Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Book reviews and virtual stalking

Last night, I was thinking of turning in when there flashed across my screen a tweet.

It alluded to the fact that a fellow author's just-published book had been the object of a one-star Amazon review. Nothing strange in that, except that apparently the reviewer hadn't read the book. Now that's a bugbear of mine, and I chased down the link. Sure enough, someone had posted a nasty review (of a novel) along the lines of, 'Haven't read the book but if the blurb is anything to go by it's a load of....'

I don't know the author personally, and in fact the book isn't in a genre I generally read, but I was incensed enough to order from Amazon there and then, intending to read it and give it an informed review as soon as possible, to help redress the balance.

I also decided, in the small hours, to contact the author directly with some advice born of painful experience. Four years ago, shortly after publication of my first book, someone posted a small-minded, politically-motivated, vicious and ignorant 'review' on Amazon to which, of course, I took exception, not yet having acquired the thick skin which is one of the prerequisites of a career in writing. I called my publishers, who made the reasonable point that there is bound to be the odd negative review, and advised me to let it go - after all, the book had already notched up a few favourable reviews on Amazon by way of balance.

I tried, but I wasn't able to distance myself enough to take a philosophical view; so I wrote a point-by-point rebuttal of the review which I posted in the 'Comment on this review' section on Amazon, and at the same time contacted Amazon explaining why I felt it was gratuitously malicious, and drawing their attention to my rebuttal. That's when I discovered that, contrary to public perception, Amazon is not just about massive warehouses, conveyor belts, computers and robots, but is also full of actual people with human concerns and reactions. One of the things these people care about, it turns out, is the integrity of the reviews system, which is so obviously open to abuse by anonymous contributors. They took a view - and the offending review was gone by the end of the day. Excellent.

As a general comment, I find it hard to see what motivates people to write negative reviews in the first place. Do they so resent the waste of ten pounds? Do they feel some kind of personal affront that the author should have put the book in front of them? After all, you have to go to quite a lot of trouble to post a review, positive or negative. Beyond saying, 'It wasn't for me, you decide', I just think the very negative ones are mean-spirited. The author did their best, give them a break for goodness sake, there'll be other books you can enjoy - move on! Ah well.

Amazingly, this particular reviewer (my one) left their nasty comments to smolder at the back of some deep drawer in the dark recesses of their psyche, only to fan them into flame no less that two whole years later when they were posted, in a much-diluted form, on another book site which by it's own admission will accept almost anything. How weirdly obsessive is that? What have I ever done to them? Virtual stalking is what it feels like. On the other hand, I had to laugh - for this second review, they used the Irish version of their name, which is the grown-up equivalent of closing your eyes and hoping no-one can see you. Not only do I know who they are, I know where they live (would you believe, six miles away - of all the gin joints in all the world..). I even know people who know them. I am willing to bet I know more about them than they do about me - they certainly didn't glean much from my book, because clearly they never read it. One day, this being Northern Ireland, we're going to bump into each other and I'm going to say, 'Hi, I'm Mike. Please don't say it's nice to meet me.'

So anyway, I emailed the author from last night, and without giving them this blow-by-blow of my own experience, suggested strongly that they contact Amazon and point out the fact that one of their reviewers was reviewing books without actually having, as it were, read them.. I was pretty sure Amazon would see this as an abuse, and withdraw the review.

I don't imagine it was anything to do with me, because I happen to know this author is well represented, but when I checked at lunchtime today, the review had indeed disappeared. Good result.

I've said it before - blogs are great for getting stuff off your chest.
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