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Amazon Geoblocking

Geoblocking on Amazon: 13 Reasons Why I Don’t Want to Switch from Amazon.com to Amazon Australia

Authors (and readers) woke up over the weekend and found that thousands of books had disappeared from the Amazon store.

Only they hadn’t. Really. Except they had. Let’s take a look …

Here is the paperback version of Solo Tu by Narelle Atkins on Amazon.com:

It’s USD 8.99, which is around NZ 13.36 (or NZD 15.36 including sales tax). Here is the sales page on Amazon Australia:

Note the price difference for the paperback? That $26.01 is a lot more expensive than buying the equivalent book from Amazon US, even allowing for New Zealand sales tax (GST) and exchange rate differences.

And what do I get I search for the same book on Amazon US? Nothing. That’s right. Nothing.

But if I go back to the Kindle sales page on Amazon Australia and tweak the website address to read “.com” instead of “.com.au”, here’s what I get:

Voila! The Kindle version is for sale. But I can’t buy it, and I can’t see the price.

Amazon geoblocking is a half-baked solution to a non-problem which many authors are blaming for huge losses in income … which makes sense. How can Amazon customers buy or borrow books that don’t exist?

Update

I can now see Solo Tu on Amazon.com again, and it’s available to buy. Let’s hope it stays that way, because I don’t want to be forced to move … as I explain below.

What is causing this?

There are currently two theories making the rounds. It could be that both are correct:

  1. Amazon is having database troubles.
  2. Amazon is using geoblocking to force customers to buy from their “local” store.

Amazon is having database troubles

It’s no secret that Amazon’s cloud databases are built on Oracle systems. It’s also no secret that Amazon have announced they’ll be moving away from Oracle by the end of 2020. Apparently, Amazon made a big shift in their databases on 1 November 2018, and the theory is this has messed with a lot of books.

This may be related to the problems with the recent move from CreateSpace to KDP Print. This is a move that’s been anticipated for a couple of years. It finally happened in September, with all authors forced to make the move.

But it isn’t only KDP Print or KDP Select books that are affected. Books from major trade publishers are also affected, although those seem to come and go. Two days ago, I was unable to buy the Kindle version of Transcription by Kate Atkinson at the Amazon US store. Today, I can.

Amazon is using geoblocking to force readers to buy from their country stores

Yes, I understand the financial rationale. If Amazon goes to the trouble and expense of setting up a Kindle store and/or a physical distribution centre in a country, then they want customers to buy from that store, not from the US store. There is also the teeny tiny issue of the Australian government believing Amazon should pay sales tax on sales made in Australia to Australians, but let’s leave that to the side for the moment.

But geoblocking (restricting access based on the users IP address) isn’t the answer. Forcing readers to buy from “local” isn’t what’s best for the customer. If shopping from Amazon Australia was best for me, don’t they think I’d have switched years ago? This behaviour makes a lie of Amazon’s stated position as “Earth’s most customer-centric company“.

But Amazon geoblocking isn’t good for customers who buy books.

And anything that isn’t good for readers also isn’t good for authors, because it encourages people to read less, or to buy other books (you know, books Amazon.com will actually sell them). Or it gives them (me) the push they’ve needed to check out another ebook store, such as Kobo or iBooks. Or to actually work out how to borrow ebooks from my local library.

As I see it, readers appear to have four options:

  1. Give in to the geoblocking and switch to the local Amazon store for Kindle purchases.
  2. Work around the geoblocking and wwitch their default address to a US address (e.g. Amazon HQ).
  3. Do nothing.
  4. Buy from Kobo or iBooks.

I’ve discussed these briefly in Where Have All the eBooks Gone? at International Christian Fiction Writers. But here I want to go into more detail about why the obvious answer—switching to the local Amazon store—is not a viable option for many Amazon customers. It didn’t take me long to come up with 13 reasons why. Or why not:

  1. Existing Kindle Library
  2. More Variety
  3. Better Sales
  4. eBook Gifting
  5. Gift Cards
  6. Giveways
  7. Reviews
  8. Currency Conversion
  9. Affiliate Links
  10. Embed Codes
  11. Kindle Family
  12. Audible Subscriptions
  13. Other Subscriptions

Existing Kindle Library

Switching from Amazon.com to Amazon. com.au means customers run the risk of losing access to their Amazon.com purchases. It shouldn’t happen, in theory, but I’ve heard of people having their entire Kindle purchase history wiped, so anything is possible.

Last time I checked, my Amazon.com purchases didn’t show. Now they do. Amazon assures me it’s to my benefit to change, but I disagree.

More Variety

Amazon.com has a wider variety of Kindle books available. Well, it did last week. It still does—it’s just I can’t buy most of them from Amazon.com. I’ve seen many complaints that customers can’t buy specialised books in the Australian store.

Better Sales

A lot of sales are only available at the US site, including free downloads.

Note that only US and UK residents can benefit from Kindle Countdown deals, which is annoying. But switching to Amazon Australia won’t get me Countdown deals either, so that’s a moot point.

ebook Gifting

Amazon US allows ebook gifting. The Australian site does not. You can check this in the screenshots above: the US site has a “Give as GIft” button below the buy button. This is missing from the Australian site.

Many authors, influencers, and bloggers (including me) like to be able to gift Kindle books to friends, fans, or contest winners.

Gift Cards

Amazon US allows customers to buy and give away gift cards. Authors, influencers, and bloggers often use gift cards as an incentive to get readers to perform some action e.g. comment on a blog post, or write a review (but not an Amazon review, as that would be against Amazon’s reviewing guidelines).

Giveaways

Amazon US allows customers to give away books as a promotional tool. Amazon Australia does not offer this feature.

Reviews

Customers have to spend USD 50 per year on an Amazon site in order to be able to review (something I’ve previously discussed). If I’m forced to move from the US to the Australian site, the time will soon come when I’m no longer able to review on the US site. Reviews have more visibility on the US site, and book promotion organisations require a minimum number of Amazon US reviews before they’ll promote a book. Restricting reviewers will make that target harder to meet.

Currency Conversion

Many Amazon customers are also Amazon affiliates or Amazon sellers. It makes sense for them to shop in the same currency they earn in. For most people, this is US dollars, because Amazon.com is the biggest store.

Affiliate Earnings

I’m an Amazon affiliate, which means if you click one of my links and buy something on Amazon, they’ll pay me a commission of around 4% for referring you as a customer. I don’t earn a lot in affiliate income, but what I do earn is paid out as Amazon US gift vouchers. I could get paid direct to my bank account, but the minimum payment is higher and much of it would be taken as fees.

I’ve also signed up for the Amazon Australia affiliate scheme. It only pays out to Australian bank accounts … which I don’t have, because I’m not Australian. Because Australia and New Zealand are different countries. Like the United States of America and Canada are different countries. It seems Amazon doesn’t understand this relatively simple fact of geography.

Embed Codes

Amazon offers embed codes so bloggers can embed a sample of a book on their blog post, like this:

This embed code was copied from the Australian website, but leads back to the US site. That’s great for US customers, but means there is no incentive to switch to Amazon Australia.

Kindle Family

I don’t use Kindle Family, but it is a scheme which allows family members to effectively share a Kindle account. There is a catch: the family has to live together and shop at the same store. So if one family member tries to tell Amazon he or she lives in the US (to be able to access the US store), then the Family is broken and they can no longer share the account.

Audible Subscriptions

Audible (Amazon audiobook) subscriptions are still on Amazon US. Yes, customers can transfer them, but that’s an added hassle, and one more place for things to go wrong.

Other Subscriptions

Some Amazon users subscribe to newspapers or magazines through Amazon US. I saw one person complain that when they tried to switch to Amazon Australia, they were warned their subscription would no longer be available.

So there you have it.

13 reasons why Amazon.com’s international customers will be reluctant to shift to their local store. I’m sure most international customers will be affected by at least one reason—and that’s only the impact of shifting as a reader.

Of course, there is always the possibility that this geoblocking is a temporary accident, an unintended side-effect of Amazon’s database upgrades. I hope so. Because there are at least 13 reasons why geoblocking is a bad idea for international customers.

Are you affected by Amazon’s new geoblocking? Are you planning to shift or stay? Why?

Understanding Amazon Community Guidelines

Reviewing 101: Understanding Amazon Community Guidelines

There is a lot of confusion regarding what is permitted in terms of online reviewing. This isn’t helped by the fact that each site has their own rules, and some enforce them more than others. Today I’m going to take you through the Amazon Community Guidelines, which cover writing reviews. I’ve chosen Amazon because for several reasons:

  • Amazon is the biggest online retail site.
  • Amazon is the site authors most want (and need reviews on).
  • Amazon has the most reviewers (over 20 million).
  • Amazon has the most product reviews.
  • It’s also the site I know best.

Amazon has clear reviewing guidelines and will take action to remove reviews that contravene the guidelines. Amazon gets a lot of attention regarding “fake” reviews (which exist in greater numbers than most people realise) and “bully” reviewers (who are far less common than the media implies).

Amazon’s focus used to be on what was not allowed, including:

  • Objectionable material
  • Inappropriate content
  • Off-topic information
  • Promotional material.

Amazon have now rephrased their rules to focus on the positive. The Amazon Community Guidelines say:

Eligibility

Only customers can review. An Amazon.com customer is (currently) defined as someone who has spent $50 on Amazon.com in the last year. Other Amazon sites have similar spending requirements. This isn’t to deter honest reviewers, but to make it harder for fake reviewers to set up multiple reviewing accounts.

Be Helpful and Relevant

That should be obvious! It means reviewers should focus their reviews on the product. Information on price, packaging, shipping or the seller aren’t considered relevant to customer reviews, as Amazon has other forums for offering feedback on sellers or packaging.

Amazon Community Guidelines don’t permit links to external websites (including your own). Amazon won’t delete a review with external links, but it will delete the link and replace it with […].

Respect Others

Amazon do not permit swearing, calling people names, using inappropriate language (like calling someone an idiot or a nazi), or promotion of illegal conduct.

Customers are also not permitted to post from multiple accounts, or to coordinate with others. This means sellers (including authors) can’t ask their fans to upvote or downvote specific reviews, or report them for abuse in an effort to get the review deleted.

Customers can disagree with others as long as it’s done respectfully, without name-calling, without attacking the other person, and without posting content that invades someone’s privacy.

Promotional and Commercial Solicitations

Customer reviews are meant to be just that: customer reviews. They are not meant to be a way for sellers (including authors) to promote their products. Amazon will therefore delete reviews they consider promotional.

This specifically includes posting content (i.e. reviewing) your own products (books), or those of a close family member, friend, or business associate. There is ongoing debate as to how Amazon decides a reviewer is “close” to a seller, but here are my views:

  • Reviewer and author use the same IP address.
  • Author has gifted the book to the reviewer via Amazon.
  • Author quotes the reviewer in Editorial Reviews.
  • Author thanks the reviewer in the Acknowledgements to their book.
  • Author identifies the reviewer as their editor, cover designer, or other business associate.

Amazon say they do not track users social media connections (e.g. Facebook friends), but Amazon owns Goodreads which does allow linking to your Facebook account.

Amazon also does not allow:

  • Reviews of competitor’s books (although “competitor is not defined. Does this mean authors can’t review? We’ll discuss that in a future post).
  • Reviews in exchange for compensation of any kind (i.e. paid reviews).

Authors may provide reviewers with a free copy of the book (paperback or ebook), but the book must be freely given without any expectation of a review. This isn’t actually a bad thing: if you offer a reviewer a book and they don’t review it, it’s probably because they either haven’t read it or didn’t like it.

If you find reviews which include inappropriate information (e.g. saying the book is too expensive, or saying it arrived damaged), you can Report Abuse.

What is Report Abuse?

If you look at the bottom of any Amazon review (except one you’ve written), you will see three options: Helpful, Comment, and Report Abuse. If you believe a review contravenes the Amazon Community Guidelines in some way, click Report Abuse. You used to be able to give a reason, but Amazon now currently doesn’t give this option.

If you are given the option to say why the review is inappropriate. It’s best if you mention a specific reason that is against the guidelines (e.g. the review is self-promotion, the review is written by the author/editor, the review is about price or delivery and not about the product, the review includes spiteful remarks about the author).

This feature can be used by anyone, author or reader. If, as an author, you believe the review is against the Amazon Community Guidelines or Conditions of Use (often referred to as the Terms of Service, or TOS), this is the responsible and ethical way to report it, rather than leaving a comment on the review. Note that Amazon do not remove reviews simply because they are critical—they must contravene Community Guidelines.

It usually takes several reports from different people before a review is removed (although I don’t know exactly how many). However, sometimes the response is extremely fast: I once reported a review for soliciting helpful votes (which is against the guidelines), and the review had been edited by Amazon within half an hour to remove the promotional content.

Of course, the big question is: What is promotional content?

We will look at that in more detail next week.

Meanwhile, are you aware of the Amazon Community Guidelines? What do you consider promotional content?

Book Reviewing 101 | How to Ask Bloggers for Book Reviews

Book Reviewing 101 | How to Ask Bloggers for Book Reviews

My previous post discussed how to get honest book reviews (answer: Ask). This week I’m looking at some of the finer points of how to approach potential book reviewers, especially bloggers.

First, and most important …

Don’t ask them to review something completely inappropriate

Please don’t waste the reviewer’s time by asking them to review something completely inappropriate.

If their Amazon profile says they don’t accept book review requests, don’t ask. If their blog page says no vanity publishers and your publisher is Tate or WestBow Press, don’t ask.

And only pitch your book to a reviewer who reviews in the same genre: as a reviewer of Christian fiction, I’m definitely not interested in your polytheistic inspirational, or your raunchy erotica (yes, I’ve been offered both). I’m not interested in your non-fiction, and probably not interested in your picture book.

Follow their review policy

As a general guide, it’s best to send a query first and follow that up with the ebook if the reviewer agrees to review your title. Don’t just send your book and then complain the reviewer never reviewed it. An unsolicited book is like the flyers in your letterbox from the supermarket you never visit: it gets deleted, unread.

I’ve come across authors who say it’s too much trouble to read every book blogger’s review policy and follow it. They’re too busy, and it’s much easier to send a template email. That’s their right. But I’m also busy, and it’s much easier to say no to those requests than to follow up with a request for the information they’d have sent if they’d done a little research.

And on a related note …

Follow the law

Don’t add the blogger to an email list without their consent.

Really.

Don’t.

If you’re stupid enough to do that (or stupid enough to hire a PR company that does), please don’t add to the stupid by having an “unsubscribe” option that requires the blogger to add five different personal details in order to unsubscribe from a mailing list they (I) never signed up for in the first place.

(Yes, I had this happen last week. Twice. It won’t happen again, because I blocked the email address and reported it as spam. No, I didn’t unsubscribe. I’m not giving them unnecessary personal details.)

Offer a free copy of the book

… and state whether your version is mobi (for Kindle), epub (for Kobo, Nook, Sony etc), or pdf (which can be read on any device, although Kindle users are advised to email the file to their Kindle with “convert” in the subject line, to get a readable mobi file).

Ask for an honest review

Remember you are asking for an honest book review, not a positive review (and certainly not a five-star review). And don’t require a review “in exchange” for the free book—all those things are against Amazon’s reviewing guidelines (which I’ll discuss in a later post).

Email the book

Don’t gift your book via Amazon in order to get the Amazon Verified Purchase tag—Amazon may see the gift as financial compensation, and may delete the review (because the reviewer can decline the gift and spend the money on something else). Yes, an Amazon rep might have told you it’s okay to gift a review copy. But ask another rep, and you’ll get a different answer. Don’t risk it.

You can gift copies via retailers like Smashwords (if your book is available there) or use services like BookFunnel, which allows the reviewer to download in their choice of formats. Or just email the mobi or pdf file. Trustworthy bloggers won’t pirate your book (and you’re checking out the bloggers to avoid the dodgy ones, aren’t you?)

What if no one agrees to review my book?

If you find you’re asking a lot of bloggers for reviews but no one is interested, here are a few things to check:

  • Are you targeting the right reviewers? Have they reviewed books like yours before?
  • Do you have a great cover? Does it look professional?
  • Is your book description gripping?
  • Do your opening pages have a compelling hook?
  • Has your book been professionally edited?
  • Is there something about your presentation which is driving potential reviewers away?

These are the main issues that lead to me turning down review requests. Most often, the opening pages of the novel simply don’t grip me. They might be all telling, not showing. They might use too many creative dialogue tags. They might be writing in omniscient point of view and headhopping. These issues show me the book needs more work, and will mean I choose not to review it. Other reviewers will have their own criteria.

If you can’t convince reviewers to read your book, you’re going to have trouble convincing paying customers.

I sent my book, but it hasn’t been reviewed yet.

Some book reviewers agree to review your book, while others only promise to look at it. If they decide not to review it, don’t push. The chances are they didn’t like the book.

If a reviewer agreed to review your book within a specific timeframe and doesn’t, it could be because they’ve forgotten (so one gentle reminder may well be appropriate). However, it could be they didn’t like it. Some reviewers prefer to only review books they like, so don’t push the issue if they don’t review it.

It’s a lot of work!

Yes, which is why it is important to keep track of everything:

  • The reviewers you found who accept review requests (whether you contacted them or not).
  • The reviewers you contacted who didn’t respond to your email.
  • The reviewers you contacted who responded but declined.
  • The reviewers you contacted who said no, but to keep them informed of future books.
  • The reviewers who agreed to review your books and didn’t.
  • The reviewers who agreed to review your books and did.

When a review you’ve requested appears on a blog, it’s polite to visit the blog, thank the reviewer, and respond to any comments. However, I don’t recommend responding to book reviews (positive or negative) on retail sites (e.g. Amazon) or reader communities (e.g. Goodreads), as it can come across as needy and stalkerish.

However, you can like book reviews on BookBub—it’s a newer site which is actively trying to encourage readers to review (to take over from Amazon, perhaps?). Bookbub email authors to tell them when a reviewer has recommended their book, which means you don’t have to stalk the site.

(Authors should be writing their next book, not stalking social media to search for reviews).

Finally, keep special note of those reviewers who enjoyed your book: these are the people you will contact again when your next book releases, which will make this process much easier.

Do you have any reviewing questions I haven’t answered?

How to Get Book Reviews

How to Get (Honest) Book Reviews (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post)

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant. We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

How to Get Honest Book Reviews

I often see authors online asking either how to get more book reviews, or how many book reviews can they expect.

My (unstatistical) research suggest authors can expect around one review for every 1,000 copies sold. That’s just 0.1%. Even a bestseller might not do much better: John Green has reportedly sold nine million copies of The Fault in Our Stars and has almost 30,000 reviews on Amazon—a review rate of less than 0.4%.

Yet some authors seem to have dozens, even hundreds, of reviews, out of all proportion to sales. Is there some secret?

How do these authors manage to get so many reviews?

It’s easy enough to get dishonest reviews. We all know them: buying reviews, reviewing your own books, asking family members to give your book a five-star review, swapping reviews with other authors, offering reviewers a gift or an entry into a prize draw.

But these reviews are all against Amazon’s reviewing guidelines. These reviews are why Amazon keep updating their reviewing guidelines, as I discussed in A (Not So) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon.

So How do you Get Honest Reviews?

Ask.

Yes, ask for reviews. Many readers don’t realise the importance authors place on reviews. Positive reviews provide social proof for potential customers, they influence Amazon’s book popularity ratings, and a certain number of reviews are required in order for authors to advertise on sites like Bookbub. Yet most readers don’t know or understand how useful reviews are, to authors and other readers.

Amazon now restricts reviews to customers i.e. people who have spent $50 in the last year. The spending requirement is per site, so someone who has spent the equivalent of $50 in a foreign store (say, India) can’t then review on the US site.

So if you’re looking for reviews on Amazon.com, you need to find reviewers who shop at Amazon.com.

Who do I Ask?

Ask your readers

Marketing advisors such as David Gaughran advise authors to ask for reviews at the back of the book, and that’s something David does himself: “Word-of-mouth is cruicial for any author to succeed. If you enjoyed the book, please consider leaving a review at Amazon.”

When I first researched this topic in 2014, asking for reviews was a tactic only indie authors used. Now I often see review requests in the back of books from mainstream publishers.

Does this work? In July 2014, Tim Grahl shared on his blog that he had just sold the 10,000th copy of his book, Your First 1000 Copies (including one copy to me). Those 10,000 sales have netted him over 180 reviews—a 1.8% review rate, which is still low, but is almost twenty times more reviews than my unstatistical ‘normal’.

The other thing to do at the end of your book is ask readers to sign up for your email list, so you can let them know when your next book is due to be published (and perhaps even offer your email subscribers a discount, or ask if anyone would like a free review copy …).

Ask Amazon reviewers

While many Amazon reviewers are simply providing random reviews on books or products they’ve used and liked (or not), a growing number are reviewing books or products they’ve been provided with in exchange for a review. Note that reviewers are required to disclose they have received a free copy of the book for review (as per Federal Trade Commission regulations). Not all do, but they are supposed to.

How do you find Amazon reviewers?

It’s time-consuming, but worthwhile. Some people recommend starting with the Amazon Top 10,000 Reviewers list, as these are the most prolific and helpful reviewers and are therefore most likely to accept review requests.

However, I believe this is a waste of time for most authors, and especially for authors writing in a niche genre like Christian fiction. Why? Because many of those reviewers either don’t review books, or don’t read Christian fiction. (The easiest way to become a Top 10,000 Reviewer is to review the Free App of the Day, as it’s guaranteed to get you a lot of votes, and votes are more important than total number of reviews in improving reviewer ranking.)

Rather than focusing on Top Reviewers, focus on people who have reviewed books similar to yours, especially if they have also reviewed self-published books. Click on the reviewer name, and see if they have a website address or email address on their profile. If they have an email address, it’s safe to assume they are open to receiving requests via email. If they only have a website address, check that out to see if they are open to review requests.

Many Amazon reviewers also have book blogs, which is even better: the more sites a review is posted on, the better for your book. To find out if an Amazon reviewer will accept requests for reviews, simply click on their name, which will bring up their personal profile. If you find an Amazon reviewer who agrees to review your book, you’ve got a 50% or better chance of getting a review (personally, I review over 95% of the titles I accept for review, but I know some bloggers review as few as 30%. However, they make it clear that sending them a book doesn’t guarantee a review).

However, many Amazon reviewers already have all the books they can read through sources such as NetGalley or publisher blogging programmes.

You can use a similar technique to find Goodreads reviewers.

What about paid services?

There are paid tools which can do this job for you. I tried one as a free trial, using a book I’d reviewed as the test book. The list didn’t return me as a potential reviewer, which I found odd. I also receive a lot of template requests that I suspect have come from a service such as this. Fewer than 10% are actually requests to review Christian fiction—which is all I review on my blog. As such, I suggest anyone considering a paid tool do their research. There is no point in paying for a tool that doesn’t deliver actionable results.

Ask Bloggers

There are a number of blog tour companies out there, and many specialise by genre (e.g. romance or Christian fiction).

Visit the tour company’s website, find some books similar to yours, see which reviewers have reviewed them positively, visit those reviewer websites, check out their reviewing guidelines, and contact those who are open to unsolicited requests.

The advantage of using bloggers from these networks is that you already know they are open to reading and reviewing books in your genre. If they have a review policy or similar on their blog, you will know they are open to receiving review requests, so go ahead! As with Amazon reviewers, if you find a blogger who will read your book, you have an excellent chance of getting a review.

Ask in a Reader Community

Sites such as Facebook and Goodreads have groups for people seeking reviews. However, some of these offer unethical review swaps. Check out any potential reviewers before sending your book off to them, to ensure they are the right reviewer for your book. You can also check out sites like Story Cartel, which offers your book free to readers who promise to review.

Ask Social Media Followers

Rayne Hall recommends asking social media followers for reviews in her book, Twitter for Writers, by tweeting that your book is available for review. She asks every eight weeks, with a post like this:
“Would anyone like one of my ebooks for free for posting a review at Amazon?”

Hall likes these reviews, as she finds they are honest reviews from people who are interested in her and her books, and she reports that most people who request a review copy via Twitter do follow up with a review. Note that she is staunchly against automated DM tweets, such as those some people use for new followers: “Thanks for following! Please download a free review copy of my book here: xxx.com”.

I’d add one proviso: don’t ask for reviews on your regular Facebook page, as your objective is obtaining reviews from people you don’t know in real life, not an Amazon page full of “friends and family” reviews.

So that’s who to ask for reviews. I’ll be back next week with some tips on how to ask for a review.

Meanwhile, what questions do you have about book reviews?

A (not so) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon

A (not so) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon

When I first started blogging, back in September 2011, there were almost no restrictions to reviewing on Amazon. Someone could create a buyer account on Amazon, buy something, and 24 hours later they could review any product on any Amazon site.

Yes, any product. On any site. Amazon has never placed any restriction on who can review what. You don’t have to have purchased the product on Amazon to review that product—which is good news for book bloggers. Bloggers often receive free copies from authors or publishers, from book tour companies, from reviewing sites such as NetGalley, or from sources such as the library.

Amazon allow customers to review whether or not they have experienced the product (i.e. read the book). However, Amazon also recognise that potential customers place more trust in reviews where the reviewer has experienced the product. Amazon acknowledged this by introducing the Amazon Verified Purchase badge, and AVP reviews are now shown ahead of non-AVP reviews.

But as Amazon gained a reputation as the powerhouse of online shopping, sellers attempted to game the reviewing system by posting fake reviews. Amazon responded by tightening and clarifying the reviewing guidelines—an ongoing process.

In this post, I’m going to highlight some of the background to these changes.

Spoiler: Amazon isn’t out to get honest authors. Only the dishonest ones.

Friends and Family Reviews

Amazon’s fake review problem first came to my attention several years ago. Savvy reviewers noticed an oddity: a self-published book from an unknown author had somehow managed to garner over 350 five-star reviews. It also had a handful of one-star reviews. The five-star reviews were all from new accounts that had only reviewed this one book. The reviews were all short, and expressed similar sentiments: the book was amazing. A must-read thriller.

The one-star reviews told a different story: this was a novel in dire need of editing. They questioned the authenticity of the five-star reviews.

Amazon investigated, and the five-star reviews disappeared.

Amazon tightened their reviewing guidelines to prohibit “promotional” reviews (including reviews from friends and family). A lot of authors have lost reviews in this way, as Amazon has (rightly or wrongly) tied them to a reviewer through common IP addresses or gifted books. There is a concern that Amazon may monitor social media relationships e.g. Facebook friends, although this is merely supposition. Amazon says they do not monitor social media.

The investigation was expanded across the store, and Amazon deleted many reviews. They also introduced a new requirement to the US Amazon Reviewing Guidelines, and clarified their definition of promotional content.

Customers now had to make a minimum purchase of $5 before they could review. But this didn’t stop the fake reviews.

As well as deleting reviews, Amazon began prohibiting reviewers from posting reviews if they believed there was a relationship between the reviewer and the seller. For example, in mid-2017, Amazon Australia refused to allow one of my reviews to post because they had determined I knew the (Australian) author. I did, although I don’t believe that affected my review and I had disclosed I’d received a free book from the author. Ironically, Amazon US posted my review of the same title with no question.

Buying Reviews

Now deceitful sellers looking for fake reviews had to become world-class hackers in order to deceive the hacker hunters at Amazon. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there was an almost endless supply of ethically challenged “reviewers” who would post a fake review in exchange for a buck or five … which was against Amazon’s guidelines. Websites with convenient names like “Buy Amazon Reviews” sprang up to connect the two groups.

Creative sellers could write their own reviews for the company to post on “genuine” accounts, and for a small premium some reviewers would offer to buy the ebook so the review would carry the AVP tag. I guess they forgot that Amazon can and do track our Kindle reading habits, so it wouldn’t have been difficult for them to tell that the writers of these glowing five-star AVP reviews hadn’t even opened the ebook in question.

Amazon soon caught on, and filed suit against the websites in question.

This was followed by additional lawsuits against Fiverr reviewers offering a similar “service”.

Coupon Clubs

Then came the coupon clubs. Sellers would offer product discount coupons to Amazon Prime members, offering them products at a 99% or 100% discounts. Facebook groups sprang up, connecting people who were happy to receive free products through Amazon (with the shipping paid by Amazon through Prime) in exchange for a five-star review. This left Amazon paying to ship hundreds of dollars of free product to customers who didn’t spend any money at Amazon except for their Prime membership.

Amazon started deleting reviews, and reviewers appeared in the Amazon Discussion Forums.They complained their reviews had disappeared, and that was awful because now they weren’t going to get any more free products (it was apparently a condition of membership to the coupon clubs that reviewers had to post a five-star review within a narrow timeframe to get more products, despite this being against Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines).

Other reviewers investigated, and called out the coupon club reviewers for their bad behaviour—for knowingly or unknowingly breaking Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines by posting multiple reviews for products without adequately testing those products. The discussions are gone now, but the ones I remember reading showed wilful ignorance from the coupon club reviewers. They refused to believe what they were doing was in any way misleading or unethical, or that it contravened Amazon’s guidelines.

Amazon Increases the Purchase Requirement

Amazon responded by introducing a $50 purchase requirement.

In order to review products on Amazon, a potential reviewer had to have spent $50 on the site, excluding any Amazon Prime membership.

Initially, the increased purchase requirement only applied at Amazon US. In late 2017, I noticed Amazon had introduced a $50 purchase requirement in in Australia and Canada, and a GBP 40 purchase requirement in the UK. But it appeared that if you were eligible to review on Amazon US (as I am), you were eligible to review on any other Amazon site. The reverse may also have been true.

I have personally purchased dead tree books from Amazon US and UK, and ebooks from Amazon US and Australia (one of the quirks of living in New Zealand is that I must purchase physical products from the US store, but can choose to purchase Kindle books from the US or Australia).

I’ve been actively reviewing since 2011, and have always posted my reviews on Amazon US and UK. When Amazon introduced the Australian store, I started adding my reviews there as well. Anyway, despite the increase in the purchase requirement, I was still able to post reviews at all three Amazon sites. I then tried posting a review at Amazon Canada, a store where I have never spent as much as a cent. My review was accepted. This showed me the $50 purchase requirement was at a single store.

This has now changed:

  • The purchase requirement is now per year, not a once-for-all-time.
  • The purchases must be made at the store in question.

The requirements differ by geography:

  • Amazon US says reviewers must have spent $50 in the last year at Amazon.com.
  • Amazon Canada says reviewers must have spent $50 at Amazon.ca within the last twelve months.
  • Amazon UK says reviewers must have spent GBP 40 at Amazon.co.uk within the last twelve months.
  • Amazon Australia says reviewers have spent $50 at Amazon.com.au, but there is no timeframe mentioned. Yet.

I tested this. My results:

  • I was unable to post a review at Amazon Canada (no purchases ever).
  • I was unable to post a review at Amazon Australia (lifetime purchases: <$20). I am still in the Top 100 Reviewers at Amazon Australia.
  • I was able to post at Amazon UK (no purchases in the last ten years).
  • I was able to post at Amazon US (purchases: >$50 in the last year).

I suspect Amazon UK will catch up with me soon, and veto further reviews. However, the UK site displays the top three or top five reviews from Amazon.com, so some of my reviews will continue to show on the UK site, even though they were posted at the US site.

I don’t know what is behind this latest change. It could be that sites like Buy Amazon Reviews sprang up offshore to sell fake reviews from non-US reviewers who had spent the equivalent of $50 in their home store. Non-US sites are harder for Amazon to track and sue. The easy solution is to only allow US customers to review in the US store.

Update: Amazon Limits non-AVP Reviews

The latest news is that Amazon is limiting the number of non-Amazon Verified Purchase reviews on books. This may extend to other products. There is a view that Amazon Verified Reviews are somehow more reliable than non-AVP reviews. The default is to show AVP reviews, and many Amazon users won’t even know they can adjust their filter to show all reviews. From Amazon’s perspective, it makes sense to attempt to control the ratio of AVP to non-AVP reviews if:

  • They believe their customers place more trust in AVP reviews, or
  • They suspect some non-AVP reviews are flouting their Reviewing Guidelines and are actually Promotional Content.

Amazon also say:

We may restrict the ability to submit a review when we detect unusual reviewing behavior, or to maintain the best possible shopping experience.

My feeling is this may be a result of two separate issues:

  • The growing number of authors with significant and active street teams, all trying to post reviews on or close to release day. If this is the case, I’d suggest authors ask their street teams to stagger their reviews (e.g. by batching the email reminders so different people receive the reminder on different days).
  • Coupon clubs and other ethically challenged sellers are still giving away free products in exchange for reviews (probably five-star reviews).

Either way, we can only hope it will eliminate some of the fake reviews (and sellers) without hurting genuine reviewers (and authors).

Conclusion

I know authors find it hard to get reviews. I know authors find it frustrating when they lose reviews, or when reviewers can’t post for whatever reason. Often, it’s the honest sellers, honest authors, and honest reviewers who miss out.

But I also know Amazon customers need to be able to trust the Amazon review system

Amazon want that as well. Without trustworthy reviews, Amazon is just another online retailer.

Years of observation has shown me that every rule Amazon have introduced, every review they have deleted, has been an attempt (successful or otherwise) to protect their review system.

Amazon could get harsher. They could only allow people to have purchased a product from Amazon to review that product on Amazon. Many other retailers do. They could correlate our Kindle pages read with the books we are permitted to review. After all, they already collect that information.

We don’t want that. So we need to be ethical customers, sellers, and reviewers. And we need to encourage others to be the same. Anything else hurts us all.

This post is the background to a series I’m planning for later in the year. What questions do you have about reviews that you’d like me to address? Let me know in the comments.

Best of the Blogs

Christian Editing Services | Best of the Blogs | 11 November 2017

Lots of news this week!

Social Media

280-character limit on Twitter

Twitter has historically allowed just 140 characters per tweet. A few weeks back, they announced they were trialing 280-character Tweets with a select group of users. The trial must have gone well, because almost everyone can now Tweet 280 characters (the exceptions are users tweeting in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, because the nature of these languages means they don’t come close to the 140-character limit).

But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

People are on Twitter for links and pithy comments, not essays … although I’m sure the longer Tweet length will come in useful in Twitter Chats such as @ BadRedHeadMedia’s Thursday #BookMarketingChat.

Publishing

Pronoun

MacMillan has announced they will closing Pronoun, their ebook distributor, in January 2018. Pronoun has experienced problems over its’ short lifespan, with complaints of lagging dashboards and slow responses to questions. But it attracted attention because of the benefits it offered, including full 70% royalty on Kindle books priced below $2.99 (Amazon only pays 70% royalty on books priced between $2.99 and $9.99).

I guess this answers my big question about Pronoun: how were they making money if they were offering higher royalties than Amazon? The answer: maybe they weren’t.

Draft2Digital

In better news, Draft2Digital now distributes to Amazon. However, they still don’t distribute to Google Play (which many authors saw as the major reason to use Pronoun).

StreetLib

I have heard some indie authors are using StreetLib to distribute to Google Play—they even have a one-click “import from Pronoun” option. Have you used StreetLib? What was your experience?

Writing

Dismemberment aka Floating Body Parts

Cait Reynolds visits Kristen Lamb’s blog to share about Dismemberment: Taking Characters Apart in all the Wrong Ways. This is perhaps better known as floating body parts, but dismemberment is more attention grabbing.

I once read a sci-fi novel where the alien species could take their heads off and throw them around the room. They could even swap heads (although that was frowned upon by the more conservative among them).

Result: every time I see dismemberment like “she threw her head” in a novel, I’m taken out of that novel and taken straight back to 1992, when I read the novel where Mr and Mrs Basketball-Head are stressing because their daughter wants to play Swap-Heads with some hot alien she’s just met.

Editor-me tells this little story every time I see dismemberment in a novel (although I call it “floating body parts”, which is much less fun).

I just wish I could remember the name of the novel.

Reading

Christy Awards

The winners of the 2017 Christy Awards were announced on 8 November. While I haven’t read all the finalists, there were two surprises for me:

  • Joint winners for Historical Romance: I haven’t seen this before. I’ve seen four finalists because of a tie, but not two winners.
  • The brilliant Long Way Gone by Charles Martin was the Book of the Year, but didn’t win the category. Again, in previous years, the Book of the Year has been one of the category winners.

Reviewing

This might be just me, but has Amazon removed the ability to vote reviews as “unhelpful”? I’m only seeing a thumbs-up button. We know Amazon is forever changing things, and we also know sometimes these changes are tests run for a select group of users (such as Twitter’s initial tests of the 280-character limit). I also know many people (especially authors) have been asking for Amazon to remove the “downvote” button for half of forever—their wish may just have been granted.

Can you see the downvote button on Amazon? Or do you just get the thumbs-up I see?

Amazon Review - Then There Was You by Kara Isaac

 

Four Types of Authors Who Shouldn’t Read Reviews

Four Types of Authors Who Shouldn’t Read Reviews

Should authors read reviews?

That was the question Jordan Dane posed at The Kill Zone blog last week. I also saw the same question addressed in an author Facebook group I’m a member of, and (indirectly) on Seth Godin’s blog.

Three times in three days. That must be significant …

I’m not yet a published author, so haven’t yet had to face this decision for myself. But I do have a lot of experience from the other side of the question: as a reviewer. I’ve reviewed around 900 books on Goodreads, and most of those reviews have also appeared on other sites: Amazon, my blog, and other retail sites.

My reviewing experience leads me to believe that not all authors should read reviews of their books. Here are some authors who shouldn’t read reviews of their books.

Authors Who Forget Reviews are For Readers

Reviewers don’t always agree (you can see that by reading the reviews to any great work of fiction). But one thing we do agree on is that reviews are for readers. Not for authors.

As reviewers see it, the purpose of an online book review is to share information which might persuade a like-minded reader to read the book … or not. And either is a valid conclusion. It takes several hours to read an average novel, and a good review takes a while to write, and to post. Especially if you cross-post across several sites, as I do.

Reviewers aren’t doing this to please authors. Reviewers do not exist to promote your book for free (although some do). If they are, it’s skirting close to Amazon’s definition of a “promotional review”, which is then at risk of being deleted.
No, reviewers review for themselves, and for like-minded readers. They do it for fun, for free.

Authors Who Focus on the Wrong Things

As Seth Godin points out, if there 100 glowing five-star reviews and one stinking one-star review (or even a well written three-star review), we focus on the negative. We ignore the positive, even when it’s overwhelming. It’s human nature.

Yes, some reviews are unfair. Some reviews are written by people with issues. Some people should be banned from the internet because they seem unable to communicate online in a mature and adult manner. In an ideal world, everyone would love everything we write and our reviews would be all fluffy unicorns and rainbows.

But life isn’t fair. Everyone has issues. And the world would be a better place if some people were prevented from ever sharing their opinions again (including most politicians, celebrities, and especially reality TV stars). No writer can appeal to everyone. Not even JK Rowling.

The critical reviewers probably aren’t your target reader. So we need to ignore the naysayers and focus on the positive reviews. If we can’t do that, we shouldn’t read reviews.

Authors Who Are Seeking Validation

If we’re reading book reviews to validate ourselves—as a person, or as a writer … just don’t. My worth as a human being is entirely separate from some random reader/reviewer’s opinion of my book (or my blog post). So is yours.

Just because someone doesn’t like your book doesn’t mean they don’t like you. And vice versa. Some of my closest writer friends write fantasy—a genre I have a lot of trouble enjoying. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them as people. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good writers. It just means I don’t enjoy the genre they write.

Authors Who Respond to Reviews

This is one of the first rules of being an author: don’t respond to reviews. Don’t respond to positive reviews—it can look needy and stalkerish (as if you’ve got nothing better to do than read and comment on reviews). And don’t respond to critical reviews—that never ends well for the author.

This should seem obvious. Yet just this week I was checking the Amazon reviews of a book I was considering buying and I saw the author had commented on the top-ranked review. The review basically said the self-help book contained no new information on productivity for writers, and that the author’s suggestion writers give up coffee and chocolate was unrealistic.

I thought this was a helpful review—there is no way I’m giving up coffee or chocolate on anything less than do-it-or-die orders from a doctor. So there is no point in me even considering a book with this recommendation. It’s not helpful.

The author didn’t agree. She copied and pasted a five-star review that said the book had helped the reviewer.

I’d already decided not to buy the book (see above points about coffee and chocolate), but now I’m hesitant to buy or review any of her books. I don’t want an honest review to come back and haunt me if she takes issue with my view should it differ from hers. (As it does. I don’t believe authors should respond to critical reviews. She obviously has no issue with the idea).

So Should Authors Read Reviews?

If you can read reviews of your book without becoming one of “those” authors, then yes. Otherwise, it might be best to ignore reviews, or get someone to vet them for you.

What do you think? Should authors read reviews of their books?

This post is part of the June 2017 #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, a monthly blog hop for authors who want to learn more about being authors. Posts are related to the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, blogging tips for authors, and reviews of author-related products. The hop the brainchild of Raimey Gallant. To find this month’s posts:

 

Best of the Blogs

Best of the Blogs: 10 June 2017

Six of the best blog posts this week in writing, editing, publishing, and marketing.

Writing

Skills Writers Need

Frances Caballo from Social Media Just for Writers visits The Book Designer to share 5 Skills Every Writer Should Develop. I don’t think each point should get equal weighting: learning writing craft is far and away the most important skill. And I think I’d substitute building a website and email list for blogging (I agree non-fiction authors need to blog. I’m not convinced that fiction authors must blog. But they do need an email list).

What do you think?

Writing Effective Backstory

An excellent post with practical tips on how to drop in your backstory, from Kathryn Craft via Writer Unboxed. I especially like her idea about using continuity words—a new term to me, but one I’m going to remember (and apply).

The (Social) Rules

Literary agent Donald Maass visits Writer Unboxed to ask What Are the Rules? When I read the headline, I thought he was going to be talking about writing rules. Because, you know, he writes books like Writing the Breakout Novel.

But no. He’s talking about the unwritten social rules we all live by, and asking which of those we bring into the lives of our fictional characters. Take food as an example. For those stuck in poverty, the main concern is quantity—is there enough? For the middle classes, the concern is quality—did you like it? But for the wealthiest among us, the concern is presentation. Hmm …

Characters

Author Sonja Yoerg visits Writers Digest to share her tips on writing mentally ill characters. As she points out, up to one in five people have some form of mental illness. As authors, we have a responsibility for getting the details right and building a rounded character who suffers from a mental illness:

Mental illness can be debilitating and all-consuming, but it does not define a person. That job still rests with the writer.

Publishing

What Authors Earn

Written Word Media share the results of their latest survey into author earnings. The result which surprised me was how little people claim to spend on editing (often less than they spend on cover design). I get that cover design is important to attract a potential reader, but it takes a lot longer to edit a novel than it does to design a cover, and it’s the quality of the writing and editing that turns a casual buyer into a reader and fan.

Amazon Book Sales

Last week I commented on the kerfuffle around Amazon’s changes to the buy button. Kara Isaac visited Australasian Christian Writers this week to share her view in Buy New, Get Secondhand? If you’re buying a paper book from Amazon, make sure the book ships from and is sold by Amazon. If you buy from a reseller, it’s likely that the book is secondhand. This means the author doesn’t receive a royalty on the sale.

Or buy the ebook—the author probably earns a higher royalty on the ebook sale. Or ask your library to order a copy, or borrow the ebook from your library if you have that option. Remember, authors are paid for library copies and some are even paid more if the book is borrowed more.

Want more current news on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing? Follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

Best of the Blogs 21 October 2016

The best posts I’ve read in the week to 21 October 2016 … on writing, editing, marketing, and an update on the Amazon book review situation.

Writing

I’ve got two posts this week looking at different aspects of point of view. Both posts give lots of great advice on how to use deep POV to improve your “showing”.

First, Carol J Post visits Novel Rocket to give four tips to Elicit Greater Emotion Through Deep POV. Great post, although I have to say I don’t like Novel Rocket’s new web design. Scrolling down makes it look like those background pages are turning, and make it difficult to read the actual post (or am I the only person with this problem?).

And next is a great post from Janice Hardy at Romance University on how your use of narrative distance (aka use of Deep POV) affects your ability to show rather than tell. If you only read one post this week, this should be it.

Editing

Self-proclaimed Kindlepreneur Dave Chasson gives his advice on Selecting the Best Book Editor. He does an excellent job of briefly summarising the four main levels of book editing (in my experience, most novels need all four. Yes, this is four separate edits, although not all need to be from paid editors). I also agree with his “what to look for” list.

What I didn’t agree with was his idea of an editing test—not because I don’t want to take a test, but because I often find authors can’t accurately gauge the level of editing they need, and tests like this won’t tell them. His test is a 1,000-word article. Not a 90,000-word novel. It completely misses the many intricacies of fiction, which include:

  • Point of view
  • Plot and structure
  • Scene structure
  • Showing, not telling

If a fiction author picks their editor based on a test like this, I have no doubt they’ll come away with a polished manuscript that has all the essentials of grammar, punctuation and spelling right (although he’s still wrong on one point: CMOS 7.58 clearly says “either italicized or enclosed in quotation marks”, with “or” being the operative word.. Italicizing “and” enclosing in quotation marks is unnecessary emphasis).

But a polished manuscript could still be a rambling unstructured mess of headhopping and telling that doesn’t obey any of the current “rules” of fiction.

Instead, I prefer Dave’s other suggestion of getting sample edits from potential editors. Comparing different sample edits will confirm what level of work needs to be done, and help you decide who is the best editor for your book.

Yes, I offer a free sample edit of up to 1,000 words. A sample edit means we both know the level of work the novel needs, and how much I’m going to charge for that.

Marketing

Misty M Beller visits Seekerville to share her 9 Steps to Market a New Book Release. Oh, she makes it sound easy!

Book Reviewing

As you’ll remember from my post on 7 October, Amazon have recently revised their Reviewing Guidelines, and the changes have been causing consternation around authors on the interwebz (mostly from people who didn’t read the full Amazon article, which explained authors and publishers can still provide reviewers with Advance Reader Copies).

Anyway, Anne Allen has written a comprehensive post on the “new” rules. As you will see from the comments, I don’t agree with all her findings, but it’s still an excellent reference. And do read the comments!

Fun

And finally, a little fun. Aren’t you glad publishing is easier these days?

Best of the Blogs 7 October 2016

www.christianediting.co.nzThe best of the blog posts I’ve read this week on changes at Amazon, writing, editing, publishing and what comes next … and a fun post which basically describes my dream job. Well, apart from editing!

Changes at Amazon

But first, an announcement: Amazon have updated their rules around product reviews. They will no longer permit “incentivized” reviews, i.e. reviews where a free or discounted product was provided in exchange for a review. There are two and only two exceptions to this:

  • Advance Review Copies of books (including ebooks)
  • Products from the Amazon Vine programme

They have also expanded their Community Guidelines (including the new requirement that reviewers must have spent at least $50 on Amazon using a valid credit or debit card) and have refined their guidelines around what constitutes Promotional Content.

These changes are an attempt to close loopholes exploited by fivverr reviewers and coupon clubs. It shouldn’t mean any change for honest book reviewers, although I have seen some people saying reviewers they know have received warning letters from Amazon for breaching the guidelines.

Watch this space … and if you’ve got any questions, ask in the comments.

Now to the best of the blogs …

Writing

Setting is an important part of writing a novel, and this week Cara Lynn James visited Seekerville to give us some handy tips on the relationship between setting and character: How Setting Affects Character

Editing

Self-editing. How do you do it? In this post at Writers in the Storm, Fae Rowan shares her self-editing tips for getting a lot done quickly … and check out the comments for more handy tips: How I Edited 1200 Pages in 12 Weeks

Publishing

A lot of people get worried at the prospect of self-publishing, because there is so much to remember. If this is you, you’ll either love this post (because it’s a LIST of everything you have to do! No more forgetting things!) or you’ll hate this post (because it’s a list of EVERYTHING you have to do and it’s soooo loooong): A Checklist for Publishing Your Book from April Brown at Writers Helping Writers.

And After You’ve Published …

I know a lot of self-published authors are worried about ebook piracy (trade published authors might also worry about it, but they have agents and publishers they can delegate that to!). In this post at Molly Greene’s website, attorney Kathryn Goldman shares her tips on How To Beat Ebook Pirate Sites.

My Dream Job

Lexiographer. Yes, getting paid to read all day. Okay, so being an editor is close!

What’s the best post you’ve read this week? Leave us a link in the comments!