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Tuesday, March 17

How My Self-Published Book Got a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly

By Jenn Gott, @gottwords

Part of The Indie Authors Series

JH: Getting reviewed by the Big Reviewers is a challenge for indie authors. Jenn Gott shares her experience (and tips) on getting reviewed by the industry trade publications. 

Jenn Gott is an indie author and a writer with Reedsy, so she basically spends all her time either writing books, or helping people learn how to write books. She firmly believes there is no writing skill you cannot learn with practice and the right guidance. When she’s not working, she enjoys keeping up with the latest superhero movies, reading, and swimming.

Website | Goodreads | Twitter

Take it away Jenn...

In the publishing world, there are a handful of magazines that are the go-to sources for book reviews. Among them are Kirkus, Library Journal, and, you guessed it, Publishers Weekly. These publications have been around forever, and their good opinion is coveted by all the Big Five publishers.

Why does this matter? Well, in some ways, it doesn’t. As a self-published author, you can still make a successful living selling your books on Amazon without ever worrying about things like “starred reviews.” But appearing in a magazine like Publishers Weekly is an all-access pass to venues typically reserved for traditionally published authors: it puts your work in front of booksellers, librarians, movie directors, and foreign language publishers, among others. For someone like me, who writes about superheroes — a genre rife with sales potential — this really wasn’t an opportunity I wanted to ignore.

Now, I can’t deny the bragging rights alone drew my interest. After all, a starred review is the highest honor these magazines can bestow. Even being reviewed is an honor, since many more books are submitted than can ever be discussed, and among these hand-selected few, starred reviews are only given to the cream of the crop. Starred status tells readers that, if you consider no other title mentioned in the issue, you still need to pay attention to these.

Big Five publishers collect these stars as badges of honor, displaying them on all their marketing materials as they spotlight hot new authors and titles; they know that earning one isn’t easy. For those of us in the self-publishing world, grabbing hold of these stars is an even greater challenge.

To start with, there aren’t many of these big publications that will even consider our books. Library Journal doesn’t appear to have a means for self-published authors to submit for review at all (though they do run a system for getting your books into libraries, which is cool). Kirkus, you can at least approach, though you’ll need to shell out over $400 up front.

Publishers Weekly, in contrast, allows you to submit your book for free through their self-publishing portal, Booklife. Since I’m a self-published author on a budget, that’s the one I chose.

But First, the Book Itself Had to Shine


Long before I even thought of submitting anything, I needed to write a book I believed in.

The truth is, I’d always known this book was special. Of course, we writers are like parents, and always like to think all our book-babies can achieve lofty goals. By the time I wrote The Private Life of Jane Maxwell, I’d already published three other novels, and had dreamed every kind of success for them.

But this book… this book was different. From the minute I started writing, I could feel its potential in my bones.

Why was I so sure of it? Well, for starters, it had all the right ingredients: a strong hook that drove the plot, and a genre that was niche enough in the book world that I wouldn’t be a small fish in a big pond, but broad enough in its appeal to lure readers in. Because Publishers Weekly’s review process subjects self-published titles to the same standards as Big Five releases, I strove to make the book’s packaging up to par, investing in a genre-appropriate cover and back-cover copy that set expectations correctly. I made sure it was thoroughly edited, and that the interior design was professional.

I also experimented with a new way of writing descriptions. The protagonist of that book, Jane, is a comic book artist, and so I wrote her viewpoint to “see” the world around her as comic panels and spreads. It was a risky choice, a technique that had the potential to turn gimmicky if it wasn’t handled just so. But I knew it was also a key ingredient to making this book stand out. And while I can’t speak for everyone, I think that’s one of the factors that led to my success: finding an interesting angle, and taking that creative risk.

Ready to Face the Lions


Jenn Gott
Actually submitting your book for review is easy. All you’ll need is to register an author account at Booklife, then create a “Project” for each of your novels. Select the one you’d like to submit for review, and then choose whether you’d like to purchase a Booklife review, or submit to Publishers Weekly for free, or both.

Booklife reports that the review process for Publishers Weekly can take 6-12 weeks or longer, but in my case, it was much, much longer. It took at least twice that for them to work through their submissions and decide to accept mine for review. To me, that was fair enough — it’s a free service, after all, and a way to pitch my book at one of (if not the) biggest names in professional reviews. Just don’t go into the process with all your marketing plans centered on getting a review back quickly. You’re operating under their timetable, after all.

Eventually, I received an email stating that my book had been accepted for review.

I’m not going to lie: this email both thrilled and terrified me. What if they hated it? What if my book was trashed on the pages of one of the largest review publications in the country? Unlike other publications, I had no option of not publishing a negative review, a thought that didn’t scare me until I was suddenly faced with the possibility.

I made myself so nervous that I could not even check the review status on my own. I gave my login information to my husband, trusting him to keep an eye on it, and did my best to put the whole thing out of my mind. Whatever happened, I tried to tell myself, would happen.

The review came in overnight, a few weeks later.

In the morning I walked into the office to find my husband standing beside his computer, beaming at me and motioning at something he had up on the screen. “You got a starred review,” he said.

It took me a second to even process what he’d just told me. (Remember, I’d been doing my best to put this out of my mind so that I wouldn’t freak out.)

“Wait, what?”

I’m pretty sure I asked him to repeat it at least five times. I know I almost dropped what I was holding, once the news finally pierced the veil of disbelief.

But there it was, glowing at me from the screen. My book. And a block of effusive text. A little red star at the top. It was real, and it was mine. Once it hit me, I screamed in amazement and did not stop grinning for three straight days.

In truth, I still grin about it. I’m grinning now.

Where to Go from Here


For starters, I cite this review everywhere. By now, this book is part of my backlist, and this review means everything when promoting it.

It’s splashed across various pages of my website, it’s pinned at the top of my Twitter feed, it’s linked from my Instagram account. It appears in as many ads as I can possibly squeeze it into. It’s listed in the “editorial reviews” portion of my book’s Amazon page, and it headlines the praise page at the front of its sequel. I name-drop it in so many conversations that it borders on obnoxious, but I have no shame. And why should I? It’s a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and it’s all mine.

Now, I’d like to tell you that this review changed my life, and brought me hitherto untold wealth and success, but that’s not entirely true. It did give me a healthy boost in sales, and it has gotten my books into more brick-and-mortar bookstores, which is really exciting. But it does not, by itself, vault me onto bestseller lists and rake in thousands of dollars’ worth of sales each week.

In fairness, though, I don’t know what may still unfold as a result. Remember, Publishers Weekly is one of the industry-insider publications that people sometimes browse if they’re looking to acquire translation rights, screen rights, and audio rights. So—you really never know, and if there’s one thing this whole experience has taught me, it’s that a girl can dream big.

And dream big I shall. My long-term plans and publishing aspirations have skyrocketed in the time since this landed, and I have no plans to ever stop chasing them.

In the meantime, I’m going to milk this spotlight for all it’s worth.

About The Private Life of Jane Maxwell

As the creator of a popular new comics franchise, Jane Maxwell knows a thing or two about heroes, but has no illusions of being one herself. All of that is shattered, however, when she finds herself swept into a parallel world—one where her characters are real, and her parallel self is their leader.

There’s just one problem: that Jane is missing.

Under the growing danger of a deadly new villain named UltraViolet, the team has no choice but to ask Jane to do the impossible: step into the suit left behind by her double, become the hero that they need her to be. But with budding powers that threaten to overwhelm her, a family she only half-recognizes, and the parallel version of her dead wife staring her in the face, navigating her alternate life proves harder than she ever imagined.

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