Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Amazon. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.


The Good And The Bad

Amazon does some things well. It gives authors an avenue to sell books with a fair bit of freedom. What it does less well is ... communicating. I know this from the past:
 Oh boy. I haven't had much luck with Amazon recently.

Before I explain what happened today, let me give you a bit of background.

My Monthly Review Procedure

On the first day of every month I check for new reviews of my books on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Goodreads. I read them all, even the weird ones from people who seem furiously angry about everything and give a book 1* on principle, or who seem to be writing a review for a different item. Then I pick some and save them into Buffer, which I use to manage my social media accounts. It's like a big tub of posts for Twitter and Facebook. Every few days I go through and sort out which will appear in the next few days. I like to have a mix of photos, personal posts, links to articles, and so on. In that mix are some reviews. I never cease to be thankful that people liked my words enough to write words of their own. It seems an act of respect to share some of those reviews more widely. It also means it isn't always me talking. I like to highlight a key sentence but link to the full review in case people want to read the full thing.

What Happened This Week - The Ugly

The other day I was looking through the posts I'd saved and came across a review I decided to share. As usual I tested the link first, but instead of going to a nice review, I saw this:


Strange. I'd only saved the link a few days earlier.

I should have ignored it. But it was for one of my books that has fewer than ten reviews. A new 5* review is something to celebrate. It makes my day. I wondered if it was a temporary hitch and I should try again later, or if I should just delete the link to the review entirely. I knew Amazon generally wouldn't comment on reviews except to the person who wrote them, and I had no idea who wrote this one, but decided to ask Amazon out of curiosity. I sent Amazon this email through a general "Contact Us" link.

Hi,

I noticed a link to one of the October reviews on my Horror Collection has stopped working:

https://www.amazon.com/review/R2YA1PCLPZFU2M/

Any idea what has happened or how to restore it? I sometimes link to reviews in social media, pointing people back to Amazon in case they want to buy the book, and that was one of my few reviews that month.

Thanks!
Karl
That seems okay, right? Innocuous? Friendly? Maybe they'd tell me there had been a temporary problem? Maybe they'd tell me they couldn't comment? Maybe it would help them spot a bug, and they could fix it?

This reply was waiting for me when I woke this morning:

-----Original Message-----
From: review-appeals@amazon.com
Sent: 21 November 2017 23:28
Subject: A Message from Amazon Review Moderation

Hello,

We have determined that you have violated our Customer Review Creation Guidelines. As a result, we have suppressed all of your reviews, and you will no longer be able to post reviews on Amazon.com.

We made this decision after carefully considering your reviewing account. This decision is final.

We cannot share any further information about our decision, and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.

Review Moderator Amazon.com
What!?!?! WTF?

At first I thought it must be replying to something else, or from a parallel universe, but no - below that was the email I had sent them.

Let me just be clear. I have no idea what that is about. I asked where a review had gone which had been written by a stranger with no connection to me - just like every other review on my books. In return they are stopping me from writing reviews! Forever, with no explanation, and no appeal. Doesn't that seem weird? Was it a message they meant to send to someone else?

I should also add that I am not a prolific reviewer. On my Amazon account I reviewed a few gadgets, a few games, and the new Kindle Fire. My review of the Kindle Fire was 2*, and ... erm ... Amazon makes and sells the Kindle Fire. Could that be ... no, surely not. Apart from that I write some book reviews. As you can imagine, being an author, I read a lot. Amazon's guidelines say you can't write "negative reviews for items sold by that seller’s competitors", which would mean books in my case, but that's fine - if I don't like a book, I don't review it. I only write reviews for books I think people should go and read. Stuff like this, this, this, this, this, this, and this. All those reviews and many more are lost from Amazon now.

What Set Amazon Off?

So, what happened? I have no idea what it is about, and it looks like I'll never find out. I've encountered similar weirdness from Amazon before. At one time they pointed me to Amazon Seller guidelines they said I'd broken - guidelines that I couldn't even see because I wasn't an Amazon Seller and had never had an Amazon Seller account! The wording is obviously standard text inserted into an email with little, if any, human intervention - just like the systems at play.

So I could be suspicious that they are getting back at me because I complained publicly about their unfairness here. This has the same tone - they say you've done something bad in vague, unpinnable terms, won't say what, and give no appeal. Or are they removing my ability to post reviews because my only 2* review was for the product they make and sell? Is that more likely, bearing in mind that the punishment is taking down my reviews and ratings?

When these kind of things happen it is easy to get angry and hate Amazon. But it's not worth it. There are more important things in the world. I think the most likely cause is a dodgy algorithm, probably innocent people being caught in the crossfire of something else, such as a clamp down on real review manipulators but with such broad strokes that they actually take down the wrong targets. Presumably they have systems set up to detect things like review farming (where companies pay for fake ranks and reviews, a practice that is both foolish and dishonest). But obviously whatever Amazon's systems look for as indicators can also create false positives like this.

One Possibility - Amazon's Tracking/Spying

Here's one example that I've been aware of for a while. Did you know that as well as cookies, Amazon adds code to URLs as you browse their store? All the highlighted part here is actually tracking information:


If you copy and paste that URL without clearing that text from the end (to create "a clean link") then Amazon adds that tracking data to the browser for anyone clicking the link. They add that tracking data to all their pages as you use the store.

So here's a possibility. Maybe I once shared a link to a review of one of my books and forgot to remove that Amazon spying data from the link. (And before I learnt about this, I probably shared lots of links that still contained the tracking data.) Then a person clicked on the review I shared and read it. It then connected the reader to me in Amazon's algorithm. If that person bought my book and reviewed it later, maybe Amazon assumed they were "connected" to me in some way, therefore the review was biased, and they then trigger the flag that implies review manipulation. Who knows? But my money is on it being something like that. But since Amazon won't give any details or allow any comeback, there's no way to prove anything. That's why they don't give you information. If you had information you could show that Amazon was wrong.

What's Next?

There's a part of me that wants to follow this up with Amazon. To ask for details. To point out that I have never violated their guidelines (I am well aware of them). But I know from past experience that not I will get nowhere - I once emailed Jeff Bezos about an issue exactly like this, and he forwarded it to Amazon staff, and then they still sent me the same canned message and accusations. There is no way of getting to a human being who will understand the issue, explain what has triggered the false positive, and work with you to improve their algorithm to avoid false positives in future. Amazon don't want to know, or to improve things. They would rather have large numbers of false positives, because it takes less effort to close accounts and ignore replies than it does to fix obviously-flawed, very complex broad-sweep systems.

Also, just on the off-chance that this is some punitive response from Amazon for something I've done in the past (such as pointing out unfair flaws in their system), I am worried that if I even reply to them they may go further. What next? Close my whole Amazon account? Remove my books, or rank them lower? My livelihood is based on my books. Sales and reviews raise their visibility. It's why I am so grateful to my fans and readers. At this point I don't want Amazon to stomp on me any more. I have little to gain by complaining to them (probably not even a sensible answer - just a repetition of the same email), but a lot to lose.

I get it. Life isn't fair, and there are no comebacks, and if you annoy them by protesting your innocence then they may just stomp even harder. I worry that they may take silence to imply that you are really guilty of something (I'm not), but on the other hand, it's not even possible to discuss this with anyone reasonable at Amazon. In this case even a polite email about a missing review led to them applying restrictions to my account. It's just not worth it.

So I'm afraid you won't see many reviews from me in the future! Maybe that's not so bad, but I do worry about how many thousands of other innocent people are being caught out and having restrictions applied thanks to over-zealous automated Amazon systems. But at this point I can't see anything that can be done about it. Create a behemoth and don't be surprised if it squashes you in its sleep one day.

Comments on this post are welcome.

Update: Same Day, A Bit Later 

It feels like I am stuck in a Monty Python sketch some days.

Some authors have discussed this with me. Authors are lovely people. You should adopt one if you get the chance.

To be honest, I am less concerned about not being able to write reviews any more (which, at the end of the day, benefits Amazon and their customers, not me), than the vague worry that they might start deleting more of the few reviews I have on some of my books, or worse: especially if I create too much fuss. I hate the feeling that I've been accused of something dishonest. This will seem weird, but it then starts making me think I must have done something, because otherwise it is too surreal. I also hate being blocked in that way, i.e. not told what I have done, or given a chance to work out how this situation occurred. I have already screenshotted the reviews of my books because I am worried in case they start disappearing, but even then there's no comeback. So I guess I am mostly just a bit shaken up.

As I explained to my fellow authors, if Amazon's righteous retribution was due to any genuine error on my part I'd have loved to have been told. I could have apologised. I could have accepted just punishment. As with my Kindle Scout campaign, I could have warned others so they didn't follow in my puppyish over-enthusiastic footsteps. But I am nonplussed. It's not like I even have a lot of reviews or a high rank or lots of sales, where nastily suspicious people might wonder about the secret of my success and discount the fact that it could just be down to writing good books and telling good stories.

And there are some horror stories. These are (anonymised, paraphrased) comments from some authors I spoke to.

"Same thing happened to me. I politely asked why reviews were disappearing and suddenly I ended up on Amazon's shitlist and I can't review any longer either."

"I think Amazon outsources the review check system, and recently - the last couple of months - I've heard many people say the same thing. There is obviously a fault with the system somewhere."

"I asked which guideline I'd broken as I looked at their guidance and didn't think I had violated any rules. The next email from them threatened to remove all my books from being published on Amazon. After that I shut the hell up. Even now I regularly get reviews of my books removed by Amazon - but I'm not going to complain any more..."
Yikes. And - oh shit. Because despite thinking I maybe shouldn't, I did go ahead and send Amazon this polite email in response:

Hi,

Can I just check if this has been sent to the wrong person, or the message reached me in error? It doesn't seem to be a response to my original email, which was just asking about a review!

I haven't broken any guidelines that I am aware of, which suggests this is a false positive. I'd be happy to work with you to resolve it, since you obviously don't want errors in whatever systems you have in place. I'm also happy to do that over the phone if it helps.

Best wishes,
Karl Drinkwater
Now I am wondering if this is going to get any worse.

Update: Thursday 23rd November 2017 (Next Day)

I checked reviews of my books on Amazon and another one has disappeared.

I also had lots of supportive comments from fellow authors. Some of the things they said are useful, and I'll share a few here (anonymised, again).

"I've had similar Karl. Reviews were removed from my books, always 5 star ones from genuine fans. Amazon said they violated guidelines and they did not. I tried writing to the CEO but worry that I may have made it worse. It's not as if I have a lot of reviews."

"I've heard so many stories like this. They removed one of my five star reviews recently saying it breached guidelines. I emailed them and they said everything was fine and as it should be as they confirmed my remaining reviews. It was as if nothing happened. The review is still gone. I think it depends on who you get on the email. Some agents dealing with emails are kinder then others."

"One of the things my publisher told me is to never send out ARCS through Amazon or send ARCS to a kindle Amazon address by email because Amazon takes this as direct contact e.g. You know the person, and Amazon then won't accept reviews from either of you. Always send Arcs to a standard email address."
It's a good point - I stopped sending ARCs via Amazon a few years ago for that very reason. There was a time when I didn't realise Amazon tracked all this data and kept it and used it against you (even though Amazon guidelines allow sending of ARCs!). For info: ARC is an Advance Review Copy. It is traditional in the book world to send ARCs to reviewers before publication, to get reviews ready for launch, and maybe quotes to use in the publicity. ARCs are standard practice throughout the book trade.

On the topic of connections:

"I’ve seen this on other author pages. They apparently remove reviews if you are friends on any social media site with the authors. A lot of authors are having this issue. Worse is that Amazon are removing reviews in bulk from authors' books bringing down their rank."

"Use different emails for EVERYTHING especially your amazon and ALL social media. You have to keep your social media email and Amazon emails separate."
But not everyone agrees with this:

"There are good reasons for not having the same password etc for social accounts but it won't stop Amazon, Facebook et al from linking you, this Ted talk shows just how far it goes. When this "don't link your accts" thing came about a few years ago, I got a blogger who I'm friends with on nearly every social network going, to mention me, her review and the whole "Amazon" issue on twitter and several other places. I still have her reviews on my Amazon acct. I really feel for those of you that have lost reviews, but I think you're barking up the wrong tree re: linked accts. Amazon does know the computer, Internet router etc that you use so having different email accts and using the same technology to access them won't help you be unrecognisable."

"The scraping of social media is a myth; there's not one shred of evidence supporting it. There are many other ways Amazon can track connections between authors, however, and connecting those dots is where their algorithms tend to stumble."
It's hard to know what to believe. Lack of evidence doesn't mean things don't happen. As my case shows, Amazon often refuse to give enough information to even identify what rule has been broken, and how - it therefore makes it impossible to also work out what evidence (correct or not) they used to come to their conclusions. And since this probably happens hundreds of times without anyone being able to get answers from Amazon (and in many cases, without speaking out), Amazon's closed-mouth approach means that theories naturally fill the void left by Amazon's reticence to be open. And without knowing what has really gone on in many of the cases, it is also impossible to rule things out for sure. It's rather a confusing mess, and creates a condition of uncertainty for everyone.

"It is against the Amazon reviewer TOS for anyone to review "competitors' products". Broadly interpreted, this could mean that any author reviewing another author's book is in violation of the TOS. More specifically, if you're reviewing books by authors in the same genre(s) you write in, then you're DEFINITELY violating the reviewer TOS."
That's not quite true. "Customer Reviews Guidelines Frequently Asked Questions from Authors" say:

2. Are authors allowed to review other authors’ books?
Yes. Authors are welcome to submit Customer Reviews, unless the reviewing author has a personal relationship with the author of the book being reviewed
So it is okay to review other books as an author. Of course, the vagueness over what constitutes a "personal relationship" leaves huge amounts of room for confusion. If another author follows me on Goodreads is that a "personal relationship"? If I know another author online from the author community, is that a "personal relationship"? And if it is a yes for both of those things, does it automatically mean they would be biased and dishonest if they wrote a review? Bear in mind, not all "personal relationships" are positive. Some are neutral. Some are negative. The "personal" part is meaningless; the "relationship" part just means the two people know of each other. It is so vague as to be nonsense.

"I've just read this Karl. I think the "mistake" you made was sticking your head above the parapet and sending them the first email (bringing yourself to their attention). In my case I only learned recently about clean links and about not linking my Facebook and Amazon accounts, too late though. It's a cruel world!"

"The same thing happened to me Karl. Amazon recently suppressed all my reviews and won't allow me to post any more, their email said their decision is final. I don't see how they can think dead authors and singers were my friends, but that's mighty Amazon for you!"

"You should call the customer service. It may be easier to resolve it on the phone. If the person is unable to help, ask to speak to a supervisor."
Good advice there, probably (though I hate using the phone because you have no record of what is said, and most companies use horrible automated menu systems - I have been given the runaround by those many times). Even if Amazon reinstated my review ability I think this has shaken me up so much I wouldn't risk leaving any more reviews unless Amazon told me exactly what triggered this so I could avoid it again, otherwise it would be like playing Russian roulette! All the power is on one side in the Amazon relationship and I don't want to risk losing more than I have already lost.
Now I am wondering if this is going to get any worse.

Update: Tuesday 28th November 2017

I'd given up on Amazon, and just didn't want things to get any worse, but then a new email arrived a few minutes ago, in reply to the message I sent them on 22nd November:

Hi,

Can I just check if this has been sent to the wrong person, or the message reached me in error? It doesn't seem to be a response to my original email, which was just asking about a review!

I haven't broken any guidelines that I am aware of, which suggests this is a false positive. I'd be happy to work with you to resolve it, since you obviously don't want errors in whatever systems you have in place. I'm also happy to do that over the phone if it helps.

Best wishes,
Karl Drinkwater
Guess what the reply said? Here it is in full:

-----Original Message-----
From: review-appeals@amazon.com
Sent: 28 November 2017 13:40
Subject: A Message from Amazon Review Moderation

Hello,

Thank you for your reply to our recent message. We have reviewed the message, and determined that you were sent incorrect correspondence stating

"We have determined that you have violated our Customer Review Creation Guidelines. As a result, we have suppressed all of your reviews, and you will no longer be able to post reviews on Amazon.com.
We made this decision after carefully considering your reviewing account. This decision is final.
We cannot share any further information about our decision, and we may not reply to further emails about this issue."

We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused.

Please note that "Customer Reviews are removed for the following reasons:

-- The review violates our Customer Review Creation Guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines).
-- A customer can decide to remove their own review.
-- The review is on a page that incorrectly links multiple items. We remove these reviews when we separate the items.

To protect the privacy of our customers, we do not share information about specific reviews with anyone other than the customer who posted it. If a customer contacts you about their missing review, please ask them to write to review-appeals@amazon.com. We can help the customer understand why their review was removed.

Once a review is removed because it does not comply with our guidelines, the reviewer may not submit any new reviews on the same product.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Creation Guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines)."

Review Moderator Amazon.com
http://www.amazon.com
In brief: "We have reviewed the message, and determined that you were sent incorrect correspondence. [...] We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused."

Well shit. That's been a stressful week and a lot of wasted time on my part, and it turns out that Amazon accidentally accused me of something unspecified but very bad. But it's all okay now, because they used the pasted in "sorry" line.

On the one hand I am glad they admitted that they'd stuffed up. On the other hand I find it frustrating that they never explain what the problem is, any more than they did last time this happened. I guess the only things I can learn from this are:

1. That I should never leave a review for anything on Amazon again.
2. That I should never ask Amazon any questions about reviews.
3. That I still need my fans and readers to leave reviews on Amazon to help me sell books and scrape a living from being an author.

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