world of publishing, nothing should be more persuasive than great reviews. Strangely, though, they often don’t seem to move the sales needle very much.  Should you care?

This morning I opened my email to find a message from someone whose name I didn’t recognize. It read in it’s entirety as follows:

I absolutely loved the Alexandria project, and would love to read your next book, can you add me to your announcement list.

That certainly got my day off to a very pleasant start. Checking in on Twitter, I saw that Marcus Case, the author of The Bomb Makers (an excellent thriller that I recently reviewed here) had posted a five star review of my book at GoodReads and Amazon, and a shorter review at his own site, which read as follows:

I rarely write reviews, and only choose to do so when I read a book that I want to shout about. The Alexandria Project by Andrew Updegrove is one such book. It really is a marvellous read and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. I think it’s the only book that I’ve ever returned to in the middle of the night ‘just to get another chapter in’ before falling asleep. And I did that twice. On the same night.

I next visited GoodReads to read Marcus’s full review, and saw that someone else had also just given the book either a 4 or 5 star rating.  This was in addition to another very nice review that someone had posted at GoodReads a couple of days before.

When I responded to the person that had sent me the email I quoted above, he replied at length, including this observation in his response:

What I really liked about The Alexandria Project, was the realism of the computer systems described in it, I could understand as an engineer how these things could work, I loved the idea of the iBall, and tried to work out how they could be implemented…The technology seemed to be part of the story, almost a character in the story, rather than just being an incidental prop.

This was very nice to hear, because handling the technical part of the plot was a double  challenge. First, ensuring that the technical elements would support the plot rather than distract from it took some doing, as did making sure that the explanations would be comprehensible to a lay person without boring an expert. Quite a few reviewers of the former persuasion have commented that they had had no problem understanding what was going on, and with only one exception I can recall, techies have found that the technical bits engaged them as well. Chalking up another win in the expert category therefore always brings a sense of relief.

Given that it’s easy to go for days or weeks with no positive (or any) reinforcement from readers at all, this morning’s input has therefore been very welcome indeed. You can already guess what I saw when I checked my Amazon rank, of course: one sale in the past week.

The question an author can’t help asking on a morning like this, then, is this: if he’s written such a great book, how come so few people are buying it?

The answers, I think, are several. And it’s hard to figure out a good way around any of them.

The first one is rather obvious. In the old days, reviews tended to be in newspapers, on radio stations, and in magazines, all with quite large audiences. And there were only so many places where reviews appeared. So when an author got a great review, it was likely to make a larger impact on those that are exposed to it. And because the audiences were often local, there was more chance for buzz to build.

Yes, the same thing can, and in theory should, happen through social media, but my impression is that social media works better to reinforce momentum for a book rather than to create it. And authors are more than half of the problem, because social media is so abused by so many authors so often that anyone that receives a book-related tweet or other ping is more likely to ignore it than to take it to heart.

There’s another problem, too, which is that the great majority of reviews are going to be read by far fewer people than in the old days, and the number of available reviews to read are almost endless. So the impact of any single review – or even of 100 favorable reviews for your book at Amazon – is likely to be less, in the latter case because someone has to land on your Amazon page to see them to begin with (and why will they do that if they don’t know about all of those great reviews?)

The more subtle issue, though, is that no matter how great a review may be, there are lots of other great books out there with great reviews as well. So in one sense, the effect of a long list of great reviews is more to qualify your book as being of potential appeal, rather than to assert a strong “buy me!” effect.

Another way of making the same point is that it’s almost impossible to differentiate your book from all of the other great books out there. You can’t say it’s cheaper than many other good books (because it isn’t), and you can’t say it will tell secrets that can’t be learned anywhere else (because it won’t). And you can’t expect people to believe that your book is actually better than those written by lots of great writers that have come before, or who are releasing new books right now (because, well, I’m really sorry about that).

In fact, it’s usually impossible to differentiate a book of fiction from any other capable author’s book of fiction, until someone actually read it. Only then will they get a chance to see whether there’s some subtle magic in the way you weave and present your tale that makes them hunger for more.

I’d like to close by sharing some sort of revelation that will help you solve that conundrum. But unfortunately, I can’t. What I can share is that reading a good review of a book you have written should be reward enough. Knowing that you’ve connected with someone, and that they’ve been able to appreciate your skills as a writer is in a very real sense a more appropriate reward for all the hard work you’ve invested than any monetary return would be.

And it certainly can help a Saturday morning get off to a pleasant start. How do you put a dollar value on that?

Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?


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