Not sure whether reblogging would mess things up worse, but I didn't want to hijack the original post with a huge long reply. Then again, that may have been the best solution. Oh, well, I usually screw things up anyway, so what the heck. I'll cross reference this to it just in case.
Disclosure I: I do not and will not review anything on Amazon. As an author, I'm restricted to posting only positive reviews of books like might be close to my genre, which currently means anything in the romance category, plus paranormal/fantasy and mystery/suspense. Rather than risk losing my KDP privileges, I just don't review anything.
Disclosure II: Being banned from Goodreads for daring to call out shills and unethical authors, I don't review there either. I never had any secret accounts there and have never attempted to set up any. I have no interest in being on a site where I can't be honest, or where the dishonest are given more credibility, visibility, and leeway than I am.
After reading the Amazon info that Grey Warden posted in the linked blog and the subsequent discussions there and on Obsidian Black Death's reblog, I took about an hour away from the computer and did some thinking. Which leads to - - - - -
Disclosure III: As an author re-entering the publishing arena with new material, rather than just republishing old stuff, I have ulterior motives. I do not have the means to pay for promotion, and I'm uncomfortable doing it myself, so I have relied on occasional mentions of my work here and on Facebook, then on word of mouth (or fingers, as the case may be). I DO NOT READ ANY OF MY REVIEWS, but I do track my sales and sales ranking, and that requires a glance at the listing for my book on Amazon. (I do not look at Goodreads or any other site, including BL) As of this afternoon, the book has 7 reviews and an average of something around four stars. I'm happy. I have no idea who reviewed it or what they wrote, but my sales and Kindle Unlimited reads have been satisfying. I sent out exactly one free ARC; all other copies have been purchased at full retail price or borrowed through Kindle lending programs.
With all of that out of the way, some observations and speculations.
Though it's been over three years since the Amazon merger with Goodreads and the subsequent GR September Purge, my belief is that Amazon has been under some pressure -- perhaps from the FTC but perhaps internal pressure -- to clean up the review mess. I haven't even followed this "coupon club" issue, but from what I saw today, it looks like just another venue for scamming, and Amazon already has enough of that.
The fake reviews, whether they come from fiverr, from indie blogger shills, from review swap groups, or from reviewers who like the freebies that come with high reviewer ranking, could only hurt Amazon's brand. I think we all know this. And while Amazon may be the biggest online retailer and have a huge, huge, huge share of the SPA ebook market, thousands of five-star reviews for crap products could not be good for their brand.
If there were threats of enforcement from the FTC, that would make it even worse.
So down comes the hammer on the shills on 3 October, and now, less than a month later, a new program designed/hoped to further restrict the fake reviews.
The key part of the Early Rewards program, in my opinion, is that the product has to be purchased from Amazon. This prevents sellers from shipping out freebies to solicit reviews. It does not, however, weed out the organized shills, such as on fiverr, who simply charge the price of the product so they can buy it and review it and get the "verified purchase" tag. And in the event of fulfillment by Seller, rather than by Amazon, more shenanigans are possible.
If the ER program is limited to fulfillment by Amazon, that problem may be taken care of.
But the real problem is still being masked, and that is the issue of Amazon selling crap products. It's not the reviews that are hurting their brand; it's the crap they're allowing to flood their marketplace.
A year ago, when Amazon launched their Handmade @ Amazon platform, sellers had to apply and be accepted before they could list items in the marketplace. Once a Seller was approved, they could pretty much list just about anything within the parameters; they weren't required to have new products juried in. Though I haven't done any research at all, I suspect there are some sellers in the H@A marketplace who are selling items that would not have passed the original vetting process. There's nothing *I* can do about it, though Amazon should take a hand in policing it. They probably don't and probably won't.
Because they're so damn greedy and want every single selling fee they can get their hands on, consumers be damned AND sellers be damned.
There are crafters and artisans who will not list on H@A because they don't want to deal with the policies of the customer is always right and refunds are always given to quell complaints. This has fostered an attitude amongst sellers -- it's rampant on eBay, too -- that the customer must be satisfied at all costs to avoid any kind of negative feedback. Some Amazon sellers are successful enough that they can afford this kind of refund-on-demand, but others can't and are intimidated by it. This, of course, encourages the purchasing of positive reviews, and it's what has gotten everything so messed up.
(The review policy on Etsy.com is much more restrictive -- only persons who have purchased the item can review it, and they can only review that specific product. The system gets gamed, but not as badly as Amazon or Goodreads.)
At some point, Amazon may find itself forced to restrict what products it allows independent sellers to list on the site. Attempts to regulate reviews and reviewers may simply not be enough, because if there are sellers who are trying to game the product system in the first place, they will continue to find ways to game the review system.
And at some point also, Amazon may very well have to take a position on how it justifies treating books as a separate product category.
Why is an ARC of a book any less of a free product than a bottle of organic vitamins or a non-stick waffle iron or a solar-powered phone charger?
Furthermore, why is a perma-free Kindle book, downloaded 20,000 times to get 100 five-star reviews, any less an incentive?
And what about the incentives and solicitations listed in the books themselves, encouraging readers to leave good reviews so the author can sell more?
How will all of the new regulations -- not just the October 3rd memo with its requirement that the reviewer have purchased $50 worth of merchandise but this new program and any others -- affect reviews on Goodreads? They are no less sales devices than the reviews on Amazon, and I have a feeling it wouldn't take me long to find that some of our favorite fiverr shills are still at work there. (The last time I looked was a few months ago, and it took me about ten minutes to locate the first one and then tie it to an Amazon review.)
Amazon wants the best of all worlds. They want to sell all the products all the time, but they only want legit reviews, and preferably positive ones that sell product. They don't want the hassle of vetting the products -- or the legal liability that would come with it -- but they want all products under the Amazon brand. I think this newest program is an attempt -- and it has both strengths and weaknesses that I can see -- to clean up a horrific mess of their own making, but without actually cleaning it up.
As long as Goodreads is under the Amazon umbrella, there will be just as much dishonesty there as on Amazon, and perhaps much more. Will GR start requiring purchases from Amazon in order to review? What about reviews for out-of-print books not for sale on Amazon, or only on sale through affiliate/independent sellers? What about reviews of library books, borrowed from friends? Many of these books may not even be listed on Amazon.
If reviews are restricted on Amazon -- which they should have been from the beginning -- because Amazon is a retail site, will authors/publishers turn to Goodreads for shilling? Will Goodreads be able to regulate it? Or will Goodreads have to start instituting the same kind of restrictions as on Amazon?
I think that down the road, this new program by Amazon is going to have a big impact on book bloggers. If ARCs and Kindle freebies are allowed to be reviewed, then why not free products in exchange for reviews? And if free products are not permitted, then ARC and freebies should be banned, too.
I can't speak for non-book products, but I do believe, in all sincerity, that without a fully independent book reviewing site, this problem is going to continue and continue and get worse long before it gets better.
And now I'll shut up. At least for a while. Long enough to fix supper.