Thursday, December 27, 2012

No More Peer Reviews on Amazon

Amazon has quietly banned authors from reviewing the work of other authors in the same genre. In the process, they deleted reviews written by authors about other authors’ books.
This was partially in response to the confession of author R.J. Ellory, admitting that he had been posting fake reviews expounding on how good were his own books and posting scathing criticisms about the books of competitive authors. He would create fake accounts and post his false comments through those accounts.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. The web is rampant with fake reviews. The practice of creating fake accounts to in turn write glowing reviews about one’s own work is called “sock puppeting.” Worse, there are companies that can be hired to write fake reviews promoting a book. This is called “astro-turfing.”
The result is, a reader goes online looking for a new book to read and comes across a new title that has dozens of glowing reviews. Upon purchasing the book, the reader finds instead that the story is a piece of crap and the writing is terrible and rife with mistakes. If you come across such a situation and find yourself thinking that what you are reading doesn’t live up to all the reviews, it might not be just you. The story might actually suck, and all those reviews were either sock-puppet fakes posted by the author or astro-turfed by some business hired by the author.
Essentially, you just got ripped off.
I strongly urge anyone, before buying any ebook—including my own—to read the free sample that is offered. The sample should be enough to show you what to expect what you will really find in the story. I bought a couple of books because of the sample. I also avoided quite a few books because of the sample.
Caveat Emptor.
I’ve told family and friends not to post any reviews or comments unless they have actually read my story and actually liked it. For those who wanted to say something but hadn’t yet read my story yet, I asked them simply to state that they knew me and wanted to spread the word that their friend had written a book.
Keep it honest.
I tell people to go to my web site to find the links to buy my book. There is says very clearly that Nobody (The Pirate Arc) is a short story excerpt from the full book, being the first six chapters.
I know one reader on Amazon was quite angry that the story ended at the sixth chapter in one helluva cliff hanger, and thusly gave me a negative review. Hugh Howey’s, Wool, is an excellent example of an excerpt release. It was released as a standalone short, but is actually the first of several stories. Similarly to myself, a small number of people chimed in about Wool and complained. Also, many of the negative reviews were: “It wasn’t to my taste…”
I would like to point out that those people who complained that Wool was “not to their taste” did actually read the story to the end. Well, if the story compelled them to read it to the end, then obviously the writing was pretty damned good, whether it was to their taste or not. If I didn’t like a story, but was still compelled to read it to the end, that says something and demands that I give the story a higher ranking than just one star.
The story I would absolutely have this reaction to was Donald R. Stevenson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. I hated that series! Or rather, I hated the lead character, Thomas Covenant. He was a perfect antihero. As much as I say I disliked the story and would complain about Covenant, keep in mind that I read the entire series! I couldn’t put those damned books down! And the moment a new one came out, I would buy it so I could see what happened next in the story.
THAT is the real critique! The story was so compelling and had pulled me in so deep, that even though I absolutely loathed the lead character, I had to buy each book and read it!
It was well written and compelling. That is the real review! That would be worth four stars at least.
For the record: I strongly recommend Wool. I thought it was an excellent short story in the Dystopian Science-fiction genre. It didn’t reach #1 on Amazon’s Bestsellers List for nothing! It’s currently available for free, so you won’t lose anything trying it out.
And yes, I would also recommend Stevenson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Regardless of how I felt about the story and the protagonist, good writing is good writing. Stevenson does good work in these books.
So now at Amazon, there will be no peer reviews for the foreseeable future.
Too many unscrupulous people trying to game the system.
Now what? How can Amazon fix it?
I have my own ideas on this.
Currently, there are two ways to rank a book: by the number of sales and the recommendations of readers.
The number of sales is very objective. Regardless of what people feel about a book, you cannot deny the number of copies that have been sold, minus any that have been returned for a refund. If a title is very popular, it will be selling large numbers of copies in a very short period of time. If not, sales might lag for a long time. But it doesn’t tell you anything about the story inside. A story could be really good, but just not catch on right away. Sales numbers can be a bit too objective in a way.
At the other extreme is the ranking set by readers. Reader reviews are highly subjective. People will either love a story or hate it. As a result, the reviews will either glorify or pan the story. There is rarely anything in between. A quick hop around several titles in the Fantasy genre on Amazon, and the rankings that are used most are one and five stars. (Four scores third, and two and three almost never show up.)
People like what they like. It is a matter of individual taste. I have read books that were raved about by friends and found that I just couldn’t get into them. And I love some books that my friends just don’t find interesting at all. 
Between the two, sales numbers and reader reviews, is a solution. One that can solve the problem of false reviews being entered and forcing reviewers to be as balanced as possible.
When people really like something, they want to tell their friends. Similarly, if they don't like something, they are going to want to warn their friends away from it. Both sides tend to become polarized, and are willing to go as far as it takes to prove their point, including lying or posting false reviews.
So perhaps Amazon should rank the rankers.
A popular book is going to sell like crazy. The sales numbers will reflect this over a period of time. If a book sells wildly at first and then the numbers fall off fairly early and quickly, it could be assumed that the sales were mainly out of curiosity. But if the numbers continue to climb steadily over a longer period of time, it might be indicating that the book is popular and selling steadily.
If someone posts a negative comment about a book that is enormously popular, then that would certainly bring the credibility, if not the veracity, of the critic into question. Especially if the positive reviews on the same title greatly outnumber the negative reviews. In such a case, lower the score on that negative reviewer. The lower the score a reviewer has, the less weight the reviewer’s vote has on a given title’s rank in the lists. The same idea works in the other direction where someone has posted a glorious review on a title that just plain sucks.
List reviews according to rank. Someone with a low rank will always end up at the end of a list of reviews, where their trolling comments will probably never be seen.
People who want to be taken seriously as a critic won’t want to risk their rank by being snarky because of some personal grudge against the author or the world in general. This will force them to be more balanced and careful in their critiques.
Second, have other people judge the critiques posted. If people who have read the book agree with what the poster had to say—positive or negative—then the reviewer’s rank score goes up. If people think the reviewer was full of crap and wondered what the hell book it was the reviewer read, then they can click on disagree and vote the reviewer down.
Those people who judge the reviewers must have earned a reviewer’s score above a certain point to be allowed to judge another reviewer. This means that an author acting as a sock-puppet, wishing to force the rankings is going to have to work at it.
This is gamification. People will play a game endlessly for no other reason than to attain the next level or have a higher score than other people. People who like to critique writing and books will want to be taken as seriously as possible and be seen as an authority. Knowing that if they post a review that doesn’t pass muster could cost them seriously in their ranking, that will pretty much guarantee they will be careful to post only accurate, truthful reviews.
Sure, some new guy can still post a review, but because that guy has no rank, his review will always be at the end of the list. If he posts early enough after the release of a book, his list will show up for a while until it gets pushed off the page by higher ranked reviews. If his review reflects the trends of the book’s popularity and/or other reviewers feel that his review was an accurate assessment of the book, his score goes up faster.
Sales numbers, the number of positive vs. negative reviews, done by reviewers vetted by other people, could then be used to tabulate the rank of a book in the bestsellers list.
Another vector to affect a book’s rank is the number of reviews. If a book’s sales are lackluster, and there are few or no reviews, then it might be a pretty good indication that the book is not that good.
A book whose sales jump at the get go and then tapers off, gathering few reviews, might indicate that people were curious but not moved enough by the story to find it worth mentioning. That would give the book a low rank.
A book with steady and growing sales, positive reviews, and continues to do so over a period of months, would indicate that it is a popular book and should rank it high.
The higher score a reviewer has, then the more weight their vote has when reviewing books and other reviewers. It would take a lot of work and dedication to earn and maintain that high score. That gives an individual with a high score a lot of authority and social status. They will NOT want to jeopardize their standing by getting snarky about one or two books.
Sure, I can think of flaws in my idea, but it does make it harder for trolls, astro-turfers and puppeteers to manipulate the system.