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.
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?