Manipulation of Review Rankings at Amazon (Or, How I Lost Respect for an Author Today)

Tuesday is the common day for book publication in the U.S. (by the major publishers, anyway). I planned to blog August 2nd’s book releases, and then do my weekly release-date checks.

At 11:30PM, I have done neither.

Reading Facebook at lunchtime, a particular post stood out – for the wrong reasons. It was Public (as opposed to Friends-Locked), and it was on the author’s official Page (not her personal profile). I don’t know if the author manages her account, or if an assistant does it, but what I came across was something rather unprofessional.

I often complain about authors posting passive-aggressive requests for readers to review and “promote” (translated: “spam”) their books, because “it really helps us get more visibility/publicity”. What I saw today was worse than that.

The author is no stranger to traditional publishing, formerly with HarperCollins and now with Simon & Schuster. I have 19 of her books on my wishlist, including 2 upcoming releases, but excluding the 2 I’ve already read.

Publicly, she linked to a 5-star review, and suggested that if enough people “agreed” with it, it’d be popular enough to get a 1-star review out of the “spotlight”. Reviews listed on Amazon come with vote buttons for potential customers. “Was this review helpful?” The options are “Yes” and “No”. This is often referred to among reader communities as “upvoting” and “downvoting”, when it comes to groups of people (e.g. fans of the book/author) deciding to “upvote” 5-star reviews and “downvote” 1-star reviews. (Or the opposite can happen: all the 1-star reviews are “upvoted” and the 5-star reviews “downvoted”, if a group decides they don’t like the book/author.)

Ethically, I knew this wasn’t right, but I wasn’t actually sure if it was against Amazon’s Terms Of Service. I checked their site to find the Anti-Manipulation Policy on Customer Reviews (see my screenshot), and to me that’s exactly what the author suggested: to “manipulate” the review rankings. (NOTE: By default, reviews are shown by “Top” – i.e. most helpful – and there’s a non-default option to display reviews from “Most Recent”. Last time I checked today, the earliest a 1-star review appeared sorted by “Top” was on Page 4. Whether it was on Page 4 before or after the author’s Facebook post, I don’t know.)

Had I not enjoyed the author’s works, with others on my wishlist, I would’ve shrugged and moved on. But it strikes way more when it’s an author you admired…or at least respected. Is that respect lost? Yes. Will I read all her books I’ve bought but haven’t read yet? Maybe, but considering I own 381 unread books, I’m not in a hurry. Will I buy/borrow her books that I don’t own but are on my wishlist? Maybe, but I only buy the least expensive items on my wishlist, and only when I have store credit (which isn’t this month, unfortunately).

I lost respect for that author today. When I mentioned Amazon’s policy, she defended her position to get that 1-star review out of the spotlight because, “I got sick of looking at it.” She couldn’t have just exited the Amazon page so she wouldn’t have to look at it?

Instead, she tried to manipulate the review rankings. And that’s what’s most disappointing of all.

14 responses to “Manipulation of Review Rankings at Amazon (Or, How I Lost Respect for an Author Today)

  1. Thanks for writing and publishing this essay. I’m a newly published indie author and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how the rating system worked on Amazon and Goodreads until I began reading blogs like yours. I attended a conference not so long ago where I met three authors who admitted to paying FIVER reviewers to give their book a 5-star review. One guy told me he gets around the Amazon issue by providing a gift card to the reader/review that they redeem on Amazon which makes them a verified purchaser/reviewer. Something Amazon considers credible. He had other information about how and who will help an author get and keep a good rating but it was all too weird for me. I’m way more interested in writing a good story than spending my time and money trying to manipulate the system. Thanks again. Take care. Jodi Wright

    • Thank you, Jodi. It’s so disappointing, and often makes me angry, to see authors give bad advice – especially to the newly published, who may not know what’s standard practice and what’s not. You have a fantastic attitude – that writing a good story should be the goal; not manipulating the system – so that should hold you in good stead with potential readers. Readers like authors who respect readers 🙂

      And yes, paying for Fiverr reviews is unethical. As for gift card to review… Much less shadier to just email a potential reviewer a copy instead of trying to make a review copy count as a sale.

      All the best to your publishing endeavours, and have a lovely day! 🙂

  2. Just be honest and say who the author is: Kim Harrison.

  3. Reblogged this on 38 Caliber Reviews and commented:
    My favorite blogger from Down Under about an author that should know better. Someone didn’t like her book, awww.

  4. I often see posts like this on Facebook, but I’m not brave enough to confront the authors.

    I usually do the passive-aggressive thing and upvote the one-star review and downvote a bunch of five-stars. And put the author on my never-read list. Because my Kindle has 1000+ unread books, including close to 100 that I’ve actually paid for (please don’t tell my husband that).

  5. As someone who actually pays attention to how many people found an Amazon review helpful, it bugs me when authors try to influence a system that’s meant to be FOR readers to help other readers.

    • Unfortunately it’s devolved into a situation wherein authors try to get a magical number of reviews so that Amazon or BookBub will give them more publicity. Those one-line, “I loved it,” reviews do nothing to help a reader, and everything to help the author boost their review numbers.

      I have a backlog of 12 reviews to write since May. Doubt I’ll get to any of them. Too worn out.

      • It’s like they forget who Amazon is ultimately for. And I kind of blame Amazon for this a little bit, too. They should stamp out these kinds of practices, or at least be very explicit about expectations of behaviour.

        • True, which is why I reported the incident. But really, I’m not sure what they can do, because the author didn’t use her Amazon account to request review manipulation. And she’s traditionally-published, so her books definitely won’t be removed from the site (and, to be fair, nor should they).

          At best, the likely outcome would remove the upvoted review from the site, though that wouldn’t be fair to the reviewer because they didn’t do anything wrong. At worst, Amazon could do nothing…which I guess means nothing will be different from how it is now.

          *shrugs* I’m not sure what I want, but just knowing that Amazon is listening (they replied to me, and have forwarded my email onto the appropriate team) makes me feel that reporting the incident was the right things to do.

          • I could think of a few things. Suspension of showing the book in any recommendations or rankings for a period of time, for example. But Amazon doesn’t actually care about things like this imo, because upvoted positive reviews are seen to be better incentives for readers to buy the book.

      • Also, most of us are actually too nice to downvote a completely unhelpful ‘LOVE IT OMG BUY THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW’ review, and authors often seem to forget that.

  6. While the paid Fiverr reviews are clear violations of the Amazon TOS, so are gift cards for purchasing the book and thereby getting the AVP tag. Aunt Ammy definitely frowns on gift cards for this purpose and has summarily wiped reviews–all reviews–of persons pulling these kinds of stunts. Gushing reviews by anyone deemed to have a personal relationship with the author are also removed if, if course, some kind soul informs Aunt Ammy of the transgression.

    I have no clue what sort of books Ms. Harrison writes, but rest assured I’ll not assist her literary career move forward.

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