Ever since the reader reviews on Amazon.com got started, there has been controversy. I know a number of authors who suffered "scattershot" negative reviews - many have been successful in getting deliberate prank or spurious reviews removed from their work. I also read a marketing study that showed that for extremely popular books, Amazon.com reviews do influence current sales. A negative review does cause a book's sales to dip; it takes more than one "positive" review to make them rise again. This was a study of best-selling books. There's no such evidence for less well-selling or "special interest" titles.
That said, I was the recipient of a "drive by" Amazon.com negative review for my first novel, IMAGO. I didn't invest a lot of time thinking about this at all. This was a small-press, hardcover book from Wildside Press, published in 2001. This odd little review was there for several years when, about six months ago, a colleague at work was searching on Amazon for my books and commented, "that guy didn't much like your book -- but he says he liked your first novel better." Yeah, that was weird, I admitted, since IMAGO was my first novel, and my first BOOK that the reviewer referred to specifically, was WITHOUT ABSOLUTION, a collection of short fiction and poetry. So, I went to look again, and reading carefully, came to the conclusion that the review in question could easily have been written based on cover copy and editorial reviews -- i.e., the guy had never bought or read IMAGO at all. I clicked on the reviewer's name: "Randolph Calverhall." It showed only ONE review. This was truly weird - why on earth would someone only post a detailed review of one small press science fiction book? I thought, maybe it's just a hardcore fan who reads every single thing, or a frustrated aspiring writer. I then "Googled" Randolph Calverhall.
And proceeded to freak out. Google Randolph Calverhall
I doubt this person was aware that my maiden name is Glasband, and that my father is Eugene Glasband, my uncle, his twin brother, Victor Glasband - and yes, the two boys were named after Eugene Victor Debs, nor that my grandmother was a Russian Jew who fled oppression alone at the turn of the 20th Century and graduated from Columbia University at age 13 with a degree in pharmacy, and who later became one of the founding members of the American Communist Party.
Randolph Calverhall is one of the many pseudonyms used by William Pierce, the leader of the white supremacist movement in America - author of the Turner Diaries, which inspired the Oklahoma City bombers. Under the "Randolph Calverhall" name, Pierce wrote The Serpent's Path, which is a Neo-Nazi alternate history. You may see references to The Serpent's Path being written by an anonymous, "well-known" science fiction author. This is part of the publicity for the book. The "well-known science fiction author" is Pierce himself -- he believed himself (he died in 2002) to be a great, unrecognized science fiction author in his own right.
After bringing this to the attention of others, both my editor and publisher tried to get this "review" removed - but were unsuccessful. It apparently follows Amazon's guidelines, even though it's a Neo-Nazi pseudonym.
So much for that. But yesterday, I decided to look up and buy another book by one of my favorite writers, Ralph Wiley (who died not long ago at age 52). The second review under the book I was considering had a really familiar tone. "Stan Swift" comments on Ralph Wiley's work. Stan Swift has only ONE review, just like "Randolph Calverhall." There's nothing in what "Stan" wrote that would suggest he'd ever purchased or read Ralph Wiley's book. Everything he wrote could have been gleaned from other reader reviews (he even paraphrases one, insultingly).
So, I started looking at other authors who might attract this type of attention. So far, I haven't found one who doesn't have at least ONE, if not more "one time" negative reviews from "anonymous" reviewers that fit the "pattern." The pattern is:
1) The review is the ONLY one posted by that screen name. The screen name is not a "real name" verified by Amazon.com.
2) The review is dismissive of the author's work, and seems to be aimed in some way at denigrating the author's ability and intelligence as well as discouraging others from buying/reading the work.
3) The review appears to refer to something that seems to indicate the reviewer is fair, perhaps other works by the author, and then goes on to slam THIS work - or it refers to something the author themselves said (or that has been paraphrased, as in Ralph Wiley's case), and then proceeds to the negative part. A variation is the "false student" slam, as I found, I think for Toni Morrison's BELOVED. This is particularly chilling, since it uses phrases copied from student study guides -- interspersed with crude attempts at encouraging students who've been assigned the book to "dislike" and think little of it. There's a great one for Octavia Butler's PARABLE OF THE SOWER, also.
4) On careful reading, there is nothing in the "review" that suggests the reviewer actually read the book or any part of it -- all information can be found in other nearby reader reviews, editorial reviews, or cover copy. In the BELOVED review's case - it's a student study guide with a few sentences of slams interspersed. It's made to look as though a teen or young woman wrote it. I doubt that's the case.
I contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center about "Randolph Calverhall" when I saw what the name referred to. They have studied hate groups for many years. Their Intelligence Project monitors more than 700 groups across the U.S., and incidents of hate crimes.
I've only found about half of dozen of these. But every author of color I have looked at has at least one, if not more. I know that people seem interested in fighting with each other on the internet. I am hoping that people who oppose hate groups will help me in this project.
Please look up the works of an author you can think of on Amazon.com who might be the target of this type of thing. If we can find some type of pattern, we may be able to bring it to Amazon.com's attention and put a stop to it. Both Octavia Butler and Ralph Wiley are no longer with us. Their memories, and their work, deserve better than this.
Please post what you find here, or, I have started a topic on the F & SF message board at Night Shade books.