Random Thoughts: Amazon and the review system

Okay, so before I begin this little rant, I need to clarify that I don’t hate Amazon. I have my books available through Amazon services, and I love that this is something I can do. There have been a few changes to services lately that are hostile to authors. (Not new in Amazon’s history as a business.) And there have been a few changes that seem a bit hostile to customers.

Before I unpack all of that, I need to provide context. So here are some links outlining the issues I am about to discuss.

First, we have changes to how authors are paid through the Kindle Unlimited feature available to consumers through Amazon Prime: http://www.inquisitr.com/2221623/kindle-unlimited-kenpc-explained-self-published-authors-could-be-looking-at-massive-pay-cut/

Next, we have the increased importance of reviews to the Amazon ratings system: http://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/3bsuig/amazon_changes_its_rating_system_now_its_more/

Then we have Amazon deciding what reviewers relationships to individual authors are: http://imysantiago.com/2015/07/02/amazon-a-virtual-marketplace-or-big-brother/

Before the changes to Kindle Unlimited payouts went into effect, everyone who publishes through Amazon received an email detailing what those changes would be. Basically, KU will pay out according to pages read. It stinks for some of us, but we knew it was coming. As an individual, I can tell you that most of my sales do not come through KU. I am not stressed about this, but for a lot of us it eats a significant chunk of change. My stance on that was a sort of grumble and a shrug. Amazon, whether we like it or not, is free to change its business practices and we can always change where we distribute our work (even though right now it is the distributor with greatest visibility.) At the very least it’s a significant point of data for indie publishers to consider when making decisions. It is certainly a sign that it is not wise to rely on Amazon as a sole distributor. But we’ve had plenty of those signs in the past. I hope most of us are strategizing accordingly. I know I am. (The strategy to offset this stuff is to diversify channels of distribution. I enroll in kdp select for the first three months of an e-book’s life and then spread out.)

On the heels of this, however, we were made aware that Amazon plans to make reviews a lot more significant to a book’s rating. Okay, so reviews weigh more heavily the more recently they were posted, and how many up-votes the review received. It will also mean reviews from verified purchases matter more. I get the verified purchase thing. It helps to maintain the integrity of the review system if it comes from someone with a verified purchase. That part makes a lot of sense to me.

Okay, so the response in adapting to this, is to scramble for more reviews, if that’s a thing that worries you. I mean, scrambling for reviews is not new to indie publishers. We submit to bloggers and ask our friends who have supported the work by purchasing a copy to leave reviews when and where they can. It helps boost the signal of a book, spreads word of mouth, etc… Again, review systems being fluid and subject to change, for some weird reason, I don’t get anxious about them. I am grateful when they show up, because holy crap! Someone cared enough about this to take time out of their day to write a review when they were under no obligation to do so and what a gift! Hooray! Coffee for everyone!

Except here is where it starts to get weird and I think Amazon gets into some ethical gray area. (By ethical gray area I mean some seriously out-of-bounds shitake.) Here is where Amazon can say, “Hey, you know that thing we are always asking our customers to do? That feedback stuff? Yeah. We think you know the author so your gift isn’t good enough.”

Um. What?

I don’t think this kind of policing is okay. If that sentence sounds familiar that’s because it was part of a mini-twitter rant I had about this yesterday. How does Amazon figure out how you know someone well enough to invalidate feedback? Some of my harshest critics are people I know very well. Aren’t they telling a customer they just wasted their time? And why is Amazon defining relationships for you? It seems weird and hinky.

To be fair, there are author collectives that leave reviews for each others work, there are paid reviewers, and I’m sure there are a lot of other things that happen on a whole other level of shade that I am not familiar with. Here’s the issue, though. I have left reviews for other author’s works, some of whom I interact with via social media, some of whom I know IRL, some I do not know in any context except through reading, and some of whom I’ve since gotten to know better. I left those reviews because I had positive things to say about the work. Maybe it does look sketchy, but it was a way of showing support. Is it naïve to think maybe that I was doing a good thing? No one actually asked me to leave those reviews. I just did it. But I feel discouraged from doing so now. And if I feel discouraged from leaving reviews in the future, that suggests to me that there are other folks strictly on the customer side of things who might be reluctant to leave reviews because of the possibility that they will be wasting their time.

Oh sure, we all waste some time every day, but I don’t think we like to aim for that.

Another thing that I’d like to point out is that indie-publishing is not easy. It is difficult to generate buzz. We all start by making connections with other people, and let’s be real about this, our audience starts with our friends. If we work really hard, we can move beyond that circle, but our real life human connection is where all art begins to meet audience. That has always been the case. The internet has not changed that. It has perhaps made certain points of connection public,  but since when is it okay for a corporation to make a value judgment about the connections that you make?

My concern isn’t that Amazon is taking steps to enhance the integrity of the reviewing system, it is that it also appears to be making judgments on relationships between authors and reviewers. I get the motivation, I just don’t think it’s ethical.

 

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5 thoughts on “Random Thoughts: Amazon and the review system

  1. I see your concerns and I raise you public record. I don’t actually *Know* how they determine that “you know the author personally” but I’d suspect those algorithms make quick use of cookies, and anyone with an Amazon already agreed to that ‘big brother’ shitake.

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    1. Big Brother Shitake is an excellent band name. Synth-punk ala Devo, I think.
      I still would like to know exactly how they determine knowledge of the author. Because to us, it is without context. How is Amazon determining context? I think if we knew the criteria it would be helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I think there are like a thousand ways they can do that. Cookies, they own Goodreads, voluntarily putting information in the public domain that indicates you are in a street team or an author collective. The thing is, when you put information on the internet, it isn’t private. If Amazon wants to follow you to your blog, they can follow you to your blog.

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      2. That’s the thing isn’t it? And just by being online we’re inviting interaction. It seems inevitable that book people will interact with book people, and my question is how are they determining the nature of those public exchanges? The issue is this: is it automatically trailing public data that figures this out or is there a human being at the other end of curated data, interpreting the data with an understanding of the nuances of human interaction or … (Okay, it is late and I am freaking myself out now…) has Amazon already invented the first AI?

        More seriously, I think we have to wonder about this. Because as much as we volunteer information all the time, does that ipso de facto entitle a corporate entity to define the nature of public connections that exist outside of the corporate structure but interact within its services? It’s thorny. I guess that’s really my point. That part of the change is thorny.

        Liked by 1 person

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