Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Don Rearden: How to Get Reviews in Major Papers & Become an Instant Best Seller

I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't still a little giddy over the Washington Post Review of my novel last week. I would be lying to you if I said I could actually define giddy, which I can't. (If it means a feeling of disbelief, excitement, ephoria, and bloating from gas, then I'm using the word appropriately.)

The wild news of an impending review came via email when I returned back from a week in the bush, where the only web connections came directly across the face during morning hikes down trails that hadn't already been cleared by a passing caribou, moose, or bear. Suddenly back in the world of email and tweets (from people and not camp robbers), my brain could barely register such amazing news. A Post review? Really? Really?

The assistant publicist who sent the kind message didn't have any details. Just a date the review would run. And so began several sleepless nights. I wasn't really nervous. No, I've got nerves of Samurai tempered steel. Nothing, not even a once in a life time review in a major publication could shatter such nerves. I assure you the tossing and turning in bed was due exclusively to itchy no-see-um bites from the aforementioned sojourn into the bush and nothing else. I also assure you I didn't do anything goofy like look up what a book review in a major publication meant for book sales (but if you're interested there was a neat study about such topic completed by Stanford about how even bad book reviews can boost sales).

The evening before the review I received a Google Alert. Samurais once used this option, not because they were nervous, but because they always had to be prepared for anything, be it battle or book reviews.

I sat there on the steps of my porch reading the "alert" headline for a few moments (again, note the calm and totally not nervous reaction?)  before I actually clicked and began reading Michael Dirda's beautiful review. I was blown away. Shocked. Floored. Okay, and perhaps something bordering on nervous.
But this post isn't about the review or my reaction to the review. I'm also not writing about the review to draw attention to the review, which would be genius, and totally what a Samurai would do. See the content of the Dirda's essay might have shocked and amazed me, and the luck that I landed the review did the same, but it also did something else, something really important that I felt I needed to share with my fellow writers.

The Post review confirmed for me that 99% of what writers want to happen with their books happens because they did it themselves. Whether you have a major house publishing your book or your mom, the new paradigm of publishing is that the work lies in the writers' hands. (For me the math might be skewed at 99% dumb luck and 1% hard work, but 99% of that 1% of work I did myself.)

How was this review proof of that? Simple. I put in the ground work that made it possible. I queried reviewers across the country from major newspapers to community council flyers. I wrote hilarious stuff like this or deeply compelling emails that I hoped might pique their interest or make them shed tears of both joy and terror. And you know what? A few of them actually wrote back and either told me their newspaper no longer existed, or not in a million years would they review me, or they requested the book. The author of the unbelievable review in question was one those responses.

Would this review have happened without my email? Unequivocally, I can say, no. Of all the over twenty reviews and blurbs I have received in the US and Canada, only three I did not have a hand in securing.

The work doesn't end at publication any more. It's that simple. Those days, if they ever really existed, are over. There is no guarantee or weekend course or blog post, for that matter, that you can read that will reveal to you "how to get reviews in major papers and become an instant best seller." I can only guarantee that if you don't take a few risks and if you don't work just as hard on finding readers as you did on writing your book that you'll only be left with the ability to complain about your publisher, and I can definitely guarantee that your unpublished friends will just love to hear that nonsense.

Post-Post review I celebrated. Thanks to the review, more people are actually reading the book, which is beyond believable and really more than I could ask. I could, and perhaps should, sit back and just focus on the next book, but its only been two months since my book finally hit US shelves and the clock is ticking. There are more readers out there to find. The work is not done. I have nerves of polished Samurai steel, and Samurai were never giddy.

Don Rearden is not an actual samurai, but he is board president of the 49 Writers, a produced screenwriter, and award-winning author. He teaches writing as an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The Raven’s Gift is available from Penguin in trade paperback, Kindle, and iBook. More info at,, and .


Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

That was an amazing review, Don. Congrats for that, and an even bigger thanks for giving us this peek into your own post-pub process and personal involvement in making your book a big success. I personally had no idea that authors could take a role in trying to get national reviews. (Local ones I figured, since local contacts are more common.) Due to my ignorance, I wouldn't have even thought to try! The pub world has changed, indeed. And there's just no point in complaining about it, is there?

Sharry Miller said...

Congratulations, Don! How does it feel to be "a master of the cliffhanger?" The review was excellent, and you clearly deserved it for all the hard work you put in. If your book weren't already on my to-read list, it would be now.