Self-publishing author Sandy Nathan, who calls reviewers stupid and tells them how to review, who buys reviews and perhaps Amazon up-votes on fiverr, is a Vine Voice preferred reviewer on Amazon.
"Vine Voice" reviewers are selected by Amazon and invited into the program. The invitation is based at least in part on the reviewer's ranking, especially on how "helpful" their reviews are. At least that's what Amazon says; the actual process of selection remains . . . mysterious.
Amazon Vine invites the most trusted reviewers on Amazon to post opinions about new and pre-release items to help their fellow customers make informed purchase decisions. Amazon invites customers to become Vine Voices based on their reviewer rank, which is a reflection of the quality and helpfulness of their reviews as judged by other Amazon customers. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/vine/help)
Since it's very possible Sandy Nathan was buying "helpful" votes from fiverr sellers, was she essentially buying her way into the Vine program? (Nathan has, apparently, been a Vine Voice reviewer since 2012, so it's not likely she used fiverr votes to get into the program, but it's possible.)
That "Vine Voice" label, along with other marks of Amazon reviewer status such as numerical ranking, implies a certain stamp of approval by Amazon that the review and the reviewer are somehow a little more credible than the average "Kindle Customer" or other screen name chosen by the reviewer. After all, "Vine Voice" reviewers are chosen by Amazon, One can't apply to be a Vine Voice reviewer; there are no auditions.
Even if the review written isn't of a Vine product, the review still shows the reviewer's tag of "Vine Voice."
I found Sandy Nathan's above review quite by accident last night. After the news of Amazon's lawsuit against a supplier of fake product reviews was announced a few days ago, I went to check on some of the fiverr reviewers I'd tagged months ago. Many had been removed from Goodreads, but none, not a single one, had ever been removed from Amazon. I wasn't the only person reporting them, but still, nothing happened.
So last night I just went to the Amazon.com page and keyed in the name of an author I knew had been buying fiverr reviews and who was himself a fiverr reviewer, Michael Beas. You can see my Booklikes report on Mr. Beas's relationship with fiverr here.
The first of Mr. Beas's books to come up on Amazon was Reflections: Prayers from the heart of a 14 year old boy. As I skimmed down through the reviews written for this book last summer and fall, I recognized a lot of the old familiar fiverr account names: Chloe H, R. Coker, Stan Law (who bought lots and lots and lots of fiverr reviews). I wasn't shocked to see Sandy Nathan's name, because I already knew she was affiliated with fiverr as a buyer of reviews and other stuff, and because I knew she wrote in a shall we say spiritual vein.
What did surprise me, however, was that "Vine Voice" seal of Amazon approval attached to her name.
In the wake of the recent lawsuit filed by Amazon against a company that sold "fake" product reviews, there's been additional attention given to Amazon's own policies on reviewing.
Two specific policies appear to apply to the Sandy Nathan "Vine Voice" situation. I'll address the second one first, since it's more relative to what I've already posted.
Paid Reviews – We do not permit reviews or votes on the helpfulness of reviews that are posted in exchange for compensation of any kind, including payment (whether in the form of money or gift certificates), bonus content, entry to a contest or sweepstakes, discounts on future purchases, extra product, or other gifts.
The sole exception to this rule is when a free or discounted copy of a physical product is provided to a customer up front. In this case, if you offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you must clearly state that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. If you receive a free or discounted product in exchange for your review, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that fact. Reviews from the Amazon Vine program are already labeled, so additional disclosure is not necessary.
Reviews from the Amazon Vine program are designated by a green line (which I can't personally verify because I didn't take the time to go looking for a verified Vine Voice green lined review), but all reviews by a Vine Voicer receive that tag. How many Amazon review readers are aware of the distinction?
Furthermore, however, if Amazon does not permit helpful votes to be purchased, what is their mechanism for verifying that? How is anyone supposed to know that any given reviewer -- Vine Voice or not -- has achieved their ranking via legitimate votes or via purchased votes?
It should be noted, also, that fiverr.com has apparently cracked down somewhat on Gigs(r) openly offering such votes for sale, whether they are "like" votes on Facebook or Twitter or other sites, as they violate the Terms of Service on those sites. No one has any way of knowing, of course, how many such votes anyone has already purchased. Again, it is possible that Sandy Nathan purchased the votes that put her into the Vine Program and gave her reviews the added weight of credibility.
But there is another part of the Amazon review guidelines that applies to this situation.
- Promotional Reviews – In order to preserve the integrity of Customer Reviews, we do not permit artists, authors, developers, manufacturers, publishers, sellers or vendors to write Customer Reviews for their own products or services, to post negative reviews on competing products or services, or to vote on the helpfulness of reviews. For the same reason, family members or close friends of the person, group, or company selling on Amazon may not write Customer Reviews for those particular items.
As an author, Sandy Nathan is not permitted by Amazon to post a negative review of a competing product. Although Amazon used to specify that authors could not post negative reviews of other books in their own genre, the parameters were never spelled out. Could an author of historical romances write negative reviews of contemporary romances? Could an author of academic non-fiction write negative reviews of popular fiction?
As a Vine Voice reviewer, however, Nathan is supposed to be scrupulously honest. Well, we should all be at least reasonably honest, but for those bearing the Vine Voice tag, you would think a higher level of honesty on reviews was in order. Of course it is quite possible that Sandy Nathan reviewed Michael Beas's because it's in the same sortof spiritual category that she writes in, but she's required by the Amazon guideline posted above to give a positive review . . . or none at all. She can't, if she wants to abide by the review guidelines, be honest. And yet honesty is required of Vine Voicers.
Amazon has filed suit against a supplier of paid, fake reviews. It looks like maybe Amazon should either stop throwing stones from their own glass house, or sue themselves.