Amazon: Unequal Treatment for Trads and Indies?

amazon messes with indies water-glass-2542790_960_720Let’s say there’s an indie author who has a couple of books under her belt. And she’s chatting on, oh, I dunno, Goodreads, and she says something that rubs some people the wrong way, and some guys get really, really steamed at her. So they get together with their friends and stage an attack on the author on Amazon, leaving her books a raft of one-star reviews. A number of those reviews attack the author and not the book.

Our author, who has put in a lot of hours learning her craft and whose books enjoyed ratings nearing five stars, suddenly sees that her ratings have dropped into the three-star range. Panicked and upset, she combs through the new reviews, and despite her pain and revulsion, she realizes where all these new, bad reviews came from. She appeals to Amazon, explains the situation, and asks that all the new one-star reviews be removed. And Amazon replies they can’t do it, because the reviews look legit to them. “What about removing the reviews that aren’t verified, then?” our author asks. But the answer is still no. “Then what about taking down just the ones that attack me personally?” Sorry, Indie Author, no can do.

Now let’s say there’s another author – a celebrity, let’s say – who has a couple of books under her belt, all with a traditional publisher. Let’s say this author has a tendency to rub certain people the wrong way, just because of who she is. And so when her most recent memoir is released, a bunch of guys who don’t like her get together and stage an attack, leaving her book a raft of one-star reviews. The book’s rating drops from the high fours to somewhere around three.

It’s obvious to everyone what happened (ahem). But when her publisher appeals to Amazon, do they get the brush-off? Au contraire, mon ami! Amazon deletes 900 or so of the book’s 1,669 reviews, and poof! Its rating is back in the mid-four-star range.

As ever, the Zon refuses to explain itself. In the case of this particular book, though, it released this statement to Quartz:

“Amazon Customer Reviews must be reviews related to the product and are designed to help customers make purchase decisions. In the case of a memoir, the subject of the book is the author and their views. It’s not our role to decide what a customer would view as helpful or unhelpful in making their decision,” an Amazon spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.

“We do however have mechanisms in place to ensure that the voices of many do not drown out the voices of a few and we remove customer reviews that violate our Community Guidelines,” the spokesperson added.

“Mechanisms in place,” the Zon says. Mechanisms that apparently benefit celebrities with big contracts with traditional publishers, but which often leave indies twisting in the wind.

Anybody who’s been observing the publishing business for a while (and who maybe has a teeny, tiny bit of cynicism in his or her soul) can fill in the backstory immediately. For decades, traditional publishers have based their continued survival on blockbusters: celebrity memoirs, celebrity chefs’ cookbooks, novels by celebrity authors (Stephen King, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, and so on). Whenever one of these big blockbusters doesn’t earn out, it’s Very Bad News for the traditional publisher who paid them the multi-million dollar advance. It also puts more pressure on a business model that’s already creaking under the weight of the advent of eBooks.

Amazon crushes indies trample-784060_960_720Self-publishing took off like a rocket precisely because trad publishers had largely quit promoting midlist authors’ backlists and nurturing new talent. The biggest player in the indie revolution has been Amazon, and reviews are one of our strongest selling tools. Amazon has a stake in making sure the reviews on their site are legitimate – but so do we. For the Zon to give preferential treatment to a big-name author, while blowing off indies, feels like a kick in the pants.

But maybe that’s just me.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

28 thoughts on “Amazon: Unequal Treatment for Trads and Indies?”

  1. I’m not commenting in support of this excellent post in case Big Brother is watching me! 😉

  2. Great article, I’m sure I can guess whose celebrity memoir you might be talking about. It certainly is a double standard the way Amazon treats the indie authors it claims to champion.

  3. Like almost all major corporations the little guy is ignored. In the case of Amazon it hurts even more, as they claim to champion Indies when in fact they keep chiseling away at all the small carrots they lured us in with. I wish there was another way.

  4. Amazon gives preference to books that will make money for them, just as they promote top sellers over equally good, or better, books that haven’t yet gained an audience. If a book by a celebrity fails to sell as well as expected, they lose money, whereas if an indie book doesn’t sell it makes no significant difference to their profits. I think they are motivated more by financial considerations than about the effect on either authors or publishers.

  5. I’ll start this off by admitting I could be completely wrong here, but I suspect this isn’t strictly an indie/trad thing. That’s based on one situation that I’m aware of (in fact I was right in the middle of it). You can probably guess what I’m talking about. In that fiasco there were a ton of bogus reviews posted in a scenario much like you’ve described. The author was definitely indie. However, many of the bogus reviews were deleted. What criteria they used to decide to do this, I’m not sure. My guess was it was those that said “I didn’t really read this book, but” and those that talked about the author, but not the book.

    That was a few years ago, so maybe they’ve changed their policies and procedures to say “we’ll remove reviews for big name trad published authors, but not for little indies.” I doubt it, but maybe. Possibly their policy hasn’t changed, but how well they follow whatever it is has evolved to be less strict in what they remove (or less strict except for big names).

    But my suspicion is that the actual answer is likely that they are just inconsistent. What gets removed depends on the employee the complaint gets assigned to. The policies are setup to err on the side of the customer/reviewer. BUT (an extremely big BUT) in those cases where the book and reviews are getting a lot of attention (the case with my situation and probably the trad published author above as well) then they give it a bit more attention and go to through the hassle of cleaning up some of the obvious bogus reviews.

    1. You raise good points, Al. From the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen, I think you’re right that whether an indie’s issues get the proper attention is based on which customer service person gets your query. And someone who sells more books (and makes more money for Amazon) will get a complaint kicked upstairs faster.

      Still, as I said to Sylvia, that doesn’t mean it’s fair.

  6. Ugh, taken in conjunctions with David Gaughran’s post on legit authors being summarily punished by Amazon because the algorithms mistake them for scammers, this is another nail pushing me ‘wide’.

  7. Yep. Seems like no matter what, Amazon will choose the side that (they feel) “gives their customer a better experience.” (Translation: also makes them more money.) And that’s not always fair.

  8. Amazon aside, anyone who sells to the general public has to be extremely careful in public relations situations. I think as unknown Indies we feel rather free with our opinions, and shoot from the lip at times when we shouldn’t. No intelligent proprietor antagonizes even the worst of customers for all the reasons mentioned above. So we have to be as careful as we can not to offend people, knowing that some time, somewhere, we are going to, whether it’s because they cross a line we cannot abide, or whether they’re just idiots and nothing we say will help ease the situation.
    The way this helps is that hopefully the trolls attacking us will be more obviously trolls, and Amazon – if it wishes to – has a better chance of separating them from legitimate reviewers.

    1. Gordon, in the case Al is alluding to, an author got riled up over a review of his (her?) book on Al’s site, and the whole thing blew up in spectacular fashion. In a situation like that, I agree with you — the author ought to take any criticism stoically and keep his/her mouth shut.

      And you’re right that some people will take offense, no matter what you say or do.

  9. To be fair, Amazon incorporated outside reviews into my author page to distance themselves from 2 reviews that were obviously negative, personal attack on the my books, and directly on me. Non -Amazon reviews appeared in the media and were written by people knowledgeable in my field, while 2 Amazon reviews were written by wannabes who know enough in the field to be dangerous.
    So as my case indicates Amazon follows outside reviews too, and tries to show some fairness (I hope). Of course I was not allowed to publish a rebuttal to the wannabe reviewers.

  10. If somebody posts a review that is essentially slanderous of the author or accuses them of plagiarism, would Amazon actually allow that to go through? Would any review not relative to the book itself be grounds for some kind of legal action? I guess I’d have to study the matter more closely, but how extensive are the legal obligations Amazon has to the authors it publishes?

    1. Amazon does have guidelines for product reviews, which you can see here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=201929730

      I know that when I’ve reviewed products, there’s a lag between when I post it and when it goes live. Each review may get only an automated check unless someone complains about the content.

      As for taking legal action against a bad review: First, I’m not a lawyer. 🙂 I suppose you could take legal action against a reviewer or reviewers whose posts break the law — say, they libel the author. But in practice, I think it would be fairly difficult — not to mention expensive — to find the person behind the review and sue them. I’m not sure whether Amazon could be held accountable legally for allowing the review to be published. Libel law has been evolving over the past 15 or 20 years, and I’m not sure where the law stands right now in regard to opinions about products that are posted on a merchant’s website.

  11. I wonder if it is who you actually contact at Amazon? I don’t know but I envisage a large team of people employed to answer such complaints. I was hit by a bunch of nasties from a Goodreads group and protested the one stars because these people had never read or bought my book and whoever the Amazon person was checked, agreed and removed the reviews except one which said ‘From looking at the available section.’ Is it as random as that?

    1. It may be. “From looking at the available section” implies that the reviewer read the “Look inside!” at least. It makes sense that Amazon wouldn’t spike a negative review that’s based on a perusal of the “Look inside!” feature; after all, that’s what the feature is for.

      To reach a person at Amazon, the product review guidelines at the link I posted in response to Alejandro’s question recommend using the “was this review helpful?” voting buttons on the review itself. I haven’t had to do that, so I don’t know how useful or effective it is. Maybe others will chime in.

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