by Anne R. Allen
So what’s this about missing reviews?
Go to any author forum or social media group for writers and you’ll see the plaintive posts:
- “Help! My Amazon reviews are disappearing.”
- “Amazon rejected my review because they say I ‘know’ the author. I don’t. All I did was friend her on Facebook!”
- “Amazon has banned my favorite reviewer because they say he got paid for his reviews. He didn’t. His blog is on a book blog tour. But they don’t pay him a penny.”
- “I offered to give people a free book if they wrote me a review and now all my reviews are gone!”
- “I got a nasty note from Amazon accusing me of ‘manipulating reviews’. I’ve never done any such thing. I gave reviewers a gift card to buy the book, but they disclosed that.”
In a word, yes. Amazon has been conducting a review purge.
All review sites remove reviews. According to Forbes, Yelp removes 25% of its reviews. But Amazon has been stepping up the review removal lately and it has been freaking out a lot of authors.
Amazon has a history of periodic review purges, starting with the huge one in 2012 that came after a massive paid review scandal hit the New York Times.
Another purge happened last May. I wrote a post about why authors should never pay for Amazon reviews,.Amazon had just sued a number of paid review companies and was in the process of removing all their reviews. In October, the Amazon review police went farther: they sued 1000 individuals who were selling reviews on Fivrr.
“But,” sez you, “That has nothing to do with me because I would never pay for a review!”
Thing is, you may have “paid” without knowing it, according to Amazon’s complicated interpretation of its review rules.
What is Considered a “Paid Review”?
The following are considered paid reviews according to people I’ve spoken to who have contacted Amazon on the subject. You can read more at Bookworks from marketing guru Penny Sansevieri, who got her info from an Amazon spokesperson. And there is more at the Good E-Reader.
1) A review by a book blogger whose blog is part of a paid blog tour, even if the book blogger is not paid. Often only the organizer of the tour gets paid, but the blog review is considered a “paid review,” so it can’t be posted on Amazon. (Although you can post a quote from it in the “editorial review” section.)
2) A review written in exchange for a gift card. Even if that card is only in the amount of the price of the book. A reviewer could possibly use the card for purchasing something else.
3) A review written in exchange for another review. Review trading is 100% verboten.
4) A review written in expectation of a free book. The review copy must be given before the review is written or the book will be seen as payment for the review.
5) A review by a person you “know” online. Yes, you read that right. This can be someone who has friended you on Facebook, followed you on Twitter, or has done business with you in a way that’s detectable to the Amazon review police.
Wha-a-a-t? Have the Rules Changed?
The “know the author” rule is a new interpretation of Amazon’s rules, although the wording of the TOS hasn’t actually changed.
Amazon spokespeople say that anybody who knows the author might “benefit financially” from the book’s sales, and financial beneficiaries have always been forbidden to review. (I wish I knew how to benefit financially when one of my 873 Facebook friends has a bestseller, but I’m obviously not working this right.)
So how do they determine if you “know” an author, anyway?
They’re not telling.
This is the message reviewers are getting from the Zon.
We removed your Customer Reviews because you know the author personally.
Due to the proprietary nature of our business, we do not provide information on how we determine that the accounts are related.”
Book marketing guru Penny Sansevieri of Author Marketing Experts explains it this way:
“According to Amazon, family and friends write biased reviews…It may seem unfair but, to be honest, I get where Amazon is coming from here. They want authentic, unbiased reviews. And so do we – the readers. Well-intentioned friends and family might post glowing five-star reviews that merely say: “I loved this book!” While their goals are noble (supporting you!), vague reviews don’t help consumers deciding whether to buy your book. As authors, we don’t like getting 2-star reviews, but remember that readers will likely regard a book page with all 5-star reviews as suspicious.”
But this doesn’t keep authors from being pretty upset, since most publishers require that we have social media accounts exactly so that we can become “friends” with our readers and fans.
There’s a petition going around at Change.org asking Amazon to change this new “know the author” policy, but it doesn’t seem to have gone very far. I think most authors are afraid to sign for fear of retaliation from the review police.
Where does this New Rule Interpretation Come From?
Did Amazon hire a bunch of new employees to sit around all day policing reviews?
That seems unlikely, but they do respond to customer complaints. (And remember that as an author you are not a customer. You are a vendor.)
Unfortunately, some of their most loudly complaining customers are the anti-author vigilantes who haunt the Amazon fora, BookLikes and Goodreads. I wrote about them in my 2013 post, The Laws of the Amazon Jungle. You do NOT want to get on the wrong side of these folks.
A few badly behaving authors gaming the system have ruined things for everybody. And these vigilantes can be seriously scary. They’ve sent me death threats just because they didn’t like one of my blogposts.
To me, Amazon’s use of unhinged vigilantes to police their site is up there with the Rolling Stones’ decision to ask the Hell’s Angels to provide security at Altamont. But hey, they didn’t ask my opinion, and Amazon is a private company. It’s their circus and their monkeys and they can do whatever the heck they want.
So What Should Authors Do?
1) Do not trade or buy reviews.
Just don’t. No matter how many authors do it. Or how many of them say you “owe” them a review because they reviewed you. Or how much they spam you with whiny newsletters.
While I’m on the subject: STOP SENDING FELLOW AUTHORS NEWSLETTERS THEY DID NOT SUBSCRIBE TO!!! I am beginning to sympathize with the vigilantes on this. The fact that you’ve read a blog or book does not mean the bloggers or authors owe you anything. Ruth and I love all our readers and subscribers, but we have 24-hour days just like other people. We get up to 100,000 hits per month. We cannot read and review the deathless prose of all those people. We need to work and sleep and have lives just the way you do.
Unfortunately some newbie authors have been told there’s a rule that says reviews, sales, and newsletters should always involve a quid pro quo. This is simply not true—and it can put you in serious trouble with the Zon.
The problem is compounded by the writers who don’t happen to have been hit by a review purge and refuse to believe any of this is happening.
I still get Tweets and Facebook DMs from authors asking to trade reviews. I’ve been invited to join groups that are formed for the sole purpose of trading reviews. I tell them politely they’re violating Amazon’s rules. They ignore me.
When I warned the editor of an anthology about the new policy, a fellow contributor called me a liar in a nasty group email. She said she and her fellow contributors review each other all the time and nobody has ever caught her so nobody ever will. (Change apparently does not happen on her planet.)
People like this are the reason we have vigilantes.
If another author happens to like your work, instead of a review trade, ask them for a quote you can put in the “editorial reviews” section of your buy page. Editorial reviews usually carry more weight with readers, anyway.
2) Accept that nothing entitles you to a review.
Sending a reader or blogger a copy of your book—even a hard copy—does not entitle you to a review. This is a sore spot with a lot of reviewers. Even if they agree to review your book, the fact you sent them a copy does not mean they HAVE to review. They may hate your book. Or they lost interest. Do you really want that on your buy page?
If somebody you have given a book does not write a review, they are probably doing you a favor. Hounding them or demanding a review will very likely backfire. And getting your peeps to gang up on a reviewer who doesn’t like your book is always going to make YOU look bad.
Reviewers who have been hounded or bullied by authors sometimes turn into vigilantes. See how that works?
3) Expect more purges
Smart authors will pay attention: there’s a new marshal in Amazon territory and he’s going after the varmints who pay for reviews.
Just because you’ve been getting away with something doesn’t mean you always will. Unfortunately, ignorance of the rules is not an excuse in the Amazon justice system.
According to uber-reviewer Big Al, there’s more to come after the Fivrr lawsuits. Writing at Indies Unlimited in October Big Al said:
“Amazon isn’t just looking to shut down these reviewers, but also identify their clients. The repercussions for that may go beyond just removal of the reviews. Conceivably they could go as far as to remove the seller and his or her products from Amazon.”
With this new lawsuit, there will be more removals. Maybe the biggest review purge of all. The problem is, as Al points out, that a lot of legit reviews get thrown out with the bathwater. If you lose reviews, it’s almost impossible to have them put back.
4) Save copies of Amazon reviews and post them to more than one site.
Sometimes, reviews evaporate for no discernable reason. Penny Sansevieri says sometimes they will come back just as mysteriously, but usually they don’t.
This has certainly happened to me. When a book gets republished by a new publisher, often reviews fall away, never to return. So it’s a good idea to always save copies of your reviews. I wish I had.
Another thing we can all do is post reviews we write to iTunes, Smashwords, Google Play, B & N or Kobo. You can also use review sites like Goodreads and Shelfari
That way reviews won’t be lost forever if they disappear due to algorithm changes or review purges—and Amazon won’t have the only review game in town.
Maybe someday somebody will start up a BookBub type newsletter that says. “50 five-star reviews on iTunes” instead of Amazon. BookBub itself says it prefers books that are available on multiple platforms, so maybe they’ll pay attention to other platform reviews.
But we have to post them first!
5) Don’t stop asking for reviews, but be ethical
Penny Sansevieri thinks there’s nothing wrong with asking online friends and fans to write a review but we need to keep in mind that Amazon may pull it.
That’s kind of my feeling too. I don’t see anything unethical in asking people who know you—especially people who get to “know” you on social media because they like your work—to review your book. Fans don’t always offer mindless praise. They often say “this isn’t up to her usual standard” or “I liked book one better” or whatever. At least mine do.
Unfortunately, it’s human nature to be more vocal with complaints than praise, so if we have to depend entirely on first-time readers who have never heard of us, reviews will be skewed on the negative side—if we get any reviews at all.Authors have always reviewed other authors. It’s a tradition as old as publishing. They are not always kind to each other. In fact many have been remarkably snarky. I’ll be talking about that in future post.For a good rundown of what is considered ethical reviewing, see the code of ethics for reviewers at Novel Finds.
6) Report abuse when you see it.
When you see a misleading, unethical, or inappropriate review on a retail site, click the button for reporting abuse. It’s easy. Every review on Amazon has a line below that says “was this review helpful to you?” followed by “yes” and “no” buttons and another saying “report abuse.”
Amazon listens to its customers. But the complaints have to reach critical mass.
But What about Amazon’s OTHER Review Problem?
The plaintive cries from authors aren’t just about missing reviews. You also see a lot of stuff like this:
- “I have 30 one-star reviews on my barbeque cookbook. They’re all from PETA activists who say meat is murder…and Amazon won’t remove them.”
- “My stalker ex-boyfriend had his friends leave a bunch of one-star reviews on my buy page saying my book is terrible. It’s obvious none of them has read it. Amazon says the ‘reviews’ don’t break any of their rules.”
- “I got a one-star review from a guy who left the same one-star review on 52 different books: ‘I didn’t read this book. I bought it for my wife’. I complained to Amazon, but it’s still there.”
Epic Fantasy author William L. Hahn pondered Amazon’s review issues at The Independent Bookworm recently. He acknowledges, “Amazon appears to be cracking down on paid reviews and I think most of us would cheer that idea.”
But he brings up the other BIG problem with Amazon reviews:
“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.”
Amazon is plagued by review trolls, revenge reviews and “reviews” by people with political and personal agendas that have nothing to do with the book.
There was a particularly nasty example of this recently:
A book by the mother of a child murdered in a school shooting was attacked by a group of conspiracy-theory loonies who claim there’s no such thing as a school shooting.
Their “reviews” claim all those gun rampages are hoaxes and phony “drills” staged by mean (and remarkably clever) people who want to make the “happiness is a warm gun” community feel bad.
Yeah, I didn’t know these guys existed either. The delusions of conspiracy theorists get more amazing every day.
But what makes this stuff even worse is that these people are free to torment a bereaved mother with impunity—and they use Amazon to perpetuate the cray-cray. The last time I checked, the toxic reviews libeling the mother were still there.
It doesn’t make sense to me that Amazon would want its store to be used as a vehicle for spreading the propaganda of violent extremists. Amazon is a private company so the Constitutional right of “free speech” does not apply.
Maybe not enough customers are complaining?
People may not be reporting abuse because the mother’s book is selling well and she has a 5-star rating. The nutjobs have probably done a lot to draw attention to her book and boost her sales and draw sympathetic reviews.
But at what cost?
If this stuff bothers you, you need to keep complaining until Amazon is as eager to remove phony “reviews” by people with personal and political agendas—who have obviously not read a book—as they are to block an author’s social media contacts.
Unfortunately, Amazon spokespeople have stated that they do NOT require a reviewer to have read any of the books they review. That’s how famously prolific Amazon reviewer Harriet Klausner (RIP) managed to “review” up to ten books a day, year after year.
Personally, I think if a retail site wants their reviews to be helpful to customers, they would be smart to weed out ALL misleading reviews, not just the positive ones.
But as I said, the Mighty Zon doesn’t come to me for advice.
Squeaky wheels get the grease. If you want Amazon to change their policies, pro-author voices have to be as loud as the anti-author ones. (But report abuse as a customer, not as an author.)
If—as a reader—you feel misled by reviewers who don’t read the books they review, say so. If enough people complain, they may change their policy. Amazon really does believe the customer is always right and will go out of their way to please customers. (I had a great experience with Amazon customer service just this week when a cancellation by a vendor meant I wasn’t eligible for free shipping and they gave it to me anyway.)
Amazon’s Upcoming Review Changes
Amazon has reported there will be more changes to the review algorithms in 2016. They are introducing a new policy where verified purchase reviews will have more weight, as will more recent reviews.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem of the system gamers Mr. Hahn mentions, who buy a book, get “verified” then return it without reading.
But as I said, it’s the Zon’s circus.
I say we should go ahead and review according to our own ethics. (Personally I believe in reading a book before reviewing it, and I’m going to continue to follow that rule.)
But be aware that if you write a review of a book by somebody you “know” on social media, some vigilante may report you to the Zon police and the review will go away.So post reviews on more than one platform and ALWAYS report abuse when you see it.
What about you, Scriveners? Have you lost any reviews recently? Have your reviews been rejected with one of these “you know the author” messages? Have you ever had an author demand a review from you because they reviewed your book? Do you think it’s ethical to review somebody you “know” online? How do you react when you see a review that’s obviously written by somebody who never opened the book?
posted by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) November 22, 2015
Anne R. Allen is the author of ten books, including the bestselling CAMILLA RANDALL MYSTERIES and HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE, co-written with NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The prequel to the Camilla Randall Mysteries.We meet Camilla and Plantagenet in the big-hair, pastel-suited 1980s. In this satirical romp, a spoiled 1980s debutante comes of age—and discovers strengths nobody knew she had—when she loses everything. The story takes her from the doors of Studio 54 to the coke-fueled parties of Southern California to a cell in the L.A. County Jail accused of murder. We know she didn’t do it, but who did?