The Death of Incentivized Reviews

AmazonAmazon announced a new policy on October 3 concerning incentivized reviews. These are reviews given in exchange for a free or discounted product. In the past, they permitted these reviews on their website if the reviewer disclosed their relationship with the product provider. These reviews can provide useful information, but also can be used to manipulate Amazon’s product rating system.

That caught my attention. A number of the books I review I receive as advance review copies (ARCs) from publishers. Often, the publishers request reviewers to post reviews on Amazon and other sites and I have done this, always with the disclosure that the book was provide by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review, the same disclosure I use on the blog. I immediately wondered if I would be able to post reviews on Amazon any more (not that I want to–I only post these when requested). And with that, I wondered if publishers would scale back on review programs.

I had to read to the very end to find this statement:

“The above changes will apply to product categories other than books. We will continue to allow the age-old practice of providing advance review copies of books.”

That makes me curious, though. Why are books exempted from this policy? Is it just that we reviewers hew to a higher standard of ethics in our reviews? Are reviewers less likely to give favorable reviews just because the publisher provided them with free books? Personally, I would have to answer “yes” and “yes.” I fundamentally see reviews as honest attempts to fairly represent a book’s strengths and flaws as I see them. I feel like my primary constituency are those who follow my blog or reviews on Goodreads or LibraryThing. The reviews I post on Amazon are simply a cut and paste, occasionally shortened versions. My ratings are the same as on Goodreads and LibraryThing. A book has to be extraordinary to get a 5 star rating from me. Most ARCs aren’t that good. And I actually prefer that people buy books through brick and mortar booksellers if at all possible. I do not, as a rule, provide Amazon links in my reviews because I do not give preference to one vendor.

Even though I may prefer brick and mortar booksellers, and even though publishers have an uneasy, at best, relationship with this online bookseller, Amazon nevertheless represents a significant part of books sales. Because of this, I could see a case for why publishers and book reviewers have been exempted. Amazon reviews are a key factor in book-buying decisions. Even when people are in a physical bookstore, they can access Amazon reviews of a book that looks interesting.  Everyone seems to benefit.

The area where I could see the greatest possibility for manipulation of ratings is in the category of self-published books. Here is where I could see reviews being limited to verified purchasers and requiring disclosure of any relationship with the author. I would suspect it would be easy to solicit lots of favorable reviews from friends. Occasionally, there have been cases of authors being slammed with one star reviews from rivals.

Amazon’s policy change should serve as a warning for book reviewers who post on Amazon. You might kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs for you, and the rest of us. If there are enough complaints about abuses to the ratings, Amazon could limit ratings to verified purchasers. Amazon might even extend its Amazon Vine program to book reviewers. Amazon, not the vendor, selects reviewers whose reviews they consider helpful and trustworthy to review new and pre-release products. I don’t think that will happen with books, but much will depend on those of us who post the reviews–will we be honest in our disclosures and balanced in our reviews?

As I said, this doesn’t matter that much to me, except that a change in policy could change the availability of ARC’s. If it weren’t for publisher requests, I wouldn’t post on Amazon. I’d actually hate having to be certified as an Amazon trusted reviewer. That seems a form of manipulation as well. As in other matters, it seems here as well that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.

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