How to Fix Amazon's Review System

This December 9, 2010 photo shows the internet site of After taking down the websites of Visa, Mastercard and oth
This December 9, 2010 photo shows the internet site of After taking down the websites of Visa, Mastercard and others, supporters of WikiLeaks threatened Thursday to knock offline. 'Anonymous,' the loose-knit group of hackers behind the cyber attacks, announced an assault on the Amazon website for 11:00 am (1600 GMT) as part of what they are calling 'Operation Payback.' AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

It was inevitable that Amazon's laissez-faire book review system would come under fire for providing the opportunity to advocates of or against a particular book to game the system and either trash it or promote it.

Every ploy has been tried, pro and con, from the emerging author seeking praise and sales by purchasing reviews to an organized advocacy group determined to destroy a work, as seen with Randall Sullivan's Michael Jackson biography, Untouchable.

For Amazon, the system began with good intentions as a marketing device for books, but unintended consequences have made it both an unreliable and suspect platform. Worse, it has tempted the unscrupulous.

Gone are the days when a handful of established and respected literary critics were solicited to seriously review books and offer opinions that might influence readers on their choices. This is not to say that there aren't intelligent and experienced reviewers currently pursuing their craft, but their opinions are offered in a fractionalized arena where there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of circles of influence.

Amazon, to its credit, has tried to police the system, but with mixed results. Book marketers are well aware that the best advertising for a book is "word of mouth." This is essentially a "face to face" system that does not carry the same measure of influence when transferred to today's hyped up electronic person-to-person networking environment.

As an author exposed to the system, I'd like to offer some modest proposals that might satisfy both authors and publishers and boost the credibility of Amazon's reviews, still providing the general reader with a method for critiquing a book from their point of view:
  • No review should be anonymous. Reviewers must give their full name and email address. This will give authors and publishers a chance to authenticate or challenge the reviewer if he or she so chooses, and bring an imposter to the attention of Amazon. After all, the author is fully transparent, so why not his or her critic.
  • The reviewer should volunteer his or her age in general categories and gender. This would, of course be helpful to an author and publishers to have some approximate knowledge of the reader.
  • No review should be less or more than 100 words. A serious reviewer should not merely "vote" his or her opinion but, at the very least, offer a brief explanation.
  • Eliminate the star system. It is far too subjective and can be abused, and give a false impression of quality of the work or encourage rejection without it being read. An intelligent reader searching for a book should make his or her judgment the same way that they would pick a book at a library or a brick and mortar bookstore.

Amazon offers potential buyers a preview. One should take advantage of that offer and make their choice after browsing. If the book has been reviewed by readers, the buyer has ample opportunity to get the opinion of others without the star system to nudge them to make the purchase or reject the book.

At the very least, these few simple rules might guide the reader into a more sincere and structured review and satisfy the author or publisher with the assurance that the reader has taken the trouble to offer an honest appraisal.

But, like everything else in life, such suggestions are open to opinion. Surely, there must be a better way for authors to get a fair and honest evaluation of their work than the helter-skelter system currently in place on Amazon.

It is not an easy chore to write a book, and every author who devotes his time and energy to create one leaves himself open to every reader's opinion. Not every reader will feel compelled to express a reaction to the author's work. But for those that choose to do so, let it be honest, heartfelt, transparent and sincere.

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