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Amazon Cracks Down on Reviews, Raises More Ethical Questions

January 3, 2013

Trust me. The reviews for this baby are fantastic.

In case you were living in a literary cave, one of the biggest stories in publishing in 2012 was the story of faked or purchased reviews.

The story hit home when RJ Ellory, who was supposed to be the Person of Renown for our 2013 collection–and an attendee at the 2012 Florida Writers Conference–admitted to writing negative fake reviews about other authors. Other authors, including self-published million seller John Locke, admitted to paying for reviews. Some estimates suggest as many as a third of all online reviews are fake.

Amazon, whose business is based in significant part on customer reviews for books and other products, has struck back. According to a New York Times article, Amazon has purged thousands of reviews from its website, including reviews from the authors’ family members, other writers, and even, in some cases, people the author doesn’t know.

Timothy Ferriss. A plethora of positive reviews the day his book released. He sent advanced copies to fans. Any issue with that?

The question is whether the purge has made a difference. In articles, Amazon author Timothy Ferriss (The Four-Hour Chef) is noted because he had dozens of favorable reviews posted the day his book was released. Ferriss denied that he had faked the reviews, saying instead that he had sent advanced copies of the book to several hundred fans. “Why send the book to someone who would hate it?” he asked.

Therein lies the murky ethical line. If someone sends me an advanced copy of their book, and I like it and review it, I’ve done something for an author whose work I like. No ethical issue there. But if the author sends out scored of copies to people their reasonably sure will like it, is that good marketing, or gaming the system?

This is more than a mere quandary about zealous fans pumping a favorite author’s review ratings. Amazon signed Ferriss to a seven-figure deal in 2011. The Four-Hour Chef is the first book published under that deal. Amazon is far from an impartial arbiter in this case. It has a strong vested interest in the success of all of Ferriss’s books, even his backlist. If Ferriss were to buy reviews–and he said he didn’t–would Amazon remove them?

If RJ Ellory were an Amazon author–he’s not–and it found out about negative fake reviews for his competitors, what would they do then?

And is Amazon’s purge helping its authors (such as JA Konrath, who sees no problem with fake reviews) at the expense of other authors?

JA Konrath: “Customer buys book because of fake review = zero harm.”

These questions are hypothetical. There’s nothing to suggest that Amazon is gaming the reviews system to benefit its authors. Even as a hypothetical, the question is reasonable. It would be equally reasonable if Barnes and Noble or Apple entered the publishing arena.

Finally, how does this affect you as an author? How does it affect you as a reader? Do you base your purchases on customer reviews? Do you factor customer reviews into your marketing? And what, if anything, will you do differently as a result of all this?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 3, 2013 9:42 am

    After Amazon started deleting reviews they thought might be fake, I got concerned that my reviews of books by people I’m connected to through other online groups — primarily a group blog I contribute to — might be axed. Hasn’t happened so far, but now I hesitate to review books by peope I know, lest Amazon judge my reviews as fake.

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