Confessions of a Former Vine Reviewer Who Ultimately Took a Different Road

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …
And, for a time, I took the road of Vines.
with apologies to Robert Frost

New York Times’ The Secret Life of Amazon’s Vine Reviewers headlineSuddenly, last week, I had friends ask me a question I hadn’t heard in years: You’re a Vine reviewer on Amazon, aren’t you?

Ever since the investigative report by John Herrman in The New York Times on , Americans have been fascinated by what Herrman describes as an almost inconceivable realm of avid Amazon reviewers who literally equip their homes from pantry to bedroom, and from basement to garage, with free products Amazon ships to them in exchange for their reviews.

Reports in business magazines and websites are breathlessly calling this a little-known service, which is invitation only for the elite of Amazon reviewers. Herrman’s story describes how some top Vine Voices have turned Amazon reviewing into their full-time occupation. At one point, Herrman describes a Vine Voice reviewer as clad from head to toe in Vine apparel (including Vine perfume). His descriptions of the cascading products from Amazon include, in one instance:

Five vacuums here; 14 hard drives there; some laptops and cellphones; Bluetooth speakers, and headphones, and headsets, and, well, pretty much anything with Bluetooth, so much Bluetooth, mouthful after mouthful of blue teeth.

Sounds absolutely crazy, doesn’t it? Somehow these lucky reviewers are getting entire trucks full of free stuff in exchange for their reviews. Friends who read that Times article were floored, then fascinated, amused and ultimately concerned.

Too Incredible to be True?

Amazon Vine logoThat’s nuts! one friend emailed me after reading Herrman’s story.

Half of me wants to figure out how to become a Vine reviewer and get in on this thing that sounds like winning Wheel of Fortune—and half of me is mad at Amazon for turning top reviewers into what sounds like minions in a secret sausage factory!

If you take time to dig deeply into Amazon’s arcane realm known as the Seller Forums, you will find that Vine reviewers—and Amazon customers who have learned about Vine—are confused. You’ll find comments from people who are furious about the whole idea of Vine. You’ll also find Vine reviewers who complain about flaws in the system—like one woman who was sent some products that broke right out of the box, or equipment she couldn’t possibly use.

The other big gripe among Vine reviewers is that Amazon now has bowed to the IRS and sends Viners a 1099 form at the end of each year, listing the total retail price of all the stuff they were sent over the last 12 months. For years, Amazon skipped that step. At some point, the 1099s began to appear in mailboxes—and Viners suddenly faced big tax bills!

But, the greatest fear in Vine-land isn’t taxes. It’s the paranoia that someday Amazon’s faceless, nameless gods hovering over the master controls back at the command center will kick them off the gravy train of free products—without any clear rationale about why they were removed. One day, the boxes are flooding your doorstep. The next—you’re history!

As Herrman found in his reporting, Vine reviewers carefully guard their privacy and tend to be very wary about talking to outsiders—especially to journalists.

So, how did I—a veteran journalist myself—wind up in the Vine program?

Amazon’s Vine Invitation …
or, Where Roads Diverged in Media

In the history of American publishing, is now enshrined as a legendary milestone. It’s as if, with little warning that year, the same tornado that swept up Dorothy’s gray old farmhouse in The Wizard of Oz suddenly sucked up the entire publishing industry and slammed it down again in a disorienting Technicolor world. That year, the iPhone was introduced—placing powerful computerized multi-media in billions of palms around the world. Then, that same year, the Kindle was launched—promising to overwhelm ink-on-paper books. Overnight, millions of books had to be digitized!

Panic ensued! Fortunes were spent by publishers trying to retool backlists!

Oh, yes, and there’s more: also is notable because software innovator John Hile and I co-founded our publishing house. John was a transformational software developer all his life and decided to join a small circle of publishing developers who met in California to talk about this crazy new world yawning in front of publishers. John came back to Michigan convinced that we were in the midst of a transformative moment in media.

Because he is a scientist, John was eager to tell people that publishers were going through a high-pressure, rapidly accelerating Venturi effect. Click to read more about that, if you want, but—as a journalist—I simply called it a tornado.

Was it a Venturi? Or a Kansas twister? You can choose your preferred terminology. The point is: Together, we jumped into that precise, whirling moment of disruption in American publishing!

At the same time, was investing its fortune in stirring up that transformational whirlpool faster and faster. Much like giving a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart of its Community of reviewers, Amazon invited its most promising reviewers to join something called the Vine.

Get the reference? You’ve probably forgotten, but Amazon also is the name of a vast river in South America. This program was supposed to represent new Vines drawing all tribes together at Amazon’s shores.

What was the lure of the Vine? It sounded like Christmas every month of the year. You’d get a steady stream of free books to review—a very attractive idea to book lovers.

Why Was I Chosen?

The Vine has always been invitation only—from its dawn to today.

And, at that same moment, I had quickly become a popular reviewer. That’s because I had set out on what I regarded as a different path through the Amazon jungles.

As a journalist, my goal is always to fairly and accurately publish stories and reviews that can help readers improve their understanding of our world. Balance and transparency is the goal of any good journalist. We share in a commitment to helping readers find news that they can use in their daily lives. That’s been our editorial policy at magazine for 12 years!

So, my approach to Amazon reviewing was to search through the vast lists of new books about my area of specialty—religious and cultural diversity—and highlight the best ones for other readers. My reviews would form a pathway of helpful, compelling information. That’s why most of my hundreds reviews over more than a decade have been 5-star reviews. I pick out the gems and highlight them.

I’m clearing a helpful path.

Back in , my approach to reviewing quickly caught the eyes of many Amazon customers, who encouraged me by clicking helpful buttons on my reviews. My ranking soared from somewhere way down in the millions—where all new reviewers start—up into the rarefied air of the Top 1,000 reviewers. That’s when’s central command came calling on me with a Vine invitation.

Right away, I could see that Vine was intriguing. As I clicked over to view my first menu of free offerings, I found that Amazon was listing a couple of new books in my area of specialty. I signed up to receive them. They arrived on my doorstep right away. I read those books—and I selected one that proved to be outstanding and inspiring. I posted my first Vine review, which appeared along with a new green Vine badge next to that particular review.

The Competition Heats Up

In those days, late and early , most of the Vine offerings were books. But I could tell very quickly that there was a highly competitive spirit in this new kingdom of Vines. We all were told to watch for new offerings on a particular date, each month. At a particular moment on that scheduled date, the free items were posted—and it was first come, first served at the trough. Every now and then, a valuable product would pop up. I still remember the first free video camera I saw in the listings—but those cameras were gone within minutes of the posting time.

I felt a pang of nostalgia when I read Herrman’s recent description of this process in Vine’s early days. Using a Viner named Ms. de Avila as his example, Herrman’s description pretty much nails that competitive process:

In it was, as apparatuses go, primitive. On the third Thursday of each month, Ms. de Avila would take a seat at her computer a little before and start refreshing, knowing that around the country, other Viners were doing the same. A monthly list would be posted to an internal portal and go out in an email as well. There might be a dozen items, each in limited quantities. The lists were heavy on books at first. Many of them would be gone in seconds, she remembered, and there were often technical difficulties. That was the excitement of it, she said. I was pretty quick at the draw, so I got some pretty good stuff, Ms. de Avila said. I got multiple cameras, video cameras, probably more than a dozen.

Here in my Michigan office, I could tell pretty quickly that this new system was devolving into a feeding frenzy. Herrman’s choice of the word primitive was apt.

And, from the start, I defied that chaotic system. I had zero interest in interrupting my busy day to sit around waiting on Amazon. I didn’t mind at all, if I missed out on free stuff. Getting free cameras wasn’t my purpose, anyway. That would not have matched my specialities as a journalist. I’m no expert on cameras.

So, as an early Viner, I would check the new lists a day or two after they were posted. Usually, the books that interested me were still available. There apparently weren’t many religion writers among those early Viners.

Who Swiped the Beef Jerky?

Beef jerkyThen, one month, I recall visiting the menu of new offers to discover that the only thing left was a sack of beef jerky!

No kidding!

While I don’t know much about cameras, I am a fan of jerky and have reported over the years on trends in cuisine. So, I clicked on the button to have Amazon ship me that flavorful little sack. And, the only non-book Vine review I ever published was a 5-star review on a very tasty new recipe for jerky.

Then, here’s the other surprise: I was always proud of that review. When people asked if I was ever a Vine reviewer, I’d smile and say, Yes, I was part of that Amazon feeding trough, years ago—but all I remember is nabbing a bit of free jerky!

Friends would chuckle. But, then at some point and without any warning, the Amazon command center swiped my review of that jerky. It’s gone!

Gaps in Amazon’s History

Today, I can go back to the dawn of my days as an reviewer—a dozen years ago, now—and I can find the first reviews of books I recommended. As part of that global transformation in , I had agreed to spend some weeks working in Asia as a journalist helping the non-profit East-West Center. I came back home absolutely convinced that Americans should begin reading a whole lot more about Chinese culture and tradition.

To this day, I stand by one particular Asian-themed review I posted in early . That’s a 5-star recommendation of an excellent book by Yale scholar Annping Chin on The Authentic Confucius.

My entire body of reviews seems to live on eternally on—but my recent surprise was the discovery that some of my early Vine reviews are gone.

I think Amazon’s minions are scouring their vast global Community to mop up—perhaps reviewer by reviewer or product line by product line—a lot of those early Vine reviews.

A Good (But Anxious) Citizen of the Community

Don’t get me wrong here! I’m known nationally as a good citizen in Amazon’s Community. In fact, I publicly advise everyone to behave in an ethical manner when posting reviews. Just look at my most recent Front Edge Publishing column on the subject. At this publishing house, we are known for our transparent, ethical conduct as professionals.

But, clearly, Amazon’s Great Eye at the command center is always scouring the imperial domain. I’ve personally seen warning messages that remind me to keep watching my step.

One sign of that? The doors to my own Vine vault of early reviews seemed to have slammed shut behind me. As I tried to research my own history with Vine for this column, I went to my old Vine-reviewing area within Amazon—and suddenly spotted an Alert message in a golden box that popped up, telling me: At this time, we’re ending your membership in the program. … Thank you for participating in the Amazon Vine program.

What We Advise about Vine

I only published this whole story, because Herrman’s Times story has sparked such national buzz about the mysterious kingdom of Vine.

While there’s plenty of open hostility out there about the whole idea of an elite Vine realm, I’ve also seen lots of heads shaking in disbelief that some men and women were able to build their Vine reviewing into a full-time profession.

It’s like hearing about a fabled kingdom—only after that kingdom has vanished, one friend said. Sounds like there were good and bad things in that kingdom—but I’d kind of like to experience it, wouldn’t you?

Well, I already have and I’ve been exiled, I said. But I was never there in Vine’s glory days—only when the early pioneers broke the ground.

I paused. And now? Like those legendary kingdoms we used to read about in Tolkien and Lewis? This one, too, seems to be vanishing into the mist. Amazon even seems to be removing any traces that I was there at the start.

So, it’s gone now? my friend asked.

Oh, no, I said. And I do want to clarify right here: Vine has not vanished, at least not yet. I am fairly certain that the buzz has reached Amazon’s command center and there are likely to be some dramatic changes going forward. Over the years, Amazon has tried and shelved various other hot ideas for revving up the Community of reviewers. Vine soon could be the latest casualty.

So, while the kingdom of Vine apparently is still standing, what do we advise our authors about this service?

In short, we say: Don’t even think about Vine.

It’s expensive—not only for those free samples, but Amazon itself charges thousands of dollars to administer the program for a publishing house. Mainly, we don’t like Vine, because it’s a lousy idea for book promotions. Yes, I entered Vine as a seasoned journalist who only chose books in my area of expertise. But that’s not how Vine works, for the most part.

Mainly sample books are dumped on Viners who quickly scan piles of them and, because they feel constant pressure to review the incoming products, they can easily dismiss your book with a damaging review. I’ve found some other Viners who’ve admitted as much online. They’re not exactly being dishonest, they claim. They’re simply saying that a particular book they received—especially on a topic that didn’t interest them—deserved a 1-star rejection online. I think that’s the main flaw in the way Amazon shovels out Vine books.

In short: I don’t think that kind of sausage-factory approach to reviewing is how good citizens behave.

Yes, I stumbled into the kingdom. I explored for a while. But, as a journalist, I simply wasn’t a good fit. I didn’t follow the feeding-frenzy prompts. My behavior turned me into an exile from that particular kingdom in Amazon’s vast empire.

The best thing I got for free from Amazon Vine?

This great little story that I can share with you today.

About David Crumm

David Crumm is founding Editor of Front Edge Publishing. Nationally, he is known as a veteran journalist—a top writer and editor—with experience both in the U.S. and overseas. He is based in Canton, Michigan, where he also serves as Editor of Read the Spirit online magazine. His columns on trends in media appear twice a month on our Front Edge Publishing website.

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