Monday, 9 June 2014

Reviewing Ethics: Online Book Reviews (Part One)

By Iola Goulton


What is permitted? And what isn’t? 

There is a lot of confusion regarding what is permitted in terms of online reviewing, not helped by the fact that each site has their own rules, and some enforce them more than others. Today I’m going to take you through the Amazon Reviewing Guidelines. I’ve chosen Amazon because as well as being the site I know best, it’s the biggest online retailer, it has the most reviewers (over 20 million), and the most product reviews.

Amazon has clear Reviewing Guidelines, and will take action to remove reviews that contravene the guidelines. Amazon gets a lot of attention regarding “fake” reviews (which exist in greater numbers than most people realise) and “bully” reviewers (who are far less common than the media implies).

- self-published author Rick Gualtieri

Behaviour like “I called his place of volunteer work and made it evident that I was in possession of the email addresses of his friends and extended family members”.

Amazon go into more detail about what’s not allowed than what is allowed. This includes:

Objectionable material

No swearing, calling people names, using inappropriate language (like calling someone an idiot or a nazi), and no promotion of illegal conduct (I once saw a forum discussion where someone was looking for novels featuring incest. The discussion was promptly deleted).

Inappropriate content

The big one here is links to external websites (including your own). Amazon won’t delete a review with external links, but it will delete the link and replace it with […].

Off-topic information

Information on price, packaging or shipping aren’t relevant to customer reviews, as Amazon has other forums for offering feedback on sellers or packaging.

Promotional content

No:
  • Advertisements, promotional material or repeated posts that make the same point excessively
  • Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product)
  • Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product. This includes reviews that are a part of a paid publicity package
So:
No spam.
No shills.
No sock puppets.
No paid reviews.

If you find reviews which include information like this, you can Report Abuse.

What is Report Abuse?

If you look at the bottom of any Amazon review (except one you’ve written), you will see “Was this review helpful?”, and Yes and No buttons. If you believe a review contravenes Amazon Reviewing Guidelines in some way, click “No”. Amazon will then say “If this review is inappropriate, please let us know”.

Click on the link (“please let us know”), and you will be given the option to say why the review is inappropriate. It’s best if you mention a specific reason that is against the guidelines (e.g. the review is self-promotion, the review is written by the author/editor, the review is about price or delivery and not about the product, spiteful remarks about the author).

This feature can be used by anyone, author or reader. If, as an author, you believe the review is against Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines or Conditions of Use (often called the Terms of Service, or TOS), this is the responsible and ethical way to report it, rather than leaving a comment on the review. Note that Amazon do not remove reviews simply because they are critical—they must contravene the Reviewing Guidelines in some way.

It usually takes several reports from different people before a review is removed (although I don’t know exactly how many). However, sometimes the response is extremely fast: yesterday I reported a review for soliciting helpful votes (which is against the Reviewing Guidelines), and the review had been edited by Amazon within half an hour to remove the promotional content. 

Of course, the big question is: What is promotional content? We will look at that in more detail next week.


Meanwhile, are you aware of the Amazon Reviewing Guidelines? What do you think is promotional content? 


By Iola Goulton. I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website (www.christianediting.co.nz), or follow me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/christianediting), Twitter (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/iolasreads).

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog (www.christianreads.blogspot.com). I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2000.

27 comments:

  1. Thanks again for such an informative post, Iola. As I read it, I couldn't help but be struck by the fact that Amazon Reviewing Guidelines can be summed up in one word: courtesy. Or maybe three words: courtesy and truth. Or perhaps even re-phrasing the words of Jesus: don't do unto others what you wouldn't like done unto yourself.

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    1. You're quite right, Annie, which makes it even more surprising (disturbing?) that so many people find the guidelines so difficult to follow!

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  2. Hi Iola,
    I've seen one star reviews which have done nothing but complain about packaging or size of print etc. They have annoyed me very much. You make me see that we have a right to report them as inappropriate for this reason. I've also seen the deleted external links, which used to confuse me when I first started reading Amazon reviews. Thanks for another good, practical post.

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    1. Actually, I do think size of print is a valid criticism. I have personally heard this several times lately and I am aware that it can unnecessarily spoil the enjoyment of a book so much that it genuinely does ruin the reading experience. And, in that respect, the publisher should take note because not everyone has an e-reader. Anyone reading the review who notes this is the only criticism and who is not troubled by print size can take that into account.

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    2. I'd agree that comments about packaging are irrelevant - there are other places on Amazon to comment on that.

      But Annie makes a good point about print size. I mostly read on a Kindle, so it doesn't bother me, but some books have tiny fonts. Of course, Amazon lumps the reviews for all the different editions (hardcover, paperback, Kindle) of a book together, so what is a valid complaint for one edition (print size, or bad Kindle formatting) isn't relevant to other customers.

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    3. Just seems a shame for anyone to give a one star review based on print size, which is often out of the author's control. I agree that it's a valid criticism. Hopefully, people who read the reviews will realise that it's just because of this, and not because of the content.

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  3. Sound sense, Iola. I am relieved I haven't crossed over the line. I've just tried to write what I honestly think about the book I'm reviewing. Some reviews I've read just seem to parrot the blurb on the back cover, so I wonder why they bother. It is nice as an author to read an encouraging review.

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    1. I always try and include a description of the book in my review, but written in my own words, because I use the same review on Amazon and on my blog - and blog readers can't see the Amazon blurb.

      I could use the standard blurb, copied from Amazon - I just prefer to write my own. I agree it's frustrating as a reader when that's *all* that's in the review.

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    2. Agreed. You need that different viewpoint.

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  4. Iola, excellent post! The financial interest clause is an important one for authors to know and follow. How do we define a directly competing product? A book in the same genre, or a specific subgenre? An author who posts a review, positive or negative, on a directly competing product is breaching Amazon's TOS.

    I rarely post reviews on Amazon, and I never review Love Inspired or Heartsong Presents books from my publisher.

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    1. I agree, Narelle. How do you define a 'directly competing' product? And - what if you reviewed a book in a genre or sub-genre years before your own book was published? Does 'directly competing' operate in a retrospective sense? There's a grey area here in my view because such rules obviously do not apply to endorsements. For these reasons I stay away from Amazon almost totally.

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    2. I have been wondering about both these questions (as an aspiring author) 1) what is a directly competing product (eg all fantasy works and/or all YA?) & 2) what happens to reviews written before you become a published author. I can understand as an author avoiding writing Amazon reviews as it becomes a bit of a minefield - no reviews from your publishing house (which might take out a lot of book) or those of competing products (which take out even more) or ? those of author friends. Given that we often write in genres we love to read, it doesn't leave much for authors to write reviews in.

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    3. Good questions, Jeanette. We'll be covering these in a later post.

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  5. Thank you Iola. Informative as always. Truth be told, I think the guidelines are simply common sense. But as I once heard a lady say (who'd come to give a seminar on Workplace Health and Safety at my school) 'There's nothing common about sense!'

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    1. My father used to say that as well!

      The problem is that there are always some people who will try and manipulate the system, and Amazon (and other reviewing sites) keep trying to work out how to prevent that.

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  6. Thanks Iola, I had recently read the guidelines (after you starting discussion here) but it is hard to always remember the finer points. Good to re-check the guidelines before submitting a review.
    Personally I think reviews are for readers and should not contain any promotional material - a good review is enough to promote a book.

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  7. Good question, and I think it depends on the genre. Romance has a huge number of sub-genres, and I don't see Amish romance competing with chick-lit, for example.

    But books in different Amazon categories might still be competing. For example, How to Get Reviews on Amazon by Aussie author Theo Rogers is currently #25 in the Web Marketing category. Given the range of books in this topic, I don't think Amazon is going to have a problem if he reviews another book about web marketing. But if he decides to review How to Get Honest Reviews by Shelley Hitz and Heather Hart, there's a conflict there - even though the Hitz/Hart book isn't categorised as Web Marketing, it's obviously a competitor.

    I think it's good advice not to publish reviews of books from your publisher on Amazon - after all, all authors have a vested interest in the success of their publisher. But you might only want to consider your imprint. Love Inspired and Heartsong Presents are now owned by HarperCollins. Does that also mean you can't review any books from Thomas Nelson or Zondervan?

    These issues are why many authors decide not to review at all, a subject we'll be covering in a later post.

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    1. "These issues are why many authors decide not to review at all,"
      That's interesting, Iola. All this time I believed I should be reviewing other author's books. I really thought we were encouraged to do this.

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    2. I think you should review books by other authors ... but not necessarily on Amazon. We'll be discussing this in a couple of weeks.

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    3. I can see the reason for Amazon's policies on not writing reviews where you have a vested interested or on a direct competitors product (through a potential to misuse the opportunity or to be less than honest) - though the policy does seem to be a bit vague and cast rather a wide net if it's unclear whether a Love Inspired author may or may not write reviews for HarperCollins, Thomas Nelson & Zondervan!

      I've been writing reviews on Good Reads and wondering about adding reviews on Amazons but maybe I'll hold off for now as an aspiring author. I can't help thinking that by making it so difficult for authors to review other authors books, Amazon readers lose out - but perhaps there are so many reviewers already, it doesn't matter?

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  8. Another very interesting and informative post, Iola, with several things I have not been aware of. Only yesterday, one of my favourite authors, a multi-published, award winning Christian fiction writer mentioned on a post she had just received her first one star review and quoted the very ignorant first sentence on it about the author. Naturally I had to read the review, but it also reminded me I wanted to buy that book so did so there and then. I wonder how many others did the same.

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    1. I'm wary of authors copying or linking to low-star reviews. Quite apart from potential copyright issues (which we'll cover in another post), it usually comes across as looking petty.

      But you make a good point: a negative review can still sell books, especially if the potential purchaser has different preferences to the reviewer.

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    2. I've now looked at that review. In defence of the reviewer, the book is self-published, and while the author is a multi-published best-selling and award-winning author, there are an increasing number of self-published authors making those claims for substandard books. Many Amazon customers ignore such claims.

      The author could have checked the author's website, in which case the reviewer would have found the author is widely respected in the Christian fiction community. However, if the reviewer checked he "publisher's" website, she would have found a blank page except for a 'website under construction' notice. This would have confirmed her view that the book was from a first-time author.

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    3. Had to smile at this Iola. I haven't read the book yet so will read it now with that in mind. For such an experienced writer though, I do find it hard to believe she would put out anything sub-standard, but not saying she hasn't done it..

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  9. Thanks once again for an informative post Iola.

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