A Goodreads Group’s “Reviews Initiative”: How Indies can get legitimate reviews


There is no understating how important it is to get reviews to help ramp sales of your new book. And I’ve previously written about how to get great reviews from some of Amazon’s top reviewers. But I’ve just discovered this: There is a group on Goodreads that is helping authors get thoughtful reviews posted to three sites (Goodreads, Amazon US and Amazon UK) from readers they don’t know. It’s a great and simple system. How much does it cost? No money involved. You just have to pay it forward and review a book from someone else. And there is no limit; you can get as many reviews as you can give.

I stumbled on this site when I saw a reference to it on a discussion board for an online writing workshop. Simplistically, it works like this: There is a sequential list of books that authors would like to have reviewed. You sign up to review the last book on the list. In doing so you simultaneously post your book. The next person signs up to review your book. Another person signs up to review the book by the person who is reviewing your book…and on and on. So it is never reciprocal, and you never know who is going to review your book.

Getting reviews on sites outside the US (for a US author) is far harder than getting reviews on the US Amazon site, which is already very hard. So this program from Goodreads is extremely helpful in that regard, too, because one of the requirements is that you have to post to three sites, as I noted above. Amazon’s UK site is the second largest English site, so racking up reviews on that site is also helpful to your overall sales. In part due to this program, I now have 11 reviews on the Amazon UK site, and I have made it as high as #14 on one of their bestseller lists. In addition to this, my first book has made it onto four top-ten bestseller lists in three countries.

In short, I’ve now reviewed six books through this program, and my novel has gotten six detailed and thoughtful reviews. They have been split between 4- and 5-star reviews.

Reviews drive sales

This is what is commonly referred to as a “BFO” — a Blinding Flash of the Obvious. But how many reviews do you need to drive sales, and how many sales will a given number of reviews drive?

In a study done by Smart Insights of more than one million product page visits from six UK retailers, they collected the data in the table below. Though it is not specifically books, I think we can consider it just as relevant for books. Simplistically, what you see is an increase in conversion rate (sales) as the number of reviews increases.

This should not surprise anyone. But what is of note is that there is not a consistent correlation of reviews to conversion rate. Obviously, as a seller, you want a high vol of traffic AND a high % of that traffic that buys. But getting traffic can be problematic at best, expensive at worst (think: advertising). So if you double your conversion rate, you can sell twice as many books to the traffic you are already getting. That’s where reviews come in. You want visitors to your site to see lots of positive reviews.

Of course, this is not an exact science (and it is not correlated against how long a product as been in the market, how much competition a given product has, the actual average review rating, etc.), but the results are instructional and intuitive to me.

Another factor is “brand equity”. Think of a company’s brand equity as the general perception of the quality of their product. Disney, Honda, Specialized (bikes), and Coleman (camping) for example, have very high brand equity. We know they offer good products. In the world of writing, Goerge R R Marin has very high brand equity. He can sell a million copies of his next novel before a single review is written because we know it is going to be good. For the rest of us…we need social proof that we have delivered a good product. We need positive, legitimate reviews. So the results below are instructional and intuitive to me.

Review Impact

To be clear about what I find intuitive:  The more reviews a book has, the more people will buy it. But I also believe there is a “plateau” phenomena as SmartInisghts shows in their data.

Everyone assumes when they are looking for a book on Amazon that the first three-to-five reviews are from the author’s family and friends. Perhaps even the first ten could come from personal connections. And the next ten might come from associates or more distant friends or perhaps Facebook fans.

My sense is that few “unknown” authors can generate more than 20 reviews through family, friends and Facebook (yes, I’m sure there are a handful of exceptions).

So, true to the data above, books that have more than 30 reviews seem to me to be generating sales and garnering additional reviews based primarily on the book’s merit. In other words, we authors need about 30 reviews to “prime the pump” and get a virtuous cycle of sales and reviews started. Thirty reviews is no easy feat!

The Reviews Initiative for Indie Books is a powerful tool for authors

Indie authors — all authors — should consider using this powerful tool to help get your book more legitimate and thoughtful reviews. It does take time because you have to review a book from another writer. And precisely because they are legitimate reviews from readers you don’t know, you might get your feelings hurt; Your book might get a negative review. It happens. If you are not ready for that, then you probably have bigger problems.

Don’t buy reviews…ever

Some people think they can buy reviews to get to the critical mass point at which sales take off. I’ve argued here, using data from others and my own sense, that the critical mass point is around 30 reviews for sales to take off. The problem with bought reviews is that they are obviously fake, and many readers, myself included, won’t buy or read a book with obviously fake reviews.

This includes books up for review on the Review Initiative site. Because you don’t have to sign up until you want to, you can preview the book that is up for review by looking it up on Amazon. If I see more than a few reviews that look fake, no way. I won’t review it. I’ll wait for the next book to come along.

Also note that fake reviews are almost always 4-star and  5-star reviews. But which reviews do people always read first? Yes, the 1-star reviews. So if the 4- and 5-star reviews are short, glowing and poorly written with vague comments such as “this was a great book i cant weight to read more from this really good author” but the 1- and 2-star reviews are articulate, three times as long and clearly communicate specifics about the main characters, setting and plot, you know you are dealing with an author who is buying reviews.

And think about this: Though Amazon is getting ever more aggressive about cracking down on fake reviews and those who buy and sell them, even if some author were to start achieving fame and fortune based on fake reviews, it can all come crashing down. Imagine being a guest on a podcast someday and someone calls in and says, “Hey, love your book, but your first 20 reviews look like you bought them from Fiverr…” Oops. So much for fame and fortune.

Want to sell more? Write a great book. Put great cover art on it. Optimize your keywords. Figure out how to increase your international sales. And get legitimate reviews from real readers. This group on Goodreads’ site is another way to do so. Try it out. And if you know of other such sites, please share.

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You need 30+ legitimate reviews to ramp the sales of your book. I've previously written about how to get great reviews from some of Amazon's top reviewers. But I've just discovered this: A Goodreads group is also helping authors get thoughtful reviews posted to three sites (Goodreads, Amazon US and Amazon UK). Here is how it works.
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