Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Amazon—or Shamazon? inside customer reviews

A few days ago, INTERN was pleased to note that customer reviews of her just-released book were starting to appear on Amazon. And not just any customer reviews—reviews from bonafide strangers. Strangers in places like Florida. Strangers who had clearly read INTERN's book (or done a good job of flipping through it) and whose reviews were surprisingly thorough.

Suspiciously thorough.

Reading through them a second time, it struck INTERN as odd that all these disinterested Floridians were posting such voluble reviews so soon after the book had come out.

Then INTERN noticed something.

Two of the reviews came from Amazon Top Reviewers. Two other reviewers were members of something called the Amazon Vine Program. Only one of the customer reviewers was naked of such tags—and, interestingly enough, that review was the shortest and seemed the most genuine.

After some quick research, INTERN came across this article in Slate (titled "The Murky Demimonde of Amazon's Top Reviewers") in which another first-time author relates an identical experience. (so identical that there is hardly any point in INTERN writing this post—you should really go read that Mr. Hallberg's essay for the rest of the scoop!)

Long story short, it appears that INTERN's publisher—like lots of other publishers—solicited customer reviews through these Amazon programs.

On the one hand, it's sort of an OK thing to do—after all, the reviewers are strangers to INTERN and have no incentive to leave a positive review rather than a negative one (except maybe the incentive to review things positively so people send them more swag). Also, INTERN suspects that seeding a book's customer review section with a few starter reviews—positive or negative—has the effect of spurring other, "real" customers to write reviews in response. (it's easier to jump in on a dialogue than to start one yourself).

On the other hand, it totally undermines the concept of a customer—repeat, customer—review. These people didn't buy INTERN's book. They didn't make an agonized decision over whether to part with sixteen bucks in order to get a copy. As INTERN knows from a very brief stint reviewing CDs for her college newspaper, the mere fact of getting something for free can influence your feelings about it greatly (once, INTERN wrote a glowing review of Chingy's album "Hoodstar"—clearly unable to distinguish between the album's merit and her own feeling of elation at getting free swag. This is also the reason INTERN should never be allowed to be a Top Reviewer on Amazon.)

It only made things weirder when INTERN started clicking around other books on Amazon and reviews that were clearly solicited started jumping out at her like hedgehogs.

INTERN herself has never left a book review on Amazon. She is pretty sure her mom (who reads a ton of books) doesn't leave reviews, and neither do any of her bookish friends.

INTERN is therefore curious: who does write actual customer reviews of books on Amazon? Do any of you? Do you trust the "customer reviews" you read on Amazon? Is there good reason to feel squeamish about Top Reviewers and Amazon Vine, or is it perfectly above board? Have you ever published a book and gotten weird-tasting reviews from Floridians on Amazon?

47 comments:

  1. I actually took the time to write one once. A thoughtful, thorough review of a book I had high expectations for and found slightly disappointing. I felt the need to write it because so many of the reviews were incredibly positive and while mine wasn't outright negative I felt it was only fair to let others like me know it wasn't as great as the first book it followed. After typing it up and posting (I think I gave it 3 stars) I got the message that it would appear shortly.

    It never did. (And yes I was logged in and all set up to review.) So... yeah, make of that what you will.

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  2. I've actually written a couple reviews for books that I enjoyed, but it's very sporadic and rare.

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  3. Confession: I'm part of the Amazon Vine program. However, I give reviews that reflect my honest opinion, and I try not to slam the author or book while doing so. I'm sure many others are like that who post their reviews.

    As to how the vine program reviewers are chosen, I have no idea. They asked if I wanted free books for the 'price' of reviewing them, and I agreed. I'm not even close to being a top reviewer as I have a LIFE, lol; but there was an email that said something like "you are a reviewer with 99% helful scores on your reviews" or something like that. As I have very few votes for helpful/unhelpful on my reviews, it was a bit of a puzzle for me.

    The top reviewer thing looks a bit suspicious to me, too.

    But I do leave reviews on books I've read (but only some of the time)...particularly if I like them a lot or if I think some aspect of the book needs to be shared for future buyers. An example is a review I left for a particular reference book, which, as described, sounded more geared toward a specific use than it actually was IMO.

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  4. I write customer reviews for books I've bought, or borrowed from the library, or got from the charity shop. Mostly if the book is very good or very bad.

    I love the image of solicited reviews jumping out at you like hedgehogs!

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  5. hmm that is kind of unsettling. I don't write customer reviews but i have bought some books on the strength of them. i feel a bit cheated now. mind you as an author it's pretty good for you so i wouldn't be too worried about it.

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  6. Above board? Caveat emptor.

    I review reviews for a hobby. It's fun to suss out what kind of review is posing as what. And they're all posers. The good ones don't let on that they're posing.

    Promotional reviews have distinct characterisitics distinguishing them from critical reviews, from literary reviews, from medley reviews, from dissenting reviews, vanity reviews. The lot also have some not too tol'ably dissimilar characteristics from time to time.

    The reviews on Amazon are by and large medley reviews that wander about without a central focus. A very rare once in a while an Amazon review might be a dynamic promotional review.

    Vanity reviews, dissenting reviews, and critical reviews are a dime a dozen and about as fresh and as vigorous as a stubbled cornfield in late winter. They're more about the personalities writing them than the actual works under discussion. I have yet to encounter a good literary review on Amazon, some transparent posers, let alone outside of scholarly journals and academia.

    The weird experience I've had with Amazon reviews, with promotional reviews in the media, elsewhere, comes from the eerie reverberaton of a tagline in my voice I wrote for a book proposal that's appeared verbatim in every published commentary about the published book I've seen since.

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  7. Amazon's review system is poo. They are able to track who you are and what you buy, but they haven't extended that to the review system so that only a person who has bought the book can review the book.

    Be that as it may, they do have a review program that tags people as "Real Name" or some such. They also have a small rating system for each review, and the ability to leave comments on the review. The combination of those things makes reviews helpful.

    When Amazon is offering up a suggestion based on the buying habits similar to your own, the reviews that are real reviews are helpful in validating that suggestion. In that regard, I have left reviews on Amazon to return the favor.

    The system still sucks, though. Amazon is wasting the opportunity to further build their community of buyers by interjecting noise into the review system with a crappy design. I'm not the first person to point this out, either. I am like Person #438,715.

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  8. Not really sure how it's any different than consumer reports, or when tech sites get free gadgets to write reviews. I would imagine that is what those people do, and they probably did read the book. As an educated customer people should know those are solicited reviews, but I don't see why they wouldn't be honest.

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  9. I went through a similar experience when I worked for a publisher where we followed the same practice. I now no longer trust any positive online reviews; in fact, I only trust positive reviews from people I know and trust (or bloggers I know and trust). However, I do still use the negative reviews as benchmarks, since those are hopefully not solicited. If enough people are saying the same negative thing and it's something I care about, then I don't get that product. If I find the negative reviews flippant or there aren't any, I figure that's probably a pretty good product.

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  10. I've left a handful of reviews (from Florida no less) but in general I don't review. If I like a book, there's usually a hundred other people who have exalted it. If I didn't like it, well, that's just my taste.

    But, I DO read the reviews. At least for books I'm on the fence about. I like ones that are thorough and don't just say "this was the bestest book in my entire life".

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  11. Weird, I had no idea that happened! I tend to use Barnes & Noble over Amazon because I can't stand their site layout. I do tend to trust the B&N reviews to give me an overall consensus about the book's strengths and weaknesses.

    I used to post a review once in a while but now that I can vent on my blog, I don't bother.

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  12. I have my own book blog, so I get free books every now and again to review. I don't think it influences my decision about whether or not I'll like the book. (Though it does mean I'll finish it, where sometimes if I hate a book I bought/checked out of the library, I'll abandon it.) If I'm on the fence about a book, I'll just ask myself whether it was worth $15. If the answer is no, its no.

    Occasionally, I cross-post my reviews over at Amazon (though I'm not in their Vine program). They have a really bad rep about reviewers posting nothing but positive reviews.

    Instead, I belong to the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, where they send you a free book in exchange for a review. They make it very clear, though, that the review doesn't have to be positive.

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  13. I actually have a friend who is part of the Amazon Vine program-- they give out a list of items that the reviewers can choose from, and they pick what they want to review. He's a pretty stand up guy, and I'm not sure how they chose him to be part of the program, but I'd definitely trust his reviews, because I know he's honest whether he got the stuff free or not.

    I'm not sure it's any different than publishers soliciting reviews from magazines or anywhere else though. Or even that different from publishers soliciting reviews from other authors. Where's the line between passing out arcs and Vine?

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  14. Trust Amazon? Heck no. By the time I'm reading reviews on Amazon, I've probably already decided to buy the book--from a bookstore. I have never bought a book from Amazon, based on trusting reviews or otherwise, and I have never felt the urge to leave a review either. When I think of Amazon reviewers, I always imagine a cage full of glory-hungry semi-readers competing for "Most Helpful Review" rankings in order to feel fulfilled and valued in their empty, desk-jockey lives.

    Not to say that all people whi review on Amazon are like that, but it's fun to imagine.

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  15. I have been posting reviews on and off since Amazon first provided the ability to review books. Since I also publish books, I'm careful not to review books that compete with mine.

    My publishing company doesn't send Amazon free books, so we don't get Vine reviews. I was invited to join the Vine program some years ago because of my reviewing history but refused.

    The deal is that the Vine reviewers get their choice of free books, electronics, etc, so they are motivated to post reviews that sell product--i.e. positive ones. I don't think the Vine reviews help sell books.

    The "Verified Amazon purchaser" reviews do, since they show people DID fork over the bucks for the book and liked it enough to praise it.

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  16. very neat to hear from you folks on Amazon Vine! it sounds like fun. and since you are fine upstanding commenters, it makes INTERN feel less weird about Amazon Vine.

    and y'all are right that there's not much difference between the Amazon thing and any other kind of review—except for INTERN's (mistaken) assumption that most reviews on Amazon come from actual random customers.

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  17. I read the Amazon's customers reviews mainly to get information that was not in the product information above. For example, if the book is a collection of stories by various authors, I will read the review that lists all the writers. I use the reviews like the book's jacket copy. The reviews give me more details about the book.

    I pay little attention to the number of stars any book gets nor care whether the reviewer liked the book or not. The stars system lost their meaning to me when reviewers started to give low scores to books the reviewer enjoyed but had a problem with the seller.

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  18. Ha! I knew it! INTERN has sold out!

    Seriously, it sounds like this took you by surprise but don't fret about it. It is smart to have some reviews up under your title and your publisher is wise to make sure this happens. Even people who don't read the reviews might see "no reviews" and think that no one has read or even wants to read your book.

    In a fit of consumer solidarity last year I posted my very first Amazon review on a title I was excited about the fell a bit flat. It was a bestseller so I figured my "3 Stars...pretty good but overhyped" review wouldn't hurt anything and might actually help if someone tempered their expectations before reading. It was a good review, just not glowing.

    The husband of the author read my review and followed up with me on it. He was awesome about it but obviously disappointed that truly random customer out there did not think more highly of his wife's efforts. In fact, he was so cool that I vowed to make sure I buy the sequel, which I bet will be better. But I also decided not to review anything else.

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  19. I've written about forty reviews, and have received good comments for them, since I try to be very thorough. (And I'd be thoroughly pleased if you were to send me some swag.)

    As for whether Amazon's reviews are to be trusted, no. Some authors go to great lengths to manipulate their reviews. To post a "Real Name" review, you only need to provide a credit card, and then you can call yourself Amazonian Swaggie.

    About the whole Prime deal, no idea, but any half-decent review is better than no review.

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  20. I start reading the 10th or so review to get real people's reviews, ie beyond the author's family/friends and official Amazon reviewers. Not that the Amazon reviewers are bad, but I like to read the reviews of people who bought the book and felt motivated enough to review it (one way or another).

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  21. I'm a #~2500 reviewer on Amazon, and I am part of the vine program.

    I like the vine program, but I don't like the other vine reviewers.

    If I were to write a book, I probably wouldn't put it through Amazon's vine program. I think that you end up getting worse reviews on average than if you just have random readers review your book. Basically, whatever the viners give you, add one star, and that's probably what regular people will give you.

    So, the reviews on the Vine program are real, and they're not inflated. They're deflated if anything.

    Sometimes they customize the swag you get from Amazon vine, but usually it's super random stuff. So you'll see some viner say stuff in a review like, "Well, I don't ever read children's books, but I got this kid's book free from vine, so...." I think that's a crummy way to start a review.

    Hey, and what's the real title of your book? I wanna read the amazon reviews.

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  22. I've written gobs of reviews on Amazon. Now that I've learned this, though, I feel like my reviews aren't worth llama spit.

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  23. I'm a university professor and I occasionally make my students construct critical analysis papers for the purpose of posting Amazon book reviews. I haven't done it lately because the papers they write are usually sort of boring and, yanno, when you read Amazon reviews you want to see a lot of !!!!! or !?#$%^&**#, or something otherwise more entertaining and/or revealing than traditional academic death prose.

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  24. swampthings, she's not going to tell us. Anonymity, remember?

    INTERN, do you often have hedgehogs leap out at you?

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  25. I taught middle school (6th-8th grades) and had my 7th graders write and post reviews of books they read for class on Amazon. This was ~4 years ago, but it was exciting to them and the fact that they would be "published" helped them take their writing seriously.

    That's my only experience with Amazon's review system, though. Like you, I thought it was regular readers writing all that stuff.

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  26. I have to admit, I don't write customer reviews on Amazon. I've tried before, but it never seemed to be a simple process. Things always went wrong.
    Then again, I'm not emotionally invested in doing it either, since I don't read them, so I don't see them as uber-helpful things.

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  27. I didn't even know about this Amazon Vine program. I have written reviews many times and often feel guilty for not doing it enough, though I'm not sure why.

    I understand why INTERN doesn't want to divulge the name of her book, but part of me is REALLY bummed that we don't get to FULLY share in the new book excitement.

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  28. Well I've got 2 things from reading this.

    1. Check to see who's reviewing the books before I take their word.

    2. Take the time to write about a good book (or more importantly a bad one).

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  29. I always read the 2 or less star reviews, I find honest bad reviews useful most of the time. On the other hand, is easier to tell if some one wrote a pissed off or plain stupid bad review, than telling if someone is just pretending to like a book, hence writing a dishonest good review . If there is any good honest bad review, then I might consider reading the 4/5 stars reviews.

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  30. I looked up reviews for 20+ children's books I loved growing up, and a single user posted outraged reviews on everything from Goodnight, Moon to the Black Lagoon series.

    On the whole, I avoid them since Amazon has a history of removing negative reviews from scientology books.

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  31. I've never left a review on Amazon. I love how you question this even though it benefits you (hopefully).

    Now as for Hoodstar...twas a classic maam, a classic lol.

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  32. You mean maybe the Three Wolf Moon shirt I bought on the strength of the reviews may not actually bring me magical manly prowess?

    Dang.

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  33. I've been posting reviews to Amazon since 2001, and a couple of years ago was luck enough to be invited into the Vine program. To me, it doesn't matter if the book was sent free, if I paid full price, or if I checked it out of the library- I see the investment as the number of hours I put into reading it rather than the number of dollars I spent on it. I review based on whether or not the book was worth my reading time. Did it transport me to another world? Was I crushed when I came to the end because I wanted the story to continue? Was reading the book a chore, one I eagerly abandoned to do dishes or scrub the shower? Was the book so bland I forget about the plot and characters 5 minutes after finishing?

    Vine offers two newsletters per month, and (if you are caught up on your reviews) a Viner can choose two items from each newsletter. The first list is a shorter, targetted letter; the second, a combination of all the leftovers from all the targetted lists. To put it in perspective, the last leftovers list had about 30 books that interested me- choosing only 2 was painful so you bet your ass I'm invested in those two books.

    Also, Vine reviews are labeled as such, and are the only reviews that can be posted in advance of the publication date so I think publishers like them because they can build buzz. I've been lucky enough to read some truly excellent books thanks to Vine, and often add books I didn't choose to my wishlist for the future. Of course, now I'm sad I don't know which book is the Intern's so I could add it to my list!

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  34. I've posted a few reviews here and there (Amazon, LibraryThing...) but I'd rather be free to read what I want than become a professional reviewer. Considering how many hours it takes me to read a book, you would have to pay me upwards of $1,000 per review to make it worth my time. I post reviews on the Book Book blog just for the fun of it.

    I pay some attention to reviews on Amazon, but not much. The reviews of non-book products can be more useful - I will generally read several of them before making a purchase over $50.

    The "Look Inside" feature is what helps me to decide on a non-fiction book, whereas my fiction-buying process defies logic and is therefore not worth discussing.

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  35. I've done Amazon reviews. Well, and Barnes and Nobel, Lulu.com, and anywhere else I happen to find a book that I reviewed. Of course, I write it for my blog first and just copy/paste it in the various locations, which means most people can easily tell that I wrote it because I read it.

    I do usually review stuff I get for free (mostly "post to be a winner of a free book" type of thing). Though, I'm not... glowing of anyone's stuff. Nor am I entirely negative. Mainly because either of those reviews are useless to the writer (who I mainly write for).

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  36. INTERN, how do you feel about the fact that, although we would all likely buy your book in two seconds, you can't reveal your information on this blog?

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  37. I have written the occassional Amazon review of a book I've bought and loved. Can't remember if I've ever written one for a book I've bought and hated.
    Reviews do play a large part in whether or not I buy a book off Amazon. There are oyur marmite books which oyu either love or hate, and I don't take much notice of negative reviews in such cases. Conversly, if the book only has a minority of good reviews and the rest are poor or mediocre then I don't bother with it.
    I do hear from author friends that they agonise over even one negative review on their Amazon listing, and I have to assure them to ignore it, it really doesn't matter, and they should get back to writing their next one.

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  38. Generally, I don't bother, but I've left reviews on Amazon twice.

    Once was for a book I'd bought, read, and loved, but that was also written by a friend and former professor. While I was a customer, I wasn't a disinterested one.

    The other was kind of funny. I've been doing typing and various computer stuff for an older family friend while she recovers from some vision problems, and she had me use Amazon to order some things. She was so excited to discover the kind of clothes hangers she liked - apparently difficult to find - that she had me leave a review, which she dictated, about how great they were.

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  39. I've written 2 or 3 reviews on Amazon for writer friends (favorable and probably puffy, but then, I liked their books) and perhaps a handful for books I had no connection to. I think, Intern, that as time goes by and there are more people reading your book (about the old folks and what they can do in the West, natch) you will get reviews that are unbiased and trustworthy. Courage!

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  40. I've written a bunch of Amazon reviews, mostly because I like talking about books, but none of the people I know in real life like the books I like, or (on the rare occasion that they do) want to talk about them as much as I do. It's a fun way to work through my impressions of a book after reading it.

    A couple of times people have requested me to review books for them, and offered to send me free copies, but I declined. I can get as many amazing books as I'd like from my local library, without the subtle pressure to give a positive review.

    As far as trusting Amazon reviews--after awhile you get a feel for which ones are genuine and which ones aren't. I rarely buy books period, but Amazon does influence what I check out from the library.

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  41. I'm guilty of writing reviews on Amazon. I do this to share my views on books that have struck me either positively or negatively. Most books I read I do not review.
    I tend to only read negative reviews on Amazon to see how the nuts evaluate the book. Most positive reviews are just gushy and seldom tell me anything about the book.
    There you go...

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  42. I'm a member of Amazon Vine, and was invited to participate because I'd written a number of reviews which had received favorable/helpful votes from other customers.

    There's absolutely no pressure from Amazon to post positive reviews for the products received (up to 4 a month), but a requirement that you review a certain percentage of those items (so you're not just a swag leech).

    Personally, I don't give items (including books) a better review because I got them free. On the other hand, even if a book isn't quite to my taste, I try to at least describe who might enjoy it a bit more than I did.

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  43. I'm not much of a reviewer. I'm a writer and so I feel I'm a tad biased.

    I'm privy to some of the 'secret' names people use online and so I know that some of the reviews are written by authors. Take that as a sign of how honest their reviews are or how valid you should consider their opinions.

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  44. Writing free reviews on Amazon is sort of like writing for Wikipedia. You don't get paid, you probably won't get much glory, but you enjoy writing enough to do it for free and you like the environment you're writing in. I like *reading* Amazon reviews to compare products before I buy, so when I feel like it, I write the kind of review I like to read.

    Prolific reviews get invited to Vine, where you get to keep writing reviews, but also get a few free things per month to review. Unless you luck out and get a camera or a laptop or something, the main appeal of Vine is that you get some stuff you might not look at otherwise.

    In my limited observation, the average Vine review tends to be a little more critical than the average non-Vine review, but not much. As you point out, Vine reviewers didn't pay for the product, so they haven't self-selected as much to probably like it. Also, there's a risk that you get someone who's not that familiar with the genre and just doesn't like it. OTOH, most of the Viners had to write successful reviews to get there, so their reviews also tend to be a little more thoughtful than average.

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  45. I am a both a reviewer for Amazon Vine - and one of the Top 100 reviewers. I also get 5-10 requests per day from publishers asking to me write reviews. I turn down 99% of the requests.

    Intern - I think you should change the word "customer" to "consumer" and you will have a better understanding of the Amazon process. A consumer borrows from a library or exchanges between friends. This is certainly a bigger net of people than "customers". A consumer also has a interest in determining which book to borrow or what they should read.

    However, back to my point. Why do I turn down 99% of the review requests? Reading books takes time - this is time away from my family. What makes it worse is that many of these self-published books are not well-written. Trust me, I have zero interest spending hours reading BAD books.

    So why do I write ANY reviews? Well-to-be-honest, it is a hobby that I enjoy. I like helping people make informed selections. In fact, most of my non-book reviews are video reviews (which take a few hours) where I try to demostrate the features of a product that I like or dislike. I hate to sound altruistic, but the purpose of my reviews are to ...review.

    What happens if I receive a book that I dislike? Well if I bought it will likely write a tough review. If it is sent to me (outside of Amazon Vine) I will likely give the author/publisher the option to have me not publish the review. The reason... I hate to write negative reviews for people that are just getting started. It is also possible that I was not the correct audience or my demographic was slanted. I think it is important for everyone to remember that the reviews on Amazon are not intended to be professional.

    So what can you make of this? First off - you need to be able to trust your high ranking reviewers (let's say in the Top 500). My guess is that about 25% are simply review monkeys. The other 75% hate these reviewers because they give the rest of us a bad name. The only way you can trust them is to scroll through some of their other reviews. Within a couple of minutes you will be able to determne which ones are writing reviews as a hobby and which ones are working agendas.

    Just my 2 cents

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  47. I am a Vine member, too, and I have to say that the blog post - and not some of the commentary from other Vine members - is exactly correct. It's that golden - nay - platinum glow of getting something free, and then being cognizant of the fact that, all told, a providing manufacturer/publisher would prefer positive reviews to increase sales, versus giving out stuff at their own expense only to have it savaged and have it tank. There is that reciprocity arc there that any Vine reviewer who is not totally oblivious simply must take into consideration.

    So far my bigesst "hauls" have been a $175-ish item and an $80-ish item, along with many other, lesser-priced items. As the price declines, so does the *initial* split-second, snap-urge to go WOW GREAT PRODUCT LOVE IT KEEP IT COMING AMAZON WOO HOOO! Part of that is Amazon requires you to have reviewed 75% of what you have received in order to keep receiving. And, Lordy, do we wish to receive.

    So now Amazon has this stick swatting at your behind - review quick, review often, or next month YOU GET NOTHING!! BWA HA HAAAA.

    I have been chided and denied before (Sorry, you must review 75% of what you request to receive more items), and yeah that sucks when it's something you have a legitimate use and dare I even say need for. At the same time, I just cannot bring myself to hurry hurry hurry and slap up some "TEE HEE THIS SEEMS LIKE A RILLY GREAT PRODUCT I'M LOVING IT SEEMS LIKE IT WORKS GOOD AND STUFF K BYE ON TO THE NEXT PACKAGE IN THE MAIL!!" which I see *all* the time, each time thinking "note to self: that's pathetic."

    In any event, us long-form typing, product obsessing, purchase feature novella writing fools who just want to see this great nation of ours improve through it's items for sale get regaled and showered by Amazon with gifts monthly. I guess this is now cliched on this blog posts' commentary, but I try to do my part to keep it real, and have been mean about products more often than I've been nice.

    That said, I have softened some criticism here and there, and by golly no minor benefit has gone unheralded and I fully recognize that this interplay and that unavoidable slight, subtle bias is the most dangerous part of the whole shenanigan or charade, however you care to look at it.

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