Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How to remove a libelous or malicious attack on Amazon

© 2015 Christy K Robinson

I'm not batting a thousand, but so far my average is .666. Wait, isn't that the symbolic number of the Beast? *See update at end of article.

All the online forums, Facebook groups, and informal chats with author colleagues say, "Shake it off," and "Do not engage with the negative reviewer." Or "Anyone can see that the troll is demented, so ignore it." This was posted in a Kindle authors' forum in 2013:

"Everyone's experience seems to be that it's very hard, if not impossible, to get rid of a bad review. You know the drill, grin and bear it. Unless the person's "review" of the book is along the lines of, "When I ordered this toaster I expected..." Amazon is not sympathetic."

When they've responded to reviews or comments, I've seen authors so badly thrashed, not only by potential readers and buyers, but by their fellow authors, that I suppose the only remedy would be to change their byline and book titles and reboot their career. I'm not saying the author's engagement in flame-throwing should be defended. Some have dug their professional graves in the bottom of a nuclear missile silo! There are forums and discussion groups that exist to follow author-versus-reviewer firefights, and an otherwise-obscure rant/review would then be viewed by tens of thousands of people in Amazon, Goodreads, Yahoo, Facebook, and private forums.

On the other hand, by authors ignoring a review that is obviously "crazy" or libelous, there are principles that never get addressed, and therefore never changed:
1. the initial "review" may have violated Amazon's review guidelines multiple times,
2. it may be a personal attack on the author and not the book,
3. the "review" may be libelous, and
4. the one-star rating brings down the ratings average significantly if the book is not a bestseller.

Amazon gives remedies for negative customer reviews.

Was this review helpful to you? (yes) (no)
This button determines relevance of a review. A yes vote moves the most helpful reviews toward the top, but if a review receives a no, you'll see it drop in the rankings. For instance, 11 of 11 people thought the review spoke about the book's strengths and weaknesses, and it floats up; but if 0 of 11 people agreed with the review, it sinks to the bottom.  A personal rant will probably receive zero "helpful" votes.

Report Abuse
Amazon provides a feedback button to reviews called "Report Abuse." Despite all the button-pushing, Amazon doesn't respond, and it doesn't remove the review. A Google search reveals that this has been a policy for years. Some authors say that it's based on an algorithm, or the number of reports it receives, but Amazon gives no information or policy about that button, so authors and readers alike wonder why it's there at all. Maybe to soothe ruffled feathers until we forget about the issues, or to make us think we've made a difference when we haven't. There is a tiny field for you to write why you are reporting the abuse, but the amount of characters it accepts is unknown.

Multiple Amazon customers report abuse and Amazon doesn't respond. Well, that's just great. It shows how Amazon values its authors, the very people who made Amazon the giant it is today. Amazon steps all over the authors and crushes them to dust, considering our products as loss leaders, while they rake in billions on electronics sales.

Comment on the review
Anyone may comment on a review, but if you're the author, you had better resist that button--your professional reputation depends on your resistance. Agents, publishers, and other authors will discuss this in great detail both in public and in passworded forums, and laugh. And you'll never get a book deal, or have any hope of working with them on future projects. Leave the comment button to readers. Do not engage. Touch that comment button, and You. Are. Toast.

But you can ask readers or reviewers, in behind-the-scenes messages, to write their own comments on the bad review. It's best not to get defensive or personal ("You're a stupid poopy-head!") but to calmly state why the rant is incorrect and show that the ranter had obviously not read the book, but is making a personal attack on the author. I'm very grateful that people who had previously written five-star reviews took the time to respond to the ranter.

Customer review guidelines
Amazon tells the reviewers that their posts may be removed if they violate Customer Review Guidelines. But they won't remove reviews at the request of other readers/reviewers, or the book author. Amazon writes, "We can only discuss specific Customer Review removals with the person who originally posted the review." But what if the reviewer won't voluntarily remove their post? They can sit back and cackle at the havoc they've wreaked. Amazon seems to be on their side, not the author's side.

Amazon communities
Your posting in a forum will not help your case. It will attract the attention of other forum participants, especially those in the publishing industry, and have a negative effect on your case. In other chatrooms, they'll call you a cry-baby behind your back. I've seen it done.

Contact Amazon customer service
There is a way to email Amazon about an abusive review, but it's not readily apparent. It's rather well-hidden, actually. This link worked as of July 2015:

The link allows you to email their customer service department and get an automated reply (not within the 12 hours they say), as follows:

Thanks for bringing these reviews to our attention. We'll read each of the reviews and remove any that violate our guidelines. Any reviews we find outside our guidelines will be removed within 48 hours.
If you'd like it for reference, here is a link to our participation guidelines:
http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines [This link has no email option.]
I hope this helps. We look forward to seeing you again soon. 
Another response from Amazon said,

We try to encourage our customers to give their honest opinions on our products while staying within our guidelines. As a retailer we are interested in cultivating a diversity of opinion on our products. Part of that is allowing our customers to air their honest thoughts on items they have received. Here's a link to our guidelines for reference:
We appreciate your understanding. We hope to see you again soon. 
Well, we can read guidelines, and have done so numerous times, but Amazon customer service agents plainly do not recognize their own guidelines being quoted back at them. 

Dictionary.com defines libel in this way:
1. Law.
A. defamation by written or printed words, pictures, or in any form other than by spoken words or gestures.
B. the act or crime of publishing it.
C. a formal written declaration or statement, as one containing the allegations of a plaintiff or the grounds of a charge.
2. anything that is defamatory or that maliciously or damagingly misrepresents.
Simply giving a negative review, even if it's nasty, is not libel. The reviewer may disagree with the points the author has made in the book. They may hate the content or the title, or the writing style. They may comment that the book was not well researched, fact-checked, proofread or copy edited. They may not have detected a plot or character development. They may write that the technical information is flawed or that the book is boring and not to their taste.

However, if the reviewer maligns the author on a personal level unrelated to the book, that would fall within the libel definition. Some authors don't care--but others do. For example, a writer of inspiration or religious history has to maintain credibility in their field, but if a troll calls them an atheist or anti-religionist and hasn't purchased or read the book (or even the product description), that's an unsupported, personal attack with professional ramifications.  
"A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold." Proverbs 22:1
If a "review" is libelous, Amazon cannot be a party to the libel, and must remove the review. And authors must hold them to this. It may be tilting at windmills, but do it anyway, even if only for your own integrity.

What to say in your email to Amazon
     1. Give the permalink of the rant/review. 
     2. List Amazon's own criteria for posting and removing customer reviews. Was it a personal attack on the author? Was it spiteful or malicious? Did the rant have anything to do with the product or book they're reviewing? Was the rant copied and pasted on your other books or products? Was it libel? 
     3. Demand (politely, of course) that Amazon provide protection and support to authors, particularly if they're published under an Amazon imprint. Malicious behavior by non-customers, and personal attacks, should not be allowed to remain in the product pages where Amazon has a commercial interest. This is not about "freedom of the press" or "freedom of speech" if it violates Amazon's terms.
     4.  Insist and keep on insisting that Amazon remove the offending review(s). Don't "shake it off" if Amazon falls down on the job. If the bogus review was libelous, then move up the customer service ladder to the legal department.

It should be important enough to defend your own byline, professional reputation, or personal name. But your action can also help other authors. Do it for them, too. We should demand a clear policy for reporting violations and reporting abuse. Amazon does not make transparent what to do or to whom we're reporting. Without feedback, we don't know if it's a server or a human being.

If you're the victim of a troll, remember that you have been warned: DO NOT ENGAGE WITH A TROLL. Instead, if you can cite the violations, deal with Amazon behind the scenes using their guidelines and their email system. Ask readers to write their own reviews and make comments. Do not get into the fray. It's suicide. It shouldn't be, but it is. 


My batting average has improved to 1.000. A rant that Amazon previously refused to remove vanished one day in September. The "reviewer" left her related negative rants on another author's pages, so I'm sure it was not her decision to remove the review (that kind of troll is never wrong and will not self-correct or apologize). It must have been an Amazon customer service action, going through my behind-the-scenes emails with them.

Related article on Gizmodo Australia, dated 4 July, 2015, "Amazon's Review Policy Is Creepy And Bad For Authors." Amazon has ways of knowing who you know: family members, colleagues, co-workers, friends, social media contacts. That is creepy. 
Article on Verve.com Why Amazon "customer service" reps are not in the mood to "serve" the customer.