Friday, April 4, 2014

How I Spent My First Week After Publishing My First Novel, Part Three

For Part One of this series, click here.  For Part Two, click here.

That I got anyone to agree to review my first novel is, I think, a bit of a miracle.  Let's look at how I handicapped myself:
  • I published my novel without any advance readers having reviewed it.  I had some beta readers read it, but I didn't ask them to write reviews.  Not having any existing reviews made it a tougher sell for a potential reviewer, because it's almost entirely an unknown quantity.  Book reviewers are very, very busy, and want immediate, easy-to-digest information on a book before they make a decision to read it.  Not having a single review made my book a much more difficult sell.
  • This was my first book written under my own name.  My actual first book, The Ultimate Guide to Surviving a Zombie Apocalypse, was written under a pseudonym: F. Kim O'Neill.  So in many respects, not only was my novel an unknown quantity, I myself am an unknown quantity.  For reasons that escape me now, I failed to inform potential reviewers in my review request letters that I'd written that previous book.  Luckily, it was a mistake I only had to make once.
  • The Blessed Man and the Witch straddles genres and is more difficult to categorize than straight-up Paranormal Romance, Thriller, or even Horror.  In fact, there's little romance in it at all, though it includes a character semi/sort of falling in love as well as a married couple having intimacy problems.  It's also geared toward adults.  It's not a YA thriller.  It doesn't have vampires, werewolves, winged angels, or horned demons.  Without those more familiar tropes, fans of the Paranormal genre will be more challenged.  This is not to denigrate Paranormal thrillers in any way, shape, or form: I have absolutely no problem with people liking what they like.  I just hope they'll like my stuff, too.
  • My book is almost 140,000 words.  It is a long book.  A very long book.  I didn't set out to write one that long, but that's how many words it took to write it.  The freedom of being self-published includes the freedom of telling the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it.  Many authors instead write shorter novels, even novellas, and are very successful at it.  Hugh Howey comes to mind.  Who wants to read a massive first novel effort from someone they've never heard of?
Despite this, out of approximately 85 email and web form queries, I got 10 yes replies, and one maybe.  It's important to remember that just because 10 book reviewers have agreed to review my book, it doesn't mean they actually will review it.  I don't doubt their sincerity or professionalism, not even a little bit.  But you can't count reviews until they're posted.  

It made my day when, after days of writing nice, polite review request letters, making sure that each one was personalized and included all the information requested by the potential reviewer, someone sent me a "yes" reply.  What it meant was that a combination of my request letter, cover art, blurb, and sample chapters available on Amazon drew someone in enough to want to not only read more, but tell other people about it.  Of course, I hope I'll get a favorable review.  But at least ten people are interested.

Most reviewers I sent emails to didn't get back to me, and after a couple of weeks, I listed them as likely no's.  One thing I did after the fact was plug in all the review requests I sent into a spreadsheet to track yeses, nos, and maybes.  This was a mistake: I should have done it as I went.  So yes, make a spreadsheet, but update it as you go.  It's more work to search through your email archives and browser history.

I did get a couple of no answers, which was a little disconcerting.  One was a bit snotty (not because it was a no, but the way the no was communicated), and the other came more than two weeks after I sent the request, so I'd already written the reviewer off as a no.  Not getting a reply is fine: disappointing, but fine.  But a no answer a few weeks after the fact is a bit worse.  So the lesson here is that some reviewers will do that to you.  Deal and move on.  At least you can cross them off the list when it comes time to try to get reviews for your next book.

So I told you what I did to make it more difficult for a reviewer to agree to read my book.  Still, I got ten yes answers.  Let me tell you what I did right:
  • I looked carefully at every review site I sent requests to, read some of their previously-written book reviews, and followed their review request instructions to the letter.  Some of them wanted cover images emailed to them as well as the blurb.  Others had a specific order in which they'd like the book information provided .  Yet others had web forms.  A book review is very much a favor for a beginning author, so it's a smart thing for you to make the reviewer's decision-making process as easy as possible.
  • I was polite and professional in my review request letter.  Please and thank you go a long way, which is a lesson I teach my little boy every day.  Book reviewers are always strapped for time, so it's nice to acknowledge that in your letter.  I suspect that most of them would rather be reading and reviewing books than reading review request letters.
  • I wrote a blurb that doesn't attempt to encapsulate the entire novel in a couple of paragraphs, but instead tells the reader what to expect.  Over the course of time, it's possible, even likely that I'll change the blurb, but for now, it must have helped.  10 out of 85 doesn't seem like a lot, but in marketing terms, 12% is pretty good.  The difficulty with my book is that it involves multiple characters, each with his or her own story arc, with everything converging at the end.  To describe that, I looked at blurbs from book series written by Peter F. Hamilton, my favorite science fiction author, and emulated their formula.  If you want to be successful, sometimes you have to model success.
  • My book is well-written, and I made a special effort to engage and interest the reader in the novel's earliest lines.  That helps.  Now that you've gotten a reviewer interested in the title, genre, and blurb of your novel, the last thing you want to do is put him or her off with a boring first chapter.  
As of the time of this blog post, none of these reviews have yet been written or posted online.  Some reviewers won't get to it until December of 2014, according to their respective timelines.  That's fine.  This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I have a sequel to write.  

Also, last weekend I got 11 other people I don't know to agree to read and review The Blessed Man and the Witch.  I'll tell you about that later.

TL;DR: Be nice in your review request letters and follow all the instructions/jump through all the hoops.  Make spreadsheet of email and web addresses as you go.  You won't hear back from most people.  Be professional at all times.

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