Dear Bloggers: Advice For Would-Be Reviewers

 

Having had and been involved with several successful online businesses, I’m very familiar with the blogosphere’s role in promoting and reviewing such things. We get a lot of requests around all these businesses for reviews, features, requests for donations to things, offers to sample our products, any which way you can think of phrasing the getting of something without paying for it, we get them. Thing is, whilst, as I say, we know and love a good reviewer, we very rarely end up responding to anyone, because the requests are just so unhelpfully written, or missing vital information. And when you’re trying to get something for free on the basis that you’re going to review it on your excellent blog, if you can’t ask for it properly, it doesn’t give great hope for your blog being, well, worth our getting involved with.

But we get SO many poorly-phrased/organised requests, that I’m thinking, perhaps people just don’t know how to ask. Maybe we’re overly fussy and no-one else is bothered by these things…but I have a hunch that’s not the case. It’s not wizardry, it’s just that there are a few things you can do to up your chances of successfully receiving either goods or content. It’s not a hidden test – many a business is open to communication with bloggers (indeed, if they aren’t, their likely very considerable loss!), and the better the request, the better the response, the better the content you get, the better your blog is, the better the promotion for the business…everyone’s a winner and the internet just levelled up! Yay!

On with the list!

0. Before you begin.

Is your blog any good? If I click on a link to it, am I going to see something I would like my brand to be featured on? If it’s brand new, here’s a tip: start by reviewing things you already own/have bought. If your blog is less than a month old, or has less than twenty posts on it, or (like mine!) is riddled with lengthy gaps and downtimes, it’s not necessarily a good proposition for anyone. Build up your content first, then approach. Find your writing style, your review style, all that, before you begin sending out requests to people you don’t know.

Then the technical stuff. Does it look good? Is the layout functioning? Are you tagging posts appropriately, is your language appropriate to your audience, is your spelling/grammar/presentation of a quality you’re happy to represent yourself with? When you send the emails, what’s the latest post on your blog? Is it relevant and appealing to the people you’re asking to contribute?

Assuming all’s well here, and you’re moving forward to contacting, one more thing – could you introduce yourself elsewhere first? If your preferred store/brand/service has a Twitter and you’re genuinely interested to feature them, add them there first. Interact with them a bit, to show you’re a human, that you’re interested, and to make your name perhaps that bit more memorable. Twitter networking is quite undervalued in the blogosphere, I fear.

But sometimes a formal email/message is best, and gives you the space to put everything in that you need. So, here you go!

1. Decent subject line.

If you’re emailing directly, rather than filling out a contact form, always use a sensible subject line. “Review request from xyz blog”, “Interview request from Canadian magazine”, “Prize donation request from Galaxy Cat Unit”, that sort of thing – simple and to the point. Yes, that’s object first, but that’s the point. Say what you want, and yes, it might mean that the recipient trashes it without reading it because they’ve not got time, not interested, etc, etc, but that’s what they’re going to do anyway if they get a random email with a header like “Introducing Sparkleblog! The latest in incredible reviewing!” or “Want to reach 500,000 people tomorrow?” because that suggests you’re either spamming, or about to ask for not only free things, but money on top of it.

2. Address it properly.

Find the name of the press contact. If there’s no press contact, or if it’s a small business, say an Etsy shop, find the owner’s name. Look on their ‘about me’ page. Never, ever, start with Dear Sir/Madam. You’re not looking for a job. (If you are, that’s a different post 😉 It’s a business. There’ll be a name somewhere. The reason for this is not only that it’s more polite, but also that it shows you’re not just randomly cutting and pasting your request into every single contact page you can find. And, further, it shows that you’re actually interested in this business, about which you’ve bothered to find something out.

3. Do bother to find something out.

Show that you know what you’re asking for. If you want something to review, check that there can be something to review. Seriously, you’re asking a vintage clothing shop for a product to review? Sure, you can receive something and write about…what? The experience of receiving it? The vintage clothing, which isn’t necessarily made by the owner? How does this help anyone? It’s like when people leave reviews on Amazon products that talk about the Amazon service. Super not useful. If you’re asking to try something, make sure it’s something that can actually be tried. If it’s a service, make sure it’s a service that can be tried. If you’re not in a country the shop ships to, don’t ask for something to be sent to you.

4. Think about what you actually want.

Do you just want a free thing? Really like jewellery from Sophia’s Secret Store of Surprises but can’t afford it right now and so you’re asking in the hope of getting something free? That’s okay. That is genuinely okay. I fully believe it’s okay to exchange goods for promotion or services and if you’ve constructed an environment where you can make it worth Sophia’s while to send you a necklace, because you’re going to give her plenty of value in promotion/review, then go for it. But please, please, read #5. And don’t dress requests like this up; don’t be aggressively self-promoting to try and pretend that they’re not such things. It’s always obvious.

Are you looking for content for your blog? If your thing is that you review jewellery, and you’re lining up more jewellery to review, then this is fine and makes good sense. But there are other options, too. In terms of interesting content, an interview can be just as appealing to readers as a review. Whether it’s a few questions or an in-depth chat, asking to host an interview with a business owner can be just as productive for your blog, and if the shop/business isn’t suited to or able to go giving out freebies, then an interview may be the best thing for everyone. If you’d like to feature a brand that you love, or are curious about, approaching them with a request for content, rather than a free trial or a free product can be the best way to get a healthy response.

Don’t write any of this stuff yet. Just think about it. First:

5. State your case.

This is simple, but virtually never in people’s requests. You need to say who you are, where you’re based, who your audience is, and, most importantly, what your statistics are. The last bit is most important because you can’t just link to it. And, incidentally, DO link to things. Don’t worry about introducing everything about yourself – your blog has an “About” page somewhere, right? Link to that. And make sure it’s actually informative. So, having correctly address your email, you’re now writing something like, “My name’s Lucy. I’m in the UK, and I write a blog called Shiny She-Ra Saturdays linktomainblogpagehere. I post reviews of old She-Ra episodes every Saturday morning at 10am*, but I write about all kinds of other stuff in between. Here’s my ‘About’ page if you’d like to know more: linktoAboutShinySheRaSaturdayshere.”

Then it’s onto the numbers. These are important. You want, how long your blog has been active, how many followers it has, how many hits you get on an average post, that sort of thing. If you’ve got a big Twitter or Facebook following, mention that too. “Shiny She-Ra Saturdays has been going since 2011. I post on average three times a week – my review posts get around 1,500 hits, and my other entries average around 1000 hits. I have 213 followers on WordPress, and over a thousand followers on my personal Twitter.”

Note: it doesn’t matter if the numbers aren’t big. If the content is good, if your blog is good, if your photos or videos or podcasts are good, and the blog isn’t that old, then it’s fine if you’ve only got five subscribers so far, or if your audience don’t comment much. Just be honest about the extent of your reach, and leave it up to the business to decide if it wants to engage further.

Then leave it at that! You don’t want this to be too long. A paragraph at most.

6. Ask.

If you can be flexible here, as suggested in #4, then do. “I’d love to feature your brand/shop/product in some way. I’m best known for my unboxing videos on my YouTube channel (have you mentioned how many views your average video gets? Do it now!), and would be happy to do one of those for your subscription box. If that’s not possible at this time, then I’d love to include your views in a post I’m writing on the upcoming subscription box market in the UK.” Or suggest interviewing them about their business, their craft or industry.  Be flexible, be pleasant, be plausible. If they’re a very new or small business they may not be able to afford to randomly send things out to you, even if your prospects might look very good, so anything you can offer that they don’t have to pay for, that can be mutually beneficial, is a good thing.

So there we have it! Just a few tips for not being immediately deleted. It’s not much – to recap, say who you are, why you’re contacting, why you’re worth contacting back, and sign off nicely, whether it’s a DFTBA or Kind Regards, or Thanks in advance, or whatever.

And remember – there are also a lot of very good blogs out there that do this kind of thing whilst actually buying the product and acting as an absolutely regular customer. If you’re asking for something for nothing, you’ve strong competition. But if you think about it, present yourself well, and have a decent blog (or video page, or podcast series, whatever), then that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to work with and perhaps receive things, or wisdoms, from brands or shops or people you love in return for doing something that you also hopefully love. Businesses need promotion, and a small, strong community of fifty people is sometimes a much, much better place to present your brand than a faceless, jumbly-written, spambot-filled page that regularly gets thousands of hits. This is a good time to blog, it’s a great time to have a small business – let’s work together here!

 

* I might need to start this blog if no-one else has

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Five Things I Didn’t Expect Of Self-Publishing: 1 Month In

I approached self-publishing on Amazon with a great deal of naivety and a minimum amount of research. This is largely because I had hoped to score a ‘proper’ publishing deal in the first instance, convinced that my book was fantastic. Fantastic it may be, but tbh, I can’t tell you why, and if I, the person who not only knows every damn word of the book but the person who made up every word of that book, cannot explain to you why it’s great, I certainly couldn’t expect anyone else to do it. And that was the main reason I backed away from querying pretty quick – that and the double handful of form rejections from agents who sounded like they ought to adore my writing. There’s a whole other post about that time, but not now.

This is, and I’m telling myself as much as you, because damnit, I love a tangent, about the things that have surprised me most in the month since I’ve thrown my novel, The Pulse, at the world’s Kindles/iPads and hoped that they’ would notice.

1. It’s not easy to be reviewed.

Having internetted since before the Internet was even universally called that, I had assumed there’d be plenty of reviewers around who would, in exchange for a free copy, read my book and write a paragraph or two about what they thought of it. This, I’d hoped would help me get over that ‘I’ve no idea how to sell this book’ thing I’ve just described.

I was incredibly surprised, therefore, to find that, in at least rounds one and two of Google-fu, book reviewing bloggers appear to come in three types.

a) Paid.
b) Busy.
c) Demanding.

Now I am in no, no way whatsoever questioning their right to be any of those things, not at all, for the nice thing with the internet is that we can all do things however we like, and a fact about being good at something is that it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by requests to do it more, and, as in #3, reading doesn’t happen in an instant, so one must find ways to be selective in order to maintain a decent blog, I understand this.

However.

There is literally no way on this earth I’m going to write a formal query letter along with a short essay about myself and enclose a writing C.V. to anyone to get them to review my book. I’m also not even slightly at all whatsoever going to pay them to do it, or, worse, pay an agency to allow me to submit the opportunity to pitch at bloggers (I had never imagined these sites existed before, oh sweet stupid me).

I was really hoping to find enthusiastic, speedy readers with a reasonable circle of friends or followers or whatever, who were open to free stuff and had the time to have at it. I am so confused by the entire industry that seems to exist at the forefront of self-published novel reviewing. I’m also slightly gutted that I didn’t get in on it at the ground floor XD I have often reviewed things people have sent me through my but I’ve no idea how they found me, and, maybe I’m being too British here, feel a bit odd at the idea of simply randomly contacting people I don’t know.

Part of my research involved looking up a few self-published authors I don’t know personally, but whose books I have found and read one way or another, and seeing what they’d done. Seeing that most of them have used these, in cases, exceptionally high-cost services makes me think that they must work for the right book, but they seem, with a bit of further research, to be so high-risk that even if I had $200 to subscribe to this or sign up for that, I just wouldn’t.

I realise there are two different things here – companies offering mailshots and large scale contacts, and individuals who are established and high traffic, but in both cases I saw so very many examples of sites clogged with fellow self-published writers trying to get in the door, rather than enthusiastic readers engaging with what had been said or thanking said sites for the rec or just…any kind of interaction you might hope to see around a book.

The biggest surprise of all was, as I say, how difficult it seems to be to find a blogger who isn’t as difficult to get to (if not, in a few cases, much harder) than a professional agent. Have I missed something? Do, please, let me know. And if you’re the kind of review blogger I’ve missed, and you’d like a copy, hit me up with the contact form at the bottom of this post XD

This is all very much a work in progress, and, to be fair, I didn’t expect to find all the solutions to all these things immediately. Again, I could’ve made things a lot easier on myself by having that more commercial, describable novel, but hey. And in the meantime I do have a fine new site reviewing my book, for which I am stunningly grateful and excited, so there are, I’m sure, many things I’ve missed and overlooked and just plain failed at…I do hope so. I really do. It’s slightly scary out here.

2. There are new levels of awkward between you and your loved ones for ages.

Everything is scary and congratulations have never made me more stressed. An example: my mother kept telling people about it. Everyone, naturally, said they wanted to read it – even before they asked what it was about. And then they asked what it was about, and see my lead-in paragraph for the issues there.

YA novels, especially specific, non-romantic ones like mine are not for everyone. My 72-year-old godmother who adores romance novels featuring sickening ladies in heavily-curtained 1880s drawing rooms might, might suddenly find herself fascinated by my world and word-power…but I doubt it. And that’s okay. That’s fine. It’s incredibly nice that people that know me (or even just my mum) want to read my story, but when you know it’s ‘not their usual sort of thing’ there’s that heavy dread and fearful smile I apparently instinctively synchronise at such points, where I say, “Oh, you don’t have to…” and “That’s lovely, let me know what you think…” knowing full well that either they won’t get around to it but will keep telling you they’re going to for the foreseeable, meaning that we have to have this difficult conversation every time we meet for ages.

This brings me to: 3. There is no immediate gratification in a 105,000-word novel.

Not everyone reads books as quickly and fervently as I do. Not least because not everyone can decide to read all night, or all morning, or all anything unless they’re on a very specific kind of holiday. One of the things that validates my life choices even a bit is how much I love being able to read nearly whenever I want to, as long as, at some point in the week, I do all the things I must. But I digress – the point is, it takes a long, long time for people to get through the book. If they make it through. Which, if your book is as slow and peculiar as mine is at the beginning, they may just not. Which is fine too, except then there’s that whole time when all you can think of when interacting with someone is BUT WHAT DID YOU THINK OF MY BOOK and you cannot, cannot ever ask this because either a) there’s that conversation about how they haven’t got around to it/got that far with it yet because damnit they are a proper human with a life and things that mean they can’t just sit and read even if they really want to, or because b) they’re just not that into it and they’re going to persevere because they care and it’s alright, sure, but they have limited reading time and you can’t plough through a book when you’re not in the mood because that’s what we all had to do at school and perfectly decent and indeed important works of literature have suffered terribly for this.

So you wait. And hope. And wait some more.

Until…4. It still doesn’t feel any different at all from the way I imagined having a real print book deal would.

I wondered if I would get over that feeling early on, but I haven’t, not yet. Because when someone tweets you and says things like “I kinda want someone to put Aiden in his place” or “I just shouted ‘Nooo!’ so loud I startled my cat”, you don’t go, “Oh, thanks, but it’s only an ebook” or think about the format in which they’re ingesting your words at all, no, you just – or I just – wibble and think omg I did this all wrapped up in a peculiar amount of pride.

It’s true that, when coming across #1, I thought a fair few times about how nice it would be to have someone else financially invested sufficiently to go out there and sell my book to people for me, but then again, I still have a great sense of value in that thing – at least it’s exactly, completely, 100% all me. And it definitely wouldn’t have been if it had been ‘properly’ published. For better or worse, it’s all my own stuff.

5. Word-of-mouth is your best, best, best friend.

If one person who has actually read your book and liked it tells someone else to buy it, that is literally the best thing that has ever happened and you just want to go and buy them a pint (which, comically, costs at least twice as much as the book) and dance in the streets because there is no higher compliment, to my mind, than convincing someone else to get a book you’ve enjoyed. It’s the greatest display of confidence you can share in something, and it’s the finest ‘proof’, if proof can be had, that they’re not lying about having liked it. It’s lovely. And it makes me work much harder myself to share, review and lend things I’ve loved reading or listening to with anyone I think might share my feelings. Share, people. It’s wonderful.