What’s Up with THAT, Amazon?

By Marianne Knowles

I had time to catch up with other people’s writing-related blogs over the Independence Day weekend, and discovered a trending theme: Amazon, the digital marketplace that all authors must use if they want to maximize readership, is UP TO SOMETHING. Several things, actually.

Reviewed any good books lately?
A Facebook post by Kris Asselin, The Query Godmother, led me to two items about Amazon’s new review ratings calculations, effective in June: PC World’s story “Amazon Cracks Down on Bogus Reviews” leads with the intended outcome of the change, while C|NET focuses on the computing involved in “Amazon looks to improve customer-reviews system with machine learning.” Formerly, a product’s overall star rating, whether it was a book, a bath towel, a blender, or what-have-you, was calculated as the average of all the ratings given by all reviewers for all time. The new system gives extra weight to reviews that meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • Amazon five starsA recent review—because the quality of the product might diminish if the manufacturer starts cutting corners to reduce costs. (Um…sure yeah, for a bath towel or blender. But a book?)
  • A Verified Purchase through Amazon—because unless you bought it from Amazon, how can they know you really bought it? (But do you need to buy a book to review it?)
  • A review that other Amazon customers have up-voted—because that means other customers found the review helpful. (Or perhaps it means they found the review entertaining. Even Amazon concedes that  humorous product reviews are an art form.)

At least two of these requirements have some issues when applied to books, rather than bath towels or blender. Even though the book hasn’t changed, the flood of reviews posted when a book debuted won’t count as much as the one posted last week. A review of a book received as a gift, even if it was purchased from Amazon, won’t count as much as a review posted by the buyer.

Pay an author—finish that book! Amazon is watching.
Ever have the feeling someone is reading over your shoulder? Beginning July 1, Amazon changed the way it calculates author earnings from ebooks borrowed through the paid subscription services Kindle Unlimited and Lending Library. (This change does NOT affect author earnings from ebooks that are purchased and downloaded.)

Feel like someone’s reading over your shoulder? It’s Amazon.

Previously an author was paid when you, the borrower, read at least 10% of an ebook. Now, an author is paid by the number of pages you read. (Amazon also rolled out a standardized page for Kindle Editions, the better to count pages with.) Quickly swiping through doesn’t count, you have to linger on the page long enough for Amazon to believe you’ve actually read it. Which makes me wonder, will that speed-reading class I took back in high school reduce an author’s earnings? I don’t participate in Kindle borrowing services, so the question is moot. Still, I find the surveillance a little unnerving. Flavorwire posted a thought-provoking article on this topic, “Does Amazon’s New Payment Scheme Require Literary Surveillance?”; more on the same topic  at USA Today.

Get your friends and family to review? Guess again!
Stop with red circle
When Imy Santiago, an Indie author, was unable to post reviews, she went down a rabbit-hole of correspondence with Amazon customer service. Her post “Amazon…A virtual marketplace, or Big Brother?” exposes Amazon’s policy of blocking reviews by anyone the author knows, as determined by Amazon’s algorithms. Ms. Santiago points out that she hasn’t met the authors of the eBooks she was attempting to review–she only knows them online. Nevertheless, even after an appeal, Amazon has declared her unfit to provide unbiased reviews. Nor will Amazon share the criteria they used to determine that her relationship with the authors is too close for Amazon’s comfort.

This policy of “no friends or family as determined by our proprietary algorithms” has been in Amazon’s guidelines for a while. One commenter has a fan whose reviews have been blocked for two years. Appeals to overturn the ruling have not helped, but he did at least find out why: two years ago, he won an author-sponsored promotional drawing for an Amazon gift card.

Engagement with the audience is a big part of being an author these days. But if engaging with fans means their reviews get blocked, then an author could potentially end up with NO established fans posting reviews, through no fault of their own. Not cool.

There is an Amazon-approved way around this: the reviewer may email the review to the author for posting in Editorial Reviews, or the reviewer may post in the “Meet Our Authors” forum under “Customer Discussions.” (Did you know this existed? I didn’t.) Since Amazon’s algorithms are proprietary, we may never know if “meeting an author” in Amazon’s forum turns you from an unbiased reviewer into a biased one, by Amazon’s calculation.

Amazons says they’re doing the best they can.
It’s in my nature to consider multiple sides of any issue, so it’s time to argue Amazon’s case.

Rating System: We’ve all seen less-than-helpful online reviews on Amazon: one-star ratings for a problem with shipping, or five-star ratings with nothing but “great book! Buy it!” in the comments. Amazon intends to give more weight to relevant reviews from trustworthy sources.

Payment System: The pay-by-page system addresses complaints by authors of book-length works. The 10% system encouraged a flood of super-short, poorly-written works with provocative “click-bait” titles that were meant to game the system. By the time the reader gave up reading, the payment had already been made–which reduced the money available for book-length works.

No Friends and Family: This clause is intended to promote authentic reviews. By Amazon’s definition this means reviews by readers who know an author’s books–not readers who know the author, in any way.

Amazon logoNow that I know this, what do I do?
I’m not sure what anyone should do. I am by no means an expert on this topic. My goal is to encourage conversation, because it’s an important one to have. What’s your take on the recent Amazon changes? Are you aware of them? Will they affect you, as an author or as a reader? Are these changes for the better? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Images: Amazon logo owned by Amazon. All others from Pixabay free images.