If you’re an indie author — hell, if you’re a traditionally-published author — you know it is damn hard to get people to post reviews on Amazon for your books. I get it. I never posted a review unless asked, until I published my first book. Now I’m a review-posting fool. I post honestly, but never unkindly.

Reviews are simply everything for online sales. Reviews beget sales which beget sales rankings which beget more sales. (Reviews in magazine, newspapers, and blogs are also huge for sales, but in a more expansive way, and are a subject for another time, although I’ve touched lightly upon it in Book Reviews for the Indie Published Author.)

But how do you get them when you’re just starting out? Indie authors, new authors, let’s get real: who gave you your first five reviews? I’ll bet your mom, spouse, sibling, and best friend were on the list. Every time I pop by the reviews of an indie book, I expect this phenomena. I’m amused when I see it (and I do see it). I don’t mind it. I’ve lived it. It takes a lot of sparks to start a fire, and we use any kindling we can.

For many authors, the reviews stop after this inner circle finishes posting. If you’re energetic, persuasive, and strategic (in other words, if you spam everyone you know until they give in out of a desperation to MAKE IT STOP), you can keep building upon that initial flicker until you get a nice little flame.

Reviews not only beget sales which beget rankings which beget more sales, reviews on Amazon are sometimes the ante up to promotion. Last week I launched my debut novel, Saving Grace, on Amazon with a free Kindle-version giveaway. This came after 6 months of agonizing over whether to sign up for KDP Select. I utilized some very inexpensive advertising to promote my giveaway (I’ll blog on that soon) and ended up after four days at #1 in free downloads out of 55,000+ books PER DAY, with 33,016 downloads. I was elated with this success, and it propelled me into big sales over the next week (yes, all of this will be part of that upcoming post).

But none of this would have happened without reviews. Why? Because the websites I paid for promotion won’t even take an author’s money unless they have 13-15 reviews with an average of 4 out of 5 stars or higher. It’s their way of ensuring they don’t promote crap to their readership. I applaud them for it.

And it is a tough hurdle to cross. Conventional wisdom says you’ll give away 200-500 free books for the hope of reviews (yes, I just said 200-500). Not everyone that receives a free copy for a review will end up reviewing it, by a long shot. Another topic for another day is in what form to transmit those free books. (I’m going to be writing up until the final seconds of doomsday based on the promises I’m making in this post alone.)

So here’s where Amazon’s little-read review policy comes into play. The policy you probably only learn about if you notice Amazon is pulling reviews down from your book and you have the intestinal fortitude to challenge them on it (via a “contact us” button, because you’re not allowed to talk to them), given any trepidation you have as you are snarfing up sales out of their hand.

Let’s start with a spouse. My husband posted reviews on my books. He is uber-supportive. His reviews were yanked. He contacted Amazon. They said:

We have removed your reviews as 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. Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website.

Ouchy. Scary, that last sentence. Now, they did not say spouses. But since I own an indie publishing company and he is married to me, we decided not to push it. When I lose money, he loses money. It makes sense, even if we have yet to make any cents in the form of PROFIT from my endeavors.

My mother posted reviews. Her last name matches my middle name/maiden name — Fagan. Amazon yanked them down. My uncle, last name of Fagan and himself a writer, posted a review. Amazon yanked it. My adult stepdaughter living in Colorado posted a review (Hutchins is her last name). Amazon pulled it. Eric complained, and so did my mother and my uncle. Amazon responded (and by now Eric and Amazon were on a first name basis):

I understand your concerns about these missing reviews by other members of Pamela’s family. We take the removal of customer reviews very seriously.

I’m not able to tell you why these specific reviews were removed from our website. I can only discuss that with the person who wrote each review. However, I can tell you that reviews are removed from the Amazon.com website for three reasons:

1. The review conflicted with our posted guidelines http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines/.

2. The review was removed at the request of the customer who submitted the review.

3. We discovered that multiple items were linked together on our website incorrectly. Reviews that were posted on those pages were removed when the items were separated on the site.

Thank you for your understanding of our policies, Eric. We look forward to seeing you again soon and have a good day.

The referenced review policy prohibited:

Objectionable material:
• Obscene or distasteful content
• Profanity or spiteful remarks
• Promotion of illegal or immoral conduct

Promotional content:
• Advertisements, promotional material or repeated posts that make the same point excessively
• Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product)
• Reviews written for any form of compensation other than a free copy of the product. This includes reviews that are a part of a paid publicity package
• Solicitations for helpful votes

Inappropriate content:
• Other people’s material (this includes excessive quoting)
• Phone numbers, postal mailing addresses, and URLs external to Amazon.com
• Videos with watermarks
• Comments on other reviews visible on the page (because page visibility is subject to change without notice)
• Foreign language content (unless there is a clear connection to the product)

Off-topic information:
• Feedback on the seller, your shipment experience or the packaging (you can do that at www.amazon.com/feedback and www.amazon.com/packaging)
• Details about availability or alternative ordering and shipping information
• Feedback about typos or inaccuracies in our catalog or product description (instead, use the feedback form at the bottom of the product page).

All involved assured Amazon that none of these were the case. And none were. I can promise you, none of the listed individuals has volunteered to share in our household tax write-off, aka Pamela’s writing career. Amazon was not able to state a valid reason for sucking my mother’s and uncle’s reviews into a black hole, and they encouraged them to repost.

They gobbled up the reposts, too.

By this point, authors, even our most loyal fans have had it, right? I mean, they are done. There are more enjoyable things to do with one’s day, like scrubbing your floors with a toothbrush, or going in for that quadruple root canal you’ve put off for six months.

Maybe there are better people in the world to post reviews than family, too — well, undoubtedly there are — but my point is this: Amazon is not allowing legitimate reviewers who are permissible under their own policy to review my books. Total count of yanked legitimate reviews on Saving Grace: 3. We won’t count Eric’s because we concede his. I went into my free promo period with 19 reviews. It should have been 22. I now have 31. I should have 34. Reviews beget sales beget rankings beget more sales. And more reviews, too, because there’s safety for the timid in a crowd.

I think this stinks.

It didn’t stop there, though.

Once Amazon decided to black ball my step-daughter, mother, and uncle, they black balled anyone with the name Hutchins or Fagan, or that had any connection to us. From what we could tell that included IP address , which knocked out my little “here’s how to review a book” party results, which I had thought was a damn good idea. You know what’s funny? The people there had bought MULTIPLE copies of my books off Amazon. Ah, the laughs I have had over this. NOT. And this was retroactively, off my nonfiction books.

Then they yanked reviews by reviewers I’ve never met, for good measure. Vidya Sury posted a fabulous review of Puppalicious And Beyond last June, and she reviewed it on her blog, too. She lives in Bangalore India. Why did Amazon pull it??? (Vidya reposted it yesterday, and we’re on pins and needles to see if it survives.) So my 11-15 reviews each on my nonfiction books, which were even harder to get than those on Saving Grace, suddenly become 6-9 each. Again, we’ll concede on the reviews by my husband. All the rest were, per their own policy, legitimate reviews.

And they’re gone. It’s not like Amazon kindly reinstates them once you raise it to their attention. You have to try again. But we’ve seen over and over what happens when you do: Amazon gobbles them up like a big meanie.

Now my planned free Kindle ebook promotion of my nonfiction books is a nonstarter. I could still do it, but why bother? I don’t have enough reviews anymore to obtain the paid promotion that I know is required for a successful free-ebook iniative. Without attracting a large volume of new readers with the promo, I’m better off just selling to my modest following.

I could go get more reviews. In fact, that is what I have to do. But why should I have been put in this position when I had legitimate reviews up in the first place? And soliciting reviews takes a lot of time, effort, and social capital. I signed these books up for the 90-day exclusive KDP Select with Amazon because I planned to do a 12-week promotion, giving away one book every other week. (Frankly, I also just went to the well with a vengeance for Saving Grace and my followers shouldn’t be subjected to it again, especially since it would be the same push I made last summer for the five nonfiction books, to which they valiantly but fruitlessly responded.) I’m stalled out now on promo after book 1 of 6. I could have left the nonfiction books nonexclusive, outside of KDP Select. They were selling great on Apple iBooks and decent on Barnes & Noble. I gave that up so I could do the free promo.

Except that now, I really can’t.

Taking a step back for perspective, Amazon has made it possible for indie authors to sell their books. I am an indie author. I am selling a lot of books on Amazon. I made $1000 off Amazon alone this month. This makes me wildly successful (if not yet profitable — it takes time to recoup publishing outlays, folks, lots of time) by indie standards, and I am grateful to Amazon for that. But how much more could I be making if I hadn’t lost more than 20 legitimate reviews of my books? WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE HARDER THAN IT ALREADY IS???? Being beholden shouldn’t have to mean I grovel, whimper, and say “more please,” either. I really want answers to these questions.

Or maybe I’m full of crap. Maybe I shouldn’t whine about reviews posted by my mommy, my uncle, and my adult stepdaughter, even if they were legitimate by Amazon policy.

But even if I fold on those, I think I have a real beef about Vidya and a few others like her. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that I should have been taking screen shots of reviews and date-marking to use in their defense later, so I’m truly not even sure if I’m aware yet of the entire scope of the reviews that I lost. I think that bites.

Thoughts? Issues? Rants?

Pamela Fagan Hutchins


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8 Responses to Amazon is a big review-gobbling meanie.

  1. Eric Hutchins says:

    At lease THIS site will allow me to leave comments :).

    Since it has been one of my missions to help Pamela with this aspect of the business, this subject has been particularly frustrating for me. I am afraid if I wrote this blog there would be a lot of &@#%@#%%!$ parts.

    The most frustrating single element of this is that Amazon arbitrarily decides that you are GUILTY until proven innocent, and then provides no court of appeal. There is no human you can talk to, to hear your case. If there was, I am certain that we would be vindicated on all but my reviews. However you dont get that chance, you get delays and maddening form responses that dont mean anything, I am sure with the hope that you will just eventually give up and go away.

    What is particularly scary is that they hold all the cards, as in that line from one of the messages Pamela copied in above. They reserve the right to pull the book from sales entirely. THAT sure levels the playing field huh? It makes one wish for more legitimate competition, but for the time being, it is what it is.

    • Eric says:

      Makes one wonder, as well, what sales would have occurred if the reviews were left intact. Might others have bought the book based on the number or content of those reviews? Might they have been promoted or ranked within Amazon differently based on one of their complex algorythmns? And if so, then the impact of their arbitrary decision going forward has an exponential financial impact on the author.

  2. Thanks for the head up on this. The more I look into the “revolution” of self publishing, the more that I realize the amount of power in the hands of one corporation. Amazon controls this market in ways that no publishing house ever controlled the world of publishing. Scary.

  3. Eric Hutchins says:

    It is this incredible double-edged sword. On the one hand they make this amazing opportunity of Indie Publishng a Real, Legitimate and very often MOST DESIRABLE alternative to traditional publishing, and on the other, they have such a stranglehold that they can do some things that appear to be quite unfair.
    Like everyone else we walk a line between being very grateful, and wanting to hang on to our ability to point out things that we think could be improved.

  4. […] Sidebar: Amazon removes reviews at its sole discretion, and will do so if it thinks it catches someone with a stake in the book leaving a review. In my early days as a published author, this meant my mother, and anyone else with Pamela, Fagan, or Hutchins anywhere in their name, regardless of relation to me, or our and their protestations to Amazon. Note that we estimate that 10-15% of the reviews left on my books are taken down by Amazon, and we’ve flapped and squawked about many of them (those that are reported to us by frustrated reader/reviewers) to no avail. Amazon just keeps pulling them down. And I keep writing about it. […]

  5. […] over 1.2 million readers for Saving Grace. The percentage of people that leave reviews (and that Amazon in its sole discretion doesn’t pull down) is small. So the biggest thing you can do is find readers. Not buyers, necessarily. Readers. In […]

  6. DL Hughes says:

    Good post but…

    Sorry to say, but this information may be mostly useless. Why? There is no date stamp on the article or the comments.

    Kindle updated their review policy in October 2016 and some of things you say may no longer apply. There is no way of knowing for sure because there is currently no date shown on this post and so context is lost.

    I have great respect for your experience and views, but they need context. Book help is not “evergreen.” The book world is in a constant state of change, so knowing the date something like an Amazon policy-related is posted is essential.

    • Eric says:

      Honestly, notwithstanding the passage of time since this was written, the stripping of reviews off authors’ books has become more aggressive, not less. We had a website upgrade that appears to have stripped dates off our posts, so we’ll get the webmaster to fix that, so you can factor your reliance on it accordingly.

      Thanks for the heads up on the date/time stamp issue.