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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Amazon's Arbitrary Review Policy Only Adds to the Problem of Bias

Amazon is biased against some forms of bias.

But not others.

And that's biased in and of itself.

Confused? Well, a lot of people are - especially authors like me. I'm an indie author, one among the rising hoard of self-published writers who are sharing their stories with readers in a whole new way. We've gotten tired wading through stacks of rejection letters and waiting months (or years) for our books to see the light of day by submitting our manuscripts to traditional publishers.

Old-line publishing is to the author what the IRS is to the taxpayer: a tangle of red tape and a barrage of bureaucracy. Sure, you can get a book published. If you have an agent. If you have an established name. If you have the patience of Job, the determination of Sisyphus and the spare time of H.G. Welles' Time Traveller.

Indie authors seldom have any of the above. We're like third-party political candidates. We've got a lot of good ideas, but we don't have the financial backing to hire armies of editors, publicists and lawyers. We have to do it ourselves. We work regular jobs to make ends meet and hope we have enough energy and creativity at the end of the day to tell a tale people will want to devour.

Now, with the advent of do-it-yourself publishing services like CreateSpace, Lulu and Smashwords, pretty much anyone can publish a book for free - which is a good thing because it circumvents all those scowling editors who barely look at most of the manuscripts they receive before tossing them into the trash heap. Or who don't open them at all unless they're from "agented" writers.

But it's also a bad thing, because without these gatekeepers, anyone can publish a book - including all those authors whose manuscripts deserved to be thrown in the trash. So we're left with two choices: 1) a bad system that misses a lot of good talent or 2) a free-for-all in which it seems virtually impossible to distinguish between talented authors and unschooled wannabes.

Virtually, but not entirely. That's where reviews are supposed to come in. In theory, they give readers a way of distinguishing the worthless from the worthy. But they don't work the way they're supposed to because they're often the product of biases, feuds and hidden agendas.

The problem, Amazon seems to think, started when some authors started paying people for positive reviews, while others asked family members to give leave glowing praise. Amazon got worried that this would skew the reviews, so it has put a stop to the practice. The New York Times reports that writers say "thousands of reviews have been deleted" in recent months without any public explanation.

This would be all well and good, except it does nothing to curb other sorts of bias. If you've written about a controversial subject, for example, people who haven't even read your book are free to slam it - and Amazon won't lift a finger to stop it. Reviews also can contain patently false statements. To my way of thinking, these are far worse than simple bias. They're lies.

For instance, when a reviewer, without any evidence, refers to other reviews on the page as "fake positive reviews," one might expect Amazon to take action.

Nope. The review is left in place. But reviews of fans, meanwhile, are taken down without any apparent justification. Amazon seems to have installed itself as judge, jury and executioner for authors, who are denied any form of due process and are considered guilty without any chance to prove their innocence.

Granted, Amazon owns the site. It can do as it sees fit. But one has to wonder why it wants to encourage negative reviews. That's basically what it's doing. In cracking down on one form of bias but ignoring others, it's giving the green light to trolls and haters to pretty much trash books with impunity ... and guess what? That's exactly what they're going to do. The site will become skewed toward negative reviewers who have grudges against authors, don't like what they're writing about or just enjoy creating havoc because it gives them a rush.

The upshot of all this, curiously, is that Amazon - which gets a cut of the profits when we indie authors sell a book - isn't going to make as much money.

So, it's self-defeating.

Here's a novel idea: Maybe Amazon should get rid of reviews altogether. It already offers potential buyers a "look inside" feature that allows them to read a good portion of the book for themselves. It's a far better way to judge a book than by looking at what various strangers have to say about it - strangers from unknown backgrounds with unclear agendas (and, in some cases, with very little writing talent of their own).

If you read the sample chapters on Amazon and don't like what you're reading, why on Earth should you buy the book? And if you fail to read the sample chapters, that's on you. Don't blame the author for writing something you didn't bother to read before buying it. No one who's that negligent has any business complaining that the purchase was a "waste of money."

This may be a drastic step, and I don't entirely like the idea myself (I get more good reviews than bad ones). But it's better than an unfair review process that's skewed toward bashers. A sensible alternative would be to eliminate all reviews that don't have something of substance to say about the content of the book - positive or negative. Acceptable reviews would say things like "the narrative was too heavy on description for my taste" would be fine; people who says things like "a load of crap" and "a waste of money" wouldn't be given an audience. Perhaps Amazon will adopt a policy such as this in the future; I sincerely hope so.

In its current misguided effort to address bias, however, Amazon has simply compounded the problem by skewing reviews toward a single type of bias while turning a blind eye toward everything else. That's a shame, because Amazon deserves plenty of credit for opening doors to self-published authors. In adopting an irresponsible and arbitrary policy toward reviews, however, it's threatening to slam the door in our collective faces.

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