Amazon “cracking down” on reviewers… but not really

five stars

From the Sunday New York Times:

After several well-publicized cases involving writers buying 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.

The world of reviewing is certainly open to abuse and violations of ethics. (Not long ago I read a story about a British mystery writer who, under a fake name, wrote torching reviews of his competitor’s works, praising instead his own.)

So I understand the desire to regulate here. But what’s odd to me is this quote from an Amazon spokesman:

We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review.

It would be difficult to prove “experience” of the product one way or the other, but I certainly don’t put any stock in reviews that say, “I haven’t read this yet, but….”

As one commenter on this article noted, what I often find most helpful in shopping on Amazon–whether for books or other products–is the negative reviews.

That doesn’t mean that 5-star reviews, however, are not all to be trusted. There’s a bit of self-selection that goes on here. To wit, I tend to only request review copies of books that I think will be worth my time, so my ratings are most often four and five stars. But honesty comes first, so three stars and lower is not out of the question, and has happened before. And I am not always right that I book I want to review ends up being as good as I might have thought.

It’s a no-brainer to me that someone ought “to have experienced the product” before reviewing it. But what are some other principles of reviewing that should constitute a good ethic for product reviews?

3 thoughts on “Amazon “cracking down” on reviewers… but not really

  1. I think there are a two important things that should be done:

    (1) A reviewer should declare if the book was received for free as a review copy.

    (2) A review should remember to review the book based on the aims of the book, not what one wishes the author would have written.

    I am critical on rare occasions. I don’t review tons of books like some other bloggers. I tend to be a tad more picky, so like you I get books I anticipate being worth my time. Sometimes I receive books I wouldn’t have requested out of interest and I will review them anyway. I try to judge a book based on authorial aim, so the book may not be a five star book on some objective scale, but if the author did a good job of addressing what the author said was going to be addressed, then I will give it a good evaluation, even if I include the caveat that it isn’t a book that I found all that engaging.

  2. If I am reviewing a book for a traditional journal, I am certainly going to read the book and treat it fairly. In fact, reviews that are too positive are suspect in a traditional journal. The first review I submitted to JETS was semi-rejected because I did not have enough “criticism” (a rookie mistake, I assure you!) I had to re-write portions of it a bit more “critically.” Still, I have only rarely reviewed books I thought were not good, usually I struggle to find a few negatives, so that I can end with, “nevertheless this book makes a good contribution…”

    I would like to think that I give a book the same level critique when reviewing a book on my Blog, but given the lack of editorial supervision, I suspect I am a bit more slack there than in traditional print. I think there is a limited “peer review” for bloggers, I suppose if we write a frothy review then we do not get the links. People link to “Reviewer savages the new book by N. T. Wright” more than the “Reviewer has a sloppy love-fest for the new N. T. Wright book.” (Neither would be a good review, IMHO!)

    I also would have thought that the semi-anonymity of the internet would increase the number of scathing reviews of books, but the hope of “free stuff” seems to have kept that from happening. I personally have only rarely done an Amazon review, and I have rarely been influenced by them.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your replies–Brian, I think your #1 is actually a legal requirement, too. I vary the language, but do that each time I review a gratis copy.

    Phil–I think I read somewhere once that Amazon technically “owns” any reviews you post there? Makes me want to think twice about putting a review there, if that’s so.

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