Fortress Amazon

August 24, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Hi Margo,

You probably remember our discussion last February about Amazon.com after a couple of newspapers outed some anonymous customer reviews that were sent in by the writers’ acquaintances to hype their friends’ work. Now let’s look at the flip side of the equation: customer reviews that are posted to slam a writer or a book’s point of view. Once again, we see the problem of a marketing machine that’s not set up to handle critical content. But, from this angle, the world of the unvetted review seems less like a harmless attempt to puff someone’s book, and more like something with the potential to shut up any writer who’s willing to brook a little controversy.
 
Consider the example of Deanne Stillman, an L.A. writer and author of “Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave.” She’s been fighting a rear-guard action against Amazon’s self-styled reviewers ever since her book came out three years ago. Why? Because, in telling the story of a Marine recently returned from the Gulf War who killed two young women, Stillman ticked off some soldiers and people who lived around the Twentynine Palms Marines base in Southern California.
At least, that’s what Stillman believes, because the volume of negative reviews posted about her book began piling up rapidly, accusing her of bashing the Marine Corps and making the mother of one of the murdered girls look more sympathetic than she really was. “I know the main character,” one so-called reviewer wrote, “and she is trash.”

Such commentary, well outside the scope of Amazon’s own posted guidelines for customer reviews, infuriated Stillman and may have put a damper on sales of her book. She tried to contact the company, but as many of us in the media who have tried to scale the walls have found, it isn’t always easy. (I’m still waiting for responses to several questions I posed while working on this column.)

Eventually, working through the company’s community help desk, Stillman got some action. Since then, she says, 17 reviews have been removed — the latest just weeks ago. To be sure, the posted reviews of “Twentynine Palms” remain mixed (even though the L.A. Times picked her book as one of the best in 2001). But “I don’t mind bad reviews,” Stillman told me in an e-mail. “My problem was the personal attacks.”

The problem for Amazon, meanwhile, is that while they’ve created what one spokesman characterized as “an extremely popular feature,” they face a heck of a job monitoring it. “If we see or are notified about a customer review that does not adhere to (our) guidelines, we review it and remove it,” I was told. That means it’s up to authors such as Stillman to do their own checking, file complaints as needed, and wait for the offending comments to be banished. It’s a new spin on caveat emptor, and not a good one.

Hey Ellen,

Amazon’s review policy was also under fire last week for its treatment of the Vietnam mud-splattering book against John Kerry, “Unfit for Command.” According to NewMediaMusings.com, Amazon pulled all the critical reviews off the book’s page when someone complained after the posting of a phony negative review ascribed to John McCain.

On DailyKos.com, there was a lively discussion about whether it would be fair for Amazon to pull ALL reviews for “political screeds,” as one user put it, adding:

There’s really no point in reading the Amazon reviews on books by Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, etc. because:




  • Every single review is either 1 or 5 stars (depending on your political leanings)
  • 99.9 percent of the reviews don’t have anything interesting to offer about the book’s actual content
  • Many, if not most, of the reviewers probably didn’t even read the book

I tend to agree, but I think the answer may be more reviews, not fewer ones. Why not let everyone have their say? It’s not like the Internet has a space problem. Amazon apparently agrees. This week it posted the following on the “Unfit for Command” page:



Important note from Amazon.com: We’ve decided to suspend our normal customer review policies and rules for this title. For example, we usually prohibit ad hominem attacks. That policy in particular seems to be incompatible with presidential election year politics. Therefore, short of obscenities, reviews on this book are now a free-for-all. We take no responsibility for the following discussion. Aren’t presidential election years great? Have fun!


The last time I looked, there were 944 customer reviews!

I do feel bad for authors like Deanne Stillman who are the subjects of a concerted attack. But it’s important to remember that none of the reviews on Amazon.com should be taken too seriously. Amazon is not a media outlet, but is in the business of SELLING books. Although Amazon.com began by hiring a staff of real critics like James Marcus, who describes his five-year stint at the company in  “Amazonia,” the editorial reviews that I read now are only written in a POSITIVE vein. So, the author always has at least one champion — the bookseller!

By the way, a user on DailyKos.com also fretted about the fact that Amazon had eliminated all the reviews posted for “My Pet Goat,” the book that was being read in that Sarasota classroom when George W. Bush was told about the 9/11 attacks. But it turns out that eight reviews of the book can be found under the more obscure title “Reading Mastery II: Storybook 2, Rainbow Edition” by Siegfried Engelmann and Elaine C. Bruner. I guess political satire is compatible with presidential election year politics.

Margo,
 
So let’s split the baby regarding customer reviews: Given all or nothing, I choose nothing. If a website doesn’t have the means to sufficiently monitor its content, that’s a problem that ought to be fixed, not shaken off with a “the more, the merrier ” attitude. Fortunately, this is a belief shared by Powell’s Books, the Portland, Ore., independent with a prominent Web presence (although its sales are a fraction of Amazon’s, as owner Michael Powell readily admits). At Powells.com, nary a customer review can be found. And why’s that? Good taste and solid business judgment, if you ask me.

Given its smaller staff and resources, Powell’s services the 300,000-plus subscribers to its newsletter with reviews from publications such as Salon.com and L.A. Weekly. It’s a reciprocal deal that gives these partners a promotional opportunity on the Powell’s site and sometimes gives Powell’s access on its partners’ sites. It’s not that Powell’s wouldn’t like more interaction with its customer base (and, in fact, has launched an essay contest to celebrate its decade on the Web, asking readers to opine on their most memorable reading experience of the past 10 years). But opportunity and responsibility go hand in hand. Especially in the intemperate environment of this political season.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article suggested that, in his book “Amazonia,” author James Marcus said that editorial reviews are always written in a positive vein. Marcus did not say that.