Amazon’s Response to Author Reviews

This is somewhat in response to the following articles:

Word on the street seems to be indicating that reviews written by authors, for other authors, on Amazon have been, or are being, removed. I’m not sure what to make of that. There’s undoubtedly been gross abuse of the Amazon review system by certain parties to promote books. Groups of authors have reviewed each others’ books and given glowing reviews without having read them.

Even at its most egregious though, how many reviews are we talking about? I have no idea. I feel confident though that the larger problem is an author’s ability to create ‘dummy’ accounts to review his own work (Stanek, Robert), or the work of his friends. Nothing in Amazon’s new policies will get at that problem. This is the internet, you can’t fix those things.

Recognizing there’s no way for Amazon to truly dispose of ‘bunk’ reviews, isn’t it a bridge too far to outright remove authors from reviewing each other?

Is Peter V. Brett’s review of Myke Cole’s novel legitimate? They’re best friends. Brett was Cole’s alpha reader. However, he’s read Cole’s novel — probably dozens of times. The same is true of Cole for Brett’s work. I have no idea if they’re reviewed one another on Amazon, nor do I have any idea if those reviews have been removed, but the example points out the obvious flaw in Amazon’s supposed policy. How is their bias any more compromising than a ‘consumers’?

I’m in the bag for Joe Abercrombie. He could write a Carebear novel and I’d give it 5-stars and thank him for it. Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch is mentioned in the acknowledgements of China Mièville’s latest novel, Railsea. And yet he can review Mièville with impunity. I’m not sure I grasp how being published in some capacity disqualifies someone from also being a consumer, particularly in SFF where so many authors have come directly out of fandom.

If I decided to self publish a short story on Amazon, would I suddenly be disqualified from reviewing other authors? That seems silly. Looking at Amazon’s ‘review guidelines’ there’s no mention of the reviewer’s status as an author. There is however, a statement about promotional content:

Promotional content:

  • Advertisements, promotional material or repeated posts that make the same point excessively
  • Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product)
  • Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product.  This includes reviews that are a part of a paid publicity package
  • Solicitations for helpful votes

I’ll grant that it’s possible only reviews from authors of the same publisher are being removed, which would, sort of, be in conformity with this rule. In theory  that would lump all independent authors in the same box. It’s a dubious distinction to make, even for authors within the same imprint (such as Ace or Orbit), that the sales of a colleague’s books benefit their own.

Anyway, I could ramble on about this all day. I’ll close with this, there is absolutely a problem with illegitimate reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and a host of other outlets. I strongly believe it’s going to have a negative impact on the online space. It undoubtedly has already cast a shadow over legitimate reviews and reviewers. But, and it’s a big one, I’m confident that what Amazon may have done will in no way correct that problem, and could, in some cases, harm the consumers they’re trying to protect.

What do you think?

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer's Book Review. When he's not writing things of dubious value to the world, he's at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.

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Comments
  • Kameron Hurley November 2, 2012 at 10:49 am

    This is so epically problematic. What qualifies someone as an “author”? Being published on Amazon.com? Or self-pubbing short stories anywhere online? Or blogging? Or getting something published in Asimov’s or The New Yorker? If I’m not published on Amazon.com am I not a “real author”? What the eff?

    I’ve been blogging/reviewing books since 2004 on my blog. If I was doing so on Amazon.com and then, suddenly, in 2011, my book is published on Amazon, do all 7 years of my reader reviews get taken down?

    Or would my stuff have been taken down immediately, since I sold my first short story in 1998 and first pro story in 2001?

    Like you said, most of the tricky stuff going on is actually by “author” sock puppets or free agents creating dummy accounts, and this policy does absolutely nothing to counteract that.

  • Martin November 2, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Very much agree that being an author or a fan (or both!) should not prohibit you from reviewing another author, even if they are a friend. A word of caution on your Brett/Cole example though. That is a case where the potential reviewer had been heavily involved in the creation of the work and so, in that instance, their bias is more compromising. But this isn’t the norm.

  • Michelle Knowtlon November 2, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Agreed about this being problematic. I technically have an author page on Amazon. I’d hate to think that I couldn’t review another book. There really is no way of gauging the authenticity of a review. Buyer (and review reader) beware.

  • Bryce November 2, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    First, I have a hard time caring about Amazon reviews in general, especially when it comes to books. I’ve never trusted them before and this will in no way help me to trust them any more.

    Second, I acknowledge that the way I find books to read (blogs/goodreads) is not how everyone does so and Amazon reviews is a big way lots of people find books. Is this the way to make them more trustworthy? Not at all. As has been mentioned above, how does one qualify or not and who really causes the problem? Plus, who’s going to stop authors from creating a different account and posting reviews. It’s just too easy.

    Let’s just all acknowledge that Amazon reviews are useless when it comes to books and we’ll all be much happier. :)

  • Teresa Frohock November 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    I agree with Bryce that I never base my book buying on Amazon reviews; however, these reviews are valuable, otherwise no one would bother setting up a business that offers to pay for reviews (see the NYT article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/business/book-reviewers-for-hire-meet-a-demand-for-online-raves.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 ).

    Justin, you use Peter and Myke’s situation, and I think that is a valid comparison. A lot of times authors will endorse one another’s works. No problem with that. To me that is the equivalent of a nice blurb and I read it as such; I think most fans read it that way too.

    But here is the thing: after a certain point, your name becomes your brand. Peter Brett isn’t slathering his name all over Amazon reviews just to “help” other authors. He is putting his name behind books and authors that he enjoys reading. I don’t see Peter Brett or Myke Cole posting review after review after review after review on Amazon or anywhere else, therefore, their word will carry more weight with me. If I like reading the same kinds of books as Peter or Myke, I’m going to check out their suggestions.

    However, I don’t think those are the kinds of reviews that Amazon is out to stop. They seem to be more interested in authors who are going out en masse and reviewing books in order to raise each other’s rankings, and that’s when it becomes a problem. Don’t lose sight of that. When authors are paying reviewers for several reviews (like in the NYT article)—that is gaming the system. Or when authors on Goodreads’ actively set up discussion groups encouraging and promoting ways for other authors to rank and review books, then that’s gaming the system.

    These folks have studied how Amazon utilizes rankings. You don’t have to be a great wit to understand how it works. My Amazon rankings go up every time someone reviews my novel, I’ve watched it happen. If more reviews or sales don’t immediately follow, then the ranking declines. Amazon bases its suggested reads on rankings—that is common knowledge. Goodreads uses a similar algorithm, but Goodreads reviews are not directly tied to either advertising or sales.

    For the record, my Amazon page still contains the reviews written for me by other authors, so obviously Amazon’s algorithm isn’t connected to the “author page.” It may be connected the volume of reviews within a certain time span. I don’t know, neither does anyone else, it’s all bloody speculation on all our parts at this point. I just know that with algorithms, you are in a very black and white situation. There will be no shades of gray as in, “X author is really famous, maybe we better not delete his/her reviews.” Algorithms run blind based on the data that you input.

    I am glad you talked about authors as fans, Justin. I think that is great point. Thanks for letting prattle on about it a little more here.

  • BigZ7337 November 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    I think this is stupid, as long the author read the books they’re reviewing, they should be able to post a review. The only author review I’ve ever seen that shouldn’t be allowed was one from one indie author writing a 2 star review about the highest rated indie fantasy book, without even showing that he’d read it. Here’s a link to that review: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2T6FXFTR7Y419/ref=cm_cr_pr_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B0070NSPCU&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=#wasThisHelpful

  • Jared November 3, 2012 at 5:08 am

    “… is mentioned in the acknowledgements of China Mièville’s latest novel, Railsea. And yet he can review Mièville with impunity.”

    For what it is worth, neither Anne nor I have reviewed RAILSEA (on any platform) for that very reason. And you’re absolutely right – Amazon wouldn’t have a problem with it.

    Banning transparent reviews seems a very weird response to the sock puppet problem. I’m not sure what Amazon are thinking.

  • Mhairi Simpson November 3, 2012 at 11:58 am

    I don’t think it’s just authors’ reviews either. I can’t remember any examples, but I saw someone mention her cousin’s review (they share the same last name) of her work had been taken down. I don’t know about the “quality” of the review, but this author wondered if Amazon had assumed they were closely enough related that the reviewer had to be biased and had therefore taken down the review. The thing is, the author in question had a fairly common name, so if that was Amazon’s reasoning, it’s not without its issues.

  • Bibliotropic November 4, 2012 at 7:26 am

    While I can appreciate that Amazon is trying to cut down on reviews like that, policing that sort of thing becomes incredibly problematic. If it’s going to be done to help renove bias, then what would be done about reviews by people who are friends with an author but who aren’t authors themselves? There are plenty of those biased reviews on there… Or what would happen to the reviews from people who became authors after reviewing books for so long? Would reviews from the date of publication onward be removed while leaving older ones, or would they all be removed? Plenty of books have blurbs by other authors on the cover as a form of endorsement; how is that so different than authors leaving a review on Amazon? have a strong bias for any books published by Mercedes Lackey, as her books were pretty much my first introduction to the fantasy genre and I find them great for a little escapist getaway, and thus am likely to rate them pretty high. Should my reviews of her books be taken down from Amazon because of that admitted bias if bias is what they’re worried about.

    It’s a situation with way too many “what if”s to be taken care of easily, and like Teresa Frohock commented, Amazon won’t allow for shades of grey when they start disallowing and taking down reviews. Which is a real shame, because when I see a review for a book written by an author I know and trust, then I’m far more likely to read that other author’s work. Which means I’m more likely to BUY that other author’s work. Removing that option of review isn’t doing much but costing Amazon a potential sale.

  • Mieneke van der Salm November 8, 2012 at 5:17 am

    I know I’m really late commenting on this — baby and stomach flu isn’t a fabulous combination — but I think the problem with Amazon reviews in general is all about credibility. I’m currently reading R. David Lankes’ The Atlas of New Librarianship, in which he talks about the necessity of credibility for a librarian. As an example he quotes a survey at a public library (I can’t remember which and I don’t have the book at home) in which it turned out teens wanted their librarians to blog. They didn’t want them to blog as part of a rather depersonalised institutional blog, no they wanted them to have personal blogs, so they could get to know them a bit and see their reading preferences and could consequently value their recommendations better. It’s similar to how most of us seem to read book blogs (if I can believe my Blogger Query series): we seem to trust bloggers whose opinion we know often coincides with our own more than those who often have differing opinions. As Lankes says, someone with proven credibility, who gives good recommendations time and again, becomes an authority. This is something which is hard to build up with Amazon reviewers. Unless you consciously seek out all the reviews a certain reviewer posts, you won’t see them, because reviews are linked to an item (be it a book, a DVD, a kettle, or a pair of jeans) not to a person. Thus, it’s hard to know how much trust to place in a review/rating, unless it’s a one-star that says “this sucks” or a five-star that says the opposite, those are pretty easy to discard.

    The fact that Amazon’s now decided to arbitrarily delete any reviews by authors, doesn’t solve the problem of credibility one whit. As others have stated, that still leaves the sock poppets, reviews by family and friends, etc. Unless, Amazon finds a way to assign reviews/reviewers credibility in a way that can’t be gamed, there will always be a problem with the trustworthiness of their ratings.

  • william January 31, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Amazon is deleting legitimate positive reviews without any sort of trial or explanation and allowing fraudulent negative reviews to remain, even though they are clearly from competitors or from people who clearly haven’t read the book in question. And now they are removing the tags that help readers find books.

    What else are they going to do to destroy the independent author market?

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