January 19, 2022

Slow-burn Marketing: How Professional Reviews Boosted the Career of an Indie Newbie

By Catherine Spader

It’s a marketing jungle out there, and if you’re having trouble navigating it, you’re not alone. A full 79% of indies say marketing is the toughest part of the publishing process, according to Written Word Media’s report of its 2021 survey.

The skyrocketing numbers of books competing for readers’ attention isn’t making it any easier. More than 1.6 million books were self-published in the U.S. in 2018. This is an astounding 263% increase in just five years, according to the most recent ProQuest Bowker Report.

Getting your book noticed in today’s market can be a daunting and frustrating task. I should know. I’m a newbie indie author fighting to forge a path through the marketing jungle. I’ve published a fantasy trilogy and made some sales. I’ve even garnered a few kudos from professional reviews, also called trade reviews. But like many indie authors, I struggle to make the best marketing decisions to help grow my small readership and reap consistent sales.

One marketing strategy that has proven successful for me is submitting my novels for professional reviews. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the pros and cons of professional reviews.

Professional reviews can open doors

A positive or starred review from a major professional reviewer, such as BlueInk Review, Publishers Weekly, New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, or Midwest Book Review, can help your book stand out among the masses to industry gatekeepers. Librarians and bookstore buyers, often refer to professional review publications when making purchasing decisions. A positive professional review can also get the attention of literary agents or land your book in front of film agents.

In my experience, two local library districts picked up my first ebook, Feast of the Raven, because of the exposure it got through professional reviews. It received a starred review from BlueInk Review and positive review from Kirkus Reviews. BlueInk’s starred review received added attention when it was featured in BlueInk’s column in Booklist Magazine, the book review journal of the American Library Association, which reaches more than 60,000 libraries. The novel was also highlighted in a post by noted book reviewer Paul Goat Allen on the “BlueInk Review Blog.”

The credibility those reviews gave me as an author opened the door into local bookstores. It also helped me sell to book clubs and score podcast interviews, guest blogs, and speaking and panel gigs at author events and genre conferences. All this has widened my novels’ exposure to readers, the author community, and industry professionals.

If you are an entrepreneurial author who offers author services, positive professional reviews will also complement your business marketing efforts. Starred professional reviews have given me priceless street-cred in my day job as a freelance editor and writing coach. Many clients have chosen me as their editor because I proved I could walk the writer’s walk—not just dole out critique.

Snags, snares, and hazards of professional reviews

Getting high-status reviews can be a challenge. Professional reviewers do not always accept all book submissions. Some high-clout professional reviewers, such as Midwest Review and the New York Times, are flooded with submissions and only review a percentage of what they receive. It can be especially difficult for indie authors who don’t have the cachet of a big traditional publisher’ imprint on their book to get these kinds of reviews. Indie authors can submit their books to the prestigious Publishers Weekly through its indie gatekeeper, BookLife, but there is no guarantee your book will be selected for review.

In addition, bad reviews are tough to swallow, and they can be contradictory as well. For example, the BlueInk reviewer praised the characters in my first book:

…it’s her characters that make this novel so readable. Interesting and emotionally compelling, they are certain to resonate with readers.

Publishers Weekly didn’t see it that way:

Gerwulf [the protagonist] frets convincingly over his soul, but the other characters lack dimension.

I was crushed, despite the starred BlueInk review. I had worked as an editor and journalist for decades and understood that my writing would not be everyone’s thing. I thought I had developed a thick skin to criticism—and the bad review still hurt. Worst of all, I couldn’t take it back. The high-profile reviewer published it for all the world to see, alive in cyberspace indefinitely.

Submitting for professional reviews is a gamble, no matter how good your book may be. I got bit, for sure. My negative Publishers Weekly review led to a bout of serious soul searching and more than a couple of drinks. In the end, I decided to use it as a learning opportunity.

I dove into writing craft, determined to deepen my characterization and other writing skills. It wasn’t easy, but the experience has brought me to the next level in my craft. The professional reviews of my second and third books were all positive. My third book earned another starred review from BlueInk Review, and I recently learned that it will be featured in Booklist Magazine.

Paid vs. unpaid reviews

If you are nervous about a bad review haunting you, consider submitting to professional reviewers who allow you to opt out of publishing a negative review. Examples include BlueInk Review and Kirkus Reviews. These companies charge a fee, but in addition to the “opt out” feature, they guarantee a review within a specific turnaround time, which free review services generally do not offer.

The cost, sometimes hundreds of dollars, may be prohibitive for some authors. However, the investment can be worthwhile if you are willing to take the bad with the good. Accepting that your book is not everyone’s jam is a big step in becoming a professional. Ask yourself, “Am I prepared to let a bad reviews roll off me and not take it personally? Can I set aside my pride and try to learn something from a bad review?”

Before you submit to any reviewer, remember that reviewers will hold indie authors to the same professional standards as traditionally published authors. Reviewers can spot an unedited, do-it-all-yourself book a mile away. Be prepared to invest in professional editing, layout, and cover design if you want to compete with the big boys in publishing.

Do your homework

If you are considering a paid review, do your homework before punching in your credit card number. Remember that credible reviewers do NOT promise a good review or a quick return on your investment. Look for professional review companies that have proven clout in the publishing industry. Research the expertise of the individual book reviewers and the kind of exposure your review will receive among readers and industry professionals.

For example, select titles from BlueInk Review are featured in a monthly column published by Booklist. BlueInk reviews are eligible to run in the editorial section of an author’s Amazon and Barnes & Noble pages. BlueInk also has relationships with librarians, agents, and publishing professionals, as well as with publishing databases and outlets, such as Ingram and Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. In addition, BlueInk reviewers are vetted professional writers and critics from mainstream media publications or notable online websites.

Slow-burn marketing

Will starred professional reviews make you an instant bestseller? It hasn’t worked out that way for me, but I’m not looking to be a flash-in-the-pan sensation. A “slow-burn” approach to my author career and marketing is best for me and my long-term goals. I want to continuously improve my craft, grow a loyal readership, expand my email list, and build consistent sales over a long career. To achieve that, my marketing plan also includes networking, social media, paid advertising, a consistent publishing schedule to build my catalogue, and crowdsourcing.

Professional reviews are the cornerstone of this plan and have been well worth the investment for me.

Catherine Spader is a retired journalist and editor who writes dark fantasy fulltime in Colorado. 

3 thoughts on “Slow-burn Marketing: How Professional Reviews Boosted the Career of an Indie Newbie

  1. Rick Jagodzinski says:

    Realistic information and advice that will temper a novice writer’s publishing expectations. Indie markets are filled with opportunities and disappointments; clearly this writer has hiked through this perilous landscape and emerged wiser and ready for battle.

  2. Excellent points. Thanks for your insight. Publishing books and getting good reviews is challenging.

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