Amazon’s Policy Leads To Deletion of Author’s Reviews – And Possibly Yours, Too.

On the second of November, Salon reported that Amazon was starting to remove author’s reviews.I can easily imagine what led to this policy. Remember R.J. Ellory from a little over a month ago? He was caught using “sockpuppet” accounts in order to boost his approval ratings. That article prompted the creation of a review policy for Alliteration Ink.But as reported by Salon (and also by Joe Konrath), Amazon is removing author’s reviews of other people’s books. (Steve Weddle’s post was mentioned in Salon; it’s also happened to (at least) Michelle Gagnon and others.)Amazon says they’re removing these books as part of their new customer review guidelines:2

Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product).

There’s lots of opinion about how valid this position is, why Amazon might have done it, and how effective it is at reducing sockpuppet reviews (Sean Cregan addresses these issues quite well, so I won’t repeat what he said.)What I will address are the folks claiming this whole story is, to quote one in particular, “bullshit”. They point to the policy itself, and say that it doesn’t explicitly name authors. Or that it’s all being promoted by Amazon-haters. Or that the authors in question are making it up to get attention.I do not care if the reports are actually true. The policy itself is bad enough.I agree that a “common-sense” reading would not mean authors reviewing books they read. But this is a legal issue.3Considering that at least some publishers (and I mean Big 6 NYC publishers) are considering self-published collections of rights-reverted short stories to be “direct competition” (their words, not mine) to a new novel4, interpreting “directly competing product” to include a sizeable group of “authors” is not exactly a stretch of credulity. Further, there’s more authors now wearing both an “author” hat and “publisher” hat, whether they’re simply publishing their own back catalog or are like myself and publishing other people’s work. So the one explicitly mentioned group – publishers – can now be interpreted broadly enough that it still applies to a broad swath of authors, including those who are largely “traditionally” published. (The existing policy could also be applied by asking this question: Are you a “manufacturer” of your work? Legal definitions are not the same as common-sense definitions. The legal definition applies, not a common-sense one.Amazon does not clearly say “Authors can’t review other books.” But from a legal standpoint, Amazon would have no incentive to clearly spell out who can’t review what. It would limit them and gain them (legally) nothing.In a very real sense it does not matter if multiple authors are completely fabricating this story. It’s damn unlikely that multiple people are publicly lying with the same story, but it does not matter if this has happened yet. Amazon’s policy5 is poorly worded and vague enough to be interpreted in an overbroad sense. It could include anyone who is involved in any way with any thing that is sold on Amazon. As the policy is written “third party retailer” and “financial interest”, it could be apply to people who have sold a used book or CD through Amazon or simply have a referral account there.And that’s the best case scenario.There should be a fuss raised about this policy. Because if you think that any corporation won’t screw you over if they think they can get away with it, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.1 I have reviewed books that my stories appear in before… because they’re anthologies. The vast majority of the book is not my work, but I’m also careful to fully disclose what’s going on.
2 According to the blog posts above, they also explicitly mention “authors” in their form e-mails; what’s publicly posted is bad enough for reasons I’m about to outline.
3 I’m not a lawyer, and if I was one, I wouldn’t be your lawyer. I do know quite a few lawyers, and had my rear handed to me in enough arguments about things like this that I’m pretty confident in what I’m saying here.
4 I personally know of this happening at least twice in the last year. It’s stupid but it happens.
5 And to forestall the charges of “ZOMG YER AN AMAZON HATER”: I think pretty much any company in their position would try to do such things. Amazon has been more obvious in the past about screwing people over than I expected, though.

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