Around Thanksgiving, my husband and I decided to share our reading experiences by swapping books. He recommended one for me to read, and I picked out a book for him to read. His pick for me was the indie-published novel Fat, Old, Punks from UK writer James "Grim" Desborough.
I loved the book. It's laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to Desborough's clever wit. The setup is ingenious and hilarious: a group of middle-aged punk rocker friends meet in a pub that's relevance is waning as surely as their own. After they go several rounds comparing sources of unhappiness and lamenting how futile it is to change the world for the better, they manage to hatch a plan that is as brilliant as it is doomed to fail. Or succeed? Does it even matter? The book is a must-read for anyone who craves another perspective on contemporary politics.
For me, this was a 5-star book, in that it was a thoroughly entertaining read, stayed true to its promise, and had zero flaws. It sucked me in and kept me riveted to the end, and I came to care about the characters and their issues, which are real and wholly felt. It resonated with me, and I think it would resonate with other readers.
Full of my passion for the book, I logged onto Amazon and posted a review. I was only the second US reader to post a review. I noticed the only other review had been posted by my husband.
At first, the review appeared as normal. But later, when my husband went to look at what I'd written about the book, he found that not only had my review disappeared, but his had as well. We both appealed the deletion through Amazon, and after several rounds, I received this message:
We are unable to post your Customer Review for "Old, Fat, Punks" to the Amazon website because our data shows elements of your Amazon account match elements of other Amazon accounts reviewing the same product. In these cases, we remove the reviews to maintain trust in our customer reviews and avoid any perception of bias.
You will not be able to resubmit a review for that product, even if the resubmitted review includes different content.
Customer Reviews are meant to give customers unbiased product feedback from fellow shoppers. It is our goal to provide Customer Reviews that help customers make informed purchase decisions. Therefore, any reviews that could be viewed as advertising, promotional, or biased will not be posted. This includes reviews by more than one customer in the same household.
This is pretty disturbing on a number of levels.
First, assuming that's what tripped the red flag, how does Amazon know we're in the same household? We have separate Amazon accounts; mine is tied to my author account. We use separate credit cards to purchase products on Amazon. And we use separate email addresses, from a generic email service, to log into our accounts. So that leaves two possibilities for the bots to detect we're in the same household: They could match our delivery addresses, and since we both have numerous delivery addresses, as we frequently send to family in other areas, this would seem... difficult. Or they could suss it out from various billing addresses. Either way, it's a creepy level of surveillance, all to... what? Basically punish an indie writer by deleting his only two reviews in the US. Nice job, Amazon. Good one.
Second, WTF is up with this policy? People from the same household can't review the same products? By this logic, no one sharing an address can ever review the same product. So if you and your mother or sister or roommate happen to love the same book, video, underwear three-pack, or pet scratching post, don't think you can both post a review about it. It's not even first-come, first-served in this case. If your mom posts a review, and then you post a review for the same product, BOTH your reviews will be deleted. Because Amazon's bots said so.
Plus, think about the people who might share 'households.' When I worked for Big Fish, many of us had packages delivered to the office instead of our homes (since we were more likely to be at the office, yup). Would Amazon read us all as being from the same household since we shared a mailing address? What about army barracks, dorms, group homes, etc.?
Third, what if it's not the shared mailing address and instead other "elements" of our accounts that raised the issue? Amazon's vagueness here is creepy, as are the ads that show up on my Facebook wall for products I've viewed on Amazon.
In our case, James Desborough's indie title got a minuscule boost through word-of-mouth advertising when my husband recommended the book to me. Neither my husband nor I received anything in exchange for the reviews, and my husband purchased the ebook version of the novel, which I read on his Kindle. My husband and I are both connected with Desborough online due to our mutual interests in books and games, but I've never met Desborough in person, and my husband met him once, years ago, at a game convention. So in actuality, the author did all the right things here in spreading the word about his work through social media and conferences over the years. Only to have Amazon undo it all in one fell swoop.
No one has done anything wrong here whatsoever, yet our time has been wasted, and an innocent author is being arbitrarily punished.
If Amazon really wanted to protect customers from review fraud, they'd set their bot programming to trigger this kind of response only after a suspicious number of reviews came in for a product. Two is NOT a suspicious number. They could also find out if the reviews came from accounts in good standing. My husband and I have spent probably thousands of dollars on Amazon products over the many years we've had separate accounts. We are very careful especially since I'm an author not to trade reviews or otherwise violate good ethics with regard to reviews.
We tried to reason with Amazon, and this is how they responded:
We reviewed the information you provided and have determined that your review was removed in accordance with our guidelines. Our data shows that elements of your Amazon account match elements of other Amazon accounts reviewing the same product. In such cases, we remove the review to maintain trust in our customer reviews and to avoid any perception of bias.
To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Creation Guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines).
We cannot share any further information about our decision and we will not reply to further emails about this issue.
So basically, we have no recourse for further appeal, and Amazon refuses to be transparent about its review process. This instills neither confidence nor loyalty in me, as a customer or Amazon author.
I think of reviews as a civic duty in this age--I know first-hand how reviews can make or break sales. I've diligently reviewed a wide variety of products on Amazon; not just books but everything from air filters to vitamin supplements. But now? I don't know if I'll continue. Reviewing books is part of my job, but this makes it hard to post on Amazon. We know one thing, and that's that my husband CANNOT now post a review for the book I recommended to him, Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Sorry, Kareem.
If this can go so, so wrong, I wonder if Amazon's bots are truly protecting anyone from review fraud. Instead, they're hurting the little guy here. And that's not cool at all.
Top image, courtesy of Pixabay. Second image, my own.