ABNA madness

The moderated forums for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award have descended into madness.

Over the course of a week, the threadcount shot from around 850 to over 1000. Why? Because 1000 was a nice round number. Seriously. People were posting single post-topics consisting of rhetorical questions, goofy observations, conversations with themselves (one statement per topic), single statements spread out across many topic titles and even, in a few cases, the estimated number of the topic.

I think currently there’s a race on to see who can bring one of several topics to 1000 replies first.

5 days or so until voting begins on the semifinalists. Then we’ll know for sure who’s in and who’s out. Amazon has posted some teasing back-end manipulations available to the obsessive searcher. Back near Christmas, a list of 100 or so entries showed up, flagged as ABNA Official Entrant (along with 4 public domain classics). The unfamiliar ones were confirmed as real entries by some of the entrants and they were downloadable and reviewable for a couple of days. The novel about Guatemala and the Air Traffic Controller’s novel both racked up a handful of five star reviews before the entries and their reviews all vanished.

A week or so after that, searching on ABNA Official Entrant brought up a list, with category tags alongside (just as before) but instead of a title it said ‘title not available’. There were a hundred and fifty or so of these– and, most mysterious, you could search on ABNA Official Entrant and some other search term, and a category might or might not come up. Like… your name, or a word in your title. Some people reported a matching category. Some did not. I tested this for myself– nothing related to me came up but I saw it happen with words like ‘murder’ (2 hits) and a few other titles. Apparently the number of total entries along with what words got hits varied over the few days THAT list was up.

Now, the only thing that comes up when one searches are books tagged by enterprising contest members as ‘abna 5000’– books and other media previously produced by entrants in the contest, or writers who have mentioned it in their Amazon blogs (I think). Interesting insight into how the tagging system works with the search engine, there…

I’m definitely checking my email and junk mail regularly. My fingers are crossed. I’m trying to get some work done, too. Although I’m disappointed in the descent of the ABNA forum, it’s a blessing in disguise, since I didn’t really need to be wasting my time on interesting discussions about writing, anyhow.

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award forum fun (ABNA-GATE)

Hey there, friends and family. Hey there, folks tuned into Google Blog Alerts on Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (aka ABNA). You can take your seats right next to the people watching for Pirates of the Burning Sea on blogs. Yo! Not specifically writing for you, but, you know, I appreciate the attention. Hope you enjoy!

So, at Amazon, you can review books. You can also write a comment on a review and rate that review as to how useful it was.

Relatively recently, Amazon added ‘forums’ at the bottom of almost every page. It uses the same interface as the comment-on-review system. It has no stickies, no ability to private message a poster, and very limited threading. You can’t see who started a topic until you open it. There’s no searching, no poster histories. All around, it’s very limited. For the most part the forums aren’t used much– for limited time offers, and I suppose for up-and-coming books people are excited about. At most, I usually see 6 or 7 topics, and usually, it’s 0 or 1.

The forum dedicated to ABNA has over 600 topics.

Amazon introduced the ABNA forum as a way of asking questions that the FAQ didn’t cover. It’s a public place. They claim it’s a moderated forum. They’re not using a typical definition of moderated, I’m pretty sure. They have automated tools — the same ones they have to moderate reviews– and they’ve posted only once to answer a repeated query since the judging began a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, about a hundred or so writers who submitted to the contest have started hanging out there, talking and sharing experiences and speculating about the contest. Significant posting of different sorts of excerpts has occurred– opening paragraphs, action scenes, dialogue scenes, villain scenes– along with discussions about getting agents, family size, virtual taverns. It could turn into a real little community if the right forum tools existed. (Ok, it IS a real little community, but it’s suffering due to the lack of anybody empowered to moderate actually reading anything on the forum regularly.)

It’s a public forum. You can go there, right now. Every day somebody new pops up, changing over from a lurker to a poster. There are probably five times as many readers as posters.

Including at least one non-participant, and one Top Reviewer judge.

Let me explain how the first phase of the contest works, to the best of my knowledge. A Top Reviewer is handed a huge stack of excerpts and told to go through them, scoring them according to a particular formula. Probably, an Amazon Editor (they write some of the reviews on book pages, as far as I can tell) is doing the same thing (since they say folks from both groups will be picking out the semifinalists). Maybe entries will get two judges, maybe even three. Who knows? Not the entrants, not the Top Reviewers.

Up until recently, that’s all we knew. Then a Top Reviewer popped up on the forum and explained that he had around a hundred excerpts to go through by December 2, that he had four 1-5 scales (Plot, Originality, Style, Overall), and that he was supposed to base his plot judgment on the synopsis (‘Would you buy the novel based on the synopsis?’). As well as rating the entries, he’s supposed to write a short review of them. He also told us that it’s been taking the Amazon contest coordinators weeks to get back to him on his own queries. He has a password-protected section on Amazon’s website where he downloads excerpts, and he has a spreadsheet with over half the synopses in the contest (2700), sorted by title, ID number and genre.

At one point, a poster complained that he’d lost his synopsis. The Top Reviewer went to his website, verified that none of his excerpts to be reviewed were this poster’s (based on title) and then offered to forward him his synopsis (the poster accepted the offer).

Later, the Top Reviewer posted a query of his own: he had a few excerpts in a genre he did not read; he found the synopses nearly incomprehensible and wasn’t sure if he should try to judge them anyhow, or try to get Amazon to reassign them. Normally he’d have just contacted Amazon, since he wanted to give fair reviews, but given that he had emails from two weeks ago still pending, and that the deadline for submission was fast approaching, he wasn’t sure that would give the excerpts any more of a fair shot. So he was curious what the forums would want him to do: read it anyhow, or try to get it placed elsewhere.

Enter ABNA-gate (not my term). ABNA-gate started when a poster noticed that the Top Reviewer mentioned that he’d been asked to keep his efforts confidential, so he wasn’t even showing his excerpts to his wife, despite her pestering. Apparently the Top Reviewer posting at all, just to explain the format of the judging, made some of the ABNA forum posters very, very uncomfortable, and the off-forum fraternization between the Top Reviewer and the poster who had lost his synopsis (consisting of a single email message) spawned the ABNA-GATE thread, and a nearly endless conversation over whether it was ethical for the Top Reviewer to be there at all.

These are the positions:

  1. It is wrong, it’s horrible how standards have fallen, it’s the duty of an ethical person to stand up for what is right and speak out against this fraternization. This kind of fraternization between a judge and a contestant is so unbelievable that we prefer to think it’s some kind of practical joke or deception. It isn’t right for us to just ignore it, just like it isn’t right for us to ignore murder. The degree of an ethics violation is irrelevant and even if nothing untoward happened, it creates a shadow of a doubt, which is also wrong. This sort of thing is usually expressly forbidden in contests, and since Amazon made us keep our excerpts anonymous, it’s implicitly forbidden here as well.
  2. It’s wrong, but it’s a little wrong and only wrong according to generalized ideals. Nothing bad actually happened. We wish everybody would stop talking about it.
  3. If it was wrong for the Amazon Top Reviewer to post here, the ABNA Administrator would have put a stop to it. They may never say anything but they’re certainly monitoring us. They say so in the FAQ.
  4. It’s not explicitly forbidden, so it’s fine. This is an open forum, after all, and it’s not like he’s breaching contestant confidentiality by discussing individual entries– just the rules he’s working under. He even made sure he wasn’t reviewing any of the top posters, if they bothered to mention their titles in their Amazon profile.
  5. Are you people insane? There are 5000 contestants and potentially hundreds of judges. Making sure a Top Reviewer never communicates with a contestant when they might be friends with one (or married to one) is an impossible and improbable task.
  6. Amazon is the one who has made a mistake, by allowing this forum to continue in its present form and not closely monitoring it. We can do no wrong while in the shadow of Amazon’s own screw up. Think of all the secret fraternization going on where we can’t see it!

(I admit I’ve adopted more than one of the above stances. Maybe you can guess which ones.)

Now, after the semi-finals start, on January 15, everybody who has ever purchased something at Amazon.com will be able to read, rate and review excerpts. We think that at this phase, everybody will able to read, rate and review as many excerpts as they care to (while in the finalist phase they specify that people will be able to rate and review one). They will not be anonymous. There cannot be any confidentiality expectations.

Somebody has posted a thread requesting that the ABNA Administrator come arbitrate whether or not it’s all right for Top Reviewers to be on the board.

I think I started this thread to rant about something, but if so, I’ve forgotten what it was. While I try to remember, what do YOU think? Does the Top Reviewer’s presence taint the contest?