Friday, January 16, 2009

'Now baby, you know I read everything Steve writes.'

If you're an SGWP* and you're looking for a plausible reason to bring Playboy into the home, my long piece on NFL officials appears in the new (February '09) issue, now on the stands. It walks readers through the Manning-Tyree play from last season's Super Bowl, from the vantage point of all seven on-field officials. As it happens, Playboy released the Feb. issue with three different covers and the piece gets a cover line on just two of 'em. But it's in all three versions.

Give it a try.


I've gotten another email or two from people who seem to think my conspiracy theories re Amazon's unfair treatment of SHAM are not only paranoid but juvenile. (See the second half of my post of January 10.) So let's look at this a bit more scientifically.

As it stands today, January 16, 2009, my book has received a total of 83 customer reviews. The breakdown is as follows:

5-stars: 33
4-stars: 13
3-stars: 8
2-stars: 10
1-stars: 19
Add the number of bad reviews together, the 1-stars and 2-stars, and you have a grand total of 29...or less than the number of 5-star reviews alone. So what does Amazon do? It showcases a 1-star review and a pair of 2-star reviews that it leaves up on permanent display.

You're telling me that's "representative"?

* straight guy with partner


Elizabeth said...

It is strange, Steve, given the number of positive reviews you have, that they would choose as most helpful the most negative ones. It occurs to me that the "most helpful" choice may be related to the number of "most helpful" votes the reviews received from readers -- and in that case, I would not be surprised to see that negative reviews of SHAM got more "most helpful" votes than the positive ones. You know that criticizing the self-help industry is un-American. ;)

Voltaire said...

Ummm... Since I have no interest in sports I can't use the "I buy Playboy for the article" excuse. I guess I'll just have to buy it to see if there's anything else worth reading.

Dimension Skipper said...

Elizabeth seems to me to have it pegged as far as the helpful/unhelpful voting stats on each review probably being the deciding factor. Maybe some combo formula taking into account sheer voting numbers and the percentage ratio of helpful to unhelpful.

My question (and I'm pretty sure yours too) is the validity of all the votes on that one particular review. Why did so many people (275 of 312) allegedly find it helpful? I suppose it could be a little bit of snowball effect once it started building up steam as the most helpful (negative) review.

I also wonder what sort of stats there might be for percentage of folks who visit any particular Amazon product page vs. percentage of folks who actually buy. And what percentage of folks either way even bother to mark a review as helpful or unhelpful. Personally, I read the reviews here and there, but have never voted once. If most people who visit a page don't purchase, then I can also imagine more of those folks voting the negative reviews as helpful to them.

But I still don't see how that would account for the sheer numbers on that one review. It seems skewed way out of proportion to all of the other voting numbers for any reviews. (Although I also see a 2-star review with helpful/unhelpful numbers of 128 out of 166.)

At a quick glance at all the "star" categories, I see nothing much in the way of voting numbers out of the teens (usually) or twenties, maybe an occasional odd thirties. There's a 5-star review I see with 26 helpful votes, but it's out of 34, so the overall percentage of helpful to unhelpful votes isn't as good as most any of the reviews with voting numbers in the teens.


Obviously I can't do a detailed analysis or take the time to comb through all the stats on the many pages of reviews (nor would anyone want me to, I'm sure, least of all you, Steve). So at best all I can do is give my usual worthless two-bit crackpot opinion.

Steve, I think you have legitimate reason to question the validity of the voting numbers on that one review. On the face of it it does seem to me to hint at (to me anyway) the possibility of some sort of semi-focused voting effort to keep that one at the top.

But I'm also not sure what Amazon can do about it without some sort of proof of such and I'm sure it would be impossible to prove unless someone suddenly admitted participating in such. I'm sure you've done far more looking into it than my short little thumbnail investigation just now, so I can't and won't tell you you're off base about the situation. I can certainly understand any frustration on your part as I don't get the impression you're looking to have a glowing 5-star review as the top one. You'd just rather not have that negative one up there all the time when the numbers seem so out of proportion to those of the more run-of-the mill reviews, good, bad, or middle ground.

WV: reamball...

LOL! Uh-uh, I ain't touchin' that one no way, now how!

Jonathan Cohen said...

Happened to me too with my novel, "Bear Like Me." Very annoying to have a low-starred review as the 'featured one.'

At least we didn't do what one sci-fi author did - slammed people who posted one-star reviews in comments on!

Steve Salerno said...

DS, your intitiave and attention to detail are remarkable. If I were a prosecutor, or a defense attorney—either one—I think I'd have to offer you some colossal amount to help me prepare my case.

A little history/context. First of all, it is naïve (as well as factually incorrect) to assume that the process of a review coming to the fore "just happens." As someone who watched the first/worst review (Bauer) go up within days of SHAM's official release in 2005, I can tell you that it was anointed to its position at the head of the class...and then the influx of helpful votes followed. At the time of SHAM's publication, the Amazon review system was primitive and grievously subject to manipulation/abuse. There were no real safeguards to prevent a person—that is, a single enterprising individual, alone at his keyboard—from writing a review (if not several of them, under different names) and then going back and immediately voting it/them "helpful" 100 consecutive times; all you'd have to do is delete the cookie Amazon placed in your browser each time (or, later, reboot your modem so that you'd be assigned a slightly different IP address). Since then, Amazon has put in place a few more hurdles that theoretically ensure a one-man/one-vote system, thus preventing a person, acting alone, from massively skewing a reader review—or indeed, the entire review page for a given book.

But there is still nothing that prevents someone, or more specifically a group of like-minded someones, from undertaking an organized campaign to plant favorable (or unfavorable) reviews and orchestrate their associated "helpful" rankings. This requires nothing more than a good-sized group of people with valid Amazon user accounts, acting in concert. Like, say, an author/publicist and a few hundred of his closest friends and colleagues. Viral marketers (e.g. Joe Vitale, Kevin Trudeau) are notorious for this; it is precisely the method by which they achieve early 5-star Amazon ratings for books or DVDs that eventually settle back down to a more modest number, once real people start reading/rating them.

There is also no question in my mind that when it comes to major books from powerful authors, the Amazon review system is not the passive, automated operation that Amazon spokespeople would have you believe; clearly there is someone minding the store, making conscious and pointed decisions about which reviews to highlight and which reviews to edit, bury or reject altogether. One easy way to bury a review is to hold up its approval for a while. Normally Amazon reviews are posted as they're received, so if you write one on January 17, it more or less immediately goes to the top of the line on the right side of the page, alongside the featured reviews, which remain more permanently in place. But if Amazon withholds your review's approval for a few days, such that it isn't published till, say, January 20, it will nonetheless be published with the other reviews from January 17, when you first wrote it, rather than the new ones from the 20th. Thus shunted farther back in the queue, it will be seen by far fewer people. I've had this happen to me several times on self-help books I've panned, and I've also heard some of my fellow authors complain about it.

If you want to read a hilarious (though I didn't think so at the time) case history in manipulation and abuse, search the SHAMblog archives, beginning around December 2005, for Dr. Phil's book, Love Smart—looking particularly for my various observations about the reviews written by one "Marilyn R. Barry." This will take some doing, as I don't think there's any single search coordinate that will bring up all of the relevant posts. But if you're dedicated enough (and/or have no life), take a look at all that, then tell me there's no one pulling the strings.

Interestingly enough, this morning I notice that Amazon has generously stuck in a 4-star review for SHAM, at the bottom of the trio of spotlight reviews. Here is its opening line: "Steve Salerno's 'SHAM' is worth reading despite its weaknesses and shortcomings." Not what you'd call an unqualified endorsement, huh?

Dimension Skipper said...

Steve, Thanks for elaborating. You cleared up most, well, actually all of my questions, I think, in regards to how a lot of that review system is maintained or administrated. Of course, I knew you already had much more detailed knowledge from your personal experience and investigations which you've hinted at.

I was just doing a quickie eyeballing of the different review ratings to try to gauge how representative that one review was as far as its helpful/unhelpful votes, both overall numbers and ratio. I didn't look beyond the first page of reviews for any one star rating, I just wanted to get a snapshot view of each.

But I also realized it wasn't near enough to draw any firm conclusions when no matter what I found I would still have no actual knowledge of the underpinnings of the process, just uneducated guesses. I was, and still am, more than willing to accept your general take on the issue based on your personal experience until I hear of something which I believe indicates a truly benign influence-proof system of reviewing (and review rankings) based on either pure random chance or a rigidly enforced statistical formula.

I did indeed notice that top most-helpful positive review (4-star) with that backhanded compliment to start. And I too immediately "Hmmm'd" at the thought of THAT being their most helpful postive review, yet starting out like that. With a beginning like that, it might just cut the following positivity down at the knees!

I will just add at this point that though I do peruse Amazon reviews from time to time if I'm trying to decide on a purchase (even if I only plan to purchase at a local store eventually) I try to judge each review by the general tone, wording, level of detail. If a review is written which mentions the sorts of things I might look for or comment about, then I may give that one a little more credence. And if all + or - reviews harp on one or two major themes either way, then I will begin to believe there's something in what they say.

But honestly, I can't say I've ever let Amazon reviews be the be-all and end-all in my decision-making process. It's just information, questionable maybe, but information. I can only speak for me on that, of course, but I would hope that most people would handle it similarly.

Steve Salerno said...

I don't think that Amazon reviews will deter anyone who went to the page with the specific intent of purchasing SHAM (or any other book they'd heard about and gotten excited about). However, if someone is on the fence--or if a buyer just found me through the blog, and decided to check out my book on Amazon, knowing little else about it in advance--I believe that a series of scathing reviews like the ones currently featured might make a difference. Especially in a case where the review is attacking not just the book in the overall, but my journalistic methodology and even the logic I employ. Remember: For the most part, anyone who buys a book like SHAM is going to be a fan of methodical, evidence-based thinking. And when you have a review like, say, Bauer's--that rips my methodology apart in what I consider a wholly erroneous, unfair and prejudicial way--then you're hitting my audience where it lives.

(And don't think that isn't by design, btw.)

Dimension Skipper said...

Not sure if my last comment went through or not as my browser locked up on me (as it sometimes does) just as I was trying to post. Had to forcibly close all open browser windows which were locked as a result anyway.

Also not sure I put the link in properly. So I'll try to remember what I said and re-submit...

I get your point, Steve. Fair enough. I can't disagree.

I am just beginning to peruse the "Love Smart"/Dr. Marilyn R. Barry. I probably won't bother clicking on through to individual post pages to skim the comments, but I just want to get a sense of what the situation was at the time. I may not have anything specific to say about it afterwards, but I am curious to skim over it since you mentioned it.

Dimension Skipper said...

I meant to say Love Smart/Dr. Marilyn R. Barry connection. Left out a word, obviously.

Also, in going back through those posts that popped up on my blog search, I see a link you yourself made along the way at the time, Steve, back to the Dec 2005 SHAMblog archive where the whole LS/MB thing began Dec 10, which is prior to the first posts that came up on the blog search I did.

It is certainly interesting and enlightening reading. And beyond curious as well. I'd almost rather Amazon et al just discontinue the practice of letting folks leave reviews and/or vote on them at all if there can't be some reasonable way to police them and verify the authenticity. There has to be some enforceable mechanism whereby the system can be guarded against self-serving abuse (by authors, publishers, or Amazon themselves) as well as vendetta-style abuse negatively targeting anybody or any product.

Elizabeth said...

Yeah, Bauer's SHAM review, which appears to be her only Amazon review, is unusual in the disproportionate number of votes it received. Strange.

Susan Wise Bauer is a writer, turns out, with her webpage, a blog, and a Wikipedia blurb.

P.S. DimSkip -- yay! Aren't you proud of me? Thanks again! :)

Anonymous said...

Not pertaining to reviews but to Amazon's business practice; I buy a huge amount of books on the site and resell most of them there when I've read the things.

I always price my books at the lowest cost, no matter the condition, as my priority is vacant shelf space not the cash.

Over time I have noticed that there is an autofunction in place on Amazon that reduces and increases the price of their own new offerings to compete with used prices. They get a cut of all the used sales anyway but they are very canny in their business model, it is their site after all, and ensure that competition for their own sales is never overwhelming.

This is something I have noticed and I find it intriguing but hardly unfair--Amazon is not in the business of being fair, they are in the business of maximising their profits and are unlikely to kill the golden goose of self-help.

You are probably right that there is some autofunction that prevents too much positive spin being given a high priority where your book is concerned, but business is never fair.
Can Amazon expect a lucrative series of books from you?
Publishers, even of detective novels will give a higher publicity budget to authors who can promise a series rather than a stand-alone book--this is not about how good or bad the book is but about nuturing the alluring and lucrative market of repeat customers.
Publishing and Bookstores are businesses and are driven by profit.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon et al: To my mind, there is a difference between (a) running an aggressive, opportunistic business that seeks to maximize profits, and (b) false and misleading business practices and/or a form of restraint of trade. Amazon should not be in the business of purposely sabotaging certain books, especially if it's doing so under the guise of fairness! It's one thing if you just have a totally laissez-faire system wherein, say, authors can stack the ballot box at will, providing as many phony reviews as they please. But to allow some authors to do that and not others--while also actively stacking the deck against those others--has to be a form of fraud. It simply has to be.

Anonymous said...

'while also actively stacking the deck against those others--has to be a form of fraud. It simply has to be.'

You may call this fraud but it is business as it is done in the 21st century, real politik.
I can call the banking bailouts fraud but I will still have to pay for them.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: Oh, I see. So--as "realists"--we just give in to it, huh? Good plan.

Chad Hogg said...

I don't expect to convince you otherwise, but I really, really doubt Amazon has the resources to pay staff to selectively exert influence over the ratings process. Not only would this be expensive, but it would also probably open up the company to some sort of legal liability (what doesn't?). Other than pushing a corporate agenda or rewarding specific prolific authors, I can see very little benefit to doing so. To me this just sounds like conspiracy theory.

On the other hand, ratings-based systems and the pseudo-anonymity of the Internet absolutely have the potential for fraud. I have read some research papers on trying to identify and filter out suspicious postings and ratings. It is a difficult problem, but the model of community policing typically works quite well -- see wikipedia edits or comment moderation on Slashdot for examples. Unfortunately if you are a victim of a successful astroturfing, you have really no recourse except to engage in the same type of behavior or encourage larger numbers of legitimate users to override the disingenuous ones.

Steve Salerno said...

Chad, I'm not contending that someone is sitting there at Amazon, hovering over a keyboard, with the specific mandate to "make Dr. Phil's book look good, dammit!" I'm saying that Amazon--like any business--makes more concessions to its biggest customers. If the publicist at S&S who's assigned to Dr. Phil's book calls up his rep at Amazon and says, "Hey, those last two reviews that came in, I think they're unfair and prejudicial"...then those last two reviews are coming down. (Lots of reviews went up and came down in the early days of Love Smart.) And I know for a fact that the publicists do keep tabs--sometimes very close tabs--on what's going on with Amazon; part of their job, in fact, is to ensure a "nice product environment" on the online sales channels. Also, you see many, many cases where a review appears at first "in full," then a few days later reappears in edited form. Now how did that happen?

Clout calls the shots. And you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to appreciate the validity of that dictum.

Jen said...

Elizabeth, you say: Susan Wise Bauer is a writer, turns out,....

Her name sounded familiar. In fact, I went to my bookshelf thinking I had one of her books but the book I was thinking about was by somebody else with a somewhat similar name, Mary Baures. I was actually quite relieved to learn that she wasn't the one who left such a scorching (and I agree with Steve - erroneous, unfair and prejudiced) review because I love Mary's book.

On the other hand, when I went to Bauer's website (thank you for the link, Elizabeth), I realized why her name was so familiar. I tried reading one of her books one time and it did not hold my interest at all. Dry. Boring. Uninteresting. I liked her topic but just couldn't stay with it because the writing style just wasn't my cup of tea, I guess.

Elizabeth said...

Yeah, Jen (et al.), and Bauer's Wiki blurb sounds as if she herself (or her mom?:) wrote it: "Learned Latin at 10," etc. Not that there is anything wrong with that, I'm just sayin', yanno. :)

Speaking of just sayin', my shout-out to DimSkip earlier was an enthusiastic thank-you for his kind and patient help in teaching me how to make those pretty blue links within comments, something I wanted to learn for a long time, but couldn't figure out on my own. It may seem like a small step for the mankind, but it's a major accomplishment for one technically-challenged woman. So thank you again, DimSkip.

And what's more, DimSkip has provided a valuable public service by posting his lesson on his blog, so anyone who's curious can learn. (Hope you don't mind the plug, DimSkip.)

Theo said...

Hey Steve, not sure why my blog post is linking down below there? I've an RSS feed from your site on mine, but – I don’t know why it would link to that post??? (Although John Edward is a douche...)

Also, Amazon manipulating reviews wouldn't surprise me. However, wouldn't their motive simply be to sell as many books, no matter what about, as possible?

My first guess would be screw up, rather than anything else.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: It's funny, on a fair number of its entries, Wikipedia puts a disclaimer at the top that says something like "this item does not meet standards for neutrality" or "needs documentation" or whatever. And yet some people get away with putting in place shamelessly self-serving material.

Theo: As noted above, the problem lies less with Amazon per se than its susceptibility to outside influence. And publishers aren't inherently fair-minded, either. They go with the hot hand. I was told by my then-agent that "SHAM" was shot down at a number of possible publishers by the marketing departments, which didn't want to have to "put something out there" that made their company's other marquee authors, many of whom wrote self-help, look bad. If a publisher publishes books by both John "Mars/Venus" Gray and Steve Salerno--where do you think the institutional emphasis (and, maybe more important, PR money) is going to go? And when it comes to pressuring Amazon to ensure favorable treatment, whose feelings do you think the publisher and its PR staff are going to worry about? Mine? Or John Gray's?

Anonymous said...

I don't know what's going on in America but it looks like a lot of people are very sad to see Bush go?

I just wanted to get your valuable opinions on this blog post because if he was this good then why didn't the world like him?


Steve Salerno said...

Londoner: Part of me thinks you're being sarcastic/facetious. But taking your question at face value, you must consider first that the column to which you link sees life through a Christian-fundamentalist lens, and that has always been Bush's base. Indeed, it was political strategist Karl Rove's "master plan" from the outset to court the Fundamentalists, who always felt disenfranchised and have long been unhappy with the perceived degradation of American values. So if you look at life from that POV, it really doesn't matter if the nation has factually gone to hell in a hand-basket, because we're "doing the Lord's work" in the process. In a way, it's the same as 9/11: The human tragedy that the terrorists wreaked on that day didn't matter, in their minds, because their first loyalty was to Allah, or their conception of what he expected from devout Muslims.

That has long been one of the scariest aspects of the deeply religious crowd, to me: They're willing to make considerable sacrifices here on earth (and they'll demand those sacrifices from me, as well as themselves) because their primary concern is getting to the Afterlife in good standing.

Elizabeth said...

Londoner, what Steve said. Fundie Christians love Bush, in their eyes he can do no wrong. But, boy, the writer of that blogpost needs to brush up on reality, fast. All that gushing about Bush being the champion of Afghan women... Mhm hm. Saying that women in Afghanistan voted for the first time thanks to Bush is historic revisionism (or simple ignorance). Women in Afghanistan got the right to vote in 1964, but lost it later "thanks" to the US meddling in the Afghanistan's politics (the same meddling that created Osama bin Laden as the leader of the anti-American terrorist crusade).

In Afghanistan, the US-supported and financed Mujahideen and then
Taliban "liberated" women from freedom and equality they enjoyed for years. Even when Americans had a chance to insist on promoting human rights for Afghan women, they chose the prospect of oil profits as more important. US powers-that-be had no qualms about selling Afghan women to perpetual slavery for access to oil.

To find more on the abominable, below-the-public-radar machinations of the American government in curtailing women's rights in exchange for access to
oil, do your own search and cross-reference, for example, UNOCAL, one of our illustrious energy giants with an appetite for Afghan oil, and Taliban. I promise you an eye-opening journey.

I also want to note that Bush's first official US representative to Afghanistan, later our first ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay
Khalilzad, a man who was intimately engaged in shaping the new Iraqi constitution and who recently was the US ambassador to the United Nations, is a former representative of UNOCAL, the same US oil giant previously involved in selling human rights of Afghan women for oil.

Last but not least, this expresses evaluations of Bush's presidency here and abroad in a manner that more accurately reflects the views of the majority.

But I digress. After all, we don't want SHAMblog to become overly political, do we. :)

Dimension Skipper said...

I can't remember if I posted this around SHAMblog before or not, but since the subject of Bush's legacy was brought up I thought it would be worth pointing out (even yet again as the case may be)...

Rice: People will soon thank Bush for what he's done
From CNN Political Producer Kristi Keck
(December 28, 2008)

Obviously she may be just a tad biased, but in general I think there's some truth to much of what she says there. I'm not saying anyone should buy it specifically in regards to W. (or that I do), just that there is some general sense to it.

Adopting something of a wait and see attitude is, I think, highly advisable when it comes to anyone's legacy issues. Opinions of a moment in time can always be formed, of course, but care must be taken that they do not become so entrenched that they must be defended at all costs rather than re-molded or even discarded if future information warrants.

If I must change an opinion in order to be "right," then I'd rather do that than stubbornly cling to a known "wrong" (or likely wrong) view when emerging evidence casts extreme doubt on it. I'd rather be wrong and then adapt to end up being right than to have to expend enormous effort trying to convince others that my initial wrongness is right when it isn't. Am I right? ;-)

Eliz: No problem with the "how-to" blog ref. If it helps anyone else do the link thang, that's fine.

Obviously, you've been making good use of the HTML link method so far!

As a blog reader I just find clickable plain text links to be so much more convenient than being faced with a TinyURL or the complete raw address string to copy and paste. Since it only requires a tiny bit of extra effort to implement the HTML tags when entering such links in comments, I think it's worth the "trouble."

The only general caveat I might add, though—only because I just thought of it, not because of anything you've linked to yourself, Eliz—is just that of course one should always try to respect any perceived or stated guidelines for referencing other sites as explicitly set forth or even just hinted at by a site administrator. I guess one should consider all that too even if just posting TinyURLs or raw addresses, but the convenience of HTML links brings the issue a little more to the fore due to its ease of clickability for everyone.

Happy linking!

Jen said...

Elizabeth wrote: Bauer's Wiki blurb sounds as if she herself (or her mom?:) wrote it: "Learned Latin at 10," etc. Not that there is anything wrong with that, I'm just sayin', yanno. :)

Yes, à la "helicopter" mom. ;)

About SWB, I wonder if she wasn't just personally offended by something she saw in SHAM (the book). Seriously, there was no reason to come down as hard as she did; I figure there's a grudge or niggling philosophical disagreement. I went to her website this morning and read an excerpt from one of her books, just to remind myself what it was I found so tiresome about her writing style. Turns out it wasn't the style so much as the narrow religious perspective, which strikes me as somewhat "small" minded in contrast to the large topic (education) she addresses with it.

Theo said...

Steve - it'd be interesting to find examples of other good books that are up against "the big guys" to see if there's something similar going on. If so, you'd definitely start to build more evidence.

I might have to get an amazon account just to write you another good review (I've enjoyed lending SHAM to a few Dr Phil, "The Secret", followers I know of).

Elizabeth said...

Y'all, since we are on the subject of, check this great new toy (you can add it to your or your children's wish lists!). And please do not forget to read the consumers' reviews. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Guys for your comments - I only just read them.

I never asked from a "sarcastic/facetious" point of view - just a real need for "truth" if there is such a thing.

I'm just discovering that there is a whole bunch of people in America that you just can't seem to get through to. They are not able to hold an objective conversation about anything and talk with such conviction - that sometimes I catch myself thinking - maybe they are right and I'm the one who just doesn't get it?

I suppose its the same with the rest of SHAM. The peddlers sell it so convincingly that the buyers buy just to see what they're missing.