Home » Amazon, PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Reviews » The Mouse That Rawr’d

The Mouse That Rawr’d

2 March 2016

From The Novel Approach:

Once upon a time, there was a corporate giant called Amazon, who existed in a land inhabited by all manner of creature. This giant was possessed of a vast wealth and bartered myriad goods in exchange for those riches, from textiles to tchotchkes to consumables to a seemingly fathomless collection of media and books. There was little question of this giant’s market prowess, power and influence; nor was there little question that puny humans were lured with a Siren-like ease to its lair, where would be fulfilled every purchasing whim… In the land of Virtual Commerce, let us not be mistaken that Amazon was king.

Alas, this is reality. With a book market presence unrivaled by any other e-tailer, Amazon not only absorbs a hefty portion of the average reader’s book buying budget but its review system also wields the sort of influence that when utilized can increase a book’s visibility on the site. With the Kindle/Kindle app being on top of the e-reader heap, those Amazon reviews can truly matter not only to readers who take the time to peruse them but to authors as well, because of the way a review of their books ties in to Amazon’s algorithms. Simply put, an Amazon review can be beneficial to a book’s overall accessibility on the site.

. . . .

So, now we enter the dark and dangerous fairy tale forest where there lies a murky bog called Ethics. It’s no secret there are review sites out there that sell reviews—I get follows from them on Twitter on occasion. There are also authors out there who buy those reviews—which stands to reason or those sites wouldn’t exist. Now you can see how this has made some reviews and some review sites suspect and, for more than a few people, difficult to trust. The bottom line is that if we consumers stray from the safety of the path to enlightenment, we might get eaten, and this is why Amazon has been forced to tidy its castle.

Beyond suing people for fraudulent reviews, Amazon has also begun swinging the ax on those reviews they merely suspect are bogus. It’s why they’re now policing our Facebook and Goodreads connections with the somewhat ambitious belief that by doing so they can restore legitimacy to and preserve the sanctity of the Amazon review. What’s happening in return for those efforts is that legitimate readers/reviewers are finding their reviews disappearing from Amazon, while the less-than-illuminating “This book was okay” reviews are living on to see another day.

. . . .

When I wrote a letter of inquiry to the Customer Reviews department to ask for specifics, I received a terse reply accusing me of “manipulating” the Amazon review process. When I replied to inquire how I might appeal this decision, all I received was another abrupt email that stated, in essence, they didn’t owe me an explanation and not to bother emailing them back because they would likely not respond.

I, of all people, respect the review process and understand why Amazon is trying to clean up the behemoth that is theirs. The issue that exists, however, is that in doing so they’re throwing out the good with the bad, utilizing IP addresses and star ratings and Facebook and Goodreads connections as their methods of deducing which reviews are originating from reputable sources and which aren’t. It’s a fantastic idea in theory, but in practice, it could use some work because all it’s done for me so far is leave me frustrated.

. . . .

And this is why I took the time to email Jeff Bezos to let him know I didn’t appreciate being lumped in with all the other witchies in the Amazon witch hunt. And then I’m sure he laughed at my insignificant self and went on to counting all the pieces of gold in his coffers, but at least he now knows I’m not some wan and mealy mouthed reader/reviewer who’s too intimidated to stand up to the giant. ::cue his laughter::

What does this mean for Amazon? Zero, zilch, nada. Will I stop shopping at Amazon.com? No, they’ll still get all my dollars because they make it easy to spend with them. Does this mean that I agree with their methods of repairing the flaws in their system? No, because it’s indiscriminate and shortsighted. Does it stick in my craw that all those one word/one sentence “reviews” are living on, while every last review we’d posted (and, I might add, had been approved) were disposed of with all disregard for their potential validity? Ooooh, you bet it does.

Link to the rest at The Novel Approach and thanks to P.D. for the tip.

PG wonders if it might be a good idea for Amazon to establish an ombudsman to help resolve KDP issues that may arise with authors and reviewers.

Amazon is notable for its excellent customer service policies for those who purchase goods. Returns are simple and shipping errors are quickly rectified.

Perhaps the most impressive thing PG learned during his early interactions with those responsible for running Kindle Direct Publishing is that they regarded indie authors as customers. This was and is, of course, an extraordinarily different view of authors than is widely-held among employees of traditional publishers.

Every organization utilizing computer algorithms in its business processes knows that those algorithms, particularly when they are first brought online, can be expected to return erroneous results from time to time. Some of the errors will be obvious and others subtle.

Those responsible for programming the algorithms will be focusing on the obvious errors and may not have been given all the information behind the program requirements around which the algorithms were built. Certainly, they’ll pay more attention to fixing the obvious bugs than the subtle ones which may or may not be bugs at all.

The people on the front lines of implementing the results of the algorithms with customers, reviewers, publishers, etc., will almost certainly not be the same people who created the requirements or wrote the algorithms. The front line people will be focused on efficiently doing one thing if the output of the algorithm says red and another if the output says blue.

In an organization the size of Amazon, this translates into at least tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of red/blue outputs that require processing. While the front line people should be able to properly handle the results of obvious bugs, at least some subtle bugs will fall under Option D – blame the customer.

You might make the same decisions if, every day, you had to deal with thousands of large and small crooks trying to make money from Amazon by improper means.

The tone of the above post from Lynn, the proprietress of The Novel Approach, doesn’t strike PG as the way someone who is gaming Amazon reviews would typically respond.

PG’s hypothetical Amazon ombudsman would provide a second set of eyes (other than Jeff Bezos or his assistants) to consider whether author/reviewer complaints that the algorithms weren’t working the way they were intended, that the posse rounding up the outlaws might have inadvertently arrested an innocent shopkeeper.

If indie authors are customers of KDP, an effective ombudsman (or ombudswoman or flock of ombudspersons) would help increase customer satisfaction among authors and prevent the occasional innocent shopkeeper from being hanged at dawn.

Amazon, PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Reviews

34 Comments to “The Mouse That Rawr’d”

  1. There is a flip side to this involving inappropriate negative reviews. I recently contacted Amazon about two reviews of one of my books, both titled “One Star”. One review reads, “Never received it” and the other reads, “Never read but still getting request for review”.

    These both seem to clearly be in violation of Amazon’s review policies, but in both cases, Amazon refused to remove the reviews, and after I questioned their decision, Amazon stated clearly in a follow-up email that they would not communicate with me further. No explanation was offered as to why these reviews were considered to be OK.

    It was not a big deal, but it seems a little unfair that two negative reviews that have nothing to do with my book, but rather have to do with delivery and follow up communications from Amazon are still out there. And it was also a bit frustrating when they stated they would not communicate with me further and told me to basically shut-up and go away. This was after just two rounds of communication by me including my first report to them. It was not as if I was emailing them over and over.

    • Barbara Morgenroth

      I’ve been told to shut up and go away, too.
      Infuriating.

    • For the customer, they are not just reviewing your book and only your book, they are reviewing their whole experience, which includes buying from Amazon or third party vendors.

      So, saying, “Never received it” may be against Amazon reviews of books, but it is NOT against reviews of every other product on the site that makes up 90%+ of their revenue. Not unlike someone reviewing a car and saying the car was great but they hated any of the service aspects. End to end customer experience.

      And, to be fair, people don’t complain when they get a five-star review and all it says is “Great, exactly what I ordered, arrived on time.”

  2. Patricia Sierra

    “I might appeal this decision, all I received was another abrupt email that stated, in essence, they didn’t owe me an explanation and not to bother emailing them back because they would likely not respond.”

    I would have thought this bit from the article was poetic license if the same thing hadn’t happened to me, but regarding another subject. My ISP started limiting gigabytes in my internet package and I was devouring them at a pretty fast pace, so I emailed Amazon asking if they could do what Netflix does: let us choose between standard or HD when watching videos. I was shocked by the response. I was informed that videos are streamed in HD by default whenever possible. Then the sender said that was all he was going to say on the matter so I might as well not reply because no one would respond. The CS rep made it sound like we’d gone back and forth on the topic for some time and they’d grown weary of the conversation, so they were telling me to get lost. The email was rude, curt, and offensive in its wording and tone.

  3. I love the idea of an ombudsman to review these kind of issues.

    I’ve read more than a handful of ARCs. With some, the writer has contacted me. Others, I’ve volunteered. Ironically, there’s been a couple from Amazon’s own imprints; it hasn’t been all indie. And for the writers I really like, I end up on their mailing lists or following them on social media.

    There’s been more than a few occasions when I’ve wondered if it was worth the time writing the review, considering Amazon’s heavy handedness. And I think, is this the review that will get me banned?

    Something’s truly rotten in Denmark when a reviewer can give an honest 3- or 4-star review and have it removed because they follow the writer’s author page on Facebook. But if the reviewer gives a crappy one-star because the writer didn’t date them in high school, and the reviewer is stalking the writer on every form of social media, then that’s okay.

    • This is part of the reason I’m not on Goodreads and never did set up an author page on FB. I found FB’s advice hinky then and I find it so now. I thought, “How many hoops must I jump through?” and found it not worth my time. I’m glad now I made that choice. It may be coincidence, of course, but none of my reviews has ever been removed, either for my own books or books I’ve reviewed as a reader.

  4. I have had the honor of being reviewed by this site, and Lisa and the crew are reliable and honest. If they don’t like something, they’ll say so, and they do the FCC thing of saying they received the book in exchange for an honest review. It’s a sad day when a (relatively) big review site gets the smackdown for doing everything right.

  5. “because of the way a review of their books ties in to Amazon’s algorithms. Simply put, an Amazon review can be beneficial to a book’s overall accessibility on the site.”

    Reviews are not part of the sales ranking algorithm. Only sales determine sales ranking (and free borrows if you’re in KU). Reviews are important for lots of reasons, but influence on the ranking algorithms is not one of them.

    • The sales ranking algorithm is one thing. The popularity algorithm, the one which is used to display books after a search by keywords for exemple, is another. Do the reviews play a role in this one ? I have no idea.

      • Apparently… reviews maybe don’t count for the sales ranking, but they do help sales. There is a thread now on the KDP forum, “general questions”… an author blatantly spamming his first badly written novel… 114 pages for 4,99 dollars… with 143 5 stars reviews after just five days, and NOT ONE review other than five stars. This novel is 1063 just now on the .com store. And not even ONE sale on the co.uk store ! This author is not a gamer, he is a game-up artist !
        So indeed, AMZ’s system of reviewing the reviews could be improved.

  6. Ombudsman, yes. Amazon’s tech support leaves a lot to be desired; and I got the impression that the first email goes to some “call center” where some kid has a script he doesn’t know how to deviate from.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had to ask for a manager before, until I started talking to those call center people. It seems it’s not a given that the first responders even know all the services or options Amazon offers, which surprises me.

    This is one area where Amazon needs to step up its game.

    • I have never found a phone number for KDP support. It seems to me that you can only contact them through email.

      I hope I am wrong and someone can tell me how to get someone on the phone to help me with a question I might have as a KDP author.

      • Escalate the emails — they do a survey at the end that says “did this answer your question?” Always say no, because it’s true.

        Be prepared to wait a day between responses.

        Eventually they offer to call you. Then when you talk to someone, it’s the voice-version of the first script follower you got for your emails. But then you ask to speak to his manager, and you’re golden. At least that was the process I followed.

        Sadly, I don’t think Comcast was ever so maddening.

      • Someone mentioned recently that s/he had phone contact with KDP but I can’t recall what thread it was. Maybe it all has to start with an email, then they’ll provide the phone #?

        I have a friend who wants that number because he has discovered that his books have lost all their indents. At least that’s what he sees when he opens his books on his iPhone. I think he also said he got the same results on an iPad. I opened one of his books on my Fire Phone and it displayed correctly. He’s trying to figure out how to fix the problem. He said others on Kboards have mentioned this happening because Amazon has done something to the formatting. I checked my books and the indents are there.

        Anybody know what could be going wrong re the indents?

  7. I think Amazon’s customer service staff for authors are “deeply under-trained.” No doubt it’s a mammoth crew with plenty of turnover and therefore a challenge.

    But it’s Amazon’s responsibility and in the company’s self-interest.

    An Ombudsman would help, but there needs to also be a level of policy review as a starting point that gets translated and communicated into training, management practices, quality control, etc.

  8. I’m a little surprised by the idea of an Ombudsperson because such a role is usually only appropriate when you have TWO things at play:

    a. A dispute between parties of different power; and,
    b. An infringement of rights.

    I’ll grant you the first for sake of argument.

    Do you have a right to post your review on Amazon’s site? No. Amazon can delete anything it wants. Anytime. Any day. They don’t have to tell you why, how or when.

    Do you have a right to an explanation of how their review policy works? No. Might be a little fuzzy at the edges in some states, but not many and not that fuzzy.

    Do you have a right to have your books on Amazon at all or even to shop at Amazon? No. Some want to argue it’s a public utility, but we are far from that, and Amazon’s lawyers don’t even have to argue against it yet, the arguments are so weak.

    Usually, the only rights you have are either:

    A) in constitutions or legislation,
    B) in past court cases, or
    C) contracts.

    If you want to argue you have the “right” to something, and thus an ombudsperson would help you exercise your rights when there’s a power disparity, which rights are we supposedly talking about?

    What I see is something akin to not liking a customer service policy, and that seems way far from something like an ombudsperson to fix.

    But if there was such an entity, people would probably not be happy with it either. Why? Because you have no rights. Therefore, the Ombudsperson could look at something and say, “Nope, don’t have to do anything about that one, next!” and you’d feel the same way. Because everyone who got a “no” at first instance would appeal to the second instance. And most of those would get a second no too, otherwise why have the first level at all. The only “benefit” is that you could have a chance that a few would get someone with intelligence reading to say, “Hey, wait a minute, even though they have no rights, this was a stupid thing for us to do, our bad, let’s fix this.” But they’d have to review every single complaint to find those rare nuggets. How do they do that? Most ombudspersons say, “Well, what right was violated? NOthing? Next!”.

    What MIGHT work by contrast is a forum where people could identify issues, and an “ombudsperson-like” role could be to facilitate those discussions and structure them towards a decent outcome. So, they might not be able to fix YOUR specific problem, but if lots of people complain in that one forum about the policy on review removal and over-reach, maybe they could identify some common themes and roll them up for Amazon to consider (i.e. for the problem, NOT to tell them the solution). SOme would argue the Forums already do this, of course.

    Of course, if Amazon truly listens to complaints, they have a very clear and unequivocal option on reviews — make them only for verified purchases. No ARCs, no other sources, you can only review if you bought it from them, and they could even ban gifts from being reviewed.

    Will I be upset if/when they review my reviews? Of course. But I have no recourse, because I have no rights to rely upon. Heck, they could delete them just because they don`t like my name if they want, or because they decided they don`t want reviews by anyone with the first letter being P. And their response will most likely always be: “Don`t like it? Shop somewhere else.”

    Poly

    • Good points, Poly.

      A lot of large corporations, for profit and non-profit, and governmental organizations have an ombudsman/person who reports directly to the Board of Directors or CEO and who is empowered to deal with concerns of one or more groups (employees, customers, outside stakeholders, etc) on a confidential, impartial, independent and informal basis. He/she (and, sometimes, staff) is outside the executive organization in a separate part of the corporate structure.

      An ombudsman’s function is basically a form of alternate dispute resolution that is supposed to operate quickly and efficiently to help resolve problems that the main organization isn’t addressing well. He/she can help resolve disputes, misunderstandings, etc., and may be able to help avoid litigation, government penalties for regulatory non-compliance, etc.

      • And most of those are working with groups who had a “right” to something they didn’t get fully, hence the dispute and a legit need to have an ADR mechanism to resolve it, or do you see it as an all-purpose customer relations for people who just weren’t happy?

        P.

    • PolyWogg,

      While I understand your points, it’s not about entitlement so much as I was invited to do X, then my host abandoned me. That’s bound to cause some hard feelings.

      When Amazon sends a case of ARCs to one of their in-house authors, what exactly are they expecting the author to do with those ARCs? The purpose of an ARC is to garner early word-of-mouth, usually via reviews. Why defeat that purpose by disallowing those self-same reviews on their website?

      Then there’s the time where I gifted e-books to the winner of a giveaway. I received an e-mail asking me to review MY OWN BOOKS FROM AMAZON, despite the fact doing so clearly violates their TOS. So why send me such an e-mail that asks me to blatantly breach their policy?

      And recently, I received an e-mail that could be construed as threatening because I hadn’t turned on my Kindle’s Wi-Fi in months, and if I didn’t do it RIGHT NOW, my Kindle would become a paperweight. Apparently, there was a mandatory update to the OS, but neither the e-mail nor the website had much information on it. I sent CS an e-mail asking about the size of the update and the effect since I have a Kindle 2. As several other people pointed out, the e-mail I received in return made absolutely no sense because the person/computer algorithm that answered grabbed what they thought was the most likely script that would answer my question.

      One of the things Amazon did right for a long time was customer service. Now, it’s gotten big enough that I and many other customers are starting to see that high level of service slip.

      Do we have a right to the things you mentioned? No. But by the same token Amazon doesn’t have the right to our money.

      • “Do we have a right to the things you mentioned? No. But by the same token Amazon doesn’t have the right to our money.”

        And yet very few will leave or stop using Amazon over this, it seems that even with all its faults Amazon is still the ‘best game around’.

        • I’m not advocating anyone boycott Amazon. But while I hope CS improves and my recent experiences are growing pains, I’m not holding my breath.

          I don’t advocate boycotting Walmart either, but I refuse to shop there for various and sundry reasons. We’re all adults . 🙂

          • Patricia Sierra

            All of us with early versions of the Kindle got that email. I didn’t think of it as threatening; merely a heads up that I had to plug in my Kindle and leave it that way, on WiFi, overnight. Otherwise the Kindle would cease to work after a given date (I think it was March 22, but not sure). I did what they asked, then saw the buy-back offer for older Kindles and took advantage of it. They gave me $33.60 for a 5th generation Kindle I hardly ever used. As a bonus, they’d give $20 off a newer version.

      • > Then there’s the time where I gifted e-books to the winner of a giveaway. I received an e-mail asking me to review MY OWN BOOKS FROM AMAZON, despite the fact doing so clearly violates their TOS. So why send me such an e-mail that asks me to blatantly breach their policy?

        because the group that generates the review request e-mails is very different from the group that lets you publish things. (likely in a different building, if not a different city)

        Let me ask you something, is your e-mail listed on the book publication page? if not, they would have to cross-check your e-mail with the e-mail(s) used to publish the book. They can’t just go by similarity of names.

  9. I always love the ones demanding to know how things are decided, and then get upset when told ‘none of your dang business!’.

    Amazon, Google and any other company with a clue will never give out this information for a very simple reason. If you don’t know the rules you can’t find the better way to bend/break/game them.

    Those upset by Amazon looking at/dropping reviews with facebunk connections need to remember that facebunk they want to sell you to — what for it — game your likes and everything else. Might as well be honest and have the reviewers admit they’re from fiver and getting paid.

    Yes, some ‘honest’ facebunk reviews are getting painted by the same brush, but it’d be interesting to know how many others were ‘killed’ compared to the few we hear about …

  10. This was my experience with reviews posted on my Amazon pages.
    I have four self-published books for sale on Amazon.
    One night, a person wrote a review for three of my books; one stating “terrible writer,” the other two something like “bad writer.”
    This person did not say anything about the books themselves.
    I generally get good reviews and was suspicious about these reviews.
    A friend of mine, a tech whiz, tracked down the reviewer and found the man’s middle name was Mohammed and he lived in Bangladesh.
    I was then positive the man was a troll.
    For one thing, I can see reading one book and leaving a comment, and then not reading others by that author.
    But reading one and hating it, then two more?
    That doesn’t make sense.
    So I wrote Amazon three times demanding the company remove the reviews.
    They not only refused to remove the reviews, they took TWO POSITIVE REVIEWS OFF my site!!
    I asked KPD why they had done that and somebody wrote because they were suspicious reviews, and they had proved it because they ???
    I never understood why they thought they were suspicious, except both the reviewers were Facebook friends.
    But I never asked my FB friends to write complimentary reviews for me.
    They read the books and liked them.
    Many writers market through Facebook, me included.
    So I wrote Jeff Bezos and the next day one of his staff called me to talk to me about my complaint.
    When I told her about all this, she just said she would have somebody look into it but didn’t promise me anything.
    The next week I wrote Bezos again, and one of his staff in customer relations emailed me and said, basically, Amazon was right, I was wrong, and nothing would be changed.
    Amazon, everyone from Bezos down the line, are not thinking of their authors, they are thinking about protecting Amazon’s reputation.
    But someone as capable as Bezos and his staff can come up with a way of protecting authors and barring fake reviews at the same time, if they just care enough to do so.

    • Patricia Sierra

      I’m sorry to hear you went through that, but a question: how did your pal figure out the reviewer’s middle name and location? Are reviewers using fanciful names insecure in their anonymity on Amazon?

  11. “Amazon, everyone from Bezos down the line, are not thinking of their authors, they are thinking about protecting Amazon’s reputation.”

    Amazon is all about the customer.

    Replace ‘authors’ with ‘suppliers’ and see if it has more/less of an impact for you.

    Then remember how ‘small’ Amazon’s book/ebook business is compared to the rest of Amazon and how many other suppliers they’re dealing with.

    I’m actually surprised we’re getting this much attention/feedback from Amazon — even if they don’t agree with what needs fixing.

  12. Thank you Patricia: If you go to “read the full review” page, you’ll see everything the reviewer has reviewed or purchased from Amazon. Some people leave their real email address and real name, and some don’t. My supposed reviewer did leave his full name, and he’s also on the internet. So I know who this man is. I’ve even seen his face, as he posted his photo online.

  13. I suspect many authors want a personal connection with someone working for their publisher or distributor. They want to talk to an editor or account manager. They want to be seen as talented human beings. They want someone to pay attention to them as a person. They want acknowledgement.

    Well, I’d say that went away with the same technological disruption that opened the doors for so many authors to sell their books all over the world by clicking the KDP upload button.

    An author who can prosper in a market where he is simply an ASIN has a competitive advantage over those who can’t.

    And an ombudsman? I suspect the Amazon board and CEO know of author distress with the management of the review system. But they will deal with it as a systemic problem, not by individual attention to authors.

  14. Honestly, Amazon isn’t going to change their behavior on this until someone decides to force their hand via the legal system, or a certain negative publicity threshold is reached. (As, indeed it was originally reached for the paid reviews.)

    And for that to happen, someone has to be willing to spend money just to prove a point.

  15. I’ve had the same “script” responses that do nothing to answer questions or solve issues. Sometimes I’ve had to email 3 or more times to get a KDP rep who actually reads my email and responds appropriately.

    But I also know that Amazon does make the effort to contact authors to ask about their experiences and for suggestions (I was contacted once, first by email and then by phone). Note: I hang out on the KDP forums a lot.

    The thing is, probably 85% of the “issues” and “complaints” KDP reps receive can be figured out by simply reading the TOS, etc help information. But a lot of KDP members don’t want to be bothered with reading that stuff when there’s an easily accessible contact link at the bottom of every page.

    And there are scads of KDP members who believe anything less than a glowing 5* review is a revenge or troll review (not saying anyone here is one of those members!), so “fake bad reviews” is another complaint KDP reps deal with a lot.

    But yeah, Amazon really does need to work on enforcing its review policy, and not instantly equating FB or GR friends/followers as actual people you hang out with “in real life” friends.

  16. I am one of the authors reviewed by The Novel Approach, and part of a niche genre that is often excluded or derided by other review sites.

    We rely on review sites like The Novel Approach and an army of wonderful readers, otherwise we would never be reviewed. However, we are a small genre and we generally know each other, at least online, if not at conventions.

    Surely this is not an unusual situation for small genres? We cannot all have the benefit of NYT reviews?

    I find it ironic that drive-by homophobic reviews where they have not read the book and admit as such, stick like glue to our Amazon books, yet a review from an actual review site WHICH WE DO NOT PAY FOR, is removed without question.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.