Until not so long ago, the only feedback a writer
ever got on their work was from reviews in newspapers, remarks
from friends, and the occasional fan letter. But then, with
the arrival of Amazon.com, everything changed. Every published
book has its place in the great Amazon sales list (updated hourly).
Even if potential buyers don't check this chart, you can be
sure authors do: 'Morning and evening, like prayer,' admits
one bestselling friend of mine.
Locked in their lonely kitchens and studies, staring at the
cursor blinking expectantly at the end of their latest line
of prose, what could be more tempting for the published writer
than to flick onto the Explorer icon and see how their other
darlings are doing. 27, 560 out of 1.5 million, that doesn't
seem so bad. The fact that only 6% of books are sold online
Having checked ranking, it's all too easy to click over into
that tantalising section entitled Customer Reviews. Who is this
Tod Sloan from Upholland, nr Wigan, Lancs, who writes of one of
my travel books,'Don't read this book if you are in bed with
anyone! They will get very annoyed with you for keeping them
awake all night with their chuckles' ?(I love you, Tod, whoever
For a few months, Tod remains my only feedback on this title.
The book shines under its five-star recommendation. Then, one
fine day (the 15th October, to be precise) I log on to discover
a new voice. Disappointing it is headlined. 'Reader from UK'
finds that, 'as a whole the book has a very negative tone'.
The only resort I have is to click the icon at the bottom. Was
this review helpful to you? No, Reader from UK, you humourless
saddo, it wasn't.
But of course it's not the only thing I can do. For who's to
know that I'm not Tod Sloan myself? It's so easy to slip into
Hotmail and invent a new identity and e-mail. The temptation
to usurp Disappointing with something more upbeat is huge. Hand
on heart, I've not done it, but the word is that there are plenty
who do. And when you browse around and find reviews by that
ubiquitous 'Reader from the UK' titled, A work of scintillating
genius or At last a really great read! you have to wonder.
'Oh yes,' says one of my more webwise author chums, 'it's well
known that X writes her own reviews. She's not even clever enough
to give herself four stars or disguise her famously windy style.'
Awarding yourself five stars is 'a total giveaway', apparently.
As is writing a review the day after a bad one appears on your
list. As is expressing astonishment in a review that your title
hasn't been made into a film or won the Booker Prize, which
are concerns, my friend insists, of writers, not readers.
Chart-topping novelist Wendy Holden is happy to go public about
her relationship with the dot.com. Gossipy tales of writers
and Amazon were an inspiration for her current literary satire,
Fame Fatale. Her 'author from hell', Jenny Bristols, not only
pens rave reviews of her own work, but bookmarks rivals and
writes cruel critiques of their titles in her struggle to get
ahead.Though Holden is keen to stress that such behaviour is
'a nightmare exaggeration of what authors might do in their
wildest fantasies', she does admit to her own obsession with
the on-line listings. 'When I first wrote books I used to look
at the list about every ten minutes,' she says. 'I've weaned
myself off it now, because that way madness lies.'
Fellow bestseller Isobel Woolf agrees.'It's like looking in
a mirror. Narcissistic and bad for your character.'She was finally
cured of her Amazon habit when she acquired an on-line stalker
in America, 'a complete loony-tune' who would regularly post
up her desire to stamp on and set fire to Woolf's Trials of
Tiffany Trott. Woolf was driven, she admits, to writing her
own, 'glowing reviews to try and cancel these vicious ones out.
'In the end, Woolf complained to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and
the offensive material was removed from her site.
When I call up Amazon and ask them how they verify their feedback,
their spokesperson all but admits that it's impossible. The
Customer Comments section, she tells me, is 'a unique forum
for discussion' and 'in general, the honour system upon which
it operates is observed.'
Hm. Well, if this latest byway of Grub Street is predictably
lacking in integrity there's certainly no shortage of good clean
schadenfreude. 'I have a feeling this was a novel that Amy must
have written for English Homework when she was 14 years old.
Never has a more pathetic crew of characters been assembled,'
reads part of a review of Amy Jenkins's Honeymoon.'Don't buy
it (or if you do, get yourself a thesaurus, a bottle of whisky
and a loaded revolver)' is a reaction to Will Self's How The
Dead Live. And as for the Holy Bible, File under fiction is
the title of one I'd better not upset the Almighty by printing.
Other contributors are more subtle. I have a feeling we'll be
hearing more of one Henry Raddick, who writes of Adele Parks's
Playing Away, 'this book just blew me away. Adele Parks is surely
up there with the grand masters of plot and tension Barbara
Cartland, Jeffrey Archer, yet has the powerful descriptive skills
of, say, Angela Rippon in "Captain Mark Philips - The Man and
His Horses." In addition she has an intuitive grasp of the character
detail of her heroine Connie's utterly vacuous and pointless
existence. Full marks.'