Is Amazon Our Friend?

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked this question by an author on the KDP community forum.

Many people are quick to criticize Amazon, and there may be some room for improvement, but I wholeheartedly believe that Amazon is highly beneficial to shoppers, writers, and small businesses.

I’ve been a customer at Amazon from the very beginning. I appreciate the convenience, selection, savings, and free shipping on qualified orders. I also have Amazon Prime.

You can even find out what other customers have to say. The customer review system isn’t perfect, but some input beats no input.

I’ve written and published several books. If not for CreateSpace and KDP, writing would just be a hobby for me.

Amazon opened the door for any and all authors to make their writing available for millions of potential customers around the world. Anyone can publish a book and share with others this way. Amazon similarly opened the door for small businesses to sell online at a very popular website.

Amazon represents freedom and opportunity. Amazon gives the small guy a fighting chance. Amazon regularly features success stories on their homepage of indie authors and small business owners. Self-published books and small business products are available beside traditionally published books and bestselling products by big businesses.

Where would we, the small guys, be without Amazon?

Let’s take a look at some of the criticism:

The book is not visible in search results.

  • There are 20 million books on Amazon. They can’t all be first in search results. Does it benefit customers to have new books by new authors show up before books that have established successful sales?
  • Amazon provides the opportunity. Diligent, motivated authors can take advantage of this through effective premarketing and packaging (relevant and attractive cover design, blurb, and Look Inside), and quality books that earn good reviews and word-of-mouth sales.
  • Amazon’s system tends to reward authors who scrupulously help themselves. Authors who work hard to generate sales through marketing can gain exposure through a better sales rank, early reviews, Customers Also Bought lists, and top 100 lists.
  • It’s not easy to produce a great book cover to cover. The books that best attract and fit an established target audience are more likely to be successful. Only the top couple hundred thousand books, out of millions, sell one or more copies per day on average.

Amazon removes 4- and 5-star reviews, but not 1- and 2-star reviews.

  • Unfortunately, a significant number of authors and small publishers had been taking advantage of customer reviews by leaving 4- and 5-star reviews written by the author, publisher, editor, family members, paid reviewers, and other parties who had a financial interest in the book’s success. There were several books with dozens to hundreds of fake reviews, sometimes for lousy books. Customer complaints and high profile articles led Amazon to block and remove 4- and 5-star reviews that they suspect of being fake.
  • There are some 1- and 2-star reviews from competing authors and publishers, people who loathe or are jealous of the author, and people who are otherwise upset. Some of these reviews are very spiteful, some spoil the ending, and some outright lie. But the fact is that most of the 1- and 2-star reviews out there are legitimate reviews from customers who simply didn’t like the book. No book can please everyone. There are many such reviews on bestselling books by popular authors, so it’s unreasonable not to expect this on all books by all authors.
  • Fake 4- and 5-star reviews had been more numerous and posed a much greater problem for Amazon than fake 1- and 2-star reviews. It’s also easier for Amazon to block and remove potential fake 4- and 5-star reviews than it is to catch fake 1- and 2-star reviews. The Amazon bot can cross-reference information in the 4- and 5-star case, but it’s really difficult to distinguish between disgruntled customers and fake 1- and 2-star reviews. As much as authors and product owners don’t like them, the 1- and 2-star reviews do help to provide balance. Customers are often suspicious of books or products that only have good reviews.

Do KDP and CreateSpace cheat authors on their royalties?

  • Amazon is a huge business. Almost everything is automated at Amazon – even grabbing products in the warehouse. It’s only logical for the sales and royalty reports to be automated, too. There is the possibility of an occasional glitch, but it’s highly improbable.
  • There are many authors and publishers who sell thousands (or more) books everyday. They check their sales reports, Nielsen Bookscan data, and royalty reports carefully, closely corroborating the results. Amazon has millions of dollars at stake. They can’t afford to cheat authors, publishers, and businesses. All large businesses, like Amazon, also have audits.
  • The royalty doesn’t show instantly, and this is probably what creates concern among self-published authors who only sell a few books. The royalty often appears within a few days, but sometimes it can be delayed for a couple of months. Paperback returns may be resold, and in this case the royalty doesn’t show at all on the CreateSpace report because it was already paid once before. Amazon may have books preprinted to stock in their warehouse, in which case they pay the royalty in advance, not when the book sells. Occasionally, Amazon sources a sale through a third party seller, and CreateSpace then reports it correctly as a full royalty, but not for a couple of months, when expanded distribution royalties show up. Because of this, an author may be aware of an occasional sale, but not see the royalty show up.
  • CreateSpace customer service is willing to track data regarding royalty questions. Authors can report the sales information to CreateSpace, and they will track the sale to help the author understand why the royalty didn’t show up immediately. It’s obviously in Amazon’s best interest to correctly report sales and royalty information to authors.
  • An occasional complaint about royalty payments shows up on the CreateSpace or KDP community forum. Most authors monitor their sales rank and royalties closely. If there were significant issues with this, complaints would be much louder and more numerous.
  • There are also complaints about royalty payments from traditional publishers. Small publishers are more likely to have manual rather than automated systems, they have less to lose than Amazon by cheating authors, and some of the stories involve much greater discrepancies than any complaints about Amazon’s royalty payments. Unless you own your own publishing company and print your own books, you simply have to trust someone. I haven’t observed any discrepancies in my reports, and over the years I’ve come to trust Amazon both as a customer and as a writer.

It’s easy to demand more and better. Amazon gives us an opportunity, and the opportunity is free. What we get for free is pretty awesome. We can’t expect Amazon to do all of the work for us (with 20 million books to manage, it’s not reasonable to expect Amazon to do much work for free). Preparing an excellent product, packaging it for the right audience, and marketing it are all up to us. The harder we work and the better job we do, the better Amazon helps us.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

42 comments on “Is Amazon Our Friend?

  1. The 1-2 star review issue really bothers me. I picked up a book last night that had a highly rated 1 star review that was all of sentences long. The reviewer didn’t read more than the first chapter of the book and then discarded it on the wrong assumption that the book was about a dream sequence, then posted her annoyance on Amazon.

    That reviewer’s misconceptions and impatience will negatively affect that author forever and it hardly seems fair to me. The book wasn’t outstanding, but it was good, entertaining, and unique. It did not in anyway deserve a one-star review, especially from someone who couldn’t be bothered to read more than a few pages.

    • Personally, I hate to see negative reviews on books that authors have put their hearts and souls into. I only review a book if I believe it merits 5 stars (I only have so much time to review books, and these are the ones most worth reviewing).

      Fortunately, some of the low-star reviews are easy to see through, and they occasionally improve sales, especially when the author is fortunate to have good reviews to go with it. When a bad review kills sales, I definitely feel badly for the author. Hopefully, some of the good reviews that we write for books that we discover and like help to offset the bad ones.

  2. Quite simply, in my humble opinion, those who are constantly picking at the business practises of Amazon should strike out into the world on their own website for a year and see how many books they move.

    Perhaps they forget that traffic is a difficult thing to build and suffering the occasional annoyance or disruption is a small price to pay for foot traffic. 🙂

  3. Very interesting. I’ve actually read an article recently about the dubious reviews. As readers, I don’t think we can tell which reviews are legit. But no matter what critics say, Amazon is still the way to go if you want to self-publish. I find that Amazon gives independent writers a lot of opportunities to make a living out of their writing. It’s hard to tell whether some books don’t get enough attention because the author’s not doing enough work to promote, or because they’re plain bad.

    Anyways, thank you for the insights. These will definitely help me if I decide to self-publish one day.

    • Only Amazon knows the criteria for sure, but… It seems likely that they cross-reference IP addresses and other information among different accounts. So if an author and any reviewer have ever accessed Amazon from the same computer, this might flag the system. The Amazon bot has a lot of information available.

      If there is any connection between the author/publisher and a five-star reviewer, Amazon stands a good chance of discovering this. A fake one-star reviewer isn’t likely to have connections with the author, so it’s not easy to cross-reference.

      Another thing Amazon may look for is patterns among reviews. If many reviews on the same author’s or publisher’s books have accounts with generic credit cards, for example, this may look suspicious. There are many other things they can search for, which are easier to spot for 4- and 5-star reviews.

      • That explains why my wife couldn’t post her review to Amazon, but got it onto Goodreads. We’ve been wondering about that for months. Well, she’s been wondering and I’ve said it’s for the best. Her review wasn’t subtle.

        I can’t even think of what can be done about the 1 to 2 star reviews. If done by another author, maybe crosscheck their review with the timing of a negative review that they received from their ‘victim’.

        This reminds me of the ‘Helpful Review’ buttons that they have. A month ago, somebody went through my book and down-voted all of the 5-star reviews. It was rather odd to see that happen all of a sudden.

  4. Interesting post. My misgivings with Amazon have more to do with the octopus nature of their business model and the reported ways they treat their workers than the opportunities they offer to aspiring authors. I still want to believe that we (writers) can be successful without someone else (warehouse worker) being miserable. So, while I would support the use of Amazon for self-publishing just because it’s one of the few avenues available to emerging writers, I can’t embrace it as a fountain of good intent. Amazon exists to make money for itself, nothing more, nothing less.

    • I will admit that I’m completely ignorant as to the quality of worklife in Amazon’s warehouses. All businesses will only succeed if they make money, and Amazon seems to be a thriving business. Yet, businesses must also provide useful products and services at a good value to the consumer in order to succeed long-term. Among many huge businesses out there, Amazon is one of the few that provides opportunities for the small guy, at least for writers and small businesses. This aspect of the company, along with the selection of books and their prices, appeals to me. Thank you for sharing your comments, especially for offering an idea about their workers that I hadn’t previously considered. 🙂

      • Although usually as consumers we’re expected to pay more in order to ensure worker safety, I believe that Amazon and other mega-companies can have it both ways: provide good products and services at a reasonable cost to their customers, and good working conditions for their employees. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; it’s more a matter of whether the CEOs and other high executives are willing to reduce their astronomical profits. But I did enjoy your post. It was very informative and I truly understand why so many writers, especially new authors, choose to go with Amazon for self-publishing. Whenever I get any of my novels in good enough shape to publish, I’m sure I’ll be looking into Amazon 🙂

  5. “Please, put in jail to the author”

    It is a very interesting article. I can see Amazon’s position why they would remove 4 and 5 star reviews. As for the 1-star reviews: I might want to add to the above: that sometimes these can even be funny.

    Somebody posted a review about my ebook “Writing Great Emails is Not Art – 9 Ways to get there” stating “It’s difficult to read a book so bad. Please, put in jail to the author, until improve a little the second edition.” Now, clearly the author’s mother language is not English, so how is he going to judge the content of my ebook? I contacted Amazon with the request to look at this but they did not remove it. Since, thank God, the writer of this review does not have the power to put me in jail, I am just laughing and hope that every potential customer gets a good laugh out of this, too. The only problem I see is, that an unjustified 1 star review drives down the star-average, which could be a problem if an author has only a few reviews. What do you think?

    Thanks, Ionia, for posting this.

    • If you have to have a 1-star review, the ones that are entertaining are perhaps the best ones to have. Thank you for sharing your review story. 🙂 Definitely, books that only have a few reviews are more susceptible to influence from a bad one.

    • I agree with you, an author is vulnerable while they only have a few reviews, but given time that should fix itself. I may be wrong, but I think an unjust review might trigger readers to put in a better one to correct it (because it doesn’t balance with what they think).

      I love your “to put in jail” review, that would not only make people smile but also remember your book – they might even point out the review to others to giggle over and give them a chance to read other, more balanced, thoughts.

      People are strange, but very entertaining.

      Cheers! 🙂

  6. This is an excellent article and I so agree. Without Amazon, I would be lost. Most publishers and agents now cannot work outside their idea of what they want and I spent years trying to get my “outside the box” book accepted. Now I’ve gone around them and Amazon gives me the chance to let my work speak for itself.

    I agree about not giving bad reviews – I never will give a bad one – but the idea of bad ones don’t bother me too much because most people can see through them if they are false. The more reviews you get, the better the balance and people can get a fair idea of from them, I believe.

    I’m glad Amazon picks up fake 4 and 5 stars reviews from friends and relatives. A fake review is pointless – to my mind it will make readers angry and in the end will work against the author.

    Cheers! 🙂

  7. I’m not quite a fan of Amazon (it goes against my 60s counter-cultural DNA to be a fan of any big corporation) but the system that Amazon created turned publishing and retailing on its ear.

    Amazon is the best platform I’ve found to promote and sell my novel, “Little Deadly Things”. Yes, there are some zinger reviews (oof!) and some very favorable reviews. I try not to take either too seriously.

  8. I was surprised to find this many grumblings about the company and system that makes it possible for any writer to have a shot without wading through years of rejection notices and with little more expertise than reading directions and uploading a Word doc – –
    Seems to me, Amazon has greatly leveled the playing field, but that’s not enough?

    So glad that on the same moment I learned of the grumblings, a reasonable reply was posted as well… 😀

  9. Amazon has done a lot of things for a lot of people, no doubt. But I think, in the end, the whole Amazon paradigm ties back to everything else in self-publishing: What works well for one person, might not work so well for the other person, even when they’re putting forth the same effort.

    Amazon has made some people rich, and others it hasn’t. For me, Amazon sales are very infrequent because I write in a non-mainstream niche/genre, which, I guess, is why 90% of my sales come from the relationship with Ingram and other distributors over the years. Yet I know other people who do strictly Amazon (print and e-Book), and the opposite holds true–90% of their sales are on Amazon.

    As for reviews, I don’t worry much, but I do feel malicious reviews from competing authors and their (especially) traditional/legacy publishers, pose a much bigger threat to the integrity of the review system than do author-initiated reviews. Reviews aside, however, I feel the Amazon review system leaves a lot to be desired. Quoting Amazon: “You do not have to read a book in order to review it.” Say what?? That, right there, in my opinion, blows their review system out of the water. It lacks integrity and credibility. That’s why I doubt anyone takes Amazon customer reviews very seriously.

    • That’s a great point. Amazon’s reviews would gain much credibility if they would make a few small changes, such as not permitting product reviews where the customer openly admits to never having used the product. Every time I read that statement about not having to use a product to review it, I cringe. Is that the image they wish to brand for their review system? Thanks for sharing your experience. 🙂

  10. Thanks Ionia for sharing and Chris for taking the time to put together such an informative and thoughtful article. I agree that Amazon represents freedom and opportunity. I published on Amazon through KDP and on smashwords through an independent. I have no regrets with regards to that venture. I wrote a great book , but I did not research well the publishing or marketing process. Amazingly, I am selling books, mostly on Amazon (not as many as I would like to get the story read, but hey, I published in April, it is more than I had sold this time last year). Imagine if I was trying to do that out of my garage! Because I did not research well the business of authoring a book, I do not feel that I presented the BEST quality product. Shark Tank would have a feeding frenzy with me. The content is fine, but the packaging…let’s just say I have work to do. The good thing is that Amazon, through “Author Central”, also gives me the opportunity to correct any deficiencies I might have. As for reviews, maybe I should just be careful what I wish for, but I agree with Harry, I personally would not take any too seriously, unless they were from NYTs, Oprah, or Whoopi. Wow, 20 million, that’s “Grain of sand on the beach”, “Needle in the haystack” stuff! Glad I am retired and doing this for fun! My husband owns a boat and I authored a novel. They are so very much alike.

    • Most certainly there are more reasons for bad reviews than that the reader did not like the book. I think that even frustration might be a possibility. In 1998 I published an ABC book, “obvious LETTERS”, in print. In 2001, at an author’s reading, I met a lady, who very peeved told me that she had had the same idea two decades earlier but she could not get it published. She told me lengthily and quite frustrated that financial constraints had kept her from publishing. Since I self-published my paperback book and took financial risks I saw her point but could offer little comfort. Shortly thereafter a review popped up at Amazon, which was entitled “Are ALL of the reviewers friends of the author?” with 1 star. I have no idea who posted it but I tried to learn from this event.

      When I published my life skills book “Naked Determination” in ebook format in 2012, I immediately contacted Amazon Top reviewers to make sure that nobody could think all reviews are from my friends. All Amazon Top reviewers post at their sites that they cannot “be bribed”. This is a lengthy process as these reviewers are top ranked because they read lots of books and not all reviewers read all types of books. But it paid off because not only did all of them really like my ebook, they wrote awesome reviews, pointing out the essential elements without retelling the book’s content.

      Taking ALL of this into account I would say “yes” – Amazon is Our Friend.

      With today’s option of e-publishing, the lady who had had the same idea about how to illustrate the ABCs could do it. She would not have to be frustrated. Self-publishing is not restricted by financial constraints as it used to be.
      Additionally, Amazon has come a far way when it comes to updating information. Even though I tried to get Amazon to include updates about my ABC book in the ”previous century”, then, that did not work well. Amazon’s computer system was not as developed as it is today and only once I could get Amazon to “manually” update the “editorial reviews”. Today, all updates can be done by authors themselves, more or less instantly. When six months after publishing my ebook, I won a book award I could do the update in the Editorial Reviews myself and it went live within 24 hours. I wonder if it should make me feel old that I appreciate the speed of this process because I still remember how that used to be (?!?)

      Another great tool is Amazon’s “Author’s page” with inclusion of social media activity, not to talk about that one can post videos. I still have to explore that. Amazon offers a great platform and it is probably the challenge of every author how to use it BEST.

  11. Pingback: Week 7: What Caught My Senses This Week | Keep Calm and Write On

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