Independent author and blogger Imy Santiago bought an ebook, read it, and posted a review on Amazon. Then things started to go wrong, according to her recent blog post, which has put Amazon in the crosshairs of another round of criticism from authors and reviewers.
Santiago says that she received a notice that her review had been taken down for violating Amazon's review guidelines. A second attempt got her a notice that she wasn't eligible to review the book.
At last, Santiago received an email from an Amazon employee named Harm J., who said, "We cannot post your Customer Review for (book title deleted by Santiago) by (author name deleted by Santiago) to the Amazon website because your account activity indicates that you know the author." She posted the full text of the email on her blog.
Santiago replied that she interacted with several authors through social media, but didn't know any of them personally. Santiago is an author as well as a reader, and the independent publishing community is a relatively small one, so such connections are common, and they tend to be fairly impersonal.
The response she received from Amazon looks very much like a form letter, according to the screenshot she posted. It begins, "We removed your Customer Reviews because you know the author personally."
Who Knows Who?
Amazon's Review Guidelines say only that "family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items."
It says nothing about casual acquaintances, social media connections, or any of the other myriad of associations that exist in between knowing someone and being a close friend. In a lengthy response to frequently asked questions about its Review Guidelines, Amazon elaborates only a little: "If you have a direct or indirect financial interest in a product, or perceived to have a close personal relationship with its author or artist, we'll likely remove your review," it says.
Of course, nothing in the Guidelines or FAQ mentions how Amazon determines who knows who. Like most 21st century retailers, the company gathers a lot of information about its customers, which most shoppers seem willing to accept, since it usually only leads to targeted advertising and item recommendation. This may be the first tangible consequence of the privacy we've yielded to online merchants for the sake of convenience: now they can check your connections and block your product reviews.
So how does Amazon decide who an author's friends are? In theory, the company could be looking for things like similar last names or residential information on accounts, or watching for patterns in review activity, like a back-and-forth exchange of reviews between two authors. Amazon may also be able to look for contacts and interaction on social media accounts that users have connected to their Amazon account, or they may be doing something else entirely. So far, they refuse to talk about it.
"Due to the proprietary nature of our business, we do not provide detailed information on how we determine that accounts are related," Amazon's review moderator told Santiago in that final email, helpfully adding another link to the company's Review Guidelines.
That secrecy is raising questions among authors and reviewers. "Where is the 'oh, you know the author, your thoughts are no longer valid' line? Are fans who attend events and meet me ineligible?" asked author Seanan McGuire on Twitter, adding that she often interacts with fans on social media and at conventions. "Do I need to avoid friendly Twitter banter or at-con selfies with bloggers to keep them from 'knowing' me and thus being blocked?"
Skewing the Maths
Amazon is clearly trying to keep its reviews objective by weeding out reviews from friends and family who may be more interested in supporting the author than in being honest about the quality of the book. On the other hand, its approach may not be fair to authors, who rely heavily on reviews to make sales on Amazon and through other online booksellers.
For one thing, independent authors - those who self-publish or who are published by smaller, independent publishing houses - usually rely on blogs and social media for much of their marketing. Banning reviews from social media contacts -- if that's Amazon's method -- could leave these authors up the proverbial creek, sans paddle.
Even for authors whose work is published by one of the big publishing houses, with all their clout and distribution, social media matters and reviews are crucial to online sales. The real problem is that not all bogus reviews are positive:
Also, love how review-policing is always against false positives. I, and everyone else I know, have had WAY more false negatives.
— Seanan McGuire (@seananmcguire) July 3, 2015
If it's safe to assume that there's an approximate balance between bogus positive reviews and bogus negative ones, weeding out only the false positives could leave authors much more vulnerable to false negatives. "Yeah, you may save an innocent reader from clicking a 4-star book that's really a 3, but you're keeping them from clicking the 3 that should really, in a balanced economy, be a 4.5," McGuire explained.
Does Amazon Hate Authors?
Whatever method Amazon is using, it may be a new development. That FAQ is undated, but notes, "We recently improved our detection of promotional reviews which resulted in the removal of reviews, both new and old. While our enforcement has improved, our guidelines have not changed."
It sounds like the latest example of policies that show that Amazon isn't very interested in working fairly with the producers who actually make the products in its online marketplace. Earlier this week, it announced that independent authors in the KDP Select program would receive less than a hundredth of a penny for each page borrowers actually read. And that, of course, comes in the wake of the company's drawn-out dispute with publisher Hachette.
Picture: Wikimedia Commons