Tuesday 26 February 2008

Amazon Vine to reviewers: Please stop saying things are crap

Amazon recently launched their Vine program in the UK, and I was one of the lucky few thousand or so people to get in on it. For the uninitiated, Vine is a scheme whereby well-regarded reviewers on Amazon can get free stuff, in exchange for reviewing the product within a certain timeframe. I like free stuff, but alas most of it is either crap, obscure, or only available in such a small quantity as to be pointless.

Once upon a time I wrote reviews for a games website, which also meant free stuff, and I rapidly became aware of the problem in deciding how to grade something which I got free of charge, when everyone else would have to shell out for it. A mild irritation to a reviewer (who must of course get all the way through to write the review) might be enough to make someone give up in disgust at the product if they've paid good money for it. Well, this has been on my mind since I wrote my first, and so far only, review. Given the sheer number of reviews that Amazon get back for low-value items (there are only a half-dozen or so freebies to choose from, and you only get the chance once a month) and that there's no requirement that a review be good, the system's already going to skew review averages in a bad way, and completely bury genuine "I went out and had to pay for this" reviews.

And then, Amazon sends me this:

Dear Valued Vine Voices,

Thank you for your commitment to Amazon Vine. The opinions you provide are invaluable to our customers as they make their purchase decisions, and we are grateful for your participation in the process.

We want to remind you that several vendors submit unfinished versions of their products to the Vine programme in hopes that you will write pre-release reviews about them. Please be aware that these samples have not completed the manufacturing process and
should not be held to the same standards as finished products. For example, publishers often submit unfinished works, called galleys, that are likely to include typos, repetitive content, errors in syntax, and may be missing glossaries, indices, table of contents, photos, etc.Please take this into consideration as you craft your reviews. We ask that you focus instead on the potential of the overall product. In the case of books, please write about the overall quality and context of the author's message as opposed to the editorial features of the book. If you have any questions about writing reviews, please contact us at vine-support@amazon.co.uk. Thank you again for your continued support of the programme.

The Amazon Vine Team

It's not just books, either. The Vine forums (they're private) reveal that the copies of The Ferpect Crime and other DVDs are sent out on recordable DVDs with no menus or extras. Pre-release stuff is a perk of the program, of course (and of reviewing in general) but using unfinished pre-release stuff as warm-up reviews for the real thing doesn't strike me as ideally suited to Amazon's Customer Review pile, where the advantage was always that somebody had been playing around with the "real thing" for a while and could pick up on any little quirks or flaws.

I worry that non-members who are not aware of this policy of sending out preview items (that link in the opening paragraph is the only information you get on the program) might be misled by a whole lot of speculative "reviews" on the basis of an incomplete preview product. In any case we're limited to whatever content the publisher decides to send out. Sending out dozens of preview items with the explicit instructions that the reviewers be generous and vague in describing them in the reviews section is verging on astroturfing, in my not-so-humble opinion, and certainly reduces the value of Vine reviews, and Amazon reviews in general.

(The Vine catalogue does not provide any indication what content is pre-release and what is identical to the finished product, so perhaps we're to write all our reviews under the assumption that what we're seeing perhaps isn't the real deal. I might be reading too much into the email though.)

Incidentally, The Elements by Second Person, the album I reviewed and linked to above, comes from Sellaband, a rather novel little indie publisher. Sellaband, it transpires, arranged for "promotion to the 50 most active reviewers on The Vine" as part of its distribution deal with Amazon. I'm not sure what that promotion was (I'm not one of their most active reviewers, by a long shot) but I have to wonder how it's affected the review scores for that album. Anyone want to come forwards?

(It's been suggested to me that it's a marketing misphrase, and that they simply mean 50 albums are sent out to any Vine reviewers, as we're all meant to be amoungst Amazon's most active. That tallies with the number of Vine reviews that have appeared for the album.)

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