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
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
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
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
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. …