Recently Amazon seems to have begun a crackdown on authors in an attempt to root out illegitimate reviews.
I had been hearing isolated reports about this for months, but lately I’ve seen an uptick in complaints from authors that Amazon is sending out scary letters.
The Scary Email:
Typically, an author gets a form email out of the blue from Amazon that begins like this: “We understand that you may have manipulated product reviews.”
The letter goes on to explain that Amazon does not allow authors to manipulate product reviews.
The letter includes a link to a frequently-asked-questions page on Amazon about reviews .
It also includes a link to Amazon’s anti-manipulation policy.
The letter closes with a threat that Amazon may close the author’s publishing account “if the problem continues.”
Note how vague this is. What’s missing is any explanation of what the author might have done that’s wrong.
Obviously, an author who gets an email like this is going to have a stressful day. Most authors are honest and can’t imagine how they might have been manipulating reviews. And when they ask Amazon what they’ve done wrong, they get the unhelpful response that they’ve violated the terms of service.
It’s very hard to know why this is happening. The information I’m seeing is confusing and incomplete.
My read on the situation is the following (and this is a guess, because it’s impossible to know): Amazon knows that some authors are buying fake reviews. This has been an ongoing problem, and it’s serious. Fake reviews damage the credibility of all reviews. Amazon is a big corporation with a lot to lose when their review system loses credibility. So they set up a system to look for red flags and send warning emails to authors that might be cheating. It’s not clear if this system is fully automated, or whether there are humans involved. It appears that the system is wired a bit too tight right now—it’s sending out warnings to honest authors.
Red Flags For Reviews
I’ve read through Amazon’s guidelines for reviewers and for authors. Here are some of the most common issues to be wary of, because they’re red flags for Amazon. Some of these are obviously dishonest. Others merely violate Amazon’s Terms of Service.
- Don’t write a review of your own book. Not under your own name. Not under a fake name.
- Don’t pay other people to write a review for you.
- Don’t ask family members to write a review for you.
- Don’t post a review of your book on behalf of somebody else. If they write the review, they should post it themselves. If you find review material about your book on another web site, you can put this in the Editorial Reviews section of your book page (using your Author Central account). But don’t post it as a customer review.
- Don’t ask authors who are your close friends to write a review for you. It is OK for authors to review books, but Amazon specifically excludes those who have a “personal relationship” with you.
- Don’t ask people who had a hand in creating your book (such as editors, illustrators, marketing people, etc.) to write a review for you.
- Don’t use a tit for tat arrangement where you write a review for another author in exchange for them writing a review for you. If another author emails you asking you to do this, let them know that it’s a violation of Amazon’s Terms of Service.
- Don’t give any sort of compensation to your readers in exchange for a review. This includes drawings for your reviewers, gift cards, or any other gift.
- You are allowed to provide a free copy of your book upfront to reviewers. However, you must make it clear to them that all you are asking for is an honest review, which means they are free to write a bad review if they dislike your book. Furthermore, their review must say clearly that they received a free copy of your book in exchange for an honest review.
- You are allowed to ask for a review at the end of your book. What you should not do is to offer anything to people who post reviews. Don’t offer a gift card. Don’t offer a free copy of some other book. Don’t offer bonus content. Don’t offer anything. And be aware that some of your readers will write a scathing review. Scathing reviews are just part of life—they won’t kill you.What About Street Teams?
————————————————————A lot of authors use “street teams” when they launch a book.Typically, a street team is composed of your most loyal readers, the ones who buy every book you write as soon as you publish it. Instead of making them buy the book, you invite them to join your street team so they get a free copy before it’s published. (The free copy is usually called an Advance Review Copy—an ARC.)Your street team benefits by getting free books sooner than anyone else.
You benefit because your street team writes reviews of your book on or before the official release day.
Other readers benefit because they can see some reviews of the book that help them decide whether to buy or not. (A good review will encourage people in the book’s Target Audience to buy it, while discouraging people in the Target Audience from making a mistake on a book they won’t like.)
Amazon benefits because it sells more copies of your book to people in your book’s Target Audience.
You’re free to run a street team with as many people as you like. Having a street team is legitimate. But don’t throw up any red flags in the process. Don’t give any sort of compensation to your street team other than the free book itself. Do remind your street team that you expect nothing in return from them except an honest review. Do remind your street team that their review MUST say that they received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
It may be tempting at the end of a good year to do something nice for your street team. Holding a drawing for an iPad. Giving out gift cards. My opinion is that these are bad ideas. Even if you don’t explicitly draw a connection between the reviews they write for you and the goodies you give out, it’s going to look like a tit for tat arrangement. And that could get you in trouble.
There is some question about how friendly you should get with your street team. It’s not clear if Amazon considers your Facebook friends to be in a “personal relationship” with you that would invalidate their reviews. It’s not clear whether Amazon can or would track your Facebook friends. But Amazon knows more about you than you might imagine. Being a data guy, I can think of a lot of ways to mine all the information Amazon tracks. I’m sure they’ve thought of a lot more.
It’s clear that a number of authors are getting caught by surprise here, receiving threatening letters when they had no idea they were doing anything that might be questionable. Remember that the letter is only a warning—intended to get you to take action. You should act on the warning, but there’s no need for panic. Try to figure out what caused the warning, and then fix the problem.
The word on the street is that Amazon is not being terribly helpful. The warning letters they send out don’t explain specifically what the author did wrong. They don’t tell the author how to find out what they did wrong. When the author calls Amazon, the customer support people don’t give clear information that the author can act on.
My take on this is that Amazon is a big corporation, and the left hand doesn’t always know what the left hand is doing.
There are groups of authors who believe that Amazon is the enemy. I don’t believe that for a minute. Amazon is not your enemy.
But Amazon is not your friend either.
Amazon is your business partner.
In any partnership, there are misunderstandings that can happen. When those pop up, both sides need to try to resolve things.
Authors can do their part by reading the rules. Here are three pages you should read:
- Amazon’s Anti-Manipulation Policy
- Amazon’s FAQ for Authors (Information authors should know)
- Amazon’s Customer Review Policy (Information your reviewers should know)Amazon can do its part by improving their system. Here are a couple of things I’d like to see them do:
- Customize the warning email that they send out so it tells the author what they’ve done wrong.
- Provide a phone number and email address that the author can use to contact Amazon to get answers and try to resolve any problems. (Amazon does have contact info on their web site, but authors who use this info wind up talking to people who can’t or won’t provide any specific information.)
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 15,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.