Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers and industry news and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

July 8, 2015

Amazon's "Personal Connection" Review Policies Are Nothing New

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

One of today's most popular pastimes, in the writing world at least, is demonizing Amazon (or sanctifying it, but that's not the subject of this post). Latest flashpoint: Amazon's review policies.

The flap seems to have begun with blogger Imy Santiago, who wrote about her attempt to post a review of a self-published book she'd just read. She received an automated response from Amazon indicating that she was "not eligible to review this product," and when she contacted Amazon to ask why, she was told:
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.
According to Santiago, she does not know the author; she's simply a reader and a fan. She contacted Amazon again, and was refused again; Amazon also refused to disclose "how we determine that accounts are related" because that information is "proprietary". Santiago was outraged.
I pay for my eBooks. I take the time to read and review books I love. The Big Brother mentality Amazon is employing is appalling, and crosses an ethical line of unfathomable proportions. They are not God, and are censoring my passion for the written word....This is wrong, and it has to stop. It is censorship at its finest.
Santiago's post was quickly picked up by other bloggers and news outlets, which echoed the Big Brother theme with ominous titles like Is Amazon Using False Information to Censor Book Reviews? and Amazon's Review Policy is Creepy and Bad for Authors and Amazon is Data Mining Reviewers' Personal Relationships.

Well, yeah. Amazon is data mining everything (including your reading activity, if you use a Kindle). This is not news. Nor is the fact that Amazon has long engaged in a policy of deleting or refusing reviews where it deems that the reviewer and the author are related in some way. A similar flap erupted in 2012, when Amazon began denying or getting rid of reviews "on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product." For Amazon, this included not just friends and fans and third-party merchants, but authors, who suddenly found themselves barred from posting reviews of fellow authors' books.

It's not as if there are legions of Amazon minions in cubicles poring over every customer review. Amazon uses automated systems--and while its secrecy about exactly how it makes determinations is frustrating, it's not surprising that it considers that information proprietary (plus, as TeleRead's Chris Meadows points out, providing individual explanations in response to every question would involve massive amounts of paperwork). Also, automated systems often get it wrong--as in the Great Erotica Panic of 2013, where books that did not violate Amazon's anti-smut guidelines were removed along with books that did. This is a problem of Amazon's enormous scale. But the ongoing culling of reviews exists in the larger context of Amazon's battle to quell rampant review sockpuppetry (against which it recently took action outside its own ecosystem, launching a lawsuit against three alleged fake review websites). It's hardly censorship, as in a practice of systematic, deliberate suppression.

Chris Meadows also wonders what Imy Santiago isn't revealing
I just want to re-emphasize we have no way of knowing how close Santiago and this other person she tried to review are. They could be almost complete strangers, or they could be on each others’ Christmas card lists. Santiago isn’t saying. She’s just objecting to the whole premise on principle. This seems a little suspicious to me, because as far as I’m concerned, the premise does make sense. If Amazon determines that you and the author of the book you’re reviewing do know each other, honestly, it should be keeping you from reviewing their book.
I tend to agree. Yet it's also true that Amazon's focus on review abuse is one-sided: while it makes active war on false positives, it largely ignores the problem of false negatives (for instance, one-star review campaigns). And its policies may sometimes hit some groups harder than others. In a long blog post, author Lori Otto makes a case for why, in a networked world where authors and readers are more connected than they've ever been, self-published authors are disproportionately affected by a ban on reviews from personal contacts:
As an Indie author, I can’t NOT become friends with many of these readers. Through these friendships, I reach more people… not because I ask them to share my books, but because they genuinely want to share them! It’s an organic process that isn’t motivated by greed or by threats or by anything negative.
A petition to "Change the 'You Know This Author' Policy" makes similar points. As of this writing, it has gathered over 9,000 supporters; I don't think any of them should be holding their breath, though.

16 comments :

Anonymous said...

I don't post reviews myself, but I find it ironic that Amazon actively solicits them. Every time I buy a book, I get an email from Amazon asking me to rate it and post a review. Including my own book, which is presumably against Amazon's policy! (It does go to show that for all the Big Brother fears, Amazon's system has flaws.)

I also can't buy into this:
"If Amazon determines that you and the author of the book you’re reviewing do know each other, honestly, it should be keeping you from reviewing their book."

The first problem is: What constitutes "knowing" another author, in this very small business world? Sitting on the same panels? Having the same agent? Reading each other's blogs? We have no idea how close the relationship has to be before Amazon considers it problematic.

I don't think any relationship with the author should preclude a review if the relationship is disclosed in the review. If I see a review posted by the author's father that freely admits it's the author's father, I can choose how much weight to give that review. I'd rather see full-disclosure reviews than have Amazon use secret rules to decide which reviews to yank.

Victoria Strauss said...

That's a good point about disclosure. I've posted reviews for authors I know, and I always mention the relationship up front. I think, though, that many people don't bother to disclose, and that's where some of the concern arises.

I do wish Amazon would be more transparent about the criteria it uses. But secrecy from Amazon shouldn't surprise anyone.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I live in Australia. There's a small population and a small number of writers. I can go to a publisher party or a YA fiction conference and know nearly everyone there. What would I do if I had to rely on Amazon for my reviews? I AM a member of Goodreads, now owned by Amazon, which so far hasn't extended this policy to Goodreads, but you never know when they might. Just as well I have my own blog! Mind you, I met a lot of these people AFTER I had read and loved their books, usually emailing to ask for a guest post or an interview.

CW Hawes said...

The policy stinks and cannot be fairly enforced. If a person knows the author, that means little until the nature of the relationship is ascertained and Amazon does not do that. It simply blocks the review. As a result, I'm no longer very favorable to Amazon. They are displaying the ugly side of monopolies.

A. F. Stewart said...

I think is again another display of good intentions, bad execution on the part of Amazon. I buy and read books from fellow indie authors I "know" through social media all the time. When I do review a book, I never give a dishonest review. The fact I now have to wonder if I will be arbitrarily judged for social networking is disturbing and insulting.

Dave Brzeski said...

Amazon is so huge, and there are so many ways in which their review system can be abused, that it's not surprising that they've employed this method of combating fake, or improper reviews. The truth is, though, that it will ban as many genuine reviews as it will bad ones, and it won't even scratch the surface of the millions of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" 5 star review swapping, and the pernicious 1 star review personal vendetta campaigns.

I review for the British Fantasy Society website. I also go to conventions, where I meet many authors, some of whom go on to become friends. I apply certain limits to what I will and will not review voluntarily. For instance, I'm listed on the Pro Se Press website as a member of their editorial staff. I actually do some freelance editing for them, rather than being an actual member of staff, but whatever. I will not review anything published by Pro Se, even if I didn't have anything to do with that particular book.

On the other hand, some of the books I've reviewed are by authors I've been friends with for years. I became friends with them because I liked their work. This doesn't stop me from writing fair, balanced reviews, but it could get them removed from Amazon.

The truth is, the Amazon customer review system is as corrupt as it can possibly be, and these belated attempts to fix that problem are a joke. I get free review copies from publishers and authors. I started mentioning this in my reviews, when they started removing reviews that weren't from a "verified purchaser". Will the ones sent to me by the author, thus suggesting that I "know" them, now be deleted?

Quite honestly, the day Amazon remove one of my reviews from their website on that basis, is the day I'll stop bothering to crosspost them on there.

Jackie Weger said...

Yours is a voice of reason, Victoria. IMO, Amazon created the review phenomenon when it created the Kindle. Asking readers to post a review is an interactive site activity and a clever business decision, because it brings the reader/reviewer right back to Amazon to spend $$$. It also engages the reader/client by saying "we want to hear from you" and gives the reader a voice on the largest virtual retail outlet on the planet. The first 18 years of my writing career, my titles did not receive a single review anywhere. They moved off the shelves by word-of-mouth--or not. I support my indie author networks by buying their books, sharing on FB & Twitter, following and putting their books on my Wish list. I sometimes blog an editorial. I do not trade reviews. Personally, I prefer authors not review my books. I am not writing for other authors. I want book reviews from an organic reader who downloaded my book on free or paid. I promote a new release sans a single review on sites that accept it. Thus far, organic readers have been kind enough to post above 1000 reviews on my small selection of books--one star to five star. All are welcome. I don't get in the way of how Amazon runs its business. I just try to make the best decision I can for my books. Not everybody rols my way. I get it. Author choice. I respect that.

JackieWeger
No Perfect Secret

Victoria Strauss said...

For perspective: so far (at least as far as I know), there are just two accounts of people's experience with this policy. In one case, the person admits that the reviewer was a friend (Lori Otto); in the other, the person denies that she knows the author "personally in real life" but sidesteps the question of online connections (Imy Santiago).

Bottom line: we don't know what criteria Amazon uses to determine personal connections. I think it's likely that the system blocks many legit reviews--Amazon is a massive site and any automated system is going to make wrong calls when it's monitoring things on such a gigantic scale. But I think it's important to remember that whatever Amazon's criteria are, they are limited to Amazon's own ecosystem. Amazon is tracking what you do inside Amazon; it is not reaching beyond that to spy on your personal life.

That said, what's inside Amazon can be pretty comprehensive. Purchasing and shipping records, the KBoards, community discussions. If you have an Amazon author page, you've probably connected it to your social media and your blog, so you've given Amazon a window onto those things--including fan interactions. Big Brother, maybe. But when we freely give away our info--and what author has a choice about that, these days?--this is what we get.

Amazon is a business. It has the right to set the terms of use. But authors and readers often seem to behave as if Amazon were a public resource--as if the resources it makes available (including self-publishing and reviewing) are a right and not a privilege, as if it has some kind of duty to authors that it betrays every time it makes a business decision.The intense anger that greets periodic reality checks like book deletions and review refusals is just one indication of how deeply many of us buy into that illusion.

Valerie Douglas said...

I run a Indie Author Group on Facebook, and the person referenced here joined it seems just to perpetuate her issue with Amazon. I had the same questions as some of the other posters here - what WAS her relationship to the author, had she participated in author like/review/promote exchange groups, and what part of 'social' media did she miss? Amazon doesn't have to mine, all they have to do is a simple Google or Facebook search to find if there's a relationship.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Mr. Brzeski on this one. Amazon is trying to set up itself as the ultimate arbiter of who is allowed to promote in the big (or at least bigger) leagues and who is not. Opening up the field to self-publishers was just another business decision. Amazon takes its cut. It's money. But they didn't expect such a huge flood of self-publishers entering the field. Panic here. Need a tool to stem the tide. Finger stuck in the hole in the wall won't do. So they looked and looked hard and came up with a winner: reviews. A single determining factor for the author to be allowed to promote with nearly-success-assured sites like BookBub and ENT and others that will politely write back: Don't approach us until you have 50 Amazon reviews rating 4.3 stars and above.

Over the past three years Amazon's business appetite grew. It saw a huge potential in establishing itself as a gatekeeper. Literary agents used to hold this role. Amazon saw its merits. Enter Amazon Reviews ubercontrol. Note, that's capital for both words.

Amazon is a site, a seller site. It has no business to be in the reviews much less a gatekeeper business. However, now that the self-publishing side of Amazon is gaining prominence, Amazon does not want to be a mere seller site. It wants to be a publisher unsurpassed. And a publisher with ambitions to grow globally and out of bounds must have a control tool - reviews. The traditional print publishers had (have?) this tool - literary agents. Amazon found its own, electronic version - reviews. And that's what it's all about. Amazon's business decisions are to grow, expand, squeeze out (maybe) other publishers and make money over and over. To do this, they need to be regarded as a 'serious' publisher; the kind that is endorsed by big-name writers (not bestselling - eveyrone these days on Amazon is bestselling)and posts only reviews that have 'integrity' - whatever that means.

A review is a review. Whether by your family, your friends or total strangers out there in readerland, a review should be published when given. Period. Very few readers I know are actually swayed by Amazon reviews BUT and this is a big but, the readership out there might not get a chance to hear about a book without reviews because solid promotional opportunities, those that would lead to sales -- will be limited or rather determined by Amazon reviews.

And that's what it's all about. Amazon opened the gates and a flood of self-publishers rushed in. Now they're trying to re-balance the situation and hang on to integrity as a serious publisher. And they're trying to fix this through reviews control. Except they have neither the know-how, nor experience, nor vision nor trained and qualified workforce to do this. They want to do it via auto-bots. What a joke. Except it's hurting a lot of writers out there.


Frances Grimble said...

I believe Amazon's algorithm works like this: If you have reviewed a certain percentage of an author's work on Amazon (I don't know what the percentage is), Amazon assumes you have some connection to that author, some interest in writing a review other than merely liking the author's work. As far as I know, this algorithm applies whether a book is self-published or not.

Of course, many people are simply fans of certain authors' works, they like writing reviews, and I'm sure some authors who get private fan mail hopefully ask for those raves to be posted publicly. And I know of at least one person who *does* have a strong personal and financial relationship to a certain author, and their reviews of that author's books are still on Amazon.

Amazon's algorithm is just crude. I seriously don't think they take the time to track down Facebook accounts and so forth, especially considering how many people use fake or partial names for their Facebook accounts and even blogs.

Sam Friedman said...

Victoria- great post. I will say that an indie author with network with other authors or make friends with readers, and so limiting people from making reviews hurts; authors published by bigger publishers have the overall reach advantage, since personal relationships are critical but not quite as critical as for indies. But I don't doubt there are some who think Amazon or any other company owes authors something merely by being there.

Kerry Gans said...

I do think Amazon needs to refine this process. A debut author (traditional or self-published) likely will start with a core audience of people who know them, either personally or online. Summarily saying that NONE of these people should be allowed to post a review simply because they know the author strangles the ability of the author to get enough reviews to eventually reach beyond this core audience. I don't mind Amazon trying to crack down on this, but instead of yanking the reviews, I would prefer them simply flag with something like, "This reviewer may have a relationship with the author." and then let the consumer weigh it for themselves. You can know an author and still give an objective review of the book--anyone who has critiqued and been critiqued knows this.

Frances Grimble said...

Amazon seems to want to automate their processes as much as possible. If an author got a bogus negative review from someone who personally hated them, or some troll/flamer/jerk who targeted the author on an e-list, it was once possible to email Amazon and get the review manually removed. And to do that, it helped to be able to identify the poster to Amazon and explain how this was a bogus review. As far as I know, this is no longer possible. Amazon may think they are doing authors a favor by automatically deleting troll reviews, but some remain anyway.

I don't think Amazon owes authors reviews. Amazon is not a public service. But considering that it is possible for people who know the author to give objective reviews (especially when the definition of "know" is stretched to everyone the author has ever encountered online), I find the automatic removal of positive reviews puzzling. They do help to sell books for Amazon.

Victoria Strauss said...

I think that most if not all of the problems arise from the sheer scale of Amazon. Amazon is gigantic--it lists millions and millions of books. With that kind of volume, you have to automate your processes. But even the best-crafted automated processes can't be accurate 100% of the time, or probably even 90% of the time. We hear a lot of kicking and screaming when things go wrong--but what we don't know is what proportion the wrong calls are to the whole. It would be helpful to know (not that I think we ever will)--but my guess is that Amazon gets it right most of the time.

We're also dealing with two different issues here: Amazon's review policies and how they are enforced. Whether Amazon's review policies are "fair" (which seems to be the focus of a lot of the anger and resentment) is a whole different question from whether Amazon's automated processes are sharp or sloppy.

Anonymous said...

http://gizmodo.com/amazons-review-policy-is-creepy-and-bad-for-authors-1715663740

Lazarus

 
Design by The Blog Decorator