Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Launch Infrastructure: Amazon Reviews

A few months back Deanna wrote an excellent post on the timeline for a book launch. I'm going to tackle one small but crucial aspect of a successful indie book launch: getting a critical mass of reviews on Amazon. Laying aside the various issues with Amazon reviews for the moment (mentioned here and here), let me lay on you one method for getting reviews up there when you need them. You may have done some of these steps already.

Step One: Create the email infrastructure

Sign up for an account with Mail Chimp or some other free email service. Put a link to the signup form on your web page. (You do have a web page, don't you?) Put it on your blog, if you have one. Integrate it with your Facebook account and add a tab with the signup form.

Of all the ways to promote a book launch, by far the most effective is a targeted email list. (In a future post I'll relate a very graphic example of how true this is.) Right now I have under 200 people on my email list, but they're solid addresses of folks who love my books. My last email got a 50% open rate, which is double the expected rate in the industry for a targeted list. I'll talk more about how solid this list is in Step Four.

Step Two: Build a tribe

If you don't know your tribe, or the concept of the tribe, stop right now and do some research.
OK, now that you're back, realize that you can't build a tribe overnight. It takes years of building relationships, online and offline, and, most importantly, gathering email addresses of people who want to know when your next book comes out.

Some people balk at this, feeling like it's shameless self-promotion. That's baloney. If you think that, you didn't watch the video. Don't you have a favorite author or two? Don't you want to know when the next release is available? All you're doing is providing a service to the people who enjoy your work. If they sign up, it's because they want to know. Get over it and put yourself out there.

Note: Your tribe does not consist of other authors. You have to connect with readers who love what you write, not other writers who are desperate to market their latest release.

Step Three: Build an ARC and a sneak peek

The mainstay of the book review promotion is the advance reader copy, known in the industry as the ARC. The ARC gets sent out to reviewers. For a highfalutin traditionally published A-lister, these go to Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, the New York Times, and other notable venues for book reviews. Good work if you can get it.

For us indies, ARCs go to a subgroup of the tribe. More on that in Step Four.

When I first went indie, I planned on ebook-only releases. For the somewhat technically competent, it's easy enough to create an ebook, and inexpensive enough for the technophobes to hire it out. But then I discovered through my precious email list that most of my tribe did not have an ereader. So I also produced a print book via POD and CreateSpace. Now, when I build an ARC, I build it in three formats: print, epub, and mobi.

The sneak peek is a 30-50 page sample of your upcoming release. You can do it in PDF only if you like, but I do it in the same three formats as I do the ARC. It doesn't take that much more time and it shows your tribe that you value them and their reading preferences. Anything I can do to value my tribe, from writing the best dang book I can to giving it to them in the way they like to read it, is important to me.

Step Four: The call to action

A month before your book release, send out an email to the tribe with at least two elements.
  1. Info on how to get the sneak peek, which you will post on your website, preferably in a section that is quarantined from spider bots with the robots.txt file. (Here's an example sneak peek page for my latest work, Endless Vacation. If you're serious about tracking and managing your bidness, you'll create Google Analytics tags to see how many downloads you get.)
  2. A call to action for what I call the Book Buzz Team (BBT).
The BBT is the inner circle of the tribe, those who are willing to post an Amazon review in exchange for an ARC. When I place my call to action, I don't put any qualifiers on the kind of review to post. I don't ask for five star reviews. I don't ask for only positive reviews. I just ask that whoever requests a free copy commits to writing a review stating what they really think about the book. Since this is my core tribe, if I have written a book that targets the tribe, they will like it. If not, then I deserve what I get. ;-) (I'm still wondering what kind of response I'll get with my release next month. Oh well.)

I tell my tribe I'll send a free book in the format of their choice (even mailing print copies at my expense) to the first ten people who commit to the BBT. In reality, I fudge and send an ARC to people who aren't in the first ten. The wording creates a sense of urgency to respond, but if someone in my tribe is willing to commit to writing an Amazon review, I will embrace them with open arms and a free book.

To illustrate how solid my list is, when I put out the call-to-action  for Muffin Man last year, I got over 20 responses, which was close to 20 percent of my very small list at that time. By my launch date, I had over 20 reviews on Amazon. And that gave me the credibility to get picked up by two of the top sites for publicizing Amazon freebies, which translated to 55,000 downloads and a gratifying amount of follow-through sales. But more on that in a future post.

Step Five: Followup

Keep track of who you sent ARCs to and who has posted. No need to berate the laggards who don't come through, but also no need to send them an ARC for the next release if they ask for one. I include this line in my call to action: "Please don’t reply unless you’re certain you can meet the deadline. If I play Santa Claus, I can also make a list and check it twice."

Conclusions and next steps

All of the above positions you to launch a KDP Select freebie promotion. But the details of how to make that successful will have to wait for a later post.

Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and Muffin Man.