Ever since the John Locke paid reviews scandal came to light, indie author granddad Joe Konrath has bent over backwards to defend Locke and other authors who’ve abused the review system. In his first commentary on the issue, he points out that since many techniques used to sell books aren’t 100% pure, no one has any right to judge Locke for buying hundreds of fake reviews. Next up, he proposed that we would all sell out, cheat, and lie to help our friends or further our career, so really, in our own ways, we’re all little Lockes at heart. Anyway, there’s no proof that buying all those reviews helped Locke at all, so who was hurt, really?

From there, Konrath argued that leaving one-star reviews is “shitty” and “mean,” but since millions of other people do it all the time, what’s the big deal that author RJ Ellory left anonymous one-stars on his competitors’ books? He might be a dick, but the system is filled with millions of dicks! Also, reviews are about free speech. So even when an author violates the policies of a company’s own website–and attempts to deceive readers into thinking his one-star reviews have been left by other readers with no stake in the game–this is no different from any other one-star, and anyway, “It’s wrong to not allow people to speak their mind.”

Next up, Konrath posited that some fake reviews are a good thing. Satirical reviews of wolf t-shirts and tanks are creative and funny, and if we wipe out all the fakes, we’ll lose these treasures, too. Being against fake reviews is being in favor of censorship.

As always, he drew false equivalencies, conflating an innocent or murky issue with a blatantly wrong one, then declaring they’re all one and the same. There’s no difference between leaving a satirical review, leaving a review on a friend’s book you genuinely enjoyed, and, say, calculatedly lying to customers in order to get them to buy your books. If you’re against one case, you’re against them all. Either that or you’re a hypocrite. Oh, and you’re anti-freedom, too.

All this time, he condemned the “moral panic” he saw brewing around fake reviews, warning that it would lead to mob lynchings and witch hunts. If you’re against fake reviews, you’ll wind up hurting the innocent.

Recently, Amazon started deleting whole bunches of reviews. Some of these disappeared reviews were tainted, some were pure, and others were somewhere in between. The other day, Konrath took this as proof he was right. Who was to blame for the loss of many innocent, truthful reviews? Losses that dismayed both reviewers, who lost their voices, opinions they worked hard to provide, and authors, whose books now have lower ratings than they used to? (Then again, if, as Konrath claims, reviews don’t matter, why is that an issue?)

Not the authors who bought fake reviews or used sockpuppets to harm others.

Not Amazon, for casting such a broad, flawed net that many genuine reviews were caught up in it as well.

Nope. Instead, fault lies with those who complained about these problems, especially the low-hanging fruit of ad hoc (and, I’ll concede, self-righteous) groups like No Sock Puppets Here Please.

As usual, Konrath deflects blame from those who deserve it–the authors who created this whole mess–and splashes it over everyone else instead. For the record, I don’t think Konrath’s an idiot. I’m also wary of witch hunts, and I think he raised some interesting points about the shades of gray involved in selling books. Too bad he used those points not to ask “Where do we draw the line?”, but rather to declare, “Oh my god, there are no lines at all!”

I’m sure he believes everything he says. That he’s acting as the lone voice of reason amidst a hysterical mob of moral crusaders. The problem is that he’s wrong. Authors abused the system. In response, the system cracked down. Innocents got hurt. The lesson here isn’t that it’s wrong to complain about cheating. The lesson is that it’s wrong to cheat. Even when the harm isn’t immediately clear, it has a way of coming back to hurt those who’ve been playing fair, too.

ETA: For the record, in my research for this post, I discovered Amazon has been sweeping up big batches of shady reviews since at least late June. The Locke stuff broke in late August. So is this purge of reviews a direct result of people complaining about John Locke and his review-tainting cohorts? At best, the answer is “partly”; possibly, the answer is “not at all.” Amazon cares very deeply about the integrity of their review system. Because they know reviews sell books. Did the supposed “witch hunt” accelerate or heighten the review-deletion process? Possibly. But it is indisputable that this review-deletion was going on months before anybody started calling for heads on a platter.


Meanwhile, some clarity has been shed on exactly why Amazon is deleting so many honest reviews. The best summary of the situation I’ve found is in a post in the Amazon forums.

The gist is this. Reviews aren’t being removed because of some mysterious new policy, but rather because Amazon has decided to more strictly enforce (and possibly has reinterpreted?) its preexisting policies–probably in response to the Locke scandal. The poster (Peter Durward Harris) mentions two ways reviews are in violation: those given in exchange for any form of compensation, including gifted books, and those given by people who have a direct financial stake or are in direct competition with the book.

What’s the matter with gifting books to reviewers? Isn’t that in line with Amazon’s policy that you can’t provide any form of compensation except a free book? Well, it’s tricky. One way to interpret this is that when you gift someone a book, you have essentially sent them a gift card for the value of that book–and the receiver of the gift card doesn’t have to actually spend it on the book. The gifted book is a form of compensation, funds provided to purchase a book, which Amazon does not allow.

The second area–no reviews from those with a financial stake in the product, including competitors–is being enforced with similar semantic strictness. Harris’ post mentions that a graphic designer was informed that she’s not allowed to review books she’s done covers for. Meanwhile, many authors who’ve left reviews on other books have since had those reviews yanked.

Harris doesn’t mention the phenomenon of “linked accounts,” which appears to be the third violation Amazon is targeting, and may actually be a new policy. In my last post, I mentioned that reviews area being deleted if they are found to have (unspecified) connections to the writer or to other reviewers, which may include things like connecting to Amazon through the same IP address.

What we’re seeing here is an enforcement of rules that errs on the side of suspicion. Reviews that fall into a gray area, or those with the potential for abuse, are being axed without regard for how “pure” they may actually be. Amazon appears to be pretty serious about preserving the integrity of their reviews, even if it comes at the cost of many that did nothing wrong. If it has the appearance or potential of wrongdoing, it’s a target for deletion.

I’m not sure exactly how strictly these areas are being cracked down on. Lots of reviews based on gifted books are still out there. A quick update after further examination–Amazon might be touchier when it comes to giving gift cards rather than gift books; in any event, the removal of reviews based on a gift/gift card seems to be reserved for specific abusers. Lots of reviews left by authors are still out there. Customer service responses indicate it’s okay to review books as an author, but that malicious and/or fake reviews are against guidelines–yet many legit author-penned reviews have been deleted. My best guess is they’ve ginned up some programs to flag reviews that exhibit certain suspicious signs, then flagged reviews are checked and deleted (or left alone) manually. It remains highly confusing. The only thing that’s clear is that enforcement is selective, inconsistent, and imperfect.

I haven’t seen any real punishments handed down from on high, at least. Reviews just.. disappear. If you email Amazon to ask why, they’ll give you a vague explanation; if you try to repost your review, you may receive an email warning you not to try again or face the risk of having your reviewing privileges curtailed or revoked. It’s all kind of weird, largely because it’s still not all that clear, but at least the streets of Amazon aren’t running red with the blood of unwitting reviewers.

But perfectly innocent reviewers and authors have lost reviews. It’s frustrated many; possibly, it’s discouraged reviewers from reviewing, and could well have hurt the sales of authors who’ve done nothing wrong. That’s the fallout from John Locke, Stephen Leather, and RJ Ellory’s wrongdoing. (For the record, I consider Leather’s small-scale sockpuppetry far less insidious than Locke’s purchase of hundreds of fake reviews.) So I suppose Konrath’s right about one thing–if no one had cared, no one would have been hurt.

But people do care. Because reviews matter, if only to those who give them and those who receive them. I don’t blame those who complained. I blame those who knowingly acted to compromise the system.

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