Amazon, Author Reviews, and why Argos Do It Better

Amazon recently made a controversial decision and took down thousands of reviews because they were written by authors. You can read more about the fallout here, but essentially this was done because of all the crony-ism  You know how that works - an indie author has maybe ten other indie author friends, often thanks to Facebook. Author 1 brings out a new book, and asks the other authors to post a five star Amazon review of his work. In return he will do the same for each book brought out by authors 2-10, and as a result each author will have nine glowing reviews on their Amazon page. And if that doesn't work there are, apparently, people out there who will pay you up to £7 to post a five-star review of their book or product on Amazon.

It's not difficult to review a book you've never read. At book club on Sunday one of our members talked about how her twelve-year-old son had been praised for his book reports, yet she knew he rarely read a book. When questioned he told her that he read the first page and the back cover blurb and that was enough to write a report which could convince his teacher that he'd read the whole thing. So those Amazon reviews might be a long the lines of "A lovely story, well written and highly recommended", but with no specifics at all.

Clearly, this sort of practice destroys the integrity of Amazon's review system and dupes readers into paying for a book which genuine reviews might have led them to avoid. I think Amazon were in a difficult position and I can understand how they have come to this decision.

But the problem is that I am a reader as well as a writer. Most writers are. And I might want to post a review of a Charles Dickens book without for a moment expecting the late Mr Dickens to return the favour. I might also read a superb book which I very much want to recommend not only to my friends, but to all the customers of Amazon who may be browsing and thinking about buying it. I'd really like my reviews to appear on the page, if Amazon don't mind very much.

The official reason Amazon gave for their decision (as opposed to saying that the review system couldn't be trusted because of crony-ism) was that authors are in direct competition with each other, and might post a bad review of another author's book in order to direct readers to theirs instead. But this argument doesn't hold water for two reasons. First, authors really are not in competition in the same way that, say, car manufacturers are. Most people only buy one car every four or five years, so Ford would have an interest in planting a few poor reviews of Vauxhall's vehicles. But readers may buy many books each year so there really is no reason in dissuading someone from buying a particular book, because with most indie books costing only £1 or so, readers can easily buy both. In addition, there are so many alternatives to choose from that posting a bad review of a "rival" author's book isn't necessarily going to result in the reader buying yours instead. After all, they have several million others to choose from.

I wonder if Amazon considered any alternative to a blanket ban on author reviews? One solution would have been more moderation of reviews, but there are so many of them this was probably dismissed as impossible to implement. Another might have been to use the review system employed by Argos. When you reserve something online to buy from Argos you get an email a couple of weeks later asking whether you would like to review it. The email includes a link to use, and this is the only way you can post a review. In other words, if you haven't bought the product from Argos, you can't review it on the Argos website.

People rely on Argos reviews. I know I do. My youngest child has been asking for a particular toy for several months, but the Argos reviews are highly critical so I haven't bought it for her and probably never will. I'll try to find her an alternative, because I know that people who have actually bought and used the toy are not happy with it.

If Amazon were to implement this system then all those indie authors would actually have to buy the book from Amazon before they are able to post a review. And the number of fake reviews might fall considerably as a result.

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