Reviews on Amazon are becoming attack weapons, intended to sink new books as soon as they are published.
In the biggest, most overt and most successful of these campaigns, a group of Michael Jackson fans used Facebook and Twitter to solicit negative reviews of a new biography of the singer. They bombarded Amazon with dozens of one-star takedowns, succeeded in getting several favourable notices erased and even took credit for Amazon’s briefly removing the book from sale.
“Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed,” said Trevor Pinch, a Cornell sociologist who has studied Amazon reviews. “In theory, a very good book could be killed by a group of people for malicious reasons.”
In Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson, Randall Sullivan writes that Jackson’s overuse of plastic surgery reduced his nose to little more than a pair of nostrils and that he died a virgin despite being married twice.
Outside Amazon, the book had a mixed reception; in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it “thoroughly dispensable.” So it is difficult to pinpoint how effective the campaign was. Still, the book has been a resounding failure in the marketplace.
The fans, who call themselves Michael Jackson’s Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks, say they are exercising their free speech rights to protest a book they feel is exploitative and inaccurate.
But the book’s publisher, Grove Press, said the Amazon review system was being abused in an organised campaign. “There should be transparency about people’s motivations,” said Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic. Amazon said the fans’ reviews had not violated its guidelines but declined further comment.
The retailer, like other sites that depend on customer reviews, has been faced with the problem of so-called sock puppets, those people secretly commissioned by an author to produce favorable notices. In recent months, Amazon has made efforts to remove reviews by those it deemed too close to the author, especially relatives.
With Untouchable, Grove had hopes for a modest best-seller. Amazon selected it as one of the best books of November. When Sullivan tried to complain, saying reviews of his book were factually false yet being voted up by the fans. The bookseller replied with boilerplate. “Rest assured, we’ll read each of the reviews and remove any that violate our guidelines”.
Sullivan asked: “Should people be allowed to make flagrantly false comments about the content of a book or its author? This is suppression of free speech in the name of free speech.”
Even before the book was officially published on Nov. 13, the rapid response team declared, “It’s time for action!”
Within two weeks, the book had nearly 100 anonymous one-star reviews that included such comments as: “A disgrace and a disgusting insult to the greatest artist and entertainer the world has ever known.” “There is not one actual fact in this book.”
For several days in late November, Amazon stopped selling physical copies of the book after buyers said they were defective. The fans took the credit for removing the book from sale. Other readers started leaving positive reviews of the book and criticising the negative reviews, turning the review forum into a full-scale brawl.
An administrator for the rapid response team, who identified himself as Steve Pollard, said that the response team did not tell fans what to say in their Amazon reviews and that they did not try to have the book removed.
Grove has distributed 16,000 copies of Untouchable. Nielsen BookScan, which tracks sales in most outlets, counted only 3,000 copies sold. For a time this month, Untouchable was being outsold on Amazon by a book on Jackson’s body language, Behind the Mask.
That book, published by the author, had something going for it that Untouchable did not: the endorsement of the fans. “Michael Jackson would be pleased that such an objective book was written about him,” one reviewer wrote on Amazon.