Amazon’s approach to book reviews

Writerly types and those with interest in publishing (or even just reading) may have come across a tweet that was posted yesterday by author and TV producer Daisy Goodwin, reading:

‘We don’t require people to have read the product before reviewing’ amazon spokesperson #sockpuppets

This quote was published in the Guardian, in an article called Why Amazon Just Can’t Win yesterday morning and refers also, with the #sockpuppet hashtag, to the events of last September, when author R J Ellroy was found using a sockpuppet account to give other authors bad reviews and his own books good reviews. In response to this Amazon deleted thousands of reviews on books simply because they were written by other authors – widely condemned as an overreaction.

Amazon’s latest comment here has simialrly come under fire. When fake reviews are being posted to destroy a book fans aren’t impressed by, and authors and publishers are urging fans to post fake positive reviews, Amazon seems to say it doesn’t care and won’t do anything to stop it, so soon after revealing that they apparently think authors are a great danger to their review system’s integrity.

I consider Amazon’s approach to authors reviewing works in the same genre they write a bad one. Authors are best placed to give in-depth reviews because of their experience. While some, like Ellroy, clearly are quite happy to abuse the system, he knew what he was doing was immoral and against Amazon’s policies, or he’d not have used sockpuppet accounts but his own. Authors posting under their own accounts put their name on reviews for all to see; their reputation is on the line if they act out of line – not to mention chances at networking.

But that’s old news and beside the point.

Amazon does not require reviewers to have read the book they are reviewing. Scandal! People could post fake reviews. They could one-star a book to oblivion or give dozens of 5 star reviews for books by authors they like before they’ve actually read that book yet, misleading other customers and dishonestly affecting the fortunes of the author and publisher of the book, either positively or negatively. As linked above, they already have.

But let’s think about this. Why doesn’t Amazon require a reviewer to have read the book before reviewing it? Quite possibly because it would be nearly impossible to manage. If a reviewer is required to have read the book, Amazon needs proof. How do they get that? If someone bought a product from Amazon, that’s a fairly good indication. But that means anyone who bought the book directly from the author, from an independent bookshop, over Apple’s bookstore or for a different e-reader like Nook or Kobo, is barred from reviewing on Amazon. That hardly seems fair.

Then there’s the other side of Amazon purchase proofs. A reviewer can still get away with it. They buy the physical book from Amazon and get verified purchase, but without even opening the package when it arrives, review the book, then send it back and ask for a refund. No money spent in the end, dishonest review still managed. Not that I expect it to go this far, but Amazon requiring proof of purchase does not fix the review system.

In any case there is already a Verified Purchase system whereby a reviewer – of any product, not just books – who has purchased from Amazon will get a little green tick icon next to their review. Customers concerned about fake reviews can ignore any reviews that don’t have that if they wish.

There’s no easy fix for this. My suggestion to Amazon would be to stop with the blanket, blunt force approach, reinstate author reviews and rely on the reporting system. If a customer, reviewer, author or publisher believes a review has been posted which is fake or malicious Amazon examines it and the reviewer who posted it and makes a decision based on what evidence there is. If a reviewer disagrees with their decision, they can appeal.

The drawback to this approach is time. A blanket approach is quick and easy. Finesse requires hundreds of people spend hundreds of hours going through reviews, checking IP addresses, checking verified purchases and so on. And it will cost money, something Amazon is loath to let go of. The question is one of integrity vs money. Which does Amazon care most about? Time will tell.

4 thoughts on “Amazon’s approach to book reviews

  1. I am a radical: I am against book-reviews by all and sundry for two simple reasons:
    1. People’s expectations are different;
    2. People’s abilities are different
    But of course, Peter Stothard has said all that and more. It is best not to set store by folks who are influenced either positively or negatively by the reviews at internet portals.

    1. I think what Amazon are trying to achieve is to give customers a view of what “real” people think, not just critics, but what’s popular and what’s good don’t always line up. The print media still have “authoritative” reviews but the internet is a different medium.

      While I agree that you can no more trust Amazon reviews than you can a random blog post or forum comment, I don’t think restricting reviews on Amazon to those deemed good enough will be a popular move. How would Amazon decide who is good enough? How would new reviewers get accreditation? And what about those who have valid, helpful reviews that don’t get allowed?

      Perhaps one way to screen reviewers to at least prevent the fake reviews, and potentially increase quality, would be for the author or publisher to set questions the reviewer must answer about the book before their review can be posted. That could solve the all and sundry thing too – people who just want to post “yeah it was good” or “this was rubbish” may well be discouraged by the extra step. But then so might those with more in-depth reviews.

      How would you prefer reviews to work? Would you ignore Amazon reviews altogether and look for professional reviewing markets? What about books which haven’t been professionally reviewed? Or would you buy based on description and author reputation and ignore reviews altogether?

      1. I could be stirring a vicious hornet’s here but too many people have taken to writing books, people who’d do a better service to themselves and humanity just by focusing on things they are better equipped to do. And then you have the farce called NaNoWriMo.

        I do agree with you in that Amazon et al should put filters for accepting reviews, the least being allowing only those who’ve bought it. Setting questions will surely discourage the lazy spammer but to those intent on saying ‘it was rubbish’ or ‘mind-blowing’, Google is only a click away.

        That said, the present state of affairs is highly disconcerting, especially after some have been caught subverting the system red-handed, and it is time Amazon did something about it.

  2. I don’t think there’s anything wrong wtih lots of people writing books. The problem comes when lots of people who aren’t good at writing books write them and publish them without having the self-awareness to know they’re not very good. It is self-publishing’s greatest weakness. The internet allows everything, and the average quality declines; the same with Amazon reviews and everything else out there. It’s how it works and I don’t see it changing, but Amazon at least can do something about it.

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