Comparing Book and Movie Reviews

I buy books (both paperback and e-book) at Amazon and rent movies from Redbox. As an author, reader, and movie watcher, I find the comparison interesting.

When I pull up Amazon’s home page, I see a customized list of thumbnail images of books. Every book has the average star rating beneath it. However, when I pull up Redbox’s home page, I see just the thumbnail images of the movies – no average star rating. Also, when I shop for movies at a physical Redbox, I don’t see the reviews at all.

The strategy is a little different. Amazon wants you to see the perceived popularity with other customers before you click on a book that looks interesting, while Redbox wants you to decide which movie looks interesting before seeing what other customers think.

At a physical Redbox, they evidently don’t want you to be influenced by reviews at all. Perhaps including highly visible reviews on the machine would slow down the process. Have you ever stood in line just to return your movie, but had to wait twenty minutes for someone who was shopping? If so, just imagine how long the wait would be if customers could read through hundreds of reviews there.

I like how – online – Redbox wants you to first select a movie of interest, and then check out the reviews. I prefer this to Amazon’s method of showing you the average star rating first. I kind of feel that I’m being told what to read: Buy what’s most popular… what everyone else has… we know what’s best for you…

Things become more interesting when you check out the reviews themselves. Movies tend to have very many reviews, and the critics can be harsh. It’s tough to find any movies – even with popular actors and actresses – that have very high average star ratings at Redbox. Sometimes a pretty good movie has an average star rating of around three.

The average review rating can actually be less than one star. Fortunately, the minimum customer review at Amazon is one star. I once clicked on movie that had a really cool cover and looked professional, but had a point-something star rating with over a hundred reviews. What? How could it be that nobody liked the movie?

Authors can gain a different perspective on customer book reviews by checking out some of the Redbox movie reviews. I’m glad I haven’t produced any movies.

Yet even if the movie has many of bad reviews and hardly any good ones, it still has numerous reviews. That is, many people watched it regardless of all those lousy reviews. If a book has many more bad reviews than good ones, customers probably won’t buy it. Its sales rank will plummet.

Ah, there’s another point. Amazon tells you the sales rank. So if a book that was selling regularly suddenly has a dry spell, the sales rank climbs up to a million and shoppers think, “That book must not be good.” If the book is lucky enough to get a sale, the sales rank improves to the hundred thousands, and sometimes that one sale triggers a couple of more sales. If the sales rank climbs to the low thousands, customers perceive it as popular. If it gets on the bestseller list, it must really be good, right? That’s the perception.

Redbox doesn’t tell customers the ‘rental rank.’ Redbox doesn’t tell you which movies are more or less popular. I like that it’s not a popularity contest. It’s just about what interests you.

At Redbox, you sort movies by release date or alphabetically. The order of search results is a little more… interesting.

Of course, Amazon has tens of millions of books to choose from, whereas Redbox can only fit so many recent movies in the machine (Netflix doesn’t have that limitation). A movie is also over in a couple of hours, while you may spend weeks reading a book.

I realize I’m comparing apples to oranges. Actually, the supermarket sells apples pretty much the same way they sell oranges. The difference between book sales and movie rentals is fairly significant.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Comparing Book Marketing to Movies

Whether you watch a movie in the theatre or on a DVD player, it always begins with a few previews. If you don’t like these, you can try showing up a few minutes late to the movie or fast forwarding through it. (Ugh! But some of those clever DVD players won’t let you hit the skip button. Who’s in control of your own equipment? How do they get away with forced advertising like that? Do they really want you to be frustrated two hours before you go post your movie review online?).

The preview helps to create buzz for a movie.

You’re not going to put a preview at the beginning of your book, though. That’s the valuable Look Inside that will make or break a deal when potential shoppers check it out; advertisements aren’t going to entice sales. But you can offer a short sample at the end of your book: Readers who enjoy your book enough to finish it might appreciate this, as long as the sample is a tiny percentage of the overall content.

You can also make a video preview of a book and post it on your website, YouTube, fan page, AuthorCentral, etc. The preview can help you create buzz for your books.

Another thing you see at the beginning of a movie is the warning not to copy it, charge fees to let others watch it, distribute it, etc. Movies also indicate the title, star actors and actresses, director, producer, etc. in the beginning, and full credits at the end.

The book’s version of this is the copyright page. Movies put an insane amount of creativity and effort into such front matter. They have a clever way of making the opening credits very entertaining. Traditionally published books have very detailed copyright pages, sometimes with design marks; they look very professional.

No reader is thinking, “Let’s check out the copyright page to see what it looks like.” This is why most indie authors underestimate the importance of this page.

Every reader passes by the copyright page and other front matter on the way to the first chapter. Potential customers see this as they explore the Look Inside. The traditionally published book has a very professional looking copyright page, often with a few professional, simple, relevant design images. This shows the reader that the book is professionally done.

Indie books often just have one line indicating the copyright; several indie eBooks have this information in the back matter in order to increase the amount of content shown in the Look Inside. You can make your book truly stand out by having very professional looking front matter. If you have enough content (i.e. more than a novella), you’ll be able to include the copyright page in the front matter and still have plenty of content to show in the Look Inside.

The cover makes the first impression. The blurb makes the second impression. And the Look Inside is the last impression the buyer gets before deciding whether to Buy It or Skip It. Part of this Look Inside is a great beginning in Chapter 1 and part is the impression that the front matter makes.

Many movies get a lot of great marketing from previews in theatres and on DVD’s, movie posters displayed in theatres, word-of-mouth recommendations from the first wave of moviegoers, numerous movie critics, and advertising.

The big difference between books and movies is that if you go down to the theatre, there might be 10 to 20 new release movies to choose from or a couple hundred new release DVD’s to rent. There are many, many more books to choose from.

It takes a lot more money to produce a movie than to publish a book, and there are many more people involved. There are indie movies just like there are indie books, but there are many, many more indie books than movies.

What does this mean?

Advertising isn’t as cost-effective for books as it is for movies. It’s much more challenging to market a book – especially an indie book – compared to a movie. It’s more difficult to create buzz for a book. It’s not as easy to get book critics with a large following to review your book. You can’t just put up a book poster at the bookstore. You have to help your target audience find your book; it won’t just be among a few to choose from.

You can find reviewers. There are many bloggers doing reviews. Find some who reviews books similar to yours, and plan to wait patiently for what may be a very long turnaround.

You can spread the word about your book. Interact with people in your target audience. Memorable personal interactions where you don’t sound like an advertisement can leave a positive impression with members of your target audience. Figure out where to meet your target audience; the answer is quite valuable to you, so this is well worth contemplating.

A movie premier helps to stimulate interest and reviews. The book’s version of this is the advance review copy.

Don’t you hate it when you go to see a movie and the only good parts you had already seen in the preview? That’s why your book’s blurb shouldn’t give parts of the story away. An effective fiction blurb will create interest, arouse the reader’s curiosity, make the genre and content clear, but won’t reveal what’s going to happen. The blurb isn’t a summary. Wanting to know what’s going to happen can cause readers to buy the book and to keep reading once they’ve started.

Movies sometimes start out slow and build up. They can get away with that in the theatre sometimes. You can walk out if it starts out slow, but you’ve already paid for your ticket.

Books by unknown or little-known authors can’t afford to do this. If the book starts out slow, shoppers checking out the Look Inside are likely to pass on the book. The first chapter should create interest among the target audience right off the bat and run with it. Exactly how to do this depends on the genre and the audience; but if the first chapter doesn’t suit the target audience, they will probably shop for another book.

Other differences between books and movies lie in the content itself. You can do anything you want in a book. In a movie, you’re limited by the capabilities of special effects and a fixed budget. Movies automatically show, and telling can be a challenge (especially, conveying abstract ideas). Most writers naturally tell, but have to work on showing more and telling less. You can see everything that goes on in a book from any angle, but in movies a scene is viewed from a certain perspective, so one object may block another and lighting is a major issue.

What determines whether or not you’ll be discussing a movie with friends and possibly recommending it to others? Think about this when you write your book.

When you watch a movie, do you find yourself wondering how you would have written it as a book? When you write a book, do you find yourself wondering how it would look and sound as a movie?

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock

Last night, I watched the recent movie, Hitchcock. Don’t worry: I won’t spoil the plot for you.

In this movie, I saw many parallels with the art and business of self-publishing:

  • The name Alfred Hitchcock was very well branded. The movie, while it may have a little more Hollywood style and a little less reality, provided some insight into his character as a movie maker. You can guess how his distinctive personality and specific talents helped with his branding.
  • The silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock was also very well branded. It wasn’t just a logo. Remember how he used to walk into the position where the silhouette would form? This technique really helped brand his image.
  • The movie revealed a few marketing tactics. He was not only renowned for creating suspense, but he was even effective at utilizing suspense in his marketing tactics.
  • At a stage where he may have been expected to retire, he dared to take a new direction with his filmmaking. He didn’t have the backing of the film industry (i.e. the big money) – at least, not to exercise his creativity and pursue this new direction his own way. So he was very much like an indie filmmaker. Of course, he had financial resources of his own, but he took a huge risk.
  • He abandoned the rules of what works and pursued his own ideals. Authors have long had traditional publishers telling us what works, not wishing to deviate more than about 10% from this established path. We now have the opportunity to pursue something different on our own. There is a great risk, as very often these new paths don’t succeed. But the door is now open.
  • Back in his day, censorship was fairly heavy. We have a great deal of freedom to write as we please these days, but a few authors still push the boundaries further. There will always be critics and lawmakers strongly involved in this.
  • Hitchcock didn’t just film a movie. You could get a sense for how much editing and formatting was involved afterward, and how important this was for the movie’s success. Similarly, there is much more to selling books than just writing them. The importance of editing and formatting cannot be overlooked.
  • In making a movie, there is a large production team involved with many people working on different tasks. These days, there are many indie authors trying to do the writing, editing, formatting, cover design, marketing, and public relations all on their own. At least, collaborating with others to share skills or ideas would help a little with teamwork.
  • It wasn’t just the movie idea that led to its success. You could see how the marketing ingenuity and seemingly little things like sound effects could play a very significant role. People skills and developing contacts are important, too. The same is true with publishing books.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers (Volume 2 now available)