Skills

Reader Reviews and Big Brother

Photo by Glasseyes View
Photo by Glasseyes View

It’s been over two years now since I clambered up to the rooftops, cupped my hands together and admitted what I had known all along: I wanted to write, not just for me, but for readers. I thought that learning the craft, finishing and submitting stories might lead to modest sales. In fact, writing stories is in many ways like training for a marathon. You lay the groundwork, adopt a routine that enhances your focus, uncover strengths and weakness, push past reluctance and doubt, and gather support. What I now know is that the currency of writing – in addition to the creative product, the constant learning and the coins that may or may not line your pockets one day – lies in the support.

The support is invaluable for motivation. There’s an old tin on my desk which is filled with scraps of paper. On the days when my confidence is low, I pry it open and read the notes I have scrawled there, lines taken from readers and supporters. It reminds me that I am valued when I’m working on a story and am stuck or fearful. It’s hard for anyone to create in a vacuum. Don’t we all need supporters in our corner?

The value of readers is not just validation of our work and a burst of motivation. It is rare for all but the most established authors to be backed by a substantial marketing team. Most authors manage their promotional work themselves and are active on social media networks in a bid to reach readers. Reader support can mean the difference between modest sales and a book sinking into a murky pool of the unknown.

It’s why I make sure to tweet or review authors whose books I read. A singer will be buoyed by the crowd at a gig, whereas reading and writing are essentially a private activities. If I’ve spent hours nestled within the pages of a book, and that book has given me pleasure or pause for thought, I like the author to know it. Indeed, for self-published and indie authors in particular a review is worth far more than the few minutes a reader has spent writing it. It creates a ripple that impacts algorithms on sales sites. For example, on Amazon, where a book’s prominence is determined by the number of sales and positive reviews, a few hundred reviews can change the fortune of a book and its author, propelling the book up the rankings and increasing visibility on a platform that is saturated with content.

Recently, however, Amazon has stepped up its drive to foolproof its review system following historic complaints, in particular sock-puppetry, where authors pay for reviews or create false accounts to create a positive buzz about their books. As a result, Amazon has begun deleting reviews where they suspect the reviewer is personally connected to the author. It’s a huge shame for both genuine fans, who have invested their time and effort, and the authors themselves.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain. The advent of Amazon created a seismic shift in the publishing industry, which in many ways levelled out the playing field. Without them many self-published authors with fantastic content would struggle to get off the starting line or would have less control of their work. I wish that there was a payment model that more better rewards authors and editors for their hard work, and that Amazon had more of a reputation for nurturing talent. But on the whole, the march of Amazon has played a big part in why writers like me can get their words into readers hands, at least before we have a mailing list and a following of our own.

Photo by Rebecca Daily
Photo by Rebecca Daily

I have no doubt Amazon is pulling reviews with the intention of increasing reader confidence in the neutrality of the process. But I have concerns about how arbitrarily the decisions around the validity of reviews are being made. Reviews are hard to get, and with authors low on love it seems unnecessarily unkind to strip reviews, especially when the decision-making is shrouded behind a curtain of secrecy and with the emergence of a negative trend of cyber trolls trashing books with one star reviews just because they can.

My understanding is that Amazon assesses whether a review is compromised by using its algorithms to determine where an author and a reviewer may be connected. For example, a fan may have won an Amazon gift card in an author contest, or they may scan their sister site Goodreads for interactions, or possibly your Facebook or Twitter friends list where you have chosen to sign into Goodreads using other accounts. Amazon also has access to IP addresses and the history of your shipping addresses. What they are failing to do is to make allowances for how the world is changing, and how with the advent of social media, more and more readers choose to make contact with authors in some way. We are all connected by degrees and online connections cannot automatically be assumed to be real life friendships.

New KDP members can avoid these problems by creating a separate Amazon account to publish under, not using it as a consumer account or connecting it to social media. However, isn’t this encouraging more cloak and dagger behaviour? I’d much rather be open about who I am online, and be able to use various accounts without Big Brother informing me that I have acted out of turn. I have come to hate the term ‘honest’ review. It is insulting to suggest that the overwhelming majority of writers are unable to write anything but honest, thoughtful, nuanced reviews. What is more, writers read, and it would be a shame for us not to be able to share the love of the books we read, particularly when books are already struggling to maintain thrust against other entertainment forms.

Of course, Amazon is a business, and anyone who does not like their practices can either put up with them, or take their business elsewhere. Except it’s not as simple as that is it? With a near monopoly on e-book sales and a large proportion of physical book sales, I’d like to think Amazon can adjust its practices to give authors a fairer chance. It is incorrect to assume that readers are unable to distinguish between a biased review and a well-considered one. Not only can they spot reviews seeking to sully an author’s reputation; they are unlikely to trust a sycophantic one. Books are made of passion and grit, and any kind of censorship is anathema to them.

Read on, write on, folks. Grow your mailing list. I’ll continue reviewing, and I hope you will too.

*Thanks very much to members of Write Draft Critique, who I bounced some of the ideas for this article off. I appreciate you.

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