Gay romance fiction

Review Crew: building a dedicated team that shares their opinions

by Damon Suede

(A-game Advice was a monthly column offering practical tips for winning promo that fits your personal style, strategy, and measure of success.)

 

Just between us, I’ve never been a fan of official street teams. I love my fans, and I’ve had loads of active, chatty gaggles of gung-ho readers advocating for my work. I’ve had lots of book clubs undertake self-directed projects on my behalf. I’ll support any fans that want to find ways to put my books in more of the right hands. That’s just good business.

But….

At core a street team requires a certain amount of favoritism and personal access that can cross into invasiveness in both directions. Because of some intense episodes in my showbiz history, I’m always hypersensitive to things that encourage or camouflage stalkerish behavior. The idea of getting up close and personal with a group of fanatical strangers sets off red flags for me. It works like gangbusters for some people, but for me? Nyet.

So the first time I heard someone talk about their “review team” I was skeptical. The amazing Eliza Knight and I were down at Space Coast RWA and she laid out the practical, manageable applications in a way that made perfect sense to me. In much the same way Heidi Cullinan converted me on newsletters by showing me how to prevent spammage and encourage media access, Eliza’s explanation opened my eyes to the possibilities of mindful review teams.

Rather than trafficking in iffy intimacy with strangers, or trading swag and anecdotes for reader loyalty, this review team model cuts to the promo bone, putting your books in the hands of people who want them and who are likely to share that positive emotion with the world. Yay! In practice, a review team operates as a reciprocal cooperative in which a group of like-minded readers provide

  • Personal experiences and emotions about your book(s) ·      

  • Collective enthusiasm to share those emotions and experiences as a team

  • Public acknowledgement of the emotions and experiences they enjoyed

All positives, and all focused on the most important thing: great books finding their best audience. In other words, this system works like a street team without less danger of aggression, favoritism, or chicanery that can take fan enthusiasm to dark places. Review teams also foreground the critical element in fandom: reader engagement and shared experience. And that is word-of-mouth bait.

WELL-OILED MACHINE

Before you launch a review team, you’ll need to establish a list that contains your team member’s basic information and can track the lifecycle of the review from ARC delivery to active review. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet (e.g. Google Sheets, OpenOffice Calc, Excel) or as complex as project management software (e.g. Teamwork, Hive, or Asana). As your team grows, project management software can be a real help with sorting a couple hundred submissions and receipts because downloads and interactions are timestamped automagically. Also they may want to chat with each other or share links, and having a private area can encourage friendly convos.

Post basic guidelines in a central online location so everyone knows the plan and expectations: book delivery, review expectations, followthrough, FAQs, etc. Keep your language positive, direct, and brief. Provide the drop date for your next book, a clear list of their tasks, the general expectations, and thank them for participating at every available opportunity. They are doing you a great service and deserve all the praise and gratitude you can offer.

Once the playing field is mapped out, assemble your players. On your end, you’ll need to move your review team members through several stages firmly and kindly:

SIGNUP: Ask interested readers if they want to be part of your review team. They’ll need to provide their name, an email address, and their preferred ebook format. In exchange for an ARC (advanced reader copy), they will post a substantive review within 2-4 weeks. You’ll need a space to note the ARC receipt date and their review’s post date. You can even create a field so that they can provide the review date/link.

REVIEW: Within a month of receipt, the team member will read the book and write a review that conveys their personal emotional experience with some specifics from the book to anchor their opinions in evidence. The average review length should be between 200 and 400 words, and the goal is articulating emotional impact positively and honestly.

POST-AGE: The team member will post their review in at least two places online--Amazon, Goodreads, Kobo, personal blog--and send you the link so that you can reference the text if necessary. Ideally they will also share it on social media and boost reviews from their fellow teammembers. But the most important thing is setting that review loose in the wild.

FOLLOWUP: You will need to make sure all your team’s reviews have posted by the end of the four weeks. Sometimes folks just need a gentle, upbeat reminder a week before the month is up. If they haven’t posted after four weeks, drop a brief, polite note to check in with the tardy team members so they understand that you will be grateful if they can post even a short review. Life happens and people deserve slack, but you need to know who will hold up their end of the bargain. If a few members don’t respond or follow through (and some won’t), they shouldn’t be included when the ARCs go out for your next book.

PRUNING: Trim that list! After the month is up you should determine who posted their review and who didn’t. What ARCs fell down a hole and who disappeared for no reason? Definitely make exceptions for legitimate hiccups, but trim the deadwood. You don’t want to create ill will, so cut slack where possible, but it’s pretty easy to drop people who’ve already dropped you. You don’t need to hand out free books to folks who simply don’t bother.

TREATS: This component veers closer to actual street team dynamics, but if you like, give your review team sneak peeks at deleted scenes and let them help you name towns and tertiary characters. It costs you nothing but a few minutes and includes them in the lifecycle of the book they’ll end up reviewing. This will also create incentives for your review team to build the team by identifying and inviting other likely candidates who want to get in on the cool kids club.

As you release titles, you will gradually accumulate an active dedicated team who cannot wait to share their feelings about your latest. Remember: all research shows that word of mouth has always been the most powerful and successful promo method. Using review teams effectively leverages your greatest strength (aka your words) to access the audience’s greatest power (aka their word of mouth).

It also means that you’d best distribute those ARCs mindfully! If you write in widely different subgenres or heat levels you may want to maintain separate review team lists so that the right books go into the right hands.

Don’t aim for an overwhelming army. You’re not building a list of thousands of faceless strangers who will barf up a string of random superlatives in exchange for a free book they’ll ignore. Aim for real connection and dedication. You may start out with twenty reviewers and end up with a couple hundred people; what matters is the authenticity of their engagement. You want folks who will provide thoughtful, emotional, personal reviews that convey their genuine reactions and enjoyment. You want word of mouth that counts.

The best part of this review team model is that it leverages what you do best and what they do best for maximum impact. It puts the right book in the right hands to everyone’s benefit.

FREE RANGE REVIEWS

A friendly reminder: once you hand your book to another human being, it is out of your hands. You are not guaranteed a marvelous or sympathetic review from anyone. The review exists to help other readers make a purchase decision. From the get go, let go of any expectation of praise. Your review team’s job is not to lionize you; it is to assess their own emotional experience of the book and distill it into words, whatever their emotional experience. Let your words and your work speak for themselves. Be big enough to let them have their own reactions.

On that tip, I want to point out a terminology problem that trips us up constantly. What most people post about books, what most vendors display, what most publishers print on and inside a book are not “reviews” but “opinions,” full stop. The number of actual reviews online is woefully small.

Please note: that’s not a bad thing, but it is a critical distinction. We call these public opinions “reviews” (thanks Amazon!), but what they are is a subjective, personal, and emotional reaction. Unless a “reviewer” has the time, skills, and information to place your book in literary context, then what you want is exactly that: a subjective, personal, emotional response to a book. THAT is what sells titles. That is what helps other readers make a purchase decision.

The average reader doesn’t have the interest, education, or skill to actually critique a book or situate it in the history of a genre as a proper, formal review would. Ranking any book numerically is impossible. An actual review could never include something as facile or quixotic as “stars” to categorize a book because quality and quantity are notoriously hard to align. Vendors love quantification because it’s simple to sort, but an actual review qualifies opinion with evidence and research.

Reviewing a book in a couple hundred words without context or citation is impossible. Which means you should only give a “review” as much time as the reviewer gave it. This is why I encourage authors to be sanguine about their reviews and to shrug off negativity on the whole. You cannot argue with an opinion.

For the record, most readers don’t want to read an actual review either. Literal literary reviews are for academics and authors, even in genre fiction. So you will call this group you’re assembling a review team, but what you’ve actually built is an opinion team and that should be the goal. Their opinions are precisely what you want.

More importantly, even a negative review can sell a book, so if someone pans your beloved brainchild, sit down and eat your ego pie. Give all of your review team members the opportunity to react honestly. You might, however, reconsider keeping naysayers in that advance review team before your next title comes out. If someone simply doesn’t dig what you do, it’s silly to ask them to come over for breakfast to piss in your cornflakes. That’s not personal; that’s business.

BUDDY SYSTEM

A review team needn’t be an egomaniacal monolith. Feel free to share the wealth with your colleagues. Your review team signed up to read books in a niche they dig, so help them do that as often as they’re able. Unless you can pump out a book a month, any review team experiences down time…which is good. You don’t want to overwhelm them; they do this for love and the sense of community. That said, you don’t want to leave them hanging for ages. Engagement and interaction means the world.

Partner with other authors in your stretch of the shelf so that active, enthusiastic  “influencers” in the genre get a look at everyone’s latest, and beef up reviews for all concerned. This is a fantastic way to connect with authors you respect in your neck of the industry. Help with other people’s launches! If you know your next book isn’t dropping for a while, reach out to a fellow writer with an imminent title that shares similar tropes, hooks, or readership and see if they’re willing to provide e-ARCs to your team in exchange for honest reviews. This keeps your book review team active, gives them the chance to read a new title likely to appeal, and helps your talented, trusted colleagues to launch new titles in style with less headache. Win-win-win.

As you share your most dedicated reviewers with them, they can return the favor, which in turn sells more of the best books for everyone. And that is precisely how you make the best genre in the world even better.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2019. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as part of A Game Advice for the Romance Writers Report.

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.