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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Said I heard it through the Amazon VINE™

4051776108 dede146518 m Said I heard it through the Amazon VINE™

Where does your average everyday consumer go to find reviews of children’s book? I would love to say they go to their local library and check out their professional reviewing mags, but this is unlikely at best, downright deluded at worst. No no, many folks out there go to one of two places for reviews. They either Google the book’s name and the word "review" or they go to Amazon.com.  With its anyone-can-review promise, Amazon reviews vary from the fine to the bizarre, often right after one another. Recently someone speculated to me that with the proliferation of online review sites (LibraryThing, Goodreads, etc.) Amazon has had to step it up a notch and do something to encourage people to write more reviews. The answer?

Meet the Amazon VINE™ program! Your average VINE™ reviewer is eligible for around four titles a month*, most of them unpublished. Folks compete to get the chance to review one item or another without the promise of necessarily getting to keep said item. Amazon reserves the right to ask for their items back, though this rarely happens. And for the average joe who doesn’t get galleys, it may sound like fun.

I’ve been regarding the Vine program with a wary eye until now. Over the years I have managed to write enough reviews and garner enough votes deeming me to be "helpful" to become Amazon reviewer #32 (classic status #37) and until now my reviews have enjoyed a kind of highlighted status on Amazon pages.  The better ranked a reviewer you are, the more prominent your reviews.  Interestingly, now that this Vine program has taken effect, my reviews have been shuffled off to the side while their reviews get the coveted slots instead. You see, the layout of an average Amazon page places those reviews deemed most helpful in the center, full text.  New reviews after that are shortened and put along the side of the page.  That’s where reviewers like myself are now ending up.  Even that wouldn’t be so bad, were it not for the fact that Vine reviewers see things beforehand and have a chance to often fill up the middle portions before anyone else has a chance to post their own thoughts.  Top reviewers are shuffled to the side, but really good average joe reviewers are even less conspicuous.

Ho ho, you say!  How quickly the receiver of ARCs becomes Little Miss Complainy Head.  Wah wah, I don’t get all my reviews front and center.  Wah wah, other people are getting galleys too.  Well, I hear ya.  And there are things to respect about the program.  Amazon doesn’t encourage its reviewers to be positive at all times.  I have seen concerns raised in various quarters about the sheer amount of positive reviews given to Vine products.  That doesn’t concern me, though, because my problems with Vine are almost the opposite.  As one reader wrote to me, "these Vine reviewers are basically paid Amazon employees.  And they are kind of mean and not particularly qualified, and feel like it is their job to snipe at whatever they get.  This is not reviewing."

You see, on the children’s literature side of things, the people submitting reviews are often getting products for kids that require a subtle hand.  And when they find that the book they’re reading isn’t Goodnight Moon Redux, they can get negative.  Not critically constructive.  Not helpful in their feedback about what does and does not work.  Just mad.

The Vine reviewers are sometimes not the best representative readers for books that are a little different.  For example, have you happened to notice that Mac Barnett and Adam Rex’s Guess Again! got the strangest possible reviews thanks to Vine?  Worse still, the fate of Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi’s charming if downright bizarre Meno.  Both of these are subversive little titles that upset standard storytime conventions.  Guess Again! is the straight picture book equivalent of a fractured fairytale, upsetting a reader’s expectations, making it hee-larious to kids around the 5-8 year-old age range.  But the Vine program sent the books out to folks with small children who were then shocked SHOCKED when they discovered it wasn’t for their tiniest of tiny tots.  That would be fine, but then they felt obligated to leave tepid reviews in spite of the fact that they knew perfectly well that their kids weren’t the intended audience.  Meno has fared far worse, with folks not getting the book in the least.  What’s worse, there are about 19 reviews for that title, and as of this post all of them from Vine reviewers.  Angry Vine reviewers who are appalled by the tiny bits of farting in the book.  Sacrebleu!  Note too that the Meno sequel hasn’t a single review to its name yet.  Not a part of the Vine program, its reviewers will have to be boring old average everyday citizens rather than their livid Vine compatriots.

4051031985 d4561a5de7 m Said I heard it through the Amazon VINE™ The Vine reviewers, by the way, have their own forum on Amazon where they discuss books.  There is no way of knowing what happened in these two cases, but it certainly has the feel of a pile-on.  Both books, for the record, are Simon & Schuster products.  The Vine program, meanwhile, is, "a program that allows manufacturers and publishers to create ‘buzz’ via reviews that are published on the Amazon.com site and elsewhere. Companies that use this service pay for access."  Ipso facto, companies are sending out their products to this program (and perhaps money to Amazon) so as to get formally whacked upside the head.  That’s the same risk they run sending their books out to any print or blog reviewer, of course.  The difference being that you can rely on a professional reviewer to give insightful commentary and acknowledge a book’s intended audience, and you can determine whether or not a blog reviewer is the kind of person you want looking over your product.  And you don’t even have to pay us.  The Vine folks, by contrast, are not professional reviewers and yet they enjoy a newfound #1 status of sorts.

And you know where this may well lead, right?  Companies, seeing the negative reaction to books with a bit of gut and awesomeness to them will be less inclined to offer the more interesting titles to the program.  By extension, they may also be less willing to publish books that aren’t a 500th retelling of some Guess How Much I Love You? derivation.

That’s a bit Chicken Little-ish of me, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.  I think the Vine program was bound to happen one way or another, sure.  But where it leads and what the consequences are have yet to be determined.  My wary eye remains wary.

You can find an Amazon discussion of the program here.
Kate Messner considers participation in Vine.
And Chasing Ray places everything in fabulous context here.

*The original statement on this blog was that it was "up to two books a month".  This was considered incorrect, so I have amended the original statement.

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Monica Edinger says:

    This post is incredibly helpful as I’d notice those VINE reviews, but even after looking into them a little, didn’t quite get the program. Thanks so much for taking the time to get to the bottom of it and letting us know.

  2. Ms. Yingling says:

    I’ve never really consulted Amazon reviews at all, if it makes you feel any better. You’re right, though, about people just looking for a quick and dirty overview.

  3. Picture Book Party says:

    How many choices do they have when they compete for the products to review? It sounds like they are probably getting books that aren’t ones they would choose to read on their own, without the program. Average Joe reviewers are often writing reviews because it’s a book that they (or their kids) like, in a category they like. Or if they don’t like it, they at least seem care. That makes credible, even if they are not as sophisticated as professional reviewers. Thanks for this interesting post.

  4. Fuse #8 says:

    That was my impression too. They’re only offered the books that certain publishers have paid (monetarily or otherwise, it’s unclear) to make available to them. With such few choices, they’re bound to get cranky, to the detriment of the authors.

  5. Chrisin NY says:

    What a shame- however maybe some of the word of mouth “venues” can counteract this. Hand selling in bookstores and libraries reading the more sophisticated sites for children’s reviews? Let’s hope so.

  6. martha bee says:

    I used to review family movies for a major entertainment site, and regularly received steamed comments from the angry mob after I wrote that certain movies were only “meh.” I worked hard to develop a POV for reviews that considered whether the story would make sense to its intended audience, how it would resonate with both kids and parents, and whether it had been carefully and thoughtfully made. So many parents were satisfied with “Me and my kid laffed the WHOLE way through.” Very discouraging, unless you’re satisfied with the same jokes in every movie along with other sorts of predictability.

    I don’t think there’s any way of avoiding stuff like the Vine. But I sure wish Amazon would provide some training for reviewers so people at least considered a bigger picture.

  7. Kaethe says:

    I’m another one who hasn’t bothered with Amazon reviews in forever. Thanks up, though, for the flaws in the Vine system.

  8. Margo says:

    I found your discussion of the Amazon Vine program very elitist and unbalanced. I am an MLIS student, and yes, I review books for Amazon Vine. I was thrilled when Amazon invited me to participate in the program (it’s by invitation, when you have posted thoughtful reviews on their site). I’m able to get 4 books a month, which I choose, although from a limited list. Most are ARCS, which many of us don’t otherwise have access to acquiring. I think most VINE reviewers take their reviews seriously, and they provide very useful feedback for people trying to decide whether to purchase a book. Sorry, but most parents do not care a whit about “professional” library reviews of what they are considering purchasing for their kids! True, you should take the reviews with a grain of salt, but I’d say the same for professional reviews; some books librarians love are not always the same ones that the kids love (all you have to do is look at Reader’s Choice awards vs. Newbery or Horn Book to see that).

  9. Deb says:

    You are just jealous you aren’t part of Vine.

  10. Reza says:

    May I just point out that after the Vine Arcs come out in wide release, all their reviews (or most of them)tend to get “bumped” in favor of a bunch of quickies saying, “I loved this book, it rocked!” What goes around comes around.

  11. KMont says:

    I’m a Vine reviewer who used to be in the Top 1000. It was actually pretty normal for me to see my reviews make one of those so-called “coveted” spots on the book’s front page. I’m talking pre-Vine. I don’t review much of anything there now besides Vine stuff, btw, in case that should be important to anyone…

    My Vine reviews never get one of the coveted spots anymore and I could care less, and they’re almost always immediately given unhelpful votes – also, do not care. I used to find the competitive spirit of Amazon’s review system to be fun, but I’ve outgrown that and now just review for me – which is more fun.

    I do admit to liking the ARCs. It’s the only place I get them anymore though unless an author’s book tempts me so much I can’t resist the lure of their ARC. I also unfortunately can’t buy as many books as I want to anymore and borrow from the library now and so the Vine books are fun in this regard. Not going to lie. But I do remain honest in how I review there and I try to be in depth (although I usually go more in-depth with an expanded review on my blog – Amazon after all prefers a certain word count, etc.). All that is in the eye of the beholder though and reviews certainly will not all float everyone’s boat.

    I agree that reviews on Amazon can at times seem bizarre or strange…but Amazon isn’t asking for your preferred professional opinions. They are asking for regular consumer reviews and opinions because that is who they are trying to help.

    Amazon’s system isn’t perfect, neither the regular reviewing program or Vine. They are always trying to improve the site in some form or fashion, though – I suspect they will do so with their review programs as well. Who knows, maybe articles like these that try to think about it all will help? Can’t hurt to talk about it. Even if I don’t agree with everything you’ve written here. ;)

  12. Anon. says:

    This is how Amazon describes the program on their website, and I quote:

    Amazon Vine™ is a program that enables a select group of Amazon customers to post opinions about new and pre-release items to help their fellow customers make educated purchase decisions. Customers are invited to become Amazon Vine™ Voices based on the trust they have earned in the Amazon community for writing accurate and insightful reviews. Amazon provides Amazon Vine™ members with free copies of products that have been submitted to the program by vendors. Amazon does not influence the opinions of Amazon Vine™ members, nor do we modify or edit their reviews.

    So if S&S sends out two quirky arcs…I don’t think you can expect Amazon to somehow have the capability to fine-tune who they go to. In fact, it sounds like the vines participants order off a menu a la carte.

    I actually think free arcs tend to boost the chances of a favorable reviews. Publishers and Amazon relize this…better (and more) reviews = more book sales. Can you imagine if all these vine reviews came back with the admonition–don’t buy this book!

    This pheonemna of free arcs skewing reviews upward has been thoroughly discussed in the book blogging world. Positive reviews garner more and more free arcs to said blogger…and the feedback loop continues.

    By the same token, pressure builds for a reviewer to at least trash something and balance things out. So when a vine reviewer sees four inital bad reviews given by other vine reviewers to some quirky offering, he or she may tend to pile on.

    For myself, since I click into the reviews by star-level, I always get full-width page reviews.

    I start out by reading the 1 and 2-star reviews, seeing why this book failed for this particular revewer. If the book passes the smell test, then I may read the 4 and 5-star reviews.

    Finally, if I see this book ranked as the 900000 bestseller, and at the same time see 15 reviews, all 5-stars, I know these reviewers are all aquaintences of the author.

  13. Fuse #8 says:

    I think Martha has a good point that there isn’t much of any way to avoid this process. My hope would be that the Vine reviewers would have a wider swath to pull from, rather than a select list that often isn’t going to represent the books that they’re looking for. When offered something like the Barrett/Rex books, most reviewers didn’t have a clue what to do with it. That’s the danger.

    I should probably have mentioned that I was offered the chance to be in the Vine program but turned it down since I obviously don’t need the ARCs and I found the program to be confusing in its intent.

    Oh! And I like your system Anon. Taking Amazon reviews into account requires that kind of complex thinking. Would that everyone worked that way.

  14. nw says:

    I thought GUESS AGAIN! was brilliant. Those dumb, dumb, dumb reviews are so discouraging.

  15. JG says:

    If you think a Vine review is somehow lacking the professionalism you expect, why don’t you submit comments to it? As a Vine reviewer I try very hard to offer fair and honest reviews and appreciate it when someone offers a comment – as long as they try to be fair and honest as well.

  16. a teacher says:

    I enjoy using Amazon to read children book reviews and admit that I go there more often than I go anywhere else for book reviews. However I agree with MARGO in that, I don’t see much wrong with the VINE program. It is what it is. As with ANY reviews anywhere, you have to take them with a grain of salt. It’s one person’s opinion and that’s it.

    I get the point FUSE was making, in that the VINE reviews may have other things influencing their reviews, but that can be said about ANY review you read anywhere. Are school librarian reviews or blogger reviews any less partial? Everyone has their thing. Everyone is different. As much as people claim they try to remain impartial, they’re only human. What one kidlit blogger may like and enjoy, isn’t necessarily what the majority of kids will enjoy or parents for that matter.

    I’ve noticed that a lot of VINE reviews on Amazon end up getting bumped thus, evening things out and I agree with MARGO that a lot of people go to Amazon looking for reviews by “everyday folk”, not always or necessarily school library folk.

    Thanks for the very detailed, informative post though FUSE about this program. But really, it just reaffirms what I, and hopefully other people like ANON have already figured out, all reviews should be taken with a grain of salt.

  17. Ricka says:

    I use BN as a source for reviews. It’s quick to type, and tabbed for editorial reviews. I have never heard other people mention this, so maybe I’m missing something? Guess Again! has reviews by SLJ and Kirkus.

  18. Susan T. says:

    Heated Vine talk here! While I agree with you, Fuse, I must say that “Guess Again!” went over like a lead balloon here in my house. Maybe we’re all too long out of preschool. Ah, those were the days of wine and roses–or Organic Apple Juice and tissue-paper carnations…

  19. Jennah says:

    As a Vine reviewer and someone who works with schools and in publishing, I agree with Margo. First of all, most people looking for a book for their kid won’t read into the nuances of it anyway and don’t care about a professional review, they just want to know the basics and what other parents like them thought (and as a big fan of your reviews, Ms. Bird, I do know that also most parents would probably skip over your wonderfully detailed but rather long reviews). And if a librarian loved it but 6 average moms hated it, they’re probably going to go with the opinion of the average mom.

    Second, any reviews are always going to skew things, and of course a lot of reviewers are off base about things, get a lemon, bought something they weren’t informed about, etc – and not just for books. I think that Vine reviews are just as helpful and insightful (or not) as non-Vine reviews. That’s what the (oft-abused by and for Viners and non-Viners alike) ‘helpful’ and’ not helpful’ buttons are for.

    Also, as far as children’s books, it has been widely noticed within the Vine reviewers that Vine just lists a TON of children’s/YA books! They’re almost unavoidable. (Supposedly the list is targeted somewhat, but the YA novels seem to be ubiquitous.) This appears to be a weirdness of the program. But keep in mind also that while reviewers CAN choose 4 things (not all books! Actually, I try to choose NOT books as often as I can so I don’t get behind) per month, they don’t have to. You can choose one or you can choose none if nothing suits your fancy. And frankly, sometimes a “I started reading, but 10 pages in I just could not read any further” review is just as informative as one from someone who reads the whole thing.

    I think your anger may be a bit misplaced here. Amazon reviews are customer reviews, not professional book reviews. I know for my part I try to make the reviews as insightful, thorough, and concise as possible. I also do my part my ‘liking’ reviews that I found helpful, even if I don’t agree with their analysis. I generally look at a couple low, high, and mid-star reviews before buying something, and I must say that I *always* check Amazon reviews on most anything before buying (even if not from Amazon), so I always review things I buy in the hopes of helping others.

  20. Fuse #8 says:

    Re: heated talk – yup! But anytime you speak critically about something that has its own message board, you’re not gonna be too surprised when the folks come on over and have a say.

  21. Kym says:

    If you had ever visited the Vine forums, you’d see a lot of discussion over the fact that so many YA/children’s books are offered. Quite a few people have posted that they don’t feel they are the target audience yet get them offered anyway. I’m one, and I don’t even have kids. But the targeting is not always spot on. That’s not the Viners’ fault.

  22. Fuse #8 says:

    That’s my point! Amazon is failing to hit the correct target audience. However, it’s confounded all the more when negative reviews are written saying, “My kid isn’t the right age for this, therefore it’s not good” as with the Barrett/Rex title. Do Viners feel obligated to review, even if they don’t feel they should have gotten one product or another? If so, that’s a problem.

  23. JG says:

    Heated?!? If you think this is “heated talk” perhaps you librarians need to get out more. If you could see the Vine forum it might wither your whispered tones! In fact, most of us decline to participate there due to a few bullies who’ve ordained themselves the official “Vine Police” – calling to justice any reviewers they deem unfit for the “exalted” status of Vine, or at least their impression of it.

    Seriously though, most “Viners” are very conscientious about their reviews and spend a fair amount of time on them. We’re not compensated for this but do it out of enjoyment (which is perhaps a better yardstick than someone who’s “only doing their job”). And many of us aren’t top-ranked reviewers and won’t get many votes one way or the other on our reviews (Vine or not), so for the most part we’re writing for (and to) ourselves. In fact, that’s why I encourage you to comment on our reviews – we’d love the chance to discuss them. And if someone’s written a poor review they deserve to be called on it.

  24. Steffan Piper says:

    I think this is really the most important part of this article/blog entry:

    “Interestingly, now that this Vine program has taken effect, my reviews have been shuffled off to the side while their reviews get the coveted slots instead. You see, the layout of an average Amazon page places those reviews deemed most helpful in the center, full text. New reviews after that are shortened and put along the side of the page. That’s where reviewers like myself are now ending up.”

    There are things that reviewers hold dear to them regarding their own reviews and this is probably one of the most important.

    I can understand your frustration on this and I do recall a lot of vented frustration on the Amazon Prospero forum boards by many of the top 100 reviewers, who — were not — selected to be apart of Amazon Vine and how vicious their statements were.

    To me, this just comes off as more of the same.

    Point blank:

    1. You write exceptionally good reviews.
    2. Stop getting crabby about losing the spotlight position to mediocre input. Let it go.
    3. Amazon Vine is an interesting program and incredibly simple to become a member. However certain reviewers have been ‘permanently’ blocked from ever receiving an invite, for reasons only known to Amazon.

    And obviously, not all of us are mouth breathers, as we obviously read your blog and other information sources dear to your profession.

    The most influential people in my life have been librarians, let’s keep perspective.

  25. Sarah says:

    Here’s the thing though…I don’t think this is about Fuse wanting the coveted front page position. Betsy’s well known for her wonderfully written and thoughtful reviews. She doesn’t need the “fame” of the front page and I’m sure she knows that.

    It’s obvious from reading some of the VINE reviews that people are reviewing books that aren’t part of the target audience. This isn’t a problem if the reviewer is looking at it from the perspective of the target audience. But, that’s not always the case. You can see that in reviews giving a book one star based on the fact that their two year old didn’t like it, when it was in fact written for an older child.

    Of course, this isn’t just a VINE problem. Lots of people write reviews about a book, not taking into account the target audience. Is there more pressure to do it because you’ve accepted a free book from the VINE program? Perhaps so. And, that would be where our problem lies.

  26. PamNation says:

    I am just really surprised by the lack of accuracy in this post. First of all, Viners are able to get up to 4 books per month which they get to keep–always. Secondly, the Vine has nothing to do with the either your or my reviews dropping out of the spotlight. As has been discussed, ad infinitum, on the various Amazon db’s, the Spotlight Review algorithm is broken. When Amazon introduced the new ranking system they messed with how it was calculated and it’s been broken ever since. (Sorry if you thought it was personal.)

    There are more mistakes but there’s no point in listing them. Suffice it to say that I’m surprised the SLJ would publish something so inaccurate.

  27. Bellatrix says:

    I’m in Vine. People in the program do get pre-releases, often in the form of ARCs, but — as others have pointed out — any push we get from being first soon gets buried when other readers flood in. At least on popular books. On less popular selections, the Vine reviews might be the legitimacy a book needs to get purchased.

    Anyone in Vine can attest that they tend to attract more negative votes than a non-Vine review, and over time can really ding your average. This makes them less likely to be spotlighted. I would advise any new Vine member wanting to move up the ranks to make sure that a good portion of his or her reviews are non-Vine.

    Here is something I have noticed. Often, pubs don’t have a clue how to market an item. The blurb they give us, the one we use to make our selections, is wrong or misleading — and that can damage the ultimate review. The shame here is that the book got in the wrong hands through no fault of the reviewer.

  28. Bellatrix says:

    I forgot to mention, as others have corrected, that we get 4 items a month — occasionally more.

    There are 2 newsletters a month. The first one is meant to be targeted — items that the individual reviewer should really love. The success of matching items to reviewer here is not traditionally great. This is the shorter list.

    The second list comes a week later and is the leftover list. This list is often well over 10 pages, and this is where the real choice happens.

    I think your confusion was that it’s 2 items per newsletter, but 2 newsletters a month.

  29. Beech Grove Librarian says:

    Elizabeth, I am a librarian and also a Vine Reviewer, and I think you are rather full of yourself. You also need to get your facts straight about how we obtain our Vine items before you blog about them.

  30. Fuse #8 says:

    Now now. Getting personal is pointless, and we’ve been doing a very good job of having a nice civilized conversation here.

    Interestingly I did originally write that it was four items, but in my research it was unclear as to whether or not it was four or two. So I wrote “at least two items”, figuring that it was better to shoot too low rather than too high. The “at least” was still accurate but I’ll fix it anyway if it’s an issue. No skin off my teeth.

  31. Bellatrix says:

    You say “getting personal is pointless,” and I appreciate what you’re saying — but to many people it got personal the moment that you opined on the Vine program. I’m sure you can appreciate that.

    I’m not willing to vouch for every one in the program, but the majority of the people treat it like an honor and a responsibility. From the perspective of these people, your comments seem personal, just as a comment about librarians might very well not seem personal to the person espousing that opinion, but quite personal to an librarian.

  32. Bellatrix says:

    “An librarian?” Shoot me now. :)

  33. Fuse #8 says:

    Oh, I don’t mind being criticized. Heck, I knew that would happen when I wrote the post. But I think it’s possible to say that a person is wrong without just lobbing random insults at their head. And most folks here have been doing an excellent job of being critical without being nasty.

    I suppose I should clarify too that my beef ain’t with the reviewers per say but with the program itself. You say potatoes I say po-tah-toes, but it’s a distinction. As the post says, it’s not the reviewers I’m banging on but the way in which the program distributes materials and what that means for something like poor “Meno”.

    As for the coveted little first spots, it’s true that a book can supplant a Vine review. Vine reviews aren’t teflon. But for most children’s books that have been a part of the Vine program, it does look to me that the Vine reviews stay where they are. No study has been done on this, and this is only what I’ve observed. Now it doesn’t apply to the big names that get lots of reviews anyway. And I’m only zeroing in on children’s materials. But eyeballing enough of these, that’s been my impression.

    I wonder, have any professional articles been written about the Vine program, aside from bloggers like myself? Because I searched and searched and couldn’t find a one. It would be nice to hear from a disinterested party on this. I’m just a blogger on SLJ, after all. This was not an article in SLJ proper.

  34. Emma Beth (hs'ing mom of 4) says:

    Elizabeth… Fuse#8. Please. Not all reviews are for all people. Some of us think that ‘this book wasn’t right for my 7 year-old is helpful’. It might not be enough to make me buy, but that’s where Amazon rocks. It has bunches of reviews to scan and I generally chose some 5/4 stars and then read the 2-stars.

    And really, these days most of we moms and dads don’t have time for reviews that go on-and-on-and-on paragraph after paragraph. I’m sure others enjoy your reviews but with four children which I’m schooling I generally have to skip to the short ones.

    I’m quite familiar with Amazon’s kid section, by the way, and I have reviewers that I follow. And inevitably they are people who write short, succinct, reviews– moms and dads like me… not specialists. (Which isn’t to say that others who have more time don’t adore long reviews.)

    Finally, thanks to your link, I looked at 50 of your reviews and only 3 were less than 4-Stars. Rather amazing. We certainly couldn’t claim to love 47 of the last 50 books we’ve read.

    Regards!

  35. your neighborhood librarian says:

    Well, dear, now I know what I’m reviewing next – Guess Again and Meno!
    :paula

  36. Pumpkin says:

    It sounds like sour grapes to me. I didn’t see any valid arguments against Vine.

    1. Vine reviewers are not paid or in any way Amazon employees.

    2. The last newsletter sent out had over 200 books to choose from, most of them still available. There is plenty to pick from. The “targeted” newsletter has less, but everyone knows they can wait until the next newsletter to have broader choices.

    3. Poorly written, biased reviews can be written by ANYONE, they don’t have to be a Vine member. I’ve seen it for years before Vine was even started. The more significant problem is the initial glowing reviews by family and friends that skew the stars.

    4. For the most part, I have found Vine reviews to be thoughtful. There area always going to be people “unqualified” to write a review and the average person reading the reviews can figure out the validity of such a review pretty quickly.

    I respect your opinions, but I don’t believe this is a serious problem and I felt your article was very skewed towards painting the Vine program to be a huge issue when it isn’t.

  37. Colleen Mondor says:

    Something stood out for me on this that I don’t think has been addressed. There was a comment up above that stated “Amazon reviews are customer reviews, not professional book reviews.”

    That only works if they are from folks who bought the book. If you received an ARC then you are not a customer but a reviewer and if you’re going to be a reviewer than you darn well ought to consider yourself a professional. Which leads me to my second question – does everybody who goes to Amazon to buy a book realize that VINE reviewers are professional reviewers? I know you can click on the “what’s this” bit to learn more about Amazon VINE but are we going to assume that everyone does this? Really? I don’t think so. Heck I just built a wishlist for my son and I didn’t check once on that VINE link. I think everyone looks at the number of stars, reads the first couple of reviews and that’s it.

    The problem for me in this is that Amazon is now in the book selling business and the selective book promotion (be it positive or neg) business. It’s another step in a gradual move (which now includes the price war with Walmart) towards further control of product and message. Before, anyone could review and anyone could get listed as one of the top reviews on a book’s page. Now Amazon reviewers, reviewing books selected by Amazon, through payment (I assume) from select publishers, will have their reviews front and center.

    And the reviewers all answer to….Amazon.

    I’m sure everyone is sincere when they say that no one controls their opinions but the end result is the same. Take a step back and look at it. The largest online retailer has now found a way to exert further control over what we buy. And if the VINErs collectively don’t “get” a book – because it’s a little kid book or whatever – then the author suffers.

    I’d like to know why this program was even necessary in the first place other than to influence the customer. It seems like yet another attempt by publishers to cope with the reduced number of print reviews and by Amazon to fill that void and exert more control on the industry.

    And no, I’m not happy about it.

  38. Pumpkin says:

    I just checked the last newsletter. Approximately 265 titles to choose from (give or take a few) and still 200 titles available, with quantities of 1-10+ left per title.

    With that list, there is something for everyone so no one is being forced to review a children’s book.

    If anything, maybe publishers need to have the “search inside” function enabled before it goes to Vine so the reviewer isn’t picking a book simply based upon the publishers description.

    I wrote a bad review (non-Vine) for a children’s book because I didn’t like some aspects and felt it was scary subject matter for preschoolers. What makes my opinion or your opinion less valid? I think they are all valid and the more reviews the better.

  39. Pumpkin says:

    In summary, this is just a personal opinion of the Vine program, given by Elizabeth Bird, primarily because her reviews are no longer front and center.

  40. Bellatrix says:

    The Vine Program exists because reviews sell products. Even negative reviews to some extent, because people feel more comfortable taking the leap when they see there are other people who’ve went before them. Even with the chance of a product getting dinged, pubs are willing to take the chance just to get some comments and reviews.

    A small portion of people who read a book will ever review it — not just on Amazon, but anywhere. They feel their opinion doesn’t matter or that they’re “just a reader,” and somehow that means they don’t have the right.

    That’s not the fault nor the responsibility of the people who are reviewing and commenting. Each person is sharing their opinion and the more opinions the better

  41. Steffan Piper says:

    From what I saw this morning, of my own reviews, I’ve given more 1 and 2 star reviews — across the board — on the products that I’ve received from Amazon Vine than I have in my regular reviewing. Some of these products I’ve called for riots in the streets they were so bad and egregiously marketed, but yet … I’m still in Vine and no one has kicked me out or ever ‘warned’ me that I should tone it down.

    I don’t think I would be able to enjoy that freedom if I wrote for a newspaper, a journal or a print magazine.

    I think Amazon Vine does have a place within the reviewing world. But is it a surprise that these newer voices are slowly pushing out the reviewing voices from the old guard in the older mediums I previously mentioned? Not to me. I’ve been doing this for well over a decade and saw it coming years ago.

    And to answer … I don’t think anything scholarly has been written regarding Amazon Reviews and/or Amazon Vine.

  42. pris says:

    I think the misinformation in the bloggers first post has been cleared. I find the Amazon reviews often surpass those of professional reviewers. The fact that fuse/elizabeth does not find her reviews in a spotlight has nothing to do with the Vine program. The algorithim was changed by Amazon to assist new reviewers to find a place in the review process. The Vine program was initiated by amazon to thank the amazon reviewers with free products to review. I have noted that many of the books I have recieved from Vine are from top authors and are top candidates in the top ten best sellers.
    The Vine program has expanded because of the quality of the reviews. Interesting the perceptions of those who know not what they speak.

  43. Mindy says:

    Wow. I’m one of those Viners who rated Meno badly. I guess you can’t account for taste. I like quirky books too and I wasn’t offended by the farting, but this book was not good.

    I used to be a librarian AND an elementary school teacher so I feel like I’ve been exposed to a variety of children’s lit. I was in no way expecting “Good Night Moon.”

    And no, I’m not a professional reviewer, just a mom giving her honest opinion. I was hoping my review would help other moms like me.

  44. Shevi says:

    I’m a Vine reviewer and also a children’s book writer. While I haven’t published a children’s book yet, I have published many reviews of plays, TV shows, and numerous products as a former newspaper arts-and-entertainment writer and a consumer columnist in Israel for the Jerusalem Post.

    I think you have some valid points about Amazon Vine, but your article also includes a few misconceptions. As you stated correctly, Vine reviewers are chosen based on the helpfulness of the reviews they’ve previously written for Amazon. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are eventually asked to join the program in light of your many helpful reviews. Amazon tailors the list of products offered for review for each Vine member. For example, someone who buys and reviews many children’s books will be offered children’s books. Someone who buys and reviews video cameras will be offered video cameras. Guess which Amazon runs out of first? Also, Vine reviewers can only receive two items from any given newsletter (there’s one targeted and one general newsletter a month, the general one including only items that were leftover from the targeted one), and Vine reviewers have to review 3/4 of the items they receive.

    What this means is that the Vine reviewers who request children’s books really enjoy children’s books. They have to. They aren’t paid reviewers. No one would go through the trouble of choosing a book they didn’t expect to like over something else they might like and then having to take an hour to write a review for it for nothing more than the book itself. Vine reviewers don’t choose products just to razz them. Why would they do that? Any choice they make comes at a price. No, it’s not a monetary price, but it would be the cost of choosing something they don’t want over something they do and then having to spend an hour writing a review. In addition, choosing something a Vine reviewer doesn’t like will make it more likely for that review to be offered things he or she doesn’t like and less likely to be offered the things he or she does like in future targeted newsletters. In other words, for every children’s book a person chooses, he or she is less likely to be offered that video camera.

    While some Vine reviewers may complain more than others, every one that picks a book picks that book because he or she hopes to enjoy it. In this way, Vine reviewers are no different from other Amazon customers.

    Professional reviewers may like a book the general public doesn’t like. That’s happened often enough. The general public may love a book the professional reviewers don’t like. That, too, happens often enough. I’m guessing, for example, that the Twilight series didn’t get many great professional reviews, but it still sold like crazy. This doesn’t mean the professional reviewers are wrong or that the general public is wrong. It just means they’re different. And this is why so many people would rather ask their friends, family and neighbors what they thought about this book or that movie, rather than check the professional reviews. This is what Vine is meant to offer: advice from the guy or gal next door, not a professional review.

    Anyway, I hope you’ll feel free to contact me if you have any questions about Amazon Vine. You can find me on Facebook.

    Shevi

  45. Fuse #8 says:

    Invigorating!

    Yes, I do believe we’ve had a nice representative swath of both sides of the issue here. Some final notes to close out the discussion then.

    First off, when I wrote the piece I found I was in a damned if I do, damned if I don’t position. I’m a reviewer on Amazon, so do I hide that fact when I write this or do I make note of it? If I don’t mention it then there’s a transparency issue at work. Clearly I can’t be a disinterested party if I review for the same site I’m critiquing. On the flipside of the issue, if I mention I’m a reviewer then people would interpret my sole motivation for writing this piece as avarice and envy of the coveted first reviews. I like having a top review on a piece, sure. But I’ve my blog and Goodreads, where I also post those same reviews, so it doesn’t weigh too heavily on my mind. More than anything else I just wanted to cast some light on this program and why it is that Amazon started it. I still don’t think I’ve gotten an answer to that, but hopefully this discussion with cause some ripples in the blogosphere and someone will check it out for me.

    So! The joy of having a blog is that you can moderate the comments. I haven’t had to delete a single one for obscenity (a tip o’ the hat to my sweet little Spam filter) but I have had to monitor it pretty closely today, and that’s exhausting. Feel free to keep commenting, but I’ll probably eschew posting any more unless I see a particularly interesting or salient point.

  46. Anon. says:

    Arguing about the number of Vine books a month, 2 or 4, is trivial. Also making the argument that receiving an ARC or book for free rather than paying for it makes you a professional reviewer is ludicrous. What if I buy the book for 40%-off the sticker…am I a 40% professional reviewer? I can now buy the $35 bestsellers for $10. I guess I’m getting more and more professional all the time.

    The other issue of fine-tuning what books go to what reviewers is also a non-starter…impossible to implement. And with the Amazon reviews being an open forum, there will always be many weighing in, from the first-time novice reviewer to the triple-laminated 10,000 plus reviewer.

    The only remaining issue that CAN be addressed is the dispensing and receiving of…love and respect. And this issue of love and respect has wider implications.

    In the recent past there has been some controversy in the Kid Litosphere space.

    For instance, I believe there was a BEA or SBCWI kid lit blogging forum where the selection of the panel members came under some scrutiny leading to a whole blow-up of old bloggers vs. new bloggers.

    Then there was the Blogger Appreciation Week where certain segments of the blogging community (many of them–the volunteers of the event itself) who seemed to garner all the awards.

    But these were still all out in a public forum–where everyone could see.

    I realize kid-lit blogging and Amazon reviewing are two entirely different things, but I believe the same principles of openness apply.

    From some of the previous comments, I gather that there is a Vine’s Forum (message board)? Is this something limited to the Vine members or can the general public weigh in?

    Apart from the paid book review magazines and services, I don’t like the idea of privacy or exclusivity when it comes to this kind of thing–book reviewing…

    Any secrecy just smells bad…

    JG who is apparently a Vine member, commented, and I quote:
    If you could see the Vine forum it might wither your whispered tones! In fact, most of us decline to participate there due to a few bullies who’ve ordained themselves the official “Vine Police” – calling to justice any reviewers they deem unfit for the “exalted” status of Vine, or at least their impression of it.

    That is not good!!!

    The crux of the matter is egos…bruised egos. For Amazon reviewers(also more generally bloggers), those who have been doing this for a long time naturally want a little recognition for their year in/year out efforts. And for those who have come to the party late…they don’t want to be dissed out-of-hand. Finally, Amazon and the publishers want to attract Vine reviewers (and hopefully boost sales) by giving them a little extra incentive and recognition.

    So we’re presented with a classic Catch-22.

    As I said previously, I use the Amazon reviews by pulling up the lists by star-rating…so everything is complete reviews a full-page wide. In fact I don’t know why Amazon populates the right-hand column with review snippets that are so spare as to be totally worthless!

    So here’s a solution for Amazon:
    Loose the right-column review snippets.
    By default show wide-column, full-reviews. And by default, order them in the way you, Amazon, want…bubble Vines to the top…whatever.

    But also offer a dropdown selection that says–Sort Top Reviewers to Top.

    You would follow the same principle when you pull up reveiws by star-level…give us a sorting option!

    For Christ’s sakes Amazon–these top 1000 people have given you thousands of reviews over the years–CUT THEM SOME SLACK!!!

    I for one like more choices–not less…

    PS. For those few bullies over on the Vines Forum, if they’re such good writers–they should shut their cakeholes–and write a bestseller!!!

  47. Steffan Piper says:

    What I found interesting in this article was the immediate drop off of positive comments after several Vine members began posting their concerns. I wonder how many more positives this would have netted had it been up for another 24 hours without being noticed.

    This has the same ‘tone’ of problem that exists on Amazon with what is known as ‘Voting Circles’ — a practice that very much frowned on by Amazon (as well as a few others) where other reviewers show up to vote and/or comment on a person’s review whenever they post to artificially inflate activity which affects ranking and skews the current algorithm.

    There’s nothing wrong with fans or a following, but I think most reviewers know better than to encourage it offline or let it build.

  48. Jen says:

    “Ho ho, you say! How quickly the receiver of ARCs becomes Little Miss Complainy Head. Wah wah, I don’t get all my reviews front and center. Wah wah, other people are getting galleys too. Well, I hear ya.”

    Well, yes. That’s it, exactly. You know gosh darn well you’re going to sound like you have a head swelled the size of Alaska by bragging/bemoaning about your top Amazon ranking. But you do it anyway!

    You pride yourself on your “professional” reviews, but Elizabeth, it’s clear that you’ve reinvented what that term means. Compare any review written for SLJ with one of your reviews for Amazon.

    Your reviews are bloated, and they don’t need to be. Generally, they start out with a sentence declaring your extreme doubt of the worthiness of a particular book. Plenty of breaking the fourth wall, and addressing the reader directly. Followed by a many paragraphs long description of the particulars, ending with a thumbs-up.

    I would expect a “professional” review to use succinct, SAT-level vocabulary, and yes, to be a bit drier and more academic than your loveably zany reviews. If you’re honest with yourself, you know that phrases like, “Miss Complainy Head” don’t make the print pages of SLJ.

    Be careful, Betsy. You’ve felt the heady thrill of rising page rank… I’m sure Harriet Klausner felt that way too, just before she sold out. That way madness lies!

  49. Kathleen says:

    I am a member of the Vine program. I have a BA in English. I have children and I work as a “Children’s Specialist” in a local bookstore (where I hand sell many adult novels, history books, bio’s and kids and YA fiction as well). My reviews for Vine (and I also post reviews that are non-Vine as well) are written honestly and after I have read the book in its entirety. I read a lot of books, visit the library often and consider book reading to pretty much be my life, so I was thrilled when I was invited to join the Vine program.

    No parent can know what is appropriate for their child to read unless they pick up the book themselves–and I always caution parents at the bookstore–while I may recommend something, they may not “dig it” for their child. We have many parents that are completely anti-Harry Potter, supernatural, etc. I understand that. But I think the power of Vine is being overestimated here! negative reviews for books like Meno are simply someone’s opinion and awe all have them. Vine or not! Curiously, I just had my hands on those two Meno books yesterday, and wonder if I should browse them to makes sure I don’t sell them to some poor unsuspecting parent who doesn’t read them before purchasing them and gives them to the absolutely wrong child. Sometimes you can just tell!

  50. Anon. says:

    What I don’t like about Vine — as I understand it — is that it gives the publisher to push certain titles more than they already do. And these are the titles they imagine are most likely to be hits. It’s all strength to strength, whereas a nice thing about not having those Vine reviews is the idea that good books would gradually, all on their own, gather attention and reviews — that the cream would rise to the top. Still possible, sure, but this makes it a little harder.

  51. Anon. says:

    I snooped around Amazon to see if a regular smuck like me can at least get into the Vines Forum in a READ-ONLY capacity…

    I do have an Amazon account and password…but…no joy…….

    Wonder what’s the big secret???

  52. Bellatrix says:

    As was pointed out upthread, the second news letter of the month is often well over 10 pages — and the books change in great part each month. Most of the choices are not likely going to be hits, but usually are mid-list selections with a couple blockbusters in the mix. In short, if every book they offered was likely to be a hit, if even half or a quarter, were going to be huge, the publishing industry would probably be in much better shape.

    These are quite often really good books, but they’ll be lucky to be modestly sucessful. If I listed the books I’ve reviewed in the program, only a few would ring a bell with even regular readers and yet I feel almost all of them would be enjoyed by the right audience.

    In short, these ARE good books that the Vine program helps to gather some attention and some reviews.

    The really blockbuster stuff, while not unheard of in the program, doesn’t actually need to be a Vine selection because they’ll be bestsellers in pre-orders and will get tons of non-Vine reviews.

    In short, Anon, I think the program does the exact opposite for more obscure books than you think it does. It would be nice if the cream did rise to the top automatically, but that doesn’t always happen, and this program can make it better.

  53. Anonymous Author says:

    To correct Anon. above, regarding publishers pushing certain titles: I was a debut author with a major publisher and received many, many Vine reviews at the start of this program. The publisher clearly hoped this would help launch me from total obscurity.

    Unfortunately despite many glowing Vine reviews that did not work as well as hoped. I think the power of these kind of endorsements is grossly overstated. It is still very difficult to break out without the support of established outlets and the interest of media and prize committees, something I was personally not lucky enough to obtain. These channels, and/or a helluva lot of copies on shelves, are the things that secure consumer interest.

  54. LL says:

    I went and read the reviews for “Meno,” just out of curiosity.

    It seemed to me that Viners commented on several different aspects of the book: such as the ungrammatical dialogue, not just on the farting.

    In fact, two reviewers recommended alternate kids’ books that feature gas passing, a sign that that’s not why they panned the book. Or at least not the major reason.

  55. Susan Thomsen says:

    To the commenter slinging mud at Fuse# 8, I think you can make your points without the personal attacks. This is a really interesting conversation, and personal attacks detract from civil discourse.

    Part of the point here concerns Amazon’s manipulation of reviews and content that it receives for free, as well as publishers’ decisions about what gets promoted. As people who like to read and write about books, we all benefit from thinking and talking about these sorts of issues.

  56. DJKA says:

    I want to set the speculation to rest regarding the private Vine Forum — the discussions there are things like “I couldn’t get into the list today” or “what did you guys get?” or “I think someone’s selling their Vine stuff on eBay.” It’s not a bunch of conspiratorial threads supporting or attacking specific products.

    I am a Vine member and I’ve reviewed a number of children’s books (some positively and some negatively), but I only select books that are age-appropriate for my child. There is a TON of YA material offered in Vine, which I assume is simply because publishers are pushing those books — most likely that’s where the money is.

  57. Lenore says:

    VINE reviewers have absolutely no obligation to pick any of the books on their list if they don’t think they’d like them.

    I was recently invited to join VINE, and I did. But I am very careful about what I choose and I regularly choose nothing rather than take something I’m meh about.

  58. Jen Robinson says:

    Fascinating discussion about this program, Betsy and commenters. I tried out the Vine program last year, but I only reviewed 1 or 2 titles and then dropped it. I didn’t like the strings attached – you can only get more books if you review x number of the ones you have. I get that those strings are necessary to the program (otherwise you’d have people just in it for the free books), but they didn’t work for me.

    Anyway, I agree with Susan T’s point that this sort of discussion (when kept civil) benefits us all.

  59. jojoleb says:

    I have been a Vine reviewer for just over a year. You are quite correct that Vine members get a ‘jump’ on most products and books that they review. You are also correct about the fact that we are by and in large not professional reviewers.

    I do not believe, however, that the Vine status of a book gives a review top billing. The top billing comes from the number of votes. A review of a product that is written before that product is released will have a greater chance of top billing at the get go, this does not mean that that review will stay in position number one or garner the lions share of the votes. The unfair advantage is that Vine reviews are posted before anyone else has a chance to write one. But there are plenty of books and other products where Vine reviews are present but are not occupying the number one spot. Top reviewers are only shuffled to the side if they don’t garner as many ‘helpful’ votes as any other review. There doesn’t seem to be preferential treatment for Vine reviewers in this respect.

    Amazon does not randomly promote products. Book companies actually pay Amazon to have their products reviewed in the Vine program. This ensures that there will be reviews on board when a product is released and may increase the buzz about a product. So Vine listing is not a random event—it is part of a company’s marketing strategy for a product. Whether this strategy is a good idea or not is up to the publisher or publicist.

    I can only speak for myself—Vine is not a vast conspiracy—but when I get a book I try to review it thoroughly, seriously, and honestly. This may not be true for all Vine members (it is certainly not true about all Amazon reviewers). I would hope, however, that most reviewers (Vine or not) would take the writing of a review as a serious obligation.

    Oddly, the temptation here is too inflate star ratings, not lower them. Vine members are getting the product free—it’s hard to be disappointed that you paid too much and got too little from a product. And there seems to be a lot of jockeying for position and competition amongst Vine members, and the common perception in the Vine forum is that a positive review garners more positive feedback from readers than a negative review. Also, readers tend to choose things from a targeted list of items that Amazon thinks they will like. Moreover, most people pick books that they would like to read and review. This almost ensures higher star ratings for Vine reviewers. My guess is that this is usually what happens.

    This actually may be why companies pay to have their products distributed to Vine members. They have a dedicated and happy audience who will most likely write a positive review. Clearly, this backfires on occasion. But in general it holds true. Why else would companies pay a premium to have their items reviewed by Vine reviewers? This is about marketing. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    That being said, I am personally less concerned with my Amazon ranking and I am more concerned with the honesty and quality of my reviews. Once again, I can only speak for myself.

    As to the Vine forum: it’s no ultra secret coven. There is no cartel here—I have never seen people trying to come to a consensus on a star ranking for an items. Most of the talk compares products listed and received on the Vine lists, the rules of the program, and various discussions about what constitutes a good review. The only time I’ve seen products posted by name is when someone has a question about a specific function of a product or trying to find out who was the lucky stiff who logged in on time and got a big tag item.

    Although we get to keep the products, we are not paid by Amazon in any way. Interestingly, there are many offers on the Amazon ‘top reviewers’ forum where top reviewers may receive free books in exchange for a review. A number of the higher ranking reviewers have websites where prospective publishers can submit books for review. Some of these reviewers actually post guidelines for publishers regarding ‘submissions’ and suggest donations to specific charities when a review is posted. So even in the upper echelon of Amazon reviewers, the system isn’t exactly clean.

    I don’t think that Vine is as insidious a force as it has been made out to be. Part of the problem is Amazon’s relative secrecy about the program. This may be the reason that people come up with plausible conspiracy theories. As to how they choose Vine members? I have not a clue. I am thankful that I was chosen, but I know full well that there is nothing specifically special about me that warrant this. Just the luck of the draw I guess.

    That being said, I am not a professional reviewer, but I do the best that I can. Feel free to browse through my reviews and leave comments if you feel that they are warranted. I have kept a ‘no negative’ policy for myself—I only vote for the reviews that I like and leave the negative voting to others. So if you feel I really missed the point, either here or in this review, I am open to your opinion.

  60. FromTheVine says:

    From another viner… I don’t know how or why I was asked to join. Further, I feel no pressure to do anything more than provide honest reviews of the products I receive. Further, that is the same thing I’ve seen from every other member of the Vine program. Finally, the only conspiratorial element is the feeling amongst Vine members that their reviews are automatically marked “unhelpful” by many just because they are tagged as being in the program.

  61. Bellatrix says:

    I see chasingray on Twitter doesn’t feel we are addressing the issues. I’m not sure what hasn’t been addressed, but would be open to knowing.

    Is it the professional thing? I don’t see myself as a professional reviewer. Am I only a professional when critiquing Vine items? Does the amateur hat go back on when it’s non-Vine? I like the program, and receiving ARCS, but I am not beholden to the program for books. I have plenty. There comes a sad day when you realize you have more books than you’ll ever be able to read, even if all you did was read.

    Even though I don’t consider myself a professional reviewer, I do aim to do my best. I also don’t hesitate (usually politely)to share what I don’t like about a book.

    Another issue in Colleen’s post seems to be a belief that people won’t take the time to click the What’s This? link. I don’t know what to say about this. The information is readily available and not a secret, but people do have to have the small bit of curiosity it takes to click on it. Amazon can’t force people to pay attention. Some Vine reviewers have taken to mentioning the details in their reviews — overkill, imo.

    No one is pretending Amazon is doing this out of the goodness of its corporate heart, but the program is helpful to writers (and vendors.)

    I think for most people who don’t review as a hobby, even readers, most books simply don’t get reviewed unless the person loves the book and needs to share. Most readers, in my experience, move on from “meh” books without comment, although their feedback would still be helpful. Even hated books tend to simply not get reviewed by people — other than someone with an ax to grind against the topic in general.

    Vine doesn’t make people review positively, but you do have to review 75% of your items — which actually leads toward honesty. Now people who think a book was so-so, or flawed, have an incentive to share that opinion, which seems like consumer protection.

    The more reviews, particularly of the more modest books, gives people the information to feel confident in making a purchase. Even negative reviews, if done well, can sell books when the reviewers issues are the preferences of the person reading the review.

    Anyhow, what issues have not been addressed?

  62. Ducatisti says:

    It is so easy to wish for what you don’t have, especially when it involves getting something for nothing.

    As a Vine member, I’ll admit that receiving free items is terrific, and I have truly enjoyed my time in the program. Membership does have its disadvantages, however, the major one occurs when you receive a book which is so awful you can hardly make yourself finish it. If it weren’t a Vine item, I’d happily set it down and never think of it again (and probably NOT review it on Amazon), but as I feel obligated to finish it and write a review, the results aren’t pretty.

    Because of this, in my case, reviews for Vine products are typically more brutally honest than they are for items I’ve paid for.

    My reviews aren’t professional? Of course not! Books always have professional reviews available in the Amazon Detailed Information section. User reviews aren’t supposed to be professional, but written from the layman’s point of view. This way a potential customer has every possible option to make an informed decision.

    As far as ranking, which really shouldn’t matter to anyone but the most vain or competitive, those items I’ve reviewed for Vine always get lost in the shuffle. My non-Vine reviews are usually for items with very few other reviews, and are read and voted on much more frequently.

    For those who wish to be a shining star in the Amazon review jungle, my suggestion would be to review books which are less popular, and thus have fewer reviews. But this isn’t really the point of a review, is it?

  63. Reader and Writer says:

    What about the new FTC regulations that require reviewers, bloggers included, to disclose what remuneration they received for the review? How will Amazon deal with this? It might help for readers to know that free books are part of the incentive for the VINE program.

    The point about reviews and books is that it is so subjective, like all art. I think those who read the VINE reviews can figure out what’s going to work for them based on how the review is written, and the aggregate of the reviews posted. It’s all a conversation. There hasn’t been a time when a low-star VINE review has dissuaded me from buying a book. I check the reviews to take its temperature, then–and I urge all readers to do this–I go to my local indie bookstore or call them to order the book.

  64. Jenny says:

    I haven’t read all of the comments, but I have to say, as soon as I heard about Vine, I was wary. And nervous. I am a writer, BTW. I agree with Betsy, I am just not a fan. One vine reviewer gave my young adult novel 2 stars because, “This story brings back memories of my teen years,I think it will be more entertaining for a teen than an adult.” Duh? That, my friends, is frustrating. He or she is obvs not the intended audience. It just sucks to get a 2 sentence review like that and see your “rating” brought down.

  65. Bellatrix says:

    Vine reviews are all labeled, and the explanation that the item was supplied for free is there when you click “What’s this?” I’m not sure if that will be deemed sufficient or not.

    Jenny, can see where that would be frustrating.

  66. Adam Rex says:

    This conversation is probably dead now, but I’ve posted a response on my own blog:

    adamrex.blogspot.com/2009/10/amazon-vine.html

  67. Bellatrix says:

    I suppose the conversation IS dead. Thank you, every one, for the discussion.

  68. Shevi says:

    Someone asked how many items Amazon Vine reviewers are offered. Let me clear that up.

    The targeted newsletter usually offers between 12 and 25 products, and for most people these products include some books and some other items. I usually am offered about 10 books–mostly MGs and YAs–plus six items that aren’t books. The non-book items have included everything from boxes of juice and post-it notes to computer security software, electronic cables and cameras. (I get offered a camera about once every six months, and these and video games are my favorite things to review.) Other Vine reviewers are offered printers, furniture, exercise equipment, you name it. If Amazon sells it, there’s a chance it will be offered to someone on the Vine–and Amazon sells EVERYTHING. Each reviewer can pick up to two items on his or her targeted newsletter. Everything that isn’t taken during the week to follow goes on the general newsletter the following week. That newsletter usually has about 100-200 items on it, mostly books and stuff like post-it notes, boxes of juice and sanitary napkins–i.e. all the stuff no one wanted from the targeted newsletter. Again each reviewer can choose up to two items.

    You might think that some reviewers will say to themselves, “I don’t really want this kids’ book, but I’m only offered kids’ books and I won’t get anything free if I don’t choose SOMETHING, so I might as well take it.” However, each time a Vine reviewer writes a review, that review determines the kinds of products that reviewer will be offered in his or her targeted newsletters in the future. In other words, if you write a lot of reviews for books you don’t like, you’ll be offered more books YOU DON’T LIKE. That’s the way the system works. The more you review products–positively or negatively–the more likely you will be offered similar products and the less likely you’ll be offered other products.

    On the Amazon Vine forum people sometimes about the expensive loot they’ve managed to get on their targeted newsletters. This means Amazon reviewers have every incentive NOT to review books. Think about it: if you knew that reviewing books meant you wouldn’t get a $1,000 massaging recliner or a $1,200 treadmill, how much incentive would that give you NOT to review books? And yet Amazon Vine reviewers still review books. Why? Because they love and value them.

  69. Steffan Piper says:

    Jenny said: “He or she is obvs not the intended audience.”

    Not everyone who reads and reviews your book, whether they are in an early review program or not, will always be a member of your ‘intended audience.’ That’s life.

    Plenty of people read books everyday that they feel are not really for them but stick it through, trying to find something redeemable. It’s up to them, and that’s reality when one puts material out there for the general public’s consumption. The author has no power over negative reviews. Explaining it away with ill-formed verbiage by the reader really doesn’t change it either.

    I’ve been in the same boat, but I got out of that frame of mind long ago. Just because negative reviews or badly written reviews come out of Vine doesn’t detract in the merit of the program.

    Professional reviews can be just as bad sometimes, if not worse as they also carry with them the weight of authority. Peddling bombast is peddling bombast. One just has to learn to tune it out.

  70. jojoleb says:

    Wow! Excellent topic! It’s obviously garnered a lot of controversy and response.

    I forgot to say so before, but thanks for the chance to air our opinions.

    J

  71. Kristen McLean says:

    I think this discussion has some larger implications for the industry, and that’s why it’s getting so much play. Here’s what I find interesting:

    *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 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 above—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. From what I can tell, many Vine reviewers are taking the time to write thoughtful reviews, but not everyone.

    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 recently for Adam or Tony’s books.

    I noticed today that the reviews on the first Meno book are balancing out (to a 3) now that people are posting some more positive reviews, but we live in a blockbuster environment. Early reviews matter, and I for one want them to be as thoughtful and trustworthy as possible. Vine reviewers, this credibility can only come with transparency from Amazon.

    This comments thread has been the best source of information about the Vine program so far, so I thank all the contributors.

    *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. Does anyone else feel the same?

    *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 fiasco 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 should be 5-8 like Adam’s book.

    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.

    ***

    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 or 5 to 8? It’s not that big a deal, right?” Wrong—but the ship has long sailed.

    On the Amazon side, we’re seeing the fall out of a large, digitized, algorithmic system. No one at Amazon looks at a book like Tony or Adams 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 reviewers, keep thinking about what would be helpful to us, the readers. And please think about the authors too. As Vine reviewers, you have a great responsibility, even if you think no one is paying attention.

  72. Anne says:

    “And they are kind of mean and not particularly qualified, and feel like it is their job to snipe at whatever they get. This is not reviewing.”

    Sounds like Kirkus!

  73. A Parent says:

    People chosen for the Vine program are people who have made Amazon purchases in the past, which makes them customers. Regardless, of how they receive the books they review, for free or purchased, I would rather read a review from a customer than a “professional.”

  74. A Review says:

    I’ve watched this string of comments for a while. Since it hasn’t died yet, I thought I’d add my comments.

    I am a Vine member and have been one for a year. I don’t understand the reasoning behind your post, first off. If it was meant to educate people on the Vine Program, it didn’t come off that way in the least. If anything, it came off as an attack at the program and members.

    Most Vine reviewers take the program very seriously. Most take pride in what they post and hope that it will be helpful to anyone who’s undecided about the title/product they’re interested in.

    As for how we get invited into the program? Well, if it had anything to do with my spending habits, I never would have been invited. I only really use Amazon as a way to read and write reviews. I honestly believe those invited are selected for the quality of their reviews.

    Anyway, there’s my two sense for you. In the future, I hope to see more informative articles about Vine, and less of these negative/he said, she said, sort.

  75. Bellatrix says:

    Dear Colleen/Chasingray,
    Re: your Twitter comment

    “Don’t those reviewers wonder how much Amazon is paid for THEIR work?”

    No, I received the item for free, as opposed to all the times I’ve bought books and reviewed them. In the latter case, I never wondered if someone was profiting, how much, and how I could get in the action — and this is after I’ve laid out my own money. Therefore, on the occasions I get the items for free, I’m even less inclined to sweat it.

  76. Kris says:

    I’m a Vine reviewer but I’m just a homeschooling mom. I find I get a very long list every month and have a good bit to choose from that I like.
    I really don’t understand the problem.
    I never tried to be a top reviewer or get into Vine. I just always tried to post hopefully helpful reviews for other parents, especially homeschooling parents. I still do that – nothing has changed.
    I do look at Amazon reviews myself – I look at the total ratings and the breakdown. I tend to read the WORST rated reviews – IE the 1 star reviews. Then I look for other reviews to see if those problems are covered.
    To each their own – I just don’t see resenting someone’s review because it was associated with the VINE program.

  77. Greg Ehrbar says:

    All I can say is that there are some good and some not-so-good vine reviewers, as there are with librarians, doctors, presidents (USA & PTA) and everything else. Making blanket statements about vine reviewers as if you have read each and every one and as if you know their qualifications, brings the validity of such claims into question. But hey, it sold an article, didn’t it?
    If a librarian has developed this practice when there very career is based on research and accuracy, that is more disturbing than a group of eclectic reviews you have the choice of accepting or rejecting. Seems a misuse of position and influence and trust.

  78. Fuse #8 says:

    I was happy to let this conversation continue without further input, but I may as well mention that the PW article certainly didn’t earn me any money. After all, I didn’t write it.

  79. Greg Ehrbar says:

    I apologize for the error. Clearly I made a statement without knowing all the facts. That’s a very unpleasant and potentially hurtful thing to do, and even more hurtful when it’s done to a large group of people, who also have feelings, whom you don’t know personally and you don’t know about professionally.

  80. Tom says:

    I’m a Vine reviewer but only speak for myself here. If I pick and receive something from Amazon to review, I review it honestly. I also choose honestly – not just choosing something because I have the opportunity to but choosing WISELY. In other words, I pick things about which I would have something to say. From what I see, many feel like they simply have to choose something if they have the ability to, and that’s why we see so many unqualified reviews. People see free stuff and they take it whether they want or need it.

    As for the prominent placement of Vine reviews, I honestly don’t know. I think you may be seeing the effects of many Vine reviewers sending Amazon their reviews at the same time, which pushes out the older reviews for a while. Like all things, smart buyers will ignore that and look at the Customer Reviews chart, and click through to read a sampling of both high- and low-marked reviews. There are always merits to both views.

  81. Kelly says:

    I think this is where the industry has been going for a long time, beyond books. Traditionally it was celebrities who recieved freebies and now it’s moved on to bloggers, reviewers, social media mavens, etc. So while Amazon may be an example of it, it’s happening on much larger scale.

  82. lyrafowlpotter says:

    Erm, I agree with parts of what the author of this article says, but it is a little bit more venomous than I deem necessary…

    Usually, I would say its okay to judge something from the outside, but in this case, because of the author’s obvious biases, I will have to say that no, she should not judge it from the outside.

    I have been in Vine since its beginning, and if there is one major problem it has, is people who are in it merely for the free stuff, but that is inevitable. I will have you know that many of the writers in Vine have on some level written professionally, including myself. Also, many of them are average people like you claim there are none. It is quite a mixed bag of people, but I have found many of the people to be very well educated and try hard to write well-rounded reviews and who understand the subject matter well.

    It is the few bad apples that write short turse reviews for free stuff that give us a VERY bad name. But I still think Vine is a good thing even if I got booted. They also regularly rotate people in and out, but some people seem to stick around longer than others. I write a lot of reviews outside of Vine and no matter what I wont stop writing reviews, it is something I have done very regularly for nearly ten years and have contributed to online publications as well. :)

    So, although some of your points are good, they are just far too biting and are assuming that are of us are just writing them to snatch free stuff, which is completely untrue, most of us view it as a job. :)

    God Bless ~Amy

  83. Dave says:

    The main problem with the Amazon.com Vine program is the questionnaire that they ask people to fill out to join the program. They want to know the person’s age, race, income, number of children, reading habits, etc. to make them eligible to receive the free “gifts.” I read on the Vine forum that the more expensive items are few, and only the lucky, or quick get the available items before they are all gone.

    Now Amazon is sending out the Vine monthly newsletter to non-subscribers, and to opt out of this monthly letter [spam] Amazon says you have to click on the link, and to fill out the questionnaire, and join, to opt out of receiving the program’s monthly newsletter. In other words, give us a buyer’s profile, or else we will keep sending this to you until you do.

    It makes me regret doing reviews to get this spam. Also, when I read reviews of products on Amazon, I plan to avoid reading the Vine reviews. Their perspective does not match a buyer’s perspective, which I would be.

  84. Kate Coombs says:

    I was already doing customer reviews on Amazon, so when I was asked to join Vine, I thought I might as well get a few ARCs while doing basically the same thing. I have noticed that some of the Vine reviewers seem to know very little about children’s books. What I’ve found in participating is that I have to be careful which ARCs I request, as I feel compelled to write the Vine reviews even when the books turn out to be really lousy. Perhaps this might explain some of the negative reviews–people feel stuck with books that feel like duds or at least not a good fit for their tastes, whereas outside of Vine, the freedom not to review an unappealing book is a heady thing. I’m thinking of quitting the program for that reason. No more ARCs hanging over my head…

  85. Barbara Liles says:

    Wow,I’m totally amazed at this squabble. All reviewers, whether “professional” or the mom next door are giving their personal opinions -which can be influenced in multiple ways. They are also, in the current usage, tools of an increasingly corporate publishing industry. I can’t imagine making my purchasing decisions based solely on the opinions of people I do not know. I am a teacher and have stopped reading Amazon reviews. I ask my friends, troll blogs I trust instead and visit my local independent bookstore, then make up my own mind. How much power do you want to give to Amazon? Seems to me that Vine members are trading a few ARCs and ego stokes for the opportunity to be Amazon’s salespeople. Sweet deal.

  86. Felicia Davis-Burden says:

    Can I say on the record as a Vine reviewer: I am not paid to review items. I was invited onto the scheme because I had become a frequent reviewer and some other customers had given my reviews the thumbs-up. I keep my reviews honest. There’s no ‘Deal’ involved.

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