Amazon’s Deleting Customer Reviews: So?

The New York Times had a story about Amazon.com’s purge of thousands of customer reviews from its website. Apparently, an author’s relatives lack the disinterest necessary for a valid evaluation of a book—but Amazon also doesn’t like to see authors reviewing books by their competitors. At least, that’s the way it seems; the actual process of removing reviews has been handled so nebulously that there’s understandable confusion and frustration about the whole thing.

Here’s the thing, though: People have been giving Amazon their book reviews for nothing. Why are they now so surprised that Amazon treats those reviews as worthless and disposable?

I’m not particularly invested in this subject—the only customer review I can remember writing for Amazon was back when I was still on staff, and a negative review I wrote was rejected as not fitting into the promotional campaign in which the book was included, but I didn’t feel like letting all my work go to nothing, so I put it up myself. Other than that, John Scalzi wrote a post recently that sums up my general feeling about providing content for large corporate websites: “Fuck you. Pay me.” Now, it’s true that Amazon doesn’t actually ask people to write for them for free; instead, people have been volunteering to share their opinions for more than a decade. Why? Because they like to share their opinions? Because they like the validation of having other people say their opinions are smart or helpful? Because they like pissing on the aspirations of creative people?

Those are three reasons; there are others. And, truth be told, those are also three of the reasons that people launch their own websites—sites like Beatrice—and freely share their opinions about books and writers. The difference is that here at Beatrice, I can share what I share, reaping all the non-economic benefits of my sharing (as well as some indirect economic benefits), and I don’t have to worry about somebody else deciding to cut me off because they aren’t getting enough out of what I do.

Look, I’m not a purist in these matters; granted, it’s been a year since I last updated my Goodreads, but that’s mostly because I’ve been too busy, not because I stopped believing in the site. I know Goodreads is making money selling ads next to our reviews and discussions, but I’ve found it useful enough to have the literary opinions of a group of people I trust bundled together that I don’t begrudge the company the revenue that makes such a bundling possible.

At Goodreads, though, it feels like (at least to me) there’s an equal emphasis on discovering people as well as discovering books. Even with the sideshow hoopla of customer review rankings, Amazon’s never felt to me like it cares much whether I find someone with a literary sensibility I trust—the customer reviews serve one purpose, and that’s to persuade me to buy books. (Even negative reviews, which ultimately encourage you to keep looking until you find a book you will like.) To me, Amazon customer reviews are noise, and the opinions of my friends on Goodreads are signal. So I honestly can’t get too worked up about Amazon deleting any number of its customer reviews, because I never really considered them worth anything, either.

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24 December 2012 | theory |

Think Before You Answer Your Critics

I recently attended a conference that Digital Book World put on about “discoverability and marketing” for the publishing industry, where one of the speakers was novelist Elle Lothlorien, who was there to discuss her belief that authors should respond to negative online reviews. For Lothlorien, who comes at this with the philosophy that a writer is also a businessperson and a reader is also a customer, this is simply attentive customer service. As she would later explain:

1) You are not responding to negative reader reviews in order to get the reader to alter their review in any way.

2) You are responding to negative reader reviews in order to neutralize the negative feeling the customer has about Business You (often known as “the author”) and Your Product (better known as “your book”).

Lothlorien’s specific advice for authors when they choose to engage people who’ve reviewed their books negatively online includes several sensible guidelines about how to conduct yourself graciously and succinctly—listening, acknowledging, and moving on. It’s a great contrast to the bullying tactics of some insecure authors who actively seek to shame and harass critics on even the least possible slight. It also dovetails neatly with the recent discussions in literary circles about whether critics need to be more critical and what happens when criticism turns ugly.

I thought about her advice earlier this week, when an author took it upon himself to respond to my wife’s criticism of one of his books.

Mrs. Beatrice (which is what I call her in these pages, to protect her privacy) is in a monthly book club; last year, they read a book that totally did not work for her, and she explained why in exacting detail over at Goodreads. There was a solid concept for a book somewhere in there, she thought, but the author did a terrible job of executing that concept.

(I’m not going to tell you who the author is, or what the book is, either, because I want to focus on the underlying principles, not the gossipy bits. I’ll also be paraphrasing as much as possible, and I’d even ask you to refrain from trying to find the answers on Google; again, the point isn’t for you to identify all the players, or to put this author on the spot, but to think about the dynamics involved.)

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7 October 2012 | theory |

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