Want to Attract Agents and Reviewers? Five Pitfalls to Avoid!
For years I’ve been working a side gig as a first-line evaluator for a book review outlet. This means I go through the queue of books submitted by authors hopeful of getting a review, and I determine which get passed along to the higher-level editors and which get discarded. On a more emotional level, this also means I’m the person I always hated when I was querying literary agents: that base-level worker who holds your fate in her hands and may very well toss your precious work into the pit for some imperceptible, or seemingly minor, offense. But I’m here now to redeem myself by telling you how you can work the system to prevent that from happening.
These tips can be helpful in getting reviewed by blogs or websites, or simply for attracting readers who hear about your book and want to know more. I’ll fill you in on the five biggest red flags that cause me to cast a title aside, along with tips for avoiding these very common pitfalls:
1. No Amazon listing, or a bad Amazon listing. No, Amazon isn’t the end-all and be-all of the book industry, but it’s a major player, and not having your book listed there suggests that it isn’t available for sale on any large scale—in which case it’s hard to argue for the relevance of reviewing it. If you want to attract the most sales and reviews, an Amazon listing sure helps—and make sure it is polished.
Because that’s the second point—the quality of your listing suggests the quality of the book itself. The most cringeworthy mistakes include typos in the book description, a five-star review by the author him- or herself, a silly bio (see below), or an author arguing with reviewers in a review’s comments (yikes!). If you want to be perceived as a professional, your listing is basically your outfit for this job interview; dress the part of a professional author.
2. Less-than-professional book cover. Sure, we’ve all been admonished not to judge a book by its cover. But it’s so easy these days for an individual to make a professional-looking cover for a dollar or less using a website such as Canva (which I’ve used myself—and my graphic design skills are laughable) that a poorly designed cover makes a truly bad impression. Common mistakes include extremely plain covers with straight text and no graphics; hand-drawn designs that fall short of a top-quality look; glaring jewel tones with clunky graphics; and bubbly or streaky fonts over clichéd horror images like a haunted house.
There is definitely a lot of wiggle room here. I’ve given the nod to cozy mysteries presented with somewhat wobbly hand-drawn designs, memoirs with family photos on the cover, and space operas with cover art that looks a little ’80s—because these presentations are generally fine to readers of those genres. But generally speaking, it’s best to skip a collaboration with an acquaintance who’s “a really good artist” and, instead, go on a website like Canva or Fiverr to get a cohesive, polished cover design. Even a good artist doesn’t necessarily know what makes a good cover design. And a great first impression of a book that looks traditionally published, and communicates that you understand your market and care about quality, can be the element that closes the sale.
3. Unedited, or poorly edited, content. Writers, myself included, always claim that their books are their babies, so it never fails to puzzle me when an author sends their baby to meet with a model scout (by which I mean a potential reviewer) with spaghetti sauce on her face. Sure, the baby herself may be beautiful, but how can I focus on that when all I can think about is grabbing a washcloth for the poor kid?
I remember one time in particular when a book looked so interesting to me that I took the unprecedented step of asking my editor to reach out to the author and request the full manuscript—which the author had apparently forgotten to submit with her request for review. Usually that error would lead me to just chuck it in the bin, but I was deeply curious to read this book. The Amazon listing was polished, the cover was great, and the topic was unique and appealing.
Several days later the author sent it, and when I opened the file I felt my stomach sink upon realizing that the book had never been professionally (or even unprofessionally) edited. From the very first page, grammatical errors and typos destroyed the reading experience. It was really a shame; that author had been within a hair’s breadth of receiving an industry review that would have been read by thousands, including library systems that base their purchases on such reviews. Make 100% sure it’s clear to your reader that you’re offering a finished book, not a first or second draft. And always, always include a “look inside” preview of your book on Amazon. This makes it much simpler for a curious reader to get hooked on your book in no time, and avoids disappointed, one-star reviews that a book “isn’t what I expected.”
4. Clichéd bio. Maybe you’re an award-winning writer with an MFA and maybe you’re a suburban mom desperately grabbing writing time while your baby is asleep—I’m not biased for or against either one, especially since I was once that suburban mom. What I’m looking for here are signs that you’re presenting yourself like the professional writer you are. The pitfalls here are many, and they are common. Does your bio state that you’ve been writing since you left the womb? That you have cats and they rule the house? That you have a head full of stories and have been known to write on cocktail napkins when necessary? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read each of these things, so they do nothing to set you apart.
Worse, does your bio go for the zany approach and say you’re a lumberjack by day who transforms into a vampire by night, that you’re in hiding from the Russian mob, or that you are merely the humble servant of those house-ruling cats? (I see a lot of cats in these bios.) Depending on your genre, this might amuse your readers, but it doesn’t make a great impression on agents or reviewers looking for a reason to take you seriously.
What I want to see—whether you’re writing under your real name or a pen name—is a line or two about what connects you to your genre or topic, a few words about your education if relevant, and where you live, since readers like to know that. “Adina Marquez makes her home in Tacoma, Washington with her husband Jake, her two sons, and a chocolate Lab named Wilson” is perfectly fine. If you have other credentials—awards, previous publications—by all means mention them. But don’t refer to yourself as “a gifted writer” or “a talented author.” Since the reader knows the author usually writes their own bio, that doesn’t play well.
5. No blurbs or reviews. You don’t have to get Jodi Picoult or Stephen King to vouch for your book, but having a few testimonials is key for convincing others you’re not the only one who thinks your book is great. I have recommended a fair number of books with no reviews; at my job the main criteria for review is the strength of the writing, and a really well-written opening, paired with a bio that suggests this author is serious and cares about their craft, will win my love and lead me to go to bat for a book even if seemingly no one has read it. But it’s so easy to get blurbs from a few bloggers or reviews from a few friends that a complete absence of these is an obstacle that the rest of the submission (the listing, the writing, the bio) will need to overcome.
For nonfiction, having blurbs and reviews can be a make-or-break factor. The worst offenders here, by far, are nonfiction books that purport to teach readers how to successfully market their self-published book. If you’re presenting yourself an expert on successful self-publishing yet you haven’t bothered, or managed, to get reviews on your own book, that’s not a good look.
The simplest way to make a great first impression, both with readers and with the industry’s gatekeepers, is to search Amazon for a great book in your genre and use that listing as a template for your own. Does the description open with a terrific blurb or two, or do those blurbs appear below it? Is the beginning of the description, or the beginning of each of its paragraphs, in bold type? How does the author present him- or herself in the bio? These things vary by genre, and a top-selling book can provide a wonderfully valuable framework for how to present your own. Put those authors (and their trial-and-error journey to success) to work for you!