Once upon a time, there was a corporate giant called Amazon, who existed in a land inhabited by all manner of creature. This giant was possessed of a vast wealth and bartered myriad goods in exchange for those riches, from textiles to tchotchkes to consumables to a seemingly fathomless collection of media and books. There was little question of this giant’s market prowess, power and influence; nor was there little question that puny humans were lured with a Siren-like ease to its lair, where would be fulfilled every purchasing whim… In the land of Virtual Commerce, let us not be mistaken that Amazon was king.
Alas, this is reality. With a book market presence unrivaled by any other e-tailer, Amazon not only absorbs a hefty portion of the average reader’s book buying budget but its review system also wields the sort of influence that when utilized can increase a book’s visibility on the site. With the Kindle/Kindle app being on top of the e-reader heap, those Amazon reviews can truly matter not only to readers who take the time to peruse them but to authors as well, because of the way a review of their books ties in to Amazon’s algorithms. Simply put, an Amazon review can be beneficial to a book’s overall accessibility on the site.
There is, however, a short curly hair in the Amazon soup (my apologies for that visual), which is that the site’s review system is fraught with useless, at best, and fraudulent, at worst, content. We know it and they know it, which is why they’ve begun cracking down on known offenders. Let me just say, first and foremost, that I respect Amazon for taking measures to preserve the integrity of their review system because, as a rabid consumer, I utilize it to a degree. I want to read what the average Joe thinks of a product he owns and uses before I make a buying decision. And, let me also say that the 1 star reviews are as important to me as the 5s—that cross-section of opinions is an important barometer for me because somewhere in the middle is an opinion I’ll probably share. Where weeding through those reviews becomes unpleasant is in the useless one-word/one-sentence “reviews,” especially when it comes to literature: the “This book is made of all things Satan,” reviews are as useless as the “Loved it!!!!!!!!!” ones, yet the site is rife with them. Though, inarguably, from an author’s perspective, I suppose a review is a review is a review. Speaking on behalf of myself and my review team, who work so hard to put some thought and effort into our reviews, however, it’s frustrating. The difficult part, then, is in discerning which reviews are the fraudulent ones, because those fallacious reviews appear to be legitimate, which is why the well written 1 or 2 star review can be, like it or not, an invaluable tool for consumers.
So, now we enter the dark and dangerous fairy tale forest where there lies a murky bog called Ethics. It’s no secret there are review sites out there that sell reviews—I get follows from them on Twitter on occasion. There are also authors out there who buy those reviews—which stands to reason or those sites wouldn’t exist. Now you can see how this has made some reviews and some review sites suspect and, for more than a few people, difficult to trust. The bottom line is that if we consumers stray from the safety of the path to enlightenment, we might get eaten, and this is why Amazon has been forced to tidy its castle.
Beyond suing people for fraudulent reviews, Amazon has also begun swinging the ax on those reviews they merely suspect are bogus. It’s why they’re now policing our Facebook and Goodreads connections with the somewhat ambitious belief that by doing so they can restore legitimacy to and preserve the sanctity of the Amazon review. What’s happening in return for those efforts is that legitimate readers/reviewers are finding their reviews disappearing from Amazon, while the less-than-illuminating “This book was okay” reviews are living on to see another day. I know this because recently all of TNA’s reviews were removed from Amazon without notice or explanation as to why. Let me assure you that I’d never made it a secret in our reviews how the books had been acquired, opting instead for full transparency. I’d also been fully forthcoming in linking my Facebook account to Amazon with the expectation that, again, being as transparent as possible would be an indication that I had nothing at all to hide. But all that did, in the end, was draw a big bullseye on the account, so my attempts at honesty didn’t go unpunished. When I wrote a letter of inquiry to the Customer Reviews department to ask for specifics, I received a terse reply accusing me of “manipulating” the Amazon review process. When I replied to inquire how I might appeal this decision, all I received was another abrupt email that stated, in essence, they didn’t owe me an explanation and not to bother emailing them back because they would likely not respond.
I, of all people, respect the review process and understand why Amazon is trying to clean up the behemoth that is theirs. The issue that exists, however, is that in doing so they’re throwing out the good with the bad, utilizing IP addresses and star ratings and Facebook and Goodreads connections as their methods of deducing which reviews are originating from reputable sources and which aren’t. It’s a fantastic idea in theory, but in practice, it could use some work because all it’s done for me so far is leave me frustrated. In the grand scheme of things, what does that mean for me? Not much, really, other than the fact my integrity, and that of The Novel Approach, has been impugned. Which also means I wouldn’t sit idly by and allow such accusations to be made without mounting a strongly worded, “Hey, that stinks!” retort to them. And this is why I took the time to email Jeff Bezos to let him know I didn’t appreciate being lumped in with all the other witchies in the Amazon witch hunt. And then I’m sure he laughed at my insignificant self and went on to counting all the pieces of gold in his coffers, but at least he now knows I’m not some wan and mealy mouthed reader/reviewer who’s too intimidated to stand up to the giant. ::cue his laughter::
What does this mean for Amazon? Zero, zilch, nada. Will I stop shopping at Amazon.com? No, they’ll still get all my dollars because they make it easy to spend with them. Does this mean that I agree with their methods of repairing the flaws in their system? No, because it’s indiscriminate and shortsighted. Does it stick in my craw that all those one word/one sentence “reviews” are living on, while every last review we’d posted (and, I might add, had been approved) were disposed of with all disregard for their potential validity? Ooooh, you bet it does.
But David and Goliath, Jack the Giant Killer… they only exist in fairy tales. And I am merely the mouse that rawr’d, so I shall simply live to read and review another day as I continue in my pursuit to live my own happily ever after.
I will end with this, though. The following is the final paragraph from my letter to Jeff Bezos:
Please, trust me when I say I understand on a personal level the desire to preserve the reliability of your site’s reviews. It’s unfortunate that a few proverbial bad apples have made it difficult on the rest of us, but it’s doubly unfortunate that 4 and 5 star reviews are being targeted and removed from Amazon because, rest assured, all that does is punish the authors who’ve earned them for being excellent at their craft while doing nothing to eliminate the problem.
Anyone who reads more than a little understands the arbitrariness of loving or hating or somewhere-in-betweening a book. Anyone who reviews more than a little also understands the profundity of the star rating–which is to say there is none. It’s frustrating, then, in an ironic sort of way, that Amazon is not evaluating the validity of their book reviews based on the words the writer uses, but they are giving so much credence to the number the writer has elected to assign to those books. I enjoy most of the books I read, some I flat out love, some…well, not so much. I can say with utter certainty, though, that I’m not going to begin altering my reading choices with the hope I can add a few 1 star reviews to my repertoire. Reading time is too precious and the selection of books too profuse to waste my time on that sort of false legitimacy.