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IT'S A JUNGLE OUT THERE

(Independent - 2002)
Authors' obsessions with Amazon.com


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 hardly figures.

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 you are.)

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.'
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