If emails from Amazon's customer service team are a fair indicator, it appears the online retailer considers authors to be direct competitors of other authors. And email chains are all we have to go on, as Amazon did not respond to our request for comment.
On Wednesday, Steve Weddle, an author of crime fiction, blogged about how he had tried repeatedly to leave a nice review for "Karma Backlash," a pulpy e-book by his friend Chad Rohrbacher, on its sales page on Amazon. Weddle's review was received but never posted.
When he asked Amazon what was happening, Weddle got this an email reply that explained, "We have removed your review from Karma Backlash. We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. As a result, we've removed your reviews for this title."
It is certainly possible that some authors consider other writers rivals. In September, prize-winning English crime writer R.J. Ellory admitted to having written negative reviews of other writers' books under a pseudonym. The furor that erupted over his "sock puppet" reviews, however, was just as heated around the positive pseudonymous reviews Ellory had written,. which were for his own books. Ellory, who has since apologized, called one of his own books "a modern masterpiece."
This is the conundrum of reviews on Amazon: For the most part, they're not actually reviews. In terms of books, they're often reactions, thoughts, comments, recommendations -- but not book reviews in the classic sense. Book reviewers are supposed to steer clear of work by friends and enemies. That kind of thing has never been the rule at Amazon.
Is it the rule now?
That's what Weddle wanted to know. He followed up, stating that he had no financial interest in the book. The response reiterated what Amazon had already stated, using the same language as before. "We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product," Amazon repeated. The company added a new closing: "We have removed your reviews as they are in violation of our guidelines. We will not be able to go into further detail about our research."
Weddle believes his review may not have posted because he was doing it in conjunction with his Author Central account at Amazon -- something that has never been disallowed but which tells Amazon that he is a writer leaving a review.
And it's not just Weddle; other authors saw reviews that they had previously posted disappear. Amazon booster J.A. Konrath has too, and he says he's heard from about 20 other authors that their Amazon reviews had been deleted. Konrath writes that many of the reviews he'd written had been deleted: "more than fifty of them had been removed, namely reviews I did of my peers."
Writing nice things about peers' work in Amazon's review system has been something authors do for one another. Part of this is timing: Frequently, peers are among the first to get a chance to read the books. In some cases, the reviews on Amazon function like blurbs; readers may recognize the name of an author they like praising a book, and that can inform them about an author they don't yet know.
Whatever you think of the practice, which can look a lot like back-scratching, it's not at all uncommon -- and it's never been discouraged. As Weddle told Amazon, "I do personally know the author of the book, so if that prevents me from reviewing the book, please let me know." He then added, "I also know other people who write books."
That is hardly a rarity; most authors know other people who write books. They're all in the same relatively small business. This may be a problem if Amazon assumes that authors are rivals of one another; if they are all "directly competing," no writer will be eligible to write reviews of anothers' works.
Or maybe it's no problem at all. Writer Sean Creagan, skeptical of the dust-up, notes that author-on-author reviews comprise so little of Amazon's overall site content as to be nothing more than a "sparrow's fart."
Nate Silver versus the pundits
A video interview with Mark Z. Danielewski
The furor over 'sock puppet' Amazon book reviews
Carolyn Kellogg: Join me on Twitter, Facebook and Google+