The conventional wisdom has always been that authors should never respond to reviews. It’s good advice. I replied to one once. My first ever review was long and brutal, and included the implication that I was a misanthropic young man who had issues with women. On the grounds that the book is not the writer, I emailed the editor asking for that single line to be removed. He replied by nailing the flag of integrity to the mast of his publication and gesturing pointedly at it. They would publish a response, he told me, but warned that it seldom looked good. He was right, of course, and I left it there. These days, I wouldn’t have bothered emailing in the first place, but this was back in 2003 or so, when I was still young and naïve.
Fast forward a decade or so, and we come to the various scandals and problems with the Amazon review system, which, given the enormous number of titles available, has become increasingly important as some kind of filter, however flawed and inadequate it may be. From sockpuppetry to bulk-buying positive reviews, the star system has always been, and remains, eminently gameable. Two years ago – back when this all flared up briefly in the news – one suggestion was to do away with the star system altogether and rely purely on the written reviews, which would require more effort to fake and game. Obviously, that was never going to happen. But in truth, it wouldn’t solve much.
One of my novels has an Amazon review (average, star-wise) that details the main plot beats for about three quarters of the book, giving away at least two major twists. Someone (not me) has commented under it, complaining about spoilers, and the original reviewer has replied, saying simply “Wrong”. Well, sorry, it’s not wrong. Those are spoilers. I wrote the fucking thing, and I ought to know. They’re developments I didn’t reveal until about 75% of the way through, and I didn’t do that by accident. Knowing them going in means you’ll get an entirely different reading experience from the one I intended. And yet I’ve never complained about or reported this review. I’m no longer quite so young and naïve, and ultimately, any damage done is relatively trivial.
But this is not about me. An author friend of mine has recently received a review on Amazon that’s somewhat more problematic. Since it’s possible the book might be on your to-be-read pile, I’m not going to identify the author or title – or indeed, the reviewer. It’s a three-star review, and the full text is exactly as follows, beyond me redacting the character name:
“Fascinating at times especially the Television background part of the story .Too early I realised the villain was [xxxxx].so the conclusion left no surprises ,really.”
And nor will it now for anyone else. The reviewer has sixteen other reviews, most of them equally short and oddly punctuated, and at least one other also contains a spoiler (again, name redacted):
“Thrilling,a good mystery and a good read.Plenty of suspense until the end .however it was obvious [xxxxx] was the good guy.”
I tend to differentiate between reviews and criticism, in that reviews are intended for readers who haven’t bought a book, while criticism is a deeper discussion and analysis for people who have, and so may well include spoilers. Obviously, this distinction is a tad inadequate; there is overlap between the terms, and there’s no reason a review won’t often involve careful critical analysis, or a lengthy critical essay influence a purchase. But I think it’s clear that the Amazon review system is geared towards the former: readers giving a rating, along with their thoughts, in order to help other readers decide whether they wish to buy the book.
Now, while reading a crime novel offers a myriad of pleasures, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb by saying that revealing the identity of the bad guy is going to spoil the reading experience for many, and that in fact a large number of potential readers are going to decide not to bother. The details given in these reviews won’t help readers in their purchasing decision; they will effectively make that decision for them.
My friend has asked Amazon to remove the review, and Amazon have refused. There are a number of possible reasons for them doing so. The first is that they genuinely see the review as legitimate and useful and fair game, which I suppose is possible. The second is a stance based on some kind of spurious misthinking around free speech, which, given their removal of reviews in the past, is extremely unlikely. More likely by far is that the sheer number of reviews in their databases means that authors demanding this kind of specific attention en masse is a potentially huge ballache for them, and it’s easier just to tell individual people no. Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that Amazon probably don’t care that much. After all, authors and publishers have a vested interest in people buying, reading and loving specific books, whereas Amazon don’t care so long as people buy something, and it doesn’t really matter what. If one book is spoiled, a browser will just buy another, and Amazon get paid regardless.
However, it should be obvious that a review like the one above is enormously disadvantageous to readers browsing the site, arguably even more so than all the fake five- and one-star fuckery. And while there is no reason to attribute malice to this particular reviewer, if Amazon’s policy is to not remove reviews containing egregious spoilers, there’s no obvious reason a malicious reviewer couldn’t sabotage the books of a rival in such a manner. After all, such malicious authors do exist. Reader beware, in other words. It’s one more reason not just to take Amazon reviews with a pinch of salt, but to ignore them altogether. Assuming everybody with any sense isn’t doing so already.