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I Was Stalked on Amazon.com

A screenwriter-turned-first novelist let his good customer feedback go to his head. So there was only one option when someone started campaigning against his book on the site: Fight back.

- November 19, 2003

I began that day as all serious authors begin their days: I brewed some coffee then lunged at the computer to check my Amazon.com sales rank. Since the publication of my first novel, Christopher, a few months before, I had become increasingly hooked on the online bookseller's sales data, updated hourly, to tell me how my book was doing. And it wasn't just practical sales information; Amazon customer reviews had also proved a steady source of ego gratification. That morning, however, I wished I had stayed in bed and watched Regis.

While my sales rank was still excellent, a new review had been posted overnight by someone named "Jack G." It began, "This is one of the most insipid books I've ever read," and ended, "I will say that Burnett must be a nice guy because otherwise how would he have gotten so many friends to write glowing reviews for this piece of tripe?" In between lay a minefield of deadly adjectives: "clichéd," "phony," "unimaginative," "underdeveloped."

Anyone can leave a review on Amazon and he can leave it under any name he chooses. Each reviewer also rates the book from one to five stars. These reviews, on the face of them, should mean next to nothing. After all, most of us have only a few friends whose taste we implicitly trust. Why, then, should we trust the taste of perfect strangers? Yet many of us do. Rarely does a book with consistently mediocre customer reviews post good sales, and vice-versa.

Although I knew that this one bad review was not going to hurt my book and that it was foolish to let it get to me, I was shaken by Jack's attack. Until then, Christopher had received 20 customers reviews, all of them five-star. The dozen mainstream reviews, including a full page in the Los Angeles Times's Sunday Book Review, had been universally wonderful. No one had ever hated my book before. Not to my face. It hurt.

The only way of commenting on a review is to click either "Helpful" or "Not Helpful" in a box above it. I clicked "Not Helpful" above Jack's, then, to ease my anxiety and to inspire, perhaps, a groundswell of righteous indignation among the wise and the just, I forwarded his review to 200 of my closest friends. The next morning I awoke to find that two readers had joined me in clicking "Not Helpful" atop Jack's review. I breathed easy. The tide was clearly turning.

Or was it? Evidently, Jack was exquisitely sensitive, because he struck back the very next day, charging in a new one-star review that "Allison Burnett obviously has a mafia of people ready to attack anyone who doesn't like his crummy book." I had to laugh. A wee cabal, maybe. But a mafia? This was no joke, however, not to the Rumsfeldian Mr. G.

Whether the Blitzkrieg that followed was the work of Jack alone, using a host of aliases, or of a coalition of the willing, I'll never know. What I do know is that no one involved was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Their one-star bombs were nasty and relentless—landing at a rate of five a day. My characters were undeveloped, my structure sloppy, my prose trite. There were complaints of money and time wasted and of friends never again to be trusted. Some hated the book so much they were forced to put it down. One argued that Christopher was, in fact, "too dull to hate." And each review was headlined in bold capital letters—things like "SUCH A DISAPPOINTMENT" and "YAWN!" And, to make matters worse, above each bad review was a landslide of endorsements: "18 of 18 people found the following review helpful." And above the old, positive reviews the numbers had changed overnight: "20 of 68 people found the following review helpful." Within a few days Christopher's review average had fallen to a mediocre three stars. I was outraged.

"It's a rotten bit of cyber-lynching," I wrote in my desperate letter to Amazon. "Please pay special attention to the fact that the negative reviews all come in bunches, all are quick and abbreviated, and many use identical words and phrases.... Half of them claimed to have 'skim read' or 'not finished' the book—a good cover if you have, in fact, not read it at all. I am trying to be mature about this, and write it off as one of the dark sides of the Internet, which is that there is no system to police credibility, but the book's sales are suffering. Help!"

Meanwhile, I racked my brains trying to figure out who was behind the conspiracy. Was Jack G. his real name? Maybe Jack G. was a woman. One night, unable to sleep, I made a list of my enemies—no easy task in Hollywood, where the central difference between an enemy and a friend is that when you bump into your enemy he greets you more warmly. In the end, I decided that it was either my ex-friend, Danny, an amoral hedge fund manager who had once been sued for message board libel, or my mother, retaliating for the Medusa-like mother in my book. (Any striking similarity between the two is purely coincidental.)

After a week, I had yet to hear back from Amazon, and the attacks were not letting up. More than a few times friends told me that I should hold myself above the fray, and I knew they were right, but I also knew that Jack G. was inflicting real damage to my book's sales. Christopher is a paperback original, the syphilitic runaway cousin to the adult trade hardcover. With no ad support of any kind, it had somehow managed to sell well. Its Amazon sales rank had peaked at an incredible 1,200 and had never fallen below a respectable 10,000. But how long could it withstand the critical onslaught?

In the end, Amazon agreed that there was, indeed, a "campaign" afoot. The next day, they removed all the offending posts. Two weeks later, the company's computers finally caught up and restored Christopher's five-star average. But the harm had been done, and it was permanent. The book's sales rank had fallen to 30,000, never to rise again.

Happily, I learned from my mistake. These days, I check Amazon every other day. As for Jack G., he or she reappears only occasionally. He uses different names, of course, but he still uses the same stock phrases and insults. Recently, he posted a review that said, "I am sorry to say that this is one of the most worst novels I've read in some time," but then, as a sort of olive branch, or perhaps just a wink, he gave the book two stars.

Allison Burnett is a Los Angeles-based writer and film director. You can buy Christopher at Amazon.com.



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