I was at a barbecue on Saturday and had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer. Somehow we fell into a discussion of reviewing. This other writer mentioned that in England writers review other writers all the time, and it’s not viewed the same way over there as we do in America. I haven’t researched this, but it reminded me of a recent happening. Last autumn, Amazon began quietly removing reviews that authors had written for other authors. (See a little background on that here.) Amazon removed those peer reviews in part as reaction to consumers complaining about authors creating false accounts in order write reviews that could (a) bolster their ratings and (b) hurt other authors’ ratings. While I think that concern was legitimate, I don’t agree with Amazon’s reaction to the problem where they revised their review guidelines. The new guidelines prohibit “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) (Source)” These are the grounds upon which they removed peer reviews.
One problem I have with this is that books are not like other commodities. I might buy only one TV. Say I’m a TV manufacturer and I create sock puppet accounts to dis other TV manufacturers. The assumption is that killing my competition’s ratings will help mine. But books are not TVs. I buy over 50 books a year at least. If someone likes an author whose style is like mine, the chances increase for that person to buy both of our books. Amazon’s entire recommendation system is built on this practice – readers who bought X also bought Y and Z. So the chance of someone purchasing my books on Amazon are INCREASED when someone likes the work of my fellow authors. If that’s true – and I wholly believe it is – I don’t consider other books or authors my competition. My only competition is my ability to write the next best work that I can. I hate the assumption that I will be dishonest – which is how Amazon’s policy strikes me – but I also have no “financial interest” in the failure or success rate of other books. A negative or positive review of a fellow author will do nothing to move the needle on my career, so what’s the point? Sure, monitor sock puppet accounts. But prohibit all authors from reviewing? That doesn’t make sense to me.
Authors have always been reviewed by their peers. The idea that friends and acquaintances can’t offer up an honest review of each others’ work is something I object to. I do write reviews (though I don’t post them on Amazon). Mostly, I write reviews of books that I would be willing to recommend because that is the policy of the review group that I belong to. Regardless of my undying love or mild liking for a book, I’m a tough reader and I spend some time pointing out a work’s strengths, weaknesses, and who I think would like it. The point I’m trying to make is that I can and do offer honest reviews of books written by my peers, and the assumption that authors are incapable of this bothers me. When I heard that Amazon bought Goodreads, my first thought was to wonder when my GR reviews would begin to disappear. I hope that’s not the case, but time will tell.
Of course, I’m not blinded to reality. I know for a fact that authors will go out and rate their friends’ books 5-stars, sometimes in hopes that their friends’ will do this in exchange. Quite frankly, I’m not here to judge, though this is not something I practice or would encourage for my own books. But just because there are a few people doing this (and I do believe it’s a minority of authors doing this), does that mean that it should be assumed that authors are incapable of impartiality?
I think author Joe Konrath made another excellent point. He says:
Amazon allows one-star reviews from people who haven’t even read the book, but deletes positive reviews from people who honestly enjoyed it, and somehow that’s improving your review system? (Source)
On a personal note, I’ve had books I haven’t even written yet rated on Goodreads. I’ve been told that some readers use the star rating system to rank books by how excited they are to get their hands on a book. Is it possible these false ratings – by authors seeking to manipulate ratings and people who rate works they haven’t read – cancel each other out? Should Amazon police one extreme, but not the other? (though admittedly this may require a discussion of its own). I ask this with genuine curiosity because, at the end of the day, I am BOTH an author and a reader. I am an author BECAUSE I am an avid reader and I would like to have a place where I can continue to discuss books with fellow readers because there are few things I’m more passionate about.
What do you think? Is peer review a thing of the past? What should Amazon’s policy be?