Friday, July 10, 2015

Amazon vs The Volcano

I woke up late today, so my post is snitched from comments I made on Goodreads -- irony which I hope is not lost on The Watchers. :-P

I am admittedly bad about dealing with reviews. I don't pursue them, half the time I don't forward the requests so that my assistant can pursue them, I don't read them...but that's not to say I'm not grateful to reviewers or that I don't think they are important. I am and I do. I'm just conscious of the fact that reviews are for readers and my participation in the process should be non-existent or as close to as possible.

That said, even I am a little perturbed by Amazon's latest Big Brother tactics over who can review what. Not only can they not explain their criteria, their reasoning is pretty antiquated in this day and age of intense reader/author interaction.

Didn't Amazon buy Goodreads? Did they not understand what they were buying?

Readers and authors are SUPPOSED to interact now days. We're supposed to mingle and socialize online. We're supposed to offer readers free copies of our books and encourage them to review.

And if you're online for any length of time, of course you're going to "know" some of your readers and reviewers. The more passionate people are about your work, the more likely it is you will begin to interact with them online because that's how this Brave New Publishing world of ours works now.

Readers now have access to authors (and vice versa) in ways that are unprecedented. This is no accident. This reader/author social network is what we're building through sites like Goodreads and even Facebook. Amazon is the great grand-pappy of these sites, so for Amazon to suddenly demand a hands-off policy is truly bizarre.

It's also counter-intuitive to Amazon's own self-interest given that gifting readers full-priced books in exchange for reviews (as opposed to just sending a free ARC) is one of the oldest means of hitting Amazon's bestseller lists with surprising sales and glowing reviews.

So on one hand, I'd like to see that shut down. NO CUTS IN THIS LINE.

But on the other hand, I also look at how many of us interact on social media here and on twitter and on FB. The more we interact, the more likely it is that you take the time and trouble to help me by posting reviews.

That's what loyal readers do.

Which is why Amazon's clamping down on this feels really peculiar.

The other problem with this crackdown is if you're an unknown author, you HAVE to resort to asking friends and family to review your work. Given the proliferation of crap cheap-and-free self-published books (and thank you, Amazon for creating the monster you're now ham-handedly trying to stuff back in the box) offering a free book to readers is no longer the treat it once was. I can see why newbie authors still have to play the acquaintance card.

I say "still" because that's how it ALWAYS worked on Amazon.

All this crackdown does is encourage people to turn to those pay-for-review sites where no possible connection can be found between reviewer and author. Is that really preferable?

I don't think so. It is desirable to have reviews from genuinely enthusiastic readers -- whether they hate or love a book, whether they interact online or have never "met" the author. Passion about books, however misguided, is a good thing.

And the rest of it is, frankly, not Amazon's business.

In fact, I would suggest Amazon stop worrying about fake reviews for $2.99 books and concentrate on fake reviews for big dollar items like TVs and so forth, which really IS a problem on the site --speaking as a consumer trying to sort through that plethora of products and all those bullshit reviews.

Anyway, I encourage you to sign this petition. At the very least Amazon needs to be accountable for their business practices. Enough with pulling the "proprietary business practices" card. Translation: consumers would be VERY angry if they knew what we were doing with their information.   


  1. I signed this a few days ago. This new policy really gets under my skin. I've never left a review for an author because I was friends with him or her. It's been because I was touched by what was written and I spent time to carefully express what I felt. I have become Facebook and Goodreads friends with some authors, but that's what social media is about, right? When Amazon began, this rule did not exist so why now? Just as odious is the fact that Amazon won't tell you how they ferreted out this friendship. Spyware, cruising friendships on FB or Goodreads? I would think they'd be more interested in stopping paid reviews or authors who use "go teams" for reviews and for those who use fans to bully others fans. I should have the right to comment as a nonfriend does.

    1. It's confusing because the reviewing process is in great flux (just as publishing itself is). Reviewing used to be the domain of a few professionals or aspiring professionals. That's no longer the case. It's now a promotional platform, it's a way of attacking competitors, of interacting with other readers, etc. It's many different things to many different people. And I think as the process evolves it will work itself out. Amazon stepping in to arbitrarily yay and nay certain reviews and certain reviewers is not ultimately helpful.

      And it is a violation of consumer trust.

    2. I have reviewed your books because I love your storytelling, characterizations, but most of all, I love how you write. Amazon does not have the insight to judge my motivation for asking for your friendship or being a fan or writing a review. It is an arbitrary exercise and it's not defensible in my opinion. And I agree, it is a violation of consumer trust.

  2. The thing Amazon seems to not be able to control are people posting fake reviews because for whatever reason, they develop a hate for the author, or the subject matter of a particular book based on the Amazon synopsis alone. They could simply make it a rule that you have to have purchased a book in whatever form before you are allowed to review it. If I pay for a book, I should be able to express my feelings about it whether or not you're on my friends list. If I get a copy to review pre-publication, you or your publisher should be able to to give the OK for my review (or anyone's) and let it stand. I have no issue with following my review with a note saying, "This reviewer is also friends with XXXX on Facebook."
    I love reading, sometimes I do it for a living, I love to listen to audio books as well. I tend to only buy books in the subjects and genres I like. Does it make me a false reviewer if I like the book of a friend? I have on occasion, especially with audio, loved the story but disliked one thing about it (narration on audio can be horrible) and I say so in my reviews. Sure I gush about a few authors, but only because I think more people should be reading them.
    I do try to be positive and say things like, "I wish this plot point had been explored more", or, "I don't think I needed to know that", or, "Sometime the character repeats himself". If a book is really not my thing after reading it, I just don't review it. So why does Amazon get to be the arbiter of who I can and can't review?
    I've signed the petition. Being from Chicago I have the urge to sign it again, we vote early and often here.
    Thank you Josh for speaking up. More authors with sizable followings should follow suit. The more voices in the chorus, the louder the refrain.

    1. I've signed the petition. Being from Chicago I have the urge to sign it again, we vote early and often here.


    2. The thing is, to some extent, ALL reviewing is subjective. Our opinions are shaped by our experience, education and emotions. So right there...all reviews, good or bad, have to be read with a certain amount of skepticism. Who the hell reads a review as though it were gospel?


      The dilemma for someone like me is ALL my reader friends have become my friends because they loved my work and decided to contact me personally. How does that dynamic suddenly change the validity of their opinions? They reached out because they loved the work.

      I would hope that knowing me didn't change their opinion for the worse! :-D

    3. Isn't that how it works everywhere?

  3. Perhaps they're trying to adopt something akin to the scientific review process for manuscripts. When a scientific manuscript goes to a journal for review, there are strict guidelines about reviewers and conflict of interest (COI). Reviewers must identify any COI and recuse themselves from reviewing a manuscript when "any potential for bias exists". In my world, not allowing certain people with clearly defined COI to review manuscripts feels familiar to me. However, since a novel is not a scientific manuscript, my issue with the Amazon decision is: 1) their failure to communicate who can and who cannot review and why; 2) how they define and identify COI and 3) their failure to have some public discourse about their reasoning. (

    1. Maybe so! But of course with scientific review we're dealing with facts and non-fiction, and with much greater financial and practical implications.

      All opinion is subjective when it comes to fiction.And, at the risk of sounding cynical, we're talking about millions of books where no one ever reads the review, let alone the book because of the issue of discover-ability on a site the size of Amazon. :-D

      I just figure, let these people have their two and three glowing reviews from their mom. What harm does it do in this day and age when pretty much everyone knows how to interpret these not very sophisticated efforts anyway?.

      I'm also skeptical, given that none of the focus seems to be on the bogus negative reviews. The assumption seems to be that a negative opinion would be legit, but a positive would be automatically suspect. I don't find that to be the case in real life. I find negative reviews are often the more suspect, more likely to be inspired by personalities and mixed motives.

    2. Agreed. Whatever the process is going forward, my only argument is for complete transparency and consensus (neither of which is happening at Amazon right now).

    3. Yes. I thought all those reviewers were overreacting when they panicked over Amazon buying Goodreads. But it turns out they were right to be worried.

  4. Actually, getting to know you outside of the books makes me more likely to buy more of your books and stories. Simply by reading some of the things that inspired you, gave me some insight into who you are and why you write the things you do.
    Listening to the new audio of the Charioteer reminded me why your name struck ma as someone I should look into. Turns out, my instinct was right.
    Plus, I enjoy sarcasm and self-deprecating characters with my reading. So double win for me. If they yank a review because I actually like you, I should be able to have a full on regal hissy fit over it all over Amazon (but not until after I see what the deals are going to be for Amazon Prime Day).

    1. Yes, this is a perfect example of how it's all supposed to work in the new publishing paradigm. Social media introduces authors to readers who then sample the books, like them (hopefully) and go on to read and review everything. This is our goal as authors. This is what we call a success story.

      This is even what Amazon itself used to tout as a goal for reader engagement.

      So it's just really...weird.

  5. Signed!!!
    This just sounded so bizarre when I first saw someone report it last week on Facebook. There is so much author/reader interaction these days it seems almost impossible to find someone to review a book. I usually don't review books, just mark number of stars, because I never know what to say or how to express what I feel for a particular story, but I almost did it just to see if I'd get kicked out.
    Admittedly I have read some of those glowing five star reviews on free/cheap self-published crap and thought maybe these were all from friends and family just being nice, and not honest objective reviews. That still doesn't mean Amazon has the right to deny reviews.
    Anyway, done rambling. I hope I actually said something coherent.
    Have a great weekend.

    1. I think you're expressing what a lot of people feel.

      It's Amazon's site, fair enough, but customers have a right to object to business practices that seem arrogant or unsavory.

  6. It is slightly impertinent to think, that because we are friends my review would not be honest. I don't write reviews, my English is simply not good enough; I fear I would with even a good review rather do damage than help other readers to find the right book.
    I read reviews and often decide not to buy a book, after reading an overly enthusiastic, very detailed review, that shows me, that this book is not the right book for me. :-)

    1. I agree. One hundred percent. We became friends through my work. You loved my work. I recognized you as a person of great taste and wisdom. :-D

      Seriously though, if you -- no, never mind you. Let us say my mother wishes to review one of my books. Now, my mother loves my work. She thinks I am amazing. She sincerely believes this.

      Why is her opinion suddenly invalid? Yes, she is my mother, but you could argue that she knows my weaknesses better than anyone. Including my writing weaknesses coz she was there for all of them.

      You see what I'm saying? The review process is a subjective one. INCLUDING the reviewing of the review process.

      And if I am not happy with Amazon taking personal information and targeting what I see on their site based on previous buying habits, I am sure as hell incensed at their taking that same information and deciding what I may or may not *comment* on.

      This has to stop here because what is the next step...? Deciding what I can or cannot buy?

  7. Thanks, Josh, for sharing the link. I don't write many reviews because I truly don't enjoy doing it, but it really annoys me that Amazon thinks they can prevent me from writing reviews for authors whose work I enjoy just because I may "know" them.

    1. Well, and this is an excellent point, Denise, because the fact of the matter is MOST readers do not post reviews. Even in this day and age when it *appears* like everyone is out their posting their every opinion, it's not even close to being the case.

      Which is why authors resort to things like giving away free books in exchange for reviews. And teaming up with other authors to help buzz each other's books. And begging family members and business acquaintances and strangers on the street. And even paying for reviews. Because it is not easy to get reviews when you're unknown. I know this because I used to be an unknown writer. And I still know many, many "unknown" writers.

      It is hard as hell to get reviews until, ironically, you reach the point where the reviews no longer matter. THEN you will get all the reviews and offers to review that you could possibly need.

  8. My husband has a business acquaintance whose wife started writing military romance for Witness Impulse - we received a request via email for anyone who likes her sort of genre to "please consider purchasing a copy..." Since I'm an avid reader, I bought the book (this was back in February) and long story short, I still haven't finished it. It's uninteresting, the characters are boring and wooden, dialogue is stupid and it reads like a military manual more than a romance fiction book. Note: the author was in the military in her 20's so she does know her lingo but seriously... write a story around the lingo.

    The infuriating thing is, this book has a 4.5 star rating - the first 20 reviews were all 5 stars. I could not believe it. Then I dug a little further; most of the 5 stars were other authors from the same publisher. Not only that, but I noticed that many of her 5 stars came from her critique group. I just happen to also read her blog and she has her critique group and fellow authors listed on the site. Also, I checked out some of these other authors (from the same publisher) and, same thing, glowing 5 star reviews basically from the exact same people.

    As a reader only, I depend on the reviews to give me honest insight about the book. Since I know your writing Josh, I'm an auto buy for your new books, but if I want to try out a new author or maybe an author I haven't read much, if I see 50, 60, or more 5 star reviews I'm going to think its darn good. I recently did just this for an M/M book that has almost 500 reviews, 85% of which are 5 stars. I bought that book and I'm not an author, but I'm a pretty seasoned reader and a one time proofreader, and I'm telling you this book is not that good.

    So, no, I do not agree with some of the tactics that Amazon is using and I'm hoping they will find new ways to get the results they want. I don't want to think my social media relationship with my favorite authors will hurt them. But I also seriously want the bogus 5 star reviews to go away. Like, yesterday! :D

    (Signing petition now...)

    1. This is certainly a good point. We've all seen these multiple glowing reviews of subpar books -- whether these reviews are traded or a show of team support or paid for.

      And we've all seen the hostile YOU'RE HOGGING ALL MY SUCCESS reviews from other writers on the other side of the aisle. ;-)

      There will be genuinely adoring or genuinely hating reviews from readers who just have NO taste. :-D :-D :-D

      I guess what I'm getting at is the reviewing process is always, to a certain extent, a biased and unreliable process. Because humans themselves are biased. And while I wish it wasn't so -- and that we could trust in the balanced sincerity of every review --, I'm even more uncomfortable with Amazon making the decision of who can post what, -- given their unwillingness to explain how these deductions are reached.

    2. One other thing I have to say though.

      There are a couple of enormously popular m/m writers with tons and tons of glowing reviews for their work, and I sincerely believe these authors should be banned from ever touching a word processor again. I personally believe they are that bad.


      But. But I have been to their Facebook pages, seen them interacting with their (hopelessly deluded) readers, and I am forced to concede that some readers just really do love horrendous -- or what I consider to be horrendous -- books.

      Had I not witnessed for myself their online interaction with hoards or adoring fans, I'd swear they HAD to have bought those reviews. And maybe they did, and maybe in their case it paid off.

      But the bottom line is tons of glowing reviews for stupid books is not proof of anything beyond the fact that not everyone shares my taste.

      I don't doubt for a second that there are authors and readers both who think there HAS to be a mistake regarding MY popularity, I must have paid for those glowing reviews (hell, half the time *I* wonder if someone is making offers on my behalf). :-D

      But no. I have never paid for a review. In fact, I am notorious with review sites for not even responding to requests for review.

  9. I write and leave reviews under a pseudonym for a review site, and then I leave reviews under my Amazon account. I also leave reviews for that same book on Goodreads. I'm friends with some authors in FB and GR, but then I'm also just following some author pages on FB. So how does this work? Do I not keep up with my favorite author's release date info just because I don't wan't to be blocked from reviewing them? Hmmm....Now I'll get in trouble with Big Brother if they read this because they'll know this is a pseudonym. I review like crazy for indie and small publisher authors because they need that help to be seen in the big fast moving stream. There aren't as many, or any advertising dollars for them, and if it's a great book, it deserves more attention. = review away baby! I'll sign!

    1. Ha! But here's the funny thing. I was one of the very first reviewers of gay books when Amazon first opened for business. In fact, I was the ONLY person reviewing gay books back then. Originally our pen names were our email addresses.

      Yes, I am serious.

      Amazon made possible -- and encouraged -- the use of pseudonyms.

      Wisely, in my opinion.

      And no kidding. All these sites work the same way. People have "user names." Because the world is a crazy place.

      Now we all may be freaking out over nothing. Amazon's official policy on this may actually be reasonable, but these policies are carried out by humans -- and humans are fallible (especially poorly paid, overworked, hate-their-job humans) and the ultimate threat of pulling the book or user site access of anyone who argues with the policy is pretty damned tyrannical. And bound to result in the current state of affairs.

  10. Totally not related to this post but I hope this will cheer you up :).