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Amazon Knows Who Your Author Friends Are

Or, it may aggressively assume you know people.
July 8, 2015, 11:00am

If Amazon's commitment to monitoring your shopping, reading, and social networking habits weren't enough of a bellwether for this bit of news, here's a thing for you: Amazon knows who your writer friends are and no, you can't post reviews for them.

Here's the section of the company's review guidelines that addresses reviews:

"Promotional Reviews – In order to preserve the integrity of Customer Reviews, we do not permit artists, authors, developers, manufacturers, publishers, sellers or vendors to write Customer Reviews for their own products or services, to post negative reviews on competing products or services, or to vote on the helpfulness of reviews. For the same reason, family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items."

Makes a lot of sense, right? Authors shouldn't be able to leverage their social circles to boost their publications with glowing reviews. So to counter that, the world's biggest e-commerce site has filters for reviews in case you're planning on getting your high school friend's book up in the ranks.

Imy Santiago, an independent writer, published a blog post about her run-in with Amazon's filters after trying to publish a review of an ebook, which was promptly removed when the system determined that she "knew" the author. She shot an email back letting Amazon's review appeals department know they've made a mistake. They sent this reply:

So a couple problems: we know to some extent that Amazon monitors your activity to tailor the wall of targeted ads you see on every page. But that Amazon somehow knows people you know personally or as acquaintances is troubling. And that Amazon keeps how it knows this under a pall of secrecy is even more troubling, especially when there's nothing in its privacy policy that explicitly addresses this.

It's an understandable policy, but perhaps ham-handed in its enforcement, and this has caused a bit of consternation among indie authors whose popularity might not even extend that far past friends and family. It might be easier to determine who's related, but how and where does Amazon draw the line between friend and stranger?

Lori Otto, an indie author who said she had a couple of reviews on her book removed, wrote a post about her experience.

"I'm not one of those authors who wants an honest review as long as it's over 3-stars. I want honesty. Period. What am I going to learn from a bunch of people lying to me? Nothing," she wrote.

Handing out advance reader copies in exchange for honest reviews and press is a standard practice among publishers of all sizes, but it's easier for larger ones to soak up costs. In Lori's case, she said she paid for some 40 copies out of pocket and Amazon apparently removed a quarter of those reviews on the possibility that some of those copies made it out to friends instead of strangers.

When asked about this practice, Amazon representative Julie Law did not confirm that the company automatically detects who is friends with an author. However, she acknowledged that Amazon did investigate Santiago and does screen reviews for bias.

"We have a long standing policy of not commenting on individual customer accounts or on specific methods of determining review manipulation," Law said in an email. "However, when we detect that elements of a reviewer's Amazon account match elements of an author's Amazon account, we may conclude that there is too much risk of review bias that would erode customer trust, and thus we remove the review. I can assure you that we investigated the case referenced in the story."

"We have built mechanisms, both manual and automated over the years that detect, remove or prevent reviews which violate guidelines. We encourage authors to continue to build their network and community as they normally would. This will not impact customer reviews."