Online Book Reviews: Games People Play

Last year I wrote a post about the importance of writing Amazon reviews that caused something of a poop-storm in the bookish corners of Cyberia. Although most readers—especially in my own Boomer demographic—were grateful for the post, a furious minority exploded in fits of high dudgeon.

I even got death threats from a handful of self-appointed Amazon vigilantes and anonymous enforcement-persons. I suppose this post may, too--and I may lose all my Amazon reviews as "punishment"--but I think the subject is important enough to take the risk.

At first, I was baffled by the enraged responses. As an avid reader, former bookseller, and newly-republished author, I only wanted to urge readers—especially older folks who aren’t so Web savvy—to take the time to write reviews because of the power they give us to speak to the marketplace.

At that point, Boomers were an ignored segment of the reading population. Now Boomer Lit is an up-and-coming genre—I think in part thanks to the voice that social media and online reviews gives us.

But I admit to extreme naiveté. I knew nothing of the rampant gaming of online book reviews or the bizarre culture of Amazon reviewing.

I still back every word I said: readers who write honest reviews are helping the reading community and enabling authors to write more of the kind of books their fans will like. Older people shouldn’t fear writing reviews, although it may seem daunting at first. (And we do need to be aware that “a gold star” isn’t an endorsement. You need four or five to say “I loved it,” if you did.)

In fact, it’s far more important for real customers to make their voices heard than I realized when I wrote that post thirteen months ago. But I feel readers need to branch out and post reviews on other sites beside Amazon. The Amazon review system seems to be irrevocably broken.

Since I wrote that post, a number of abuses of online reviews have come to light.

• Many Amazon reviews have been generated by paid review mills. Even big name authors have been using them.

• Other reviews have come from “sock puppets.” A handful of authors—again, many famous, traditionally published ones—have been writing rave reviews of their own books and scathing reviews of their “rivals” under assumed names. (More on the idea of “rival” authors below. I don’t believe most authors think in those terms, although R.J. Ellory obviously did.)

• A few authors have been playing a mutual “back-scratching” game where authors “review” each other without reading the books. I even heard of one writer who extorted good reviews from his colleagues by leaving a 5-star review on an author’s book, then demanding reciprocation—threatening to turn the 5-star to a one-star if the back-scratch isn’t forthcoming.

• Flash mobs of vigilantes have been using nasty Amazon “reviews” as a way of punishing perceived transgressions by authors, even if the transgression has nothing to do with the author’s books. When a misunderstanding about a book-lending site ended in a lot of complaints to Amazon last summer, vigilantes then attacked the Amazon pages of the complainers with scores of one-star reviews. Not exactly helpful to customers and seriously disrespectful to everybody in the book business.

• People who hate Amazon as a company are taking out their wrath on authors with one-star anti-Amazon "reviews" (which seriously drag down a book’s Amazon rankings and take money out of the author's pocket.) Other bizarre one-stars seem to be proliferating. More on that this week at the Writers Guide to E-Publishing. (The comments are especially interesting.)

I should add it’s not just Amazon that is having review problems.

• Goodreads suffered an attack of bullying via review that resulted in the formation of a posse of author-vigilantes who retaliated with even more bulling. That resulted on one big old dogpile of Mean Girls.

• Barnes and Noble isn’t immune either. Last August, authors found online gamers were sending messages to each other using nonsense phrases in reviews. (But to their credit, the gamers usually gave high star-ranks to their messages.)

Here’s an example from the B & N buy page of fantasy author M. Edward McNalley, all posted on August 16, 2012

(5 stars) Review title: Mistyclaw

Wat the click is happening?

(5 stars) Review title: Firepaw

He keeps charging prey always making a sonic boom. Sorry. Cant help it. Ill stop. 

(4 stars) Review title: Mistystar

Um… I don't know, really?

Right. Dept. of WTF.

Barnes and Noble must have quietly cracked down on the cat-people since no more strange reviews have appeared after a flurry last summer. B & N has left the gamers’ reviews intact if the authors don’t complain, but the "reviews" don’t seem to be hurting anybody, although they may leave customers a tad confused.

Goodreads seems to have solved its bullying problem, too--or at least the brouhaha has quieted down. (This is good because Kobo plans to link to Goodreads reviews.)

Amazon, on the other hand, has responded with a draconian review purge that might have been engineered by King Herod of the Nativity story. Mr. Bezos and co. seem to have taken bad advice from people who know nothing about the publishing industry.

Some authors have seen every one of their reviews removed: legitimate reviews that were not paid for or solicited in any way.

Conscientious reviewers who have never been paid for a review have had every one of their reviews removed and were told they could never review in Amazon-town again.

The accused are simply told they have “violated Amazon guidelines” with no further explanation. Amazon allows no appeals and threatens to ban any author for life who complains.

It seems Amazon is removing any review perceived to be written by somebody who has a “relationship” with the author. For me that meant the removal of a couple of reviews written by somebody with the last name of Allen. (It’s a good thing my cousin Woody didn’t write me that review he promised, LOL.)

At the time, I didn’t mind sacrificing a few reviews to the cause of cleaning things up. But recent blogposts and news stories suggest the Zon has been throwing out a lot more babies than bathwater with their new policies.

They have declared all authors to be each others' “competitors”—especially authors in the same genre. Competitors are banned from reviewing each others’ products.

This makes sense with toasters, trucks or toothpaste. But it’s silly when it comes to books.

There’s more on this in the UK’s Telegraph this week. They interview a number of well-known authors who have suffered in the purge.
The reason they are so dismayed is that books have ALWAYS been reviewed by other authors.

If authors weren’t allowed to review, there would be no New York Times Book Review. No New York Review of Books. No Times Literary Supplement.

Can you imagine the San Francisco Chronicle asking some random tourist at Fisherman’s Wharf to review the latest Michael Chabon instead of hiring National Book Award finalist Jess Walter?

Or if the New York Review of Books had told John Updike he would be “unethical” to review Philip Roth?

Or if the New Yorker had banned Dorothy Parker from reviewing The House at Pooh Corner because they suspected she’d be “too nice” to A. A. Milne after meeting him at a cocktail party? (Her famous review under the byline "Constant Reader" said "Tonstant Weader fwowed up.")

This week I’ve heard that Amazon reviews are now being removed simply because the reviewer received the book as a gift—so if you got a book for Christmas, you might not want to review it on Amazon unless it was purchased somewhere else (and this is good for Amazon’s business…how?) They've declared it “unethical” to review any book you haven't personally paid for—especially if it came from an author or publisher.

Sorry, Zon, but this is just plain ignorant. Giving free review copies has been a standard practice in publishing since the industry began. I have no doubt Catullus's publisher gave Cicero a free scroll of the latest Lesbia poems in hopes Great Orator would rant about their licentiousness at Caesar's next orgy.

This is how the business of publishing has always worked.

And the ebook revolution has made it more important than ever to let authors review each other, because the line between "reader" and "author" has been blurred. Most readers dream of writing a book. A lot of them already are already at work. Easy self-publishing means a lot of them will be published. Is everybody who is working on a book banned from reviewing? If you ban every reviewer who has ever published or might do so in the future, you’re going to end up with a mighty small number of reviews.

In fact, the simple act of writing a review for an online site makes you a published writer, in the strictest sense. Perhaps Amazon should limit reviews to YouTube videos? Or compel reviewers to compose in wing-dings?

So how has Amazon got so off-base with their “guidelines”? 

Some people theorize they are motivated by complaints from some of the cliques that dominate the Amazon forums. This makes sense to me. Many of the high-dudgeoners who threatened me over my grandma post identified themselves as members of an elite group of Amazon denizens.

And yet they had no knowledge of the book business and seemed to consider all writers their enemies. Many expressed outrage at the idea that writers wanted to be paid or cared about having an income.

I decided to do a little research. I discovered the Amazon forums (as opposed to the Kindleboards) predate the ebook revolution and its members tend to be anti-ebook. In fact some members aren't much into books at all. Although Amazon began as a bookstore, the early forums were apparently dominated by reviewers of videogames and electronic products other than books. Nothing wrong with that. Games need reviews too.

But a pugnacious atmosphere of rigid "us/them" thinking, paranoia, and bullying has persisted in the forums. You don't want to visit unless you've developed some callouses on your eyeballs. Disrespectful, cruel behavior may be common in online games--I admit to complete ignorance there--but it seems wildly out of place in the book world.

Let me be clear that I'm talking about a handful of people. The majority of the top Amazon reviewers are intelligent, literate book lovers who genuinely care about readers. I've met some personally and found them exceptionally wise, charming, and honorable. They don't like the nasty, territorial nature of the forum culture either.

I was recently warned by a fearful top reviewer about the extent of bullying that goes on. I was told I should beware of hitting the “useful” button on more than one or two reviews by any one Amazon reviewer, because that reviewer might be accused of using me to get her/him into the coveted top 100 category--and we'd both be banned from Amazon forever.

That's right: My simple act of appreciation--and using Amazon as it was intended--could get that reviewer (and me) banned--over some competition most of us know nothing about.

This shadowy group has that much power.

The reviewer's warning clicked on a brain-bulb for me: it would appear that the reviewing itself has become a game with the primary goal of "defeating" other reviewers. Authors and readers--and the entire publishing industry--are simply collateral damage.

Knowing this helps explain why I got death threats for urging grandmothers to write reviews and show appreciation for other reviewers. If Amazon has become a private online game, the players need to keep little old ladies from wandering onto their turf.

This knowledge also helped me understand the violent, irrational missives I got in response to my post. They might have made more sense if I’d known they came from people who spend more time playing Orcs and trolls in online games than schmoozing their favorite authors at booksignings.

Publishing's role-playing fringe of "fanboys, fantasists and basement dwellers, all leaking testosterone" makes for some hilarious comedy when Gary Trudeau satirizes it in the "Red Rascal" Doonesbury storyline.

But if these are the people who are rewriting the rules of our venerable profession, it's closer to tragedy.

This is an industry where people tend to be nice to each other. Some even think book people are too polite. In the non-Amazon world, most authors don’t consider other authors in their genres to be “rivals” at all. Successful authors write in genres they’ve been reading a long time, so they love to read and promote each other’s books. When the genre is doing well, all the authors do well. The rising tide elevates all boats.

Authors are much more likely to band together for events like Richard Castle's poker game, or the Rock Bottom Remainders than sabotage each others' sales. Most author-bloggers host and promote each other--especially authors in the same genre. Ruth Harris and I write for the same demographic and we not only promote each other, but we belong to a Goodreads group where Boomer Lit authors enthusiastically read and support the work of all Boomer Lit writers.

No author can write books fast enough that we could expect fans to read no books but our own. The whole idea is silly.

Not that we’re going to endorse every single book in our genre, because we want our fans to trust our judgment. That's why book review journals have traditionally hired authors to write their reviews.

And there's the simple fact that experienced authors know how to use language to convey ideas, so our reviews tend to be more informative than those of, say, that random tourist at Fisherman’s Wharf.

I know some people claim the banning of authors from Amazon reviewing is a good thing, because "authors have brought it on themselves" as if people who write are some sort of monolithic entity in which we're all privy to each other's actions. That kind of thinking would give everybody in Connecticut the death penalty because of the Newtown shootings.

It's all zooming fast into the realm of the absurd.

OK, so what can we do?

Joanne Harris calls for an overhaul to the Amazon review guidelines, particularly the "star system." As she said to the Telegraph, "To be honest I would just rather Amazon delete all their reviews as it has caused so much trouble.” She added, “It is a pity. Originally it was a good idea but…it has become inherently corrupt."

In spite of all this, I’m going to continue to urge you to write Amazon reviews (even if you have committed the terrible sin of writing a book or two of your own.) Some reviews are removed and some aren't-- based on those mysterious Amazon algorithms we mortals are not privy to. But I would add the caveat that you should ALWAYS post to several sites other than Amazon in case it gets removed.
So what about you, scriveners? Have you had any reviews deleted—either reviews of your books or reviews you’ve written? Have you figured out how they could have been perceived as “violating” the guidelines of the Mighty Zon? Can you recommend book blogs we should follow in your genre? What other sites are good for finding honest reviews?

On a lighter note, remember authors are not banned from writing reviews of other products, and some obviously wildly talented authors have been writing hilarious reviews of the Hutzler banana slicer on Amazon this week. Thanks much to my pal Kristen Lamb for the heads-up.  

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