Can Amazon Reviews do more harm than good?

shutterstock_90929048As you probably already know, getting reviews on websites like Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes and Noble can do a lot to help boost your self-published book — or any book, really — in the marketplace. But what happens if what you’re writing about happens to incur the wrath of a very organized group of internet users?

Randall Sullivan, the author of  “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson,” knows all too well what happens. His book was specifically targeted by a team of fans who call themselves Michael Jackson’s Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks, who took issue with particular passages that cast Jackson in a negative light and bombarded the Amazon page with scores of one-star reviews. New York Times reported the aftermath:

“Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly 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. These points in particular seem to infuriate the fans.

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.

The issue of attack reviews, though, has received little attention. The historian Orlando Figes was revealed in 2010 to be using Amazon to anonymously vilify his rivals and secretly praise himself. The crime writer R. J. Ellory was exposed for doing the same thing last fall.

Attack reviews are hard to police. It is difficult, if not impossible, to detect the difference between an authentic critical review and an author malevolently trying to bring down a colleague, or organized assaults by fans. Amazon’s extensive rules on reviewing offer little guidance on what is permissible in negative reviews and what is not.

With “Untouchable,” Grove had hopes for a modest best seller. The book was excerpted in Vanity Fair, and Mr. Sullivan, a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone who lives in Portland, Ore., promoted it on “Nightline” and “Good Morning America.” Amazon selected it as one of the best books of November, encouraging readers to “check out this train wreck of a life.” The retailer also selected it as one of the 100 best e-books of the year.

Check out the rest of the article over here. Let’s hope that this doesn’t become a regular occurrence and Amazon learns how to keep its books from getting unfairly blasted!