On Further Review…

With a nod to what the refs say during football season… I want to tap the collective wisdom of our readership on a topic we’ve been hearing about recently. Amazon appears to be cracking down on paid reviews and I think most of us would cheer that idea. But what’s the real problem here? And what’s the best solution? Take the poll below and comment.

Briefly- Amazon moved against several paid review sites recently, to shut down people posting five-star reviews that were bought and paid for (and presumably inauthentic). You figure Amazon can do what they like, and you figure they’re ticked off their own star-rating system is being gamed, sure. But here’s a twist, as pointed out in this online article I saw via a colleague today: Amazon is now going after individual reviewers, and evidently is suing for a “remedy” that includes the information to find out who those reviewers got paid by. Everybody still cool with that?

Layer on this, which many of us are familiar with: the Zon also removes reviews if they judge that you “know the author personally“. The criteria they use to determine this is something they refuse to share, and the take-down they apply is irreversible. You can complain when it happens to you. I did, and got bupkus back. For an honest review of a book I had read, penned by a fellow author who is indeed my friend (as a result of our online collaboration, not because I am her kid’s godfather or we go bowling on Tuesdays). I can tell you, I took THAT personally.

And through it all, the part that I really love to hate- ignorant, hateful, racist/sexist/ageist trolls can come crashing through an author page and wreck the place with no penalty whatsoever. Just scratch up $3 of sourdough money to buy the first title: download, write a one-star/one-line review, then return the book. Get all your money back, while your review stays up naming you as a “Qualified Reviewer” forever! Use the same money to lather-rinse-repeat through every title, just because the author’s a woman, or dared to praise Reagan, or said something nice on Facebook about the football team you hate.

Hahn_critic_1So, what’s the right and just thing to do, will Amazon ever get around to doing that, and what would be best for all of us anyway? Take a shot at the poll to get your juices flowing, and then by all means leave a comment (use pen-names so the Zon doesn’t figure out how well we know each other!).

Vote for the statement you think is most true ! Then comment.

[polldaddy poll=9147177]

16 thoughts on “On Further Review…

  1. Any public reviewing system is inherently open to abuse and gaming. Amazon’s attempts to crack down are economically guaranteed to be ineffectual, if you think about it just a little: making it harder to fake reviews just raises the price for fake reviews.

    I’m fine with authors paying for reviews. In fact, I’d encourage it, speaking as someone who has been a professional independent reviewer, and who has been paid by manufacturers to bring that expertise and reputation to bear on their products. The key is transparency and trust. You need to know that that review was commissioned, and you need to trust the reviewer. (Knowing how quickly trust evaporates is what keeps good reviewers honest.)

    Amazon’s reviewing system, in contrast, is basically the voting equivalent of YouTube comments. It’s a cesspit. It CAN be a useful cesspit in limited contexts, though. A popular author will achieve a certain baseline. That will include the rabid fans who upvote everything, and the haters who one-star everything. So, within the context of that author’s work, books which rate higher than average are probably better reads. But it takes several books, and a large readership, to establish a working baseline.

    The reason the system is broken, especially for indie authors, is that there’s no baseline _outside_ of that limited context.

    And Amazon (as your second poll choice correctly notes) creates its policies – ALL of its policies – to maximise revenue, and most of its revenue is not from indie authors. Ergo, the system will not change.

    In which case, if you want a better reviewing system, you should create one. Why couldn’t goodreads.com or someone similar monetise a professional reviewing service, specifically to solve the Amazon=crap problem? What would you pay for a professional, objective, literary review of your work, with comparisons drawn to, say, well-known authors or other works in your oeuvre to help anchor a prospective reader? Bear in mind that you could get a post-grad English lit major writing stuff like that for a couple of dollars a pop – it’s not like it’d be an expensive endeavour. (And no, cheap doesn’t equal low value – that’s just the going rate for freelance words.)

    For example, consider this in that light: a professional writer, whose work I know and trust, offering a highly informed critique. Now imagine he’d written that for you. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/23/david-mitchell-wizard-of-earthsea-tolkien-george-rr-martin

    Now, you won’t get David Mitchell for a couple of bucks per thousand, but you don’t need him. I have no idea who Rhik Samadder is, for eg, but I love his food gadget reviews on the Guardian – it only took a couple of reviews to hook me and now I read everything he writes. Good reviewers can build up a portfolio surprisingly fast.

    Amazon probably wouldn’t fund a service like that, but it might well endorse it and link to it, especially since the community could make it work anyway – just post links in Amazon comments and upvote them 🙂

    And despite my obvious bias I do think the case is strong for professional curation – social/crowdsourcing a la GoodReads is just the larval stage of the Amazon Problem.

    1. Jon, it’s great of you to put in so much on this topic, I can see it matters to you!
      As for praising Earthsea, that’s as easy as breathing, and if anyone wrote such a comparison for my work, I might just lay down and die happy right there. I am blessed that my reviews have been so positive to date.

      I agree about building the better mousetrap, and I’ve often sung the praises of Bookvetter, which tries to set up a firewall of competence and disinterest between the reviewers and the authors. It doesn’t seem to have caught on, but I thought there was a lot to like over there.

      1. The problem with niche community initiatives (like Bookvetter and Goodreads and probably dozens more) is that they are seriously on the fringe. If someone convinced Amazon to embrace them, they could make a tremendous difference – you need that direct exposure to the buying audience. I’d like to see publishers endorse one, and pressure Amazon into integration. But that’d require them to agree on something, so I’ll file that in the Fantasy section next to Lands of Hope, shall I? 🙂

  2. I so hear you, Will. I just ran a test with a fairly successful author of a story over here in Germany, and his sales halved the second a known hater posted a one star review. We’ll need to make people much more aware of the problem. Also, it’d be really helpful if Amazon wouldn’t be so stubborn about taking down an unhelpful one star review. But I strongly suspect they never will change that policy until one of the really big sellers is affected.

    1. You got it Cat, and maybe not even then. It’s a system where the damage done is much greater somehow, than any good received from positive reviews. It almost seems the sincere, three-paragraph well written 4/5 star review weighs nothing compared to a one-line, one-star, mis-spelled hater’s slam. That says something about all of us, I guess.

      1. One star reviews almost never offer value. If the person really hated the product that much, they should just ask for a refund or at least raise a complaint, in which cases the publisher/portal can take action.

        No, it’s usually just a hater, hating.

        Knowing that, a better mechanism is just to ignore them. Officially, I mean: don’t factor them into average-score calculations, and don’t show them publicly. The notion of a “shadow-ban” is an elegant solution whereby only the original poster sees their own vitriol as if it were public.

        Star ratings are very last-decade anyway. The Facebook “like”, as abused as it is, is a far better mechanism. When you think about it, the ratio of “sales” to “likes” is really all that matters, nine times out of ten.

  3. I really think it’s stupid of Amazon to take away any reviews at all. If an author paid for a review, that’s underhanded, certainly, but they still paid for it, and as much as I dislike that, taking it away is certainly not the way to fix things. I also think it’s really important for authors to have reviews by their family members and friends, because although writing is about being a great writer, it’s also about having connections with real people. Not every friend or family member reviews blindly, in my experience (Ok, some do, and that’s not ideal, but not all of them). I think the thing about those random 1-star reviews is that they are usually very obviously poorly prepared. When I buy things on Amazon and I see a 1-star review on a product, 9 times out of 10, I ignore it, unless it has something significant to say (which they usually don’t). Anyway, thanks for this article, I enjoyed it!

      1. Also, I should have said, there’s definitely a difference between paying for a review and paying for a five-star review. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an author paying a reviewer to read his book and write an honest, insightful review that reflects his true thoughts about the quality of the writing. But that’s definitely a different case from one where an author pays someone merely to praise his work. Anyway, that’s all, haha.

  4. In light of all the above, I have to ask how Amazon treats a major publishing house who cites praise from Kirkus for one of its titles sine *every* Kirkus review is paid for.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Raymond! I’m pretty sure Amazon objects only to reviews that “game” its system, eventually hurting profits. But you’re right- if Kirkus is judged clean, why not all kinds of honest reviews that happen to be based on previous acquaintance? Why throw out all the babies with that bath-water? And I think the answer is, partly, that the Zon’s solution has to be AUTOMATED. A given source is either all in or all out.

    2. Kirkus is different . The reviewer never posts to amazon directly. If you want your Kirkus review to be seen, you’ll have to add it to the “Editorial Reviews” section on Author Central.

  5. This subject merits more discussion, Will, so thanks for this post. I’ll be talking about this on my blog in a few weeks.

    There are several factors at play.

    1) there is a difference between a “customer” review and a professional review. Kirkus doesn’t post on Amazon, which makes their reviews a different animal. I personally don’t pay for reviews, but I see nothing wrong with Kirkus reviewers getting paid, as they have since the magazine was founded.

    2) Saying you “know” the reviewer because they liked you on FB is absurd. Authors are on social media to meet their readers. I have made friends with some reviewers AFTER they gave me a nice review. Is this going to work retroactively?

    3) If they want to get rid of misleading reviews, why not deal with the trolls who leave vile comments on books by people of different political or religious persuasions?

    4) Reviews aren’t that big a factor in book sales unless there are a ton one way or another, but they are a big factor in getting into Bookbub and the other newsletters that are the major marketing engine for ebook sales. So it’s not so important if an individual buyer is swayed by a one-star illiterate review or a gushing “LOVED it” but it is important for qualifying for the marketing newsletters that can make or break your career.

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