I wrote the following in April, 2018. My target audience was the decision-makers at Amazon, so it is in gentler language than it would be otherwise. I have sent it to them several times, in a number of versions. It (no doubt combined with many other people expressing their concern) has had some effect: Amazon now shares up to 15 reviews of a product across its 15 national sites. However, my main issue of their greed has not been addressed.
Sue is having a holiday in the library. She needs a holiday from life, because she is homeless. After eighteen years in an increasingly abusive relationship, she is now on her own. She’d waited until her children had left school, then escaped the regular beatings, the constant verbal abuse, the shame, the powerlessness.
She couch surfed for a while, but her friends all have lives to live, and she hated receiving without being able to offer a return, the feeling of being an intrusion. Now, she sleeps in her car, has a shower at public facilities like swimming pools, and earns a few dollars at odd jobs. So far, she has managed to feed herself without panhandling.
So, the library is a special place for her.
Being homeless, she enters “homelessness” in the catalogue computer. A title appears: Cross-Cultural Dialogues on Homelessness, edited by Jay Levy and Robin Johnson. She finds it on the relevant shelf, and reads it during successive visits.
Inspired and validated, she wants to thank the authors by posting a review. Using the library’s computer system, she tries to submit one at Amazon, to get a message:
“To submit reviews, customers must make a minimum amount of valid debit or credit card purchases. Prime subscriptions and promotional discounts don’t qualify towards the purchase minimum. For more information, see our Customer Review Guidelines.”
Clicking on the link, she discovers that she needs to have spent a minimum of $50 at Amazon during the past twelve months.
The worst, most humiliating aspect of her marriage was not the beatings, but the financial abuse. She is now back there, being controlled with money. Devastated, sobbing, she stumbles out of the library.
She has no debit or credit card. If she had $50, she’d spend it on essentials. Anyway, where would Amazon deliver anything she bought online?
Sue is fictional, but representative. There are millions of people like her: educated, intelligent, but completely lacking resources.
They cannot post a review on Amazon.
The book is real. I edited it for the publisher. It is a collaboration between American and British homelessness experts.
Impressed and even inspired by its contents, I included a review with the copy I returned. When notified of publication, I posted the review at amazon.com and at amazon.co.uk
This was March 2, 2018. I successfully posted on both websites, although I live in Australia.
Mid-April, I attempted to post a review for another fine book, Return to Life by Jim Tucker. I was successful at amazon.com.au but refused at the American and British sites. I tried various additional Amazons, for example the Indian one (India is a huge English-language market for books), but got the same result. You can’t post here because you haven’t spent at least $50 in the local currency within the past 12 months, so go away, nasty foreigner.
Currently, Amazon has independent sites for 15 countries.
In March, 2018, I could have posted my review on all 15. Now, I can only do so in my own country, unless I choose to spend $50 in each of those countries. Can you imagine?
If you live in the US, it makes no sense to buy from the British Amazon, and pay for the extra shipping cost, wait the extra time. The benefits of a local site are being able to pay in your own currency, and quick delivery.
So, foreigners as well as paupers are kept out.
There is a point to this apparently puzzling new policy. Reviews sell books, and so dishonest publishers and authors try various ways of cheating the system, and have fake reviews posted. It is entirely appropriate for Amazon to devise ways of keeping them out.
Many algorithms and rules have been tried. Some have been partially successful. This “$50 a year spent at our website” policy is the latest.
As I have pointed out, it has consequences its designers haven’t anticipated. Apart from its inequity, and its effect of excluding genuine reviews, it also adds to Amazon’s negative reputation as a rapacious, greedy, uncaring company. Surely, they want the opposite?
My problem is relatively easy to fix, even if this rule is retained.
One way is for the 15 national Amazon sites to automatically share all reviews. When I self-published one of my books, the title appeared on all the Amazon sites, so, obviously, there already is sharing of listings. Why not also reviews? After all, reviews do sell books, and it is to Amazon’s advantage if potential buyers are as fully informed as possible. [PS 2020: There is now review sharing. The “top 15 reviews from other countries” are listed to the right of the page.]
Second, certain reviewers have independent proof of being real people. The algorithm could easily make allowance for multiple sources of evidence.
The number of reviews a person posts is automatically recorded. Once this is past a certain threshold, on a variety of books, that should count toward verification. Also, authors with books for sale on Amazon are also clearly real people.
None of these would help my fictional homeless person, and yet her opinion would have been highly relevant to that particular book. Poor people should have the right to contribute. Given the ability of current AI systems, including those supervising Amazon’s algorithms, it should be possible to require a new reviewer (with no debit/credit card, and no purchases at Amazon) to have verification from a number of people the system already knows to be real. Sue could have asked the librarians to do this for her.
Every complex set of decisions has unintended consequences. The way to improve is to accept and consider feedback. I hope my voice will be heard, and heeded.
It has been heard, but ignored because of greed. Please join me by complaining, and by doing your best to boycott Amazon.
They make this as difficult as they can. The exact route varies from time to time. On the last occasion I checked, it was:
Click on Help
Choose “Amazon Prime or other non-order question.”
After this, there is always “Other non-order question” on the succession of drop-down lists. Go with that.
Eventually, you face a triple choice: CHAT, PHONE, OR EMAIL.
Only, for some mysterious reason, the email one is greyed out. The choice is chat or phone.
Please do so, and explain why you are objecting to this policy.