I love the smell of manufactured outrage in the morning.

As posted on her blog and recounted in a Gizmodo story, writer and blogger Imy Santiago bought an independent novel, read it, and tried to post a review of it to Amazon. But Amazon rejected her review, and held firm on the rejection through two rounds of appeals. Amazon said that they had looked at Santiago’s account activity and from it determined Santiago actually personally knew the author of the novel she was trying to review. Hence, Amazon rejected the review on the grounds that there could be a conflict of interest. This seems to be part of a new change in the way Amazon is considering its reviews—probably part of the same changes that have also altered the way aggregate review scores are calculated.

Santiago is up in arms over this new move, and Gizmodo seems to be firmly taking her side (the headline “Amazon’s Review Policy is Creepy and Bad for Authors” seems to be just a bit of a clue). At first glance, it does seem suspicious. How dare Amazon make like a creepy stalker, etc. But when you take a closer look, is there really any “there” there? Something smells decidedly fishy to me.

You see, Santiago firmly refuses to identify the author or title of the book she was attempting to review—nor has she divulged the nature of their relationship. She simply says that as an independent author herself, she moves in the same circles as a lot of other independent authors—but she has not even hinted at the precise nature of the relationship between her and the unnamed other novel’s author. Are they in fact best buddies? Does Santiago follow her on Twitter and occasionally retweet her posts because they’re funny? Does she not even really know the person but just happened to reply to one of her posts once to answer a question? No way to know, because Santiago’s not saying.

But it really makes me suspicious. In a way, it reminds me of the whole deal surrounding Amazon referral links. Let’s say that someone clicks an Amazon link to an item where you added your tag at the end of the URL, like http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00SOFZF08/terrania-20. Then they end up buying something—either that specific item or something else they browse to—during the same shopping session.

If that happens, you’re supposed to get a more-or-less 5% kickback on anything they bought—for every dollar they spend, you get five cents—unless that person actually knows you already. The idea is that you’re supposed to be helping Amazon find new customers, not people who know you already. If they’re a complete stranger, you get money, but if they’re a buddy of yours, you get nothing.

I’ve actually had that bite me before. My brother once made some big Amazon purchases (to the tune of a couple grand) using my tag. When I contacted Amazon support to ask why I didn’t see the kickback come through, they looked up the exact purchase and then told me it was disqualified because Amazon knew that person knew me. But they weren’t going to tell me how or why they knew. Given that I damned well knew it was my brother, I couldn’t exactly argue the point. In the end, I just had to shrug, throw up my hands, and let it go.

How do they determine if someone knows you? Well, Amazon has lots of data. If they’ve ever shared the same physical address as you is probably one clue. Likewise, if either of you have ever ordered things and shipped them as gifts to each others’ address, or other things like that. (As my brother and I had done with Christmas and birthday presents to each other many times.) Who knows? Given how many people buy how much stuff from Amazon and send it to how many other people, it seems likely an awful lot of people have that kind of connection.

But Amazon is not going to tell you about it beyond the simple binary answer of whether or not it can prove you know each other. As many transactions as there are in a day, the amount of paperwork involved would be enormous—and besides, it would help less-honest folks figure out how to cheat the system. In the end, we end up having to take Amazon’s word for it that it knows you know each other, and for the amount of pennies you get from each purchase, it’s probably not worthwhile to quibble over individual transactions anyway.

Moving back from that to the question of the user reviews, I just want to re-emphasize that we have no way of knowing how close Santiago and this other person she tried to review are. They could be almost complete strangers, or they could be on each others’ Christmas card lists. Santiago isn’t saying. She’s just objecting to the whole premise on principle. This seems a little suspicious to me, because as far as I’m concerned, the premise does make sense. If Amazon determines that you and the author of the book you’re reviewing do know each other, honestly, it should be keeping you from reviewing their book.

How many complaints have we heard about Amazon reviews in the past? Cases where people were getting their self-published books reviewed by friends and relatives and no one else, or ones where people like Anne Rice get up in arms over trolls abusing the review process? It sounds to me that Amazon is finally doing exactly the sorts of things people have wanted them to for a long time.

And if Amazon is going by “account activity” to make that determination, it sounds to me like Amazon noticed something like them shipping things to each others’ addresses, just as with me and my brother. It seems a lot more likely it would come from something like that, rather than Amazon just noticing them following each other on Twitter. I mean, what does Amazon even care about Twitter? It has plenty of data involving the ways people spend actual money on each other.

But again, that’s just a guess, because without knowing who the other person is, I have no way of knowing that either. I can just observe that it looks kind of funny Santiago is so willing to make such a big fuss about generalities without coughing up any specifics, such as whether or not she and the other author actually do know each other, and if so to what extent. If they didn’t know each other, I should think she’d at least outright say so, even without divulging the other person’s name.

Of course, Santiago and other authors such as Seanan McGuire are concerned over where exactly the bright line is—how close you can know someone before Amazon objects to your reviewing the book. What if you meet someone at a convention and become friends along the way? When are you disallowed from leaving reviews for each other? You can see how she would be concerned, since if Santiago isn’t divulging how close her connection is to the other author, Amazon isn’t coughing up any details on its part either beyond “account activity.”

And yet, I haven’t seen anyone getting up in arms over how Amazon decides whether you get referral bennies from a given person clicking on your link to an Amazon product—though for all I know, they use the exact same process to make that decision, and they’re never going to tell you why they made a given decision there either.

This smells to me like someone went looking for reasons to be angry at Amazon. But when you get right down to it, there really isn’t anything there.


  1. Actually , if you read the original blog post, Imy Santiago makes it quite clear that she does not have a personal relationship with the author. In the independent book community, one of the most used ways to get your name out there is to do a giveaway. Many of these giveaways are copies of the authors Ebook, either through amazon or direct to your kindle. Just because you won something, does not mean you “personally” know the person giving you the book.

  2. If you had actually done any research into the indie book community, you would know that this is not the first time something like this has happened. Reviews are make-or-break for indie authors, and removing reviews for invalid reasons without the chance to properly explain and/or defend yourself is the problem. Amazon is playing Big Brother and God simultaneously; their system is flawed and they refuse to acknowledge or fix the problem. Haven’t you ever been frustrated by not being able to explain your side of the story to an actual person? Additionally, Ms. Santiago refused to divulge the author for whom she attempted to leave a review because the author did not want to be publicly named for fear of retribution from Amazon. And who cares, honestly, if reviewers do know the authors? That’s like saying someone who knows an actor can’t review a movie the actor stars in, or buy a ticket to sort the movie. Reviewers pay for the books and should be able to leave a review regardless of their connection, if any, to an author.

  3. I’m sorry, that should be support, not sort.

    Additionally, I misread comments on Facebook about the author for whom the review was written, and no mention was made of fear of retribution. The author just wanted to remain out of the argument. I apologize for the misinformation.

  4. “…Santiago is so willing to make such a big fuss about generalities without coughing up any specifics…” (Chris Meadows, Furor Over Amazon review policy probably signifies nothing, 2015, online article).

    The most important thing is why I’m choosing not to reveal the the name of the author and book title I was trying to review.

    Why? Plain and simple.

    The author involved asked me to not reveal their name, and keep them far away from my argument with Amazon. Fair request, right? There’s a difference between curiosity, and hurtful exploitation for the sake of a story.

    To those reporters, such as yourself, who are supposed to do their investigative research BEFORE writing an article, perhaps a little visit over to Goodreads will reveal said review, thus appeasing your curiosity. Seriously. *winks*

    With love,

    The lady who “is up in arms” (Chris Meadows, Furor Over Amazon review policy probably signifies nothing, 2015, online article), and smiling,

    -Imy Santiago

  5. Amazon admitting to “stalking” users IS creepy for some of us.

    As an author who had Amazon strip away every review of my five books then remove most of the metadata so that the only way to find my books is to do a search of my name, I feel these people’s pain.

  6. All right, that’s fair. I probably should have looked closer at the comments before posting to get more details on why the name wasn’t mentioned.

    I still think it’s a valid point that there have been little or no complaints about the exact same sort of judgment being used to deny people their referral money from Amazon click-throughs. It’s not as if we have much better luck appealing that sort of decision either. And again, this is exactly the sort of thing that lots of people have been complaining for years that Amazon needs to pay more attention to in order to keep people from abusing its reviews.

  7. Imy,

    Is there any chance the other author ever bought and/or reviewed one of your books at some point? If so it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s the flawed evidence they’re using to conclude you know one another. Amazon seems to be trying to stem the tide of tit-for-tat review gaming going on, but unfortunately their efforts are increasingly interfering with the reviews of honest people as well.

  8. From another site, it seems the author of the review may not have been completely truthful – there was an individual commenting that the author have participated in a book cover reveal for the author, as well as having her series recommended by the unable to post review’s author and vice versa…

  9. As I expressed in my blog post, I am a published writer AND blogger. In the blogger side of my work, I read and review books. In the case of the author whose book I reviewed, it is not secret I LOVED what I read in this series. I heard about the author in a release day party on Facebook. The book’s blurb intrigued me.

    I reached out to the author after reading the first book in the series, and “fan-girled” over the author’s work. I started following them on social media. That does not mean I know the author personally. In a digital era where we have “friends” on social media platforms, it can be easily misconstrued that just because there are social media interactions does not mean two people are “friends in real life,” and if you are focusing your efforts on the validity, or honesty of my reviews, then the premise of my blog post is lost on you.

    I reviewed the author’s books just like I do with any other (peruse Goodreads, the you will be able to read ALL of my reviews). I rate them based on how a book makes me feel, if the author’s writing transports me to a different place and time, if the heroes and antagonists, as well as plot line sell me the story as a whole. The author in question met all of my reviewer requirements to EARN a five star rating; not because of an underlining friendship as it has been so eloquently hinted above.

    As far as me not being truthful… Clearly you don’t know what a blogger’s work entails in the world of independent publishing!

    Allow me to enlighten you. As a blogger, it is my volunteered duty to participate in cover reveals, release day blitzes, blog tours, and release day parties because that’s what bloggers do. Just because I’m also a writer doesn’t mean I can’t wear two hats, and much less diminishes my right to review books I legitimately purchased.

    The point of my blog post was to make a call to action, to raise awareness that Amazon is data mining our accounts via the use of social media interactions, and that is a valid concern. Whether or not the review is posted is irrelevant. What matters most is Amazon’s failure to be transparent when it comes to determining whether or not a person knows an author personally, because guess what? I don’t know the author whose book I reviewed personally, and their failure to address my concern is wrong.

  10. @Chris- I’ve thought on this for a few days and while I think Amazon’s behavior is creepy, they’re using information that someone freely gave them and/or has put out in public so I find your points valid. If you do a cover reveal for an author and then do a review, there is every reason to question the relationship between the author and the reviewer. I really don’t have to know any more than that of either party to wonder if there is a conflict of interest or a quid pro quo thing going on. Add to that knowledge that the reviewer is also an author and that there are twitter conversations between the two, I wonder even more.

    I’m not saying the review isn’t an honest review, I’m saying it’s not a credible one for me because of what appears to be a conflict of interest. This is a case where I appreciate Amazon doing the homework for me.

    Don’t even get me started on why an author would think it’s ok or helpful to review their own books. That’s just one more review that I would find to not be credible.

    I will add that I think Amazon needs to improve their methods to differentiate between the different types of relationships. I’ve had authors offer to send me ARC’s but I’ve always refused. If I wanted to, I bought the book myself after release date but what if I did accept ARC’s? Is Amazon going to decide I have a relationship with the author because they offered me an ARC based on a previous review? I consider ARC reviews different from promotional cover reveals but maybe Amazon doesn’t and Amazon isn’t going to tell me so until after I submit a review.

    • @Anne, Amazon’s policy on ARCs is stated somewhere. You just have to add a disclosure that you received an ARC in exchange for a fair and honest review. I suppose Amazon (or readers) might notice if you always gave glowing 5 star reviews for ARCs, but I think if you’re balanced in your reviews, no one would care. I’ve certainly used disclosed ARC reviews when deciding to buy a book, and I don’t look at them differently from “Verified Purchase” reviews, as long as the reviewer gave their reasons for liking/disliking.

  11. @Juli, I’m familiar with the disclosure requirements for ARCs.

    One, ARCs are just something I choose not to do. I truly don’t want any interaction with an author. I’ve had a couple “invade” my review space and even though all but one of the exchanges were pleasant, I just don’t want them there. Once they do that, they’re on my never to review again list.

    Two, my concern with Amazon goes something like this: Over time I get a number of ARCs from a favorite author, we may discuss the delivery of the ARCs or the posting of my reviews on Twitter or maybe on my blog and Amazon deciding we have some sort of relationship beyond that when there isn’t one. I think it would lessen the effectiveness of ARCs while reducing the number of true reviews.

    Three, maybe I’m just thinking too hard about it all.

  12. My mom once gave me the greatest review blurb ever. She was my first reader, and, when she read “The Werewolf Whisperer,” a short story I wrote for a charity anthology, she said, “I’ve read some weird stories in my life, and this is one of them.”

    I used the quote when I was promoting the antho., and it got lots of laughs and attention.

    If anyone is interested in reading it, it’s online for free now. Either do a search of the title, or click my name link to find it.

  13. With respect to the question of a click and buy being not eligible for referrer fees if there is a known current relationship (family or friend) with the link clicker, Amazon, as any affiliate-program runner does, will not be ‘rewarding’ what is not a customer led to them but is instead someone you know who may be wanting Amazon to pay you the extra amount of money for the ‘lead’ when the friend or family member may be just trying to get you referrer fee.

    It’s been discussed quite a bit on the affiliate board that if you’ve gifted someone with an Amazon item, that person’s name and address are in your Amazon order and shipping contacts listing. Those will be the obvious ones. Someone sharing the same address is another.

    I once did technical freelance work for Flycast (which became Engage Media later) as a part of a troubleshooting group for banner ads that caused problems. The company did this for about 48% of the ads on the Net at the time. They paid advertisers AND website owners who published those banners. No one got paid when the ads were not working right.

    I also used my personal website to sign up with several outfits that paid website people to run their banners to see how they compared. That was fascinating to see what the differences were, but one thing was *common*. ONLY the FIRST click-through by someone (anyone) would be credited to the website owner. Anything they did after that with the advertiser-company would be from an “already-established customer” and not eligible for further referrals, and this means that added activity later by the same *strangers* were not eligible for any more referrer credit.

    Amazon is different in that it will continue to give referrer credits when existing customers are interested in a product through information from bloggers if the person is not a known friend or family member.

    As for reviews, I lost trust some time ago in reviews of indie books when there seemed a rash of authors trading good reviews. The last thing Amazon needs is less trust in the review system. I highly recommend authors refrain from trading. If you want to promote another author you’re in obvious contact with, give them praise in your blog or an article.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.