More on Amazon’s New Book Review Rules: Should Authors be Worried?

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Amazon’s New Review Rules: Should Authors Be Worried?

Amazon’s New Review Rules: Nobody expects the Amazon Inquisition!

by Anne R. Allen

Amazon has been tweaking its customer review rules. Some revisions appeared in late September and others debuted early in October.

So how do they affect authors? Should we be worried? Is the Amazon Review Inquisition going to excommunicate more reviewers and banish our reviews?

They will if you break the rules. But the good news is the rules aren’t quite as inscrutable as they used to be. They’re more straightforward and easier to follow.

Amazon isn’t trying to be mean to us. They’re fighting a plague of scammers. Scamming Amazon is a cottage industry in some parts of the world and the crooks sometimes get away with millions.

Everybody gets hurt by these people. Sometimes scammers gaming Kindle Unlimited walk off with a chunk of the money pie that would otherwise go to KU authors. And customers spend money on books full of gibberish, misled by bogus rave reviews.

The Zon fights back with periodic clean-ups. Unfortunately they use a heavy hand and throw out lots of babies with the bathwater.

Last year some dedicated book bloggers found all their reviews had been pulled with no explanation.

Others heard they couldn’t review because they “knew” the author, when they had simply friended the author on Facebook or Goodreads.

Authors were devastated to lose what were often their most thoughtful, well-written reviews. And Amazon started rejecting reviews from readers who had never had trouble placing reviews before.

Amazon refuses to explain review removal or rejections, except to point to their guidelines, which have been murky at best. Most reviewers and authors didn’t have a clue how their reviews had trespassed against the guidelines.

The updated rules seem to clarify things a bit.

Amazon’s New Review Rules: What has Changed?

Authors who are both traditionally and self-published need to be aware of the rules. Enforcement gets stricter all the time, and self-appointed vigilantes love to report violations.

Don’t think that because you’re not a big seller, or you write as a hobby, that you’ll fly under the radar. I know many “midlist” authors who have lost reviews. Popular genres like sci-fi, romance, and thrillers seem more likely to be scrutinized, but we all need to mind our p’s and q’s.

The new rules are similar the old ones, with a few big changes.

The New $50 Rule

“To post a review, customers must spend at least $50.00 using a valid credit or debit card. Prime subscriptions and promotional discounts don’t qualify towards the $50.00 minimum. Customers in the same household cannot submit a review for the same product.” 

So now reviewers must at some time have bought at least $50 worth of merchandise from the giant retailer—with a credit card. I don’t see a yearly or monthly requirement here, so it seems to be a lifetime thing, so most people would not have a problem with this.

This is aimed at those review mills where employees with 100s of identities churn out paid reviews. Now each identity has to buy $50 worth of stuff to leave a review. And all their sisters and their cousins and their aunts can’t leave reviews on the same $50 ticket.

The credit card requirement provides a paper trail so scammers can’t create multiple identities with untraceable accounts.

The result? Fewer fake reviews! A good thing, as Martha Stewart would say.

The New Ban on “Incentivized” Reviews

“We updated the community guidelines to prohibit incentivized reviews (a review in exchange for a free or discounted product) unless they are facilitated through the Amazon Vine program…The above changes will apply to product categories other than books. We will continue to allow the age-old practice of providing advance review copies of books.”

This doesn’t mean much to authors because of the “other than books” clause.

Except for this:  maybe the reviewer-on-reviewer bullying and competition for “top reviewer” status may calm down a bit.

I’ve heard about a lot of nastiness in the Amazon review world, with vicious competition for “top reviewer status.” Apparently some high-ranked reviewers got free big-ticket items to review. (This is not the same as the “Vine” reviewer program, which is by invitation only.)

The competition among reviewers has resulted in some of the inexplicable troll reviews that can appear on your buy pages, or in the threads of comments on your reviews. Now there won’t be a financial incentive for bad behavior. Maybe it will cut down on troll reviews. (I can dream, can’t I?)

But, I repeat: AUTHORS CAN STILL GIVE FREE BOOKS TO REVIEWERS!! Don’t believe people who tell you otherwise.

The Paid Review Problem

Purchased reviews have been an embarrassment to the Zon since 2012, when the New York Times revealed indie superstar John Locke bought his way to fame and fortune with fake reviews (and many other authors had as well.) Amazon has been fighting buyers and sellers of bogus reviews ever since.

The Zon hit with a big review purge later that year, and another a couple of years later. A third  purge came in 2015. Another happened last spring. I wrote about it in my post why authors should never pay for Amazon reviews.

Amazon also came down hard on a number of the paid review mills that were becoming epidemic, and the Zon sued 1000 individuals who were selling reviews on Fivrr as well as going after their customers.

Fivrr is still selling them, I hear, but don’t go there. Consequences can be dire.

What Does Amazon Consider a Paid Review?

Here’s what they say:

Paid Reviews – We do not permit reviews or votes on the helpfulness of reviews that are posted in exchange for compensation of any kind, including payment (whether in the form of money or gift certificates), bonus content, entry to a contest or sweepstakes, discounts on future purchases, extra product, or other gifts.

The following are all “paid reviews” under the new rules.

1) A review of a product other than a book that you received free.

Apparently Amazon discovered that “incentivized” reviews were much more likely to be positive. Even when the product was defective. According to Sarah Perez at Tech Crunch this was the major reason for the big change to the review system.

She offers some pretty convincing graphs to back up her conclusion.

The reason Amazon makes an exception for reviewers in their Vine program is that vendors have no direct communication with the Vine reviewers.

But as I said above, this is going to have another impact on the Amazon community. The vicious competition for high ranking in the review hierarchy no longer has a financial incentive.

Many of the nastiest troll reviews come from reviewer-on-reviewer bullies trying to knock your reviewer out of his ranking by voting down his review of your book. This change will stop rewarding troll reviewers for bad behavior.

2) A review by a book blogger whose blog is part of a paid blog tour.

This is true even if the book blogger is not paid. Often only the organizer of the tour gets paid, but the blog review is still considered a “paid review,” because the author has spent money to get it. More information on this at The Good E-Reader.

That means it can’t be posted on Amazon. Which kind of disrespects the unpaid book blogger, but it’s the rule. The blogger can post at Goodreads, though. Also, of course, Kobo, iTunes, B&N, WalMart or wherever books are reviewed or sold online. (I have some books at Walmart now! ? )

You can also post a quote in the “editorial review” section, the way you can post a quote from a paid review from Kirkus or another professional review.

3) A review written by an Amazon affiliate. Probably.

If a book blogger is an Amazon or other retail affiliate—that is, they have signed up to get a few pennies every time somebody clicks through their blogs and buys a book—in a sense they receive “payment” from a positive review of that book.

This is may be why many book bloggers have had their reviews removed without explanation and some have been banned from Amazon entirely. We don’t know for sure because Amazon has never told any reviewer outright that this is the reason. (That I know of.) They just told them they had violated the rules.

Unfortunately most book bloggers have been Amazon affiliates since book review blogging began. Nobody objected.

Here’s what Amazon whisperer “Maine Colonial” says in the Amazon forum thread about Amazon’s new review rules:

“A somewhat murky area is the case of reviewers who post reviews both on Amazon and on their own blogs, with links from the blog to Amazon that result in the blogger/reviewer receiving pay if the person clicking on the link then buys the item on Amazon. It’s not entirely clear at this time, but it appears that this scenario can lead to a purge, because it violates the rule that an Amazon reviewer may not post a review on a product in which the reviewer has a financial interest. Until more is known, a blogger who has monetized his/her blog might be better off not reviewing the same product on both the blog and Amazon.”

4) A review written in exchange for a sweepstakes entry, a discount on a future purchase, coupon, or swag.

This was a regular thing with authors for years: review my book and I’ll reward you with a mug, tee-shirt, upcoming book, or an entry in a sweepstakes.

But it isn’t okay anymore, if it ever was. This is payment for a review, even if all you’re giving is a bookmark with the author’s face on it.

So be safe, authors, and don’t offer even the smallest bribe in exchange for a review.

Just whine a lot. And beg. Begging is fine. Or threats. I don’t see anything in the guidelines that prohibits threats. ?

Kidding. We have to stop taking these customer reviews so seriously.

5) A review written in exchange for another review.

Review trading is 100% verboten.

I’ve heard of small presses that encourage their authors to review each other. This is a bad idea.  It’s fine to blurb each other—that’s what the Big Five have always done. But don’t use Amazon’s customer reviews to do it.

I also know there are some in the indie community who still try to blackmail other indies into giving them reviews.

They’ll contact an author saying, “I just gave you a nice review, so you owe me.”

You don’t. In fact if you review that author within a few weeks, you’re going to set yourself up to lose both reviews—and a whole lot more. I’m not saying this happens every time. But if you get caught, things could get nasty for both of you.

Also, there are  “review exchange communities” on Facebook and other sites.  People sometimes approach me in DMs asking to exchange reviews or join these sites. They are a bad idea.

DON’T EVER JOIN A REVIEW SWAPPING GROUP!! Who knows, an Amazon spy might be lurking in that “secret” group. It has happened. So don’t be unethical.

6) A review written in expectation of a free book or gift card.

Even if that gift card is only in the amount of the price of the book. A review copy must be given before the review is written or the book will be seen as payment for the review.

If somebody wants a review copy, use Amazon’s “gifting” system for either an ebook or a hard copy. Gifting an ebook is easy.

What you can’t do is withhold the cost of the book until you see if the reader has actually written a review. Or refuse to pay if the review isn’t to your liking.

That’s a way to keep things honest.

I see authors doing this a lot on their blogs. “When your review goes up, send me a screenshot and I’ll send you an Amazon gift card for the price of the book.”  This is now officially not okay.

You may continue to “get away with it” for a while, but this practice will make all your reviews suspect and can even get you banned from selling on Amazon. You never know when the review police will strike.

They’re like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects them. ?

For more on this, see my post on Disappearing Amazon Reviews.

What About Promotional Reviews?

The wording on “promotional” reviews appears to have changed. I think this should clarify things for a lot of authors and publishers.  In fact I don’t remember that term being used before.

Here’s the wording in Amazon’s new review rules:

Promotional Reviews – In order to preserve the integrity of Customer Reviews, we do not permit artists, authors, developers, manufacturers, publishers, sellers or vendors to write Customer Reviews for their own products or services, to post negative reviews on competing products or services, or to vote on the helpfulness of reviews. For the same reason, family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items.

What does that mean for authors?

1) You can’t review an anthology or boxed set that includes a piece you’ve written.

This should go without saying, but I’ve seen this happen too many times: editors and publishers ask contributors to review an anthology or boxed set that includes their work. Bad idea.

Just because an anthology is for charity does not mean it’s okay to break the rules and ask the contributors to review themselves.

If you are charging money for an anthology and leaving rave reviews of your own book, you are conning the customer. And Amazon will not smile upon you.

2) If you are involved with the production of a book, you can’t review it.

This means editors, cover designers, formatters, etc. If you’re making money from the book, you can’t review it.

That should be obvious, but in the early Wild West days of the Kindle revolution, indie authors and small publishers got away with a lot. Now they can’t.

3) Don’t leave one-stars of “rival” books

This is something that apparently happened a lot in the early days of indie publishing, when a handful of authors played Amazon like a videogame.

They would put a novel into a tiny nonfiction category like “Historical Cat Costumes” where they could be in the top 10. Then they would try to knock off the books ahead of it in that category.

So in order to push their book to #1, they’d go to Crochet Richard III’s Hat for Your Cat and  leave a one-star saying, “I made this hat for my cat and Fluffy died of a brain aneurism the next day.”

Then the novel Lucrezia Borgia’s Pussy might go to #1 in the category for a day and the author could claim to have a #1 bestseller. (I’m talking about a cat here, people. A cat.)

But don’t do this. It’s stupid. And the Zon will punish such shenanigans.

What about the Prohibition of Reviewing an Author you “Know” Online?

During last year’s bizarre purge of reviews by anybody we “knew” online, authors all scrambled to unlink our Amazon accounts from Facebook and Goodreads so Amazon wouldn’t ban all our readers from writing reviews. I’d just come out with So Much for Buckingham and my reviews stopped dead. Everybody was terrified to review it.

And it made no sense.

I was interviewed last spring about this for an article in the American Bar Association Journal :

“‘Publishers tell you to make Facebook friends with your readers to promote your books,’ author Allen says. ‘So the very thing you’re doing to get readers gets you punished by Amazon.’”…Anne R. Allen  in theAmerican Bar Association Journal, July 2016

But look again at the new Amazon review rules, especially this part:

For the same reason, family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items.

Notice the wording: “close friends.”

This may or may not be a change. I don’t know because I don’t have a copy of the old guidelines. But it looks new to me.

There is certainly a difference between “friending” or following a favorite author on social media and being an actual “close friend.” I follow Stephen King on Facebook, but I don’t think that means he’s going to invite me for a sleep-over next time I’m in Bangor if I give him a good review.

Is This Really a Change in the Rules?

Maybe I’m being insanely optimistic, but I’m hoping this is a shift.

The American Bar Association Journal considered this important enough it was one of their four featured articles of the month (and they sent a photographer out from Washington D.C. to take my photo–which kind of surprised me.)

Whatever the legal questions, don’t ask your Mom to review your book. Or your BFF. Especially if you gave her a Kindle Fire for Christmas.

But I think we’re safe to ask our blog readers and FB fans to review.

It’s probably wise to post a review to a few other sites like Kobo and iTunes, so it’s not lost. (Indie authors are leaving Amazon’s exclusive “Select” nest these days and “going wide” to other retailers as indies lose Amazon market share to Amazon imprints.)

I also think it makes sense to unlink your social media from Amazon to be safe. Here are instructions from author Tina Reber for how to disconnect your social media accounts from Amazon.

There’s also a theory that you shouldn’t put a link to your book on your  blog or website that you get directly from an Amazon search, because a dated url will tip off Amazon that the review comes from a fan. Here’s a link to a blogpost with more info plus a video about the suspect urls.

I’ve heard the dated-url theory before, but it doesn’t make sense to me that Amazon doesn’t want any of an author’s fans to write reviews. Sometimes fans can be disappointed in a book and be very vocal about it in a review. Just look at reviews of some of Janet Evanovich’s later books.

How can you appeal if the Amazon police remove your review?

Let Maine Colonial answer directly from the thread on the Amazon rules page:

“If you want to appeal your purging, you can write to review-appeals@amazon.com. From what we’ve seen, you get one opportunity to make your case, but your chances of a reprieve are almost nonexistent.”

What can authors do?

As I said above, we can stop obsessing about Amazon reviews. They don’t seem to affect sales that much, and 99% of indies can’t get into Bookbub anymore anyway.

A lot of the myths you hear about reviews are just that. Don’t believe those FB memes that say you need 25-50 reviews to get ranked on Amazon. Any idiot can make a meme.

A BOOK DOES NOT NEED A CERTAIN NUMBER OF REVIEWS TO MOVE UP THE AMAZON SALES RANKS.

Only one thing does that: sales.

I had a book in the top 20 books in humor on Amazon for 30 weeks. It sometimes sold 20 copies an hour. Number of reviews at the time: 12. Would I like more reviews on all my books? You betcha! We need them to get into the book bargain newsletters, and more people buy when they see a lot of reviews. But Amazon reviews are not the be-all and end-all of bookselling.

Chill, everybody. And go write the next book.

For more info on Amazon’s new review rules, check out the Smarty Pants podcast on Amazon’s new review rules from Chris and Becky Syme this week.

UPDATE, NOVEMBER 2, 2016

Today’s Hot Sheet, (available by paid subscription only), which is written by respected publishing industry veterans Porter Anderson and Jane Friedman says much the same as what I’ve outlined here.

“The status of Amazon affiliates: if you’re an affiliate, and you review a book on your blog and cross-post at Amazon, you may see your review purged from the site. There is no official statement from Amazon about this type of situation, but Amazon affiliates should keep their reviews and commentary strictly at their site (and/or at other social media sites), and avoid posting customer reviews at Amazon.”

“If you do pay for professional reviews through industry outlets or blog tours, ensure those reviews appear only in the Editorial Reviews section. And if you’re doing something that generates dozens of positive reviews that look and feel flimsy, assume Amazon will be watching and judging.”

From: http://annerallen.com/amazons-new-review-rules-should-authors-worry/

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