Fake Reviews: The Pros and Cons of Amazon's Being Arbiter of What's Good and What's Bad

Amazon Attacks Fake Reviews and Reviewers
According to the LA Times, Amazon is suing more than 1,000 writers for selling recommendations (and reviews!) for books (and other items) they didn’t buy.

If you have read The Frugal Book Promoter, you know that I recommend writing reviews of other authors’ books as a way to network and as a way to give back to the industry that makes books possible. In fact, a free and unbiased review is the nicest thing you can give to an author as a token of appreciation. And one of the best places you can post your review is on Amazon where it has the best chance of being read by thousands of readers. There are, of course, other places to post them including your own blog, Goodreads, and other sites. You can also volunteer to review for sites like BookPleasures, MyShelf and Midwest Book Review that depend on those who love to read to keep their sites going even when profit margins are slim.

It is reported that Amazon sees reviews that are too glowing as a danger sign. That’s fair. Professional reviews can be rave reviews, but no book is perfect. In fact, a review is more trustworthy (and therefore sells more books--proved by studies over the years!) if it does point out places where the book is weak. Such critiques needn’t be snarky. They can be tactful, firm, and helpful to readers and the author alike.

Perhaps it was the offers on Fiverr.com that finally ticked Amazon off enough to do this. Many offered reviews for $5. And some of those promised five-star reviews. And, yes, this is—to put it mildly—unethical. You’ve probably seen me discourage authors and publishers from paying for reviews in the past because they aren’t credible. People like bookstore owners, librarians, and other publishing industry professionals generally know they have been paid for even if they come from Publishers Weekly or Kirkus. In fact, those magazines put those reviews in a separate place or mark them differently so their readers will know! Reviews that aren’t credible are a waste of money and time. And, did I mention unethical? Ahem!

Some of these reviews offer to post reviews using multiple accounts and IP addresses. I say, go after them Amazon. This kind of thing ruins the process for everyone!

Nevertheless, I’ve seen Amazon pull reviews based on flimsy excuses in the past and so I worry.
The trouble with pulling reviews too aggressive is that they may use whether a person has bought something by their own sales logarithms to make their judgement. That seems like a good idea at first, but their site is not the only one that sells an item so if their logarithms are picking up reviews of items not purchased from them, they be wrong, terribly wrong.

Here is why:

  •  It is a publishing tradition that publishers and writers provide books at no cost--often special review copies or galleys-- to those who write reviews of their book (s). These books would not show up as sales anywhere.
  •   Many who write reviews of a book or product may have received the book as a gift for their birthday or a holiday.
  • Many write reviews of books or products that they buy at a bookstore or any other retail outlet.
  •  Some may write reviews of books they borrow from the library or buy from secondhand bookstores.
So are the bulleted review tracks above indications they are fake reviews? I don’t know how Amazon is selecting those people it will sue, (and I know they have plenty of money to waste if their selection is offbase and they lose!), but I think they are once again on very shaky ground.

In the meantime, if you review for Amazon (and you should), be liberal with disclaimers like this:
“Disclaimer: This reviewer received a book in exchange for an unbiased and fair review. No fee was charged either the author or the publisher.”

And do avoid touting your own book in the review. The link used in the review (the one that Amazon provides) takes readers back to your profile page. That, dear author/reviewer should be enough for you. Offering this to authors and reviewers is indeed a gift from Amazon and we should not abuse the hand that feeds us.

Note: For more on this topic see the LA Times’ Technology page in their business section, Thursday, October 2, 2015.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the author of the multi award-winning HowToDoItFrugally books for writers as well as a novelist and poet. She is working on the third major book in the HowToDoItFrugally series of books called Getting Great Reviews Frugally and Ethically and she just published a book of poetry perfect for this silly political season. It is Imperfect Echoes, http://bit.ly/ImperfectEchoes. Her Web site is http://howtodoitfrugally.com 


Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, I agree that Amazon should be careful of pulling reviews. What others think about a product has influence on buying decisions. There should be a better structure in place to choose which reviews are unethical.

Thanks for the tip on how to avoid getting into trouble with your own book review.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Sorry for being late. I was out of town when this first posted. I think it is important for writers to know as much as possible about Amazon's review policies and efforts.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Thanks so much for the heads up, Carolyn. I was amazed to find a very well-known author offering to swap reviews recently. Tempting but I didn't check it out. Mostly I do buy on Amazon but I have done some reviews in the past for ARCs and books received as presents. Shall just wait and see...

Janet Ann Collins said...

Almost all the books I buy on Amazon are gifts for other people and I never read or review them. I do often review books I read from my local library, books that are gifts to me, books I buy at writers' conferences or exchange for my own books with other writers. Does that make me evil?

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, Carolyn, for a very helpful post, one I will keep in my files. Your advice is always extremely helpful.

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