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!
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.”