Amazon Customer Book Reviews: Author Controversies

Reviews Pic

Most authors are customers, too.

As customers, we want to see actual reviews written by actual customers, find a variety of balanced opinions, and be able to trust Amazon’s customer review system.

As authors, we see the benefits of having more customer reviews. Of course, we always cross our fingers that the reviews will be positive. However, we realize that we can’t please everybody, and we know that what’s good for the customer is good for authors and publishers, too.

If the reviews aren’t balanced or if customers aren’t able to trust the review system, then the system isn’t benefiting anyone – customers, authors, publishers, or Amazon.

Authors write many book reviews. That’s because authors are readers, too, and nobody understands how important reviews are more than authors.

So it’s important for authors to understand what is or isn’t allowed, and why.

Violations can lead to deleted reviews, loss of review privileges, account suspensions, books being unpublished, etc.

(1) Review Swapping: Jack reviews Jill’s book and Jill reviews Jack’s book.

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t spell it out by saying, “Review swapping is not allowed.”

But it can be deduced from the guidelines (see References 1-3) as follows:

  • You’re not allowed to offer compensation for writing a review. If Jack offers to write a review of Jill’s book in exchange for a review of Jack’s book, then Jack is offering Jill compensation. This is a clear violation of the guidelines.

Amazon may catch it (perhaps through cross-referencing). If not, customers who observe it may report it to Amazon. There are stories of authors who have lost reviews and privileges.

What’s wrong with this? Doesn’t the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-my-back idea seem unscrupulous? How would this look to a customer who noticed what was going on? It doesn’t matter that the reviews could, in principle, be written objectively. The problem is that the review is written with compensation in mind, which provides an incentive for writing an unbiased review. It’s the incentive that matters, not the intent (incentive is also much more clear).

It is possible for a review swap to come about in other ways. For example, Jack might review Jill’s book. Jill checks out Jack’s profile and discovers that Jack is an author. Jill reads Jack’s book and reviews it. They didn’t agree to scratch each other’s backs. But how would Amazon know the difference? It still looks like a review swap.

If another author reviews your book, you might feel like reciprocating. But then it will look like a review swap. Instead, pay it forward: That is, read a book by someone you don’t know, and review that book.

Of course, it’s possible for two authors to review each other’s books and not even know it, especially if they don’t use their real names on their review profiles. The chances of this happening accidentally, however, are very slim. It still looks like a review swap to Amazon.

There is yet another way for a review swap to come about. Jack is an author who knows Jill. Jack asks Jill to read and review his book. Jill does. Months later, Jill has written a book. Naturally, Jill wants Jack to return the favor. Doesn’t this still look like a review swap?

(2) Advance Review Copies: Dave gives out free copies of his book, hoping to receive some reviews.

This may be legitimate. This is the one exception to compensating reviewers: Authors or publishers may give one free copy of the book to each potential reviewer. Publishers often have mailing lists for advance review copies. Goodreads has a giveaway program to help authors distribute advance review copies for print books.

However, there are restrictions:

  • You must make it clear that you welcome all feedback – positive or negative. For example, you’re not allowed to give a free book in exchange just for a good review.
  • You can only offer one free book. You can’t offer products, discounts, entries into a contest, bonus material, etc. as an incentive for writing the review.
  • You can’t tell the reviewer what to write, tell the reviewer to write a review if the feedback is positive but just email you any negative comments instead, etc.
  • The book must be given free up front; it can’t be contingent upon writing the review.

Giving out advance review copies encourages more reviews. More customer reviews is good for everyone, but only if they are unbiased.

Note that such reviews won’t show as Amazon Verified Purchases. (There is a possible exception. For example, if your book is free through KDP Select and the reviewer downloads your book when it’s free, and the reviewer checks the box to mark it as an Amazon Verified Purchase.)

(3) The Friend and Family Plan: Jane asks her many family members and friends to review her book.

If all authors did this, most of the reviews would be biased. Amazon can’t say that it’s only allowed if the reviews are unbiased: How can Amazon tell, in general? They can’t.

So instead, Amazon has guidelines for what is or isn’t allowed:

  • Definitely, anyone who shares a household with the author isn’t allowed to review the book.
  • Close friends aren’t allowed to review the book. (What makes friends ‘close’? Good question.) This surely includes close family members who don’t live with the author, too.
  • Anyone who has a financial interest in the book isn’t allowed to review it: spouse, children, publisher, editor, cover designer, etc. (Even if the cover designer doesn’t receive a percentage of royalties, the success of the book may help the cover designer through referrals.)
  • Obviously, the author isn’t allowed to review the author’s own book.
  • You’re not allowed to post reviews on behalf of others. For example, if you sell a book to someone in person who has no internet access, if they ask you to review the book on their behalf, you’re not allowed to do it.

Amazon blocks and deletes reviews that are suspected of being on the friend and family plan. They may have a program that checks for common addresses, IP addresses, etc.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/05/amazon-removes-book-reviews

In addition to Amazon, there are external parties checking reviews. For example, there are people publishing research who are examining the writing style of multiple reviewers to see if they may have been written by the same person, scrutinizing books with many reviews but only a few sales, etc. There are published cases of review abuse that have been discovered and exposed.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/23/historian-orlando-figes-amazon-reviews-rivals

(4) Dogs Eating Dogs: Bob slams the competition by giving them negative reviews.

Authors are not allowed to review similar titles. This very clear from the guideline that says you can’t review a book if you have a financial interest in it. So if Bob gives Eric a bad review and that bad review might improve the sales of Bob’s book, that review is in violation of Amazon’s policies. You’re not allowed to slam the competition.

Aside from being unscrupulous, it’s just plain foolish to slam the competition. Most books are more complementary than competitive. Customers usually buy multiple books that are similar (if not all at once, then spread over time). It’s usually not Book A or Book B; it’s often both. So if you do something to cause similar books’ sales to decline, it might hurt your own book’s sales through Customers Also Bought and other marketing associations.

You’re also not allowed to give positive reviews of similar titles, since a good review of a similar book might improve the sales of your book through Customers Also Bought lists.

(5) Paid Reviews: Cindy pays Jeff to write a review of her book.

This clearly violates the rule about receiving compensation, with one exception.

Editorial reviews, such as Kirkus reviews, may be paid for. These appear as editorial reviews, however, and not as customer reviews. There is a separate section for editorial reviews, and they can be added through AuthorCentral. Editorial reviews don’t necessarily need to be written by editors and experts in the field, as explained in Note 4 of Reference 3.

https://authorcentral.amazon.com

Note: All of the names used to illustrate examples (Jack, Jill, Dave, etc.) are all fictitious. These names do not refer to actual people. If there happen to be authors with those names who have done the things described (or have been accused by others of doing so or who may have done related or similar things), it is purely coincidental.

References

1. Kindle Direct Publishing Newsletter, May 2013, Volume 26, Featured Resource, “Q & A on Amazon’s Customer Review Policies.”

http://hosted-p0.vresp.com/816983/84997531d8/ARCHIVE

2. Amazon.com: Customer Reviews Submission Guidelines.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-reviews-guidelines

3. Customer Reviews Guidelines Frequently Asked Questions from Authors

http://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors

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

How Would You Improve Amazon?

Imagine you suddenly have the job of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. Well, even then, you couldn’t do anything you wanted.

So let’s go a step further and grab a magic wand. That’s better. Now you can do anything. Wave your wand a couple of times to test it out.

If you could do it, what would you change at Amazon in order to improve it?

Don’t be selfish here. Don’t just think about bad reviews that you’d like to make vanish or advertisements for your book if you’re an author, or how to make products free for you as a consumer.

I’m not asking how you would make Amazon better for you alone. I’m asking how you would make Amazon better for everyone.

Not just customers. Giving everything away for free would greatly benefit the customers. For a few days, until the company went bankrupt. If you want Amazon to benefit customers in the long run, you must balance what’s best for both the consumers and the business.

Okay. Spend a few moments in fantasy land. Do absolutely anything to Amazon that you want with your magic wand. Then when you return to reality, think about changes that may be beneficial to all.

What would you like to change?

(1) The Amazon Customer Review System

Almost everyone who is familiar with customer reviews on Amazon can write down a few things that they don’t like about them.

Not everyone is in agreement on what should be changed, though. Authors, readers, product owners, editors, publishers. There are some conflicting perspectives here. Even just among customers.

If there is one feature of reviews that we can all agree on, perhaps it’s spitefulness. Some reviews are downright nasty. There are reviews that slander the author, but don’t even mention the book.

You’d think that Amazon would remove such spiteful reviews, right? It even says right there in the terms and conditions that spite is not allowed. But when spiteful reviews are reported – by the author or even a customer – much of the time Amazon simply responds to say that they understand your concern, but this review doesn’t violate the terms and conditions.

Huh?

Evidently, a reviewer must be blatantly spiteful in order to warrant removal of the review.

How is this in Amazon’s best interest? That spitefulness is very negative. Wouldn’t Amazon create a more positive ambiance by removing that spite? By not removing it, they’re actually encouraging such behavior.

Would customers prefer to see the spite remain or be removed? Does such spitefulness help to brand Amazon’s image with a negative shopping environment? How does this help buyers determine which product to buy? How does it help Amazon sell products?

Maybe you can think of some reason to keep it.

I’ll suggest a couple of possibilities. For one, the spiteful reviews are mostly one and two star reviews. If you wave your magic wand and delete all of the spiteful reviews, millions of one and two star reviews will suddenly vanish. Some products, which only have a few reviews, will suddenly seem better liked than they actually are. The customer who loathed a product so much that he was very spiteful when he wrote the review did cast a vote when he gave it one star. Maybe Amazon wants to retain those votes of one or two stars associated with the spiteful reviews (perhaps there is a reason for this).

If Amazon would like to preserve the one star vote, it could be done while still removing the spite. Just edit out (or delete) the spiteful comments instead of the entire review.

Now we run into another possibility. Manpower. Amazon doesn’t have one of those magic wands to wave and quickly zap away all of the spite.

Remember, we’re not thinking of how to improve Amazon just for customers. We want to find changes that will improve Amazon for everyone. That means not going out of business.

How much would it cost Amazon to monitor the customer review system more closely than they already do? That’s what it would take to deal with spitefulness. Let alone other issues with reviews.

With the advent of self-publishing, there are presently hundreds of thousands of authors who feel that they have a bad review that should be removed for one reason or another. Some have multiple books and numerous reviews that they feel strongly about. Add to this number the legitimate reviews that clearly aren’t violations that some authors would also request to be removed.

Amazon already receives a staggering number of requests from authors for reviews to be removed. This occurs with the current policy in place. That is, it’s well-known that Amazon very rarely removes customer reviews, even when they’re fairly spiteful. Yet, they still receive a ton of requests every day.

Imagine how many, many, many, many, let’s add a few more many’s just for effect (but it may be realistic) more requests Amazon would receive if instead it were well-known that Amazon would remove a review if it were just mildly spiteful. Even if the requests didn’t crash the server, the manpower it would take to attend to these requests would be incredible.

Every day, there are numerous posts online on blogs, community forums, and elsewhere describing unfair customer reviews at Amazon. Bear in mind that the majority of authors don’t write posts about bad reviews because doing so would hurt their own author image and would help brand the image of self-publishing as unprofessional.

Have you ever seen an author get in a long debate with a reviewer using the comment system? It’s very unprofessional, but that’s not the point. My point is that, unfortunately, some authors tend to get highly emotional about reviews and find it difficult to stop arguing about them.

So just imagine those authors communicating with Amazon. They request to have a bad review removed. Amazon says no. They respond to Amazon in a long email. This would go back and forth for an eternity, just like they do in the comments, right?

Nope. Amazon learned not to waste resources on possibly endless communications. Amazon tells the author on their second response that they won’t be able to investigate the matter any further. That is, if the author sends a subsequent request, it will be ignored.

Consider that Amazon has this action in place. It suggests that manpower is already an issue. So is it worth the possible investment to deal with spite? Maybe this is one reason that it hasn’t already been done.

Maybe you can think of a way to deal with spite affordably. Perhaps there is a way.

(Amazon already responds to the request to say that they’ve looked at the review, and understand your concerns, but can’t remove the review. How much more work would it be to remove it? A lot. Because word would spread and the requests would pile up immensely.)

What about other changes to the customer review system?

We could eliminate shill reviews and sock puppets. That is, generating fake reviews to make a product seem better than it actually is. Actually, Amazon has already made this change to some extent. Amazon automatically blocks a very large number of reviews and has removed thousands – perhaps millions – of such reviews. This change was affordable, as a computer program could check for correlations between IP addresses and other information in their database between accounts. It may have removed some legitimate reviews, too, but overall the customer experience has been tremendously improved.

But there is still some review abuse, especially negative reviews that arise from jealousy of some sort (rival authors, ex-boyfriends). Can you think of a way to eliminate this?

A common suggestion is to require all reviews to be Amazon Verified Purchases. Why isn’t this done already? There may be reasons for it.

First of all, there are already millions of reviews that are unverified. Would you like to remove all of those? Perhaps those could be left there, and just impose this on new ones. There are still other issues.

Publishers send out a large number of advance review copies. Publishers provide big business for Amazon. It’s probably not good business for Amazon to prevent the recipients of advance review copies from reviewing books on Amazon, as they would all show as unverified purchases.

What about customers who buy the product elsewhere? A bestselling book might sell many more copies in bookstores than on Amazon. Bestselling authors – and Amazon, too – want all of those customers to be eligible to review the books on Amazon.

What about eBooks? Well, customers don’t have to use Kindle to read eBooks, but Amazon still allows them to post reviews. They can be gifted and lent, too.

But maybe there is one aspect of this that most of us would agree on. Amazon has made it clear that customers can review products even if they’ve never seen or used them.

What?

Does this seem crazy to you? Imagine that you invented a machine and one of the first customers left a review saying, “I didn’t buy this, but just looking at it I can tell it wouldn’t work.” Okay, nobody who reads the review is going to take it seriously, but it does affect the average star value.

When a customer clearly states in the review that he or she hasn’t read the book or used the product, maybe those reviews could be removed. Wouldn’t this be a small improvement?

Amazon’s customer review system isn’t perfect, but it is pretty effective at soliciting opinions, and it does provide shoppers with diverse information that they can consider. Most of us may agree that it’s better than no reviews at all.

There may be other ways to improve the system. Remember, cost is a factor. You might want to hire external companies to leave neutral reviews instead of customer reviews, but with tens of millions of products, is that feasible?

I have a few suggestions. I’ve heard a few others express similar ideas. Maybe you have some other ideas that haven’t been addressed.

When you finish reading an eBook on Kindle, why can’t you type your review right then and there? Wouldn’t that be convenient? Why can’t you click on the book on the device and find a quick and easy place to post the review? I have the Kindle in front of me. I’m in the mood to review the book. It’s on my mind. But I must be inconvenienced to login to Amazon, which I would rather do on my pc. How many customers were ready to leave a review, but decided against it out of inconvenience?

I’ve typed reviews and stopped when I saw the preview, thinking I was done. I wonder how many other customers haven’t finished the review process, not realizing that they had to check the preview and approve it? Oops! Or maybe they rated it when they reached the end of a Kindle eBook, thinking that was a review? There may be a little room for improvement here.

How about separating the rating from the reviews? That is, let customers rate the book without reviewing it, like they can do at Goodreads. Some customers can put a number on a book, but feel uncomfortable describing it in words (including reaching the minimum word count).

If you want to drastically increase the frequency of customer reviews, offer a penny for every review. Or make it a nickel, dime, or a percent if you really want to see tons of reviews on Amazon. I bet many authors wouldn’t mind this being subtracted from their royalties to help encourage more reviews. But the discount (off a future purchase, perhaps) might inspire more sales.

(2) Self-Publishing Quality Control

First, let me say that I put this here because it’s a popular issue, not because I personally am in favor of this. I’ll try to show the pros and cons, and you can decide for yourself. Or maybe you will think of better ideas that I’ve left out.

If you could wave a magic wand to remove every book that doesn’t meet a minimum degree of editing, formatting, and writing, would you do it? As long as it’s a magic wand, rather than removing these books, maybe you could just make them magically look more professional.

But we can’t fix them with magic. It would take an insane amount of manpower to format and edit them. It would take an insane amount of manpower just to screen them. So just hiring a very large editing team isn’t feasible.

Amazon could charge a publishing fee to cover the cost. Some people would be in favor of this. But many people would also be against it. Currently, Amazon is free. Amazon has done an amazing thing, opening the doors of publishing to everybody. Amazon has an abundance of support from the self-publishing community for this. These authors – and their family, friends, and acquaintances – don’t just write books, most of them read books, too. Imposing an inhibitive fee may not be good for business in the grand scheme of things.

Even an optional fee has an issue. By being free, Amazon is differentiated from vanity presses.

Free publishing gives Amazon an unbelievable selection.

There are some books with formatting, editing, writing, and even storyline issues. These books are a problem for customers and also adversely affect the image of Kindle, Amazon, and self-publishing.

But how bad is the problem? I don’t mean this as a percentage of books. I mean that most customers check out the description, reviews, and Look Inside and generally are able to avoid such books. Those who don’t are apt to learn to do this through experience. These books tend to have lousy sales ranks. So are they selling enough to be so concerned about? Perhaps a few years ago when Kindle and self-publishing were newer, more customers were coming across such books. Perhaps it was a bigger problem before Amazon’s program started removing and blocking most of the shill reviews and sock puppets. Perhaps it’s not such a problem now. Especially, in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Or maybe you have a better suggestion.

Self-published authors have a strong incentive to improve their books as much as possible, as this will greatly improve their chances of success.

Also, customers can report formatting issues. This helps Amazon catch some of the more serious problems. They actually suspend sales of eBooks until the issues are resolved.

(3) Order of Search Results and Categories

This might be something to consider. Most book categories have thousands of books even in the final subcategory, yet only a dozen books show on the page. If you type a search, you sometimes receive interesting results. Obviously, Amazon wants to order the search results based on what consumers are most likely to buy as well as what is likely to please the customer. But it seems like there could be a better way to sort through tens of millions of products to find what you’re looking for. And there may be ways for people to abuse the system (i.e. to get their products to show higher in the search without merit). Fortunately, Amazon doesn’t publish their algorithm, and may revise it, which makes it harder to abuse.

Amazon is probably considering this on an ongoing basis. Categories have changed over the years, and they have probably revised the program which determines the order of search results. They have also added filters, like “most reviews,” so you can see which books have been reviewed most (whereas searching by the highest customer review would put a book with a single five star review ahead of a book that has hundreds of reviews that are mostly five stars); that’s a small improvement. Can you think of other ways to improve this?

(4) Other Changes

I selected a few popular topics to discuss. Maybe you can think of other areas where Amazon could be improved.

Some of the changes I’ve mentioned I have suggested to Amazon (not all at once). Feel free to send your own suggestions to Amazon. The more times Amazon receives the same suggestion, the more likely they are to realize that there is a demand for it. They claim to welcome feedback, and that customer feedback is invaluable. So apparently this is encouraged.

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

Are Amazon Customer Reviews Helpful?

Amazon Reviews Pic

Introduction

Have you ever stood in a bookstore aisle, trying to choose a book in your favorite genre? You weren’t influenced by customer reviews posted next to each book. The only customer input you saw was incredible praise for how awesome the book was on the back cover or first pages. There wasn’t anything negative posted about any of the books.

In the pre-internet days, if you wanted to see a written review, you had to browse newspapers and magazines. The only way to receive input from other customers who read the book was to meet them in person and ask them.

How times have changed! Now Amazon allows all customers to share their feedback, and this information is publicly posted on the book’s detail page.

Is this helpful? Let’s consider some of the major criticism. Note that Amazon has recently released an article clarifying, to some extent, what is or isn’t allowed in customer reviews. You can find this in Reference 1 at the bottom of this blog post.

(1) Authors and customers have abused the system with sock puppets and shill reviews.

A sock puppet is a false account that someone creates in order to deceive others with a false identity. Some authors have created sock puppets to give several good reviews to their own books, and some customers have created sock puppets to give multiple bad reviews to a book.

A shill review is written by someone else to help the agenda of another. Some authors have compelled family, close friends, and people with a financial interest in the book’s success to help promote their books by leaving shill reviews, and some customers have used shill reviews to bring a book down.

Fortunately, Amazon has taken steps to block and remove reviews suspected of being sock puppets or shills. A very large number of reviews have actually been removed. See Reference 2.

It’s not just authors trying to get good reviews of their own books that poses a problem. See Reference 3 for an example of large-scale swarming of negative reviews against a book about Michael Jackson. This shows that abuse with negative reviews can also be a major problem.

While sock puppets and shill reviews are a problem, Amazon’s actions to limit this have greatly improved the customer review system. Amazon has access to a great deal of information in its database, and apparently runs cross-references to help catch much of the possible abuse. When customers report possible abuse, Amazon also looks into this manually.

(2) Amazon is more likely to remove positive reviews than negative reviews.

Many authors have complained about the loss of four- and five-star reviews, and many authors have complained of one- and two-star reviews that seem to violate Amazon’s review guidelines which Amazon has refused to remove.

Some of the removed four- and five-star reviews that disappeared were removed because the reviewer was suspected of having a financial interest in the book. Yet, some legitimate reviews appear to have been removed as casualties in the process.

There are many one- and two-star reviews that are quite spiteful, and many others that spoil the ending. According to Amazon’s customer review guidelines (see Reference 4), spiteful remarks are not allowed, yet there are several reviews that make very spiteful remarks about the book or author that haven’t been removed (despite requests by authors and readers).

Highly spiteful remarks ruin the ambiance at Amazon. Wouldn’t it help Amazon’s image to remove these? Amazon could choose to remove the spiteful remarks, rather than removing the entire review. That would be a step in the right direction. Perhaps it would take too much manpower to remove all of the spiteful comments. When it’s well-known that most spiteful reviews won’t be removed, authors are less inclined to report them.

Is it helpful to leave reviews that spoil the ending? If a customer reads a review that gives the ending away, that customer is far less likely to buy the book. Wouldn’t it benefit Amazon to prevent this?

Is it helpful when suspicious four- and five-star reviews are much more likely to be removed than one- and two-star reviews that seem to clearly violate Amazon’s policies?

Customer reviews are most helpful when there are ample reviews that provide a good balance of opinions. When good reviews are more likely to be removed than bad reviews, doesn’t this offset the balance?

There may be two reasons behind this practice. First, four- and five-star review abuse is probably much more common than one- and two-star review abuse. Amazon has removed four- and five-star reviews because the abuse was out of hand; many customers were complaining and there were high-profile articles written on this subject. Perhaps negative review abuse hasn’t reached nearly the same level to demand such attention.

Also, it’s much easier for Amazon to block and remove abusive four- and five-star reviews. It’s easier for Amazon to cross-reference their database and see if a four- or five-star reviewer may have a connection with the author. It’s much more difficult to determine if a one- or two-star review has an agenda.

The vast majority of one- and two-star reviews come from customers who simply didn’t like the book. Most of the one- and two-star reviews were not written with ulterior motives in mind.

Fortunately, many of the one- and two-star reviews that arguably should be removed don’t have much credibility. Many customers can see through spitefulness, for example. Some of these reviews don’t explain what is wrong with the book. These types of negative reviews may actually help the book’s credibility, by adding balance to the reviews (if there are already good reviews present), while not being effective at persuading customers not to buy the book.

(3) No qualifications or experience necessary.

Anyone can review a book. You don’t need expertise to review a technical book. It isn’t necessary to be an avid romance reader to review a romance novel.

But that’s okay. You don’t have to be an expert to form an opinion. Many customers themselves aren’t experts, and would like to hear from other customers like themselves.

A reviewer who has expertise can mention this in the review, although there evidently isn’t any fact-checking. A customer reviewing a workbook might say that she has been a teacher for twenty years, but there is generally no way for potential buyers to know if this is true.

If customers want to find expert reviews, they can search online for professional book reviewers.

Not requiring expertise helps Amazon generate millions of reviews. More input is probably better than less input, in general. If only experts review books, then experts will basically be telling people what to and what not to read (kind of like editors who, prior to the self-publishing explosion, decided what was or wasn’t fit for the public to read).

(4) You don’t have to read a book in order to review it.

Just to be clear, you don’t have to read a single word of the book in order to be eligible to review it. We’re not talking about people who read the first two chapters and stopped reading in disgust. You don’t even have to open the cover. You don’t even have to buy the book. You don’t even have to see the book.

In Reference 2 at the bottom of this article, you can find this quote from an Amazon spokesman: “‘We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review.’”

If you’re shopping for a book, it may be useful to know what other customers who have read the book (or at least tried to read the book) have to say about it.

But is it helpful, at all, to read the opinion of a customer who never even opened the cover? How does this help anyone?

This is a highly controversial point. Part of the reason for this may come down to proof: How do you know if a customer has read the book or not?

Occasionally, a customer review starts out, “Although I haven’t read the book yet…” In this case, it’s very easy to tell that the customer hasn’t read the book. Wouldn’t it be nice if Amazon would remove the reviews where there is no doubt that the customer hasn’t even opened the book? How can this opinion be useful to other customers?

This problem is abused two ways. Some popular authors (or their publishers) send out advanced review copies, encouraging customers to post reviews on the release date. Some customers actually leave a review before they read the book, knowing that they will love the book because they love the author’s other works. Does it really help other customers to do this? Why not actually read the book first and then post the review?

It is also abused with negative reviews from competing authors or publishers, jealous rivals or enemies, and anyone who doesn’t like the author personally. To be fair, if these reviewers actually read the book first, it probably won’t change their reviews.

Many people wonder why Amazon doesn’t require customers to make an Amazon Verified Purchase in order to leave a review. At least this way, people reading the review would know that they have bought the book.

The problem here is the large number of people who buy the book in a bookstore or read it in a library. Amazon doesn’t want to prevent this large group from posting reviews.

What about eBooks? Well, customers don’t have to buy them on Kindle. Amazon still wants their reviews. Plus, if the eBook and hardcopy are linked, a review on either edition shows up on both editions.

Customers who have bought the book from Amazon can lend their reviews more credibility by choosing to let Amazon mark them as Amazon Verified Purchases. Potential buyers can choose to just look at Amazon Verified Purchase reviews if they want to know who has actually purchased the book.

Here is what Amazon may be thinking (of course, only Amazon knows for sure). Customers who want to leave a good or bad review without actually reading the book will probably leave pretty much the same review whether or not they are required to read part of the book first. It might infuriate numerous authors and even some readers, but all in all, policing this would generally be very difficult and quite a hassle, and probably isn’t worth the effort.

If you force customers to buy a book in order to review it, guess what will happen. People will buy the book and return it for this privilege. It’s not in Amazon’s best interest to encourage returns. If you want to remove a customer’s review if he or she returns the book, now you run into the problem where the customer is returning the book because the book was bad: Amazon will want these customers to be able to express their opinions, too.

Simply encouraging anyone to review a book provides more input to the consumer. More input is generally better than less input.

(5) The review doesn’t have to be truthful.

It’s kind of like politics. A candidate for office can say anything, true or not. Somebody might check and report the facts, but the lie itself generally doesn’t get the candidate disqualified from the competition.

A customer can say that there are fifty typos on the first page, and the review will stand even if this is clearly false. In many cases, potential readers can cross-check a reviewer’s comments by reading the blurb and Look Inside. If the review complains of typos, but the Look Inside is very well written, the reviewer will lose credibility. On the other hand, many customers may not bother to check a reviewer’s statements. Some sales may be gained or lost by blatantly false reviews.

This has been abused with both good and bad reviews. A review can make a lousy book look great or a great book look lousy simply by bending the truth. There are tens of thousands of books with contradictory reviews. Almost all of the bestsellers seem to have inconsistent reviews.

From Amazon’s perspective, it would be a nightmare to try to check the facts of all of the reviews. Some things are easier to check than others. If a review is clearly false, other customers may vote it down with No votes (although the voting itself has been abused). It would take a great amount of resources just to check the facts where someone complains that a review may be false. It probably isn’t practical to enforce review truthfulness.

Most statements aren’t facts, but opinions. Readers will definitely differ in opinions. Any book that is read enough will have a large group of readers who love it and another large group who hate it. This is true among virtually all popular, bestselling authors. No book can please everyone. If you want to require all reviews to be honest, you will quickly find yourself in the gray area between facts and opinions.

Amazon wants to solicit all opinions. You can’t argue that an opinion is wrong. Most review statements aren’t clear-cut facts that are clearly right or wrong; most are opinions.

Again, more input is generally helpful, even if some of it is contradictory. Potential buyers can check the blurb and Look Inside to help determine which statements are correct. They can also try to judge the character of the reviewer from the writing sample. Any comments and the number of Yes versus No votes may also be helpful, although the voting system can also be abused.

Conclusions

Amazon’s review system isn’t perfect. There is room for improvement. However, the system does result in a great deal of feedback. The more reviews, the better for shoppers, authors, and publishers. Amazon’s customer review system, as it is, provides much more information than not having any reviews at all – like the pre-internet days of standing in a bookstore aisle. We just have to take the good with the bad.

References

  1. http://hosted.verticalresponse.com/816983/47a12f62f7/1497798605/9bce9ac8db/#4
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/technology/amazon-book-reviews-deleted-in-a-purge-aimed-at-manipulation.html?pagewanted=all
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/21/business/a-casualty-on-the-battlefield-of-amazons-partisan-book-reviews.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  4. http://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-reviews-guidelines

Comments

Please feel free to share your opinions, even if you disagree, by posting a comment or replying to a comment. Your input is encouraged. What is your experience as a customer or author? What would you suggest to improve the system?

Author

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