When 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.
As 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).
Now 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.
One 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.
I 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.
So 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.