introducing readers to writers since 1995

February 17, 2004

No More Online Logrolling In Our Time

by Ron Hogan

Maud sends word of a Toronto Star update on the Amazon review situation, written by an entertainment reporter. (Which makes sense, I suppose, since we're dealing with authors, but still, it does seem like a business story, n'est-ce pas? Or at least a technology story...)

Apparently all those anonymous reviews that turned out to be written by the authors themselves will be deleted from the database soonish. The article does get some facts wrong while relaying this info; Dave Eggers isn't "another exposed self-reviewer," since he was discovered to have been reviewing his friend's novel, not his own--though the reporter claims he did go back over the weekend and praise his first book, irony dripping from every word:

"Read the book, tell your friends, talk about it in book clubs. Whatever you have to do to keep David Eggers' inflated ego in business is fine with David Eggers."

UPDATE: It seems pretty obvious from reading the actual "customer review" in question that it isn't Eggers trying to be cute "in an attempt to save face," but somebody having a go at him. Which would explain why there's no confirmation from Eggers in the article itself. In fact, the whole thing looks like incredibly sloppy work by the reporter. For a much better take on the story, read the National Post.

Now for the bits that crack me up, from Amazon's "media relations manager," Patricia Smith:

Smith declined to comment whether Amazon has any editors check the identities of the reviewers before posting their comments. "We do have certain filters but I don't want to get into what ..."

If it's anything like the way things were handled when I was there, the "filters" probably still do little more than check for profanity and obvious personal swipes. Back then, Amazon did authors an opportunity to make public statements about their books, and did make some efforts to check up on whether somebody really was the author, but it was far from perfect; Karl Marx always had plenty to say about the Communist Manifesto, but whoever was in charge of such things didn't believe Steve Martin had really dropped us a line about Pure Drivel. No big deal; every system has its bugs, and the humans overseeing such things had a dozen other responsibilities with much higher priorities.

In the National Post article, Smith is quoted much more extensively:

"[W]e don't expect authors to be writing reviews about their own books... But we have millions of reviews on the website at any given point, for any of the millions of items we sell, so we're certainly not going to be policing the reviews to ensure authors don't submit reviews from their own books."

Which jibes with my experience, but then she goes on to suggest:

"[T]he vast majority of authors are not going to do that (review their own books anonymously) because either they understand what customer reviews are about, or have their own features on the site to have customers make an informed decision."

That's true for a handful of books that were published years ago that had special features attached, but it's not true about most books on the site. Even the old "official" author commentaries have been stripped from the catalog, so unless the publishers gave the authors some room to play in whatever they sent Amazon to slap up on a book's web page, an author effectively has no way to speak about his or her work on Amazon except through customer reviews.

Even when the site did give authors room to speak, it was frequently used to rebut "customer" "reviews" and negate the allegedly dumbass things being said about the books. And, frankly, authors should have the right to do that, although, yes, you can make a strong case for why they shouldn't conceal their identities when doing so. (As many people did when John Lott was caught red-handed doing the same thing a year ago.)

Granted, authors "just" want people to buy their book, but when you get right down to it, so does Amazon. Of course, a good indication of Amazon's concern for authors has long been evident in its willingness to hawk cheaper used editions of books, for which authors get no royalties, right alongside the regular merchandise, because customers like to buy things cheap.

And then there's this line from the Star:

Amazon's capsule "reviews" of a book are supposed to be the opinions of readers for the benefit of other readers...

That's what Amazon says, sure. But let's face it, there's no way of verifying who's actually "read" a book, as Smith admits to the Post, so the system already fails to live up to that criterion.

When you get right down to it, the purpose of "customer reviews" is twofold: to convince customers that Amazon cares about their opinions and to keep them on the site while they're expressing those opinions...because the longer they stay on the site, the more likely it is they'll actually be a customer.

Basically, the decision to eradicate all traces of authors' commenting on their books is consistent with a policy of saying or doing just about anything to keep customers from shopping at some other website or, god forbid, an offline bookstore. You can present it as "doing right by the customer," and to some extent it probably is. But it's hardly altruistic, and for all the supposed benefits to the customers, this latest development is a slap in the face to the very people who produce the merchandise on which Amazon has built its reputation and its profits.

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