Total Pageviews

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On Amazon, Cooking Up Friendly Reviews

Beneath the placid surface of Amazon, authors and reviewers have been in a ferment this fall. After several well-publicized episodes involving writers soliciting or paying for reviews, the retailer seems to be cracking down on log-rolling. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of book reviews have been killed. Amazon has not explained exactly why.

One possible target: authors who have sent gift certificates to reviewers to buy their books. While it's easy to see the potential for abuse here - “Here's a $1 00 gift certificate. Buy a copy of my novel for 99 cents and keep the change” - some writers argue it is no different than sending a physical copy of a book to someone, which is what publishers do in the offline world and therefore is allowed by Amazon. At least, the line between the two is blurry.

Consider the case of Tim Ferriss, the self-help specialist whose extensive promotional activities help power his books onto the best-seller lists. He gave away a thousand advance copies - many more than most authors - before “The 4-Hour Body” was published two years ago. Some went to friends, some to companies where Mr. Ferriss had been a guest speaker, still more to those who helped or volunteered to help with the book. On publication day, all the recipients were sent an e-mail marked urgent asking them to spend 30 seconds writing a review. Many complied. But some readers saw something suspicious.

“Although this generated a fair amount of backlash from skeptics, it was an immense boon for us to have a solid foundation of 200 positive reviews in the first week,” a Ferriss marketing associate wrote in a guest post on the author's blog in March 2011. “Having a solid Amazon rating gives the book an enormous amount of social proof that can last for years, and (although immeasurable from our end) boosts the conversion rate on the sales page substantially.”

Two weeks ago, Mr. Ferriss brought out his third book, “The 4-Hour Chef.” Published this time by Amazon itself, the nearly 700-page tome came equipped with many five-star reviews posted on the date of publication. Only a few of the reviewers said they had gotten advance copies. Once again, some readers saw something suspicio us. “Tons of fake ratings have been posted on the first day that this book came out,” posted a reader who goes by carmex. “Please do not encourage this type of behavior.”

A debate sprang up about whether it was permissible to solicit advance reviews from friends and others you strongly suspected were going to give you a rave. “Would you consider those reviews as being within the spirit and integrity of what a review should be or is that more akin to network marketing?” asked one reader, who put himself in the second group.

Mr. Ferriss said in an e-mail message that he sent out from 200 to 300 advance copies of “The 4-Hour Chef” to “people I identified as being potentially interested in my book and who would probably enjoy the content. Does that stack the deck? Perhaps, but why sen d the book to someone who would hate it? That doesn't help anyone: not the reader, nor the writer. ”

Some critics noted that some of Mr. Ferriss' fans had written no other reviews - usually a tip-off that the reviewer has been paid or was a friend of the author. “No conspiracy required,” Mr. Ferriss said. “How many people routinely leave Amazon reviews? Very few. Even reading as much as I do, I very rarely leave book reviews. But if a writer I loved, one who'd written more than 400 blog posts for free (as I have) - posts I benefited from - asked me to do so as a 30-second favor, would I be inclined? Absolutely. That would make me a new reviewer.”

The most controversial of Mr. Ferriss' reviewers are not reviewers at all. These are fans who straightforwardly admit they haven't read the book, but nevertheless give it four or five stars:

“It baffles me how excited I am to have this book in my hands - Just arrived home and it was sitting on my porch waiting for me,” wrote one “reviewer.” “Just ordered this hope it's as good as the other titles,” said a second. “I'll write a review once I'm finished,” exclaimed a third.

Surprisingly, Amazon says it is completely legitimate to do this. “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review,” Craig Berman, an Amazon spokeman, said. “Some people write reviews on why they decided not to buy, or write a review as a gift giver rather than the product owner.”

Perhaps, but I see a future where we have virtual enthusiasm for virtual books. Reviews are crucial to online commerce in a way they never were to offline sales. If Amazon can devise a system that is transparent and fair to all involved - author, reviewer and customer - it will be a greater achievement than same-day delivery.