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Amazon Is Censoring Self-Publisher’s Reviews Says Indie Author And Bookseller, Joni Rodgers

Amazon Is Censoring Self-Publisher’s Reviews says Indie Author and Bookseller, Joni Rodgers

NYT bestselling author and ghostwriter Joni Rodgers

Indie Author Joni Rodgers

Long before I was a writer, I was a voracious reader. I enjoy excellent work in every genre. PR reps, editors and publishers frequently ask me to blurb, review and blog about their books, and over the years, I’ve done dozens of reviews in a number of venues, including Amazon.

As part of its sweeping deletion of thousands of indie book reviews, Amazon has censored several reviews written by me and reviews posted on my independently published books. As an author, of course, I’m dismayed by the disappearance of positive reviews and consequent degradation of ratings on my own books.

As a bookseller, I’m frustrated that the deletion of my reviews is resulting in broken links and bogus listings, which will damage customer experience.

As a reviewer, I resent the waste of my time and disregard for my opinion, and as a reader/consumer, I’m wondering how many reviews I’m not seeing and why they were censored.

When an author acquaintance of mine inquired about missing reviews, she received this canned response:

One of our goals with Customer Reviews is to provide other customers with unbiased reviews so they can make informed buying choices… We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. We have removed your reviews as they are in violation of our guidelines. We will not be able to go into further detail about our research.

Swallowing my immediate scoff-cough to grant that response benefit of doubt: As a workaholic author/ghostwriter for almost 20 years, I have functioning connections to many mainstream publishers, agents and editors and a throng of indie publishing acquaintances. It’s not possible for me, as a reader, to avoid everyone I’ve ever worked with, nor do I want to; I work with some people specifically because we’re into the same types of books. Others reach out to me after I review their book, and I’m happy to make their acquaintance.

As of today, my review of JK Rowling’s Casual  Vacancy is still intact on Amazon, along with numerous reviews which explicitly state the poster has no intention of ever purchasing or reading the book. My review is currently ranked by customer vote as Most Helpful of almost 1,500 reviews. Will it disappear tomorrow because Rowling’s publisher has also published me or because Rowling is my “competition” (double cough)?

Is Amazon arguing that, because I’m a professional writer and editor, my review facilitates “informed buying choices” less than a review that admits to having no actual knowledge of the book whatsoever?

No. That review is probably safe. Amazon’s review censorship appears to be applied only to indie authors, despite the fact that incestuous blurbing and reviewing is a time-honored practice in the mainstream publishing arena.

We all know what happened here: Amazon opened a floodgate with non-discrimination as a selling point to usher in self-published authors. “Let the market decide” was the battle cry as the new order was delivered to the publishing world like a high colonic.

Industrious people who didn’t feel constrained by old-school, publishing etiquette or ethics quickly identified the manufacture of 5-star reviews as part of an action plan. Rather than be hoist upon the same policy that’s been used for years to defend uninformed, unfair and abusive book reviews with which authors have been forced to live, Amazon began censoring glowing indie reviews, defending that action with the above “interest/ competition/ integrity” auto-response.

Basically, Amazon created a Frankenstein, and now they’re trying to keep it from stomping around being all un-classy. Understandable. But integrity is not a turnstile; it’s a revolving door. What goes around needs to come around. If Amazon is not willing to eat the same pudding it’s been force-feeding traditionally published authors from the beginning, it’s their right to vet and censor reviews as they see fit, but please, let’s not abuse Roget by calling that “integrity.” Or “unbiased.”

Amazon has no obligation to be fair to authors, but they do have an obligation to be honest with consumers. And while Amazon is not obligated to have quality standards that actually relate to — oh, gosh, I dunno, maybe quality? – segregating and discriminating against certain authors and reviewers regardless of quality does not serve Amazon’s stated goal of improving customer experience — nor is it true to the egalitarian ideals touted by Amazon with regards to indie authors.

I have never participated in, and neither do I condone systematic back-scratching, review-bartering or mass-liking as advocated by many self-proclaimed self-publishing experts. I actively discourage it among the League of Extraordinary Authors, because unlike Amazon, I actually do trust the market to decide.

I believe readers rapidly caught on; amateurs and dabblers are branding themselves with those cheesy BS reviews in ways that will not benefit them in the long run. It was a self-correcting problem that could have been left to its organic resolution. Carpetbaggers will do whatever works, and this was going to work only for a short time.

These censorship measures are merely creating another little wicket in the obstacle course and rewarding scalawags with additional unmerited credibility when they nimbly negotiate it.

If Amazon employs censorship standards that discriminate against certain authors and reviewers (indies), they should be honest and forthright about that policy. They can’t preach a party line about the “democratization of publishing,” when in fact, indie authors have been assigned to a ghetto where a damaging 1-star review in which the poster admits to not reading the book is loudly protected under a banner of “integrity” — while favorable reviews are quietly censored due to undisclosed “research” and arcane criterion that automatically brands me and other indie authors as review whores and circle-jerkers.

I can’t help but notice that none of my reviews have been removed from indie authors with whom Amazon has publishing deals, and that raises some very troubling questions about the appropriateness of the world’s largest bookselling entity censoring reviews on publishing brands that could be perceived to be in competition with its own. The potential for abuse of that power is staggering in the context of past to-the-mattress conflicts between Amazon and mainstream publishers. Imagine the outcry if targeted Penguin or FSG titles were suddenly stripped of favorable reviews. Amazon could do this with ease and impunity, the same way they disabled buy buttons on over 5,000 titles earlier this year during a dispute with IPG.

I’ve said in the past and will continue to maintain that the only acceptable filter for Amazon reviews is proof of purchase. If they practice any sort of censorship beyond that, they are obligated to disclose it.

It’s my fervent hope that this damaging and ineffectual practice will stop as Amazon’s decision makers realize it’s not worth the money and effort they’re devoting to it. And I look forward to continuing and expanding a mutually appreciative and profitable relationship with Amazon in my multi-faceted role as author, publisher, reviewer and bookseller.

And as voracious reader.

Tomorrow: Amazon Answers Questions About Its Reviewing Policy & on Friday Linda Gillard questions whether indies are busting review etiquette and ethics without realising.

joni rodgers

NYT bestselling author, ghostwriter and editor extraordinaire, Joni Rodgers, is founder of the League of Extraordinary Authors, a collective of critically acclaimed and bestselling authors who have, Joni says, "blurred the boundaries between indie and corporate publishing". Find out more at www.jonirodgers.com

This Post Has 37 Comments

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  1. You’re so interesting! I don’t think I’ve read something like that before.

    So great to find someone with some genuine thoughts on this subject matter.

    Seriously.. thank you for starting this up. This web site is something that is needed on the internet, someone with a bit of originality!

  2. This is a great article. I am frustrated with the new policy because it takes my ability to rate things I paid for. Yes I’m an aspiring author, and I buy books in my genre to stay current and learn. But it sounds like my reviews will be taken down once I publish on Amazon, becuase I’ll be “competition” for the authors I’ve reviewed.

    I’ve decided to put all my reviews on my blog instead.

    Question: is it appropriate to keep reviewing after I publish? I like reviewing and every author I’ve reviewed has thanked me for taking the time, without mentioning the content. I have given some low reviews, too.

  3. First Amazon deleted positive reviews that in its estimation–and its estimation only–were fraudulent (many, many authors had 5-star reviews removed that they had nothing to do with) and allowed clearly illegitimate reviews to remain, but now they are removing the tags which help readers find books.

    What else can Amazon do to kill off the indepenedent author network?

  4. I hear you and it happened to me today. I am an author and suddenly all of the reviews for one of my books disappeared. I was shocked and of course angry. It took mnths and years to get all those reviews. Now with a keystrike they are all gone. I complained but havent heard anything. Of course they will deliver me some PR statement that says nothing.

    The big problem is the power these monopolies have in recent years. Even the governments wont stop them. Ebay is similar.

    There is no way to fight back except for a class action lawsuit but that would take so much organisation, effort and time; and it might not even work.

    I am sorry what happened to you. It is terrible!
    It is truly criminal what these monopolies get away with.
    Kim

  5. To be honest, I can see in some ways how this approach is meant to be fair to indie authors. It simply seems to not be executed properly.

    It is a simple matter of trying to remove potential conflict of interests. Amazon has no way of knowing whether or not fellow authors know one an other outside of their site. What they are doing is simply cutting the middle man out. I mean, if a fellow author, despite being a reader of his own, were to leave a negative review, then it could be seen as simple slant to try and bring down competition; however, if the same author gives a good review, it could be seen as trying to aid a fellow author. Both these angles are conflicts. It is essentially nixing any of those issues before they happen.

    I assume Amazon more than likely received numerous complaints from readers/writers about this very thing and that is why they in turn created this new concept. It is not to censor, but it to ensure books are getting the fairest review possible, regardless of trolls. Is it right? Yes and no. Yes because they care about the integrity of the reviews of the products listed on their site, and no because it may take away very valid, honest reviews.

    In my mind, if a fellow author wants to review my book, I would expect them to write the review via their own site/twitter/etc. Not because their views are invalid, but for the very reasons Amazon has created this approach.

  6. “They can’t preach a party line about the ‘democratization of publishing’, when in fact, indie authors have been assigned to a ghetto where a damaging 1-star review in which the poster admits to not reading the book is loudly protected under a banner of “integrity” while favorable reviews are quietly censored due to undisclosed ‘research’.”

    Bravo, Joni! Thanks very much for this excellent post. I’ve lost 3 reviews in the last 2 days. Unfortunately Amazon didn’t see fit to delete any of the 1-star troll reviews or even the review posted by an author plugging her own book, complete with link to said book (which had nothing to do with mine.)

    I would find it easier to take a philosophical view of the reviewing rough & tumble if I could see some sort of rationale – even if it was a rationale I didn’t feel inclined to endorse. What I find so hard is the utter randomness of Amazon’s actions.

  7. Thank you for your informative post Joni. As a past lover of Amazon, it is very disappointing to witness their recent addiction to making fools of themselves. Partly because of conflicting interests, but also because of their almost ‘genetic’ refusal to explain themselves in an reasonable and open manner. My enquiries to Amazon regarding the review fiasco have always received the exact same ‘copy and paste’ robotic response.

    What I have found astonishing though, is that while many of my reviews have disappeared, those that I have paid for as ‘starters’ for a new book have not been deleted. I must point out that I’m not in the John Locke league, but I do buy 3 or 4 reviews to kickstart a new book.

    So? Reviews from authors I do not know at all are deleted, but five buck reviews from Fiverr are ok? Does Amazon own Fiverr as well?

    Pardon my cynicism.

  8. If they actually applied that, they would remove all my reviews simply because I’m an author and could be seen to be in competition with all other authors – that is just ridiculous!

    Also wouldn’t third party merchants also include anyone selling books using their Amazon associates program? That cuts out all those review sites who have AA links to Amazon at the end of their reviews. That’s a lot of genuine reviews they’d be cutting out.

    They really don’t need to do this because savy readers can tell the fake ones, it’s easy. They simply aren’t comprehensive, and make wild claims that they don’t back up. Also the really nasty ones are obviously trolls.

    If they insist on culling reviews then, it’s the content of the reviews they should be checking more than whether the reviewer is an author or not. I find that other authors write the most comprehensive, and therefore the most useful, reviews, so cutting them all out because they are in competition or whatever would cut out the most useful ones. Maybe that’s why they’ve left mine there. 86% of my reviews have been clicked as being helpful.

  9. I’ve had the same experience with the vanishing reviews. I had over two hundred reviews on one of my books and now I’m down to almost zero. Most of the product reviews I’ve written seem to be untouched as I use my real name for purchases and a pseudonym for writing. I get e-mails constantly from people complaining Amazon won’t publish their reviews. These are largely other writers, yet we maintain zero affiliation other than our profession. This is crippling to indie writers.

    1. The pseudonym is a simple way to get around it – which is what makes an “indie on indie = red flag” algorithm for screening shill reviews laughable. The shill reviews are an annoyance, but easy for smart readers to spot with the human eye.

  10. An excellent post, Joni. Thank you. This hasn’t affected me yet but it’s really worrying and downright unfair – not to mention nonsensical to say that one writer cannot review another writer’s book – for all the reasons you mention. If reviews are, however, being left up on titles published by Amazon when others are taken down then that is sinister and I sincerely hope that it’s not part of a deliberate strategy. On which note, I see in Publishing Weekly that Amazon is expanding its publishing arm into Europe.

    1. Thanks, Karen. I’m assuming that the way the reviews are being censored is probably automated – without malice or sinister intent – but casting a wide net and expecting unfairly censored reviewers and authors to defend themselves isn’t cool, IMHO, especially if their own authors are excluded from the algorithm.

      How thrilling that the publishing arm is being extended to Europe! From what I hear, Amazon’s publishing deals are a mixed bag, but I love that they’re investing in authors.

  11. I don’t mind review screening getting tougher on Amazon, but a company of this magnitude has to see that they are cutting off their nose to spite their face. We are a valuable, moneymaking part of Amazon, and here to stay! I commend the Alliance for staying on top of this valuable issue for the good of us all!

    1. Max, I’ll second that applause for Orna Ross and the Alliance on this and all the fantastic work they’re doing.

      I wouldn’t mind Amazon setting quality standards for reviews if the standards were actually based on improving info for reader/consumers. The CASUAL VACANCY reviews are a prime example: hundreds baldly state that the reviewer hasn’t read the book and the 1-star rating is an objection to the price. Those are not *reviews* of the book; those are *comments* that offer book shoppers exactly zero helpful information – especially if they’re left standing when the price changes, which it undoubtedly will.

      Just saying, I believe improving information for reader/consumers is the objective here, but Amazon’s criterion for screening is way off base.

  12. Anybody want to establish a non-profit, outside the Big A Box, system to reassure readers that the reviews from an independent (there’s that word again) source are not compromised by any form of bias other than in favor of the maintenance of quality information on new products? (can you say Good Housekeeping Seal?)

    Here is a frankly whimsical approach prompted by the recent NYT article on the issue. Who knows, progress comes in many surprising forms. http://tinyurl.com/8snmzuk

    I am aware that established authors often hold their noses while simultaneously lauding independence and the hoi polloi that freedom (vs dictatorships and oligarchies) often brings. There is no free lunch. So I applaud the openness and the informed views of Joni Roberts. May more voices of experience be heard on this subject.

    And after all, there is the thing called the free market, which routinely deals with quality control. A couple of bad $.99 indie books is a really cheap consumer education on the way to broader choice. This is a revolution we are experiencing and very special interests are motivated (and maybe able) to capture the flag. We should try to get in their way without getting crushed. Kind of like Tienanmen Square?

    David Thornhill Thompson
    Author of “The Duplicata” and shameless self-promoting “indie” newbie because nobody else is doing that job for me.

    1. David, the Good Housekeeping seal is a great idea.

      I think 2012 was a massive shakedown cruise for Amazon and for the industry. In general, Amazon has been far more of a blessing than a curse — for indies and mainstream publishers alike — but it’s like Spiderman says: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

  13. Joni, thanks for writing this. You make some beautifully framed arguments that many have not considered … or even understood. Here’s hoping that Amazon will take your points under consideration and refine their positions.

  14. Thank you, Joni, for articulating a nagging thought I’ve had while watching Amazon maneuver my indie book. Mark Coker’s article on Smashword’s experience with Amazon also illustrates the business behind the sell. Amazon has been wildly successful at redefining the publishing market giving indies both a boost and a bust. Through Amazon we have a platform to be found and read by millions who would not find us via regular channels and it’s up to us to figure out a way to keep our voices heard. They are Goliath and us little Davids need to help one another by calling out practices that have long term impacts. Your article is an excellent example of how to remain heard. Indie bookstores are also figuring out how to compete in the age of Amazon and have banded together to promote the Kobo platform for e-readers and e-books in direct response to the gutting their industry experienced with Kindle.

    In an ever-changing world, our tactics and adaptations are only viable for so long. Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective.

    1. I’d like to hear more about the Kobo initiative. I publish directly there but don’t sell anything. It just doesn’t have the same kind of profile. Amazon didn’t just create an ereader, they created a community, and that’s what Kobo needs. An associates program would help them too. So many sites help Amazon’s sales because they can get a % of those sales. Why should I provide links to Kobo when I don’t get the same deal?

  15. So many excellent points
    – ” can’t help but notice that none of my reviews have been removed from indie authors with whom Amazon has publishing deals, and that raises some very troubling questions about the appropriateness of the world’s largest bookselling entity censoring reviews on publishing brands that could be perceived to be in competition with its own”
    and your point about the age-old tradition of back-scratching in the mainstream industry particularly stood out.

  16. Amazon is turning their business model in favor of bigger spenders (traditional publishers spend more per transaction than indies). The fact that they do not accept advertising commitments under $10,000 is indicative of their desire to lower their internal costs per transaction. This is a simple business decision. If we had the option of selling 1,000 books a day to one person versus 1,000 books a day to 1,000 readers, the former would be more attractive for simplicity alone.

    Indie authors are a high-maintenance bunch. Getting rid of us, or at least raising the bar to make exploitation more difficult is their goal. How they’re going about it is arbitrary and unethical. They’re probably ripe for an anti-trust suit although it would take 10 years and most of us would have lost interest before anything happened. What is sad is that they relied on indies to make the Kindle take off. Now, in pursuit of the elusive profit model Wall Street demands of them, they’ve forgotten who brought them to the dance.

    I’m sure they will work out something in time. It sure hurts to be spurned like that in the meantime.

    Peace, Seeley

    1. I think you’re right, Seely. And I’m not taking it personally. This is a business for me, too.

      I was dismayed to see that this article was edited to generally characterize me as “self-publisher Joni Rodgers.” The majority of my books have been corporately published, and I prefer the term “indie” for projects on which I’ve assumed the role of publisher, hiring editorial, design and technical help.

      My words were “as a bookseller, I’m frustrated” — NOT “as a self-publisher” — because I was referring to the broken links in my bookstore website, which is currently under construction. Also trimmed was the important point that all purchasing in the bookstore is routed through Amazon.

      1. Joni, my sincere apologies. While I didn’t copyedit the post, it was me who gave the okay to removing the first paragraphs about your bookstore, in order to focus on the reviews argument (space is tight on our posts — and we’ll be delighted to feature the bookstore when it’s up and running). The headline has now been changed to ‘Indie Author’ and ‘bookseller’ replaced. Apologies for getting it wrong and thanks so much for your excellent contribution which articulates so well many of the thoughts and frustrations that indie authors have been feeling.

        1. (FWIW: I prefer Indie to Self-published in general. It’s a closer tie to the movie industry that went through the same gyrations 20 years ago, and it separates us from vanity publishing.)

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