Swarming a Book Online
By DAVID STREITFELD FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES
Reviews on Amazon are becoming attack weapons, intended to sink new books as soon as they are published.
In the biggest, most overt and most successful of these campaigns, a group of Michael Jackson fans used Facebook and Twitter to solicit negative reviews of a new biography of the singer. They bombarded Amazon with dozens of one-star takedowns, succeeded in getting several favorable notices erased and even took credit for Amazon’s briefly removing the book from sale.
“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.
Outside Amazon, the book had a mixed reception; in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it “thoroughly dispensable.” So it is difficult to pinpoint how effective the campaign was. Still, the book has been a resounding failure in the marketplace.
The fans, who call themselves Michael Jackson’s Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks, say they are exercising their free speech rights to protest a book they feel is exploitative and inaccurate. “Sullivan does everything he can to dehumanize, dismantle and destroy, against all objective fact,” a spokesman for the group said.
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Something similar went on at amazon with Krakauer's book on the Mormons, UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN.
Per the Times: “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.”
Blaming the anti-Sullivan crusaders at Amazon for the book’s failure is simply looking in the wrong place for the reason it failed. The book got terrific promotion. It was reviewed in the Times, albeit poorly. Even a bad review in a major venue brings a book to people’s attention.
The book failed for the following reasons:
1. Celebrity coverage fatigue. Most people had already heard/read far more than they ever wanted to know about Michael Jackson over the years through the major media and tabloid periodicals. Sullivan’s book, a compilation of warmed-over scandals, was yesterday’s news. Nobody needed it.
2. People who weren’t fans of Jackson wouldn’t shell out for a book on him no matter what revelations it contained. The only audience for the book was Jackson’s devotees, and they only want their idol venerated, hence the Amazon campaign.
So the book really had no market to appeal to.
In some cases it can help sales, generating a little curiosity. Somebody left a one-star "review" on my new release, Sacrifice, and I had a little fun with it on Fictionaut and Our Salon. Got me a couple of good reviews and a few sales. Here's a link to my satiric response to the "worst novel I ever read" remark: http://fictionaut.com/stories/mathew-paust/author-meets-unflattering-reviewer-in-bar
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