How the Amazon Book Reviews Policy Hurts Indie Authors

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Why isn’t anyone posting Amazon book reviews for my novel, you might ask as an independent author? Good question.

With more than a thousand copies of my debut Malone novel, Come What May, now in circulation, and only one Amazon review posted to date, I’ve asked the question myself.

Depending on whose statistics you believe, it is commonly reported that somewhere between 5-8% of Amazon book buyers bother to post a review. Personally, I believe for most Indie authors, the numbers are far lower than that.

Not every person who buys and reads books has any interest in writing and posting book reviews. There isn’t any solution to that part of the problem for authors.

You’re never going to find a way to convince someone to do something they don’t wish to do, especially when there is nothing in it for them to do so. You can’t offer people anything of value to encourage them to post a review. That violates Amazon book review guidelines.

Understanding how critical it is to get Amazon book reviews and unable to count on the rank and file Amazon book buyer to write and post a review, what’s an independent author to do?

Amazon book reviews have an enormous impact on how a book is perceived. As human beings, to one degree or another, we all are subject to the herd instinct. People like what other people like. More importantly, people trust what other people recommend.

A 2015 study revealed that over 88% of online shoppers trust reviews as much as personal recommendations.

A book with numerous positive reviews conveys an impactful message of the book’s legitimacy and value. Alternatively, books with few or no reviews, even if it should garner the attention of a potential buyer in the first place, will be viewed as suspect. Few people will be willing to break free of the herd mentality and take a chance on it.

Quite simply, the more reviews, the more likely a book will get purchased. But that is an issue that motivated, independent authors could conceivably effectively manage with a willingness to do the work required to convince enough readers to post a review of their book. But that’s where the Amazon book reviews policy creates the real problem.

Amazon has long understood the herd mentality and the power of product reviews in getting people to buy products listed on the mega-retailer’s site.

Understandably, Amazon has a vested interest in ensuring the integrity of customer review process. If for example, you were to buy a book or any other product on Amazon that had numerous positive reviews but upon receiving it found it to be very disappointing, you would not be a happy Amazon customer.

Thus, the company has published customer review guidelines that are rigorously enforced with the aim of protecting the integrity of customer reviews. In theory, nothing wrong with the guidelines, but in practice, the way the guidelines are currently enforced puts authors at a severe disadvantage.

Publicly, the key tenants of the Amazon book reviews policy are;

  • Authors may not publish a review of their own work.
  • Individuals who share a household with the author or close friends may not publish a review of the author’s book.
  • No one can post a review on behalf of someone else.
  • Amazon doesn’t allow any form of compensation for a customer review other than a free copy of the book provided upfront.

As said, in theory, there is nothing wrong with the Amazon review guidelines. All of the major tenants are easily defensible in light of the aim to allow only honest reviews. But, the manner in which Amazon enforces the guidelines approach the Orwellian.

Amazon reserves the right to determine who an author’s “close friends” are and more and more Indie authors are discovering that the definition is not limited to real-world friendships with people an author actually sees and interacts with on a regular basis. Instead, there seems to be a troubling practice on the part of Amazon to define social media contacts as “close friends,” and using that as a basis for excluding them from eligibility to post reviews.

There is an obvious and pervasive lack of transparency about how Amazon identifies personal relationships among users, but it has been learned that Amazon tracks the IPs of visitors to the site and uses that as one means of identifying an author’s family members and close friends. But it is the social media contacts where the reference to George Orwell’s novel, 1984 comes into play.

How else could Amazon become aware of the social media interactions between two or more people unless the company is actively harvesting the information? To harvest such information the company would have to go beyond its own website, where it clearly has the right to harvest useful marketing information, to social media sites where it just as clearly has no right to harvest such information.

Prying into who an author has as followers or friends on social media amounts to nothing less than an invasion of privacy. Using that information to decide who may or may not post a review for an author’s book amounts to nothing less than indefensible censorship.

If it isn’t bad enough that the number of Amazon book reviews largely determines whether a book will succeed or fail when book sales are used as the metric, Amazon also utilizes the number of reviews in it algorithms which determine how visible a particular book is to prospective buyers on the website.

I’ve learned from one source that a book with less than ten reviews gets practically no visibility and Amazon puts no resources into marketing the book. A book with less than ten reviews might as well not even be listed on Amazon because for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist since no one will ever see it unless he or she is specifically searching for it.

From another source, I’ve learned that another magic number is 50 reviews. With 50 reviews Amazon starts paying more attention to the book and devotes more resources toward helping to promote it.

Therefore, any author who aspires to a measure of success in book sales on Amazon must get reviews, and a lot of them. As though that wasn’t already difficult enough, Amazon makes it exceedingly harder by arbitrarily deciding who an author’s “close friends” are and deleting reviews from those so determined.

Those unfair practices are compounded by the seemingly sinister methods Amazon employs to make those determinations which the company then conveniently cloaks in non-transparency with statements like, “due to the proprietary nature of our business, we do not provide detailed information on how we determine that accounts are related.”

While I applaud the efforts of Amazon to keep book reviews objective, I disagree with some of the methods they appear to employ to accomplish that aim. In my opinion, Amazon needs to stick to their written review guidelines and limit their use of related accounts detection to the information they can legally harvest from their own website.

It’s more than a bit creepy to think about the company tracking my every move about the Internet, prying into my social media accounts to glean information to use in disqualifying perfectly honest and objective reviews from people that I have never actually met and know only through social media interaction. That’s just wrong, and if it isn’t unlawful, it should be.

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