For a while now, there has been a bit of a kerfuffle at Amazon over so called “sock puppet reviews” or reviews purchased by an author to help pad their books' rankings. We hadn't been covering any of it because, frankly, it was a non-story. There never was a threat to the publishing industry and it was always questionable how widespread the problem really was. Additionally, the idea that a writer would have to pay to get reviews was just a sign that those writers held no real confidence in their work.
Unfortunately, Amazon took these complaints a little too seriously. It would seem that those complaining were loud enough that Amazon heard them and did a couple of things to tackle the non-issue. First it revised its rules for review writing. to make such purchased reviews against the rules. Then it removed a bunch of reviews seemingly at random. Joe Konrath shares his experience upon reading about this:
I've been buried in a book deadline for all of October, and haven't been paying much attention to anything else. When I finally took some time to catch up reading email, I noticed I had many authors (more than twenty) contacting me because their Amazon reviews were disappearing. Some were the ones they wrote. Some were for their books. One author told me that reviews her fans had written–fans that were completely unknown to her–had been deleted.
I took a look at the reviews I'd written, and saw more than fifty of them had been removed, namely reviews I did of my peers. I don't read reviews people give me, but I do keep track of numbers and averages, and I've also lost a fair amount of reviews.
Why did Amazon go nuts deleting reviews? Well, Konrath assumes, based on his responses from Amazon, that this was the result of a new automated sock puppet detection program. Apparently, it works in much the same way as Google's ContentID: flag anything and everything and see what sticks. Actually, no. This is way worse than ContentID. At least ContentID has some kind of — admittedly weak — notification, human review and appeals process. That is entirely absent from Amazon's deletion program, as Konrath explains in his letter to Amazon.
My reviews followed all of Amazon's guidelines, and had received hundreds of helpful votes. They informed customers, and they helped sell books. They represented a significant time investment on my part, and they were honest and accurate and fully disclosed my relationships with the author I reviewed if I happened to know them. And these reviews were deleted without warning or explanation.
Next, in his letter, he explains just why Amazon's actions were the wrong thing to do. Primarily because this action harmed more authors than sock puppet reviews ever did.
Obviously Amazon can do whatever it wants to on its site. It isn't up to me to dictate policy. It's your company, your rules, and I fully respect that. But I believe Jeff Bezos is very much about treating customers fairly, and I've heard it said many times that Amazon considers its authors to be valuable customers. So you should know that I'm just one of dozens of authors who are saddened by this, and those are just the ones who have emailed me.
The community you're trying hard to nurture is upset by your actions. They feel those actions are unwarranted and harmful.
Please express our disappointment in Amazon to anyone who needs hear it, and let them know I'll be blogging about it. People are seriously disappointed in how Amazon handled this. It was a knee-jerk, inappropriate reaction to a ridiculous case of unjustified moral panic, and a Big Fail.
Admittedly, this act by Amazon was in response to a number of authors who complained about the problem. However, as I wrote above, it was a problem of egos, not actual harm to any specific authors or group of authors — or as Konrath put it, an unjustified moral panic. Authors freaked out over news stories of people being paid to write reviews and it ballooned from there. And just like every other moral panic before it, this one did tons of unnecessary collateral damage.
So not only do a bunch of legitimate reviews just up and disappear, there is also further damage to Amazon and the authors it works with. Readers will be less likely to write thoughtful and meaningful reviews in the future. If your review that you spent an hour writing could just up and disappear, why bother? Is this really what Amazon and these authors want — people less willing to review books they read? That would seem to be a far worse situation than an unconfirmed number of sock puppet reviews.