2012.11.02 – The Soapbox: The Amazon Review Crackdown, and Konrath Fails Again

Amazon has effectively decided that you cannot be both an author and a reviewer. At least not on their store website.

The Scandals

After a series of high-profile scandals involving sockpuppetry, malicious author-on-author review sabotage, bullying and harassment* of negative reviewers by authors, and shill or paid reviews, Amazon has decided to enable an algorithm to remove any reviews on products it deems suspect. The focus seems to be on books, however, as evidenced by the angry authors on KindleBoards.

* NOTE: potential anti-Semitic slur in article heading. Don’t start arguing about Shylock on my blog or the difference between language reclamation in the U.S. vs. the U.K. I’m just pointing this out so that you don’t click on it if you don’t want to read it.

This is actually not a new story. Mainak Dhar was exposed in April for buying reviews for his books on Fiverr, where he spent money to have random people actually buy his books before leaving reviews on Amazon, thus marking them as verified purchasers and increasing the weight of their reviews on Amazon’s algorithms. It’s unclear just how many of his five- and four-star reviews were fake, but what is clear is that his books had regularly hit the Top 100 lists in their categories before the news broke.

Reactions

My first thought when I heard this? I was surprised it took this long for Amazon to do something. Granted, their solution seems like ineffective overkill and pretty unfair to people who review without ulterior motives, but Amazon is focused on the long-term viability of its business. Amazon has built its brand on making the customer Number #1. Its website is the largest review site in the world. If people gaming the system becomes a threat to its brand, it should come as no surprise that executives decided to crack down on the abuse.

Of course, not everyone feels this way. Take J.A. Konrath, who wrote a complaint letter to Amazon Customer Service that managed to be both indignant and obsequious:

People are seriously disappointed in how Amazon handled this. It was a knee-jerk,  inappropriate reaction to a ridiculous case of unjustified moral panic, and a Big Fail.

Again, I’m not trying to point fingers, signal anyone out, or place blame. […]

Why not? Isn’t Amazon the company taking down the reviews on its own site?

As it turns out, it’s because Konrath knows who’s really to blame for Amazon taking down legitimate reviews along with the suspected shill ones:

But I don’t blame Amazon for this. While I don’t think they approached this situation in the right way, they were showing how customer-centric they are by reacting to public opinion. Namely, complaints about their review system brought up by those very clever No Sock Puppets Here Please authors.

Congratulations, NSPHP signatories. Because of your concerns about Amazon’s review policy and your ridiculous little petition, and the resulting media witch hunt, thousands of legitimate reviews have now been deleted.

Ah, I see! It’s not the fault of the con men abusing a system designed for consumers, or the company that makes arbitrary decisions to react to bad PR. It’s the fault of people POINTING OUT the bad behavior in the first place. Because that totally makes sense.

Can you hear the sound of my eyes rolling yet?

Apparently, the authors, reviewers and readers who do not, in fact, condone unethical and possibly fraudulent behavior like Joe Konrath did, are to blame for Amazon trying, albeit in a chainsaw-beats-a-scalpel sort of way, to throw out the bad apples. (My apologies for mixing metaphors. The inner editor is on break for NaNoWriMo.)

Writers, Review No More?

Remember how there was a huge controversy back in the beginning of 2011 about traditionally published authors and agents advising upcoming authors not to blog critically about other books because it might hurt their career? How it was all intertwined with a so-called YA Mafia? Yeah, I’m betting a few people remember that. If not, here’s a refresher.

The gist of the whole kerfluffle was this: with Twilight‘s fame came a huge influx of adult female readers along with more intense scrutiny of YA genre and the messages some of its books convey to children, particularly about gender, class, sexuality, and race. At the same time, social media and online fan culture / blogging exploded, making interactions between authors and readers inevitable. Some of those readers turned out to be both book bloggers and aspiring writers, and the notion of separating the analytical side of one’s personality from one’s business decisions didn’t make sense to some people. The blogosphere tends to foster an incendiary atmosphere: you either shout loud enough for everyone to hear you, or you write about enough popular or controversial topics that someone else eventually shouts for you. Fandom culture — and I’m inclined to believe that a huge portion of consumers participate in fen-like activity or activity that relates to fandom whether they recognize it as such or not — is always oneDr. Who casting decision or Jensen Ackles interview away from kersploding all over The Interwebz.

All of this noise and constant, immediate feedback has served to muddle the boundaries that used to exist between artists, their published art, and their fans. Why are authors “answering” reviews that are not meant for them, that are conversations between other consumers? (Because authors can find them, probably. Also, Google.) How is it fair to ask writers to maintain an online presence and then threaten them with morals clauses if they reveal unsavory opinions on their Twitter feed? (CLUEFLASH: making blatantly offensive and bigoted statements tends to have offline career consequences, too.) It’s a big, new, scary world out there in the digital universe, and there aren’t many written rules, because most of us can’t even agree on who deserves to write them.

On the one hand, it is pretty easy to separate your writing career and your blogging career. They’re called pseudonyms, and they’re quite useful when writers just can’t stop themselves from ranting about Stephenie Meyer or E. L. James for the fourth time.

In addition, there is no cabal of successful authors out to put you down, and while I’m sure NY published YA authors are only human and gossip in cliques on a regular basis, it’s highly unlikely that any working writer has either the time or the inclination to actively sabotage more than one person’s life on their Burn List at once. Their own names are often higher up on that particular To-Do list than yours.

On the other hand, and I disagree that giving potential authors advice to keep controversial opinions to themselves is in any way equivalent, it is never okay to harass reviewers who choose to review honestly and critically. A lot of authors have behaved badly this year, and last year, in YA literature, in adult literature, both self-published and legacy published. Heck, there have been cases in the past month where authors or their anonymous supporters have doxed reviewers for critical book reviews or selling finished copies — in other words, not ARCs — to used bookstores.

Reviewing honestly and critically, it seems, has become a hazardous profession.

For a writer, the choices are therefore meaningful: to review or not to review, to only recommend or not talk about other people’s books at all, to review under one’s real name or under a pseudonym. It seems that if you use the same Amazon account to both self-publish and review books, Amazon has made that choice for you —

You can’t do it. You can’t post your reviews on Amazon, not for books that ostensibly could compete with yours in your genres, not for books that are on completely different subjects. At least, you can no longer do this without risk of your reviews being deleted, or worse.

It remains to be seen whether there will be broader consequences, like whether Amazon will penalize high-profile authors who post reviews on competing books anywhere else on the web by changing the terms of their contracts. My gut says no, absolutely not. They can’t even personally oversee the review deletions on their own site, much less troll the web looking for mean-spirited invectives. Nor do I think they engage in secret compacts with big publishing to shut out indies (where do people find these conspiracy theories?). Amazon’s turf is Amazon’s turf, and everything else is the Wild, Wild, West.

Then again, company lawyers have been known to do really nasty things to contracts… *cue ominous music*

Idiocy, Publishing Industry, Reviewing, The Soapbox , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 responses to 2012.11.02 – The Soapbox: The Amazon Review Crackdown, and Konrath Fails Again


  1. Kevin O. McLaughlin

    A few thoughts on this whole mess… ;)

    1) You can still review if you are a writer. At a rough guess, Amazon pulled down maybe as much as 0.001% of author-written reviews. Important to understand: there is nothing in the review guidelines saying you can’t write a review if you’re a writer. There is just something in the algorithm which is culling certain reviews if they look suspicious; say, a case where a pair or group of writers review ALL of each others’ work with five stars.

    2) You can always divide out your author and reader Amazon accounts. Many writers already do this, keeping a KDP account set up for their publishing work, and a user account under another name for buying things from Amazon. I didn’t do that when I started publishing, and in retrospect I probably should have. Dividing the household and commercial accounts would have made sense.

    3) The most egregious offenders when it comes to reviews continue to be large publishers, at least some of which are hiring PR firms to place fake reviews on books. I think this is actually a more destructive set of activities than writers putting up reviews for each other.

    So, short term? Amazon made a lot of writers upset, and the trust level indie writers as a whole have for the corporation has probably never been lower. I the long term? It did nothing. People who were sock-puppeting were already using multiple accounts. Now, multiple accounts will simply become the norm. It’s a little bit like the 2000 follower barrier on Twitter. Twitter made it so unless you have followers within 10% or so of the number of people you follow, you can’t follow more than 2000 people. They did this to trim back on bot users. Instead, they created a thriving business where people go BUY a thousand fake twitter followers so they can get past the barrier.

    The solution made the problem worse.

    By forcing users to get multiple accounts on Amazon for their writing life and reading/reviewing life, Amazon has in the long term just made the problem much worse.

    • svrowle

      Good points, Kevin. :) I don’t think everyone is reporting missing reviews. However — and I don’t remember the exact wording, so I’m paraphrasing here — the responses a lot of authors received was “we don’t allow reviews from account holders in direct competition with the products they are reviewing,” or something to that extent.

      As regards #2, yes, authors should have been separating business accounts from personal accounts. Biz 101, so I had hoped it went without saying, but I’m glad you pointed it out so I didn’t have to sound (more) lecturing (than I already did). Expenses should be on separate credit/debit cards, one debit card used only for business, registered in the name of the company even if the bank asks for your real name so that you can enter the company name in the title field online, everything properly incorporated (those corporations registered using a New Mexico LLC!), etc. ;)

      I mentioned #3 when I was commenting on TPV. Yes, big publishers do plenty of bad acts, and Amazon needs to identify the perpetrators and put a stop to it. It’s not like Amazon can possibly instill any more animosity in legacy publishers than it already has, right? Just because corporations with more money do mean-spirited or unethical things doesn’t mean self-publishers and small presses should follow, I hope.

      So, short term? Amazon made a lot of writers upset, and the trust level indie writers as a whole have for the corporation has probably never been lower.

      I agree completely. The thing is, indie writers should not have trusted Amazon in the first place, or anyone else. Smart businesspeople reserve trust for their personal lives, never put all of their eggs in one basket, and never rely on any person or entity’s goodwill for their stability.

      Anything that’s in a contract can be invoked, anything not in a contract can be used against you. I believe Dean Wesley Smith talked a lot about the dangers of trust in his posts about agents several times, and Kris Rusch and Passive Voice have urged people to read their contracts carefully.

      People who were sock-puppeting were already using multiple accounts. Now, multiple accounts will simply become the norm.

      I don’t have a problem with multiple legitimate accounts. :D The illegitimate ones are regularly reported and found out, and Amazon will simply write a new code to cross-check credit cards, names, addresses, etc. if the problem becomes too dire. It’s pretty expensive to form a different company for every sockpuppet you register just to have a different credit card.

      I really believe that more people separating their personal lives from their business ones would have a positive effect for all involved. It’s not like there’s finite space for more pseudonyms; you can have as many as you want. Most people would probably only have two. It takes seconds to register a new account at any of the sites I use daily, and maybe a minute to set up a different email account.

      Less personal liability, more freedom to say what you want, fewer chances of being shut down by corporations because of your opinions. Companies still have honest reviewers, readers get what they want, authors don’t worry about penalties. It’s a win/win/win! LOL.

      Amazon has bungled its current attempt to clean house, as I said above. No arguments there. I feel terrible for people who earned reviews and had them deleted or wrote helpful ones and had them removed. But that is precisely why people should not depend on any one company to control everything. Amazon doesn’t owe us good reviews. In our current global marketplace, no one even owes us a living. A server warehouse could go down tomorrow and wipe out half of everyone’s sales reports. Amazon would probably say, “Sorry! Check back in a month.” We would have to deal.

      The lesson here is to not count on anyone looking out for you but YOU. It may be cynical, but it’s a more practical approach to Internet commerce than leaning on everyone else.