[What Luke J. Kendall has learned, so far, about self-publishing]

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Amazon and reviews

Getting reviews for your book is one of the things which I think everyone agrees is crucial for indie authors. Of course, the subtext is you need to get good reviews, but for that to be even possible you need to get reviews in the first place. So, because all indie authors need reviews, the obvious thing to do is to offer to review someone else's book in return for a review of your own; and since most people are fundamentally good, most people are quite happy to do that.

To state the obvious, there are problems in this: given how many new books are published each year, what's really needed is honest reviews, but a review will hurt if the review is basically negative (or even, just ordinary?). People only have time to read a tiny percentage of those new books, so readers naturally want to just pick the cream of the crop. And if you get a good review, but feel you can't give a good review in return, anyone would feel some pressure to soften their review, and boost the rating, right? So that's one issue.

I would argue, however, that if the book wasn't to your taste, it's fine to say that. Everyone's taste is different. If you say “this book was too violent” - well, for some readers, that's actually a point in the book's favour. Likewise if it was too sexy (or too chaste) – these are very much matters of personal taste, and you're probably helping the author since you're helping readers get an accurate idea of what to expect, so if they do buy the book they're more likely to enjoy it.

If, though, you see actual problems with the book which you feel the author should and could address, that feedback is extremely valuable to the author personally – yet is likely to be quite damaging to their sales. I'd say, at the very least, you should absolutely provide that feedback to the author so they have a chance to fix the problem and release an improved version of their book. For self-publishers, a quick updated-edition is a really simple and effective option. (And not something that can be easily or cheaply done in the traditional publishing model.) But should you post your negative review publicly? Well, if people are reading it, whether or not you post your review, there's a good chance they'll spot the same problems you did, and their enjoyment will suffer. They may even wind up with negative feelings towards the author, and possibly refuse to consider later and improved books. So should you post the review, to set readers' expectations correctly?

Probably not: your review is much shorter than the book, right? So it's much more likely to be read by a lot of people than the book is. So it's likely to sow that negative feeling more widely than would the book itself. In addition, are you going to even notice, if the author fixes all the problems and re-releases? Yet if you don't notice and take the trouble to re-read the book, and then put in the effort to alter your review accordingly, then your review (of the poor version) will remain, standing there as a black mark against the later version, which may have turned into a masterpiece in the meantime. So that's why I say, don't post damaging reviews: just pass the feedback on to the author if humanly possible.

Note that if your objection is to the writing subject, or the beliefs of the author, or to the behaviour of the characters, I do think they're all fair enough to state publicly.

Okay, so that's the easy part of the topic, I feel. What I'm more interested in exploring here is Amazon's policies and processes related to reviews.

Amazon's nuclear option

Amazon do provide information about their policy in their Customer Review Creation Guidelines and their Anti-Manipulation Policy for Customer Reviews.

I think Amazon have to care deeply about the honesty of reviews because reviews form a crucial part of their business model. In my view it's a fundamentally great idea, too: let word of mouth give people honest assessments of the products so potential buyers can make an informed choice. In a way, it almost bypasses the whole advertising industry (that stronghold of honesty renowned for its unwillingness to manipulate, trick, or influence the buying public, right?), and instead give people the truth.

Provided the reviews are honest.

Now my own personal experience indicates that 90-95% of people are honest and good. (I don't think human society would be viable, if the percentage was much higher.) And the majority have developed ways of dealing with the minority who try to trick and deceive and harm the rest of us (with punishment, and payback, and exposure, and so forth). But since there's money to be made, of course that means that 5-10% of people out there will be actively trying to deceive people. And it's a critical issue for Amazon: if people lose confidence in the reviews on Amazon, that would do massive damage to Amazon financially. So it's in their interest, and that of its customers, that Amazon work hard to make sure the reviews are fair and honest. I started thinking about this topic after reading of one person's awful experience with Amazon (see ‘HELLO’ FROM AMAZON – Big Brother style review censorship, which started with a letter that said

“We are writing to inform you that we have removed your review privileges and suppressed all of your reviews. Any new reviews written will automatically be suppressed. We took this action because you have failed to comply with our review guidelines and manipulated product reviews.”

Christoph says he tried to find out more(see here), because he honestly had no idea what they were talking about. But Amazon provided just a link to their general policies, which didn't help. And Amazon has no process for discussing this heavy response; they have no way for you to appeal. So Christoph had 1700 reviews removed, and was banned from posting any more. He's not the only one – I've heard that others have had the same experience. For me, the issue is that Amazon's process is opaque: honest people can't find out what line they've crossed, and if there was an error made by Amazon, there's no means to correct it.

What really happened in Christoph's case? Without Amazon stepping up and providing more information, we can never know.

What we do know, though, is that Amazon receives too many reviews for them to be checked by human beings; yet it is essential for their business to check the reviews. So they have algorithms that do the checking for them.

Now, much like the people who create software to fight spam or viruses, Amazon are effectively fighting a war against the people trying to provide dishonest reviews for their own gain. This means Amazon is in a difficult position: if they reveal the algorithms they use, that may help the people who are trying to defeat those checks. And if Amazon don't explain why they do what they do to the 'offenders', then they run a serious risk of making errors and treating people unfairly, and also run a risk of damaging their brand by appearing as a bully.

A possible solution?

To me, one solution would be if Amazon were to at least internally investigate people who appear to genuinely deserve to have their case heard, and if necessary, even enter into discussion with them. In that way, Amazon can keep their algorithms secret, yet offer some real justice to people who are wrongly accused or mis-detected. It's likely that if it relates to mis-detections, the information they discover through their discussion and investigation would even allow them to improve their algorithms.

So, what actually happened in Christoph's case, and the other similar cases? We can never know, though my guess (in fact my fear), is that Amazon's algorithms simply detect review swaps, or even review chains: if they find Adam, author of book A, has reviewed Bob's book B, and Bob has reviewed book A, then Amazon assume (they perhaps have to assume), that the reviews are dishonest and flag both Adam and Bob as breaking their policies, and ban both and pull their reviews. For the 90-95% of authors giving genuine and honest reviews, this is unfair and wrong, yet Amazon are simply acting to try to maintain the quality and integrity of their reviews overall, protecting both their customers and their business.

They may have other rules in their algorithms, too: too much similarity between reviews, too frequent reviews, reviews that are too short… we can't know. And without action from Amazon, it would require a concerted effort of analysis by many of the honest reviewers affected, to try to spot the patterns and reverse engineer the logic involved.

One technicality I noticed in the Amazon policy which might catch reviewers out: if someone gives you a free copy of their book in return for your review, you must declare that fact in your review (see Why was my review rejected or removed?)

“The sole exception to this rule [No paid reviews] is when a free or discounted copy of a physical product is provided to a customer up front. In this case, if you offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you must clearly state that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. If you receive a free or discounted product in exchange for your review, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that fact.
[emphasis is mine]

So perhaps the algorithms could also discover that you've received a free copy and not stated that, and maybe that would trigger the Amazon response? That seems less likely to me, but I think it's something worth knowing.

Oh, and if anyone is still reading this probably too-long blog post, and wonders why the delay since my last entry – it's simply that I'm hard at work revising my book to meet my July 6th deadline to provide it to the professional editor to start work. I did think I could spare a couple of hours, though, to put my thoughts on this topic together.

As always, comments are very welcome.

Update, 2015/7/17. I contacted Amazon and voiced my concern. I wrote:

“As a soon-to-be self-published author via KDP, I would like to know if there is a safe or recommended way to give honest reviews of other self-published authors' work?

“I have heard of Amazon deleting all reviews and banning all further reviews of some people.  Is there a safe way, a way that Amazon recommends, for authors like myself to be able to provide honest reviews of others' books?  I have blogged my thoughts and concerns about this issue here: http://toeinthebookocean.blogspot.com.au/2015/06/amazon-and-reviews.html

“I ask, because as far as I know, Amazon has no process to examine cases where an author feels they have given honest reviews but been banned anyway.  So I'm wondering whether I should simply stop reviewing self-published authors, in case one day one of them reviews my work and Amazon's algorithms decide that mutual review means there's been a violation of the terms of service for providing reviews.”

The first response from Amazon appeared not to have understood my concern, and simply pointed me at the Amazon page that describes their review policy. I wrote back, explaining that I understood that, but asked if they could perhaps answer this simpler question instead:

“in the event that Amazon decides someone has not followed the review guidelines, yet the reviewer thinks they have followed them, does Amazon have some process for resolving the difference of opinion, or for explaining the problem?”

Amazon replied that they encourage reviews but remove reviews that don't comply with the guidelines. They also added this more useful info:

“We know reviews are important to both customers and authors. If your review was removed, you can write to community-help@amazon.com. We can help you understand exactly why your review was removed, and provide suggestions on how to share feedback while staying within our guidelines.”

Of course, the proof would be in the pudding. If the email address is simply answered with a “you violated the guidelines; see [Amazon's review-policy URL] for details” then it's just an attempt at engineering perceptions, not dealing with the issue. I hope I never have to find out the answer for myself!

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