Playing the Amazon Game, or Gaming the System?

Jane at DearAuthor has a post up regarding reader and writer allegations surrounding Highland Press, specifically addressing conduct by one individual:

Among other things, Highland Press [and “secret co-publisher, DeborahAnne MacGillvray”] [are] purported to do the following:

  * Banning authors from author loops for speaking out against Highland Press

  * Sending emails to subsequent publishers of those “problem” authors demanding that stock photography that the author purchased for the covers of her Highland Press books not be used by subsequent publishers. These stock photos can be used, as we know, by every publisher out there. I’m not sure on what basis Highland Press claims that stock photo cannot be used.

  * Using MacGillivray’s position to delete reviews she has provided to these problem authors and deleting reviews of the author’s friends.  (Of course, these are MacGillivray’s reviews and she is entitled to do whatever she wants with them).

A corollary to this is that the co-publisher uses a Yahoo Group list, Ladies in Waiting, change her Amazon reviews. When MacGillivray she gets a bad review, she tells the loop to click on the link to the Amazon page and vote “no” and then “report abuse”. With enough of those “report abuse” entries, the review is then removed.

Like Jane, the part that stop me cold – and how much that says about my exposure to behind-the-scenes press shenanigans, I do not want to think about – is the manner in which MacGillivray is allegedly playing the Amazon system to her own benefit. We’ve discussed many, many times whether Amazon reviews are worth even taking with a grain of salt, or if they’re so subjective they’re best ignored. Some authors hate the reviews, and some authors go out of their way to court good ones, but mobilizing a group to game the system? That would be some rather smarmy activity, to say the least.

Then again, “Amazon” and “legitimate reviews” are not words one sees in the same sentence all that often.


The Link-O-Lator

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  1. 1
    Jana Oliver says:

    Okay, maybe I’m old-fashioned, but gaming Amazon reviews is just stupid. It devalues the whole purpose of the online community if you can pick and choose which ones you want on the site. Yeah, you’re going to get some less-than-stellar reviews. They balance out the “OMG, this is the best book ever, ever, ever.”

    If the reviewer crosses the line, then you have a reason to complain. If someone thought your book sucked, hey, they spent money for it and should be able to air their opinion. Readers are savvy enough to weed through the bitchy reviews vs. the helpful ones.

    Gaming the system screws with that process. Worse, it indicates you have contempt for the reader. A publisher should know better.

  2. 2
    shaunee says:

    Jana, I definitely agree, especially with the bit about readers being able to sort through the reviews.  I’m getting pretty good at figuring out which review was posted by a friend of the author versus which ones are “genuine.”

    Though I don’t base my book purchases solely on a review, MacGillivray’s actions are a little too much with the twirling of the mustache and maniacal laughter.  Did this sort of behavior make a difference in her P + L’s at quarter’s end I wonder.

  3. 3
    Denni says:

    Really tacky & shoot thyself in the footville.

    While Amazon reader reviews cannot always be taken at face value, they can be useful if you’re willing to develop a system that works for you.  Having done this, I can usually discern whether or not I will enjoy a particular book.

    But, my system requires a minimum of 8 or 12 reviews.  The one and two star “I wasted my money” grumblers often reveal more about the book than raving fangirls (who would 5 star the authors grocery list). 

    Because this system works for me, I have been able to stretch myself and discover some authors I would not have otherwise purchased.  Manipulating the reviews would definately skew my results, in which case I would purchase a series of books unsuited to my tastes.  I would become an unhappy shopper and quit buying. I can state this for certain, because it’s exactly what happened before I knew to ignore Harriet K.

    Is this manipulation why I am seeing books by unfamiliar authors, but when I search the reviews they only have one or two glowing comments, and no moderate or low reviews?  This sends up red flags for me…IMO if the book was good, more people would be reading and commenting. Frankly, I have and do pass on these every time.

  4. 4

    I’ve gotten good reviews on Amazon…and blisteringly bad ones. I don’t vote on any of them, because in my opinion, they’re not my business. They’re readers’ business.

    Truth be told, I’m glad I don’t have all 5 or 4 star reviews. Talk about building up too much expectation! No book is so good that EVERYONE’S going to love it, so negative reviews balance things out. This doesn’t mean I’d be happy with all negative reviews *laugh* but as an author, I expect some to crop up. And I don’t think I have the right to do anything to delete them.

  5. 5
  6. 6
    DS says:

    There’s a dead serious bunch of reviewers at Amazon—Here’s the url for the discussion board:

    In fact, sometimes I think they take it too seriously.  However, they do have pointers on how to deal with “campaign” voters.

  7. 7
    Kalen Hughes says:

    I try to suck up my negative reviews. Not everyone is going to like every book out there. And I know from numerous contest outings back before I was published that my books tend to get really positive and really negative responses. Very few “blah” responses, LOL! It’s a love it or hate it kind of thing, which is ok by me.

    I did respond to one though. I just couldn’t help myself. She criticized a few details, and I know I’m right about them. I explained a bit of the history surrounding them (like the fact that the English don’t name the floors of the house the same way we do; what we’d call the first floor, they call the ground floor; and what we call the second floor, they call the first floor).

    I do wonder if some of the negative reviews are due to people not quite getting the fact that my books are Georgian (and not Regency). Or maybe this is just my needing to make myself feel better, LOL!

  8. 8
    Jana Oliver says:

    As an author, I’ve found reviewers to be quite helpful. I had a fellow lower his rating because he was uncomfortable with how I portrayed a buttoned-down, uber-security conscious 2057 society that still allowed time travel (the ultimate off-leash experience.) The review was very well written and raised a valid point as I had not addressed that issue. I did in the next book in the series.

    In essence, it was a dialog between reader and author. I found it rather cool.

  9. 9
    Krista says:

    From MacGillvray’s Amazon profile under Interests:

    I currently only review in limited fashion these days (so please hold requests) and only books that really please me. There is not enough time to spend on downer reviews.

    Um yeah not enough time to spend on downer reviews but plenty of time for “OMG BEST BOOK EVA” reviews/verbally bashing reviewers that give you 3 stars/killing negative reviews.

    F’ed up time management FTW!

  10. 10
    Jana Oliver says:


    It is probably the Georgian vs. Regency thing. I’ve yet to get bashed about my Victorian details, but I suspect it’s coming. If they’re way off, I’ll probably do what you did – a gentle education. 

    The ratings are sorta secondary to me. I want to know what the reader thought of the book and if they can write a review that 1) makes sense 2) tells me what they liked and disliked and 3) makes the case for #2, I’m good to go. I may not agree, but a well-reasoned discussion will get you a long way. Saying I “hate it, the author sucks and probably tortures puppies in her spare time” will not earn you my attention.

    And no, nobody’s written the puppies thing about me… yet.

  11. 11
    rebyj says:

    I used to pay more attention to Amazon reviews but frankly , since finding so many message boards with readers, I find better reviews,reccomendations and more intelligent comments on those.

  12. 12

    OMG D, that is the tackiest thing I have ever seen in my life.

  13. 13
    RT says:

    Author’s having their friends leave positive reviews for them on Amazon is a huge red flag that the book is not worth reading.  As soon as that flag goes up, I leave.  I’m more apt to give attention to a book with no reviews than I am to fake reviews.  If nothing else, I dislike the dishonesty.

    I find campaigns (whether organized or not) to discredit negative reviews childish.  Besides, it’s the negative reviews I usually look at first.  I can tell for myself usually just by reading the review whether or not the criticism is valid.  And often, I will no before reading the book whether or not I will agree.

    MacGillvray is just an idiot.


  14. 14
    Jody W. says:

    Is this manipulation why I am seeing books by unfamiliar authors, but when I search the reviews they only have one or two glowing comments, and no moderate or low reviews?

    It’s nice to think that all “good” books will out—ie, they’ll get a surplus of readers and tons of reviews on Amazon.  However, some of my favorite books have only a couple reviews on Amazon, if that, and in many cases, all those reviews are positive.  But I wouldn’t assume any book with only a few good reviews got those reviews through such shenanigans as described in this article.  I can understand that a reader might be less inclined to buy a book with only a few reviews and not much internet buzz, though, especially if she’s trying to pinch pennies.  Less buzz means less of a chance for her to get an idea of whether or not the book is a solid investment of time and $, per Denni’s 12 review system.

  15. 15
    Jo says:

    I used to pay more attention to amazon reviews but now I tend to skim most and only read properly the ones that give reasons why the book worked/didn’t work for that reviewer. If the author is new to me or one I have been meh about in the past, but haven’t read for some time, I prefer to find the author’s website and read any sample pages. I find I am more likely to buy if the sample pages hold my interest regardless of any 1* or 5* reviews.

  16. 16

    Whatever your opinion of Amazon reviews, getting a bad review reported as abuse (which, I will admit, is kind of funny, since that is how it feels) is downright unethical. Something seriously wrong there.

  17. 17
    Kalen Hughes says:

    I guess I’d always assumed that when “abuse” was reported, Amazon actually LOOKED to see if there was any abuse taking place. I had no idea that if enough people simply clicked a button you could make a bad review disappear . . .

  18. 18

    I guess I’d always assumed that when “abuse” was reported, Amazon actually LOOKED to see if there was any abuse taking place.

    Me too, Kalen. That’s bizarre. Not as bizarre as those review comments, but strange all the same.

  19. 19
    Jana Oliver says:

    I have a friend who got a review pulled because it was posted by a disturbed stalker type, but that’s an unusual case.

    I suspect Amazon doesn’t bother to check whether it’s abuse or not. They just log the complaints and then pull the review when it reaches a certain level.

    Of course, if it was me, I’d just put the review right back up on the site. Most folks probably don’t know their comments have been pulled.

  20. 20
    DS says:

    Amazon’s patrolling is done by bots.  If you get enough abuse reports a review will be pulled.  If the reviewer cares enough to email or call it will usually be put back if there is nothing objectionable in it— personal attacks on authors or other reviewers are the two big mistakes. Best not to say outright that all of the positive reviews must be from the friends and family of the author.

    Reviews also are pulled if someone complains they are too long.  I think they are supposed to be no longer than 1000 words. 

    DeborahAnne has an outrageously high number of positives per review to be as low ranked as she is—17.  HK only has an average of 6.14 helpful votes per review.  This suggests (votes stop counting toward ranking after the same person has voted for you a certain number of time) that the same persons are giving DeborahAnne positive votes over and over.

  21. 21
  22. 22
    Rachel says:

    Going off on a tangent here…Amazon has automated pretty much everything they can regarding books (they shut down the US data team a few years back and have outsourced it all to their UK division), and to be fair, data is expensive to maintain—and customer reviews fall under the umbrella of “book data.” 

    The company I work for doesn’t automate anything; we have sixty-plus people working on book data, several weeks’ worth of backlog at any given time…and while we’re regularly praised by publishers for the quality of what we display on our site, even we realize this is untenable in the long run; at some point, we’re going to have to start automating things.

    So I can’t really blame Amazon if they’ve coded their site to respond automatically to customer reviews.  Think about how much traffic they get each day, how much time it takes to wade through all of it (I used to vet customer reviews for our site about five years back; it takes hours to go through it all, and we got a mere fraction of the posts Amazon did), and how much time and concentration and sheer memory, given all the books that are reviewed, that it would take to realize that someone’s trying to rig the system in favor of one side or another…

    I feel guilty about saying this (they are one of our competitors), but yeesh—give them a break on the automation.  Book data is immense, and unbelievably expensive to hand-hold.

  23. 23
    kate says:

    Jana, it would have to be a fanatical historian who’d bitch-slap you. Your details seem pretty good to me.

  24. 24
    Rebecca says:

    December, why do you think the review was tacky?

    I thought it was a good review. The woman was frank about her dislikes of the book and pointed out some (it seems, as I’ve never read it) duplications and inconsistencies.  Those are good things.

  25. 25
    Jana Oliver says:

    Thanks Kate. I still screw up stuff, being a Yank and all. It helps that most of the time my head is in in Victorian London rather than present day. I doubt that medications will help that. The single malt scotch doesn’t.


  26. 26
    loonigrrl says:

    I gave a one star last year or thereabouts to one of my favorite authors. In the review, I was pretty clear why I disliked the book so much. Thereafter, I received quite a few helpful (and several unhelpful) votes.  After sitting there at the top of her book’s page for several days for anyone to read, it just disappeared. The book’s overall rating went much higher without my review because, at the time, there had only been four or five others. Thinking there was just some glitch, although that had never happened before despite having written many reviews for Amazon, I just waited. And then waited some more. Finally, I emailed to complain. Within a couple days they emailed me back without much of an explanation and reposted the review. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but now it kind of makes me wonder . . .

  27. 27
    snarkhunter says:

    Looks like MacGillvray pulled her comment on that review thread. It says it was deleted 13 hours ago. (OMG, she’s *watching* us!!)

    The moral of the story? Amazon reviews are srs bzns.

  28. 28
    Mel says:

    I have to say that while this is the extreme, there have always been people who do this. One author had her first NY release and on an author loop went bonkers because someone said they didn’t like her book on amazon. The review wasn’t that bad actually. The reviewer said it was well written but it was her first ER and it was too much, and went on to explain why. Truthfully, it was a well written review and I would have taken the good parts and ignored the rest. But, then, I suggested that, I was told I didn’t understand because I was only an EBOOK AUTHOR. Said author threw a FIT until Amazon took the review down, had authors emailing amazon bitching about the review. Saying they were attacking her. Not true. As I said, the review was pretty good.

    Bad reviews are part of the business. Get over it. Do they hurt, do they piss me off? YES. But, once I calm down, I am not so irritated if they give a reason for not liking it. There are some that are so totally off base(mentioning characters by name that are not in the book—that has happened more than once with me), and some that are done to get back at an author by another author. But, what are you going to do? Hell, I have an author who keeps rating down all my book trailers on youtube. You cannot have everyone love you. And, being the military wife that I am, I have to use the phrase, suck it up. Publishing is a cut throat business and if a bad review on Amazon is too much for you, you might need to rethink being an author.
    I really disagree with this type of behavoir, but I think it is more widespread than many of us know.

  29. 29
    JaimeK says:

    Reading the posts here and at Dear Author – holy crap! I am incensed on behalf of the reviewer who was threatened by these people. The nerve. If I post a review and I am attacked because of my opinion not only is that wrong, but it better never happen.  The fact that Amazon has not caught on to this “remove” the bad review scheme is awful and convinces me more and more to find my books elsewhere, though truthfully it will be hard.  If the POD crap wasn’t enough this has to be the icing on the cake.

    I would really like to know who MacGillivray thinks she is to “allegedly” bully people – authors or reviewers?


  30. 30
    fiveandfour says:

    I adored that Stephen Colbert review, so thought I’d bring along some more

    Amazon review fun (courtesy of Neil Gaiman).

    I suppose the moral of the story for me is that I’ll be paying even less attention to most reviews at Amazon than I did before, now that I know the Internet version of ballot box stuffing is all-too-possible.  But it’d been awhile since I’d seen a good kerfuffle, so *that* was fun (though I was disappointed that no one pulled the “but I’m ill with XYZ Disease” card.  What are the kerfuffles coming to when no one will bring that one to the dance?)

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