How to Become a Trusted Reviewer

For those who follow me on Facebook, you may have seen that last week, I posted a couple of pictures of some absolutely mind-boggling stuff that I got for review. I recently became part of the Amazon Vine program, which is an invite-only review program that works pretty much how you’d think: you request some of the items on offer, they send it to you free of charge, and you’re expected to review it within 30 days. I was and still am absolutely thrilled to become part of the program, because it means that someone has deemed that my opinions are of note, and worth something. It’s an awesome moment of validation.

But as expected, the flood of private messages came my way: “How can I get into that?” “How can I get all that free stuff too?” “What do I have to do to be part of that?”

…Has anyone ever seen the movie, Ratatouille?

(Bear with me; I’m actually going somewhere with this.)

In Ratatouille, the movie’s antagonist scoffs at the idea that “anyone can cook.” Of course, by the end, he gets the implication that was in that phrase all along. It’s not that everyone can cook. It’s that a good cook can come from anywhere.

It’s the same with reviewing. Anyone can review. In the same way that anyone can cook.

It’s that easy. The thing is, it’s also not that easy. It requires actual work, and that’s the stuff a lot of people who don’t review don’t get to see. They just see the piles of free stuff, and all they know is, “Wow, that person’s getting free stuff and all they have to do is say whether they like it or not.”

So with all that in mind, I want to break down some of what it takes to “get into that.”

Find a venue. It doesn’t matter if you start a blog, a YouTube channel, or just use your Amazon account, but in order to talk about things and be taken seriously, you need to find a place to do so where people will listen.

Be passionate about something. Now you need something to talk about. For me, it was books. The reason I started reviewing books was the stunning revelation that I read a lot, and I had opinions about what I read. That’s it. I figured putting them down on the Internet seemed like a good idea. Maybe it’d generate some discussion. Maybe not. But I wrote my opinions anyway. And I kept doing that. I’ve been doing that now for over 6 years.

Let me stress that. 6 years. More than. Some people get bigger, some people get big more quickly, but regardless, I’ve still put over half a decade of my life into sharing my hobby with people. I was not some overnight success.

It doesn’t matter if you’re passionate about books, movies, car parts, model trains, whatever. But pick somewhere to start, something that will keep you going.

Be patient. It took me 3 months of regularly reviewing anything and everything I read before I was offered my first review copy. It was a book of trivia; not really related to the kind of stuff I reviewed, even if I was less focused on SFF then than I am now. As for getting to the point where I got that invite to Amazon Vine? See my previous comments about doing this for over 6 years. True, I haven’t been as diligent about cross-posting reviews to Amazon as I could be. If I had been, maybe this would have happened a few years sooner. Maybe. It’s impossible to say. Either way, it takes time, and if you’re not prepared to invest time, then reviewing probably isn’t something you actually want to get into.

Think critically. So you’re asked to review an MP3 player. “Sweet!” you think. “I get a free MP3 player! All I have to do is use it and say what I think!” Hold up. It’s not that simple. Nobody’s going to trust you as a source of good information if all you say is, “I like it.” While you’re using it, you have to pay attention. Does it have the storage capacity the manufacturer says it does? Does it need a program to add music or is it just a matter of dragging files over? How long is the battery life? Does it have any other functions; if so, you have to test those too. Reviewing isn’t just saying if you did or didn’t think a thing. It’s saying why. Be prepared to back up your opinions. That MP3 player’s battery is supposed to last for 30 hours but it died after 10? The buttons won’t work? It’s supposed to sync with certain programs and yet doesn’t? It overheats while charging? Your reviews are for prospective buyers, and you need to be able to tell them exactly what you’d want to know about whether or not you should spend money on a thing.

Writing. Writing, writing, writing. You have to get decent at writing. Or if your reviews aren’t text-based, then you have to get decent at speaking. You need to be able to convey your thoughts so that other people understand them. Think that’s easy? Sure. If you have some natural skills with writing, then it might be. But thnk hao mny ppl onlin tok liek tihs, and then ask yourself if that’s the impression you want to give when convincing people that they should pay attention to your opinion.

Social media. Part of the point to all this is to convince others that your opinion is a trustworthy one. Which means making sure other people see your opinion to begin with. Which means cross-posting reviews to multiple websites, and also building a social media presence. Seriously, the majority of hits to this blog come from Twitter. But keep in mind that building a social media presence means more than just spamming links to your stuff over and over. You need to interact with people. Get in conversations. Get to know people, let them get to know you, and maybe then they’ll check out the stuff that you talk about.

It all happens silently. Remember my paragraph about testing the MP3 player? That ties in to this. Reviewing something may seem like all it takes is half an hour to write up a few paragraphs, but what nobody sees is the time behind the scenes, where you’re testing, writing, editing, etc. When it comes to reviewing books, most of my work takes place where nobody sees. Nobody sees me sitting and reading. They don’t see me writing. They see the end result, and it’s typically only other reviewers that really appreciate how much work goes on behind the scenes, because they’re also doing their own work behind the scenes. The review itself is just the tip of the iceberg.

Be prepared to have everyone be jealous of you but for nobody to think you should make money. Plenty of people wish they could get freebies. Freebies are awesome. Even if all the previous stuff I mentioned hasn’t deterred you, then keep this in mind: unless you are phenomenally lucky, this will never be more than a hobby. You will not be able to pay the bills. You will not be able to earn money, except maybe in drips and drabs through affiliate links. You may get called greedy if your blog is ad-supported or if you start a Patreon account. People will argue that anyone can do what you’re doing, so you don’t deserve to get paid no matter how much work you put into it. The stuff I get through Amazon Vine? Is usually only finally mine after 6 months, and even after that period, I’m not allowed to sell or gift anything I’ve gotten. I’m free to keep it or outright destroy it, but not to make any money off something that at that point is technically mine.  It’s to stop people ordering a bunch of random stuff and writing reviews and then turning around and making hundreds of dollars of essentially-new merchandise, and I totally get that, but it’s part of a common mindset that goes along all levels of reviewing.

I wish I could pay my rent in coffee-makers. But, alas…

I want to stress that I’m not saying that reviewers should charge for reviews. I’m not talking about demanding payment. I’m talking about how weird it is that people think your work isn’t worth money, even at the same time they say they wish they could do what you do. It’s like we place a lot of value and yet no value on things, and so long as they’re things then it’s okay, but if dollar signs come into it, then you’ve crossed a line. It’s weird to me, and frustrating, because I’d love to be able to even pay a bill from the work that I put into reviewing, but I’m told that it’s actually more acceptable for me to take a sledgehammer to a slow cooker than it is to sell it for $50.

This is a way of thinking that will undoubtedly encounter if you choose to start reviewing stuff. I mention all this not as a way of ranting and railing against the system, but to warn people that yes, this will probably happen, and yes, it’s weird, and no, there’s nothing you can really do about it.

All that sound okay to you? Because that’s what it’s taken to get where I am today. To get to the point where people trust me enough to send me the occasional bit of expensive merchandise for review. 6+ years, a lot of learning and improving, a lot of trial and error, a lot of feeling like a failure, and 95% of what I do being behind the scenes. Anyone can do it, absolutely. You, reading this right now, can totally get in on the game at any moment, if you want to. There’s no entry fee. No licenses or certificates required. Just a lot of patience and hard work.

To understand all of this, you have to take a step back at look at it from the point of view of the companies. Companies send you things in the hope that what you say will generate more sales for them. They’re taking a small financial hit by giving something away for free, in the hope that it will result in more money later when trusted voices tell others that their product is a good thing to buy. That’s why I put so much emphasis on trust and regularity and building a presence. You need to convince companies to take that chance on you, and for that you need to convince others that what you say is worth listening to.

If you want to do it for the free products, then by all means, go right ahead. But I want people to be aware of the fact that you don’t get that to start. There’s nothing wrong with a goal. If you want to work your way up to being part of the Amazon Vine program, more power to you. I’m pretty freaking thrilled with my brand new microwave, thanks, and nobody will convince me that’s not awesome. But know what you’re getting into. I’ve found that when people ask me what it takes to do what I’m doing, they get really discouraged at the knowledge that I actually worked at getting to this point, and that they’d have to do the same. They expect, I think, that I’ll say it’s all really easy. Just click a few stars on a few rating pages and BAM, people will be lining up to hand over free goodies.

Let me put it this way. If it were that easy, I’d have had to do even more work than I have, reviewing hundreds more products, for any company to think I’m worth sending a free microwave to.

Still want in on this gig?

2 comments on “How to Become a Trusted Reviewer

  1. Awesome post! As an author, I appreciate the hard work you put into your reviews, even if they don’t turn out the way we want. Your coffee maker and microwave are small recompense for the effort YOU, as the reviewer put in.

    That said, I cracked up at your reference to Ratatouille, because of Anton Ego’s other conclusion in his review…. something about a chef’s junk is more meaningful than the critic designating it as junk?

  2. Pingback: August 2016 in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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