CH-CH-CH-CHANGES: Amazon Reviews and Verified Purchases

5starsWhen you buy books online, do you read reviews? Of course you do. I look at the general star ranking, read a couple of 5-stars, then 1-stars, then 3- stars, for an overall assessment.

Unfortunately, people have tried to game the system over the years, and controversies have flared about authors paying for reviews, deliberately slamming their competitors in fake reviews, and rounding up friends and family to write (sometimes) over-inflated reviews. Then there are the trolls, who show up to slam everything.

As the leader in online shopping, Amazon is acutely aware of these issues, and has continually tried to address them. Because they’re not paid, and because they get a free book, Amazon first decided that all reviewers should disclose the fact that they received a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for a review. I have no problem with that. In fact, the rumor is that the publishers of The DaVinci code sent out 10,000 free copies to bookstores and reviewers before it was published.

Recently they decided to remove reviews that they deem illegitimate for one reason or another. Author Anne Allen has a must-read discussion on this issue of paying for reviews that is not only informative but a bit disturbing. And for even more information, check out a report from Fortune magazine on Fake Reviews and their relationship to the ranking of a product. A few weeks ago, Amazon took the unprecedented step of filing a lawsuit against 1100 people on FIVERR, who were using the website to sell reviews of books, products, and pretty much anything available on Amazon, Yelp, and other sites.

Now more changes are on the way. Amazon intends to take the review issue to a new level with “Verified Purchases.” For those who may not know, you can find those words in blue right just under the reviewer’s moniker in the customer reviews section of their book pages. It means the reviewer has paid for the book through Amazon. Starting next year, Amazon intends to give priority to “Verified Purchases” over others. I suspect that Verified Purchases will figure more prominently in a book’s rankings and even their star ratings, but we don’t yet know exactly how. Amazon is probably still figuring it out.

To me this is an area fraught with “gray.” For decades, publishers (and now authors) have sent out review copies to trade reviewers like PW, Kirkus, Library Journal, Booklist, prominent newspaper and periodical reviewers before a book is published. They’re called ARCs –advanced reading copies – and the idea is to get a number of, hopefully, positive reviews that will drive sales when the book is released. The reviewer knows they’re getting a complimentary copy. Often it’s not the final copy, but it’s pretty close.

Enter self-publishing. Traditional outlets for reviews have declined precipitously, and the number of bloggers who review has exploded. I happen to love blogger reviews– usually they’re more substantive than trade reviews. Those reviews show up in the customer review section on Amazon, Goodreads, and other retail site pages. Sometimes, if the review is exceptional, we’ll put them in the editorial review section of the book page. Most of them are from legitimate reviewers, some even on Amazon’s “Top Reviewers” list.

Now, though, Amazon is saying that unless the Verified Purchase “seal of approval” appears with the review, it will be given less weight. I have mixed reactions.

The Pros:

Everyone can get behind a system that guarantees (or tries to) a certain level of professionalism on the part of its participants. Like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, “Verified Purchase” signals that an individual reviewer has some skin in the game; they’ve actually shelled out some money to read the book. And with a 70% royalty back to the author in most cases, the author is rewarded for that purchase. Which, in these days of declining royalties, is always a good thing.

It’s also a potentially effective way to weed out reviewers who might have a pre-ordained bias. It can level the playing field, so that authors who are not so well known can, if they accumulate a lot of Verified Purchase reviews, be discovered more easily.

The Cons:

A Verified Purchase program directly affects the hard work of conscientious bloggers, who have specifically been given a book for review. Will those reviewers be given less priority if they don’t have the Verified Purchase seal?

What happens to the practice of sending out ARCs? Many authors and publishers send out hundreds of copies for review. Why should those reviews be “penalized” by the absence of the Verified Purchase label? Suddenly a key element in an author’s promotional efforts is jeopardized.

Amazon has spent years developing its “Top 1000 Reviewers” List. What happens to those people? Must they, too, buy a book before they review it? How are they going to react? Of course, Amazon has vetted these reviewers, or I assume they have. Perhaps there will be an exception for them?

But if so, why not make an exception for other reviewers, who might be just as objective but not as prolific as the top 1000? How will Amazon distinguish “objective” reviewers from ones that are, shall we say, more biased.? And what about reviewers who borrow a book from the library? How will their reviews be accounted for?

I don’t know the answer, so I’m throwing it open to you — readers, authors and reviewers. What do you think? Clearly we need to know more about Amazon’s plans and how much will Verified Purchases change the review process. But until we do, what are your thoughts?