Reviews – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta? All Greek to You?

Since the subject of reviews came up, here’s an overview of a few sorts of reviews, and what’s most helpful on each one. The critical thing to remember is that reviews vary by audience, as well as reviewers!

There are no fixed definitions, so these term vary wildly from author to author. I’ll just walk through the concepts in Greek letter order, completely ignoring what any particular author calls ’em.

Alpha Reviews: Technical Aspects

These are often sought before the manuscript is written, much less complete – but sometimes the author just writes the scene in their head, then hits up people afterward to fact-check. Often submitted with “So, can you parachute out of a small plane?” or “Where is the firing switch on a T-38?” or “You’ve ranched in the southwest. What do you think of this trail scene?”

Sometimes, the feedback will make it clear you can’t do the scene you wanted, not without breaking the suspension of disbelief of anyone who knows anything about the subject. Often, though, more discussion will turn up even niftier alternatives. Tell your technical expert what you want to accomplish, and they may come up with things you never dreamed of.

Beta Reviews: Story Flow

These are sought after the story has been written, before it is released. Questions the authors ask here include:
1.) Did you get bored, and if so, where? Where did you skim? Where did you put the book down?
2.) Did you get confused, and if so, where?
3.) What did you really like / hate?
4.) What did you think of the characters? The plot? The world?

Unlike the technical aspects, Beta readers are not expected to be experts, or to have any idea how to fix story problems. In fact, the general rule of thumb is to only tackle a problem if 3 or more beta readers mention it – because the difference between “problem” and “opinion” is pretty fuzzy. So if one beta reader says “that girl would never wear those clothes!”, take it with a grain of salt. If five beta readers say “the shopping scene was really boring”, then you need to revise or excise the shopping scene.

Caveat: If one beta reader says “Uh, hey, they left the car at the trailhead, and then the trucker picks them up and drops them in town, right? So how are they taking the car off to the bad guy’s hideout for a showdown, if it’s still at the trailhead?” … bless your beta reader, and write in something for continuity. Make sure you keep that reader for future books!

Caveat 2: Sometimes, you will be completely blessed by a beta reader who won’t give you any feedback on story flow, but will go over your story with a red pencil for every spelling and grammatical error. Hey, free copyediting! Use them only when you’re pretty close to publication, so they can enjoy the story, and you don’t have a patchy-editing feel from late-written sections.

Gamma Reviews: Advanced Review Copies

Advanced Review Copies, or ARCs, are the books that the publishers print out early with ordering information including print run size & co-op information instead of a back cover blurb. These are given out to bookstore buyers, professional reviewers, (and, in the case of Baen, lucky people at the Baen Roadshow.)

(Baen also sells the ARC directly to readers in the electronic form, and you can tell Baen fans by the cries of “e-ARC! e-ARC!” after any announcement of upcoming releases.)

As indies, we are not wedded to the printing cycle of “release one year from acceptance, six months after ARCs are sent to the buyers / reviewers.” This is a great advantage for everything except getting books into brick and mortar bookstores: instead of six months in an agent’s slush pile, then a year in an editor’s slush pile, and then a year until publication – if it’s accepted and everything goes right for that trad pub book, we’ll already have a year and a half of sales by the time the trad pub book hits the shelves.

However, some indie publishers do put out ARCs. This is most commonly seen in romance, where the gamma readers are often called the “street team”, and like street teams for musicians putting out flyers for the concert, are charged with building buzz for the release across social media.

WARNING 1: The FTC requires notice any time any compensation was received for a review. Compensation includes free copy of the product! If you send out ARCs, then the reviewers MUST disclose their compensation in the review itself!

Go here, READ THIS:

Yes, “I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review” is legally required language. Yes, you should ask for honest reviews, not good reviews. Yes, there’s a lot more to it than that – if you’re going to solicit reviews, go read the federal regs. If you’re not planning to solicit reviews… go read the federal regs! You’re running a business. You should know the regs, in case you get in a situation where they apply!

WARNING 2: DON’T BUY REVIEWS. Yes, you can find them for sale. You can also find cocaine and meth for sale, if you go looking for it. None of the above are good for you. While trad pub has a few channels established for paying for reviews, including “pay for at least this much advertising in the following publications, and they’ll give you a glowing review”, these channels are largely ignored by the readers, and that isn’t a game you want to play. The smaller scale involves mostly buying Amazon reviews, and those are not only against Amazon’s TOS and can get your account (and book sales) suspended, but they’re also pretty obvious to spam-savvy browsers. They’ll turn off potential buyers faster than no reviews at all!

Delta Reviews: Reader Reviews

These are the ones you can’t control, left by happy (or unhappy) readers. These show up on retail sites like Amazon, iTunes, B&N, GoodReads, AllRomance, etc. These are the ones other readers pay attention to, and are just as likely to say as much about the reviewer as the item reviewed.

How do you get these, if you showed the sense G-d gave a mule and don’t buy reviews?

First, your beta readers are likely to leave them, because they liked your story, and want to see the end product. So if you have engaged beta readers, you’re likely to get a few early reviews. That said, remember that if you encourage this behaviour, you need to know the FTC regs and what applies, and ask your beta readers to include the federally mandated disclaimers / warnings!

Second, the end matter of the story is a time-honored place to put a call to action. In the case of trad publishers, they advertise another book by a different author, or in backlist, the next in series, often with a teaser chapter. With Amazon, on the kindle app, it’s where they gleefully stick a “click here to buy the next in series” and “before you go, rate this book.” For indie authors, whether on Amazon or not, that’s a great place to 1.) advertise the next book, 2.) provide a link to the mailing list signup, or 3.) ask for a review. Pick one and concentrate on it; if you have multiple options, you’ll lose the attention span of most of your audience before they decide which one to do.

Third, while I strongly recommend not asking frequently enough to annoy your readers, an occasional (once a release is occasional! Once a week is not!) note may be posted along the lines of “If you’d like to tip your author, please leave a review. Authors love feedback! It’ll help other people find the story you just enjoyed, too!”

WARNING: reviews are by readers, for readers. They are not for authors. If there’s a spoiler, grin and bear it. If they think it sucks, grin and bear it. If they hate the book, remember it’s not an attack on you, it’s an opinion of the book. If they’re demanding a sequel, grin and write it. Do not respond to negative reviews. Do not pick fights with reviewers. Do not defend the book. Seriously; it’s like answering me when I ask “Do these pants make me look fat?” There’s no way to win!

Tangentially related: The question has been asked: What structure should be used for consumer reviews?

This isn’t school; there’s no standardized report format. The best suggestion I can say is “If you were going to recommend this to a friend (or not recommend it, as the case may be), what would you tell them?”

If you are a reader (hi readers! We love you! You’re the reason authors publish!), try checking out some books you love (or hate), and seeing what’s been voted most helpful by the crowd for positive, and for negative. That’ll tell you what other readers are looking for when they skim the reviews, and therefore what’ll help you best recommend (or warn away from) a book you want to review.

Although, to be fair, that’s not just for readers; the same applies to reviews of vacuum cleaner filters, cat litter, tea, or anything else you might buy online and want a review of before hitting “purchase.”

33 thoughts on “Reviews – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta? All Greek to You?

  1. All excellent points.

    As for negative reader reviews; sometimes I’ve had one that leaves me totally dumbfounded. It’s as if the reviewer has read a completely different book than the one I wrote, or that the other reviewers enjoyed! Nevertheless, they have the right to their opinion, so I usually shrug and get on with it.

    When I began publishing, a large number of people said that I should never read reviews of my books, because I’d become discouraged. I haven’t found that. I make a point of reading them, because I can learn how to make the next book better – something that’s important to me. I picked up several areas of weakness that way in my early writing that I’ve been able to improve in subsequent books. That’s very valuable, IMHO.

    1. The first time I got a negative review, I grinned and bounced up and down in my chair. No, I’m not a masochist. But at that time, there was a major fuss going on about people loading books with fake glowing reviews. This was an honest “here’s what I didn’t like, here’s what’s wrong, here’s why I quit the book.” That told other readers that the book was “legit” and had flaws. No, I did not try to answer the review, but a few of my readers did, and they left good reviews. I did have one negative review later that left me blinking a little and shrugging, but that’s because the reviewer did certain things a certain way and it bugged him that the characters in the story did it differently. There’s not much a writer can do to “fix” that in subsequent books.

      1. Oh, yes – I really wondered about the single one-star review I got for a book that everyone else loved and rated four or five stars. But – hey, it does look suspicious at first glance.

    2. Negative reviews can be entertaining as well; not all of them are gold! My personal favorite was one complaining that my book had contained no sex scenes. They were very disappointed in the lack of sex, and suggested that the book was for teens rather than adults since it didn’t have any sex.

      Yup, still my favorite negative review.

    3. Some reviews are just mind-boggling. I got a one-star because the reader saw profanity in the first page, despite the warning in the book description that it contained adult language. Another found a Lovecraftian horror story “too Satanic.”
      I love the ones where readers assume a character’s political opinions are the author’s. Depending on which character the reviewer disagreed with, I’ve been accused of promoting Mormons, the LGBT agenda, the NRA, Christianity, the entire liberal platform, and fascism.
      A few have had constructive elements, so I still read them, and I learned early in the game to develop a thick skin, so at worst the most idiotic reviews are mildly annoying to me, and in some cases they have the reverse result they intended – a few nasty SJW reviews got comments from other readers who thanked the reviewer for cinching the sale for them 🙂

      1. Oh yes. I remember mine: it wasn’t so much that the reviewer thought that the princess should have preferred the dragon that abducted her to the knight, or thought that the knight’s interaction with the witch meant that he was helped by the witch. . . .

        It was that the reviewer — who, remember, thinks that the dragon is perfectly acceptable — thought it was a mark against the knight that a witch helped him.

  2. On one star Amazon reviews, sure sometimes your work does fall into the hands of a reader who just doesn’t get what you’re trying to say. Or something about your book evokes a response based in the readers deepest darkest memories that you had no intention of messing with.
    But increasingly of late certain factions have taken to using one star ratings to punish authors not for their work, but for beliefs and statements attributed to them entirely outside the area of their written works. The recent sad puppy business is a classic example.
    Amazon’s policy has always been to never remove reviews, but I understand that they are rethinking that position for just this reason.

    1. In my opinion, Amazon’s policy has always been “reviews are by customers, for customers, to help customers make the best purchase decision.” Their database of reviews is valuable IP only because it is trusted to be non-commercial and mostly truthful opinions of real customers. Therefore, Amazon will take all steps necessary to 1.) keep the reviews useful and valuable to customers, and 2.) keep them from running afoul of FTC regulations.

      In the past, as most attempted fraud came from vendors attempting to boost their rank and attractiveness with bought-reviews, they focused on removing those vendors and such reviews that were not truly from customers for customers.

      Now that certain irritating parties are attempting to use the reviews as a means of attacking the livelihood of authors and companies, Amazon is devoting more resources to removing those reviews and reviewers, for exactly the same reasons.

      While at LibertyCon, Peter was laughing and told me to check a one-star on Brings The Lightning. By the time we got home and I went to check it, it had already been removed.

    2. I have gotten one star reviews that were simply hate reviews removed. One star reviews by people who just didn’t like the book? I don’t care about those. Sometimes they’re actually pretty funny.
      Personally I always look at a few one stars before I buy most books, because they often confirm for me that yes, this looks like a good story.

  3. Frequently when a reader review is nutty other readers will comment on the negative review itself. Likewise, most readers are not so ideological that they will one-star a book they have not read just to spite the author.

    As a person who buys a dozen books a month, some one-star reviews are actually buying plusses. If the one-star dislikes what I generally like – it is a good thing.

    1. On one-stars that sold the book to me: there was one that said “This cookbook is just a compilation of all the best recipes from (Author’s) other three cookbooks! I’ve been ripped off!” I said “Ooh! A best-of cookbook!” and promptly clicked purchase.

  4. My first one star was “This book is nothing but a collection of short stories”… The title? Vignettes… sigh

  5. The sad thing is, I can really understand why a writer would get desperate enough to buy reviews, when gentle nudging produces no results. It seems like once that first review goes up there, it doesn’t take all that long for other readers to chime in and add their own impressions. But until that ice is broken, it’s like everybody is looking around, waiting for Someone Else to make the first move.

    I really noticed that effect on a novel by a friend of mine. As soon as I read it and posted a review, other reviews appeared. The other books in the series all have a sales rank, so someone out there is buying them, but not a single review has appeared. (If I can clear out some other business, I want to get them read and reviewed, in hopes that I can do a similar ice-breaking for them and get him more sales, since he got the raw end of a nasty deal at work and is really hurting for money).

    So there’s that real temptation: surely it couldn’t hurt That Much to slip someone a fiver to write that first review and get the ice broken. Because it really is frustrating to see that you’re getting at least a few sales, but not one single review. Especially from those of us who come from Hint cultures rather than Ask cultures, it’s really awkward for us to go beyond gentle, indirect nudges and make direct requests for reviews, but shifting from gift exchange to market transaction takes away the awkwardness.

    And with the examples of shameless lawlessness being paraded upon the news by our national leadership, is it surprising that someone who’s struggling to get reviews would feel that, while it’s wrong to buy reviews, it’s a trifling wrong, not something Important like wiping one’s feet on the law itself?

    1. Understand, yes. Condone, no.

      Understanding the motivations and temptations to cheat, and the little lies that people tell themselves to give themselves permission to do what they know is wrong… is a very good way as an author to write sympathetic characters. It is a terrible way to try to do business.

      And that’s the heart of it: as an indie publisher, you’re running a business. Businesses don’t run by hint culture where people prize divining meanings from context, they run by written contracts. There’s a famous court case in Canada where a company lost 1 million dollars due to a misplaced comma in the contract – it doesn’t matter what they meant, it matters what they said in written form.

      The first 500 sales an author makes will be the hardest sales of their life – and the first 100 of those are far harder than sales 450-500.This is normal in the business world; the reason you see so many small businesses with a signed dollar bill framed on their wall, is that first earned dollar is the hardest sale they’ll ever make. It’s not easy to be in business for yourself – and most businesses fail.

      I don’t want authors to fail. I write this column, despite the net loss to time, money, and other things I could be doing (including sleeping!) because I want authors to understand marketing and succeed at finding their audiences.

      But there is no allowance for lying, cheating, or fraudulent behavior. It’s never okay. It’s never right, and even if it does allow a temporary gain, there’s no sympathy or cushion to the blow when someone gets caught and has to bear the consequences.

      1. I never said I condoned it, just that I understood the desperation that could drive someone to decide that, even though it’s wrong, it’s just a little wrong.

        Temptation is real. Being able to see how easy it is to give into it is not the same as saying that giving in is acceptable. Refusing to trivialize the power of temptation or the difficulty of resisting it is not the same as excusing it.

    2. OR, we could all make an effort to read at least some of each others books and then review them, or at least rate them. As I have KU, I’m trying to work my way through some of the books of others here and write a review, or at least rate the stories.
      As a writer, I don’t get to read as much as I used to anymore, but on average I’m trying to get through one book every week or two. There are a lot of writers out there, who we all know, who are rather good, and we should do what we can to help them get reviews.
      I have noticed some other groups out there are very quick to review any of their member author’s works, so no reason why we can’t learn from them and read each others works as well.

  6. One comment on the main piece – if you are bookmarking this for future reference or looking for more about how to attract and make the best use of outside eyes before publication, other Mad Genii refer to alpha and beta reviewers as alpha and beta readers. That may help broaden your search results if you are looking around for more info.

  7. I recently had to leave a fairly vague review of a book that was written by a friend of mine. The problem was that her genre, fairytale paranormal romance, is not one where I’m familiar with the tropes, and the things I look for when I read fairytale fantasy are obviously not present. I assume she’s hitting the right notes, since she has a loyal following, but I had to stick with fun characters…

    1. I had to give up swapping reviews with other authors who were on-line friends. There is a horrible peril in this, and in exercising tact, one is often having to lift a 500-lb barbell…

      1. So true. Swapping reviews can be a way to get that first review without crossing legal and ethical lines (although there is the question of where the swap becomes sufficiently quid pro quo as to cross the line to an in-kind payment, which is why I haven’t leaned on my friend to review my stuff in return for my having reviewed his), but it can also be full of awkward pitfalls. What do you say when the work in question is so far outside your taste that you can’t really judge it on its merits (try reviewing a novel that relies heavily on humiliation humor, which is a huge wince-inducer for me)? Or worse, it’s been badly mishandled at some point (like someone who made a significant financial sacrifice to hire an editor, only to have that person butcher the work, but feel they couldn’t treat that money as a sunk cost and abandon the edit) and is a real stinkeroo? There are so many ways that swapping reviews can go awry without the issue of where’s the line between social reciprocity and barter.

    2. I just read a novel by an acquaintance in a genre that I normally avoid.
      I was rather glad I read it, I really enjoyed it and now I’m waiting for the sequel. (Mark’s ‘A Time to Die’)
      First Zombie book I ever actually enjoyed. I’ve also been slowly working my way through Amanda’s pen names. (And I should check to make sure I’ve reviewed all of her stuff that I’ve already read!)

  8. Somewhat off topic, but it always helps to look at your product pages to see what the customers see. Yesterday I looked at Kiwi and I hit the “Look Inside” for the first time in ages, and somehow, the text was all center justified! I sent a sample to my Kindle, and did the online preview of the source file, and they were okay, but for some reason, just the Look Inside was messed up. I fired off a note to Amazon. Probably won’t get a response until the Monday at the earliest. But that’s okay, I’m sure hardly anyone is going to see it….

  9. I normally put a list of other books that I have for sale in my back matter, after the story, like you see in most Trad pubs.
    But I just recently decided to try something different, I pulled all of that out, now I just have a very short item asking the reader to review or at least rate the book (which they can do on the next page, because Amazon puts that auto review bit in) and I put a link to my website and my amazon page if they wish to see more of my work.

    The reason for this is, most people, when they finish your book, they don’t go through all the adverts, so they don’t see that convenient rating page that amazon puts at the end of all its books. I’m hoping that by making ratings and reviews more convenient to do, that I’ll get more of them. My goal is to get to ten percent (though I’d be happy with five). If I see any success with it, I’ll let you all know.

  10. I almost always rate Kindle books because it’s so easy. I don’t think anyone here has ever gotten fewer than four stars from me. Reviews are harder. I’m never sure what to say. For example, I really like the Duty & Honor series, but I couldn’t review it without mentioning that Ash is duty-crazy. It’s not enough to pull me out of the book, but I can’t imagine anyone acting that way in the real world. I’m not even sure “honorable” or “duty bound” are the right phrases. So, I gave them four stars and kept my mouth shut. Tom got a very short review because I didn’t have much to say other than “really fun!”

    I suppose the advice here is the way to go: Read the reviews others found helpful and emulate those. These days, I rarely read reviews; I just buy what gets promoted here. That’s enough to keep me busy.

  11. I read through the FTC Guidelines and one thing they didn’t cover if you get a free copy for a review, but you don’t keep it . You gave it away to your teen, volunteers, your teen bookclub, or the participants in the summer reading program.


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