Monday, July 13, 2015

Amazon and Reviews

Those who follow my blog know that I believe Amazon has been incredibly beneficial to authors, whereas the Authors Guild has been incredibly beneficial to publishers.

In the past week, both Amazon and the AG have done things that have made me rethink my positions.

Well, not really. But today I'll blog about Amazon, and I'll do an AG blog tomorrow.

The only major criticism I've had of Amazon, from a writer's standpoint, was during Reviewgate, when a moral panic mob goaded them into removing so called "fake" reviews.

I have never paid for a review. Nor have I ever been paid for one. But many of the book reviews I'd done on Amazon--thoughtful, contentious reviews with hundreds of helpful votes--were removed. Apparently some Amazon bo (I'm guessing it had to be a bot, because so many reviews were removed it couldn't have been manually done) pinged that I had known some of the authors whose books I reviewed (well, duh--I know thousands of authors), and decided they were against Amazon's policy.

Amazon can do whatever it wants to. And though this stance annoyed me, it didn't stop me from working with Amazon as a writer, or continuing to frequent Amazon as a customer.

It did, however, cause me to stop writing Amazon reviews.

That wasn't a punitive decision. It was a practical one. When I write a book review, it takes time and thought. I wasn't going to spend time and thought reviewing something if--due to an algorithm--it could be deleted with no recourse.

I know I wasn't the only author who felt this way. And I think readers and writers in general suffered because of this bad decision. I was an Amazon Vine Voice reviewer, and have gotten a lot of cool stuff for free (including a Breville cappuccino machine) over the years, but I decided I wouldn't write any more Amazon reviews, and except for rare occasions when I post something funny, I'm sticking to my policy until Amazon changes theirs.

Amazon has apparently changed their policy, for the worse.

This from writer Imy Santiago:

Hello,

We cannot post your Customer Review for (book title deleted) by (author name deleted) to the Amazon website because your account activity indicates that you know the author. 

Customer Reviews are meant to give customers unbiased product feedback from fellow shoppers. Because our goal is to provide Customer Reviews that help customers make informed purchase decisions, any reviews that could be viewed as advertising, promotional, or misleading will not be posted. To learn more about this policy, please review our Customer Review Guidelines (http://amazon.com/help/customer-reviews-guidelines) and FAQs (http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/?nodeId=201077870).  

We encourage family and friends to share their enthusiasm for the book through our Customer Discussions feature or Editorial Reviews feature. To start a Customer Discussion visit the Meet Our Authors forum and enter your discussion title in the Start a new discussion box. You’ll find the forum here: 
http://www.amazon.com/forum/meet%20our%20authors/&cdForum=Fx2UYC1FC06SU8S

To have your Editorial Review posted to the detail page, e-mail it directly to the author so they can add it for you. 

If you believe you’re eligible to write a Customer Review for this book, send additional details to review-appeals@amazon.com. 

We hope to see you again soon.

Best regards,

Harm J,

The Guardian then posted a link to a petition started by author Jas Ward that is asking Amazon to stop this practice:

In the world where both Indie and Traditional authors are using all tools available to try to get their latest books out to the reader, it's essential for the authors and their associates to use social media: IE: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

With that being said, a reader is therefore going to have cookies and data when they see that interaction and very likely would have LIKED and/or followed the authors pages, profiles and other avenues being a fan of the author's work.  They are fans after all--they want to know what an author does and their current news and title releases. 

Your current process of removing reviews that a reader has created to show their honest & sincere opinion on a book is not fair and cripples the review process more than assists. 

In the days of the negative trend where those who wish an author harm are using reviews to hurt sales or the author's confidence, this policy makes zero sense, as the individuals that are instructed or wish to harm are most likely NOT a fan and or follower and therefore would most likely NOT to have as many cookies, data tracks as a good, loyal fan would. 

We the authors, fans, reviews, bloggers and other individuals in the industry ask that you please consider how the review process is done. By using a reader's other accessible history to determine if they are worthy of leaving a review by knowledge of an author, is not a fair one. A real fan of any person would, of course, have links to someone they respect and follow and therefore they should have the right to leave a review. 

The review process has taken so much heat in the last few years, and while we appreciate Amazon trying to make it a respected tool for a buyer when deciding a purchase, this aspect of your system is not a fair or just part. 

Therefore, we are asking that you consider all the above and review your internal policy on tracking a reviewers history. It is not fair nor is it just and we the readers, authors and all-around lovers of books ask that it be stopped. 

Thank you. 

If any signers have any additional input/info, I can be found and contacted via my Facebook Page:

https://www.facebook.com/AuthorJasTWard

I signed the petition.

People who haven't read the books they are reviewing are allowed to review them, in many cases negatively. People who get books for free are allowed to review them. Writers have been blurbing writers for centuries. But people like me can't review books by authors I've known, and fans who have had any correspondence with me (of which there are tens of thousands) can't review my work.

Personal Note From Joe to Jeff Bezos: This is not a good policy. I know the relative democracy and freedom of Amazon's review system pre-2012 wasn't perfect. It allowed authors to snipe one another anonymously. It allowed fake reviews. It allowed nepotism and review-trading. But the only reform needed was to make sure the reviewer had an Amazon account (which provided accountability and limited reviewers to one review per item) and disclosure if a reviewer got the book for free, or knew the author.

Removing reviews was bad business. I'd spent hours writing solid, helpful, informative reviews that were erased. That didn't feel good.

Preventing reviews is bad business. I understand guidelines are necessary, but it isn't necessary to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As the world grows smaller, more and more people are able to be in touch, even if it's a like on a Facebook page or a retweet on Twitter. Will Amazon someday prevent all of my Facebook or Twitter followers from writing reviews? Will it prevent everyone who has ever commented on my blog? Or everyone who has read my blog? Everyone who has heard of me?

If the goal is to get the most helpful, purest reviews possible, is censorship the way to do so? Or can this be done by simply requiring disclosure, as it is with Vine?

I support your right to suppress whatever content you want to. It's your company. Run your business as you see fit; you're successful at it, and I'm grateful to Amazon as a writer, and as a customer.

However, I'm not sure your policy on reviews meshes with your mission statement:

“Our vision is to be earth's most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

Does removing and preventing reviews make Amazon more customer centric, or less customer centric? Does limiting votes help or harm the customer experience? Does suppressing opinions encourage others to give their opinions, or make them shy away from sharing opinions because they might be blocked or removed?

Amazon gets constantly maligned by the media, and I can't think of any other successful company that has so many haters and detractors. I'm not one of those people. I've supported Amazon when the mainstream media has vilified it. I don't agree with Imy Santiago suggesting that Amazon has become Big Brother (note to Imy: hyperbole waters down your valid points. Amazon is a private corporation and can do what it wants to, and you're not required to use Amazon. Amazon is not a totalitarian government, and comparing it to one is silly).

But I do think Amazon is wrong on this issue.

Readers are savvy enough to differentiate between real reviews and those written by shills, haters, rivals, paid endorsers, and fakers. Amazon already has programs in place which allow readers to judge whether a review is helpful, and to flag reviews that are inappropriate.

In my humble opinion, letting bots determine the appropriateness of a review is more inappropriate than the vast majority of the reviews Amazon is trying to protect customers against.

I hope Amazon recognizes the slippery slope it is on, and corrects its position.