We Need to Stop Amazon from Arbitrarily Removing Customer Reviews from Indie Books

Posted: October 28, 2012 in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

**Petition at Change.org to address this situation is linked below**

**Content of correspondence to date with Amazon is pasted below**

I’ll be the first to admit this…I knew about this issue and when it didn’t impact me, I didn’t do anything about it.  For that, I apologize.  Here is the background, and my attempt to rectify my earlier apathy.

Amazon has been removing customer reviews from indie authors for the past 6-9 months.  Amazon, to my knowledge, has not provided a clear explanation to any impacted author as to why the review(s) were removed.  It is not citing any guideline that has allegedly been broken.  Rather, it is relying on its power and monopolistic position to do what it wishes.  Just so we are all on the same page, here are the guidelines that Amazon has posted on its website regarding customer reviews (taken directly from Amazon’s website):

General Review Creation Guidelines

Amazon wants your opinions to be heard 
We want customers to get the information they need to make smart buying choices, and we’d love to have your help doing that. As an Amazon customer, you can submit written or video reviews for items listed on Amazon.com. We encourage you to share your opinions, both favorable and unfavorable.

Who can create customer reviews?
Anyone who has purchased items from Amazon.com. All we ask is that you follow a few simple rules (see “What’s not allowed” below).

Tips on writing a great review

• Include the “why”: The best reviews include not only whether you liked or disliked a product, but also why. Feel free to talk about related products and how this item compares to them.
• Be specific: Your review should focus on specific features of the product and your experience with it. For video reviews, we recommend that you write a brief introduction.
• Not too short, not too long: Written reviews must be at least 20 words and are limited to 5,000 words. The ideal length is 75 to 500 words. Video reviews have a 10-minute limit, but we recommend 2 to 5 minutes to keep your audience engaged.
• Be sincere: We welcome your honest opinion about the product–positive or negative. We do not remove reviews because they are critical. We believe all helpful information can inform our customers’ buying decisions.
• Full disclosure: If you received a free product in exchange for your review, please clearly and conspicuously disclose that that you received the product free of charge. Reviews from the Amazon Vine™ program are already labeled, so additional disclosure is not necessary.

What’s not allowed
Amazon is pleased to provide this forum for you to share your opinions on products. While we appreciate your time and comments, we limit customer participation to one review per product and reserve the right to remove reviews that include any of the following:

Objectionable material:
• Obscene or distasteful content
• Profanity or spiteful remarks
• Promotion of illegal or immoral conduct

Promotional content:
• 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
• Solicitations for helpful votes

Inappropriate content:
• Other people’s material (this includes excessive quoting)
• Phone numbers, postal mailing addresses, and URLs external to Amazon.com
• Videos with watermarks
• Comments on other reviews visible on the page (because page visibility is subject to change without notice)
• Foreign language content (unless there is a clear connection to the product)

Off-topic information:
• Feedback on the seller, your shipment experience or the packaging (you can do that atwww.amazon.com/feedback andwww.amazon.com/packaging)
• Details about availability or alternative ordering and shipping information
• Feedback about typos or inaccuracies in our catalog or product description (instead, use the feedback form at the bottom of the product page).

If you have safety concerns about the product you are reviewing please report this information to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) or contact Amazon.com directly. Please make sure to include all information about the product (product title, and ASIN or manufacturer’s SKU) and the details of the incident.

Customer reviews should be relevant to the product in question. If you have questions about the product or opinions that do not fit the review format, please feel free to use the Customer Discussions feature on the product page. Learn more about Customer Discussions.

______________

Problem #1If reviews are being removed because they are not “Verified Purchases,” that has never been a published guideline or requirement for reviews.  Let me explain how this would be an unfair basis upon which to remove a review.  First, as noted, this has never been a published requirement.  Second, many of us have spent countless hours under a 10 x 10 tent at fairs, books sales, etc. to sell hard copies of our books.  We have then employed measures to try to get those purchasers to leave reviews.  Obviously, those purchasers cannot be “Verified,” but their reviews should count nonetheless under the currently disclosed review requirements.

Problem #2: Amazon claims to be one of the best customer service companies in the world.  And, as a customer of Amazon who has spent thousands of dollars on the website, I can say that their customer service is largely excellent.  Why doesn’t that dedication to service extend to independently published authors?

Problem #3: If there are guidelines being violated (assuming, for the sake of argument, that some actually exist) then why are indie authors the only ones being impacted?

Problem #4: This is the BIGGEST problem in my opinion.  Impacted authors are not being told why their reviews are being removed.  I can safely say that most authors would be fine with reviews being removed if there was actually a violation of some posted guideline.  I know I would be.  However, to be left in the dark as to its reasons is unjust.  And, Amazon’s actions have transcended from simply leaving authors in the dark to completely ignoring and/or sidestepping the issue altogether.

SOLUTION: It’s pretty easy, Amazon.  Tell us what the rules are, and let us play by the rules.  We will be happy to do so.  Also, have the respect for indie authors to send them an email for every review that is removed which explains the rationale for doing so.

EVEN IF YOU AREN’T IMPACTED (YET), SUPPORT INDIE AUTHORS TODAY BY SIGNING THIS PETITION AT CHANGE.ORG TO MAKE AMAZON CHANGE ITS WAYS:

http://www.change.org/petitions/amazon-stop-arbitrarily-removing-customer-reviews-from-indie-author-books#

First Email Sent to Amazon

Monday, October 29, 2012 at 2:12 p.m.: Please note that due to a perceived lack of transparency and fair/equitable dealings with respect to the removal of customer reviews from books published by independent (“indie”) authors, several authors have banded together and signed a Change.org petition.  The goal of the petition is not to impact Amazon’s business or profit in any way.  The goal of the petition is not to be confrontational with Amazon.  Rather, the goal of the petition is to forge a path of mutual respect and collaboration between indie authors and Amazon.

As stated in the petition, the problem perceived by indie authors is that their customer reviews are being removed from Amazon’s website without any notice from Amazon, without any explanation from Amazon to the impacted authors, and without any chance for the impacted authors to respond to the issue.  As stated in the petition, the goal of the signatories is for Amazon to explain for every author that loses a review (good or bad) why that review was removed, and set forth clear guidelines as to what will and will not be removed in the future.

The petition was initiated within the last twenty-four hours, and already has 116 supporters, primarily comprised of indie authors.  The petition can be found here: http://www.change.org/petitions/amazon-stop-arbitrarily-removing-customer-reviews-from-indie-author-books

The hope of the supporters of this petition is that discourse would initiate, transparency would ensue, and both parties (i.e. Amazon and indie authors) could continue to build a robust world of books on Amazon’s sales platform.  Pre-formed responses will be deemed non-responsive, and the push to build support for the petition will naturally continue until the matter is resolved.

Thank you for your time, and we look forward to hearing from Amazon.

First Email Sent Directly to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

Monday, October 29, 2012 at 2:43 p.m.

Mr. Bezos,

My name is Derek Blass, and I am an independently published author.  I have been able to use Amazon’s platform to sell a healthy number of my first two books, and for that I am very appreciative to Amazon.  However, there has been growing discontent in the indie author crowd because of customer reviews being removed without notice to, explanation of, or discourse with indie authors.  Authors have written several articles on this matter, the recitation of which is outside the scope of my intent in sending this email.

The intent of this email is to alert you to a petition entitled “Amazon: Stop Arbitrarily Removing Customer Reviews from Indie Author Books,” filed on Change.org.  The goal of the petition is not to be overly confrontational with Amazon, or to impact (directly or indirectly) Amazon’s bottom line.  Rather, the intent is to initiate discourse with Amazon as to the demands presented in the petition.  These demands boil down to two things: (1) full disclosure of what guidelines reviews must meet for them to withstand removal from the website, and (2) a system whereby Amazon will communicate to authors when reviews will be removed, why, and allow authors to respond within a set time.

The petition is in its infancy, having been initiated within the last twenty-four hours.  Already, there are 119 supporters, and momentum is growing.  The petition can be found at this link: http://www.change.org/petitions/amazon-stop-arbitrarily-removing-customer-reviews-from-indie-author-books

We would appreciate the chance to communicate with you further on this matter, and we would appreciate the opportunity to continue to grow our own careers and customer base with Amazon.

Many thanks,

Derek Blass
Author of Enemy in Blue
Amazon’s First Response
Monday, October 29, 2012 at 6:08 p.m.
Hello Derek,

I appreciate that you took the time to provide us with feedback regarding our Customer Review moderation process and the information concerning your petition. We welcome the diverse opinions of our customers because we believe the differing opinions lead to constructive and interesting discussions about our products and services.

I have passed your message along to the team involved with future development of our Communities features. I know they will want to hear your thoughts.

If you want to find out more about this or other Amazon.com features, please visit our Amazon.com Site Features Help pages:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=16465201

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us with your thoughts. We look forward to seeing you again soon.

Thank you for your inquiry. Did I solve your problem?

If yes, please click here: 
http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/survey?p=A11S0WL7351GZF&k=hy 

If no, please click here: 
http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/survey?p=A11S0WL7351GZF&k=hn

Best Regards,

Paula

Amazon.com


Amazon's Second Response

Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 1:31 p.m.

Dear Mr. Blass,

I'm Deborah Hankins of Amazon.com's Executive Customer Relations team. Jeff Bezos received your email and asked me to respond on his behalf.

I'm sorry you feel Amazon.com is unfairly removing reviews from independent authors.  I can assure you our Communities team considers all reviews in light of our guidelines and will not remove any which are not in violation of those guidelines.  Although I'm sure you've seen them, I'm including a link below for your reference.

http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines/

I hope the above guidelines will provide some insight into why a particular review may have been removed as well as assistance in how an individual might submit an acceptable review.


Regards,

Deborah Hankins
Executive Customer Relations
Amazon.com
http://www.amazon.com


Email Response to Ms. Hankins of Amazon

Ms. Hankins,
I appreciate the response, but the issue isn’t that we necessarily believe Amazon is unfairly removing reviews from independent authors.  That may be the case in some instances, but in some instances we actually agree that reviews should be removed.  Rather, our demand relates to transparency that we feel indie authors deserve as towhy reviews are being removed.  We also believe that a system should be put into place whereby Amazon gives notice to indie authors when a review may be removed, the express reason why, and puts into place an opportunity for the indie author to respond regarding the review in question.  Finally, we want Amazon to set forth a clear set of guidelines for what will be acceptable with respect to reviews.  So, your response really does not address those concerns.  Here are some of the comments from the impacted authors who have signed the petition (166 in all at this point).
Reviews were removed from my book. They were honest reviews by readers who really did read my book. I as a consumer use these reviews when I make book purchases and I buy ALOT of books from Amazon.
LuAnn Dill, Evans, CO
I contacted Amazon regarding the removal of some recent book reviews, and was sent information that contradicted the published policy. Abide by the rule set YOU created, Amazon.
Deborah Deming, St. Louis, MO
 
I don’t want Amazon policing to this extent. I am a loyal Amazon customer, but they are creating a lot of anger with what amounts to censorship. And their current efforts are often catching the wrong people!
Janet Buck, Ankeny, IA
Is Amazon willing to have a dialogue on these specific issues?
Thank you in advance for your anticipated cooperation,
Derek Blass
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Comments
  1. Sessha Batto says:

    The reviewers I’ve talked to have all been given the same reason – you have a financial interest in this book. When the reviewers say the do not have any financial interest in the book they reviewed, Amazon warns them that an attempt to repost the review will result in cloaure of their account.

    • Jen says:

      I met someone on Twitter just a couple of days ago who said that two reviews were taken down from his book and he was miffed about it. One was from his wife, the other–her friend. That seems to qualify for what you are describing. I hate playing the devil’s advocate here, because I can see both sides. I know where the authors are coming from. I get it. I get the anger. But there has to be some kind of assurance that these are real people, not fake reviewers.

      • Derek Blass says:

        Jen, I don’t think you’re necessarily playing devil’s advocate here, because I believe most of us agree that reviews should be valid. No one wants to be the John Locke who paid for fake reviews. The point is more nuanced, however. And the point is that Amazon should have a system in place to work with authors to analyze reviews and action taken against reviews before that action is taken. For instance, contact an author and inform her/him that a certain review has been marked as inappropriate and will be removed if no response is received from the author. Explain the basis/bases for removal, and allow the author a chance to explain. This stands in stark contrast to the current model, which is simply to unilaterally remove what Amazon wants to remove, without input from or explanation to authors.

  2. I personally have had a couple reviews removed. One of them I don’t know whose it was…the other was my mother. I understand why they would remove it. My contention is that Amazon should review the review BEFORE posting. It only makes sense. Why go back through all of them? It truly is a bit “big brotherish.” I wrote a review about reviews on my blog: http://www.woodchuckpublishers.com. I do believe a lot of authors are manufacturing reviews, but Amazon can handle it better and take a closer look at the Big Six publishers and how they manufacture reviews!

    BTW the petition wouldn’t load.

    • Derek Blass says:

      Strange. I can get the petition to load. Thanks for your comment. BTW, the review from your mom, does she have a financial interest in your book? Amazon cites publishers as persons/entities that have a financial interest. Is all family included? What about a third cousin? If they want to make these rules, then they need to make them clear. I have no family that has a financial interest in my book.

      • No my mother has no financial interest in my book. Yesterday, they removed my daughter’s review. Also, no financial interest. How they knew she was my daughter is baffling. She has a different middle last name and her married name is different of course.

    • Jen says:

      I happen to know about this, because I’m a vine voice. Amazon screens every review through software first. No actual eyes go on a review unless it is flagged with a) keywords that are considered inappropriate or b) a consumer brings it to their attention. I know that there are a lot of people who LOVE to flag reviews as inappropriate. They seem to get great joy from it. It is my belief that this is where these removals are originating. Pure speculation, of course, but I believe I’m pretty intuitive about these things. Now, I’ll get out of the way and let you guys discuss it. Sorry to interject so much.

      • Elise Stokes says:

        This makes sense, Jen, and supports the sabotage rumor going around. I wonder if Amazon tracks flaggers? If not, they should. The source of the complaint should be evaluated before a review is touched.

  3. niaforrester says:

    Any ideas about what their motive might be? I don’t get it.

    • Derek Blass says:

      See the comment from Jen. We can speculate all day, from nefarious reasons (suppressing indie authors) to pragmatic reasons. My only question is if they are going to remove reviews, why aren’t reviews of traditionally published authors happening?

  4. Jen says:

    They are clamping down because of the review scandal. I think having verified purchase is a good idea, considering the weight of the scandal and the implications. Unverified reviews have their place on venues like Goodreads. I’m sorry this is affecting people, but if this is indeed what is happening, then I have to applaud it. I’m not published, yet, but I would prefer that my work only be reviewed by people who I can be fairly certain have actually read it. You are aware, I’m certain, that there are a LOT of unscrupulous authors putting negative reviews on their rivals books? This can’t stand. It will take a while for amazon to get it’s computer algorithms right. There will be adjustments and growing pains, but personally I believe it is for the best.

    • ruzkin says:

      Jen – you understand that restricting reviews to verified purchases means that, when you finally release a book, you will no longer be able to submit your book to external reviewers and have them leave a fair and honest review on Amazon?

  5. robinelevin says:

    I wrote a review for a friend’s indie book. Sometime later she told me that some of the reviews of her book had been removed because the writer hadn’t disclosed that they had received a free copy from the author. She asked me to write a disclaimer, which I did. If you do a review of book that you recieved as a complimentary copy from Amazon, than you need to add a disclaimer that you received the free copy.

  6. R.C. Wade says:

    This is reminiscent of an issue with Smashwords that many authors are willing to ignore because they see no negative impact to them at present. In the future, however, if Smashwords, and other aggregators, have their way, they will achieve a closed market wherein indie authors will be forced to use their services, needed or not, simply to list their books with online booksellers. If there is indeed something unethical going on with Amazon, I hope you obtain enough support to bring the practice to an end. If that happens, maybe authors will begin to stand together for all of their greater interests, present and future.

  7. reviewer says:

    Once their sales start dropping off which has probaly started they will soon review the situation.

  8. […] We Need to Stop Amazon from Arbitrarily Removing Customer Reviews from Indie Books by Derek […]

  9. I’m sharing this on my Facebook Page and on Twitter . . . I’d heard about this from another one of my writing friends and with an upcoming book, well, this is an important wagon to jump on. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do to help.

  10. Fiirst of all, Derek, excellent job on this post. I’ve reposted it through my blog and facebook as well. I first became aware of this through a fellow author, who was warning me because my book is about to come out, and I’m soliciting some friends for reviews. Since then, I’ve broadcast it through my circles on facebook, and I can tell you everyone I know – mostly indie authors – are fired up. I happen to be publishiner through a small press, but my situation isn’t any better. We still have to market, and just as hard as indies. At any rate, nice job. I also am going to do my best to get word of this out to anyone I can…perhaps the masses can convince Amazon to stop being review police and just do what they are supposed to…sell books.
    Warm Regards,
    Thomas Rydder

  11. marymeddlemore says:

    I am new to this publishing-game. I don’t know why reviews carry so much weight (Amazon’s doing?) All e-books come with a free sample. If you have read the sample, surely you know if you want to read the book? Reviews used to be important in the “old” days where you could only (perhaps) glance at a page or two in a bookshop in order to make up your mind whether to buy or not. And even then, there were countless examples of reviews in newspapers and magazines etc also being biased etc. Possible readers can read the samples and make up their own minds. Power to the people!

  12. Hey Derek…
    Okay, I had some time to read your article completely, and it brought forth some questions. Amazon’s policy clearly states that all reviews of purchases made on Amazon (providing they follow all other stated guidelines) are allowed, unless the reviewer clearly states that they have received the book gratis, in exchange for posted a fair review.
    Now, my question is this:
    Are we suddenly seeing Amazon properly policing their policies, as a result of discovering that they had grown lax, and had unqualified reviews slip by? And are the free-book reviewers failing to post properly, thereby opening their review up for removal? Or, are reviews with the proper verbage also being removed? Seems to me this is an important point, because if Amazon is suddenly just abiding by their stated guidelines, they aren’t really changing anything other than their level of awareness, and authors and reviewers will simply have to ensure they toe the line in regards of required notices.
    One other thing – if you don’t mind, please refrain from using the term “indie author” in any future communications. Not to belabor the point, but traditional authors – at least ones who are not well-established – have to work just as hard as indies, in regards to marketing and solicitations. No offense taken, as I’m sure you are writing from an indie standpoint…just sayin’

    • Derek Blass says:

      A lot of the reviews being removed have nothing to do with the issue of professional reviewers, and the fact that those reviewers have to disclose they received a free copy of the book. The reviews I have had removed, in fact, were not from professional reviewers except for 1 (out of about 9 that have been removed).

      You’re right, I do this from an indie perspective. I have nothing against trad pub authors, although I have little love for the rest of the people in that industry. I’m also not aware as to whether trad pub authors are impacted, and if they are, impacted to the same degree as indie authors.

      • The issue, as far as I can see, isn’t whether the reviewer is professional, but rather if the proper verbage was posted with the review. Which raises another question: How is Amazon even discovering whether a person paid for a book or not? It seems to me that would require comparing the review author’s name with receipts recorded for the book.

  13. I’m not trying to be difficult, but Amazon’s policy doesn’t mention any delineation between pro reviewers and john q. public, but that anyone receiving a free book must make mention. Was that the case with your reviews?

  14. shawnst says:

    I too have written recently about this, with special regard to draconian review removal that hurts new authors. The issue RE: Amazon monopoly rears its head ever year or so, but the concern is especially rampant lately. -Shawn

    http://clothosloom.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/cowboys-and-indies-amazon-and-monopoly-in-the-free-market/

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