There’s a not-very-well-kept secret in the online book world: reviews are extremely valuable. The good news is that it’s easy to get started reviewing books, especially if you’re willing to do so for the new crop of independently-published authors. The bad news is that you’ll be doing it for free…or more precisely, that you’ll be paid in books. Which isn’t all that bad if you love reading.
You see, retailer sites like Amazon weigh their searches and recommendations by a number of variables, with one of the largest being user reviews. So, the more reviews a book gets—especially if those reviews are positive—the more often the book shows up in search results and on the pages of related books, and the more it can be expected to sell. An author or promoter is usually willing to give away free copies to get those reviews. If you want to be the one getting those copies, there are a few easy ways to get started.
A lot of voracious readers already do this, but it’s worth pointing out: you’re more likely to get noticed as a frequent and reliable reviewer if you…well, review a bunch of stuff. Leave reviews for the books you’re read in both physical and ebook form on Amazon, GoodReads, BookFinder, Barnes & Noble, wherever you like. (Amazon has a virtual monopoly, unfortunately, so that’s generally the place you want to focus on.)
You can even review books on your own website. This is less likely to attract more general reviewers, but authors and especially agents and publicists will keep a weather eye out for mentions of their work more or less anywhere. The more detailed and specific a review, the better, within reason—try to keep it under 600 words or so just for the sake of convenience.
For both retailer reviews and reviews on your own site, use your own name or a consistent online handle, and give people a means to contact you. A secondary freebie Gmail account is a good option if you’d rather not connect your online identity with your real one.
When authors and publishers go looking for potential reviewers for a new title, they’ll look for people who have enjoyed similar things before. So it follows that simply aligning the books you review with your personal interests will attract other authors (or sometimes the same ones, see below) who write similar books. So if you’re into historical nonfiction focusing on middle eastern history, review a bunch of middle eastern history books. If you like your operas heavy despite zero gravity, review a bunch of space operas. If you enjoy erotic fiction focusing exclusively on werewolves…well, you get the picture.
If you can, read and leave reviews on books that have been recently released and are from smaller, lesser-known authors. Clive Cussler has sold millions of paperbacks all over the world—odds aren’t great that he’s poring over the Action/Adventure lists on Amazon looking to give away a few for free. But someone with one or two novels under their belt trying to climb the online sales charts will cherish each and every review they get…and they’ll be likely to ask at least some of those reviewers to do the same for their next novel.
I managed to get on a couple of publisher lists just posting reviews on my barely-trafficked personal blog. But if you’re looking for something a little more immediate, you needn’t wait for the world to beat a path to your critical doorstep. There are plenty of places to find authors and publishers who are giving away books. Some, like the limited-time freebies on Amazon Kindle’s platform, are no strings attached. Others are given with the hope and general expectation of a review left as a courtesy.
Keep in mind that almost all of the books given away in this manner are ebooks—independent authors rarely have the resources to publish in conventional physical form, much less distribute free hardback or paperback copies. I suggest investing in a Kindle, or getting comfortable with reading on a phone or a tablet, if you decide to go this route.
Here are some specific places to start:
There are other big libraries of free ebooks all over the web, though you’re less likely to find authors seeking reviews on older novels. Here’s a guide to loading DRM-free files into your Kindle library for reading on an ereader or mobile app.
Once you’ve gotten your free books, read them in a timely fashion and post a review. Authors generally ask for a review on Amazon, since it’s more or less a monopoly on physical and digital book sales on the Internet, or Goodreads, the largest social network for book enthusiasts (also owned by Amazon). Cross-posting the same review on your own blog and one other is fine, but don’t post them to multiple third-party sites, the administrators might flag your review as spam.
When writing your review, be thorough, be honest, and give disclosure. You might be tempted to leave an overly-positive review as a sort of quid pro quo for getting a free book in the first place—please don’t do this. Not only is that against the rules for most merchants (both ethically and technically), you aren’t doing the author any favors by being less than truthful in your summation. Good writers value criticism even more than praise, as it’s the best and most immediate way for them to improve. If you think that an author won’t come back to you with his or her next book if you leave a negative review, well, that author probably isn’t worth reading anyway. Amazon’s terms of service also forbids sellers (including authors) from explicitly soliciting positive reviews in exchange for free products. If someone asks you for a specific star rating, don’t work with them.
When writing your review, be it on Amazon, your own blog, or somewhere else, be sure to mention if you were given the book by the author, publisher, or publicist. Not only is this a courtesy to your fellow readers, it’s required of US residents by the Federal Trade Commission’s Commercial Practices guidelines. You probably won’t get FTC agents busting down your door if you fail to disclose a freebie review, but the author or publisher might get in a lot of trouble if they’re found to have asked multiple people to leave reviews without disclosure.
If you’ve been given a book personally, make sure to let the author or publicist know when you’ve left a review, and thank them for the experience. This is sort of a public relations move: steady contact between you and the author is more likely to result in getting on the shortlist of reviewers for their next book, and they’ll be more likely to refer you to other authors who are seeking reliable reviewers.