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Amazon's Elite Reviewing Club Sabotaged My Book

Twin Design /

I’ll bet you don’t know what the Amazon “Vine Community” is. I didn’t. I was never even aware of it until my memoir was published earlier this year. Books offered on Amazon for pre-order have a notation: “This book is not eligible for review until publication date.” However, in the run-up to my release date there were already five reviews posted—and they all were rotten; I mean inaccurate, insulting, and demonstrably written by dim bulbs. I was absolutely stunned. Who were these people, and why were they allowed to comment on a book before actual purchasers, when there was a clear prohibition.

Well, they were “Vine Voices” I found out. Amazon explains: “Amazon Vine invites the most trusted reviewers on Amazon to post opinions about new and pre-release items to help their fellow customers make informed purchase decisions.” Well, swell. A fellow customer would have read those pre-publication “reviews” and thought the book was dreck—although some people, I have to hope, would have spotted these attacks for what they were: ad hominem attacks. God and Bezos only know how many “trusted reviewers” there are. In any case, these people are given freebies … cold cream, sneakers, pots and pans, and … books! I submit to you that free stuff does not a book reviewer make. One could fairly think of Vine membership as offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of things.

The first Vine review I read was posted by “Quirky Girl” …  fifteen days before my book was released. Her headline was: “Not Humor—Horror.” She begins, “Wow. If you're looking to read a book about what growing up and having everything given to you does to a person, you may enjoy this book. I thought this would be a humorous book but for me, it was horrifying. (Her father, an alcoholic, her mother never there, etc) … Margo slept with a married man WHEN SHE WAS 51!! Way old enough to know better. HELLO PEOPLE - she was writing an advice column!!!!!!!”

In addition to misreading or misunderstanding what she was reading (re my mother’s relationship with me: I guess she wasn’t given my last book, a collection of my mother’s letters), I could not help but take note of the evangelical, unworldly outlook of this reviewer, who apparently believes affairs with married men should take place at a much younger age. She is also under the delusion that advice columnists make no mistakes in their own lives. If only. More literary criticism from "Ms. Winston." "This book might have some appeal to those who think the Kardashians are role models ..." Gosh. A Kardashian! 

Another pre-publication pan from a Vine Voice was posted twelve days prior to publication. Her considered opinion was this: “I found the writing to be so sophomoric that I am still bewildered how the author, now in her 70s, ever made a living as a writer … Reading this felt like watching an aging singer past their prime still trying to perform in concert. I suppose if you want to learn more about Ms. Howard's pampered life then you may enjoy this. I did not.” (I must say I appreciated the elevation from a Kardashian to an aging singer.) As for the writer’s “bewilderment” about how I ever made a living as a writer, please no one tell her that I was a syndicated columnist for decades, wrote cover stories for national magazines, and got a book advance in seven figures.

If you do not detect the hostility in these Vine reviews, I bet your names are “Quirky Girl” and “Ms. Winston.” These people were not reviewing my book, they were reviewing me. Or rich people. Or something. And Amazon gave them the tools, through Vine, to damage my book for the casual browser. I can see the value—maybe—for man-on-the-street reviews of cold cream and pots and pans, but books?! Especially by people who collect free stuff, feel important because they’re getting this swag, and, forgive me, do not sound in the least like well-read people to begin with.

I found friendlier reviews on Amazon once I got untangled from the Vine after pub date. And beyond Amazon, a Pulitzer winner for biography found the book “an excellent companion,” a MacArthur genius grant award winner compared me to Oscar Wilde in our “shared ability to be wise and outrageous at the same time,” and a longtime Vanity Fair writer said I was today’s Nancy Mitford. 

But I also learned, first-hand, what can occur when people with an agenda find a forum to say anything they please. Books, of course, can be and are reviewed pre-publication—but by reviewers who are attached to magazines or newspapers. "Book Reviewer" is considered a profession, and reviews are done by other writers. Good sense would seem to militate against any group of people unschooled in creative and critical reviewing coming up with a worthwhile review. The Vine people, who deal mostly with products for the home and the body, seem inappropriate bellwethers regarding products for the mind, if you will.

I was so distressed about this injustice that I looked up the list of Amazon’s board of directors. Great good luck, I happened to know two of them, so I pestered the one who was a lawyer, feeling all this slamming by the barely literate approached tortious interference. She was sympathetic—and surprised—by the whole Vine business, and made it possible for me to be in touch with its head, Elisabeth Rommel, a savvy young woman who was generous spending time with me on the phone.

Rommel, of course, has nothing but good feelings about Vine, had never heard of such a problem before, felt bad my book had taken a hit by the freebie people, and, sadly, told me there was nothing she could do, ergo … the Vine reviews are what you see first. This also has something to do with Amazon's "buttons." At the end of each review, there is the query: Was this review helpful to you? You can click on "yes" or "no." The Vine people, presumably, read other Vine reviews and keep the Vine reviews at the top. Oh, Ms. Rommel did “warn” me—her words—that there were two more Vine reviews to come. I can hardly wait, and if either of them is positive I will eat my computer.

Amazon has been the heavy in other situations with writers. First there was the Hachette thing, then PEN ran an ad signed by many distinguished authors from around the world protesting monopoly tactics. This magazine’s editor, in fact, wrote a long piece about Amazon relative to anti-trust, pointing out that Amazon sells 41 percent of all new books in their “anomalous ecosystem.”

After looking at my book’s link on Amazon and reading the soi-disant “reviewers,” my friend on the Amazon board wrote me, “It’s the wild west out there, isn’t it?” Yes, indeedy, it certainly is. Bang, bang, you're dead!