Following the latest wave of misleading misinformation about Amazon reviews that has been doing the rounds of Facebook in the last week, John Doppler, American indie author of sci-fi, horror and fantasy, shares his concern at the hysteria that is all too easily whipped up online about this always contentious issue, and tries to sets some matters straight.
Where It All Started
In August 2012, several prominent authors admitted publicly to buying fraudulent reviews. The media latched on to the story, and the ensuing scandal prompted Amazon to overhaul enforcement of its rules governing customer reviews.
Unfortunately, the algorithms they used and the policies they implemented were overly aggressive, leading to the erasure of thousands of legitimate reviews.
Authors voiced their concerns, and Amazon responded. They formally clarified their policy to state that authors may review other authors’ work, provided they did not have a personal or financial relationship.
Where We Are Now
Three years later, we face a new upheaval. Another Amazon initiative to curb review fraud has purged tens of thousands of reviews that violate the Customer Review Guidelines, along with many legitimate ones.
However, this time we’re seeing a significant, troubling difference in the way authors choose to react.
Inflammatory blog posts have sprung up across the internet, filled with histrionic wailing about “censoring my passion for the written word” and “crossing an ethical line of unfathomable proportions”, or spouting misinformation about “draconian new policies” which have actually been in place for years. Dubious advice about disconnecting your social media accounts has proliferated. Some authors fume about deleted reviews, failing to disclose that they were involved in prohibited review exchanges.
Other authors propagate these rants and rumors without considering the validity of the claims. Worse still, many do so in full view of their readers.
Don't Put Readers Off Leaving Valuable Reviews
Reviews are hard to come by. Telling readers their reviews are meaningless and are likely to be deleted is sawing off the branch we all sit on.
Yes, Amazon’s auditing of reviews is unquestionably flawed. Reviews have always been a pain point for authors, and the unfair deletion of genuine reviews is a disservice to authors and customers alike. Coupled with the stone wall obstinacy of Amazon’s appeal process and the secrecy that surrounds their anti-fraud measures, the frustration is understandable.
None of that is in dispute here. What is in dispute is how we confront the issue as professionals.
The Real Purpose of Amazon Reviews
When authors approach Amazon with a complaint about reviews, we are already at a disadvantage. The purpose of Amazon reviews is to help customers make informed buying choices. It is not to help authors sell books. In any conflict between those two goals, improving the customer experience will always take priority.
Therefore, customer service agents are already primed to dismiss author feedback on reviews. When the arguments are irrational or counter to Amazon’s business goals, their influence is nil.
What DOESN'T Influence Amazon Policy
- Amazon’s decision makers are not persuaded by petulant demands to abandon its fraud prevention efforts.
- They are unimpressed by complaints founded in misinformation, rumor, or wild-eyed conspiracy theories about Amazon “targeting indie authors”.
- They are utterly unmoved by cries of “censorship”, “Big Brother”, or “free speech”, which are irrelevant to a for-profit corporation offering a service on voluntary terms.
Yet, for all its seeming indifference, Amazon is not an immovable object. Policy adjustments made in the wake of the 2012 review purge show that Amazon is not oblivious to our calls for reform. We can persuade the corporate giant to adjust its practices.
But if we want Amazon to heed our collective voice, we need to be smarter about what we’re saying, how we say it, and who we say it to.
OVER TO YOU Do you have a personal story about Amazon review policy to share? Has the controversy changed your attitude to writing or asking for reviews? Join our conversation!
Why #authors should stop complaining about @Amazon review policy by @JohnDoppler Click To Tweet
- Why Indie Authors Need to Understand the Sub-culture of Amazon Reviewers – Debbie Young
- Why It's Good to Get Bad Book Reviews – Theo Rogers
- An Indie Author's Take on Book Reviews – Clare Weiner
Thank you for writing this excellent article! As a writer and a reader, this issue has concerned me for some time. I used to write reviews for Amazon under the name of mousewife. Once I became a published author, I stopped writing reviews. I wrote Amazon a letter directly, letting them know I was worried. I like to read and write in the same genre. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be stepping on any toes, or breaking any rules by writing reviews. The answer I got made me decide to stop writing them, to play it safe. I’ve often questioned this decision. What you’ve written makes me wonder if I didn’t play it too safe. I understand wanting to read a review which gives a reader an idea of what they’re getting into without giving away too much. I used to try to write these. Perhaps I should try using my personal biases (if I have them) to write an interesting review which helps the reader? You’ve given me food for thought.
[…] Opinion: Amazon Review Chaos – Are Indie Authors Making it Worse? […]
Distribution in any industry is fraught with disadvantageous business practices for widget makers. I work in the film business and there are few industries in comparison that have more draconian distribution agreements for creatives than that. Publishing is a close second. I am also an indie author and a traditionally published author and dealing with distributors (Amazon, Simon and Schuster, or Acme Publishing) is always going to be a disadvantage to the author. Amazon is not in the business of helping anyone, they are in the mass distribution business. We are helping them get rich, not the other way around. But that is the nature of distribution. I agree that authors have to speak up and “manage up” in the sense that we have to monitor the distributors best practices to make sure they don’t get too crazy and cut us out of the mix all together (trust me, if they could do that they would), but unless you are going to become a distributor of your own work you will need all of them to help you sell your widget. Distributors are a necessary business function to any creative person making a piece of art, and most of us don’t know a business plan or distribution strategy from a steak sandwich, so we are necessarily vulnerable unless we get educated and savvy about contracts, agreements, etc. Amazon isn’t good or evil, it’s just a business specializing selling stuff. Anything they do to “hurt” us as authors isn’t personal or targeted to undermine writers. Amazon, or any book distributor, is only concerned with profits and the business model. Bottom line is we have limited influence here to change anything in someone else’s business model, so the only way we can protect ourselves it to get educated about how the business of distribution works, make sure we are everywhere with our books, and promote promote promote. Get smart, not angry. You’re just yelling in the wind.
Well, said, Jeff.
While Amazon’s self-interest will always win out over authors’ interests, it’s still a symbiotic relationship. When customers buy our books, Amazon makes money, and so do we.
It’s in Amazon’s best interests to create a thriving, profitable marketplace for authors, and they’re not oblivious to that fact. They don’t deliberately harm authors.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll lift one finger to cater to authors’ wishes if it doesn’t fit their business strategy. If we want to persuade Amazon to change their course, we need to focus on how the change benefits them, and not on our needs.
I’m happy that Amazon is enforcing its review policies, even if that means I lose some reviews in the process where well-meaning friends have left glowing reviews I haven’t asked for. I’d love to see the end of reciprocal reviews, reviewing rings and those five-starrers notorious in the Goodreads community. One of whom, to my shock, turned out to be used by the genre organization I’d submitted my book to. I protested to the organization’s leadership.
None of these arrangements really help authors. I know it’s horrendously difficult to get reviews, and even harder to get good ones. But it’s in our best interest to get honest reviews, and it’s certainly in the best interest of the readers. Honest reviews help us grow as writers, after all. If one-star reviews anger or upset you, you may not be ready to put your work out there, and the reviewers are doing you a favor by showing you that.
I agree. Authors need to reject the idea that biased, fake, or quid pro quo reviews are acceptable. They are deceptive, and Amazon is right to try to put a stop to that behavior.
That’s why I believe the policy itself is sound, even if the implementation is painfully flawed.
There will ALWAYS be people trying to scam the system. Amazon cares about CUSTOMERS, and customer experience – which we should ALL applaud, because the money paid to authors comes ONLY from satisfied and continuing customers.
Writers/authors/? who try to affect the customer experience by any other way than writing good books are scammers, and ultimately damage the system other writers depend on.
I tell people to include the line ‘I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion,’ but I can’t force them to – and shouldn’t be checking up on them afterward to see if they did. It is hard enough to get readers to leave a review, because most of them are not writers, and if they think they’re going to be graded, well, all they have to do is NOT leave a review.
I do my job (and it IS slow – 7 reviews in the almost three months since I launched, all of them appreciated): I write. I market. And I work on writing the next book.
Readers do their job: where they feel their input is both easy and appreciated, they will give it. Especially when they think the review system is clean.
You are a total voice of reason, Jane.
Wise words indeed. There’s no perfect answer: authors wouldn’t want a devalued review system, and that’s what we’ll have if Amazon doesn’t try to spot the wrong’uns. They’ll not always get it right. I 100% agree with other comments about what Amazon has done to make indie author a viable career choice for writers.
Bingo, Dave. Amazon doesn’t always get it right. They have struggled with this balance before, and their response has often been heavy-handed at the start. Think back to the 2012 review purge, or the overzealous purge of erotica titles in 2010.
However, in time, they have self-corrected, and Amazon remained a viable and profitable venue for indie authors.
I think we’ll see that same kind of gradual adjustment in the months to come.
This was s terrific post! I am a new indie self published author from the world of academic publishing which I still enjoy. Loved Theo.’s book! Who knew Amazon reviewers acted liked and were revered just like college students evaluating their faculty members- same system exactly.
Thank you, Marilyn!
I have not yet had a review taken down by Amazon. My only moan is that I have had to adapt myself to their ‘star rating’ system which as it has a curve of ‘love to hate’ I feel rather lowers the reviewing process to the personal preferences of the reviewer – did they ‘love’ (5 stars) or ‘hate’ (presumably 1 star) tells us little about the quality of the writing, the originality of the story, and is too often followed by someone telling us the story. But, I suspect I began by having higher and different expectations of the reviewers than I should: they are not after all writing for a newspaper or magazine with a literary background!
It has been scary to read about the pulling of reviews, but, as I say,I haven’t lost any yet, and pretty much worked out what I have to do on Amazon to review – be a bit less academically inclined in my critique!
Similar, but I have a problem with the fact that the meaning of star ratings varies, even between two Amazon sites (Amazon and Goodreads)! 3 on one does not mean the same as three stars on another, so inconsistent… 🙂 http://karldrinkwater.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/the-ratings-game.html
Well said, John, and timely.
I grow tired of authors (and others) denigrating Amazon just because it’s the market leader. I actually read about an author last week who refuses to sell her books on Amazon and instead sells only through her own website. Because Amazon is the evil incarnate. Well – good luck with selling to millions of customers then.
Yes, the review policy is flawed, but all policies are flawed. Personally I have found Amazon to be polite and helpful any time I have had a problem or needed advice.
Thanks for being a voice of reason.
Amazon-bashing is a popular pastime, but the truth is that no entity has done more to enable the indie publishing market to thrive.
I do find reviews to be one area where Amazon’s customer service doesn’t live up to its reputation. I’m hoping that will change as their review policies evolve.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you were a paid Amazon troll or someone on Bezos’s payroll. Because of all the articles I’ve read about authors, this has got to be the stupidest, most misinformed one I’ve ever seen. You contradict yourself from the start by saying, “(T)he algorithms they used and the policies they implemented were overly aggressive, leading to the erasure of thousands of legitimate reviews.”
Then two paragraphs later, you squirt sewage at indie authors by doing an about face and saying, “Inflammatory blog posts have sprung up across the internet, filled with histrionic wailing about ‘censoring my passion for the written word’ and ‘crossing an ethical line of unfathomable proportions’, or spouting misinformation about ‘draconian new policies’ which have actually been in place for years.”
So, in other words, if an indie author has a problem with a predatory, scumbag corporation like Amazon, we’re automatically off our rocker and spring from a position of ignorance? And if these draconian, bullshit policies have been in place without change for years we’re supposed to just accept this is the way things are and are supposed to be? Seriously? I think you’re egregiously selling short the pragmatism of authors like me who have been in the game for decades.
#1, Amazon certainly DOES prey on authors because they know they can always count on milksop authors and/or paid trolls like you to carry Bezos’s water. On July 1st, they implemented the ingenious idea of paying authors by the page on Kindle titles (while pointedly keeping their 30% distribution fee). And without even seriously addressing the reasons other than a book’s quality for a reader not reading a Kindle title, no one’s ever stopped to ask where the money is the authors used to get automatically on the sale of a Kindle title. Are we supposed to believe it’s safe in an nice, warm escrow account so Jeff fucking Bezos can then magnanimously release to us if and when the book is read? (And how incredibly creepy is it that Amazon knows how much you’ve read on your Kindle down the very page?)
#2 The very fact they arrogantly ignore very real concerns of plainly predatory and discriminatory behavior and denying us an actual review and appellate process shows we have all climbed into bed with the wrong corporation. Needless bullshit such as legit reviews getting taken down while one star hit pieces posing as actual reviews are allowed to stay up is what happens when you let algorithms run a company rather than human beings who can actually think.
#3 And Amazon can afford to treat authors like shit because books account for just 25% of their gross sales and indie authors account for just a fraction of that. But hey, keep carrying water for a sawed-off little sociopath like Jeff fucking Bezos, the fifth richest man on earth who never knew nor will ever know you ever existed.
On the contrary, there’s nothing contradictory about what I’ve said. You may have missed the paragraph where I state: “Yes, Amazon’s auditing of reviews is unquestionably flawed. Reviews have always been a pain point for authors, and the unfair deletion of genuine reviews is a disservice to authors and customers alike.”
Amazon’s implementation of their policies is flawed, and authors are justifiably upset. I don’t contest that.
However, that does not mean that we should behave like petulant toddlers, stamping our feet and raging in ludicrous, over-the-top performances. It does not justify spreading unfounded rumors and urban legends without considering the merits of those claims.
The frustration is reasonable. The childish reaction is not. And that response is undermining the credibility of indie authors, not only with Amazon — the only organization that can change the offending practices — but with our readers as well.
In response to your numbered list:
1. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding your comment, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Online Lending Library do not have a commission (or “distribution fee”), and those are the only programs in which authors are paid by the page. (A policy which has increased many authors’ income, and neatly eliminated the problems of spam and junk pamphlets in KU and KOLL, by the way.) The KENPC per-page system affects only borrows through KU and KOLL, not sales of ebooks.
If I’ve misunderstood your point, please feel free to clarify.
2. “Plainly predatory and discriminatory” is an opinion you’re entitled to, but I haven’t seen facts to back that up. (Discriminatory against who?)
I agree that the lack of an appellate process is one of the more galling aspects of Amazon’s relationship with authors. However, that minor irritant doesn’t outweigh the benefit I get from my relationship with Amazon.
Of course, if you find that it does, there’s nothing preventing you from severing that relationship. Amazon’s services are offered voluntarily, and we consume them voluntarily. But I find it more productive to engage in dialogue with a company rather than spitting in their faces. Oddly enough, the latter is not persuasive.
3. Correct, authors account for only a sliver of Amazon’s total income. That means that we have little leverage with which to shift their policies. Without leverage, the best chance of effecting change within that corporate giant is to be diplomatic, informed, and persuasive — not abusive, confused, and unreasonable.
That’s the crux of my argument above: “If we want Amazon to heed our collective voice, we need to be smarter about what we’re saying, how we say it, and who we say it to.”
And that advice applies equally to online conversations.
I really hope you’ve written a correcting article and apology to authors for the remark here on KU page counting.
We, the authors, erroneously believed Amazon when they implemented this page counting program but the very first concern to crop up was, “Hey, people will just get friends to borrow their book and jump to the end and get paid!”
Amazon’s answer? We know if pages have been skipped. A reader must stop on each page to get payment.
I’m sure you’ve seen recent articles about scammers who uploaded 10000 page books with immediate links to the very back page and were paid outrageous sums for readers doing so. Tens of thousands per month.
How can Amazon to ask we, the authors, to follow their ever changing terms of service, when they can’t uphold theirs? Who in their right mind starts paying for pages read, when they clearly can’t keep track of pages read?
Mind boggling doesn’t explain it. Ignorant, knee jerk reactions from a company who prefers to throw the baby out with the bathwater instead of take the time to come up with legitimate solutions that work out in everyone’s favor.
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