It’s Amazon Versus Authors, and Amazon Looks Pretty Dumb.

In a particularly boneheaded move, Amazon.com decided to ban authors from leaving reviews on any books within any genres they themselves are published in.  And they deleted any reviews authors had previously left.

Their reasoning is that authors “cannot be impartial” about other authors’ books because they are “competitors.”

I just . . . WHAT?

Yes, because authors never read and enjoy other books in their own genres.  Come on!  Authors are extreme consumers of books other than their own—particularly in their own genres!  And they are probably (as far as anybody is) experts in their genres!  They are the exact type of thoughtful reviewers Amazon’s review threads would benefit from!

And as to the “competitors” argument, please.  Reading is not a zero sum game. This isn’t like buying a television or a refrigerator.  People don’t pick one author in a genre to read and then think, “Oh, I’m good now!  I’ve got a product I’m happy with!”  No, they buy MORE BOOKS!  In fact, I would even go so far as to say that one author’s success leads to greater success for other authors in her own genre—for instance, how many kids went out and looked for more wizard books after Harry Potter?

Hey, Amazon: Two books in the same genre are not in direct competition, because they are not the same book.  Reading one doesn’t make a reader not want to read the other!  The books are different products![1]

Also, this feels like one of those things that is a bizarre and infuriating solution to a non-problem.  I mean, has this sort of author sockpuppeting happened outside of a few cases Amazon can quash manually?  It seems unlikely.  Personally, I like other authors.  I like talking to them and supporting them.  We answer each others’ questions and publicize each other and cheer for each other.  It would never occur to me to tear down someone else’s book—plus, it doesn’t feel like something that would benefit me in the least even if it did occur to me.

But even if this is some sort of MASSIVE PROBLEM that Amazon CAN’T HANDLE on a case-by-case basis, why ban authors from leaving reviews?  It seems like the much better system would be to allow authors to leave reviews but without accompanying star ratings—if Amazon is concerned the ratings are being gamed—and/or put author reviews in a different category, so that readers can click on a “see reviews by other authors in this genre” button.  Heck, that’s the button I’d click on first.

  1. The only exception I can think of would be something like a textbook, or maybe other types of nonfiction—two introductory calculus textbooks would, sure, be in direct competition, and sometimes I’ve bought one nonfiction book instead of another one.  But I can’t think of any time I’ve bought a fiction book instead of another one—usually I buy the books I want, and when I run out of my budget, I forcibly stop myself from looking any more; I don’t start putting some books back so I can buy “better” ones!

4 thoughts on “It’s Amazon Versus Authors, and Amazon Looks Pretty Dumb.

  1. InMyBook

    At first I thought Amazon was taking its reported policy “not to allow reviews from any person or entity with a financial interest in a product or a directly competing product, including authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third party merchants selling the product” to an extreme. (As reported in LA Times article cited below) Unfortunately, the online review system is rife with abuse, and several well-known and successful authors have been caught leaving sock puppet reviews:
    The furor over ‘sock puppet’ Amazon book reviews

    This LA Times article from a few months ago has a link to on online letter signed by a group of authors and detailing some of their colleagues caught doing sock puppet reviews. Ideally, authors should be immune from having conflicts of interest regarding their books for the reasons you point out, SL. Amazon appears justified for reacting, but their bans are not going to solve the problem. It is too easy to circumvent the restrictions. The review system needs to be overhauled and safeguards put into place. They could hire panels of reviewers or only allow certified reviewers. Are there algorithms for detecting sock puppet reviews such as those for spam? Apparently it is in the works:
    To Catch A Sock Puppet

    I even read on one site that Amazon is using such an algorithm, and that is why some legitimate reviews were expunged.

  2. slhuang Post author

    Hmm, perhaps I spoke too soon when I said I thought it unlikely this was a real problem. Thanks for the links!

    However, I think this is the wrong reaction on Amazon’s part. Authors should still be able to leave reviews, regardless of whether they have to re-categorize those reviews or remove them from the star ranking algorithms to deal with the sockpuppet problem. And you’re right, this “solution” is way too easy to game — I’m skeptical it will have any real effect.

  3. the failed poet livejournal com

    I actually really like your solution to this, SL. The “see reviews by other authors in this genre” button, I mean. I think that would probably work a lot better to curb this problem than anything else.

    It wouldn’t help with the sock-puppet problem they’re trying to address, but it’s better than preventing authors from giving reviews in the first place. And as it says in the “To Catch a Sock Puppet” link that InMyBook gave us, you could probably tell a bitter author’s sock puppet from the tone of the review.

  4. slhuang Post author

    Thanks! Yeah, the more I read on this the more it seems like the sock puppet thing is actually way more rampant than I thought it was (which just makes me wonder at the state of humanity, but that’s neither here nor there). But you’re right, if Amazon were to keep things transparent to the consumer, most people would be able to sort the sock puppets out themselves — there’s no reason to ban authors outright.

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