Monday, January 27, 2014

Getting the Word Out: Reviews: PW Select

As part of my ongoing obsession with getting the word out—and following up on last week’s post about Kirkus’s paid review service—this week we’ll take a look at Publishers Weekly’s monthly supplement dedicated solely to the self-pubbing industry, PW Select, that debuted in September, 2010. The supplement promises "interviews with authors, book announcements and listings, news, features, analysis, book reviews, and more." Like Kirkus Indie, PW suggests that:

"PW Select is a great way to help your book stand out in a crowded market. When you sign up to participate in PW Select, you’ll be reaching Publishers Weekly’s readership of book and film agents, booksellers, editors, distributors, librarians, book reviewers, and national and international media--just the kind of people who can take a book and make it a bestseller. We’ve helped launch a few writing careers already. Maybe you’re next."

And maybe you would be. After all, they state that their mission is to find those "undiscovered gems" that every author hopes her work just might be. So, obviously, when the biggest trade mag in the country—about 17,000 subscribers (or roughly three times Kirkus’s reach)—supports reviews of indie-published works, this could be a very big deal, right? 

Well . . . it depends.

Unlike Kirkus Indie, where a flat fee of $425 guarantees you a review, PW doesn’t make that guarantee at all. Your book might get a review, and while the odds aren't astronomical, your chances are about 20-25%.

So then, what does $149 buy you? (I’m sorry, but you just gotta laugh when you see a price like that, as if PW’s taken a cue from Amazon. Like, wow, what a bargain. While we’re talking about money, though, I should mention that PW offers the same service plus Vook for $199. This is for folks who have a manuscript or print book that's not been published in ebook form; that additional $50 gets you access to Vook—a NY-based publisher of e-books, book apps and interactive e-books—and its e-publishing platform:

"Vook has created a special package for PW Select + customers entitling them to the creation of one e-book (including an ISBN number) using the Vook platform. There are no subsequent fees for publication or ongoing subscriptions. If you decide to distribute your e-book through Vook (which offers one-click publication to iBooks, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble), you will not pay any fee to Vook, and Vook details the revenue splits of each e-book store here. You can also download your completed e-book file and distribute it yourself."

So maybe not such a bad deal if your book's still in manuscript form and this is your first rodeo.

But, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say you’re just going with a vanilla-PW Select. Here’s what you’re guaranteed: your book, whether physical or digital, will be listed in the supplement (which is bound into that month's regular issue) and on PW’s website. That boils down to the barest of nitty-gritty details: title, author, publisher, price, number of pages, ISBNs, and a very brief blurb (which you actually provide them). You will also receive a six-month digital subscription to the full PW website and a complimentary copy of the supplement in which your listing appears. And, of course, you buy yourself a lottery ticket and hope they pick your number for a review. They're happy to take your money regardless, and you can't blame them. It's a tough biz, and it's not as if their circulation numbers are going up (they've actually dropped by several thousand over the last few years). If PW Select gets, say, roughly 200 sub-pubbed books per month? Even after paying for the 25% of books that are reviewed—say, about $25 a pop—that's still about  $30,000 in revenue for them. Not exactly chump change, and if you're the one who's doing all the legwork (the blurb, etc.), then that means more in their pocket, period.

So before we even get around to whether or not a PW review might help you, let's be clear on what you're really buying: an ad. A teeny-tiny ad. A snippet listing that may not even feature the cover you were so nicely invited to attach and which might not be even properly proofed (as happened to this writer). A very small ad in a supplement that’s only seen by folks with a regular print subscription, and only found online if you decide to go looking for it. Now, maybe some people do go looking. As I said, PW’s reach is much greater than Kirkus’s. Publishers read the magazine, and so do agents, and anyone in self-pub wanting to promote their book in PW is aiming for those folks. (I don’t know about librarians so much; my n of two suggests they’ll pay attention to their own trade magazines, Library Journal and School Library Journal, and other librarians before PW.) I know film people at least trawl the website because I’ve been cold-contacted a couple of times from film industry folks after a PW review or interview. 

There’s no question that people pay attention to the magazine and its website. The issue is whether these same people pay attention to a listing—without a review—in PW Select. (This is all independent on whether any of the feature articles are worthwhile or helpful. I'll be honest; I looked at a few. By and large, they were fairly generic and no worse or better than anything you'll find in something like Romance Writers Report, a magazine I happen to like. Some were more worthwhile than others; for example, there was a nice listing of some this year's book fairs and conferences (both in the U.S. and aboard), a few of which are geared toward indie authors. But the majority of these articles were nothing you couldn't find on your own and on any number of blogs, just by executing a few searches.)

Anyway, back to that crap shoot of a review . . . let’s put it this way: if you’re hoping to interest an agent with a listing in PW Select . . . good luck. Agents are busy, busy people who already get a gazillion submissions. Unless you happen to write just an absolutely stunning blurb—and presuming an agent makes it a habit to scan the listings—the chances an agent will get in touch are probably diminishingly small. Ditto a publisher. Film people . . . who knows? I kind of doubt it, and I'll bet librarians don't even bother. (If a librarian out there does, let me know. Seriously. I was very surprised to find an indie-published book in a system library not long ago, but I've no way of knowing just how it found its way into the system to begin with. It's the only book of its kind I've seen, too. So I am curious.)

So, really, the best outcome for anyone who invests a buck shy of $150 is to win that crap shoot and get an actual review.

Now, go do a web search on this, and predictably, writers’ experiences with the program haven’t been that great. Most are simply listed, and that’s it. As for the reviews, these seem to be a mixed bag. Many point up the scathing nature of the reviews, as this author does, but I found at least one guy who got a very nice review and planned to use that for queries. (I want to echo that this is a very sound strategy. Let's put it this way: a favorable PW review can't hurt, and I'm still convinced that a very nice PW review of the book that became Draw the Dark, which made it to the semifinals of the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, made editors sit up and take the book I happened to marketing at the time—The Sin-Eater's Confession—much more seriously. Not only had my book made it down to the final 100, it had also gotten that great review.) 

  Nevertheless, the majority of Select reviews are negative, although if you’ve written a children’s or YA book, you stand a better chance at a positive review. (One writer did a nice breakdown you can read here of the January 2, 2012 supplement. I do completely disagree, however, about his assessment that the majority of regular PW reviews are positive and generally negative only if you’re an established author who’s somehow disappointed with your latest outing. My personal experience says otherwise.)

Nowhere did I find a single person who had anything to say about the supplement's other articles and offerings--which I think means that folks are largely indifferent to the rest of the supplement's content. They aren't forking over money for a pricey six-month digital subscription or nifty how-to articles. What they want is a shot at that review.

I also wasn’t able to find much about authors’ experiences with Vook through PW Select one way or the other—anyone out there ever done that?—although I did find one blogger who hired them to convert a compilation of her blogs and seemed to be a pretty satisfied customer. Note, too, that she paid substantially more ($550), but she had nothing bad to say about them, and this might be a matter of getting what you pay for.

The skinny? As with Kirkus Indie, I can’t tell you if it’s worth $150 for a one-in-five shot at a PW review. Unlike Kirkie Indie, if PW Select does skewer your book, you don't have the option of killing the review. On the other hand . . . welcome to the real world. 

Is PW more influential than Kirkus? Well . . . its circulation numbers would certainly suggest so. While a simple listing is likely to get you nowhere, a review just might, especially if you can find a favorable pull quote or two to throw into that query letter you’d like to shoot to an editor or agent. Even better, if the review is favorable, there’s a chance (slim) that the review might make it into PW directly.

So . . . if we were talking about me? I admit: I’d roll the dice and go for it, simply because I doubt that most people who really count are reading the supplement to begin with. So the chances of anyone running across a terrible review are small. But if you get a nice one, grab that pull quote and run with it. Worth a shot.

Next week, more on paid review services.


Sechin Tower said...

Very insightful, thank you!!! As an indie and as someone with a very limited marketing budget, it can be difficult to know how to get the word out. There are FAR worse wastes of money, but this kind of assessment really shows the inner workings of the deal they offer.

Thank you! You've given me a lot to think about.

Ilsa said...

You're welcome, Sechin. Do be sure to check out my post on Kirkus Indie here, if you're interested: