Online Book Reviews: Where Should Amazon Draw the Line? ; Retailer's Move to Halt Manipulation of Ratings Keeps Debate Percolating

By Streitfeld, David | International Herald Tribune, December 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

Online Book Reviews: Where Should Amazon Draw the Line? ; Retailer's Move to Halt Manipulation of Ratings Keeps Debate Percolating


Streitfeld, David, International Herald Tribune


The Internet retailer's decision to delete thousands of book reviews has generated an uproar, but the company has not offered a public explanation for the sweeping purge.

Giving raves to family members is no longer acceptable. Neither is writers' reviewing other writers. But showering five stars on a book you admittedly have not read is fine.

After several well-publicized cases involving writers paying for or manipulating their reviews, Amazon is cracking down. Writers say thousands of reviews have been deleted from the shopping site in recent months.

Amazon has not said how many reviews it has killed, nor has it offered any public explanation. So its sweeping but hazy purge has generated an uproar about what it means to review in an era when everyone is an author and everyone is a reviewer.

Is a review merely a gesture of enthusiasm or should it be held to a higher standard? Should writers be allowed to pass judgment on peers the way they have always done offline or are they competitors whose reviews should be banned? Does a groundswell of raves for a big new book mean anything if the author is soliciting the comments?

In a debate percolating on blogs and on Amazon itself, quite a few writers take a permissive view of these issues. The mystery novelist J.A. Konrath, for example, does not see anything wrong with an author indulging in chicanery. "Customer buys book because of fake review = zero harm," he wrote on his blog.

Some readers differ. An ad hoc group of purists has formed on Amazon to track its most prominent reviewer, Harriet Klausner, who has more than 25,000 reviews. They do not see how she can read so much so fast or why her reviews are overwhelmingly -- and, they say, misleadingly -- exaltations.

"Everyone in this group will tell you that we've all been duped into buying books based on her reviews," said Margie Brown, a retired city clerk from Arizona.

Once a populist gimmick, the reviews have become vital to making sure a new product is not lost in the digital wilderness. Amazon has refined the reviewing process over the years, giving customers the opportunity to rate reviews and comment on them.

"A not-insubstantial chunk of their infrastructure is based on their reviews -- and all of that depends on having reviews customers can trust," said Edward W. Robertson, a science fiction novelist who has watched the debate closely.

Nowhere are reviews more crucial than with books, an industry in which Amazon captures nearly a third of every dollar spent in the United States. It values reviews more than other online booksellers like Apple or Barnes & Noble, featuring them prominently and using them to help decide which books to acquire for its relatively new publishing arm.

So writers have naturally been vying to get more, and better, notices. Several mystery writers, including R.J. Ellory, Stephen Leather and John Locke, have recently confessed to various forms of manipulation under the general category of "sock puppets," or online identities used to deceive. That resulted in a widely circulated petition by a loose coalition of writers under the banner, "No Sock Puppets Here Please," asking people to "vote for book reviews you can trust."

In explaining its purge of reviews, Amazon has told some writers that "we do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors." But writers say that rule is not applied consistently.

In some cases, the ax fell on those with a direct relationship with the author.

"My sister's and best friend's reviews were removed from my books," the author M.E. Franco said in a blog comment. "They happen to be two of my biggest fans. …

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