Blogger: Rachelle Gardner
Go ahead and leave reviews on Amazon for books you haven’t read—no problem! Give a scathing 1-star review because an author dared to include Christian content, that’s okay too.
Just don’t leave a 1- or 2-star review for another book in the same genre in which you write. That’s clearly biased and motivated by your competitive nature! And don’t dare write a positive review for any book written by an author whom you’ve ever met online, heard of through the grapevine, or shared a planet with. Amazon frowns on that.
Yes, things are a little wacky over at Amazon, and several Books & Such authors had a lively online discussion about it yesterday.
What’s going on?
About a year ago, the publishing industry erupted when it came to light that online book retailers, particularly Amazon, were riddled with “fake reviews.” Some authors were creating false online personas and giving their own books multiple positive reviews. Others were purchasing positive reviews in bulk from enterprising entrepreneurs willing to write them. Add this to the well-known practice of systematically sabotaging an author by posting negative 1-star reviews, and you can see that the review system was becoming highly unreliable.
Amazon cracks down.
Eventually Amazon began removing book reviews it deemed somehow suspect. But this is where the controversy comes in. They’re using algorithms to determine if a review was posted by someone who “knows the author,” and if so, they’re removing the review from the site and sending the reviewer a note explaining they’ve removed it “because your account activity indicates that you know the author.”
What’s wrong with this picture?
In many cases, the reviewer didn’t, in fact, “know the author.” But when the reviewers appealed to Amazon to reverse the decision, Amazon didn’t change their mind and didn’t reinstate the review. Several people report that further correspondence with Amazon elicited a threat that any further violations of the reviewing policy would result in the book in question being removed from the site.
Can they do this?
Amazon’s Customer Review Guidelines outline a number of things that are not allowed. They specifically disallow reviews “by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product.” Using this guideline, Amazon is within its rights to remove certain reviews.
Houston, we have a problem.
Using that guideline from Amazon, every single author writing in the same genre (say… Christian fiction. Or Christian non-fiction…) could be considered “competitors” writing “directly competing products” and therefore, be ineligible to review each other’s books.
Another problem: Amazon is removing reviews with the stated reasoning of, “you know the author.” But I can’t find anything in the Customer Review Guidelines that spells out, “You may not review a book if you know the author.”
An additional problem: Amazon is removing reviews claiming “you know the author,” when in fact, the author and reviewer are complete strangers. And Amazon is not listening to any challenges to their protocols.
And one more: Amazon is removing suspicious reviews, but still leaving plenty of fake and/or damaging reviews all across the site.
Hold on, there might be another way to look at this.
Amazon’s crackdown is certainly not “all bad.” There’s a real need to bring integrity back to the reviewing process. When I’m considering a book on Amazon, I’d like a measure of confidence that those reviews are real—not purchased, not written by the author’s best friend, not written by a jealous competitor. So I do appreciate Amazon’s taking action. However, the uproar is happening because fake and purchased and pernicious reviews remain all across Amazon, while many legitimate reviews are being removed. Many online articles have addressed this, but Amazon doesn’t seem to be responding.
So what should we do?
First, I think it’s a good idea to remind ourselves not to waste energy worrying about the things over which we have no control. So let’s not stress out too much over Amazon as a whole. Let’s concentrate on the areas in which we have some control.
Second, when reviewing fellow authors’ books, always begin your review with a disclosure. For example, “Disclosure: I received this book free of charge from the publisher, but this review consists of my honest opinions, not influenced in any way by the author or publisher.” Or you could say, “Disclosure: I have met this author [or I am represented by the same literary agency as this author], but this review consists of my honest opinions, not influenced in any way by the author or publisher.”
Third, when asking your friends and acquaintances to review your books on Amazon, ask them to use a similar disclosure.
There is some evidence that the reviews containing a disclosure are less likely to be removed than the ones with no disclosure.
Fourth, if you believe your review was wrongly removed by Amazon, write to them and appeal their decision. I think it’s important that Amazon hear from us as much as possible, so that they can work to refine their process.
Want to read more?
Here are a couple of articles: Forbes and New York Times.
What are your thoughts? Have you noticed the lack of integrity in the reviewing system? What are your ideas on how we should respond to this whole situation?
Let’s take a look at the Amazon customer review controversy. Click to Tweet.
Have you tried to post a review on Amazon of a book written by your friend? Beware! Click to Tweet
Its a bit disturbing Rachelle. I would think it is statistically sound to give a higher weighting to a reviewer who is consistently close to the mean rating of a book i.e. if the reviewer is informed and sober, votes often and is as often within 10-15% of the end score, increase their weighting. If the reviewer is a troll who is generally off-beam, down rate or exclude them from the statistical universe as their inputs do not reflect the representative audience i.e. they are outside the standard deviation. In say dancing, judges do vary, but the degree of variance is inside a tolerable range – if a judge is consistently out of range, credibility will suffer. In golf, a player is rated relative to who he plays, so if he plays and beats a high ranked player, his ranking will rise more than if he played and beat a low ranker – that is a statistically sound use of weightings. IMDB is a pretty reliable barometer for films, and it uses a weighted system, but a relatively simple one that works – but then, the audience is more generic than book audiences are. Seems books need a different touch or Amazon could eventually put a sizable part of its business at risk. Methinks that natural forces will slowly shift their thinking, but it is wrong that a non-related reviewer is so arbitrarily excluded without recourse. That places an integrity question over the whole review process and will end up doing reputational harm to Amazon and its customers – or did they forget that writers are their customers? I do think that the critical mass of our industry vests with agents and publishers, rather than individual writers and readers, so the industry needs to stand up stronger in defense of its own and be visible in so doing, in the same way that other industry bodies lobby for their members.
I dug further and found that rankings are solely driven by recent sales, but that sales in turn are influenced by reviews. For IMDB sales are not a sole indicator of whether something is good, as it assumes people review after seeing a movie. Google doesn’t rank on page-hits either, but on a complex algorithm involving density, etc. So aspects of what I said earlier may not apply. This is a big challenge for Amazon because to exclude reviewers selectively, is to risk contriving the claims of a book, whilst revealing their algorithm risks manipulation. Its partly because good and bad are in the review pot, that reviews have credence at all. That said, the idea of weightings, alluded to earlier, could at least apply to reviewers so they can objectively weed out trolls. Unfortunately, that could also exclude or down-weight more worthy reviewers if they are occasional or have no objective credibility (e.g. immediate family of a writer). Ultimately, I can only agree with you: “why get worked up about what we can’t change, rather just review and add in the recommended postscript”.
I just had a thought … why not link review rights to purchases. What qualifies someone who hasn’t read it to review and why would a troll want to buy what he has already dismissed – but if he does, well its a sale and it might do him good (why do I assume its a him?) – forgive my passion, its a worthy topic.
What about those who borrow the book from a library? Or from a friend? They should be able to review the book as much as one who purchased it from a store.
Fair point David, but I wonder how soon libraries take on books on circuit. Whatever, as a buyer a library could solicit reviews.
All great thoughts, Peter. Did you see the article that talked about how Amazon is “weighting” the reviews? They’re favoring reviewers who purchased the book on Amazon. Yet they’re also on record as saying that reading the book is not a requirement for reading it. They don’t care if anyone reads the books, they just want people to buy them. The whole thing is interesting, isn’t it?
Or what about those who buy used books from a used book store? Yes, there are still many around.Or online. I buy lots of used books, and i post reviews.
A problem with this discrimination, Peter, should you buy the book from a different source, such as a bookstore (they do still exist!), you wouldn’t be allowed to review it. One thing Amazon does actually do is tags the reviews “verified purchase” for reviewers who purchased the book through them, and those reviews seem safe from removal.
Thanks for the tips on disclosure statements.
There are so many great authors I’ve met online and at the ACFW conferences that I write reviews for after I read their books. I’d hate to have the reviews yanked.
Thanks for sharing!
Right, Jackie, you don’t want to go to the time and effort of writing a review and then have it pulled! It’s worthwhile to do everything possible to avoid that.
Exactly my feelings, Jackie.
I wish they would remove nonsense reviews. I have one that says, “I haven’t read this book yet so I maychange my rating after I read it,” and another that says “I thought this was a Bible study for girls, but it’s not” with a low rating. Really?
I suspect they can’t pull those, in the ordinary scheme of things. To find an inappropriate review, it probably has to be reported to them. I’ve done this, and Amazon did act quickly to pull the offending review (this was several years ago).
That’s the main complaint right now, Kathy. They won’t remove nonsense or pernicious reviews, but they’re removing reviews that appear to be written by an acquaintance of the author. It’s frustrating. But when you realize it isn’t PEOPLE doing this but computers, it makes sense. Their computers aren’t programmed to identify those unwanted reviews, they can only identify reviewers’ online connections.
I’ll bet that Amazon’s algorithms indicate that some reviewers are mates with The Bard.
* Amazon needed to address this, and they would seem to be doing their best…but in the end it all comes down to someone in a cubicle making his or her decision, informed only to a degree, as to the significance and reliability of a certain piece of data.
* And the data is all they have…review history, browsing history, buying history, and visits to other sites that share data with Amazon. Writing them a letter saying you don’t know the author doesn’t fit into their statistical scheme, and if they reinstated a review based on that kind of personal input it would invalidate their model. It could only be added as a data point with a low assumed reliability, because you can SAY anything. (I assume that there are some legal strictures that make it important for Amazon to preserve the integrity of their ‘review algorithm’, and the way it’s used.)
* I don’t envy Amazon this job, because yes, the review system is a joke.I do use it, but I almost always have a priori knowledge of the book or author (either the book’s been referenced in something else I’ve read, or the author’s qualifications are excellent and/or he or she has a good track record).
* I don’t worry about reviews for my work. It’s the best I can do. If people like it, great, if they don’t, great. It’s there as an offering, nonetheless.
yup, they have data aplenty – a link to Google and Yahoo would also confirm relationships between writer and reviewer. Are that data rich and info poor – they are a pretty slick organisation, so maybe they just need time to get it right.
All great points, Andrew. It’s just data, and a personal email from an author doesn’t fit into their scheme. There’s no algorithm for that!
The Internet has revived the tactic of false testimony used by yesteryear barkers and promoters, from snake-oil salesmen to self-ordained tent revival preachers. Even TV shopping channels feature suspicious “customers who call in” with endorsements, so give me a break. My conclusion: false reviews shouldn’t be surprising. I buy from Internet markets often, and regard all reviews with suspicion, yet following most purchases from Amazon I receive a request to write a review of how I like the product. I seldom respond and rarely endorse. Books are somewhat different in that each reader brings a unique subjectivity to the table, so book reviews have little meaning. I’m afraid that this ages-old problem is here to stay.
John, like you, I am a bad consumer. I don’t fall for much in advertising of any form. But hey I really use IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes to select movies – invaluable to my family and pretty reliable too. Could the Christian publishing industry build a site like that to provide reviews across the industry with a weighted algorithm. Who knows, Amazon might even relent to having the CPI rating shown. Rachelle you would know the options better and what has been tried already. Besides, its all speculative – how can we change it all.
Wise thoughts, John! It’s helpful to realize that none of this is new. We will always have to wonder who we can trust when it comes to product reviews. And I believe you’re right, the problem is not going away.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Wow, that is all kinda crazy. I hadn’t noticed. Maybe because I have a Nook and buy my e-books through B & N. Also, sad to say, I’ve stopped writing reviews of books now that I’ve met so many wonderful authors online through great blogs and what not. I live in dread of enraging someone with an honest review, so I just don’t go there. Perhaps this will be more of a concern when my book comes out in September, but I’m not sure I should even look at reviews. . . at least not until I’m revising a new book and the reviews can actually help.
Kristen, you bring up a good point — authors can’t really review other authors (their friends and colleagues) unless they’re posting a good review. To do otherwise threatens relationships. Seems easier all around to avoid reviewing, even though we know all authors need reviews! Sigh. Tough stuff.
By the way, I never review books online. As a person working in the industry, the whole idea of public reviews is just too fraught with landmines.
I guess it’s not a big surprise that people are finding ways to get around the review process. It’s a shame that everyone is now affected by the actions of people trying to subvert what was meant to be a helpful system.
Thank you so much for your suggestions on how to have a better chance of our reviews staying on the site rather than being pulled. I have reviewed books for authors I know, and I’ve almost always added a disclosure at the bottom of the review. I’ll have to move disclosures to the top of future reviews.
Sadly, Jeanne, I think “we” (authors and publishers and agents) have contributed to the problem. Knowing that a large number of positive reviews helps sell books, we encourage authors to get everyone they know to post a review of their book. Of course, we never tell people they have to post a positive review and we don’t tell them what to say. Still, by encouraging authors to use that Amazon review section as part of their promotional strategy, we’ve helped to erode the integrity of the reviewing process. Bummer.
Thanks, Rachelle: Hoping Amazon changes this silly policy. I received a very poor review on Amazon. The reviewer was “Pagan Mommy” and the review began with: “Caution: Christian content” Frustrating!
Yes, this is an age-old frustration with Christian books online. There are so many people out there whose rage seems to be triggered by the slightest Christian-related theme. Sad.
Dianne J. Wilson
My book released in June this year and I’ve already had one of these reviews. After reading the comments here, I realise that this is a common thing. I feel better being in such great company!
I don’t know if this is significant, but I’ve recently seen a number of 1-star reviews that contained positive language, like “Great book!”
* They’re clear either typos, or attempts to bypass the screening software, but what’s clear is that Amazon has a ways to go, if their algorithm can’t detect this kind of dichotomy.
Aaaargh. “…clear-LY…” Time to be put in the stocks, for the amusement of writers passing by.
One criterion I do use is the price of used copies. I know it’s somewhat reflective of total sales figures, but if a well-reviewed and reasonably popular book has a relatively high price for used copies, it does tell me that it’s a ‘keeper’.(I’m absolutely delighted that my “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” falls into that category. Sorry about bragging…well, not really THAT sorry.)
* One good example is Ian Toll’s debut nonfiction, “Six Frigates”, the story of the birth of the US Navy. Though originally published in 2006, and still available new, it’s commanding more than $6 for used copies (as opposed to a lot of books that go for a penny).
Sometimes the reviews are removed, but the star rating remains. So these people with the 1-star “great books” are definitely trying to sabotage the author.
Integrity in the reviewing system? Where there are humans, there will be faults. I don’t know if there is any way around it. And as a book buyer, I’ll just add that I like short reviews. I don’t want to read a book about the book. 🙂 But I haven’t been misled by reviews or ratings so far.
And it always breaks my heart to see an excellent book receive low ratings because of Christian content. I think all Christian books should declare: Make no mistake, this is a God thing. 🙂 And I actually saw a book advertised on my Kindle that stated: This work does NOT have Christian content. It was a romance, and I was thankful to be warned. 🙂
I’m going to start putting up a disclaimer…”WARNING – reading this book could prevent your receiving eternal damnation, and compel your attendance in Heaven – FOREVER! Caveat emptor!”
Shelli, agreed! Where humans are involved, there will be faults. And I get frustrated when Christian books get dinged for being what they are meant to be: books with Christian content.
I selectively read reviews: 1) only if I am in doubt about the purchase, and then 2) with an eye to trends, with no great weight on any single review. I reject any comment that indicates that the individual clearly did not read the book or the description. I look at comments in various rating categories. If there’s a trend that appeals to me, I buy. And that trend is sometimes identified by the negative comments. After all, some people hate the very books I love. I am suspicious of low volume reviews that are all five star–only four reviews all top rated, and I’m thinking mom, dad, grandma and grandpa.
Sounds like a very wise approach to reading reviews, Shirlee. I handle it the way you do.
Shirlee, I agree. Actually reading the reviews (or at least a number of them) helps. You can throw out the obvious mom or pop or best friend. Most of those reviews make me gag, anyway. I study the summary of the book, then read the three and four reviews, one or two fives and one or two twos. 🙂 Its a great way to get the overall picture. Then I read the first few pages of the book which tells me about the writing. And when I make a decision, I’m pretty sure I’ll get a book I like.
Perhaps I am not following.
Yes, there has been a definite issue with reviews. But as with most current issues in the world just tying another bad knot versus getting the first one right is never the answer. Amazon is definitely tying some bad knots here.
“Eventually Amazon began removing book reviews it deemed somehow suspect. But this is where the controversy comes in. They’re using ***algorithms*** to determine if a review was posted by someone who “knows the author,” and if so, they’re removing the review from the site…”
Knowing authors deliberately build platforms that prompt followings on social media how would any book clear Amazon’s new criteria?
I am assuming the algorithms are formulated using shared information allowed by our privacy updates on sites and apps.
Do you know if this is the case?
If so, validates everyone’s privacy concerns with all these programs and apps always updating their privacy notices.
Thanks for the information.
Teressa, you’ve got it right — this is the problem. Authors have “platforms” and social media followings, and authors network with scores of other authors. So the internet can easily see how connected everyone is. It seems nobody can clear these hurdles.
I have no idea if the algorithms are able to access private information. Good question, though.
Thanks for covering this today, Rachelle.
As to how Amazon handles reviews of library copies and borrowed books, the company is beginning to weight reviews in favor of “verified purchases.” I received an email about this a couple of months ago. In other words, reviews from readers who bought the book on Amazon are weighted more heavily than reviews from readers whose purchase cannnot be verified. Weighting impacts the star ratings somehow. (I haven’t been able to find out how, though.)
My books now show “verified purchase” reviews, so Amazon really is tracking and linking these readers/purchasers. This distinction enables the company to spot relationships that might have merited a free copy, bogus reviews, or reviews of copies purchased from competitors—however erratically Amazon uses with that information.
Rachelle, we posted this info at exactly the same time. Sorry for the duplication.
Thanks for the info! And thanks for all your thoughts yesterday on the FB page. 🙂
Of course. And for your wisdom and input as well, Rachelle.
Wendy L Macdonald
How sad that some of the honest reviews are getting lumped in with the fake ones. Thank you for keeping us up-to-date, Rachelle. I prefer to read a book without the author knowing I’m reading it until after I’m done. If I hate a book or don’t feel it rates a 4 or 5 I tend not to mention it, since I know reviews are highly subjective. But if I really love a book I’m more than happy to promote it. I’ve become friends with authors after I’ve enjoyed and promoted a book of theirs. I hope this doesn’t mean my reviews will be deleted. They can’t touch my blog though. Blessings ~ Wendy
Another issue Amazon’s algorithm doesn’t address – total strangers who read our books, like our books, and then find us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest and interact with us. According to this type of algorithm, our biggest fans are automatically excluded for being…fans.
Yes, exactly, Sarah. The book industry is a very personal one. Our readers want to connect with us. The best marketing is by word of mouth which happens…when you ‘meet’ or somehow interact with that person.
I think Amazon will come around, because it will frustrate the readers/buyers as well as the authors and publishers, so they’re going to get it from all angles. In the mean time, I’m praying my books will continue to avoid this chaos.
Maybe someone should leave a review of Amazon. Wait. Is that allowed?
I have been “friends” with quite a few Christian Fiction authors on FB for years, many on their personal page, as well as some on their author page. I interact on many of their pages on a daily to weekly basis, and probably about a dozen of them comment regulrly on posts on my page as well. I guess most of my reviews will now be considered suspect even though I only know a couple of them in real life. That’s a shame since review through several review programs, and read 150-250 books/year.
Considering 7 of the whopping 8 reviews on one of my books are by people who know me, that pretty much nails the coffin. 🙁 Perhaps my only option now is to pay oodles of money to put it on Amazon Vine.
Crystal Laine Miller
Lately I’ve gotten tons of emails from Amazon begging me to review books I’ve bought. They ask me to leave a review. (I just haven’t lately.) I would rather write a review on Goodreads. I do sometimes read the reviews written on Amazon before buying a book, but usually I can see the bias in my humble opinion (one way or another.) I look at what is said and make up my own mind if it’s a book I want. Anyway, I think Amazon often overreaches and is aggressive to customers, so it doesn’t surprise me that they would do that to both reviewers and to authors. Always something! Interesting.
…or we stop writing reviews on Amazon. I have.
Do you know if this approach has been applied to GoodReads, too?
One solution is not to solicit book reviews for your books from your friends. I’ve never asked people to write a review for my books because I prefer unsolicited reviews that are by their very nature more honest than would be reviews from my friends. I’m not sure a few extra reviews from friends would result in more book sales anyway. Of course, some of my friends have reviewed my book, but totally voluntarily. The upside of this for me as an author is seeing 33 Amazon reviews of one of my books (Magnificent Prayer)—all five stars–and all unsolicted. That means a great deal to me.
Whoops. 27 five star reviews, not 33.
M. K. Theodoratus
“know the author”
I thought the whole point of wasting time on social media was to “make yourself know” among the reading public, many of whom are writers.
Does anyone else see a Catch-22 here?
Having met many authors I’ve often told that they sell the most books to the people they know. Beyond friends and family it’s the people who are in their town and communities and feel they know the author. So to say you know the author has many meanings. We work to develop relationships with our readers, and it’s frustrating. I have read that reviews on Amazon are what helps boost your book to show up for suggestions for shoppers. Like any system there are flaws and there is no right and wrong answer to solve it. Perhaps Amazon needs to consider that to monitor reviews needs to be more than about statistics and more about human interaction of reading and sorting like we do for spam in our comments on our sites and social media. Or at least those are my thoughts on this.
I am one of those authors who have written reviews for my friends. However, I always leave a disclaimer. To date I have not, YET, had one removed with a disclaimer. I also review a wide variety of books so maybe that helps as well?
For those reviews that completely don’t make sense with your book… I have successfully employed my friends to help me get one taken down. I reported the review to Amazon through the review report button- told them exactly why the review didn’t pertain (review stated that the book contained “great and nicely elaborate” adult scenes that my YA book most certainly does not have).
I then asked my friends on facebook to go to amazon and click that same report button. Amazon took it down quite fast.
I get why the review process needed some integrity control, but I don’t believe this is what’s behind it. What I really feel this boils down to is that they want you to purchase more from them. So, if you buy the book instead of get it for free, they will leave you alone.
Someone has probably already said this, but often people become ‘acquainted’ with authors because they like their books – hence they like their facebook page, follow them on Twitter, read and comment on their blogs, and may even meet them. An algorithm wouldn’t be able to tell which came first. Ironically, the high quality writing is what created the ‘following’ in the first place.
I review a lot of books. I am a blogger and yes, I will interact with authors at my local state Book Festivals. I will get copies of their books either purchased or given to me to review. I love interacting with some “new and new to me” authors. They send me their books for my review and I love it. I post a lot of my reviews on Goodreads. I have posted some on Amazon too. I hate when someone gives a great book 1 or 2 stars just because it is a “Christian” book or its “Preachy”. These are words I would expect from a Christian Book and a Christian author.
I know of people who “sell” their book for free for a period to garner multiple sales so they can call it a “best seller” and I know authors ask buyers to give a review and the reviews are more based on trying to do a good deed for a friend than giving an honest opinion. It’s not right at all. I hate feeling I have to sort through a bunch of fake reviews before choosing a book.
Martin R Jackson
Thank you for explaining why an anonymous five-star review disappeared from my Amazon page. However, it does not explain why my 400+ page novel (109,000+ words) is recorded as being 337 pages, even after many emails trying to correct this.
All I can think is that Amazon have started the page-count on chapter 1 and not on the prologue. My thriller has a long prologue written in the third person and is a very important exposition setting the murder scene before springing into first person for effect. They probably haven’t counted the epilogue either, which carries a major twist.