Sunday, January 6, 2013

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.
  • Joanne Harris, bestselling author of Chocolat, said, "One thing authors are able to do is articulate about books. They tend to read about books and their opinions... are listened to."
  • Crime fiction author Mark Billingham said, “If they are targeting authors for no valid reason then that is a shame…The whole online review system is deeply flawed to me and has been for years…They need to tackle anonymous reviews as they cause all the trouble. They could easily ban those and all of this would go away.”
  • Thriller author Jeremy Duns said: "It seems unfair and bizarre to target authors like that. There needs to be change but not like this."
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.
  • Since Barnes and Noble seems to leave a review up forever, even if it’s nonsense from the mysterious Mistyclaw and her online cat-game friends, you can be pretty sure your review will be preserved there. Besides, Nook owners will thank you. 
  • If you’re a member of Goodreads, post your review there, too. Mostly it’s a nice community, if a little clunky to navigate. (I admit to difficulties finding my way around myself.)
  • If the author is self-or small press-published, there’s a good chance the book is on Smashwords, where reviews are easy to post and the atmosphere is friendly. Mark Coker is a smart man and author advocate so I think anything we do to support him makes the book industry a better place. 
  • If you’re in the UK, you can look for the book on the Waterstones site and paste in your review there. 
  • Canada’s Kobo is an international site where your reviews will have a world-wide impact. I admit I’m not sure how to post reviews there, but it’s worth checking out.
  • Read and support book review blogs. The dedicated book review bloggers who donate their time to read and write thoughtful reviews deserve our support and thanks. If you’re an author and would like to have a book review blogger consider your book, here’s a post on how to query them.
  • I urge some entrepreneur out there to set up a site for book reviews like the Rotten Tomatoes site for film reviews. Because RT was set up as a site solely for review curation and not sales, it is the go-to site for most of us. I've got it on my browser toolbar. Wouldn't it be fabulous to have a site for books that had both professional reviews and customer reviews? 
  • If you’re an author, take screenshots of your reviews and save them. If your reviews disappear, you can contact the reviewer and ask to have the review posted at one of the more author/reviewer-friendly retail sites. 
  • Consider taking your book-shopping dollars/pounds/euros to other sites. Amazon isn't going anywhere, but healthy competition is always good for the marketplace. And who knows: they may just take notice and decide they can catch more flies with honey than the acid that flows through the Amazon forums.
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.  


  1. Great, thoughtful article! I bought a friends book, read it, and then left a review, only to have it deleted. When I call, some gal who could barely speak English rattled off every book that was not only in my desktop Kindle application, but also hooked up via Calibre to my B&N Nook reader. Oooh ... big brother scary when the Zon can peek into your ereader. Never -did- get that review posted to my friends book ... and it was an honest review on a book I BOUGHT there. Well ... I ain't a-buyin no books there no more! And I spend a lot of money on books!

  2. I applaud your bravery, Anne. I have not had any reviews removed. But I did have an interesting experience. I picked up one of the ebooks that was on the "customers also bought" list with my own. It had great reviews and it was free. But I found it to be very clumsily written, and I couldn't get through it. This really was not reflected anywhere in its reviews, so I was going to write my own. I ultimately didn't, just because I wasn't sure enough that I wanted to be publicly negative about any other author's work. Just a matter of a couple of weeks later I learned that i am expressly forbidden to do so, and that it would be perceived as attempting to tank my "competition." But I wouldn't have meant it that way at all, and, in addition, where is this expressed? It seems the rules have radically changed but I'm not sure how people are supposed to know them. A very confusing situation. I love the idea of reader reviews (though I have never written one and now I definitely never will) so I sincerely hope there's some way to sort out this mess. Unfortunately, I can't imagine what it might be.

  3. Hi-

    I feel tied to this post b/c I was the recipient of the demand for a reciprocal review that you mentioned. :)

    My dad used to say this to me all the time: I agree with all of your arguments, but I disagree with your conclusion.

    But in this case it's too strong. I semi-agree. On the other hand...what if Amazon really meant it? What if they disallowed -all- reviews from -all- authors regardless of genre or relationships? It'd certainly level the playing field quite a bit! Which is probably to the overall benefit of readers.

    But that's not what Amazon actually seems to be doing. In fact they allow authors/publishers to post info about "editorial reviews" in addition to reviews posted the usual way on Amazon.

    Still. If they really meant it? It might work out to be a good thing over time.

    Also, my understanding is that a review of a book rec'd as a gift is still okay, as long as the gift wasn't sent via Amazon's "buy as a gift" method. Their reasoning, I've heard, is that those are actually gift certificates that could be used for any purpose. Though I realize that doesn't make sense, because reviews posted after receipt of such a book are obviously the result of the gift cert being used as it was meant to be. Or they wouldn't exist. So...hmm. Weird.

    The above paragraph is the result of overheard anecdotal mutterings and not to be taken as necessarily bearing a one-to-one relationship with reality.

  4. Here's your heresy du jour: I'm a toughened up, roughed up survivor of Trad pub both as editor and writer. I've had great reviews & lousy reviews. Makes me wonder if they even read the same book!

    Basically, I don't think reviews mean very much. You need a good book + a good cover + a good blurb. Then word of mouth & position on the charts drive sales. Yes, maybe good reviews can help but they're not worth getting bent out of shape over.

    Joe Konrath says he doesn't read his reviews & I think he's right. Writers should ignore reviews (good & bad) & concentrate on 1)writing & 2)marketing.

  5. This is a helpful post, very well thought out and provocative. I had heard that reviews on Amazon were being looked into, but had no idea about the drastic changes. I'm surprised and saddened to read that you've received threats because of a previous post.
    Thanks for the info. There is a lot to read and consider.

  6. A lot to think about!
    A Rotten Tomatoes for books - what an awesome idea. Goodreads is really close to that right now.
    And people wonder why I don't even have an Amazon account.

  7. Really interesting post!! You know, while I AM concerned and interested in what is going on at Amazon the thing that disturbed me the most was actually Goodreads. Um.

    I've always kind of seen them as a SAFE HAVEN from all the turbulences of the interwebs, and a place where it is understood that a) authors read a lot and b)it's okay to have an opinion on a book that is different. So! It worries me most to hear about Goodreads bullying.

    Naturellement! The Amazon reviews thing is concerning too though.

  8. Anna, thanks for sharing your experience. It does seem to be way too Big Brothery, doesn't it?

    Catherine--Wow. You sure dodged a bullet. I do write reviews, although I haven't written many negative ones--and not in my genre. But I'll have to see if any have been taken down.

    David--Actually, you're not the only author I've heard of who got hit by that scam. Your comments are thought-provoking. You may be right. This may all be for the best. The reviews have too much power, and maybe if most people are banned from writing them, we can turn to real reviewer sites and blogs instead. I appreciate the "anecdotal mutterings". Thanks a bunch for weighing in!

    Ruth--I agree that reviewers often don't seem to have read the same book at all. The reason the reviews are so important isn't so much whether customers are moved by them as that the algorithms are influenced by them. Even the "gold box" suggestions, I heard today. So Amazon uses those reviews in ways that influence our bottom line a lot.

    Donna--This shadowy group is very scary. (People have suggested I hire a bodyguard after writing this post.) They have a huge amount of power and their real enemy is honest reviewers.

    Alex--You don't even have a account at the Zon!! Good for you for taking the road less traveled and still finding success. Goodreads is a little like Rotten Tomatoes, but it's kind of clunky to navigate and it has had some problems with bullies.

    Mia--The Goodreads bullying seems to have subsided. I think somebody stepped in. They have the "librarian" system which may help.

  9. I prefer to contact the writer personally and gush about his/her book. If s/he's got a blog, I post a quick comment praising a book.

    I'm a writer myself, and I don't go out reading reviews of my books (after a couple of years doing this, I decided it's not worth the trouble, really, since reviews are there for readers, not necessarily for me). I'm also by nature fiercely hermitic and don't like social media, so I go the personal route.

    Looking at the mess that's at Amazon and Goodreads, I'm not really encouraged to do anything else.

  10. Terrific post. A much more thoughtful and measured engagement with the issue than I've seen elsewhere!

  11. Great post. I have been fortunate enough to escape any direct impact of the review fiasco on Amazon, however I have to wonder at how many reviews never were posted because readers are under the impression that their reviews will be deleted by Amazon anyway? I'm talking about people who are prolific reviewers and have been affected. A friend had three reviews from one reviewer deleted for no reason we can determine. The reviewer isn't an author, isn't a fried or relative and lives across the country from the author. The only thing she is guilty of is writing three great reviews for my friend's books.

  12. With regard to reviews, I'm in a different, but equally awkward spot. I've been a freelance book designer and typesetter for 30+ years (mostly with big 6 pubs); I'm also an author of women's fiction and horse books for children. In the past year, I've come to know (on-line) a woman who writes novels about Thoroughbred horse racing. They are self-published and seriously good.

    Having enjoyed (and reviewed) her first novel, I asked to read the second, as a beta reader. I loved it so much, I offered to design her a cover and to typeset the print version … for free. She happily accepted both offers. I really believe in this book; it paints an up-close-and-personal look at an industry most people only know on the surface. Her characters (and the horses) are drawn with vivid perception. Her prose sings. I honestly love this book. I want it to have the best possible launch, with a dynamite cover and the professional typesetting it deserves. If I hadn't loved it, I would not have volunteered my time (and design expertise) for free.

    She just emailed to ask if I'd like to acknowledged in her front matter, or listed on her copyright page as the cover and interior designer. Having my name in her book might possibly prompt someone to contact me for cover design and typesetting work, which would be lovely.

    But … I told her not to include my name for the simple reason that I want to review her book on Amazon when it comes out and tell everyone how much I loved it.

    If my name appeared anywhere in that book (ebook or print) Amazon would block my review. So I'm giving up the chance for a possible (very slight, by the way) of new cover design and typesetting work in order to promote and praise a book I truly love.

  13. Anne, this is a brilliant post! Thank you! You've covered it all with your usual intelligent and sophisticated perspective. I just hope some of the right people see it and consider your words.

  14. Hayden--There's no doubt Amazon's review system is a hot mess. And Goodreads is hard to navigate. (The Zon got where it is by having such slick, customer-friendly tech.) But leaving a public review is a huge kindness to readers and writers (even a negative review can be very helpful for sales.) But if you're just not into public anything, I understand--I go through periods of just wanting to turtle-up and stay away from other humans--so sending a nice email is a very kind second-best. But without Amazon reviews, an author just can't sell any books there.

    Becca--Thanks much for coming over from the Kindleboards to comment!

    M.P. It IS the thoughtful, careful reviewers who have been targeted. That's because this is more about reviewer on reviewer bullying than it is about authors or readers. Those game-players are toxic and they have total control of Amazon's policies, apparently. Many of the best reviewers are simply not reviewing any more because of the threats and cruelty of these people.

    Maggie--What a heart-wrenching dilemma you had! And how kind of you to sacrifice your own credits. I sure hope the Zonsters don't target you for some other imagined transgression.

    Alicia--Thanks much. I sure hope somebody in charge at Amazon notices they're being manipulated by some dangerous people who are working against Amazon's own interests.

  15. Good GOD, I wish people would find out whether what they are posting is true before they post it. Amazon has NOT: declared all authors to be each others' “competitors”. Find ONE place where Amazon has said that. They haven't. I know dozens of authors who continue posting reviews with no problem.

  16. J. R. Here is the link to a piece at Passive Voice with Amazon quotes

    I've also seen copies of the email exchanges between specific authors and Amazon. They haven't changed the wording of their guidelines but they have very much changed their policy in how they choose to enforce them. The "competitor" clause was always there, but they have newly defined "competitor" as "authors in the same genre."

  17. Thanks for weighing in on this subject! This apparent ban on authors reviewing does bother me, because I'm an avid reader—I was an avid reader long before I became a writer—and I do write book reviews. I review mainly on Goodreads, because I read mostly older (i.e. public-domain) books, but when I review a contemporary book I post it on Amazon too, because I know how helpful Amazon reviews can be to writers (this coming from an author who has a total of 7 Amazon US reviews over three books). I haven't posted any negative reviews...I'd rather just not write anything if I don't like a book, under most circumstances.

    I can see where Amazon is coming from in trying to clean out fake reviews, but I honestly don't know how it's supposed to be done. I'm an author, I write reviews, and I'm honest...but how are they supposed to know that? And what about specifics? Will I just be banned from reviewing competitors in historical, Western and mystery, or will I not be able to review nonfiction either?

  18. I've never been really all that fussed about reading Amazon's reviews. I primarily go there to buy a book if I can't get it anywhere else, including reading it via my local library.

    Since this reviews fiasco I'm even less inclined to support the practice.

    I happily read review blogs (that are growing daily in quantity and quality-but like all things you gotta do your homework) and the other options you suggested, in my chosen genres and get my information that way.

  19. I am a grandmother, have a couple of times ventured to put some innocuous remark on an Amazon forum, and not only was it ignored, but voted 'unhelpful to this discussion' or whatever terminology they use. It appears that all nice people have been driven from the Amazon forums leaving only the nasties. It is very sad.

  20. Elizabeth--Please keep reviewing on Amazon! I think this brouhaha will die down and most reviews will remain in place. They only seem to do random take-downs. And if your review is on Goodreads, it won't be lost.

    widdershins--Amazon makes it so easy, it's commendable that you go to the bookstore or the library first. :-) The Zon is essentially a very customer-friendly outfit. They've just gone overboard on this and things are getting a tad looney.

    M.A. The Forums are definitely "no country for old ladies" to paraphrase WB Yeats. You were brave to try to comment. Thanks for coming over from Facebook.

  21. This is a problem.

    I do nearly all my shopping on amazon now, and heavily rely on reviews. That goes for books too. Reviews were the one way to set a good book apart from the white noise.

    Hoping once the initial storm blows over that someone will find a better system.

  22. This is such an interesting post, Anne.

    The whole debacle is Amazon's own fault because they didn't think through their review system before they put it in place. And they're constantly changing the goal posts. Fools. Other distributors, apart from B&N, don't appear to have the same issues. And readers are trusting them more.

    Personally speaking, I'm an author and I'm a voracious reader too. I leave reviews on Goodreads and will sometimes highlight an author on my blog or recommend a book that's caught me by the throat to my readers on facebook.

    Where I'd disagree is that 'Amazon is customer friendly.' Nope. Amazon are in the business to make money and they don't care how they do it (look at the outcry in the UK about tax avoidance, it's really impacted the public because of the recession.) Amazon could care less about customers/readers/writers or anything else, which is fine because that makes them somewhat predictable.

    I sell well on there and don't have an issue with Amazon other than the fact that their Select programme is exclusive, which does not serve readers or authors well imho. Ask readers what they think of Select. I did and the response floored me. 'It's the place to get free reads. I never buy a book from authors on Select because I know it will be free or on a deal and I tell all my friends when it goes free too. But all the good authors are not on Select, they're everywhere.' I know, my jaw hit the floor too.

    I avoid the kindle boards and to a lesser extent Goodreads, unless a reader pops in to ask me a specific question. Both places scare the bejesus out of me.

    Goodreads reviews can be linked into Kobo now, they've been doing it for four months.

    Just yesterday I was talking to a reader who told me she'd left a review for three of my books on Amazon and asked me if I minded? I thought is was a strange question to ask so I had a look expecting critical reviews. The reviews were lovely, so I went back and thanked her and asked her why she'd asked. She said, 'I never leave reviews on Amazon because that place scares me. I leave reviews on iTunes because I can be anonymous and say what I truly think without someone coming in to start a war. And people know I'm a bonafide customer who's bought the music/ebook. I'm not comfortable on Amazon.'

    Smashwords are pretty reader centric. And iTunes run their Ebook business exactly the same as they run their music/dvd business - driven purely by customer recommendation. And they've been quietly supporting independent authors over the last year without any fuss or fanfare. They're reviewing system is awesome. They do not communicate by email but by freephone and I've found them fantastic to deal with.

  23. "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."

    When I read this, my first reaction was, "That is crazy." The death threats you received over voicing your opinion is also crazy. I feel like I've stepped into the Twilight Zone. I can't believe how sensitive this whole review business has gotten. I've seen how things are over at Amazon and how a few people gang up on others. I used to hang out on the discussion boards back in 2008 and 2009 when it was friendly, but I won't go there now.

    Thanks for this post. I was ready to stop reviewing over there, but after reading this, I am motivated to keep writing them. I will review on other sites, too. Sometimes it's good to be reminded to review in other places.

  24. Jen--I shop at Amazon too, and I didn't mean this to be an Amazon-bashing post. I just think they've listened to the wrong people on this, and I thought if I spoke up, maybe others will and somebody at the Zon might take notice. I think the nasty clique at the Amazon forums are urging the Zon to make bad decisions.I'm hoping things will get better.

    Christine--There has been a shift away from author-friendliness at the Zon, but I think they're still trying to please their customers. Their tax policies make some customers happy--the ones who don't think things through and realize that a little bit of sales tax paid now is going to help their own community or country in the long run.

    But I applaud your stance to fight what has become a near monopoly. And thanks for sharing the story of your intimidated reviewer. That's confirms the stories I'm hearing.

    I do have a Kindle and I do shop there. I just want to spread my shopping dollars around. And I really admire Mark Coker. He really is the David standing up to the Goliath. I have no doubt he wants to make money too--and his company is expanding. But that means he has 25 employees now instead of 13 :-)

    Ruth Ann--Good for you! I think we should keep on keeping on leaving honest reviews and challenge them to delete us all. They've got to figure out they need the rest of the publishing industry eventually. The problem is they're listening to those bullies. If you've been there recently, you know how scary they are. They sent me a Google map picture of my house and said they had guns. Over grandmas writing reviews! That's who these people are. Nobody should listen to them.

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. Nice piece. More proof to me that Amazon has no idea what the **** it is doing with regard to books. Let's face it, they are mass-market retailers. They have no emotional or other ties to books as such. And if books fail to make a profit, they will drop them in favour of being the world's largest distributor of toilet paper.

    They lack a coherent strategy, trying random ideas to market books, most of which are welcomed with insane enthusiasm by the Zon-bots and often later get quietly dropped, having proved to be of little or no or even negative value. Personally, the only reason I would buy Amazon stock is to short it.

    Having said all this, I find their store to be my main sales outlet - but I sincerely wish it was managed by an entity with more organisation and credibility.

  27. It's the star system that is at the heart of it all and it's utterly flawed:

    We all know much easier it is to read a book than to write one and the star system elevates any random reader to teacher, marking the work of an author, nilly willy, and some people don't handle that kind of power very well.

    It makes it possible to judge superficially instead of writing a deep, well thought out review! Let the quality of the reviewer's writing determine whether future readers want to even consider it, not some ludicrous marking system...

    Without the star system bullying would be near impossible as it would become very obvious from the writing what the intentions are.

    Even swapping reviews would be fine as everybody could be dead honest with each other instead of exchanging (high) 'marks'.

    Basically it's the star system that has impact on sales instead of quality writing (from a reviewer.) Bah!

    This is a lazy and superficial system at the cost of authors who spend years honing their skills.

    Or do we all want to be back at school?

  28. Great post. I have up on Amazon's "star" system since it makes no sense at all. I also gave up on "reviews" since they're an unknown quality from unknown people with unknown axes to grind. I rely on professional, well-known book reviewers in newspapers, magazines, NY Review of Books, etc. Their names are on the piece, they have to stand behind what they write. A reader can judge over time the quality of their reviews.

    Readers should consider all on-line reviews to be written by a bunch of "anonymice" and the stars as meaningless doodles and proceed accordingly.

    Thanks for posting this essay. It's excellent and Amazon would do well to pay attention.

  29. The way Amazon has been playing with their policies and algorythms during the last year has really cramped my style, which is why I've decided to branch out. I've always published on Smashwords, but recently made the leap to pubbing on B&N (delete from SW). Let me tell you what, I've so far outsold my monthly book count on Amazon in less than a week. So B&N is here to stay for me.

    As for reviews, I'm scared to post anything on Amazon anymore so I won't. Everything I do will go through Goodreads and B&N and SW from now on.

  30. Thanks for such and informative post, but this is so depressing, since I also subscribe to the rising tide floats all boats school of thought.

    I love promoting other people's books, especially in my own genre, and I hugely appreciate when other writers take the time to comment on my work. It's hard to get people to take time out of their lives to sit and write reviews, and I'm afraid Amazon's new policies will have a lasting chilling effect.

    This is especially timely and worrisome to me since my second novel comes out this week.

    Hopefully a few big authors will see their endorsements scrubbed and persuade amazon to change course.

  31. Excellent post, and you articulate many of the reasons I don't review on Amazon anymore (although it was Amazon's own gaming in favor of their publishing arm that finally did me in). Yes, the majority of the Top Reviewers are wonderful people who roll their eyes at the shenanigans you outline; they are not the problem. It is bizarre when someone launches a campaign against a REVIEWER, and many times it's done to increase their own review rank. Many of us get/got ARCs to review, but since no one was giving out precious gems to review, it's not worth gaming anything for.

    I'm planning on releasing something this spring, and I am just dreading this conundrum. I'm hoping that people will be inclined to review on their blogs, not on Amazon.

  32. Hugh—I make the majority of my sales on Amazon, too, but I know a lot of authors who are seeing a big shift to B and N and smashwords. I’m glad to hear this. Monopolies are never good for the consumer. Amazon is like WalMart or Tesco or any other big international retail chain that’s in the business of making money for its shareholders and management. Nothing wrong with that. But people who saw them as some kind of altruistic author-friendly place are getting their eyes opened.

    D.C. What a great comment! I agree 100% (and so does Joanne Harris in the Telegraph article) The star system is juvenile and hurts authors and readers alike. Maybe what we need to do is send our reviews directly to the author and let them put a quote of a couple of sentences into the “editorial reviews”—where there’s no star system required.

    Churadogs—This just came to me as I was answering DC’s comment-but I think maybe reviews sent directly to the author might be best. We can post them as “editorial reviews”—where there are no silly stars. Only two sentences or so are allowed, but those are usually from newspapers or other authors—people whose opinion matter. As a well known blogger, your opinion would be valued, so you could send it to the author with the header “editorial review” and they could use it as they want.

    Anne—I’m so glad to hear that you’re doing so well on B and N! I think a lot of romance and womens’ fic is doing well there, since they’ve marketed Nooks especially to young moms. I think I remember you had some bullying reviews on Amazon from people who had obviously not read the book. That could have been some reviewer playing games with another reviewer that had nothing to do with you—which is so infantile and wrong.

    Mari—Congrats on your upcoming launch! It is kind of depressing, but I think it helps to know what’s going on so we know it’s not about our books. When people like Joanne Harris are speaking out in national UK newspapers, maybe it will get the ball rolling for Amazon to reconsider this silly policy. I’d also like to see them get rid of the stars, as she suggests and most of all get rid of the reviewer competition program.

    Deb—Good luck on your launch! It sounds as if you’ve been a member of the reviewer competition program. Most people don’t know that people who “win” top reviewer status get free books to review. That’s their big perk. That’s why they don’t want any other reviewers to get gift books.

    It’s reviewer-on-reviewer bullying that is the biggest problem here. And most of us don’t even know these competitions exist.

  33. I feel like giving you such a hug for pulling together all these recent stories to put together such an all-encompassing post. It's an important issue, and not likely to go away soon. I myself thought of a Rotten Tomatoes-like site but lack the skills to put such a thing together.

  34. This is amazing information and almost unbelievable. Who would have thought that book reviewing would become such a nasty business? Like you said, authors as a rule are extremely supportive of each other and always happy to discover a really good read. I am happy to see that you haven’t been slammed with nasty comments…yet? Thank you for honest bravery.

  35. A very thought-provoking and informative post. Thanks for putting all of this together!

  36. " 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."
    Hmmm, strokes chin and utters a maniacal laugh. So the next time someone writes a review I don't like, I can go and give a 'useful' vote for lots of their reviews, and get them banned from Amazon. Yes, I like the sound of that.
    But seriously, the whole review thing is such a mess, and such a shame. Interesting article.

  37. Interesting article. Seems to me most of the carping about Amazon comes from people who think the corp owes them something or believe that all lARGE corps are evil and conspiratorial. I am identified as an author and reviewer who receives free books from publishers and authors and I buy some. My reviews are not removed. I also don't spend time writing critical blogs about all this stuff. I review as a way to give back to the community. So far, a lot of people seem to appreciate that. Including Amazon.

  38. So much to think about and respond to here! But I will hone in on two elements that really resonate:
    1. I LOVE your idea of some ethical entrepreneur developing a Rotten Tomatoes type of site for book reviews. Set up solely for review curation, not sales. Brilliant!!
    2. Amazon: your comment re: the Zon's behavior about banning 'competitors' from reviewing each others' books: "This makes sense with toasters, trucks or toothpaste. But it’s silly when it comes to books." I believe this statement is at the heart of the problems of Amazon and the book publishing/selling business. Mr. Bezos seems to have swallowed whole the concept of Big Data, which essentially says that all marketing should be consumer-response driven rather than product research/expertise driven. (I did a post on Big Data a while back, and I can see its advantages, but in the world of critical thinking about publishing concepts, it's scary.)

  39. Joe--Thanks for the virtual hug. (hugs back) I do wish some tech genius would do the Rotten Tomatoes thing. Sure is beyond my tiny tech mind.

    Christine--I had no idea there would be so much nastiness out here, but it's not typical of the business. It's the anonymity of the Interwebz that makes people cruel, I think. They're much meaneer than they'd dare to be in real life. (Except maybe on the freeway :-))

    Cindy--I appreciate it that you stopped by.

    Dog--LOL. I've also been told by another reviewer that the story might have come from a reviewer who was gaming ME to try to keep me from voting for other reviewers. This stuff makes my head hurt. :-)

    Carl--I do believe that an honest review is a gift and authors should always be grateful, even if it isn't positive. So thanks for being a conscientious reviewer.

    I don't think the majority of reviewers have been hit, either. My own reviews are still intact. But some pretty big name people say it's happened to them and it's been reported in a lot of major news sources like the Telegraph article above, so I have no reason to disbelieve the reports.

    Linda--Thanks much for the fascinating insight! Big Data is something I only half-understand, so I'd better go read your post. There is an anti-expertise, anti-education undercurrent to all this I find a little ominous. Populism is great to a point, but we don't want random strangers walking into the cockpit to fly our airplanes. Expertise does count for something.

  40. I don't know if any of the reviews I've written have been removed. I admit that if I don't like a book, I won't leave a review. I don't write too many reviews now, not because I like so few of the novels I read, but because I don't want my own 'author preferences' to cloud my reader review. If I mention something about the omni POV being distracting, or its heavy on description, or any other structural complaint I might offend the author.

    Its scary about Amazon removing reviews of books that were given for free. I get a lot of my Kindle books free; either when the authors list it for free during time frame, of because I've trolled certain genre's looking expressly for free stuff. I've had several I've been meaning to write review on because I enjoyed the stories, but now I wonder if I should.

    Lots to think about here.


  41. I'm not a published author yet but I've worried that in the future my honest reviews as a "reader" will be deleted once I get published. Or, once I become published, I will be "punished" by Amazon for the reviews written in the past. I'm actually glad you brought that point up in your post. Sounds like they want to punish everyone for a few people's mistakes.

    Thanks, Anne, for another insightful post.

  42. Hi Anne! Great post!

    There IS a book review site that's like Rotten Tomatoes: iDream Books

  43. Donna--I think books you got for free are OK as long as they haven't been "gifted" through Amazon's gift system. So if you got it free from a freebie day that's OK. Or if you get it free with a Smashwords coupon. They just don't want you to buy books from them. Go figure.

    But please keep reviewing. You're just the kind of reviewer we need to stand up to the bullies. I can't enjoy books with a glaring errors, either and I agree it's best not to review the really unprofessional ones. It's the authors with the weakest skills who are the most unprofessional about responding to reviews.

    Melissa--Gight now it's only authors who are published at Amazon who have had their reviews pulled. And they're mostly people who review a lot and are in the running for "top reviewer" status. This is because it seems to be about reviewers bullying other reviewers in these groups--not the actual value of the reviews. So by all means keep reviewing and don't let the bullies get to you.

    Janet--Thanks so much for stopping by. I know you're a reviewer who has been bullied in this crazy game these people play on Amazon, and it's fantastic you've stood up to them.

    And thanks SO MUCH for the link to iDream books. I'm going to check them out right now!!

  44. I know I'm a tad naive, but I'm utterly shocked by this whole situation. I had no idea this was going on! Why can't people be rational and sensible and, dare I say it, kind to others? What is it with screens and keyboards that turns people into compassionless jerks? Sigh.

    (Love the term "Cyberia", btw.)

  45. Elle--I'm with you. I had an email from a retired law enforcement officer today who had some great insight. He said people on the "information superhighway" are like people on the freeway: when they're not looking people in the eye, human to human, they tend to forget this is real life and make it into a game they have to "win." So reviewers who bully other reviewers are just like that guy who has to speed and risk everybody's life just to be one car length ahead of somebody at the stoplight. They become sociopaths. I have no idea how to fight this, except to be aware and stop ourselves if we find ourselves falling into that competitive, empathy-free pattern of thinking.

  46. A very necessary post, thanks Anne! And the number of responses certainly show yo've hit a nerve. I just hope Amazon will realize the error and adjust their system - because reviews are needed for book discoverability, indeed, they are an ancient, hallowed system that really cannot be replaced...

    And while I'm here, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for refering to our Boomer lit group on Goodreads - a group I really enjoy and where everyone is basically very nice to everyone else. I imagine the reviews turning up in our monthly read thread would be shot at by the Zon vigilantes! But what's great is that the discussions are so open and carried forward by people who are professionally articulate, a pleasure - or as we say in French: les plaisirs de la conversation. An 18th century form of pleasure perhaps, but it is so nice. Indeed, you're right, authors tend to be a warm group of people that enjoy each other's work (when it's good of course!!)

  47. Claude--I do hope they'll rethink and get in step with the rest of the publishing business, especially since the line between "writer" and "customer" is so blurred in the e-age. Some bloggers I know practically write a book with every post.

    The Boomer group is great. (Although Ruth and I laugh about how we can't always figure out how to respond to posts. GR is a little daunting for the non-Cyber-savvy.) We are as diverse a group as "young adults" or any other large umbrella demographic. But we have the advantage of two things: 1) We came of age at a time when people still had to look each other in the eye to interact. I think a lot of bad Internet behavior wouldn't happen if people had to look at each other and treat each other as humans. 2) We've been around long enough not to sweat the small stuff. :-)

  48. What about having the author community starting a website that has an intent like Consumer Reports, and Wikipedeia? A nonprofit site for book reviews, a reputable place with no bottom line to sway, that exists just for peopel to speak the truth about what they think about a book, with no bully squad to stop people they don't like, or get people banned?

  49. Jill's--That's a fabulous idea. I was thinking along the lines of a Rotten Tomatoes type site, but an all volunteer site like Wikipedia would be even better. The people running it would have to be awfully dedicated, but I hope somebody will do it. It would have to have strong moderation to control trolls, spam and temper tantrums.

  50. Lawks, what a mess! Personally, I think Amazon seriously needs to review its system. Perhaps it could look at the track records of the reviewer, and do it based on that?

  51. Very thoughtful and thorough article thank you Anne. We are recently publishing on the Amazon platform after many years direct-marketing (non-fiction) and have used pre-release copies to generate honest reviews; urged our customers and subscribers to leave reviews if they genuinely liked the book(s) - you know the normal "marketing 101" stuff.

    But the whole "review system" is a scary system as it can represent "make or break" in income - purely by an arbitrary change in algorithm, or someone with a grudge - or just a mistake.

    Definitely needs a clean up - let's hope this current pendulum swing will return to some sanity.

    And as for the "bullies" ... you have no place here, be gone.

  52. Charley--There is a system of ranking reviewers, but unfortunately that's where a lot of the nastiness is coming from. The competition for "top reveiwer" status has created a little microcosm of its own and they are busy bullying each other and trying to keep casual customers from being able to "play" the game they're embroiled in. Scary stuff. You're right: it needs to be cleaned up.

    Gabriella--You're so right. We are all at the mercy of the Amazon algorithm--that murky force that can stop an author's income dead with no warning. And the "players" seem to have found ways to game the algorithms that the ordinary authors and customers know nothing about. It's pretty awful.

    As for the bullies, I disabled anonymous comments and that seems to have helped a lot. Bullies are generally anonymice.

  53. Gabrielle--Sorry for the misspelling of your name. I have a character named Gabriella and I think my fingers just go that way. It's the same with the word "amazing." I can't type it anymore. It always comes out "amazon" and I have to correct it every time. Shows how much the company has become part of our lives.

  54. I was a bit confused when I heard reviews were being removed. I've made a resolution to read more books from my peers this year and I want to review more. Of course being a writer I am also a reader.

    To be honest, I'm not even bothered by the purchased reviews and sock puppets. I believe people will try different marketing ploys and that's their decision. I just decide what feels right for me. I am however quite disturbed by the idea of vicious reviews against competitors -- that leaves a sour taste. I've never had that problem and will try not to let it affect me if it happens. I did get a negative review in the beginning on Goodreads but far from being upset, it was very valuable. I fixed the issue mentioned and had a better book because of it.

    Great post, you've put a lot of work into this!

  55. Charmaine--I like your attitude. I feel the same way: authors sabotaging other authors is way worse than the other offenses. Because it's a betrayal. And it's sooooo stupid. Selling books is not a contest. I don't sell more rom-com mysteries if Janet Evanovich sells fewer. Quite the contrary. I get pulled along by her success.

    I'm so glad you're going to continue to review. I think honest reviews from honest readers are the best tools to fix the broken system. If those readers happen to have written a book or two, it shouldn't disqualify them.

  56. As a new author I have shied away from writing book reviews. I read a lot but my worry has always been that if I give an honest, bad review that it might be reciprocated out of spite, not objectivity. None of what you outlined above gives me any confidence in the system at all. I can't think of a foolproof answer. Scary stuff.

  57. sj--Don't despair. This is all a very new system, still in a state of flux. Yes, you're wise not to leave 100% negative reviews on Amazon. Write them on your blog if you have something strong you feel you need to say. A negative Zon review can hit an author in the wallet and make them angry. In the Interwebbed world, negativity can follow you around. If a book is bad, have no fear, lots of readers will say so. Even if it's good a lot of people will hate it. Most people would rather complain than praise. But when you really like a book, then say so--even if it's in your genre. Maybe your karma will come back. :-)

  58. First, kudos on a job well-done! Second, gutsy move. This post is bound to offend someone.

    As to whether or not reviews make much difference, my theory is they might on Amazon, specifically because of the secret algorithm that targets readers. At the least -- when they are verified sales -- they represent sales and each sale means more readers will "see" the book leading to more sales. WIth so many books, the chances of someone stumbling on a book by an obscure writer are pretty small. If someone does wind up on a book page, it probably does help sell the book if it looks like people actually bought the book and liked it before.

    It's easy for someone like Konrath to ignore reviews. He doesn't need them.

  59. Marion--Actually, I haven't had anywhere near the blow-back I expected with this post. Disabling the anon comments helps, I'm sure.

    But yeah--Amazon reviews matter. A lot. You can't even get on the big ebook promo sites and newsletters like ENT, KND, BookBub, etc, unless you have ten 4 and 5-star Amazon reviews. I wish they'd count Goodreads and other sites' reviews, too, but they're all tied to Amazon. It's making me pay much less attention to those ebook promo sites, but I'm not most people, unfortunately.

  60. Anna, thanks for sharing your experience. It does seem to be way too Big Brothery, doesn't it?

  61. 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. After long time i have seen really very interesting blog. I really enjoyed during reading it.

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