Please note: This blog was updated on 8/27/16. Scroll down for that update.
It's no secret that indie authors—and even publishers—listen to each new "update" or "policy change" with varying degrees of fear. You're the one, the bread, the bacon. No matter how hard or often we try to nurture our sales from other retailers, you're so far ahead of the game that you make up at least sixty percent of many of our incomes. We need you, and you're Amazon ... so you don't need us.
If you hear grumbling about Amazon from the indie community, it's typically in whispers. We can be unhappy that you cut us off at the legs in terms of visibility—compared to 2011 when many of us were able to compete with the Big Five for that coveted spot on your Top 20. Now, with Kindle Unlimited, it's difficult to take the Top 100 Paid list seriously. Tipping over the Top 40 is a feat. We can be unhappy, but no one wants to bite the hand that feeds them, even if that hand is now dishing out scraps when we used to eat steak.
We get it that you're continuously coming up with new ways to strengthen your bottom line. But, you used to be Amazon, the Champion for Indies. Now we have to play by your ever-changing rules that are heavily in your favor. Indie authors have to be somewhat business savvy, and of course competition makes sense to us. But again: you're Amazon. Is it really that important to your bottom line that you force authors to only sell with Kindle Unlimited to receive visibility—something we used to be able to achieve just by sales? Or, that we must shut out all other retailers to even do that, essentially cutting off our fan base. Of course, we have a choice. But that choice is very much like religion: my way, or go to hell. Depart from me, I never knew you. It's not really a choice at all.
The new rule is now making its way around private messages and closed author groups. Readers are discovering that their reviews are disappearing, and asking us why this is happening. There are many theories, but the two main reasons I've heard are that ARC reviews are now being considered "paid for" reviews and no longer allowed, and readers who are considered friends of the author are no longer allowed to post reviews. Now that Amazon owns Goodreads, I've seen readers complain that their reviews are being erased from both sites. I can't confirm this isn't more than just a Goodreads glitch, but it is happening. Here's the thing, Amazon: Our readers are our friends. Today's authors must rely on social media to get the word out about our books, upcoming releases, websites, and news. We have street teams, groups of readers who come together with the sole purpose of promoting that author. They follow our daily lives; they share our milestones; they pray for our children when they come down with an illness. They lift up one another—I've even seen readers raise money when one of them survives a house fire or loses a job. I knew a reader's wedding theme was centered on my series, so I showed up at her wedding. This is a reader who can no longer review my books—books she loves and can't tell others on the two main places for reviews where she can make a difference for me as a way to say thank you.
The dynamic has changed, and particularly for authors who are very involved with their readers online, the new rule is troubling. We need reviews. The number of reviews a title receives translates into being featured in your Also Boughts and newsletter, so they do matter. Do we not engage with our readers? How much is too much? More importantly, we must have relationships with our readers to compete in this new era of publishing. Look at the way Stephen King and Anne Rice are now engaging with readers online in a way they hadn't until this decade. Does it truly tarnish review integrity if authors hang out with readers at book conventions or talk online? I had a reader retreat with twenty-five women this past October. Most of them can no longer review my books. Is their opinion worthless?
Paid reviews I understand. I also recognize that your main goal is to protect the integrity of reviews on your site, and that is for one reason only: to protect your consumers. I only have respect for that. But indies have to wonder just how deep the odds will be stacked against us? One day will we log on the internet to find we have to sell exclusively to Amazon to even sell on Amazon? We miss the days where we could hit upload and let sales happen organically. We miss seeing ourselves on the first page of the Top 100 simply because of our sales numbers, and not with what program we've signed up. We miss the independence of being independent.
Did you know about the whispers? About the worry? Maybe not. Maybe it needed to be said. Amazon routinely asks authors for an assessment of KDP. You have listened in the past. The truth is, we depend on you. You've been good to us, but it's feeling so one-sided there are panicked posts predicting that drastic Amazon change we've all come to fear is just on the horizon—a change those of us who were here in the early days of indie e-publishing have assured new authors wouldn't happen. Because Amazon wouldn't make it impossible for us to continue our success that they helped create. That is the action of a master, not a leader.
Shortly after this blog was published, I was contacted by Amazon. The rep explained that it's Amazon's policy that reviews from the same household can't review that author's book. Also, anyone who has received a free book/ARC must state so in their review. She suggested it was possible that reviews were deleted because I'd held a reader retreat in my home, but none of the reviews that were deleted were written from my home, and only one person whose reviews were removed had received an ARC--and not for a review. It was a giveaway.
Amazon asked that I send in the Amazon-associated emails of anyone who'd had reviews removed. I asked my readers and other authors for emails of their readers. I only had a handful who were willing to cooperate, worried about any repercussion. It's a reasonable conclusion to say this reaction--a concern for Amazon's fairness and even judgement--could mean a lot for how this new policy by Amazon is being perceived.
Today, my assistant told me that she had sent Amazon an angry email. All of her reviews for my books since 2014 have been removed. Granted, she moved her family to Steamboat from Arkansas July 1, 2016, and they're living here until their house closes. It would make sense for her A Beautiful Funeral review to be removed. We're scratching our heads as to why her reviews since 2014 were removed. Also, the admin of a McGuire fan group on Facebook, Jessica Landers has reported that she is no longer allowed to review my books, so has a former admin, Kelli. Neither Jessica nor Kelli has ever been to my home. They purchased the book from Amazon, and it is a verified purchase. Jessica should be able to review my books, even if she's a big fan. Several members of this group are now reporting missing reviews.
Another reader, Amanda has this to say during the discussion as group members learned their reviews had been removed as well:
I had this happen. I tried to put new reviews up and they completely banned me from reviewing. When I pressed the issue, they refused to tell me why and responded that if I continued to question their decision, my entire account would be revoked and I wouldn't be allowed to create a new one.
Just a warning for those of you that keep trying to push a review through that isn't being published. I was doing it on a book that I personally paid for. The ones I was given to review had disclosures in them, I never cursed in my reviews, they weren't all 5 stars (which makes amazon believe they're fake), I didn't know the authors personally, etc.
Jennifer Danielle, also a group member, helped me read the final edit of Beautiful Burn. Her review for Beautiful Burn has been taken down, but she is also a verified purchase. Let me be clear: her association with the book is that she spent a night reading aloud the book to me on Skype so I could check for mistakes int he final draft (I tend to skip unless it's read aloud). Misty Horn also received an ARC, but she had bought the preorder, making hers a verified as well. To be clear: Misty is a social worker and would be in court on A Beautiful Funeral's release day. In Misty's case, she had already preordered the book, so I chose to give her an early copy. It wasn't for reviewing purposes, so why should she have to make the statement that she received an ARC in return for an honest review? That wouldn't be accurate. Why then do we still see "unverified purchase" on reviews? How does Amazon know that wasn't an ARC review and against their policies? It seems many of the people I thank in my acknowledgements are no longer able to to review my books, or have had all or a certain reviews removed. To someone in Amazon, these qualify as "ARCs given in return for an honest review", but that is not why these ARCs were given, and stating that to meet Amazon's guidelines would be inaccurate.
Here are five things that concern me:
1. Clearly, Amazon has a department dedicated to watching both author and reader social media activity and interaction. This is a violation of privacy, pure and simple. I know of two readers whose Amazon accounts are not connected with their Facebook account, so this doesn't seem to be the cause. I'm not sure if this makes me feel better or worse about the practices it must take to make the decision of who is "too close" to an author to review.
2. Someone in that department is making the judgement call of who can and cannot leave reviews, and those judgments are being made erroneously without all the information. These calls are being made beyond the policy parameters (removal of reviews by people who did not receive ARCs in return for reviews, people who've not been to my home). Also, when you introduce judgement calls, you introduce bias. At what point does an employee at Amazon decide a reader's money is good enough for them, but not the review?
3. I don't understand the fundamental reasoning for this policy. Why are authors not allowed to too-closely associate with their readers, and what is the line in which this is decided? This is not just about removing reviews of those living (or apparently even visiting) the home of the author or a statement about receiving an ARC in return for a fair review. My issue is that the decisions are being made outside the parameters of Amazon's own policy, and readers are being told in no uncertain terms to "deal with it" when they try to explain or ask questions.
4. Sending out ARCs for reviews is industry standard, and more importantly, how does Amazon know who is receiving ARCs and who is not? What are the "unverified purchases", and how does Amazon decide those were not ARCs? Why does it seem they're removing readers who received an early copy and who are a verified purchase? Like I wrote in my original blog, nurturing relationships with our readers online is part of our job. Do we disband our fan groups? Leave our acknowledgement sections blank? Stop using beta readers? Stop marketing organically? Amazon is essentially demanding that indie authors stop doing everything we've done to make self-publishing a viable market in the first place.
5. When readers email to complain, they are told Amazon doesn't have to offer an explanation, and if it's pushed, those readers' accounts are threatened to be revoked entirely. When I've asked about returns being allowed longer than the 7 day window (we're talking 6 months to a year after a book was unpublished), I was told Amazon makes exceptions for the sake of exceptional customer service. The responses readers are getting are not exceptional customer service by anyone's standards.
While we're talking about things we're not supposed to say out loud: the conversation among indies at the moment for many issues: allowing readers to gift preorders, returns, missing reviews, KU-biased bestseller lists, etc is that the environment has changed drastically since Amazon finally ironed out the pricing war with traditional publishers. This is coming from authors who Amazon used to personally ask for an evaluation of the self-publishing experience and how they can improve. They've stopped asking. It seems like they've stopped listening, to both readers and authors.
At what point do we direct our readers to other platforms who have fairer business practices? I never hear of iBooks, Google Play, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble readers looking up reviews to find their hard work missing. If this is such a needed policy, why isn't affecting the other platforms?
Please comment below if you have experienced missing reviews, whether you're a reader or author. If you'd rather use my contact form, I understand. If we want this to stop, we have to report it.