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Far From Flatbush

How to Kill a Book

I feel for Randall Sullivan, author of Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson (Grove Press). What's happening to him could have happened to me--had my John Lennon bio, Nowhere Man, been published now rather than 13 years ago, before the age of social media and before Amazon completely took over the book biz.

In yet another demonstration that the mega-conglomerate is a company out of control, a company that feels no need to treat fairly or responsibly the authors whose books they sell, a company that feels no need to answer to anybody about anything, they have allowed Michael Jackson fans to destroy sales of Sullivan's book with a barrage of anonymous negative reviews.

According to an article published on the front page of The New York Times yesterday, “Swarming a Book Online,” Jackson fans have used Twitter and Facebook to solicit scores of one-star takedowns of Untouchable; to have numerous positive reviews deleted; and even to have Amazon briefly remove the book from their site by falsely claiming that copies were “defective.”

Untouchable, like Nowhere Man, is a largely sympathetic portrait of its subject that also includes certain negative assessments. In particular, information about Jackson’s plastic surgery and his two marriages enraged his fans. According to Sullivan, many of the one-star reviews were factually false and clearly written by people who hadn’t read the book—as I can attest is also the case with most of Nowhere Man’s one-star reviews.

Amazon, however, doesn’t consider this a problem, saying that the reviews don’t violate their ever-shifting guidelines. Amazon has also said that it’s unnecessary for a reviewer to “experience” a product before reviewing it.

In the past, the Times has written about authors paying reviewers to flood Amazon with five-star reviews, and of authors anonymously trashing competing books.

There’s no question that Amazon’s review system is broken, possibly beyond repair, and that it’s relatively easy to game the system. Nor is there a question that it’s almost impossible to police phony reviews on a site like Amazon. But the real injustice here is Amazon’s refusal to work with authors and publishers to solve any kind of problem or to make any effort to adequately explain why they do what they do.

Fortunately, Amazon is sensitive to negative publicity, and the fact that the Times put this story on the front page is a good thing.
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