Fake political correctness in Amazon.com’s “Editorial Review” section

Let me say off the top that I like Amazon.com.  Even as a huge corporate entity, they provide a fairly even playing ground for small literary fiction presses.  They are even more democratic in this regard than many independent bookstores. But today I have some criticisms to make regarding their practices of posting “Editorial Reviews.” These are the unsigned reviews that appear at the top of the review section and that are the most visible.  Amazon has an agreement with Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Library Journal to post their reviews in this section. Publishers cannot opt to replace these reviews with others from equally respectable review publications. Amazon claims they  are under contract to post reviews and do not have a choice in the matter.

The contract involves a content license.  Amazon won’t say whether it’s a free license or not, but whether Amazon pays a small fee or nothing at all, the advantages of licensed content often go to the company supplying the content, not the other way around. The  review publication benefits from  the increased exposure thanks to its privileged place on Amazon, and this, in turn, increases the review publication’s popularity and authority — and its profits. What does Amazon get out of the relationship? and why would this make them give up the right to refuse to post content they receive from these publishers? The limitations posed on Amazon by the review publications may indicate that they have received some form of compensation for a loss of autonomy.

Okay, so this sort of thing is nothing new and not at all surprising. It’s just business. Maybe other review publications suffer because of this bias; maybe publishers and authors suffer by not being allowed to post the best — in the sense of most well-written and accurate — reviews at the top. But financially it must be a win-win situation for Amazon and these few review publications, and who would deny them the opportunity to make money?

But here’s the part I don’t like.  Instead of admitting that they have this kind of arrangement with select few publications, Amazon pretends to be spreading democracy and empowering the people. (Sound familiar?) A publisher or author can replace or edit any info on the book page, but if you try to replace an Editorial Review, you will encounter this message from Amazon.

Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal cannot be edited or removed by authors or publishers.

In order to keep Editorial Reviews objective and informative, we rely on many sources to provide content for this section. We work to create a diversity of opinion on our site, and this may include negative reviews, when they arise.

Amazon seems to say that “objectivity” increases with the number of reviews offered and with the amount of criticism to balance out the praise. But millions of people can be wrong, i.e. not objective. For instance, according to popular opinion, Newton’s laws were suspended on September 11th, allowing matter to move in the direction of greatest resistance at nearly free-fall speed. The vox populi is diverse and ignorant. The educational system in the US has, over the past 30-40 years or so, cultivated an industrial agriculture crop of citizens who have not been taught critical thinking and do not know how to judge or how to present evidence in an argument. This is convenient, for the practices of the Weapons-Industry-Banking-Insurance-Government conglomerate won’t bear much scrutiny  –but I digress. The point I mean to make is that opinions become more objective the more evidence is gathered.  Opinions do not become more objective the more opinions are gathered.

The even more obvious irony, however, is that clearly, Amazon is promoting less diversity by limiting the Editorial Section to those with whom it has an arrangement.Whenever someone starts talking about “creating a diversity of opinion” in order to be more “objective,” beware.  This is doublespeak.  Amazon is clearly creating a bias in favor of certain review publications. The concept of “objectivity” is so utterly abused here (as it is everywhere) it almost makes me want to cry.

Amazon can get away with making such an inane defense of their policy because few people these days seem to understand what the word “objectivity” means. “Objectivity” should mean “accuracy” or “veracity.” These days many people distrust of the idea of objectivity itself.  The word is out of fashion, and when people say, “I’m trying to be objective” they don’t mean, I’m trying to exercise sound judgement:  what they actually mean is, I’m not exercising any judgement. What Amazon means by offering “objective” reviews is that they do not select them for the quality of the writing or the accuracy.  Instead they allow other factors to decide for them, probably economic factors. The reviews are selected randomly with respect to quality.

Objectivity isn’t decided by how many conflicting views you sample; it’s decided by the quality and care of the research and the logic. An “objective”  review provides actual details from the book to give potential readers an accurate idea of what the book is like. You will gain a more objective idea of the book by reading better reviews, not more reviews. A negative review is not inherently more “objective” than a positive one. And conversely, a positive review that is not objective will probably just sound like twaddle. A negative review that is objective might actually encourage sales. Case in point: I recently slammed Roth’s The Humbling, calling it “trite pornography,” and, to be objective, I supplied a generous quote to illustrate my point. I could find nothing good to say about the book. But website traffic stats indicate that my review actually helped sales.

Not incidentally, in the Editorial Review section of The Humbling on Amazon.com, Publishers Weekly calls it a “tight Chekhovian tragedy” and praises Roth for saying much about a number of  weighty topics. The PW review gives not a shred of evidence to support such opinions. It isn’t their custom to quote.

All the review publications licensing content to Amazon use the concise, anonymous review. There is no way to tell whether or not the reviewer is qualified to judge that particular book. I know several people who review for these publications, and they admit that they are overwhelmed with deadlines and seldom spend the time they ought to reading the book carefully. But they do it anyway because they don’t have to sign their names to the reviews.  Because I sign all my reviews, when I criticize an author, I make damn sure I’ve supported my criticism by quoting from the book. This gives the readers the chance to make up their own minds whether I’m being fair or not.

Amazon.com is not a literary institution.  It’s a business. I don’t expect its staff to understand how the quality of literature should be decided. It’s made up of numbers-people, who have learned from their marketing courses in college that “objectivity” has something to do with the lowest common denominator. Good=what will sell the most. It is true that their policy of posting favorable and unfavorable reviews, poorly-written as well as well-written reviews will help most customers find the books they want because most customers are looking for the most popular books. However, some books are not intended for popular audiences.  Readers looking for literary fiction books, for instance, will find well-written reviews more helpful than a “diversity” of reviews.

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