An open letter to publishers about Amazon Vine…

fallen landWhen I joined the UK Amazon Vine programme two years ago, the rule was that participants were required to review 75% of items taken. This was later increased to 80%. What this meant in practice was that reviewers could take a chance on unknown authors since if the book was truly bad or simply not to the reviewer’s taste, there was a safety net – the reviewer could choose not to finish the book and not to review it. During the past two years I have taken 92 books and reviewed 83 of them. The ones I have not reviewed were particularly badly written, stultifyingly dull or occasionally just something I didn’t enjoy enough to want to continue reading it.

The ReckoningAs part of Vine, there is a thing called Last Harvest. This is a list of all the books that no-one wanted when they were offered on the main list (even though they were free). As of today there are over 500 titles languishing there looking for readers. Viners were encouraged to take as many of these as they wanted with the sole proviso that they meet the 80% review target. Many of us used this specifically to try books we were doubtful about in the hope (occasionally fulfilled) of finding an unexpected gem. It is from this leftovers list that most of my unreviewed books come (and I assume the same applies to many Viners).

fujisanNow Amazon, I have to assume under pressure from publishers and/or other suppliers, have changed the rules to say that 100% of items taken must be reviewed and that the review must be posted within 30 days of receipt. More than that, they have backdated the new rule to the beginning of this year. This means that I (and many other reviewers) are now being forced to give reviews to books that we had already decided we didn’t enjoy enough to finish. In the last couple of weeks, I have given 1-star reviews on Amazon to two books that I found so utterly tedious I gave up a third of the way through.

 

Midnight_in_PekingOne might argue that that’s a good thing for readers – forewarned is forearmed and all that. However what it actually means is that I, along with many other reviewers, will no longer be prepared to take a chance on authors we don’t already know and admire. To contrast with the few books I haven’t reviewed, there have been many, many authors new to me whose books I have enjoyed, reviewed and done my best to promote*, including through this blog. That will no longer be the case – at least not through Amazon Vine.

 

secret life of william shakespeareI can’t help but wonder whom this new rule benefits? Certainly not authors of bad books who will now be acquiring reviews saying reviewers found their work unreadable. Certainly not new authors of good books, who will no longer have access to the enthusiasm to try something different that was the hallmark of the Vine reviewer. It can’t benefit Amazon – I doubt my 1-star reviews will encourage sales. And it certainly doesn’t benefit the reviewers who are now forced to review within 30 days of receipt of the book, for no reward other than a free copy of the book – often an unproofed ARC.

 

What lies withinSo if it benefits the publishers, who presumably are the ones pushing for it, I’d love to be told how. And if it doesn’t, and if the publishers are not pushing for it, then perhaps they should be pushing against it… My future experimental reading will be done through other outlets – Vine is no longer the place to make discoveries. Since the rule change was announced, I’ve taken no fiction from Vine, since I’ve been offered none by authors I know – normally I’d have taken 3 or 4 debuts or new to me in that time.

 

*Some of the authors I took a chance on via Vine and subsequently raved about on and off Amazon: Jane Casey, Patrick Flanery, Jude Morgan, Darren McCann, Zoran Dvrenkar, Paul French, Randy Taguchi, Ferdinand von Schirach, Tom Vowler… I’m sure every Vine book reviewer could come up with a similar list.

28 thoughts on “An open letter to publishers about Amazon Vine…

  1. FictionFan – Thank you for this honest, thoughtful and helpful discussion of this new policy. I agree with your points – very much. I was also thinking this. Such a policy will not mean that fewer reviewers will want to use the Vine system for sharing their reviews. The result? Fewer reviews, which means that authors will have fewer opportunities to get their work ‘out there.’ That will mean that readers won’t be as well informed about new books and debut authors. And authors whose names are not ‘household words’ will have to work even harder to get noticed.

    • Thank you, Margot. I’ve swithered back and forth about whether to ‘go public’ with my views on this for fear it would look like sour grapes. I know how lucky I’ve been to be a member of Vine, and while I like getting the occasional techie gadget, it’s been the books that’s been the greatest thing for me – and the community of reviewers who love to share opinions and point each other towards new ‘discoveries’. I hope Amazon will think again about this policy, at least insofar as it affects books. I can’t imagine me taking another book like Unfinished Empire (600 pages of history) with a 30-day deadline for review.

      Sometimes I think they forget we’re amateurs who primarily do this for fun…

  2. FictionFan – I think Amazon dont realise the disservice they do to themselves by these outrageous requests on your time and your opinions. You amaze me with your ability to read, digest and then offer a valid comment on all styles of writing and genres. I find it hard enough plowing through 500 or 600 pages of a novel I actually enjoy reading – let alone having to immerse oneself in something as dry as 600 pages of history ( no offense to history buffs meant). What Amazon seem to be forgetting is that time is important to reviewers – as much as it is to anyone else. I find their attitude very disrespectful and they seem to offer not much reward for the work you provide. I am glad I have nothing to do with Vine. I do wonder what the impact of Amazon buying GoodReads will have on the market place? Less competition/less opportunity for honest reviews? I continue to look forward to your honest and interesting reviews.

    • Thank you, RWR! What a lovely comment!

      Part of the problem with Vine is that they do offer a small number of expensive gadgets and many, many Viners really see books as a booby prize. There’s an unseemly scrabble each month as everyone tries to get one of the two laptops or TVs on offer. But there’s a hardcore of us who prefer hardbacks to hard drives. I value my ARC copy of Flanery’s Absolution far more highly than my £250 headphones, much though I love them and grateful though I am for being given them. And I fully understand why a supplier who gives away a £700 laptop would be annoyed if the recipient chose not to review it, but I feel treating books in the same way as gadgets is just wrong. A history book for instance might take me thirty or more hours to read, absorb and review. The headphones took me about an hour and a half. And if the book is bad (or not to my taste) I’m not willing to give up thirty hours that I could spend reading things I enjoy. It’s a hobby, not a job – and I think Amazon and the publishers seem to have forgotten that.

      I’m worried about the Goodreads takeover, too – I fear Amazon won’t stop till they have a complete stranglehold on the whole book market.

      Thank goodness for NetGalley, eh. 😉

      • Net Galley is great – I dont get any pressure and occasionally have a publisher contact me to suggest other books they represent that they feel I might like – so always finding “new” authors. I like The Reading Room better than Good Reads ( more personal) – but until it gets the numbers the publishers prefer reviews on GR

  3. Well, dear friend, you know I am waving the flag for this post of yours. I have just spent the best part of the day on a soapbox post of my own, (not gone public yet, but it will) after spending time reading an unbelievably dreadful book which was torture to stay with for long enough to write a coherent review on.

    Like you, Az’s 100% rule means I won’t take a chance on an unknown writer – well, that isn’t quite true, as i will abuse the policy by taking a chance, and if the book is a turkey, posting a minimal 20 word ‘this is a turkey review’, for as far as i get, and then immediately deleting that review, in order to avoid the attentions of the shillers – the authors’ best friends who abuse the reviewing system in their own way by posting handfulls of ‘best thing since life-changing sliced bread’ reviews – I’ve made mistakes with that, before now, buying such 5 star books without checking if the 5 star is from a bona fide reviewer who reads other books!

    • That, of course, was part of what made Vine great – the Vine tag meant you knew that the review wasn’t a shill. I’m the first to admit that the quality of some Vine reviews is abysmal (my own early ones make me cringe when I read them now) but at least they’re unbiased. But with fewer Vine reviews, or rushed ones, it’ll be harder to see the shills for what they are.

      It’s always been bad enough when an author’s friends gang up to vote any negative review out of sight, but at least you could still find the negative reviews if you looked for them. Now we’ll all either not review at all or do as you suggest – review to meet the deadline, and then delete…until Amazon take away the facility to delete of course.

  4. Backdated? They’re obviously not looking for quality reviews if they’re asking that of unpaid volunteers. I also wasn’t aware that Vine encompassed so much more that books. It makes sense from the perspective of being pressured by companies giving away thousands of pounds of free merchandise for review, but comparing this to the effort involved with reading books valued at a few quid is an apples and oranges type of prospect. They really should have separate policies. Then again, leave it to Amazon to make a bone-headed one-size-fits-all policy like that…

    • Yes, the backdating annoyed me more than any other part of the changes. It seems to me that Amazon broke their ‘contract’ with the reviewers by retrospectively changing the rules. I ended up giving one serious 1-star review to a book I had only read a third of, and a joke review to another I couldn’t get past chapter 1 – a joke review I subsequently deleted, because it’s really not fair on the authors/publishers/readers. And both books were debuts that I had taken a chance on. I agree – different rules are needed for books, or publishers should go elsewhere. This new policy is going to drive the standard of reviews on Amazon down to an even lower level of quality, and some of them are bad enough already. There’s no quality control over Vine reviews – which would be a much better advance than setting silly deadlines.

  5. Reading this interesting blog post, and having read this week’s NYTimes coverage on the decision in the Apple antitrust case, and the accompanying article on what it means for competition at the retail level for e-books or real books (not a pretty sight), am I the only one feeling a little like Az isn’t much different that EKK (the place where Nate worked in Fallen Land)?

    • I must admit I’m beginning to feel nearly as conflicted as Nate about my relationship with Amazon. I worry very much about the stranglehold they’re getting over almost every aspect of the book market…but I still accept freebies from them through Vine, and therefore promote Az as well as the books. If I had the courage of my convictions, I’d pull out of Vine but, sadly, the tantalising prospect that this could be the month I get the free laptop keeps me hooked. Every woman has her price, and it seems mine isn’t particularly high! 😉

  6. Like you, FictionFan, I love being a Vine member mostly because of the opportunity to receive books – as opposed to gadgets. However, now new books (especially fiction) have dropped off the lists. In fact, in my last few targeted newsletter, there has been virtually no books included – possibly one or two children’s books or non fiction. There is, I feel, obviously something going on between Amazon and the publishers which we know nothing about. It will be very sad if books will no longer feature on Vine newsletters…

    • Hello, Susan, and welcome to the blog! Yes, the lack of books has been becoming more and more pointed over the last few months – this month I was mainly offered tablets and Lonely Planets guides. Ungrateful, maybe, but there’s a limit to how many things with a plug I really want.

      I’m beginning to wonder if it’s the rise of organisations like NetGalley that’s behind all this – I certainly see it as my first choice for getting good books these days, and while I miss the occasional nice hardback, I’m quite happy on the whole that they only give e-reader versions. Vine, I’m sorry to say, seems to be going almost entirely over to gadgets…

  7. I had never heard of NegGalley before, but I was looking at their site and it seems really good. I will register and give them a try, so thanks for that.
    I am, in no way, ungrateful to Vine – I just prefer books to gadgets 🙂

    • NetGalley is fantastic – none of that 8 o’clock rush. You can take your time and see what you really fancy, and though they occasionally ‘decline’ a request, mostly they get approved. And the choice of books is brilliant, both for fiction and non-fiction. Both Lady Fancifull and I, with our mostly quite different tastes, have had loads of books we love. Also if you hate one, there’s no pressure to review – you can just send feedback to the publisher instead. The only thing is they seem to prefer blogs and Goodreads to Amazon reviews…hence the blog. Though they still approved me for plenty before I started blogging…

      • I did think I may not get approved as just an Amazon/Goodreads reviewer, but I had my first request accepted, so I hope that others will follow. Do you post the review to the publisher first for approval, or post simultaneously on the various sites? Anyway, thank you for the suggestion, it was totally unknown to me.

        • I think it seems to depend on the publisher how strongly or otherwise they feel about the blog – but they do seem very keen on Goodreads. But being so high up the Az rankings should make you a cert for approval, I’d think! 🙂

          I stick my reviews up first and then send a copy and links to the publisher via the feedback thingy on NG. So far, I’m not aware that negative reviews have stopped any publisher from approving me for other books – and I’ve written a fair few!

          I hope you get as much out of it as Lady F and I have – it’s been brilliant…except for the fact that my TBR is now completely out of control!

  8. I seem to have been turned down for everything I was interested in on Netgalley, including books from publishers who have sent me lots of review copies. I haven’t decided to give up on reviewing for Vine, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever catch up, or if they’ll ban me or something – I went a bit mad in the summer on Last Harvest, last time I caught up with the quota, and got 39 books from the June/July newsletters and Last Harvest. I’ve reviewed 11, read another 10 and started #22.

    • Really? I’m so surprised by that, especially since you do blog, don’t you? The only thing I can think is that at first I kept requesting things and then discovering it was the Australian or Canadian branch of the publishers – sometimes the books show up on them first, and they won’t give to UK reviewers. But now I check that it’s UK or US based and though I still get declined sometimes I get approved for probably 80 – 90%.

      I’m fed up with Amazon in a lot of ways, but I still stick my reviews on there, just because I’m in the habit. Actually I prefer Az US – slightly less of the nasties it seems and more thoughtful comments. I don’t have much to review for Az, but my NetGalley TBR is out of control…

  9. I only just joined NetGalley and have had 2 books approved already. I have a few pending and haven’t actually had any rejected yet – although obviously some of them will be. I find that I am mostly taking stuff from Vine now for my kids; which is fine, but I did really enjoy the books.

    • It’s brilliant isn’t it? Word of warning – it’s toooo easy to ask for zillions and then find you have to actually read and review them all. 😉

      For the last few months that Vine was doing books I was finding most of the same books were appearing on NG too. I’ve had loads of big names through them and the joy of e-books is that I don’t have to find shelf-space for them…

  10. Yes, I can’t thank you enough. I’ve had four approved so far – you are right, it is too easy to be tempted, isn’t it?! Wonderful though and the one I am reading now is brilliant. I am very grateful – I was thinking about Luci’s comment about being rejected – all the books I have requested so far have been from UK publishers and perhaps that makes a difference? I am sure lots of other reviewers would turn to NetGalley if they knew about it – like many of us, I am also inundated by requests to review books on a daily basis. It makes sense to link the reviewers with the publishers.

    • Haha! Since I joined last January I’ve had over a hundred books from them and the vast majority have been good. They do like you to keep an 80% feedback ratio, but like Vine that gets easier the longer you go on, and they seemed to give a lot of leeway when I was ‘new’.

      Yes, I think the secret is to check where the publisher is. I nearly always get approved for British publishers, except for the occasional university publication. Some US publishers will, others are a bit sniffy and I have to emphasise in my profile that I review on Az US and that the blog gets lots of US visitors. Australian and Canadian publishers generally speaking refuse me, so I’ve stopped asking.

      Let me know if you decide to start blogging – there’s a nice wee community of Vine and NetGalley reviewers here on the blogosphere. 😀

  11. I think I will need to read/review a few fairly quickly and get my feedback up 🙂 I easily read 250 books this year as my goodreads challenge, so I anticipate getting quite a few books from this source… I am not sure about blogging – I think I will just visit for now 🙂

    • I must admit the blogging does become very time-consuming, but it’s good fun. 250?? You’re another one who could read me under the table – I reckon I read about 150 max a year – sadly i acquire about 300! Cloning is the answer…

  12. I spend a LOT of time parked in my car, waiting for my kids to finish ballet/piano lessons – my reading life has been made much easier by a kindle with a lighted screen 🙂 Nice to see new books on the Vine list this week. Perhaps things are looking up? Two sources of free books – we need to get reading!

    • Don’t know how I survived without a Kindle for all those years! 😉

      I took the Amy Tan but restrained myself from other books till I get rid of at least some of the sixteen NetGalley ones currently waiting to be read! So the cats are getting some pricy cat food instead – hope they don’t get used to it!

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