I’ve been an agent for 40 years. Publishers may not like what I’m about to say, but my observation is that most Amazon and Barnes & Noble reader reviews are either fraudulent or, at best, useless in assessing the true merit of any given title. Debut authors are largely being shut out of a fair shake, and without them, publishing will follow the network-media misstep of avoiding/shunning the fresh voices that attract new audiences (which is why HBO, Netflix, Showtime, and, yes, Amazon Prime have surpassed the major networks in original content).
Two decades ago, I knew editors and publishers who, determined to see their authors climb the New York Times bestseller list, got the tacit okay from the major publishing houses to enlist their friends and colleagues to go to all of the 10 retail outlets that the Times secretly used to gauge reader interest—no Nielsen numbers, just 10 stores (most of us back then knew which stores those were)—and buy a copy of their books. Ten friends carrying out this directive could result in a second printing because the book would appear at #20 or better on the Times list. Some editors I knew had a whole campaign mapped out: five friends the first week, 10 the next, and 10 again the third. The result? You were bound to get a Times mention and the book was likely to be a winner. This was cheaper than co-op advertising.
The Amazon reader reviews are today’s equivalent of manipulating the numbers. How is the book a success? You would think blurbs or actual media and viral reviews would be the most important criteria for Amazon’s algorithm assessing positioning and promotion. Nope, those have no mathematical number to plug into a formula. So is it the public reviewers’ average rating? Not alone. What Amazon does is akin to the cheap tailor’s quip over the cost of a suit fabric: “Never mind the quality, feel the width!” One hundred reviews at three stars becomes more valuable commercially than 10 at five stars. Crudely speaking, 300 of anything is more valuable than 50.
Should we all be paying for reviewers? There are services that do so for serious fees. Google “buy Amazon reviews” and they will turn up. If Amazon finds out that reviews were purchased, it will sue, but are those who purchase reviews frauds or are they fighting an already-corrupt system?
Now, publishers know this reality. We all know this. Every major publishing house we deal with, every editor, asks our authors to have all their friends and colleagues preorder their books and write reviews immediately on pub date, and preferably buy copies the week of release to drive the profile. Does anyone really believe that a branded author’s reviews, queued up for the morning after release, are all suddenly written by quick readers? Oh, come on. It’s the Times 10-store whip around in an Internet-age version. It’s fighting fire with fire.
Publishers get blurbs from bestselling authors. Does that do it? Nope. Then they, along with us agents, solicit viral media reviews. Does that work? Nope. The only thing driving sales at Amazon is the number of reader reviews coupled with the number of stars for any given title. No blurb or traditional literary review counts in Amazon’s positioning of any title.
However, in a somewhat misguided way, Amazon is now making efforts to alter the reader-review process. It has a new algorithm that produces messages such as this one: “Our data shows elements of your Amazon account match elements of other Amazon accounts reviewing the same products. In these cases, we remove the review to maintain trust in our customer reviews and avoid any perception of bias.” For instance, if you have ever, at any time, become a friend of an author on Facebook or Goodreads, your honest review will be expunged. You have no recourse. “Maintain trust”? That’s a joke. Weed out the little guy (likely to be a genuine reviewer) and perpetuate the status quo, more likely.
So, here’s my challenge to Amazon: Prove that every single review is not by an employee, friend, associate, or colleague of any publisher or media company. Then it can invoke its discriminatory censorship. Until then, it is trampling on First Amendment rights and playing into the hands of what is, after all, a nonliterary, mathematical rating system.
Peter Riva has been a literary and licensing agent for over 40 years, as well as a television and film producer.