If you’ve been following the happenings in the world of publishing over the last few months, you’ll be familiar with the phrase “sock puppet reviewing” and the recent controversies regarding such.
If you haven’t been paying attention, in short: sock puppetry refers to published authors using “pseudonymous handles to post positive Amazon reviews of [their] own books and one-star reviews of others” (Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times, Sept. 4, 2012). A handful of authors, a few of whom were somewhat high-profile, recently admitted to such abhorrent behavior, and the news has spread like wildfire.
Unfortunately, in Amazon’s frantic attempt to contain the flames, they’ve managed to burn down the entire forest.
Forgive me for being dramatic, but I maintain that my analogy is not that far from the mark.
To prove to their customers that the Amazon rating system has not become corrupted, they’ve decided to forbid authors from posting reviews of any other author’s work.
Authors, most of whom became writers because of their passion for reading, are now denied the right of other readers by being prohibited from reviewing books on Amazon.
Readers who frequently discovered new authors through the recommendations of authors they were already familiar with will no longer have that opportunity on Amazon.
New authors who are struggling to be heard in the cacophony of the e-book world can no longer solicit honest reviews from their fellow authors in an effort to get their books off the ground.
One of the saddest conclusions I’ve come to when researching Amazon’s new policy is that Amazon considers authors to be in “direct competition” with each other. They are treating us as if we are bitter enemies, cats and dogs that can’t be trusted to be alone in a room together.
Now, some people might agree with that assumption, but I bet you that most of those people have no idea what they’re talking about. An outsider might look at the writing business and presume it is like any other commercial enterprise: the author who gets the most readers wins, and the rest of the authors lose.
But it doesn’t really work that way with books.
Unlike TV shows, authors are not fighting for the same 1-hour slot in primetime. A book doesn’t “go out of theatres” if it doesn’t outsell other new releases during it’s opening weekend. In other words, if my book sells, it doesn’t mean your book won’t.
Authors rarely “steal” readers from another author; readers just add new authors to their To-Be-Read pile. In fact, a reader is more likely to try out a new author from the recommendation of another author than from advertising (RWA Readership Statistics, 2012).
I may be relatively new to the publishing world, but from what I’ve seen within the Romance Writers of America and Los Angeles Romance Authors, the publishing world is not dog-eat-dog. We romance authors are incredibly supportive of each other. The biggest names in the business (Nora Roberts, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jayne Ann Krentz, etc.) regularly frequent the annual RWA conferences to share their knowledge with amateur authors and encourage them to become successful. Hundreds of mid-list authors donate their time to mentoring newbies and guiding them through the perils of the publishing world. We have blogs, newsletters, conferences, critique groups, and review sites, all created with the intent of helping each other become the best authors we can be.
I know of no author that would intentionally sabotage another author in the hopes that their own work would become more successful.
OK, apparently, there are a few writers out there who would do such a thing, but the keyword here is “few.”
But instead of searching for a tailored and efficient solution to this isolated problem, Amazon has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. They’ve branded all of us authors as untrustworthy, greedy, immoral money-grubbers who can’t be trusted to share our opinions in a responsible manner.
But there are so many other, better, solutions that Amazon could pursue.
For example, Amazon could add a disclaimer to reviews posted by authors, which identifies that reviewer as a writer. (In fact, that would be a win-win-win for the reader, the author of the work in question, and the reviewing author. If the review was negative, readers could take that review with a grain of salt, recognizing that perhaps the reviewer was biased [especially if said review was poorly justified]. And if the review was positive [and well-written], then perhaps the reviewing author would pick up new fans from other readers.)
Other options include flagging strongly negative (1- or 2-star) reviews by authors who have been published in the same genre, so that readers can be aware of a potential bias or conflict of interest.
Perhaps the content of negative reviews from fellow authors can remain, but the star ranking would not be counted, therefore allowing the reviewing author to make their argument, but not allowing the work’s author’s ranking to be unfairly diminished.
One of the biggest problems with Amazon’s new policy is that it dramatically inhibits new authors from widening their readership. Established authors won’t feel the impact of this new policy, since the loss of a handful of reviews won’t make a dent when you already have hundreds of reviews. But new authors often struggle to get even a dozen reviews, and so the loss of just a few can be devastating.
New authors can’t get family members to read and review their book, because Amazon considers them to have “financial interest in the product.” And they can’t get fellow authors to review their book because they have “financial interest in a directly competing product.”
Where is the line drawn?
What about friends, are they unfairly biased too? How about friends of friends, are they OK? Friends of friends of friends? If a family member from outside my immediate household reads my book, are they allowed to post an honest review? What if I give a free copy of my novel to a reviewer, is that considered bribery? My boss’s, sister’s, step-brother is thinking about writing a book, is he disqualified for being a biased acquaintance with a financial interest in a potentially competing project?
I’ve never been a fan of slippery-slope arguments, but since we’re already sliding down this mountain Amazon made from a molehill, I figured it was appropriate.
~ Laura Sheehan
[NOTE: This article was was originally published in the November 2012 issue of LARA Confidential, the newsletter of the Los Angeles Romance Authors chapter of RWA, for which I serve as Newsletter Editor. It may be reprinted with proper credit to author and chapter.]