Anonymous reviewing on Amazon and the HWA letter 6

HWA wrote an open letter to Jeff Bezos requesting to change the way Amazon reviews work. (ETA: Whoops, URL for that link was borked, it’s now fixed, sorry about that!)

In our view, beyond profanity and spitefulness, an inappropriate review would be one that:

  • indicates the customer has not read the book, but only a small portion of it, such as a free electronic sample;
  • includes spoilers which, once revealed, could significantly reduce interest in the work;
  • includes negative personal remarks about the author; and/or
  • is focused on the work’s price rather than its content.

As a writer I admittedly have almost zero (but not quite zero!) reviews on Amazon, so I’m kind of at the career point where I just wish people would acknowledge that I exist and have, you know, written stuff at all. I do have a single two star review, which I will treasure forever and ever because it’s beautiful and made me giggle. I also admittedly don’t tend to use Amazon reviews too much when it comes to buying reading material; most everything I pick up, it’s because a friend recommended it to me. Probably because I don’t read nearly as much as I should. So I honestly have no idea if the Amazon review system is the sort of wretched hive of scum and villainy we’re used to seeing at, say, Youtube.

All that in mind, eh. I feel like the above points could be argued one way or the other, but would also need to be better defined.

What constitutes a spoiler? I have friends that are allergic to spoilers to the point of near melodrama, who might count mentioning any plot point or character development at all as spoilers–which sure makes writing a meaningful review difficult. Personally, I like spoilers, since with rare exception it doesn’t hurt my enjoyment of a film or book, and I kind of like to know if the wheels come off the bus in the third act and I’m just going to end up pissed off because it was all just a massive copout dream.

What constitutes a negative personal remark? Obviously, “you shouldn’t buy this book because the author is ugly” or even “you shouldn’t buy this book because I think Orson Scott Card the author is a terrible human being” would be personal remarks. But what about criticisms of the writer’s style? Complaints that the writer really needs an editor or seems way too in love with one of her heroes? I wouldn’t count those as personal, but I’ve sure seen some writers take such comments very personally.

Isn’t price a valid factor? I feel like “I liked this book all right but it sure wasn’t worth the $25 I shelled out for it” is a very valid criticism.

And so on. On a lot of these, your mileage may vary. To be honest, a lot of the issues brought up in the HWA letter really sound to me like they could be solved if Amazon just enforced its existing policies better. And maybe added a “flag as inappropriate” button or something. You can already comment on reviews and rate them as helpful or not. I’d argue the rest of the slack could probably be picked up by better moderation, but whatever.

Where I do come to a screeching halt on this letter is:

We recommend that Amazon strengthen its customer review policy to address the above issues and also require customers reveal their actual identity, which removes the cover of anonymity that enables trolling and the ability to simple re-enter the system under a new identity once banned.

Emphasis mine.

To be clear, the anonymity they’re complaining about still requires that people sign in under an Amazon account (one that has successfully completed at least one purchase) in order to post a review to begin with. So yes, sock puppet accounts can be an issue, but the real point here is that there is an identity that a review is attached to, and there is a trail that can hopefully be followed in the event of actual harassment.

What kind of blows me away on second reading here is actually the complete naiveté displayed by the notion that this is actually some kind of solution. To sign up for an Amazon account, literally all you need is A name (which need not even be real) and an e-mail address. That’s why it’s possible to create sock puppet accounts to begin with. Amazon doesn’t exactly check your state issued ID when you sign up. Requiring people to reveal their full names/real names is not in any way going to prevent sock puppet accounts.

I’m honestly not a fan of true anonymity when it comes to comment systems; I actually do want there to be some kind of account involved just so you can at least feel like there’s someone you can respond to, which also allows for banning and potentially provides a trail to follow if things escalate to harassment. Yes, that kind of thing still allows trolls to make sock puppet accounts, but let’s be honest–if someone is that determined to be an asshole and has that much time on their hands, they’re going to find a way to do it.

I’ve had way too many friends who have been harassed because they’ve had their real names found out. Sometimes it’s because their name has revealed their gender or ethnicity and opened them up to really nasty personal attacks. People with really uncommon names can easily have their personal details searched out. And in the age of companies googling their potential employees as a matter of course, I can’t help but think this could really hurt the ability of certain genres (particularly LGBT books and erotica, but even certain kinds of horror) to get reviews.

To be clear, we are not asking for a policy that ensures only positive reviews. We are asking for a policy that focuses reviews on content and helps to eliminate public harassment of Amazon’s partners.

The way to eliminate public harassment is with better moderation. And while the aim may not be to ensure only positive reviews, you’re kidding yourself if you think this wouldn’t have a chilling effect. Particularly when we’re talking about the work of relatively well known authors who have a loyal fan following, or ones who have been known to go after people who write negative reviews.

When authors complain about remarks that cross the line, they are often told by Amazon to engage the customer directly. The author never wins these confrontations; instead, engaging with anonymous people who are exhibiting trolling behavior only hurts the author him/herself.

Yeah, no shit. This is why rule number one of the internet is “don’t feed the trolls” and “don’t respond to reviews” should really be somewhere in the top ten rules for all writers.

If a writer is being harassed, that is a problem, and that needs to be dealt with using stricter moderation. (And potentially even bringing in law enforcement if harassment has hit the point of threats, etc.) But frankly, the majority of what I’ve seen in regards to negative reviews hasn’t been about harassment; it’s been about someone not liking the writer’s work, and the writer taking umbrage.

I get it, I really do. It sucks when faceless people are saying mean things about you. I’ve had that happen to me in my personal life before, and it feels bad, man. But at the same time, this is the price of admission. No one is required to like what we write, let alone be kind about it. And the reviews aren’t for us to begin with.

The onus isn’t on reviewers to be nice; it’s on us to be graceful when they aren’t.

6 thoughts on “Anonymous reviewing on Amazon and the HWA letter

  1. Reply Ingvar Mar 31,2014 11:05

    On the whole, I agree. There’s something to be said for consistent pseudonymous identities, but I don’t know if there’s enough investment of effort in Amazon reviews to make the pseudonym’s reputation worth anything.

  2. Reply Keeley Pollock Mar 31,2014 14:29

    I stumbled on a book a while back, enjoyed the story and when the second book in the series came out, was looking to purchase it until I read a review with spoilers. The spoilers were labeled as such and I read them anyway and it turned out to be a good thing because I learned that I would NOT be happy with the turn the author had taken. Without that knowledge, I would have bought the book and been very unhappy with the waste of my money. Other times I can read a negative review, see it as someone with an ax to grind and take it with a grain of salt.

  3. Reply Brent Butler Apr 6,2014 10:40


    I enjoyed your blog and agree with what you had to say. There are a few other thoughts that are on topic.

    First, good books get good reviews (if they get any readers). I’ve noticed authors signing the related petition on this subject who have dozens of 4 and 5 star reviews and one or two bad reviews. Do they REALLY think customers can’t count? (or just read the numbers)

    Second, many of the very same authors who are so up in arms about an occasional bad review often have several reviews posted by friends and family. How embarrassed they will be when it is suddenly revealed that their 10 five star reviews are all written by people who know them intimately.

    Third, not only does Amazon have policies in place to check the type of reviews these people complain of, but those polices are indeed enforced. If you send Amazon CS an email (through their Help system) about something that truly violates their policies, they act on it … generally within a day or two.

    Fourth, one of Amazon’s review policies is to not review on price, because prices change. So that’s already taken care of.

    Fifth, I don’t agree with spoilers in reviews myself. Yet I wonder how many of the people complaining about spoilers in reviews have ever “peeked” into the back of a book to see of a certain character is still alive. ;-)

    Great blog, and I hope your book finds readers. I always like to see people with good sense succeed.


  4. Reply Pete Apr 6,2014 10:50

    Thank you for your clear-eyed thinking!

  5. Reply Sola Apr 6,2014 18:42

    HWA, Anne Rice and others calling for the abolishing of anonymous reviewing only see what is of value to themselves. The benefits of anonymous reviewing – the vast landscape of items that would not be reviewed under exposed identity – dwarf the problems. As you note, abolishing anonymity won’t even solve the problems that have been identified.

  6. Reply Debbie May 5,2014 22:10

    To my knowledge, the HWA letter was not voted on by the membership at large Hopefully no one is looking at the list of member authors and assuming all support any point. I find it ironic that an organize of authors who often find plot material from nightmares like being stalked then chased down by stalker in your new identity … *shakes head* just not the organization or genre authors I would expect to be against online privacy. Unless all just publicity stunt.

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