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Swinging on the vine

Not sure if you’ve been paying attention to the Amazon Vine brouhaha kicked off by Betsy Bird over at Fuse #8 last week, but if you are an industry tracker I’d urge you to take a look.

Here’s Betsy’s original post (make sure you read all comments), an additional perspective from Chasing Ray, as well as author Adam Rex’s opinion over on his blog.

I think this discussion has some larger implications for the industry, which is why it’s going to continue to get play.

Here’s what I find interesting:

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1) Lack of transparency at Amazon

Amazon holds a very influential position in terms of consumer behavior at the moment, and it’s not at all clear, even among Vine Reviewers, how they were picked and exactly how their targeted lists are generated.

Publishers are similarly in the dark. I spoke to the head of marketing at one of the larger publishers yesterday who has not yet participated in the Vine Program because her department is unclear on how it works. They have the same questions we do.

I hope this discussion sheds some light on the issue, because I don’t think it’s a great practice to start a program that gives individuals an influential voice without being clear about who they are and how it works.

It does those chosen individuals a disservice—many of whom have taken the time to comment thoughtfully at Fuse #8 and the Amazon forum—as well as the authors they are reviewing, and it taints all the reviews with the air of mistrust. The credibility of these reviews will only be completely clear when Amazon explains the details.

Because Amazon takes a strictly hands-off approach, it seems like there is no baseline being set for how to write a thoughtful review that tells the readers what they need to know to decide if this book is for THEM. Just saying whether you liked it or not isn’t the same thing. Also, it bears mentioning that Vine members are also reviewing all kinds of consumer goods besides books.

From what I can tell, many Vine reviewers ARE taking the time to write thoughtful reviews, but since the program requires a certain level of review participation, perhaps books that wouldn’t be a reviewer’s first choice are getting posted.

It does appear, however, that in the case of the two books mentioned in Betsy’s post, Tony DiTerlizzi’s Meno, and Mac Barnett & Adam Rex’s Guess Again, the early Vine reviews didn’t reflect a very nuanced range of opinion right out of the gate.

It has ALWAYS been a problem that Amazon reviews can’t be modified in any way, even if the publisher or author feels they are hurtful or wildly inaccurate. The fact that these reviewers are working from advances just exacerbates the problem, because Vine reviews can come out early, and that can dominate the consensus as it did for these authors.

I noticed today that the reviews on the first Meno book are balancing out–to a nice safe 3– now that people are posting some more positive reviews, and it’s remained about the same for Mac & Adam. As Adam points out below, their book wasn’t hit quite so hard to begin with, though.

(BTW: If you have ever met Tony DiTerlizzi, there is nothing “3” about him or his work, and I mean that as a compliment.)

But hey, we live in a blockbuster environment. Early reviews matter, and I for one want them to be as thoughtful and trustworthy as possible.

Heads up, Vine reviewers: this credibility can only come with transparency from Amazon.

The comments thread on Fuse #8 has been the best source of information about the Vine program so far, so I thank all the contributors over there.

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2) This opens up the larger discussion about the difference between a crowd-sourced model of review information as opposed to an “establishment” model.

What is different about a review from someone who does it for a living versus someone who does not? Is one better than the other? Is one fairer than another? Is there a way to use a crowd-source model that doesn’t reduce all ratings to 3 stars over time? What about special books that don’t appeal to all readers, but are for a particular audience? Can I still find them in a crowd-sourced review environment? Will publishers be willing to put them there? As the professional sources for mainstream reviews are dwindling, is this the only alternative?

I’m not so sure. I’d like a new model that puts a trusted POV back into the equation, and I’d like not to have to hunt and peck across a thousand blogs to find it. I think it’s interesting what the crowd thinks, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I trust it to align with my own tastes.

In fact, I think it’s the nature of the adoption curve that the more consensus in the mass market, the less interesting it is to me. Does anyone else feel the same?

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3) How important it is to get the information about audience and content right.

I’m not sure the good folks at Simon & Schuster thought about the possible implications of putting these kinds of offbeat books into the Vine Program. I guarantee they will now.

I think this is particularly true about Tony’s Meno books which are a BIG departure from his previous blockbusters for middle grade readers.

So often in the marketing process books are promoted on the basis of the author’s previous record. The 10 second handle is “The newest book from best-selling author XX.”  This works great for series and genre books, but is an obvious failure for new books that seriously deviate from the author’s previous work. And the truth is, when a publisher/marketer/sales team is dealing with a list of 200 or more books a season, some of the nuance is lost in the presentation.

If it is true that publishers are paying for the Vine program–I’m still unclear about this–I’m sure S&S isn’t happy to pay for the privilege of having its books trashed in early reviews. I agree with Betsy that the obvious reaction to this will be to place less risky books in future.

Some of the blame for this whole tempest-in-a-teapot lies in errors in the information process at the publishers. Marketing departments are crafting materials as the books are being published, and sometimes that info needs to change with the finished book, but can’t once it gets out into the world. Catalog copy is sometimes written before the book is finished, and early bibliographic information is not always accurate. Not pretty, but true.

Sometimes publishers default to set categories: picture books are usually labeled 4-8 as a default, even when they might be better for 5-8 like Mac & Adam’s book.

This becomes particularly tricky for anthologies, gift books, and other kinds of books that really appeal to everyone, but that have to have an age range because of the system. Booksellers generally dislike the age category ALL, because it doesn’t tell them enough to shelve it, even though it might be true from a user POV.

Once the bibliographic information is released by the publishers (way before the book it finished) it’s like letting the genie out of the bottle. What is done can’t be undone, and then anything that draws from that info (like Amazon Vine target lists) is corrupted.

AND, that doesn’t account for reader’s tendencies to pick books above the appropriate age level, even when the information is accurate.  I call that the “My Toddler Reads Shakespeare” syndrome. This has become a real issue in the so-called “tween” market where readers are reaching into the YA category when they may not be ready for some of the more mature content there. But that is another post.

***

I’m sure this discussion will continue to resonate in many different conversations across the industry. In the end authors will need to take an active role in overseeing and commenting on these issues, because that is the place where their voice can be heard.

They aren’t the junior staffers sitting in a cubicle deep in the bowels of a publisher, plugging the bibliographic data into a computer before upload to the web. “4-8 or 5-8? It’s not that big a deal, right?”

Wrong—but the ship has long sailed.

On the Amazon side, we’re seeing the fallout of a large, digitized, algorithmic system. No one at Amazon looks at a book like Tony or Adam’s and says “Hey, that’s not right!” And the person who does notice—the author or the publisher or the librarian or the bookseller—has very little recourse. The system is JUST TOO BIG.

Authors, your readers do care about what you have to say. Speak out, and people will listen. It can be a game changer, and perhaps people all along the chain will be a little more thoughtful the next time they deal with a book in the pipeline.

To all Vine reviewers, keep thinking about what would be helpful to us, the readers. And please think about the authors too. They care about what you say and how you choose to say it. To them it’s not just another book on the pile.

As Vine reviewers, you have a great responsibility, even if you think no one is paying attention.

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UPDATE 11-4-09: Another really great perspective from Jon Bischke. His concern has to do with the much-discussed positive pressure on AV reviews, and he feels it’s a threat to a phenomenon called Connected Consumption, which is best explained in this paper by Havas Media Lab in the UK.

Big picture stuff, people.

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When I read books they get rated on a 10 point scale. What I like is subjective, but basically I look for great content, excellent design, and fresh ideas. Generally, only books that receive a 7.0 or higher make it on to the site.

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