ARCs for Free: Amazon Vine and the Vine Voices

Possibly the single most common question on the Amazon Top Reviewers Forum is "how do I get into Amazon Vine"? It's not surprising that reviewers are curious - thousands of reviews on the Amazon website are stamped with the "Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program" banner, hundreds of reviewers carry the"Vine Voice" badge, and the Amazon official explanation of the program is anything but clear. It's easy to imagine an invitation into Amazon Vine as being a truly wondrous thing: a mark of appreciation from Amazon, a source of respect from your readers and fellow reviewers, and an endless fount of pre-release books, movies, and games (not to mention all those expensive printers and exercise machines that you've seen liberally sprinkled with Vine Voice reviews!).

The reality, of course, is something different from the fantasy, or rather it may be depending on your personal experience. However, having been a Vine Voice myself for quite sometime, and because I like to disclose where, how, and under what conditions I receive my free Advance Review Copies for review, here's my own personal take on the Amazon Vine program. It should go without saying that much of what follows is my opinion, and to take with a grain of salt.

What is the Amazon Vine program?

The Amazon Vine program is a review program hosted by Amazon wherein publishers of books and other products can provide "evaluation copies" of their products to Amazon to be distributed by Amazon to a select group of reviewers ("Vine Voices").

It would seem that the publishers provide the "evaluation copies" at their own expense to Amazon and furthermore pay a fee to Amazon in order to participate. It would seem that the evaluation copies ship to the Vine Voices from Amazon warehouses, and presumably the shipping costs are taken from the publisher membership fees. The Vine Voices receive the evaluation copies for free, but are (officially) required to return the items to Amazon if requested to do so. (Unofficially, there has been no known recall of items, and Vine Support emails have given permission to dispose in the trash any unwanted evaluation copies after review.)

Amazon maintains the program in order to drive business to their site via the attention brought in from the Vine Voice reviews. Publishers participate in order to increase awareness of their products via the Vine Voice reviews. Reviewers participate because it's extremely pleasant to receive Advance Review Copies of books in the mail on a regular basis.

How do I join the Amazon Vine Program? 

To be honest, no one knows an answer to this except Amazon - but there are some generalities that we can extrapolate based on given data. Amazon occasionally - and almost always in batches - extends invites to the program to existing reviewers on their site, so it's almost certain that you need to have an Amazon account and have written at least a few reviews on the Amazon website in order to receive an invitation.

Beyond that, however, there is very little in common across the new Vine Voices when they receive their invitation. Some new Vine Voices have less than 15 reviews; others have hundreds. Some new Vine Voices have "helpful ratings" in the high 90s; others are rated in the low 30s. Obviously, an invitation to Amazon Vine isn't simply a matter of hitting a certain number of reviews or a certain level of helpfulness measured by votes on the site.

One thing that many Vine Voices have noted - myself included - is that some time prior to receiving the invitation (sometimes several months prior, to be clear), they wrote Amazon support asking about the Vine program and asking how to join. The answers were form letters repeating the basic information in the Amazon official Vine explanation, but there has been speculation that merely expressing interest can put a reviewer on a list of potential invites.

If you're really bound and determined to join Amazon Vine, remember to check the Vine webpage frequently. Many Vine Voices have reported not receiving official requests to join (either through faulty mailers or spam filters), but once the invitation has been extended, the webpage is directly accessible for the newly invited Vine Voice.

How does the Vine program work?

Every third and fourth Thursday of the month, a list of Vine items goes up as a newsletter that the Vine Voices can access. The 3rd Thursday newsletter is a short list of items that have supposedly been "targeted" to groups of individual Vine Voices; the 4th Thursday newsletter is a long list of all the items still available in Vine.

On these Thursdays, Vine Voices may select 2 Vine items to be sent to them for review. (On rare "cleaning days", Vine Voices may select 4 items instead of 2.) Ostensibly, the items are to be picked from the "given" newsletter of the week, but once an item has been offered to a Vine Voice, they can always choose it by going directly to that item's webpage link - this is useful on "short list" days when a Vine Voice may want to use their picks to get something offered on the previous "long list" of the previous month.

The items on the lists are grouped by "type", with the books up front, the "sold out" items in back, and the electronics and other expensive toys somewhere in the middle. The lists go up at 2 pm CST, and all electronics and other expensive items are always gone within the first minute - so if you're thinking to join Vine to score a new printer or elliptical machine, know that you have to pretty much win the Vine lottery to pull it off.

What am I agreeing to, as a Vine member?

The Vine program is designed to benefit Amazon and the publishers first and foremost. As a Vine Voice, your reviews of Vine items are meant to be posted only at Amazon.com or on webpages that don't compete with Amazon for the sales of the item in question. In other words, if you receive a book from Amazon Vine, you can publish your Vine review on Amazon.com, your personal blog, and GoodReads.com (and other, similar reading sites), but not, for example, on BarnesAndNoble.com.

Furthermore, Vine Voices are not to sell or donate their Vine items to anyone else. The obvious reason for this is that doing so would prevent a sale for the publisher; the stated reason is that the items are "pre-release" and shouldn't be circulated because people might get confused. The official Amazon Vine member f.a.q. actually states that Amazon "owns" the Vine items and that the Vine Voices must be prepared to send the items back on request at any time, but if you email the Vine Support staff, they'll cheerfully tell you that you can throw any Vine item in the trash after 6 months.

What are the disadvantages of Vine?

There are a lot of good reasons to be a part of the Vine program, but there are a lot of disadvantages as well. The root cause of almost all of the disadvantages is, in my opinion, the complete unwillingness of Amazon to invest the necessary resources to nurture the program. This results in several main drawbacks that - it must be said - other ARC providers don't have. These drawbacks are: lack of program transparency, heavy reliance on program gimmicks, failure to correctly segregate item types, and complete unwillingness to moderate member behavior.

Lack of Program Transparency. Everything about the Amazon Vine program appears shrouded in secrecy to the outsider. The green product banner and profile badges click over to confusing legalese announcements that frequently fail to clarify that the reviewer got the item for free and that the reviewer is not an Amazon employee. Many customers find the banners and badges confusing, and some become genuinely upset because they don't realize the basic details of the program - for instance, that the items distributed through Vine are subsidized at the marketing expense of the publishers and not by raising prices on Amazon.

Even to Vine Voices, the program can be confusing and labyrinthine to navigate. The official Amazon f.a.q. is a sparse document written in legalese that has (apparently) not been updated since the initial launch of the program. Basic questions such as "do Vine Voices own the items they receive" and "can Vine Voices dispose of the items they receive" and "do Vine Voices need to declare the items they receive on their taxes" are simply not addressed publicly. If you email the Vine Support address, they will answer these questions, but it's important to note that (a) while these answers agree in general, they are not identical and therefore may not represent an iron-clad Amazon policy and (b) as long as these answers are confined to private discussions rather than public announcements, then they are ultimately worthless to the Vine Voice community at large.

To my knowledge, there is nowhere online that gives an official estimate of the number of Vine Voices, nor is there any known list of publishers who use Amazon Vine. Contrast this with NetGalley.com which frequently and proudly announces their number of reviewers and whose publisher list is a public document available for anyone to see.

Heavy Reliance on Program Gimmicks. The Vine newsletter goes up on a weekday at 2 pm CST - a time when almost everyone is at work. The Vine Voices who can arrange to have internet access at that time have a serious advantage over the Vine Voices who cannot - and the newsletter times never change and are only moved in case of major holiday conflicts (such as Thanksgiving). Everything on the list is "first come, first serve", creating a sort of feeding frenzy as Vine Voices click-click-click to find something they like, want, or need before everything is gone.

The flip side to this frenzy is that too many times the Vine item received is not something the Vine Voice would have ordered if they had more time to carefully consider the item details. That piece of software wouldn't work on the Vine Voice's computer. That book that looked like an interesting fairy-tale reboot turned out to be a religious tract on a religion that the Vine Voice has no interest in. The Vine Voice tried to click on The Girl with the Pearl Earring and instead got The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

What makes this "click quick" gimmick worse is that the Vine program employs "carrot-and-stick" tactics to try to force the Vine members to participate. In order to receive more items, the reviewer must review 75% of their Vine selections. The problem is that when you're forced to read and review a mystery novel when you wanted a romance novel, or you have to wade through the Rosetta Stone Italian program far enough to suss out a good review when you'd actually been trying to get the Rosetta Stone Spanish program, some of that frustration is going to bleed over into your review.

There's no real reason for Amazon to continue to use this archaic "click quick" model for most of their Vine items - NetGalley provides a seemingly unlimited number of electronic ARCs to their reviewers because electronic copies don't run out. Amazon could easily switch over to offering Kindle ARCs to their Vine members (indeed, many members have asked repeatedly for this very function!), and then at the very least the feeding frenzy over books could cease - reviewers could log in at their leisure and make intelligent, considered picks that would reflect their choices and would maximize helpful reviews for publishers and customers.

In the same vein, NetGalley enforces no "review rate" on their items because it's not necessary - they realize that the reviewers who sign up for NetGalley review because they love to review and no further carrot or stick is needed.

Failure to Correctly Segregate Item Types. If you throw a $10 book, a $10 pack of granola bars, a $500 printer, and a $10,000 treadmill into a room of reviewers, mix in a severe time limit, a high degree of competition, and a "review rate" barrier to the items, the book is going to lose. It doesn't matter how much you personally like books or how many you like to read; the book is still the least important thing in the room under those circumstances.

The book is expendable because it can be gotten from the library or from any number of other ARC sites the reviewer is probably associated with. The granola bars are important under these circumstances because they're a quick and easy review and that "review rate" barrier constantly hangs like the sword of Damocles over the reviewer. The $500 printer is something that the reviewer almost certainly can and will use on a frequent basis, so snagging it represents a major "opportunity bonus", fiscally. And the $10,000 treadmill is a luxury item that the reviewer would probably never have bought, but is going to definitely covet - if they love it and use it daily, what a find! and if they don't, well, it was free.

There is absolutely no reason for the Vine program to be a kitchen-sink jumble of product types, and there's no reason for the Vine Voice members to be an incredibly assorted collection of specialist reviewers. Long-term electronics reviewers invited to Vine are going to be frustrated by heavy offerings of books; participating publishers cannot help but be disappointed with reviews for treadmills that discuss how quickly the treadmill was able to propel M&Ms into the wall or with how a video baby monitor was used to watch the coffee pot in the kitchen. (These are actual Vine reviews I have seen.)

Amazon could create multiple Vine program divisions - "Vine Electronics", "Vine Books", "Vine Music", "Vine Exercise", "Vine Baby", etc. - and trusted reviewers could be selected to participate in some or all of those programs according to whatever criteria Amazon wanted to use. Instead, Amazon has elected to create some kind of bizarre Tragedy of the Commons situation that doesn't benefit publishers, customers, or reviewers - but as long as publishers keep using it, Amazon still gets their fee.

Complete Unwillingness to Moderate Member Behavior. No one except Amazon knows how many Vine Voices there are, least of all the Vine Voices. There is a "Vine Voice" forum that can be found here (link from Wikipedia) but of the hundreds (thousands?) of Vine Voice members that apparently exist on the Amazon membership rolls, only about 50 or so Vine Voices participate on the forum with any regularity.

The reason for this is that a small handful of Vine members - no more than about a dozen people - have completely overrun the forum with rude and abusive behavior. In the two years I myself have been with Vine, I've seen Top Ten Reviewers harangued out of the forum for politely asking simple questions, and I've seen new Vine members stalked on their non-Vine reviews by Vine members claiming to be "protecting Vine integrity" by harshly criticizing the reviews and publicly posting personal details about the reviewers. These same dozen Vine Voices have gone to great effort in the past to hunt down the full names, ages, and addresses of Vine Voices who they "disapprove" of for various reasons, and have posted that information publicly with their complaints.

In theory, Amazon has declared this behavior in appropriate, but always in such meek and mild language that the declaration is practically worthless except as a legal disclaimer, and the dozen or so misbehaving members are never disciplined or removed from the program. In theory, Amazon has also declared "campaign voting" (voting on reviews to impact ratings or helpful percentages) to be inappropriate behavior for Vine Voices, but in practice most new Vine Voices who join the program and introduce themselves to the other members invariably see an immediate influx of negative votes on their existing reviews.

Almost all of the Vine Voices stay out of the Amazon Vine forum altogether. The ones who do participate either use their real name and weather the abuse and campaign voting, or they create a blank "sock" account with Amazon to use for forum participation - in order to protect their reviews and their identities from being abused. Amazon could choose to moderate the forum, but they are so far not willing to devote the resources to do so - the most recent "official" post in the forum at time of this writing was 7 months ago.

Is the Vine program worth it?

I think that depends on what you want from the program. If you like physical copies of books and want to find a way to get more Advance Review Copies, then I think Vine will work for you as long as you don't mind the newsletter gimmick, the review rate gate, and as long as you turn off your Vine badge and stay out of the forum.

On the other hand, if you're interested non-book items and primarily review those, be aware that you're very unlikely to get those items through Vine. Non-books items are offered, of course, but you're one person among hundreds trying to snag them, and there are almost surely easier ways to sample those items elsewhere for review. And keep in mind that technically any item you receive from Vine is yours to keep or throw away only - you're not going to be getting rich on eBay from your Vine items.

Also, if you're a "competitive reviewer" on Amazon and pay close attention to your rank and helpful percentage, Vine may not be for you. Vine items account for a huge percentage of my accrued negative votes - Vine reviews are regularly subject to "neg campaigns" from angry authors, fellow Vine Voices, and upset or confused Amazon customers. It's not uncommon to visit a product page and see that every Vine review, whether positive or negative, has 5+ negative votes and only one or two positive ones.

Why do you stay in Vine?

For the time being, there's no reason not to. I care about promoting publishers and authors, and I've found a lot of wonderful new authors through my Amazon Vine activity. I have an increasingly hard time keeping my review rate to 75% (largely because it's easier for me to read "on the go" with eBooks than with bulky paper books), but if I get to a point where I can't select any new Vine items, I won't lose sleep over it. I strongly disagree with how Amazon is managing the program, and I'm frustrated that inmates have been allowed to run the asylum in the official forum, but it's my choice whether to read or participate, and I try to exercise that choice wisely.

13 comments:

Krissy said...

I just joined and I thank you for the post. This was very helpful to me and answered several questions I had about the program. I can't wait to get my first two books to review. Thanks again for this great post!

Rick221 said...

Reread your article. At least four typos.

Ana Mardoll said...

Only four? Sweet! I'm getting a lot better than I used to be - I still mistype "quite" as "quiet" quite (haha) frequently.

Sometimes Husband spot-checks my writing, but then I remember that perfect is the enemy of good and I tell him to do something more fun and productive than spell-checking a blog post. :P

Arro said...

Fantastic article and really quite spot on. The monthly feeding frenzy does become a chore but I find in the UK a lot of the quality books are overlooked in favour of expensive items (such as sets of lego) that the Voices are probably just trying to obtain to placate a child or fill a Christmas present slot for free. So it often really doesn't bother me and as such, I tend to get a lot still from the Vine program.

Cantabele said...

Really great synopsis of the programs pros and cons.

Cynthia

Liz said...

I found your post while searching for info on the vine program, and just want to say thanks! This was incredibly helpful. To add to your anecdotal evidence- I wrote a bunch of reviews (~30) two years ago. I've written a few sporadically since then. Although I was curious about the Vine program, I never asked anyone if I could join. I never received an e-mail or a link on my account page. I happened to accidentally click on the vine page yesterday when I was trying to get to something else, and suddenly I was invited to join.
It's really helpful to know more about the pitfalls before I start so that I can avoid as many as possible. I don't have much interest in writing tons of reviews, and plan on going carefully and slowly, even if I miss out on picking things most months. Thanks again for the help!

Ana Mardoll said...

Thank you, Liz! And welcome to the Vine program! :D

Lindsey said...

Thanks. Interesting. I'm a manufacturer and current supplier to Amazon and I'm thinking of joining the Vine. For me, this means I have to submit "samples" for Amazon to dispense to the vine community. The problem is, I wont be told how many "samples" until after I've agreed to put my product into the vine. I'm a small "Mom & Pop" outfit and if they tell me I have to supply them with 50 samples, I would have to see an order of 500 to re-coup my costs. Contrary to your post, I DO NOT have to pay anything to Amazon to participate but I do have to supply the "samples". Which is sort of the same thing as paying a fee.
By the way...I love your response to the guy with to much time on his hands...Spell checking blog posts is kind of pathetic.

Wandrwoman said...

Ana, Fantastic post! This should be required reading for all new Vine members and anyone who thinks they want to be a Vine member.

Ana Mardoll said...

Why, thank you, Wandrwoman! That's a double compliment coming from you - as you are not only a talented reviewer, but you are also a relatively recent Vine Voice addition, so hearing from you that this post is meaningful and helpful is such a huge boost for me! I'm thrilled you found it worthwhile. :)

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