Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Customer reviews - how to democratize criticism for independent e-books

I've been thinking a lot about e-book reviews lately.

Actually, what I've really been thinking about is: How do you turn someone who reads books into someone who reads e-books, and then into someone who reads self-published e-books?

Why we need filters

Lately I've been talking to a lot of people who are considering buying e-book readers (I've been showing off my Sony Pocket Edition like the freakin' thing cures cancer).  And when they ask where you go to get e-books, I eagerly talk up Feedbooks and Smashwords.

But as much as I love those sites, their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness - they present a broad range of content with little or no filtering.  And like it or not, I think the "casual reader" likes filters.  Filters are what allow them to navigate through many choices to find something that speaks to them personally* - given a set value of finite resources (specifically money, time, and patience).

And even I - as a writer looking to use their services, not as a casual reader - have to admit I was taken aback by the staggering wall of superhero fanfic and "erotica" I found when first visiting those sites.  (Not that I have anything against comic books or porn, mind you - I'm a big fan of both, actually.  But there's a time and place.) 

Which is what led me to the idea: there needs to be more reviews of independent e-books.  Now,  you may or may not agree with the axiom that "reviews sell books", but speaking for myself as a consumer, reviews are probably the second-biggest factor (after friends' word-of-mouth) in determining what music I listen to, what plays I go to, what movies I watch, etc.

Moxie may be slow on the up-take, but Publetariat is on the ball

So I started looking around to see if there were any sites that catered specifically to reviews of independent e-book and even toyed with the idea of doing my own reviews.  The problem that became very obvious very quickly, however, was that sites dedicated to reviewing indpendent e-books, which are largely obscure and marginalized, are themselves also obscure and marginalized.  And sites (or magazines, weekly papers, etc, for that matter) who have access to a broader audience are more interested in reviewing work by established writers.


But then I read an article on Publetariat that put forth an interesting idea: the biggest, most influential clearinghouse for book reviews may actually be Amazon.  The article goes on to make suggestions for getting your book reviewed by Amazon's "top reviewers", but I won't go into all that, just click the damn link.

Think about it: point-of-sale customer reviews, the new democratization of criticism.  Using the mainstream's own tools against them.

So what's the point?

1. Independent authors need to take advantage of user reviews on mainstream booksellers like Amazon, B&N, Sony.

If you use Lulu or have a US bank account, you can be on Amazon.  If you're on Smashwords, soon you'll be able to be on B&N and Sony.  That takes care of three of the largest e-book devices/platforms right there.  Get your book listed, encourage your readers to leave comments and ratings, leave comments on books by independent authors that you enjoy, create "lists" that include your book along with mainstream work similar to yours.

2. Independent authors need to support the platforms that support them - promote the hell out of Smashwords and Feedbooks.
Link to them from your site, talk about them on your blog and Twitter.  And make them a better tool for new readers by leaving ratings and comments for independent e-books that you've read - and again, encourage your readers to do the same.

So what's the plan?

Step 1. I'm going to keep using the blog to review independent e-books that I personally enjoyed and think would appeal to readers who are new to the medium, similar to the write-ups for Password Incorrect and Brief Objects of Beauty and Despair in my last post.

Step 2. I'm going to copy my review and paste it into the customer review/user comments for the book's page on Feedbooks and/or Smashwords.

Step 3. If the work is available in print or electronic form through Amazon or B&N or Sony, I'm also going to copy my review there.  If someone does a really good audio e-book, I'll post the review on iTunes.  If someone has a video matching images to their poetry or prose, I'll post the review on YouTube.

Step 4. Encourage other independent e-book readers and writers to follow suit.  Alone, I'm only one voice - and hardly a credible one at that (strangely, not many people seem to care what some jackass who wears a wig and pretends to be named "Moxie" has to say, and I'm okay with that).  But it's not about promoting yourself as a single independent e-book author.  It's about creating a thriving independent e-book community.

Post-script: I had been working on a draft of this post when I saw a link to this article on Publetariat making a similar suggestion.  I took it as a sign that I might be onto something.

*I wrote something similar to this statement in response to a blog post over at Jenn Topper's Don't Publish Me.  So if you got a sense of deja vu reading it, that's why.  And if you didn't, you really should start reading Jenn's blog.  She's my new DIY hero.

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