Amazon has announced a revision to their product review policy and the news has created an outcry from many sellers who feel the changes will have a negative impact on their ability to receive public feedback on their work or product.
Amazon’s new guidelines revise the terms under which consumers qualify to leave a review, the types of reviews that can be posted, and it provides some enhancements on what is known as “in exchange for” reviews.
In summary, a customer qualifies to leave a review is they have purchased at least fifty dollars on Amazon using a debit or credit card. The minimum does not include Prime subscription costs or any other promotional discounts. Also, members of the same household cannot review the same product, nor can Amazon sellers, vendors, or publishers.
For authors and booksellers, these changes feel like a blow to their marketing efforts. Especially since, according to the guidelines’ language, the “in exchange for a review” appears limited to “physical” items, leaving it unclear if eBooks fall into this description.
Here is the policy text:
“The sole exception to this rule is when a free or discounted copy of a physical product is provided to a customer up front. In this case, if you offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you must clearly state that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. If you receive a free or discounted product in exchange for your review, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that fact.”
Perhaps the most problematic guideline is the section (not new) that deals with the “perceived” relationship between the author and the reviewer. The Amazon policy states:
“Authors and artists can add a unique perspective and we very much welcome their customer reviews. While we encourage reviewers to share their enthusiasm and experience, there can be a fine line between that and the use of customer reviews as product promotion. We don’t allow anyone to write customer reviews as a form of promotion and if we find evidence that a customer was paid for a review, we’ll remove it. If you have a direct or indirect financial interest in a product or perceived to have a close personal relationship with its author or artist, we’ll likely remove your review. We don’t allow authors to submit customer reviews on their own books even when they disclose their identity.”
The word “perceived” covers a broad definition as does “close personal relationship.” Broad and general enough to make blogging, blog tours, and even forming on-line friendships a potential negative to the review process. And because it is doubtful that Amazon will research to determine the extent of actual relationships, it is highly likely that “relationship” review removals will more often than not be done arbitrarily and in error.
But before we bash Amazon’s decision or claim the “sky is falling,” we should first remember that the Amazon Review system is under almost daily attack by those who attempt to game the system. Every author is aware of the sock puppets, which create multiple emails to leave fake reviews of their novels. Additionally, there is no shortage of “trolls” who make it their job to “pan” books without reading them.
If the Amazon system is to provide an actual benefit to authors, sellers, and consumers, then it needs to have integrity, and the customer needs to believe the reviews have credibility. In a recent study of ratings by the University of Colorado, (read it here) the analysis demonstrated that items reviewed that were marked “in exchange for an honest review” overwhelmingly had higher averages than those not marked as such. In other words, although reviewers intended to be fair and truthful they still gave higher ratings to books than readers who did not receive the book for a review.
There is little doubt that the review guideline changes will impact the total number of reviews a book receives. Particularly for authors whose fan base our readers under the age of eighteen who may not have the money to reach the fifty-dollar threshold. It will also reduce the benefits of ARC, giveaways, and services like Net Galley. However, it will clean up the influx of “tainted” reviews of both the positive and negative type. It also may even the playing field for those writers who don’t have an extensive social network of “free” reviewers.
And on the bright side, perhaps these new parameters will reduce the time and energy required chasing reviews and allow authors a little more time to pursue their writing. No doubt testimonials, like reviews, are a powerful marketing tool, but it’s just one tool of many and the Amazon policy revision simply means that as authors AND business people, our marketing focus will require a broader approach.