Amazon reviews

Posted by on November 2nd, 2012

It appears that Amazon has instigated a new policy on reviews: one that has seen many existing book reviews being deleted, and others being refused. This has, understandably, caused much consternation and discussion online. Here is an initial post on the subject. Here is a more recent one, which goes some way to explaining what Amazon’s new policy is:

“We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. As a result, we’ve removed your reviews for this title. Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website.”

Taken at face value, it appears – put bluntly – that Amazon no longer accepts book reviews from people within the publishing industry. This is presently limited to accounts where the connection is made explicit (eg accounts that are linked to a specific author page), but presumably the spirit of it, at least, extends, and things may change. There are many things to say about this, but here are some initial thoughts.

1. Free speech.

This is not an issue of free speech, a term which is much abused and debased. Amazon is a private company that owns its own web space; it has no more obligation to allow you to speak on its site than I do to allow you to stick a sign up in my garden. It could conceivably become a free speech issue if Amazon controlled so much of the available reviewing space that it became impossible to review outside of them in a meaningful way. But that is not the case, and, if it were, there would be other discussions to be had. Presently, the idea this is a free speech issue is risible.

2. It’s unfair.

Yes, I would say it is. It seems to be completely over-the-top. Perhaps that’s simply because Amazon sells such a huge volume of material that any new algorithm intended to sieve it all will inevitably be blunt and cumbersome in its first few iterations.

As things stand, it flies in the face of conventional criticism, in which writers reviewing writers has a fine and long-standing tradition, and it makes the mistake of assuming that writers are in direct, one-to-one competition with each other. (We aren’t, although all of us are competing for time). Even worse is the troubling coda: “Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website”. This is not only absurdly heavy-handed and misdirected, but clearly open to mischief. Finally, these measures are unlikely to stop abuse of the review system; they barely even make it difficult.

In short, if things are as reported, Amazon’s changes are a massive failure.

That said, kudos is still due to them for doing something. Because they didn’t need to, and I didn’t expect them to. Amazon barely break even (if that) on sales of physical Kindles and they lose money on heavily-discounted traditional ebooks. In the case of self-published ebooks, they take a tremendous cut for doing practically nothing (just hosting, basically). It shouldn’t matter to them which of those books sell as long as enough books sell; they get their cut regardless of the quality of the content or why a particular book makes the bestseller lists. So there’s no impetus on them to act even vaguely as gatekeepers, and I’m quietly impressed that they want to, however minimally and ineffectively.

It’s actually one of the reasons why the No Sock Puppets Here Please letter was directed towards readers. I personally had little faith that any forward movement on this issue would come from above – either retailers like Amazon, or publishers – as there was no reason for it to. Plus, I tend to favour grassroots-driven change over top-down movements. So I was pleasantly surprised at Amazon’s actions, at least, if not pleased by they way they acted.

3. It’s the fault of you bastards.

Some people have centred on this – that Amazon’s reaction is heavy-handed and self-defeating, and that this is the fault of both the people behind and signatories to the No Sock Puppets Here Please letter. There was certainly a lot of press coverage around the letter, along with the issues it raised, and it seems fairly likely that all of that was a motivation for Amazon doing what they’ve done. Since some people feel we shouldn’t have written the letter, it’s natural to blame us when Amazon do something else those people feel they shouldn’t do as an apparent consequence. Joe Konrath, as is to be expected, is annoyed. His latest blogpost, and his comments under, contain the following direct opposites of insight:

“Congratulations, NSPHP signatories. Because of your concerns about Amazon’s review policy and your ridiculous little petition, and the resulting media witch hunt, thousands of legitimate reviews have now been deleted. Good thing you brought it to Amazon’s attention. You should be very proud.

I was going to use a “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” analogy here, but that isn’t appropriate, since that petition had over 400 author signatures. I think it’s more like tattling on a fellow student for making fart noises in class, and then the teacher making the whole class skip recess as punishment.

But let us all applaud Democracy In Action. You complained. Amazon listened to you. And now you’ve lost thousands of honest reviews.

If it makes you feel better, I’m sure a few sock puppet reviews were also deleted along with all the legit ones. So once again, congrats. You have killed an annoying mosquito using a nuclear weapon, collateral damage be damned.”

And:

“Amazon reacted to a bunch of holier-than-thou authors. I don’t like how Amazon reacted, but causality is key here.

Without the NSPHP hullabaloo we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But I’m very curious if anyone who signed that petition is applauding Amazon’s actions here.”

And:

“I’m not absolving Amazon. They screwed up. But they were responding to moral panic started by a few misguided morons who didn’t think things through but loved to point fingers and get their names in newspapers.

If I invented a time machine and eliminated three or four pinheads, we wouldn’t be having this problem. Which I still might so, as no on will mourn their erasure from human history.”

Yeah, well, good luck with that.

Also in those comments (and below John Rickards’s excellent piece) Barry Eisler invokes the Law of Unintended Consequences – presumably because, having waded through the free speech debacle, many of Joe’s audience will just be grateful for the merest flickering thought that someone around there has a clue what they’re fucking talking about. Similarly, Blake Crouch on Twitter comments to one of the people who signed the letter: “I’m pissed b/c your self-righteous bluster has cost me and many others good honest reviews. Thx for that.”

Chains of causation are complex things, and one of the interesting things about them is that, when we don’t think, our personal biases tend to dictate where we stop and point and say “it’s because of this”. If I wanted to, I could take this all the way back to Stephen Leather. After all, it was his admission on stage at Harrogate that he used sock puppet accounts that led to Jeremy Duns chasing and exposing him for what he was. That, in turn, led to the environment in which R J Ellory was exposed. John Locke’s revelation fed into that from an angle, but would probably have amounted to less in isolation.

Then, there were all the people who stepped up in support of these authors’ behaviours – I lost track of the number of “all authors do it” comments I saw online – and who also helped cause the letter. And then the letter itself, with the publicity around it (very little of it sought out, by the way; the story was already running). The bloggers who then picked it up and discussed it, including Barry and Joe, the latter of which boasts of his audience and influence. And so on.

Then finally, Amazon, taking the action they have.

(And us, obviously, now talking about it again. So it will go).

You can assign “fault” at any step along the way, and clearly, personal bias will come into it as no step is inescapably inciteful of the next. I don’t really see the No Sock Puppets Here letter in itself as being devalued because it may have helped to contribute to a dubious outcome. I see it more as pointing out “there is a wasp on your collar!” If the person then smashes themselves repeatedly in the neck with a hammer, that’s clearly quite bad, but the overly exaggerated response doesn’t mean there wasn’t a wasp there, and that it wasn’t worth pointing it out in the first place. So – if we need to apportion blame – I’d say it’s obviously Amazon’s fault.

Of course, I am biased. And people who are biased in other ways may well disagree, and find other ways to frame it.

 

This entry was posted on Friday, November 2nd, 2012 at 10:50 pm and is filed under General, Rant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

 

2 Responses to “Amazon reviews”

  1. Nancy Freund (@nancyfreund) Says:

    Thanks so much for this insightful piece. I’ve had sketchy details of all the hullabaloo float past and figured I’d wait for something substantial to finally sit down and read about the original sock puppet story and the results of all the fuss. Jackpot right here. Many thanks. I’ll watch for your follow-ups! As you pointed out, these are early iterations now. We’ll see how far the pendulum swings back.

  2. David Hewson Says:

    Sound points Steve. I won’t deal with the predictable Konrath, Crouch and Eisler nonsense save to point to this page which may help people understand why this trio are so pissed off about the whole thing – http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000718851

    This is still there on Amazon of course, and there are plenty of other places where people can express their opinions if they want to. This kind of embarrassing back-slapping among mates is exactly the kind of thing we don’t, I’d suggest, need. Though given they did it in their own names they’re perfectly entitled to make fools of themselves in this way.

    On a general point it seems to me Amazon have swung from one extreme to the other: a free-for-all to a too-restrictive system. Given the number of reviews they carry and the efforts people have made to game them I suspect no solution they came up with would be satisfactory to everyone.

    I’ve never written book reviews of any kind on Amazon because frankly I don’t have the time and I was always a little troubled by the idea on several fronts (though obviously others will feel differently. Hopefully they’ll tidy up the changes and cut some of the obvious mistakes. But if we end up with a system where the only reviews are genuine ones, good, bad or middling, written by readers who’ve actually bought the book… I’d be quite happy with that. And very happy that our original letter, now signed by more than 400 supporters, made Amazon think hard about some of the outrages going on in their name.

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