Social Media and Review Crews: A Q&A with Susan Mallery

Book Three Sisters - Susan Mallery There are some authors who are superb at engaging with readers through various forms of social media like Facebook, Twitter, or personalized email newsletters. Susan Mallery is one of those authors. Her Facebook page is always active. Like, umpty-thousand comments active. I've seen her ask or help naming characters' children, or future heroes. A few months ago, she invited her readers to send a snapshot of themselves, which Mallery and her crew Photoshopped to add a picture of Mallery's most recent book, making it look like the person was reading the book and peeking over the top. Readers were invited to use that as their photo on Facebook – which is just some savvy inclusive marketing like whoa. 

Recently I noticed that she'd started a Review Crew, a group of dedicated readers who were invited to receive copies of her books in exchange for an honest review of the book itself. From 2012

How would you like to receive an advanced copy of my books? I have a crazy idea… I want to put together a Review Crew, a group of readers who will get my books early – and for free – if they promise to post a review online. Nothing formal! I’m not talking about a long, drawn out review. I’m talking about a sentence or two. What does a real reader think about this book? What would you say to your best friend about it? (emphasis mine)

The world of publishing is changing. On sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, the number of reviews helps “goose” the website doohickey into showing my books more often in search results. (Yeah, doohickey. I’m not very techie. All I know is, the more reviews the better.)

Here’s the deal. I have 200 copies of ALREADY HOME to give away. ALREADY HOME was first released last year in trade paperback. It’s coming out next month in mass market paperback. If you’re picked for the Review Crew, we’ll send a copy of the book to you. Then, if you post a review on Amazon and BN.com, you’ll be invited to sign up for an advanced review copy of THREE SISTERS (Blackberry Island Book 2) if we do this again. And if you post a review of that, we just might do it again with the Fool’s Gold romances.

The latest group of reader added to the Mallery Review Crew is a considerable list. I hadn't seen an author engaging with a large group of readers in such a way, and wanted to ask her more about it. She was kind enough to answer my nebby questions. 

Reviews are a tricky subject for authors and readers, and you've addressed the question of reviews directly by asking directly for reviews, explaining why they're important to the books' success, and inviting readers to join your Review Crew, wherein they receive a free copy of the book in exchange for leaving a review on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.  Do I have that right?

Susan Mallery: Yes, but I’ll clarify. There’s no way I could send a free book to everyone who promised to write a review. We launched the Review Crew with the mass market paperback reissue of Already Home in November. My publisher kindly provided me with 200 copies of the book, so we invited readers to submit their names to be included.

I was extremely nervous that we wouldn’t find 200 readers who were willing to commit to posting reviews on both Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. . . and I was shocked and gratified when thousands of readers applied. The only fair thing to do was to choose at random, so that’s what we did. Everyone who followed through was invited to join the Review Crew for Three Sisters, leaving us with a limited number of slots to fill.

More than 5,000 readers applied in the second round!

We chose at random and sent the book. This time, reviews must be posted during the first two weeks of release in order for them to receive an invitation to join the Review Crew for Just One Kiss (Fool’s Gold book 10). As long as the program continues, those readers who follow through will be invited to join the next Review Crew.

 

Review Crew mailing - piles and piles of books and mailing envelopesWhat sparked this idea?


Susan Mallery: My agent and I were talking one day about how important the number of reviews seems to be for the Amazon algorithm, and we were brainstorming ways that we could encourage more reviews. I hoped that I might be able to ask my readers directly for help. And wow, did they come through for me!

 

Do you encourage a specific type of review? Are readers welcome to leave a negative review or a positive one?

Susan Mallery: All we ask for is an honest review. Here are the tips that we included in the cover letter:

  • Be brief. Amazon requires a minimum of 20 words. That’s really not a lot, and frankly, sometimes the long reviews tell too much about a book. You don’t have to say what the book is about – this is not a book report. Just say whether or not you liked the book and why.
     
  • Be informal. Think of what you would tell your best friend about the book, and then say that. In fact, if it’s easier for you, pretend you’re talking out loud to your best friend, record yourself, and then type out what you said.
     
  • Be genuine. Susan loves five-star reviews, of course, but we’re not asking the Review Crew to only write five-star reviews. Share your opinion. Did you like the book and why?

 

How many readers are on your Review Crew so far? I noticed some folks were sad not to be included in the last round of new member selection. Do you have plans to make the group bigger?

Susan Mallery:  It really is difficult to disappoint so many readers, but as I said, there was just no way that we could send a book to the thousands of readers who applied. We don’t have plans to make the Review Crew larger.

 

What other plans do you have for engagement with your readers?

Susan Mallery:  The Fool’s Gold Cheerleader try-outs will take place in April, and the cheerleaders will kick into gear in May for a summer of cheering for Just One Kiss, Two of a Kind, and Three Little Words. The cheerleaders talk to people in their towns about Fool’s Gold, hand out bookmarks, drive around with Fool’s Gold car magnets, and they earn prizes along the way. We have some amazing prizes lined up this year.

The first year, there were 25 cheerleaders. Last year, there were 60, and this year, we’ll have a squad of 80. Anyone who’s intrigued should sign up for my mailing list to receive the email about try-outs.

Here's an example of the car magnets, and one of the cheerleaders, Angi, and her dog, Max:

A very happy white fuzzy dog looking out a car window with a Susan Mallery magnet on the door.  One of the Fool's Gold cheerleaders, Angi, and her dog, Max

 

I had one more question, which Susan's assistant, Jenel, was kind enough to answer for me: 

Do the review crew people label their reviews or in some way indicate that they're part of the review crew?

Jenel, Susan's assistant: I do think there were probably a few bloggers among the readers chosen at random for the Review Crew, and I’m sure they probably did label their reviews. The others were just regular readers, though. In fact, for many of them, this was the first time they had ever posted a review online ever. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

I'm completely fascinated by this idea. The importance of reviews in terms of adding a book to the retailer algorithms that then serve that book as an alternate option to other shoppers is not a secret. The way in which Mallery is engaging with her readership is interesting, because it addresses that importance directly and builds a team and comeraderie around that importance. 

What do you think? Would you want to be part of a review team? Do you leave reviews for books you've liked or disliked? 

Big thank yous to Susan Mallery and her assistant Jenel (ETA: and Jenel's dog Sidiqi) for their time in answering my questions, and to Angi and Max for giving their permission to have their photo posted here. 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Ren says:

    Two hundred “This book was very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very good” reviews might goose the retailer algorithm, but they’re exactly the sort of reviews savvy shoppers dismiss as useless.

    I don’t see why this form of rankings manipulation should be lauded while others are condemned.

  2. 2
    Shawny Jean says:

    I think you underestimate readers if you think that’s what the reviews will all be. I haven’t read any of her books, but I follow a number of authors through social media and if they put review crews, I’d happily put my name in the hat, even though I haven’t loved every single book they’ve written, and I’d write honest reviews after the fact. We live in an era right now where we have the impression that our voices can be heard and make an impact, and while that may or may not be true on bigger issues, it’s certainly true for things like selling and promoting books. It’s a business, why shouldn’t she do her best to get her product out there and visible?

  3. 3
    Tam B. says:

    Author Debora Geary has a note at the back of her books (e-books) that if you post a review and send her a copy of this she will send you her next book free.  (I’ve done this and did receive the next book free.  Actually I told her not to bother – her books aren’t expensive and she is an indie author – but she insisted.) 

    I think that any way authors can connect with their audience and make them feel special (even just responding to them on FB or their website) is great.  And I would much prefer a Review Crew that is asked to be honest than the very fake five star reviews that all seem to source from the same reviewers on Amazon.

  4. 4
    Liz H says:

    This is an interesting concept, and probably something we’ll see more of, but the answer to the last question really bothers me. It’s great that new people are getting engaged with writing reviews, but that’s not the issue. Labeling the reviews honestly gives people reading the reviews the chance to weigh the reviews properly. (And isn’t it legally required? And required by Amazon’s new guidelines?)

    ‘Already Home’ has 235 reviews on Amazon; only 16 of those are 3 stars or below.
    Fans of an author who are reviewing for the first time, are reviewing a book they’ve gotten for free, and are writing on the promise of receiving another book, may write an excellent review, or may write a review just as biased/non-objective as any other serious fan of an author. What information is relevant to reveal when posting a review is always up for debate, but I think family member, best friends since we were 5 years old, works for the author, and/or received the book for free are a great place to start.

  5. 5
    Liz H says:

    On a side note- One of my massive pet peeves is authors who are hugely active in social media, and are always looking for new ways to “interact” and “engage”, etc. but have horrible, terrible websites, which unfortunately is fairly common, including many authors just as big as Ms. Mallory. (Must admit that I’ve never read her.)
    It’s nice to see that she doesn’t fall into this trap, and I think she deserves just as many props for that as for inovative social media stuff.

  6. 6
    CG says:

    I think my biggest issue is that she’s choosing from a pool of reviewers who, as established fans who went so far as to friend her on FB, are predisposed to leave a positive review and there’s no mention of transparency. Nothing in the instructions to her fans about disclosing that they received a book for free by becoming part of her “Review Crew” and that by leaving the review they hope to receive additional free books. Yet another author whose reviews I’ll have to look at with a gimlet eye.

    That said, I’m sympathetic to the pressure on authors to to utilize social media to reach readers and unfortunately the number of reviews on websites like Amazon and B&N are a huge factor in a book’s visibility. I can’t blame an author for trying to work within a broken system.

     

  7. 7
    SB Sarah says:

    I don’t see “This book is very very very (etc) good” reviews being left, though. And I disagree that it’s rankings manipulation. Manipulation to me implies some form of behind the scenes sneakyness. This is pretty forthright. Buying books during release week is important for authors who want to hit a list, for example, so they ask readers to do so. Leaving a review is important for the long-term success of the book as well.

    I think this is a pretty natural consequence of authors having to market themselves directly to readers. Authors explain what it is that’s going to make a book successful and ask for help.

    Moreover, I know I am very used to reading and evaluating reviews for everything- my vacuum cleaner, new restaurants, whether the next rest stop on the highway is a good place to stop, for example. I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to presume that readers are more and more familiar with reviews, and what makes a useful one vs. a “very very very very good” useless one.

  8. 8
    CG says:

    To me, the lack of transparency does constitute “behind the scenes sneakiness”, at least in my mind. And I went to Amazon to check out the reviews for Three Sisters and all 132 are positive, 112 five-star and 20 four-star. Over a hundred reviews and not a single negative review. Yeah, no book is that good to everyone. How can you successfully evaluate reviews for a product when they are all glowing?

    I agree this is a natural consequence of authors having to promote and market their books directly to readers. I just don’t like the results.

     

  9. 9
    Jlm2509 says:

    I tend to trust reviews on Goodreads, because of the variety of people who like books, and while some of the reviews are slightly spoilerish and like a book report, others help ‘guide’ in the sense of “will I like it?  will the characters drive me crazy?  are there any silly plot devices?  will it leave me with a good feeling after finishing the book?” 

  10. 10
    SB Sarah says:

    I get entirely what you’re saying about disclosing that the person leaving the review is part of the “Review Crew.” I agree – that would be a good thing to add.

    But I don’t think openly asking for reviews and facilitating them is a dishonest thing to do. Street teams and crews are pretty common in other industries (music, for example) and they’re becoming more common in author communities as well.

  11. 11
    SB Sarah says:

    Plus gifs. Lots of animated gifs. Those are the best reviews on Goodreads.

  12. 12
    Marc says:

    Jill Shalvis appears to be doing something similar to this, “Jill’s Bookaholics”.  I think I prefer this to an author sending to their fan group a request to post positive reviews to offset the negative ones.  We can at least hope that they have read the book before posting a review. 

  13. 13
    Jennifer says:

    First of all, yes, the animated gifs are the best. I will admit to actively looking for those ones. :)

    I’ve heard about a couple authors forming street teams, mostly it seems to be the indies who are trying this out. As a writer about to release a book myself I’ve been thinking about ways to give readers incentives to leave a review. I think this is just a side effect of the way the industry is now. Reviews have become highly important and most readers don’t think about leaving one, so it’s up to the author to give them a nudge.

    I don’t see these reviews as being particularly dishonest, and it makes sense that she’d pick from a pool likely to leave her good reviews. Why would you seek out bad reviews?

    I can see how putting a disclaimer on the review would be a good idea. Book review bloggers tend to add a note on their review that they got the book for free in exchange for reviewing it. But explaining that to someone who’s never written a review before could be difficult.

  14. 14
    ATMac4398 says:

    For my total disclosure, I’m the Angi in the pic above with my dog Max and I’ve been a cheerleader for the last two years. Susan is very active on Facebook and her webpage and readers love interacting with her. As for all the high starred reviews… well, her last book placed #2 on the NYTimes list, so I’d say it’s safe to say that readers love her books. I for one am a huge fan of hers and read everything she writes. I love the fact that she sends out books to make sure that readers have read the book they’re “liking” or posting about, instead of what I’ve seen other authors do just asking for readers to post a review or “like” their book/page. Personally, I don’t like these long book reviews that some post everywhere about the book. I just want to know… did you like/love/hate it and why. I’m going to (hopefully) be a cheerleader again for the third season and can’t say enough great things about Susan Mallery and her Fool’s Gold series. Each book just gets better and better. I can’t wait for this summer’s releases!!

  15. 15
    Liz H says:

    Hope I was clear that I think it’s an interesting idea, and it’s definitely far far better than authors that ask readers to “leave positive reviews if they like the author/book” or “positive reviews to offset the negatives”. She deserves credit for specifying that readers don’t have to leave positive reviews; well, deserves credit as long as reviewers aren’t kicked off the team if they leave a negative review.

    @Jennifer- I’ve got to disagree with you. I don’t think there’s anything complicated about asking reviewers to please include a line in the review saying that they received the book for free.

  16. 16
    MissB2U says:

    I think most people are able to give a negative review of something if they really don’t like it; all you have to do is go to Yelp to see that.  And I see reader reviews in a different light than “professional” reviews.  When I really want to evaluate a book I seek out the editorial reviews not the popular ones.  I’ve come to understand that just because you read and like a book doesn’t mean you can write an informed review.  There is a difference between like, don’t like and analysis, and it’s the latter that helps me make up my mind about reading a book or giving it a miss.  I agree that including a line that they received the book for free would be a smart move on the author’s part, and I also think this is a really smart way to market her books.  I don’t think any less of her for doing it. 

  17. 17
    MissB2U says:

    I totally agree with your website comment Liz!

  18. 18
    SB Sarah says:

    I think I’ve figured out why my reaction to Mallery’s review team and others is a little different from yours, CG and Ren. I see Amazon and BN reviews (where Mallery has directed the reviewing) as an already-polluted source such that it made little difference to me if a reader team was reviewing there. I agree that adding a line about being part of the crew is a good idea – takes the tinge of shenanigans off the enterprise.

    But BN has a role playing game infesting its comments where people are pretending to be cats and horses (no really) and Amazon has all manner of crap, plus Harriet Klausner. Crap infestation! So I don’t see BN and Amazon as all that useful in terms of reviews and tend to disregard them entirely.

    (More on the roleplaying in reviews: http://bookclubs.barnesandnobl…

    (Also, I really want to know who said, “Dude, let’s pretend to be cats and talk to each other in BN book reviews” and what they were on at the time because it must be hellagood.)

    That said, I agree that if fans are going to join a club to be part of an author’s marketing, the fans should identify themselves as part of that club. Or be asked to do so, anyway.

  19. 19
    Jenel Looney says:

    Hi, I’m Jenel, Susan Mallery’s assistant. This is a very interesting discussion. I appreciate you posting about the Review Crew, Sara. I’m reading all the comments with interest. As someone whose livelihood depends on authors’ success, I’m always on the lookout for ways that Susan can better connect with her readers… and with readers who haven’t discovered her yet.

    Regarding the overwhelmingly positive reviews of THREE SISTERS, I should mention that we don’t require the Review Crew members to tell us *what* they wrote, and we don’t check up on their reviews. All they have to do is to email me to let me know that they left a review on Amazon and BN.com. If they do that, then they will be invited to join the next Review Crew, even if they hated the book and gave it just one star. Initially, they’re chosen at random. After that, as long as they follow through with their commitment to read the book and post an honest review, whatever that review might be, they will be invited back. We asked for honest reviews, and it seems to me that readers genuinely loved the book.

    The truth of the matter is, reviews help, and more reviews help more. Given that, I’m very interested to hear what suggestions you all have. How do you think authors should get attention in the ever-changing digital world? What do you think would be the best way for an author to get more reviews for her books?

    I’ll tell you what. I’m expecting a shipment of 20 copies of THREE SISTERS. I think it’s the best book that Susan has ever written. Anyone who’s interested, email me at jenel at susanmallery dot com. (US addresses only) If you promise to read the book and post an honest review on Amazon and BN.com, then I’ll send you a copy of the book. If more than 20 people write to me, I’ll choose at random.

    We respect your opinion. In fact, we invite it. :)

  20. 20
    katherinelynn_04 says:

    When you receive a ARC or full copy of a book through Goodread’s First Reads program you are required to say that you received it for free if you choose to review it. I’ve always done this when reviewing a book I didn’t pay for. Otherwise I don’t feel I’m being transparent about the situation that brought me to read the book. I think that something should be said in the reviews of this ‘Review Crew’.

  21. 21
    Ridley says:

    Review games like this are why I’ve stopped reading reviews on Amazon. They’re all suspect.

    At this point, the only user reviews I care about are the ones written by my Goodreads friends. I know their opinions can’t be influenced by publicity shenanigans.

  22. 22

    I’ve actually seen reviews like this… I’ve got a lot of them on one of my anthologies and it’s…ah…distracting? I guess?  It’s not really helping anybody.

  23. 23
    GBL says:

    I saw a post by Susan’s assistant, and when I came back to finish reading it, it was gone. What happened?

  24. 24
    Megan S. says:

    The others were just regular readers, though.

    I was under the impression that FTC regulations apply to ALL reviewers of products received for free, not just bloggers. Disclosure: it’s good for everyone! It helps keep the review ecosystem slightly less toxic. It probably wouldn’t be difficult to add to those listed guidelines a request to add a few words of disclosure.

    I don’t think this is the worst incarnation of a street team I’ve seen, but it still isn’t something I look favorably at. Though, like CG, I also understand how this is a natural consequence of how book publicity works these days. I’d still be uncomfortable signing up to be a “cheerleader” for any author; that kind of framing/wording undermines, for me, how I actually interact with books. I can tend to love an author’s output and still absolutely dislike one of their books, and I’d feel uncomfortable posting a negative review when I am supposed to be a “cheerleader.”

  25. 25

    I put together a street team that was done mainly to have interested readers/bloggers who’d help with new releases and stuff.  In exchange, I give them freebies and sneak peeks, etc.

    Initially, I told them I didn’t want them reviewing anything they got from me.  I’m still not entirely comfortable about it and this is one of the reasons why.  I was asked, several times over by different members and I finally said that if they felt they could be objective, etc, they could post reviews.

    The ones who are reviewing are fairly active bloggers and goodreads members—they love books, they hate books, they get vocal about some of the BS we’ve all seen going down.  I’ve got a ‘code of conduct’ of sorts that includes things like ‘please don’t speak for me or attack anybody on my account’, etc, etc.

    In the end, I looked at it like this—a number of the bloggers who joined had previously reviewed my books anyway.  I’ve gotten positive reviews, I’ve gotten negative reviews, I’ve gotten ‘meh’ reviews from just about all of them.  They’d still have access to those books anyway for the most part.  Being on my street team probably gets them access little sooner.  I’m trusting them to act in the interest of the reader, which is what most bloggers generally do, and offer an honest opinion of the book.

    It’s a tricky area for authors, because some of us, especially those who are midlist or lower outright struggle to get any attention on our books.  Without it, we don’t have careers.  I had two series cancelled last years, I’m struggling to find my ‘niche’ so to speak… I guess I’m still looking for that perfect thing that will work.  (If anybody has a secret recipe, I’ll love you forever.)

    On the flipside, we have to be careful that we don’t do anything that’s manipulative.  The endless “this is so, so, so, so good…” yeah, I’ve seen those.  I don’t much care for them.  If they are coming from review teams, it is gaming the system and I can see the problems there.

  26. 26
    Liz H says:

    @Shiloh- I’m curious, and a bit confused- if you didn’t want your street team reviewing, what did you want them to do? Sounds like you’ve got a good policy; shenanigans (fantastic word) have shown that emphasizing “don’t attack anyone on my behalf” is an important distinction to make.

  27. 27

    They post about upcoming books… they’ll blog about them, mention on twitter.  Those who are in book clubs or are comfortable with passing out bookmarks do that sort of thing.  They help me line up my blog tours or do Q&A.  There is stuff. :)

  28. 28
    SB Sarah says:

    That was my bad – I was on my phone and accidentally shuttled it off to the spam folder, and then I couldn’t get it back. Restoring momentarily. Sorry!

  29. 29
    Jenel Looney says:

    My response seems to have disappeared. The website had a weird hiccup this morning, so I’m sure that’s what happened. Let’s give this another shot…

    I’m Jenel, Susan Mallery’s assistant, and I’ve been following this discussion with interest. In today’s digital age, reviews make a difference, and more reviews make more of a difference.

    With the Review Crew, we asked for honest reviews. Yes, of course, the Review Crew is heavily weighted with people who generally love Susan’s books because those are the people who are on her mailing list. But we had thousands of people throw their hat in the ring, and then we chose at random. We didn’t tell them what to say and in fact, didn’t ask them to report back to me what they say. We have no way of knowing whether they posted a five-star or a one-star review. In other words, a positive review is not required. If they read the book, post an honest review, and email me to say that they have posted a review (not what the review says), they will be invited to join the next Review Crew.

    I’d love to hear everyone’s suggestions for what would be a better way to get more reviews. What do you suggest? Knowing how important reviews are, how do you think authors can be proactive about getting a greater number of reviews for their books? This is an issue that impacts indie authors and authors like Susan, who are with traditional publishers.

    In my previous response, I made an offer, and I’ll repeat it here. I’m expecting a shipment of 20 copies of THREE SISTERS. I think it’s the best book that Susan has ever written (and I’m a fan from way back). If anyone here is interested, you can email me at jenel at susanmallery dot com with a US mailing address. If you’ll promise to read the book and post an honest review on Amazon and BN, I’ll send a book to you. If I hear from more than 20 people, I’ll choose at random. This is a sincere offer. I truly believe that the reason the reviews on THREE SISTERS are so overwhelmingly positive is because readers love this book. I believe that with all my heart.

  30. 30
    laj says:

    I find the loyality that some authors receive from their fans endearing and sometimes so obsequious it makes me ill. Brown nosers are why I don’t go to author sites too often and why I don’t read Amazon reviews. 
    Mallery’s team is being very savvy using the social network to widen her fan base and sell books. Facebook is a diabolical method for her to include fans in the process/success of her books.  People like to belong and her scheme is brilliant.  It will be interesting to see what happens, though I really can’t see a fan writing a “less than” review and being able to maintain status in the club.

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