Where do you go if you want to buy a book online? Amazon or Barnes and Noble? If you wanted to read a book review would you check out the reviews on those sites? Many have come to depend on the book reviews on both sites, Amazon and Barnes and Noble, for suggestions about what to read next, what other readers think of the next book in a series, or if a to-be-released book really is going to match the hype. Publishers have discovered that they can release books known as advance reader copies, ARC, before the actual release date to a few readers who will in turn write a review and post it on personal blogs, Goodreads, Librarything, Barnes and Noble or Amazon.
As a professor of literacy I often received advanced reader copies and wrote reviews for the journal for Assembly on Literature for Adolescents. A couple of these even ended up on Amazon after they were published in the journal. However, I recently discovered something that I don’t really like about Amazon’s review of advance reader copies.
Amazon has a program, called Amazon Vine, which means that if you are invited you can receive an advance reader copy and write a review to post before a book is released. You are invited, according to the website, based on “trust earned for writing accurate and insightful reviews”. Amazon states that they “do not influence the opinions of Amazon Vine members, nor do they modify or edit their reviews”. I recently wanted to know about a book that hadn’t yet been released. I found a review for it on Amazon a couple of days before it was released that helped me decide, yes it was one I would enjoy reading so I ordered it. The thing I didn’t know when I was reading that review was how limited those pre-release reviews are, and while Amazon may not influence, modify or edit, they have a direct impact on who reviews, what is reviewed and how it is reviewed. This is what I discovered.
I was writing a review for the summer journal for Assembly for Literature for Adolescents and I also agreed to post to Amazon for an advance reader copy of Radiant Shadows by Melissa Marr. This is the fourth book in her faerie-world series that begins with Wicked Lovely. (If you are interested in my review see the previous post in this blog.) However when I went to Amazon to post my review I received a surprise. I was unable to find a way to post. I contacted Amazon and asked about being able to post a review, but I was told no reviews until the book was released. No reviews until the book is published is important to remember. I assured the Amazon employee that I had read Amazon Vine reviews before a book was released, but was told again that no reviews would be posted until the book was released. So I posted my review in the discussion area and another in the review section of the book Wicked Lovely and decided to wait.
Sure enough about six weeks before the book will be released up pop the Amazon Vine reviews, a total of twelve now. When I discovered the first few reviews I contacted Amazon again. Three times they sent me the same kind of form email that stated the Vine program is by invitation only and that those “invited customers” are allowed to review advance reader copies before a book is released. Three times I replied back and explained that I understood that and did not object to their invitation only program, my problem was their limiting pre-release reviews only to those who were Amazon Vine participants. Basically their answer was – too bad, their program, their website, their rules.
So why does it matter? Amazon says they don’t influence opinions, however Amazon chooses the reviewers and no one outside the Amazon Vine program is allowed to post prior to release of a book. Amazon controls who posts reviews and how they post those reviews for books before they are released. According to Wikipedia the companies that use the service pay for the access and the cost is unknown. Wikipedia also states that some of the reviewers may even have been chosen after posting only one review on Amazon. So much for the “trust earned for writing accurate and insightful reviews”.
Radiant Shadows falls into a category of young adult literature. Many schoolteachers, parents, and school librarians look for reviews before they put these books into the hands of students. While it is true that there are professional sites that will have professional reviews, Amazon has easy access. I know from my own background as a schoolteacher I often was not aware of those more professional sites, while I did know about a site with as much internet exposure as Amazon. Even the Wikipedia site includes a statement from someone from the School Library Journal criticizing Amazon for allowing everyone to review products for kids.
I am not saying that it takes someone trained or educated in children’s literature or young adult literature to write an effective review. A mother might be able to post a review that answers questions for other mothers. What I am saying is that Amazon is wrong in preventing others from posting reviews. Just a couple of the things that I notice in reading the Vine reviews, one complained about Marr’s sentence structure and another complained that she liked a series that had an end so she would probably not read the next book. First let me answer the complaint about the grammar. Anyone familiar with Marr’s writing knows that she was a professor of literature also teaching writing for ten years. If the person who complained would take the time to read Marr’s blog she explains that it is a struggle to write in first person because we talk in fragments and run-on sentences. She also gives a grammar lesson on types of sentences. As Marr states it, you must know how to use grammar in order to be able to break some of the rules. Marr knows her grammar. The second complaint that there seems to be no clear end to the series tells me that this reader has no real understanding of the series. Marr’s odd numbered books tell the story of Seth and Aislinn and the even numbered ones expand the world of faerie. It seems to me that the Vine reviewers simply are not familiar with either the series or the author. I checked Barnes and Noble’s site and I was able to post my review for Radiant Shadows there before the book is released. What would it hurt to allow others who have an ARC or may be more familiar with the author or series to post reviews to Amazon?