Scott Marlowe
Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

8 Ways To Fix Online Review Systems

The review and ratings systems of the online world have a problem. That problem is anonymity and the lack of a verifiable online identity to properly identify individuals who leave reviews or make comments.

While it's easy to point fingers at places like Amazon, this is a problem that belongs to most if not all online retailers. Amazon just happens to have the largest (or close to it) online presence and also, as a result, seems to be at the center of controversy more often than others.

What sort of controversy am I talking about?

Really two things:

  1. Reviewers who hide behind a shield of anonymity while leaving cruel, derogatory, and really quite pointless reviews.
  2. Shills and sockpuppets, who leave reviews for their own books or even negative reviews for others they perceive as competition.

The last thing I want to do with this post is perpetuate these stories any further. Much like the talk of PED's has completely taken over the great sport of baseball before the 2013 season has even begun, I'm getting tired of hearing about all of it. I don't mean to take a 'bury my head in the sand' tact on this, but there are already a lot of other people who have talked about these subjects and I don't really have anything new to add. I have provided links, however, at the bottom of this post if you want to read all the sordid details.

In this post I'd like to focus on the positive. Namely I'd like to throw out some suggestions on how online retailers can fix their review systems.

Let me preface these ideas with this disclaimer: I know there are privacy, implementation, and flat-out unintended consequences that go along with these suggestions (for example, requiring a person to have purchased the product before being allowed to leave a review precludes someone with an advanced reader copy from posting a review). There simply is no "one solution fixes everything" answer to this problem. But, hopefully someday, we'll have a solution in place that solves the problem with minimal negative side-effects.

So, here goes.

1. No more anonymous reviews

Amazon and many others do not allow anonymous reviews, but Barnes and Noble does. This should stop. It's easy enough to get around this by creating a fake account, but having this simple barrier might at least keep the less motivated from breaking the rules.

2. Require reviews be left by "active" users

I would define an 'active' user as someone who has made at least two (possibly more) purchases in the past 12 months. Again, this is easily gotten around but presents another small barrier to keep some people from dropping a bomb and running away, never to be seen again.

3. Minimum of 5 reviews written before any one review is visible

There is a policy on many, many forums where a person is not allowed to have a signature until he or she has at least made 5 posts. A signature in these cases serves as an identifier as well as, if you're an author, a place to put your book covers and links. In the case of reviews, reviewers should have to establish themselves as legitimate contributors by leaving more than just a single review.

4. Enforce your own review guidelines

Amazon takes a lot of flack for this one. Deservedly so, too, I think. They seem to be, in general, very unwilling to step in and edit or even remove reviews that are in clear violation of even their own guidelines. This should change with better moderation (see #7 below).

5. Expel authors or readers who violate the guidelines

This one will never happen with authors as long as that person is making a lot of sales. Companies like Amazon are public and therefore beholden to shareholders who expect a return on their investment. People like John Locke make far too much money for them to ever take action. However, I think they should. Put the fear in people who create multiple fake accounts then leave themselves a multitude of 5 star reviews. This would apply as well to those who pay money for a single person or company to write numerous glowing reviews for a single product.

6. File charges against authors who perpetuate scams using your system

This goes back to those authors who have either paid for mass fake reviews or used alternate identities of their own to leave glowing 5 star reviews. What this amounts to (in my mind, anyway) is fraud. Fraud is punishable by possible prison time and most definitely a fine here in the United States. I'm no lawyer, but I also suspect profits from said scam would be forfeited. In this case, I would advocate such profit be given to libraries.

7. Provide better moderation

This kind of goes back to #4 above, but online retailers should moderate the content of reviews inasmuch as foul and demeaning language is concerned. The things people get away with when no one knows who they are is ridiculous and they only continue with such behavior when no one is there to stop them.

8. Require identity validation

Another dream, I know. But, unfortunately, I don't think Amazon or anyone else will ever have a worthwhile, accurate, trusted review system until we have established a single online identity registry of sorts similar to how every citizen in the United States has a social security number. With a single online identity you get just the one. It's universally accepted across all web sites, forums, blogs, etc. and undeniably identifies you. Period. No hiding behind fake screen names, accounts, or other chicanery. No more anonymity, either, which I think is a very good thing. You aren't anonymous in face-to-face interactions, so why should you be when online?

OpenId was at one point going to do this for us, but it suffered from poor adoption. Now, with so many users on Facebook and Twitter, those sites are leading the charge. Twitter, however, only verifies a small number of their users while Facebook has stated up to 10% of their user base is fake or "unwanted".

Of course, any identity system has a potential for fraud. Social security numbers are forged every day, so why not online identities? Legitimate crooks will always be crooks. But that's the thing—most people aren't crooks. But give them anonymity and they'll say some wild and crazy things. Take away this anonymity and, well, we might have civil discussions and legitimate reviews to boot.

Conclusion

This is one of those subjects where I get to throw out all sorts of ideas without having to worry about the really hard part, which is their implementation. I'm far from the only one who thinks online review systems are broken, though. At some point someone is going to have to step in and establish some real rules on how people conduct themselves online. You would think people could just act with respect and not game the system. But that'll never happen. Sadly, online retailers will take real action only when it seriously affects their bottom line.

Further Reading

Smashwords: All Function and No Form - Part 2

In Part 1 of this series I talked about some of the problems I think Smashwords has. In this post, I'd like to offer up some suggestions for ways they can improve.

Here goes.

1. Give the site a facelift

This one is obvious. I railed on the site enough last time. Mark Coker has indicated they're going to give the site some love this year, so we'll leave it at that.

2. Add moderated forums

Smashwords needs forums. Not like the Amazon forums, which run amuck with foul villainy, but forums like those on Fantasy Faction, Kindleboards, or Goodreads. Those forums are moderated by individuals who volunteer their time to keep the trolls from entering the castle. These forums could be a great place for readers to discuss books and for authors and readers to connect.

Attracting volunteers might be an issue. So, as an alternative, Smashwords could form a partnership with someone like Goodreads. Kobo already has formed a sort of partnership since it's possible to display Goodreads reviews and ratings on the Kobo web site. Smashwords could do something similar, pulling in Goodreads forum content.

3. Do more to help sell books

Smashwords falls flat in this area and Amazon… well, Amazon shines. Features of the Week, Deals of the Day, Fiction Hit of the Month. Whatever you want to call it, Amazon does a nice job of highlighting specific books for limited amounts of time. Smashwords should do the same. Except Smashwords, by its very nature, would highlight indie books and not those from the traditional publishers. This would be HUGE for people like me. There exists an absolute sea of titles on Smashwords and elsewhere, and rising above the "noise" is damn near impossible. Smashwords can and should do a lot to help promote individual titles.

4. Advertising

Why the heck not? Goodreads does it in a fairly unobtrusive manner. Why not Smashwords? Use a pay per click model so authors only pay when someone clicks on the ad and this might potentially be another revenue stream for Smashwords. Everyone likes more money (except that baby in the Capital One commercials). This is an untapped gold mine for both Smashwords and indie authors.

5. Improve the filtering

I talked enough about this last time. Suffice to say Smashwords should give us more options for filtering. First and foremost, break the price down more or let it be free-form.

Conclusion

That's it from me. I'm sure Coker is presented many ideas all the time. A lot of people like Smashwords (myself included). We all want to see it get better. I hope someone at Smashwords stumbles upon this post and takes some of the suggestions to heart.

Further Reading

Smashwords: All Function and No Form - Part 1

Let me start by saying I love Smashwords. It's a great platform for the distribution of eBooks to multiple platforms with relatively little effort on the part of the author. I also like their coupon system, which allows me to hand out 100% off coupons to readers who agree to write a review of either of my eBooks. So as I get into what I perceive as deficiencies in the Smashwords way of doing things, I'm not demeaning them out of disrespect but because I don't think they're reaching their full potential. I would really like them to do well because then I do well.

I'm going to assume you're already familiar with Smashwords. But in case you aren't, here's the founder's explanation of what it's all about:

Smashwords is an ebook distributor.  We make if fast, free and easy for authors and publishers to distribute ebooks to the world's largest ebook retailers.  Authors and publishers retain full control over how their works are published, sampled, priced and sold. If an author wants to give it away for free, they have that freedom.

I'm going to break this post into two parts. First I'll look at some of the deficiencies I feel are holding Smashwords back. Then, next post in this short series, I'll make suggestions on how I think they can improve the experience for both authors and readers alike.

Here, then, are what I perceive as areas in need of improvement.

1. The Web Site

The site design is horrific, primitive, and, in too many ways, useless. Smashwords exists to connect readers with great new reads. It's not going to do this via a web site Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, himself feels is stuck somewhere in the 90's:

When people tell us the design of the Smashwords store is so circa 2000, we take it as a compliment because we think they’re being generous by at least a decade. The Smashwords web site user interface is outdated.

Outdated is right. The site really needs a complete overhaul. It's just not all that aesthetically pleasing or inviting. Also, it's too difficult and time-consuming to sift through the massive number of books there and far too difficult or possible at all to filter all those books down to a useable level.

In my ePublishing predictions for 2013 post, prediction #6 was that Smashwords would revamp its site. I'm happy to say that it looks like that particular prediction is going to come true as Mark Coker, Smashwords' founder, states in his Smashwords Year In Review post:

2013 is the year we will give the Smashwords store a facelift, not because we have designs on becoming a large ebook retailer (well, actually, we already are, even though that’s not our focus), but because we think an updated site will help us attract more books and more customers that we can feed to our retail partners.

Hallelujah!

2. The Filtering

The filtering is fairly basic. You can see the options. You can also trim the list of results by genre and sub-genre, which reduces the ocean down to a sea. Now, I'm not saying Smashwords is any worse than other retailers, but they need to do more to help discoverability. Amazon, for example, has their "Customers also bought…" lists. I've tried finding my book using Amazon's conventional means of searching and gave up after around 20 pages of results. As for Smashwords, it's no better. The single best way for someone to find my book is to filter by "Highest Rated", "$2.99 or less", and "Epic" after you've already whittled the list down by genre. Even then you have to wade through too many pages of information. If I can't use the filtering to find my own book, how is a potential reader going to discover it? Tagging isn't a solution to this as authors too often manipulate the system. Amazon, I believe, has done away with tagging altogether.

3. Search

Search doesn't work hand-in-hand with filtering, which makes it almost useless. I chose "Fantasy" as my genre and "Epic" as my sub-genre, searched for "witches", and got so many results unrelated to either of my genre/sub-genre selections that the search was not very helpful. Searching for "witches fantasy" was a little better, but it still ignored my previous filtering selections.

4. Top Lists

Smashwords has some feature lists: Top 100 Downloaded, Top 25 Bestsellers, and Top 25 Most Viewed Authors. Unfortunately, all three of these lists cut across ALL books on the site making them of no use at all. As one might expect, the Top 100 Downloaded is full of erotica, Top 25 Bestsellers has a bit of everything under the sun but probably nothing most people will find of interest, and the last… most viewed authors? What does that even mean and why is that useful at all?

5. Coupon discoverability

Unless I'm completely missing something I've never seen a way for a reader who comes across a book to know there is a coupon available for it. Coupons are one of the biggest and best ways Smashwords has separated itself from the other eRetailers. But, as an author, I have to send these coupons out and make people aware of them myself. I do that, of course, but my influence is often much smaller than the sheer number of people who visit the Smashwords site. They should do more to highlight books that are on sale via coupons. The brick-and-mortar retailers do it, so why not the digital ones too?

6. Reviews

Smashwords doesn't allow anonymous reviews. That's a very good thing. But they also don't let other people comment on or "up/down vote" those reviews. This is something that I think works on Amazon as less useful reviews are moved to the bottom and more useful ones to the top. Smashwords just lets the reviews fall in the order in which they are entered rather than allowing readers to have a say in which ones influenced their decision to make a purchase.

7. The Logo

Here's the Smashwords logo:

Like the site, it seems stuck in the yesteryear of the Internet when silly animated gif's and purple backgrounds abounded. Hopefully with the site redesign the logo also gets a refresh.

Personally, I don't want this logo on my site. To that end, I created a simple 'S' button instead of using it.

Conclusion

Smashwords has an information overload problem, which isn't necessarily a bad thing until you consider that they don't make it easy for their customers (authors or readers) to deal with this. Plus, their site is not very inviting. It's an immediate put-off for potential readers.

Next post in this series I'll make some proposals on how they can fix these things.

Further Reading

ePublishing Predictions for 2013

The past year has been interesting to say the least. A lot has happened in the world of ePublishing and more people are reading electronically than ever before. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to predict that eBooks and eReading in general will continue to do well in 2013.

I’m no expert in the field, but I've got this crystal ball I rented, and while the images it's showing me are pretty fuzzy, I thought I'd go out on a limb with some predictions. If nothing else it should be fun to re-visit this a year from now just to see how wrong I was.

Here goes…

1. Amazon does away with the 70% royalty rate for authors who do not enroll in KDP Select

KDP Select is Amazon’s opt-in program for authors who wish to have their books enrolled in the Kindle Lending Library. Amazon Prime subscribers can borrow any eBook in the library for free. Amazon then pays the author for each borrow. It was a good deal from the author’s perspective when it came out, but Amazon has gradually reduced the effectiveness of certain aspects of the program while holding steady with the exclusivity clause which requires authors to remove their eBooks from other retailers.

Amazon already requires enrollment in KDP Select for certain international markets if an author wishes to get the highest royalty of 70%. In 2013, I think Amazon is going to require enrollment in KDP Select across the board in order to earn that rate. Otherwise, an author will only earn 35%, which right now is the rate for eBooks selling below $2.99. Amazon is on a mission of world domination. Unfortunately I think a lot of indie authors are going to get run over in the company’s attempt to crush the competition.

2. Publishers begin competing directly with indies at the $2.99 price point

I don't think the big, traditional publishers are ever going to sell new eBook releases for anything lower than around $7.99 (though $9.99 seems to be their new normal). But they have such a large number of back-listed titles that I think once they realize the gold mine they're sitting on they'll start releasing these in increasing numbers and at lower and lower prices. The $0.99 – $4.99 price range has been the bastion of indie writers up until now. In 2013, I think these price points will come under siege as the Big 6 attempt to put the big hurt on indie writers.

3. The indie writing boom comes to an end

This probably won't happen entirely in 2013, but I think the indie boom is going to start declining. Every boom has a bust, so it's inevitable that authors in the bountiful eBook market of 2012 begin to lose enthusiasm. It might be because sales drop off due to increased competition or lowered royalty rates. Some may come to realize just how much time and effort writing requires and decide they've had enough. Still others might find themselves satisfied that they rode this pony for as long as they did and they're done now. With most indie writers earning less than $500 annually, I don't think I'm going out on a limb here.

In 2013 we'll start to see a further separation between the amateurs or hobbyists and the professionals. Editing, quality book covers, and the proliferation of titles will make the difference. The positive here is that those of us who are left standing will have learned and matured a lot. This can only be good for readers.

4. Some eReaders will be sold for free

This seems inevitable to me. If the rumors are true, Amazon and presumably the other guys (with the exception of Apple) make no money on their tablets or even use it as a loss leader because they want buyers to jump into their ecosystem, buying their apps, movies, music, etc. Content is where the real profit is in this market. So why not give away for free the low-end tablets or eReaders? Amazon continues to slash prices year-after-year. I don’t think $0.00 is that far away.

5. Dedicated eReader devices will begin to decline in sales

I predict the proliferation of dedicated eReader devices will decline as people begin to move exclusively towards multi-function tablets. I own both a Kindle 2 and an iPad. Both serve different purposes for me. But if I had to choose between them I'd choose the iPad because it can function as a dedicated eReader and then some. Same goes for the Kindle Fire and many other tablets, of course. In fact, if I didn't own either device and was in the market, with the variety of multi-function tablets available today I doubt I'd even consider a dedicated eReader. In 2013, I expect the market for dedicated eReaders to shrink and the market for multi-function devices to increase.

6. Smashwords revamps its site

Smashwords bills itself as a “distribution platform and not a retailer”. Still, it sells eBooks directly from its site in the most varied types of eBook formats possible. More so than any other retailer, in fact. But the site is so stuck in the 90’s it’s difficult for readers to navigate and painful for everyone to look at. I predict the Smashwords site will undergo a major redesign in 2013. I don’t know if they’ll ever make a push to become a major retailer because then they’d be competing directly with the channels to which they distribute eBooks, but I think they’ll realize that by making their site more searchable, easier to navigate and find titles, and by removing all of the erotica and putting it somewhere else (or greatly improving their erotica filters), they’ll be serving their mission of being the first, best place for readers seeking great new eBooks.

Some other predictions:

Google eBookstore

Yesterday Google announced the all new Google eBookstore. Google boasts over 3 million titles in its store, many of which are free. Major publishers as well as indies have signed on. Supported eBook formats include EPUB and PDF, which, as you might guess, leaves Amazon partially out as the Kindle does not support the EPUB format (the Kindle does, however, support PDF). Books purchased or downloaded from the eBookstore can be read on Android, iPhone, and iPad devices, as well as over the web.

Google's eBookstore is a direct attack on the dominance of both Amazon's Kindle store and Apple's iBooks initiative,  launched earlier this year alongside the release of the iPad. While there's no denying the force that is Google, a quick perusal of the store showed some notable discrepancies (no search filtering by price, for one). Still, from the perspective of competition, this is a huge step in the right direction for consumers.

One of the best things about the Google eBookstore: anyone can publish with them, including major publishers, indies, and individual authors through the Google Books Partner Program. Clearly I'm going to have to revisit my Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher series with a new entry discussing the in's and out's of publishing with Google (look for that soon). The sign-up process is easy (I've already done it), but I'll need to spend some time actually uploading my eBooks there.

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