A casualty on the battlefield of Amazon’s book reviews

David Streitfeld

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.

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