Thursday, January 10, 2013

Big Brother Is Watching You

Elizabeth Zelvin

Isn’t it amazing how Amazon manages to find every book in existence and offer it for sale? You may not agree it does, but I’m convinced.

The first book I remember borrowing from the library, at the age of six, was a book called Sally and The White Horse, about a little girl who is captured by Barbary pirates. I had tried before to find it, but one day recently, it occurred to me to search for it on Amazon, and there it was: in trade paper, titled The White Horse, part of a series about Sally by Elizabeth Coatsworth, a beloved and prolific children’s author whose name I knew, though I hadn’t realized she wrote that particular book.

On the day my latest, Death Will Save Your Life, went online, I googled my name in the Amazon search box. On the first two pages, I found listings not only for anthologies including my short stories andfor my chapters in books on clinical work with substance abusers and online therapy, but a citation of my 1976 translation of a French biography of “romantic feminist” Flora Tristan, Gauguin’s grandmother, in a history of women “from prehistoric times to the present.” To cap it, the citation appeared only an inch or two away from a listing for a book on feminism in the Soviet Union, which had made a fleeting mention of Flora Tristan in a footnote, by a woman I’d never heard of whose name is the same as my very unusual maiden name. Small world.

Then there’s the Kindle, the device that Amazon used in its world-changing devaluation of books—the McGuffin in what might be considered a crime against writers, although a boon for readers. I can’t complain about my Kindle. Most recently, on Christmas Day, it kept me patient and happy as I stood in line at a movie theater with a sell-out crowd, waiting for a film whose starting time had changed mysteriously from 3 to 4 pm. So I have to set that against the fact that as an author, I can’t sell any of my hardcover mysteries for more than ten dollars each at book fairs or festivals. At $15, they’ll simply sit there—even if my publisher’s price to me for author copies is higher than I can sell them for.

If Amazon had stopped there, I might love it as a blessing of the new technology the way I love my GPS, my iPhone, and the EZ-Pass that lets me sail through toll booths on the highway. But no. I already had a taste of Amazon as dominatrix a couple of years ago, when she cracked the whip by pulling all of publishing giant Macmillan’s products offline (including my two books published with St. Martin’s/Minotaur and the corresponding Kindle editions) to win a tug-of-war about pricing. At the time, I wished a pox on both their houses, since the higher prices publishers want mean fewer willing customers for the books.

Now, we knew already—and thanks to an article in the New York Times, the whole world knows—Amazon is bullying both writers and consumers by selectively deleting the customer reviews they have made essential to an author’s success by pegging visibility to customers to the number of positive reviews. The closest to an explanation they’ve been willing to give the public is that an author can’t be allowed to review another author’s book because the two are competitors. If you can find a way that that makes sense, please comment and let us know. They also claim they’re purging reviews by authors’ family members, supposedly to stop the unfair practice of “sock puppets,” fake superlative reviews by biased readers.

And that’s where Big Brother Is Watching You comes in. How the hell does Amazon know who my relatives are? And how intrusive does it have to get before we turn around and find our privacy, maybe even our civil liberties, gone for good? Amazon isn’t even getting it right as they pick and choose among which readers are allowed to say they like my work. So far, they’ve barred two reviews: one by a work colleague of my husband’s who’s thrilled to know an author and adores my series, the other by an established online reviewer who’s always been a fan of my work and makes a point of being upfront about giving objective reviews.

My current e-publisher has made it clear my books will sell only if I “appease the Anaconda.” But what if the Anaconda stacks the deck by setting an impossible task and punishing attempts to give it what it wants? Where do we go from here?


Sheila Connolly said...

You think Amazon is female? I always figured s/he was a male bully who always wants more of everything. Big Brother, definitely--and a mean one.

I think they list my doctoral dissertation, calling it not available, which is no surprise because I think there were never more than ten copies in existence.

Polly Iyer said...

Since my books are exclusive to Amazon, and I applaud the opportunity they give authors, I do find their review embargo worrisome. Writers read--a lot. They write reviews. That doesn't mean that all writers know each other or trade five-star reviews. I do think friends are more generous to friends or they pass on giving them a review. On the other hand, I received a review last week that clearly wasn't of my book. In fact, the reviewer specified that she was reviewing a film. I contacted Amazon, and they removed it.

Like their hold on the publishing business, or not, Amazon is here to stay.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I too have lost reviews, and not ones from friends and family. If I write a book in genre X, isn't another writer from genre X a qualified reviewer? Apparently not, according to Amazon. I even lost a review from an independent and respected online reviewing service, Sift Reviews (specializes in sci-fi). For that one, people can still go to the Sift Reviews site.
I just wrote a three-part series on the Amazon review policy and what they are doing to indie publishing. I review many books--as an author, I feel I should give something back to the community. I don't have many reviews...they're not easy to get if you want honest ones. When I ask for one on an online site, I'll be sure and tell them to forget about re-posting to Amazon.
I just interviewed Jim Krukal at my site too. He suggests that the best thing a fiction author can do is write, write, write. I hope he's right (is that a pun?)...and the implication is that reviews don't matter all that much.
All the best,
Note: The problem with Amazon is that it's neither male nor female--it's an AI collection of hundreds of algorithms living in "the cloud" without any humanity whatsoever.

jan godown annino said...

Hello Liz.
I'm a newish SinC/Gup member, so appears my 1st comment, here.
I feel I have been in nifty classes on research, literature, publishing & editorial writing with this lively post.
Never even thought about Gaugin's grandmere.

As an member of The Author's Guild & subscriber to the NYT I'm also aware of some of the better coverage of the muscle policies you refer to.

It also confounds me about the two reviews scuttled. Mebe a human isn't doing the excising.

Anyhoo, as one of my favorite journalists said
"Strength to your sword arm" (Brenda Ueland)
That's also the title of a collection of hew newspaper columns, which I recommend to writers of any genre.

Happy New Year!

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