Amazon's Top Reviewers:
The Bookstore That Corrupted Hadleyburg

I'm an Amazon Top 100 Reviewer. What that means is that in return for about two hundred hours spent writing a hundred book reviews (many for books I purchased from Amazon) I recently got a gimme cap. Don't get me wrong. I like the hat. And I didn't write the reviews for a reward. I was actually happy to get the hat. And I have a day job.

The Amazon reader reviews are a great idea. Anyone who wants to leave a comment about a book simply writes a note and the notes are displayed with the title, in submission order (reverse submission order, if you want to get technical, with the newest first). Getting a reader reaction to a book can be a decider for me, especially with computer books (since professional reviews in that industry are notoriously unreliable). I also enjoy reading what others have to say about books I am reading or about to read. And the occasional fan mail is a pleasure, too.

Amazon's "reviews" are screened for pertinence to the book, for duplication, and for various kinds of nastiness, including personal attacks. I can wax vitriolic when I really loathe a book, and I've written a few reviews that didn't make it past the censors. One of them compared Thomas Harris (Hannibal ~ You can't buy it here.) to the legendary disgruntled employee who, after many complaints about the bad coffee at work, was discovered to have been urinating in the coffee pot. Another suggested that the "pleasure" in reading James Ellroy was a bit like that of a dog rolling in cat excrement (I'm now reading American Tabloid, sort of on a dare, and my opinion is unchanged). I'm entitled to my opinion, right?

The screening of reviews can be a bit erratic and subjective (another recent Hannibal review got in with the headline, "Who Are the Morons Who Hate This Book?" and one reviewer managed to post three reviews of Hannibal, one titled something like "And another thing-"). The reviews are not screened for smarminess or triviality. That in itself isn't bad, either. There's no reason why everyone shouldn't get to say their piece. This isn't Atlantic Monthly, after all, just a chance to get your vote counted, for or against the book in question.

But unfortunately Amazon recently decided to make the reviews more than that, by inaugurating what must have seemed like a great idea: a system for rating reviewers. This great idea was born rabid. It's not all bad (neither are rabid dogs; they're just drawn that way). Reviews are voted on for "helpfulness" rather than "goodness," "agreeableness," or popularity. Again, not a bad idea. I have given a helpful vote to a review I disagreed with sometimes, especially if the reviewer has been getting "not helpful" votes for being on the unpopular side of the fence. Being told not to buy a book is often "helpful," and I appreciate Amazon's willingness to post reviews that say precisely that. (They are a bookseller, after all, suffering a trivial loss every time you decide not to buy.)

But the rating system: It is based on some formula that takes into account the number of books you have reviewed and the number of helpful votes you got for them. Amazon denies vehemently that negative votes can drag down your rating, and that does appear to be true. However, the formula produces results that would be an embarrassment to any legitimate book reading community. The #1 reviewer, a retired librarian, apparently reads 2-5 books a day. At last count, she had some 800 books to her credit. In the first ten days of August, she posted 62 reviews, all of newly published books. Assuming 18 waking hours a day, that's about three hours per book. Fast reader with nothing else to do? She has about 7200 Helpful votes, for an average of 9 per review. Breathtaking. At the other end of the spectrum is the current #8 reviewer, with fewer than 200 reviews and more than 10000 Helpful votes (averaging 50 per review). And 45 "Favorite People" to count on for her next review (assuming the regard is mutual). She is a respectable reviewer, thoughtful and articulate, but her scores are obviously skewed.

It appears that Amazon somehow takes into account the "Favorite People" situation, or surely #8 would be miles ahead of #1 and not even breathing hard. Here's how the FP scam works in the hands of the manipulative: Somebody sends you (and twenty-two other "really good reviewers") an email telling you how much he loves your reviews and that he's designated you a "Favorite Person." He is also very interested in your opinion of his reviews. If he is fairly brazen, he will also suggest that you vote for his reviews. And, he mentions as an afterthought, he is certainly going to vote for yours.... If you set the person up as a "Favorite", Amazon notifies you when he posts a new review. And he's on his way. You get prompted, go to the review, read it, vote for it. Viola! Twenty-three votes!

The FP system of vote harvesting was a bit hard to jump start, because those of us who had been posting reviews for years had reviews on the fourth, fifth, tenth page back, almost impossible to get at. So old-timers have not been able to take full advantage of this foible of the system, and the standings have been changing fast as parvenus catch on to the scam and put together their bootstrap networks. One top fifty reviewer is a kid who has persuaded his twenty closest friends to vote for any CD review he writes. One review reads, in toto, "Cool music." (I paraphrase. I'm not going to waste my time finding the exact words; there were, at most, four.) The formula that determines standings is, as a correspondent said, "guarded like Fort Knox." Somehow it takes into negative account the fact that the same people vote for you over and over, apparently. Nevertheless, the FP gambit is a sure winner.

Over the course of two years, I've plodded along, garnering 28 votes for my reviews of three John Fowles' novels, posted seven months ago. Two of those votes were negative. By posting reviews on the publication date of three C. J. Cherryh novels, I got about 10-15 votes apiece for them, again with one negative out of fifty. Now that these three reviews are safely buried where they are hard to zing, they still get a few positive votes a month, and I get the occasional vote on a Fowles review. In a four-day period recently, however, I had nearly thirty negative votes, all of them for the ten most recent reviews. A few days ago, the only activity in my reviews was fifteen negative votes, one each for reviews in the twenty most recent.

Ordinarily, a visitor to would go looking for a book rather than a reviewer. Amazon displays three or four selected reviews on the book page, with a URL to take you to all the book's reviews, listed chronologically in pages of ten. If you find a reviewer who interests you, you can click on the reviewer's name to go to his "personal page." The personal page displays the reviewer's most recent "public review," among other things. It also has a URL which will display all the person's reviews, in pages of ten each, chronologically again. Here's how voting for or against a reviewer (rather than a book) works:

a. Go to the reviewer's public reviews page.
b. Click on a book URL to go back to the purchase page of a book.
c. Page through the reviews in order of publication, ten at a time, to find the reviewer.
d. Cast a vote and wait for the thank you message from
e. Use the browser's history list to return to the public reviews page.
f. Advance to the next review.

It becomes harder and harder work as the reviews get "older." I can see going to all this trouble to cast a positive vote for someone whose reviews I happen to like. I did a few for each of my favorite people (folks I picked because I want to read their reviews, not as a quid pro quo. Most of them haven't even acknowledged the "honor", because I seldom write to them directly). I thought at the time that it would be nice if I could read a handful of reviews by someone and vote for them right there on the reviewer's page. That was before people started block-voting negatives. The only protection we have against this kind of maliciousness is the sheer effort involved in doing it. Imagine finding the hated reviewer's two-month-old review of a popular novel, buried twenty pages deep in the purchase site; it could take an hour. Block voting for new reviews is easy, though, because newer reviews, just posted, are likely to be on the book's first pages. Hence the block negatives are usually for the most recent postings. Fortunately, Amazon only allows one vote per registered cookie, so it's fairly difficult to vote multiple times, for or against.

Attacking the competition is fairly easy. If you go to your own page, you can jump from there to the rankings page that you are listed on, say as #227 (I don't know who actually is #227 right now; I picked the number at random). The six people immediately ahead of you are listed right there. Pick one, go to his personal page, and start hitting his reviews with negatives. Since the recent reviews are easy to get at, this is fast. And, ironically, it is ineffective. I am positive that Amazon is not using the negatives to rank people. Which raises the question, why list them, then?

By the way, I am sure the raid a few days ago was malicious mischief because two of the reviews attacked are for obscure, out-of-print books by Vardis Fisher that no one reads, and they sat voteless for six weeks. Of the rest of the recent twenty, two books are computer titles, one is a ten-year-old novel, one is an obscure philosophical tract. Three or four are actually new and hot titles. Two others are for the film and movie versions of Nightwing, and both book and video had gone unreviewed (except for a single review of the book a year ago) until I posted my recommendations. Of six votes I have for my positive reviews of the Nightwing book and video, five were "Not Helpfuls," and those six are the only attention those publications have had in the 3-5 years they have been for sale at, except for the thirteen positives that old review already had when I posted mine. There is no traffic there.

I get more than my share of negative votes, and I don't mind legitimate ones, like the round of raspberries my James Ellroy reviews have garnered and the pile of rotten tomatoes I got for not "appreciating" Thomas Harris or Cold Mountain. And they can be inexplicable, like the few random negatives I got for a fine review of The French Lieutenant's Woman. I give negative votes myself, when I feel that a review is, as the vote indicates, "not helpful"; though generally I just move on to the next review. For me, "not helpful" means misleading, inaccurate, or dishonest in some existential sense. The point is that this ridiculous ballot stuffing is not "negative votes" at all. It is directly attributed to the rankings and human pettiness.

I've corresponded with a couple of reviewers who see the problem as well. A fellow reviewer made this observation in a private message: "I took a closer look at the negative-voting that apparently is coming from some reviewers. Psychologically they express their insecurity about their own abilities by trying to denigrate others." Precisely. The Tonya Harding/Bill Gates approach to winning: cripple the competition.

He had witnessed the drive-by negatives phenomenon in his own reviews:

When I got to [about 100 in the rankings] I noticed that I was suddenly getting more negative votes. In fact, it was a little startling because the votes came all at once one after another right down the page and back to the second page. At first I thought, well somebody doesn't like me, but after a while I realized that this was just a technique to try to drive my ranking down (and, relatively speaking, their ranking up). It became clear just what was going on when I read your blurb on "cat fighting." The really telling evidence is that some very good, noncontroversial reviews (not just mine!) from some very good reviewers had more negative votes than positive votes.

And this is what bothers me. It bothers other Top 100 Reviewers as well; about a half dozen at least have, as I did, commented on it in their profiles. I decided to take action recently, and I informed Amazon that I no longer wanted the "honor" of being a Top 100 Reviewer. If more good reviewers would write feedback ( and resign, perhaps they would act to fix the system. As it is, it is just a nuisance, like a quiet street invaded by petty, malicious vandals. The reviewers were invited to become a community, and then the community was handed over to thugs.

Personally, I don't care that the "top" reviewer seldom has anything substantive to say about the book and sometimes doesn't even seem to have read it. I don't care that people have figured out how to scam the system and inflate their rankings far beyond the actual value of their contributions. I don't care whether I'm ranked 22, 97, 666, or among "the thousand." But I do care that has become a mean street, with gangs of review bashers out there casting votes without reading the reviews, determined to "win" a higher ranking at another's expense. The scene is pathetic. The prize is a gimme cap, guys. Grow up.