Monday, June 27, 2016

Gaming the system: Will Amazon Sue "Helpful" Voters Next?

I can't imagine what this must be like for Amazon. It's hard to fathom that there are so many dishonest people out there, worse yet, so many dishonest writers! These are the people with whom I always thought I shared a certain simpatico; people of a like mind with unique ways of looking at the world and a love of all things literary. I have since learned how naive I really was.

In the five years I've been publishing, I have learned that writers will post fake 5-star Amazon reviews on their own books. I have learned that they will post bad reviews on books by authors they consider competition, and they will pay for dishonest reviews by the hundreds towards these aforementioned ends. Sometimes, they will band together to attack a writer because of some perceived slight, whether real or imagined, and do everything they can to slander and/or sabotage that person. Editing services will contact authors offering their services, and if rejected, will barrage that author with reviews slamming the book's need of a better editor. I've seen cover artists and book formatters use similar cons. I've even seen people within the traditional publishing industry admit to seeking out independent authors to slam their books, just because they were Indies! It seems there is no depth to which people in this industry will not sink. It's disheartening, and frankly, it makes an honest person consider doing bad things.

It really does. Because sometimes, it seems like the scam artists get away with everything, while honest hardworking people just get buried. I've seen this before, in office politics. I worked for a Fortune 500 company for almost ten years, and I've seen people do the most horrible things to each other in order to climb a little further up the ladder, or in some cases, just to hang on. These were people I otherwise would have thought were good people. I've seen a female manager fire or otherwise sabotage several women because she felt threatened by them, in some cases not even because of their skill and work ethics, but by the fact that they were younger and more attractive than she was. I've seen a male manager who stole finished projects from his underlings and then logged them into the system under his own name, so that he would get credit for all the work. After doing this, he would often put out a memo chastising the employees for not working as hard or being as productive as him!

I've seen managers promise worker bees bonuses and other perks if they agreed to take on a big project. This project demanded that the workers skip breaks and lunches, arrive early and leave late, and even bring work home for the evenings and weekends. In the end, despite finishing the work as agreed, the managers found some loophole to screw the workers out of their bonuses. I've seen this happen more than once, and in fact, I had warned a new employee of this scheme just a few days before my termination. Obviously, the managers of this company didn't admit that this was the reason I was fired, and I certainly can't prove it, but it goes to show you the sort of people who are out there.

The sad thing to me is that when I became an Indie publisher, I thought I had put those days behind me. Instead, I seem to have found myself swimming in a real big pond with a whole lot of sharks, and no ability to tell the sharks from the other little fish like me. It seems there's a new conspiracy revealed every month. Recently, after the crackdown on fake reviews, some scammers have started posting seemingly positive reviews -3 or 4 star reviews titled something like "I liked it" or "It wasn't bad"- but then, in the body of the review, they actually slam the book as being terrible. Meanwhile, services that provide fake reviews or purchases have started "diluting" their abuses by manipulating a number of titles at once, so that the true target isn't suspected by Amazon's algorithms. This means in some cases, that purchased reviews are being posted on the works of authors who never paid for the service. Or, instead of reviews, sometimes these manipulations come in the form of borrows from the Kindle Library.

Amazon is aware of these and many other schemes, and at least from my outside perspective, it seems that they are constantly putting out fires in forest full of arsonists. One that has also come to their attention lately is the use of paid-for "helpful" votes. There are a number of services out there who offer to "boost" good reviews (or in some cases, to boost negative reviews) using the "Was this helpful?" button on each review. The reason for doing this is that by "up-voting" the right reviews, you can manipulate an item's page on Amazon to show only good reviews, or only bad reviews. Obviously, when a shopper compares two products from two different sellers -even if it's the exact same product and the exact same price- they'll be more inclined to go with the item that has better reviews on the front page. This same service can also help a high-ranking Amazon reviewer to maintain a good rank, and thereby continue to receive free products.

I've discussed this with KDP and Amazon, and they have assured me that they are aware of the problem and that they're taking it very seriously. In the past "taking it seriously" has usually meant lawsuits would follow. When Amazon started suing fake review services, I predicted that soon they would go after the customers buying those fake reviews. I was right. So, if past experience is any predictor, Amazon may follow a similar pattern with these other abuses. The trick of course, is in nailing down the real culprits. It's easy enough to set up a fake Amazon account or spoof an I.P. address, but neither of these techniques are foolproof. In the end, these scam artists usually get caught and banned, and more and more, they also get sued. Unfortunately, for those of us caught in the middle, it never seems fast enough. When our sales are harmed, when our businesses and our families suffer, we want to see something happen right now. We want it fixed.

Thankfully, Amazon's getting pretty good at this. I have a feeling that a few years from now, most of these scam artists will have moved on to greener pastures.