Amazon Reviews

I have become frustrated with Amazon’s review system.

As an independent author, I feel it is an important feature for helping convince others to buy my novel. In the event that I can actually get someone to visit the store page, they will absolutely want to justify their purchase before committing, and they can do this by looking at the reviews already made on the product. This will give them an indication of how appreciated the novel is, and hopefully assure them that they are not wasting their money.

Sadly, however, Amazon seem to have a very arbitrary policy about who is actually allowed to review a novel. The aim of the policy is perfectly understandable, and in fact is highly laudable. They wish to remove bias from the reviews and give them greater legitimacy. The guidelines are available here, and I agree with the intention.

Late at night, I am prone to revisit my store page from time to time, and will look at the review count. Every so often I am excited to see the number tick up one notch, and will happily read the new review. Even the nasty one that someone once left still elicited excitement — at least they had (hopefully) read my novel! Other times, one of my fans will tip me off about a new review and I quickly dart over to the page to check it out.

Sadly, however, on more than one occasion the review has subsequently disappeared from Amazon, vanishing into the ether with nary a sign that it existed. I suspect this is a result of the Amazon Community Guidelines, specifically the one below. I saw some of the reviews, and they certainly didn’t breach any language or content guidelines.

Promotional Reviews — In order to preserve the integrity of Customer Reviews, we do not permit artists, authors, developers, manufacturers, publishers, sellers or vendors to write Customer Reviews for their own products or services, to post negative reviews on competing products or services, or to vote on the helpfulness of reviews. For the same reason, family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items.

The first part makes sense. It protects review integrity, and I think that is valuable in ensuring their review service is trustworthy. I certainly would never post a review of my own novel on Amazon (though I did accidentally do it on Goodreads while testing out their site — I realised I had done so when a friend liked the review, and have kept it in wry amusement). Additionally I wouldn’t sabotage a competitor. I believe in being ethical, so nor would I pay someone to write a review for me.

The second part of the guideline is where it gets difficult for me: “…family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items.” Now, I am not a group or company, so it is saying that family or close friends of me as a person cannot write a review. This is again surely to protect integrity of the reviews by removing bias. While a lot of family members out there could, I’m sure, write an unbiased review, I do agree with Amazon that there are a lot of family members who would write glowing reviews out of sheer pride for their relative. I get that.

But ‘close friends’ is the troublesome part. That’s a very vague term, and very hard to define. Who is a close friend?

Is it based on how often you talk to someone, how long you’ve known them, how often you spend time together? Is it whether you share close secrets or your hopes and dreams? Or that you know their middle name, date of birth or have been to their house? Or that you’d race to them if you heard they were in trouble and be there for them when it mattered? Most of my close friends don’t even have a clue where I live, and very few get to find out when I’m upset, so how does that work? What combination of any of these marks one person as a close friend and another as not being one?

While it is uncomfortable to have to lump people I know into the category of ‘close’ or ‘not close’, I can think of examples where any of the above criteria could be applied to either. Amazon don’t notify an author that a review has been posted or taken down, and doesn’t allow challenges to the take down if it is discovered. They arbitrarily decide that someone must have been a close friend and remove the review.

But how are they deciding? Not only is the criteria for ‘close friend’ undefined and highly subjective anyway (test it — ask your friends who is close to each other and why, then then get some popcorn and sadistically watch the ensuing mess of hurt feelings unfold), what information are they using? Does Amazon have access to Facebook accounts, or IP addresses, or address books? My Facebook account wouldn’t reveal who is close or not, as there are close friends I have who are not on there, and very loose friends who I message reasonably often. The friends list is even set to private, and actually contains a few people I barely know. Are they all banned from reviewing my work by dint of being vaguely associated?

Maybe it’s IP address? But I work in an office of 3,000 people sharing a network — I dare say that the majority of people there have never even heard of me. Are they all banned from making reviews? Or maybe Amazon somehow has access to my contact book? Even that wouldn’t explain why they are removing reviews. Somehow, Amazon have decided that several people who have made reviews must be a close friend of mine, but they haven’t said how they have determined this, or allowed me to prove whether they are wrong. Perhaps it is through a similar purchase history on Amazon itself. Or the incoming link someone used to get to my Amazon page. So no one who is also a bit geeky and buys the same sort of thing can make a review, or no one who responded to one of my adverts can make a review. I don’t get it, and Amazon doen’t want to help me.

When Amazon remove a review that didn’t breach content guidelines they are implying that it breached those relating to integrity. They are implying that either the reviewer or the seller do not have integrity. They are saying it was a biased review, and that it shouldn’t be used. I feel that this is a hostile criticism of their own users, and in several instances is very much unjust. Someone took the time out of their life to write some thoughts on my work, and I am thankful for that. Amazon, apparently, isn’t.

All this boils down to the fact that Amazon are removing reviews that don’t breach their own guidelines. An independent start-up author will have a low budget and needs all the help they can get to build a grass-roots sales network. The Amazon review system is actively standing in the way of that, by barring positive feedback from being posted by the initial round of reviewers — the people who have been convinced to buy the book on word of mouth and may loosely know of the person who wrote it. Amazon do stand in the way of the small vendor, in this instance.

I think that the Kindle Direct Publishing and the Createspace publishing tools are wonderfully powerful, and am so pleased that Amazon developed them. They actively help increase the number of stories that are out there in the world and that is an amazing thing for everyone. But I think that Amazon’s review guidelines run in direct contradiction to those tools. On one hand Amazon are helping authors produce novels and get them out in the world, on the other Amazon are actively preventing them from being able to increase their reputation and sales figures.

My guess is that this is the result of a vague policy being applied in an arbitrary manner, without the nuance that its own vague nature requires, and without consideration to the difficulties and frustrations it imposes. It feels likely that two separate arms of a large corporation are simply not working in harmony, and it is understandable how that could come about. But it is a problem, and it doesn’t work well. Amazon should be trying to help authors increase sales, and reward the marketing efforts being made, whereby both parties benefit from the revenue.

They shouldn’t be stepping in the way and saying that someone doesn’t count as being real, but not saying why.

One last point is that I do have a negative review against my novel. It is the first of what will no doubt be many more over the years. It’s from an unverified purchase, and is in sharp contrast to the other feedback on my page. Despite being an unverified purchase, Amazon is happy that this is a genuine review of a product. In fact, if it was someone who actively disliked me and was simply being cruel, that wouldn’t be a breach of the community guidelines. If they are not a ‘close friend’, it’s not a problem. You can be as cruel as you like, as long as you are not a friend or competitor.

In this instance, the review differs from the reviewer’s only other, and far more verbose, review of another work, made several years previously. It is not consistent with their own previous style, which is why it leads me to think it might be a personal attack, although I of course cannot prove that and frankly don’t want to; let it stand as a singularly contrasting review.

Regardless, I think that all of this is an example of how a poorly applied protocol can make it easier to be negative than positive. And that’s something we could probably do with less of, these days.