Recently librarian and School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird raised questions, in a post, about Amazon’s mysteriously anointed Vine Voices reviewers, who receive free advance copies of new titles—and then often diss them on Amazon.
Who are the Vine Voices, and how do they compare with professionals, who, Bird wrote, “give insightful commentary and acknowledge a book’s intended audience”? And do publishers pay to participate?
A PW examination of Amazon Vine found answers to some of those questions. It turns out that publishers do pay Amazon to be in the Vine program—a fact that’s not mentioned on the online bookseller’s site.
“There’s no transparency,” said Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children. “Amazon is not specific about how many people are in the program, how they’re chosen.” According to the short writeup on Amazon’s site, the online bookseller invites customers to become Vine Voices “based on the trust they have earned in the Amazon community for writing accurate and insightful reviews.” But some Vine Voices and critics wonder whether some reviewers are chosen—at least in part—for their Amazon.com purchases.
The controversy also ignited concern over the way Vine Voices get prime real estate on a book’s page because they get there early, thanks to their ARCs. Do they deserve it? And do their negative reviews, often prominently positioned, unfairly hurt books?
Almost immediately after Bird’s post, Vine Voices reviewer Margo Tanenbaum, 48, a Claremont, Calif., mother who is getting her master’s degree in library science, added a comment: “Some books librarians love are not always the same ones that the kids love.” She linked to Bird’s entry on Amazon Vine’s private, internal discussion board. Tanenbaum said she “respects” Bird and gets her blog through an RSS feed on her Yahoo account. But she considered the librarian’s posting “very elitist.” Dozens of Vine Voices (and their supporters) weighed in with comments like “I find the Amazon reviews often surpass those of professional reviewers.”
When people get ARCs, even if they’re not paid, are they still reviewing books as regular citizens? “These people may be fine readers, but I think when you get something that’s free as part of a program like that, they’re hypercritical,” said Jon Scieszka, author of The Stinky Cheese Man. “They’re not consumers. They’re employees of Amazon. They’re getting paid in books.”
Scieszka worries, for example, that Vine reviewers unfairly hammer humorous books as being “not good for anyone,” he said. “No professional reviewer would say that.” Reviews should consider “what the author intended and was trying to accomplish,” he said. “If you’re reviewing a funny little picture book, 'was it Sense and Sensibility,’ probably not.” The world of online reviews is “uncharted territory,” said Scieszka, who urges consumers to take online reviews in general with “a grain of salt.” In her blog, Bird referred to negative Vine reviews of “subversive little titles that upset standard story-time conventions,” specifically mentioning two recent picture books—the first title in Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi’s Adventure of Meno series, and Mac Barnett and Adam Rex’s Guess Again!—which had received one or two out of five stars, when professional reviews have been much kinder.
Bird wants Amazon to be more open about its Vine program. “I wrote the piece in the hope that Amazon would be a little more transparent about how the program is run, how they decide who gets to be a reviewer, and which books and materials get sent out,” she said. “Since Amazon is the number one online source of books, it’s not ridiculous to want to know the method by which they’ve handpicked their own reviewers.”
Publishers pay Amazon for the right to give ARCs to Vine reviewers. Amazon won’t share its rate card or reveal how much money exchanges hands, and declined to say how many books have been included in the Vine Voices program since its inception in August 2007. “The intention of the program is not really to be a big revenue generator for us,” said Jeff Belle, v-p of Amazon.com Books. “The intention of the program is to get great customer reviews up on the Web site to help publishers establish buzz. That is our primary focus. It’s actually a very low-cost program for publishers.” Amazon is, he said, “incredibly flexible in how we work with publishers on this.”
When Amazon was starting its Vine Voices program (Amazon reviews themselves began in 1995), it talked with Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, and Don Weisberg, now president of Penguin Young Readers Group. “They were extremely helpful,” said Belle. Today, Simon & Schuster praises the program. “We viewed it as a way to get word of mouth started,” said S&S spokesperson Paul Crichton. “Traditional review space is shrinking.... User opinions have become an important tool in selling in e-commerce. We plan to continue participating.” HarperCollins, too, plans to continue placing books in the Vine program. “The early buzz... [is] a marvelous launching pad to build viral marketing excitement,” said HC’s Kristin Bowers, who manages the Amazon account.
Librarything.com, the 800,000-member social cataloguing and networking site, started a similar program, called Early Reviewers, a few months before Vine, in May 2007. Librarything president Tim Spalding is not accusing Amazon of wrongdoing. “It’s a pretty obvious idea. It’s a maturation of online reviews,” he said. “It’s hard to get reviews.” Librarything just started a new program called Member Giveaway, that lets authors submit their work, without going through a publisher. These programs “to some degree abet the death of reviews in newspapers,” said Spalding. Demand for ARCs far exceeds supply.
And Barnes & Noble gives ARCs to First Look Book Club readers, who talk with the author online. The bookseller encourages book club members to write reviews.
For the Vine Voices program, publishers typically send Amazon 20 to 100 ARCs per title, which the company then ships to reviewers. The number of Vine reviewers, now in the “thousands,” is “growing every month,” Belle said. “We continue to add Voices on a monthly basis, many more than opt out.” Amazon’s “primary criteria” for selecting participants, according to Belle, are their quantity and quality of reviews on its site. It determines quality “by the helpful or unhelpful votes you’ve received from other Amazon customers,” he said. “The list that we use to invite people into the program is heavily based on our top reviewers list. As of now, it’s an invite-only program.”
And Vine reviewers seem to be getting prime placement on Amazon. Bird blogged that the reviewers “have a chance to often fill up the middle portions before anyone else has a chance to post their own thoughts. Top reviewers [not in the Vine program] are shuffled to the side, [while] really good average Joe reviewers are even less conspicuous.”
Vine reviewers themselves are often unsure how Amazon picked them. “I don’t know how they found me, other than I bought a lot from Amazon,” said Vine Voice Brian Kelly, a father in Dunwoody, Ga. With three young kids, he shops on Amazon for kids’ books, electronics, DVDs, mac and cheese, and even diapers. Kelly estimates that he reviewed perhaps a dozen products before he got the invitation to become a Vine reviewer.
Amazon does not edit reviews or require them to be positive or negative. (Tanenbaum, for example, panned Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, an Amazon Best of the Month Book in August.) It simply mandates that Vine participants review 75% of the ARCs they ask to receive—and that they keep them in their homes and do not pass them along or sell them.
Tanenbaum, for one, is happy to oblige since she loves books, especially free ones. She had wondered how to become “one of these mysterious people” who were special reviewers—and posted 50 or 60 book reviews she had written for class. “It worked!” she said. Over the years, she has bought books from Amazon—but always spends less than $500 a year.
On the third Thursday of every month, Vine participants get a “targeted” newsletter that lets them choose up to four products. They go online and pick; a week later, they get a second newsletter with anything that’s left over, even if it’s not in their usual review area.
Belle won’t reveal the percentage of all reviews written by Vine Voices, but said it’s pretty small. “There are tens of thousands of Vine reviews out of the tens if not hundreds of millions of customer reviews.”
The program remains controversial. On another blog, ChasingRay.com, professional reviewer Colleen Mondor noted that publishers address ARCs to “Dear Reviewer,” not “Dear Stay-at-home-mom” or “Dear Person who reads a lot.” She wrote, “If you receive an ARC from a publisher—whether sent to you directly or via Amazon—for the express purpose of reviewing said book, then you are a reviewer.... Even if you aren’t paid in cash, you are a professional reviewer, period.”
Regardless of the program’s detractors, readers can look for more Vine Voice reviews. “I would love at some point to see every book that publishers come out with be submitted to the program,” said Belle.