The case of the malicious critic

Vicious critiques and disappearing reviews raise an author's suspicions about security on Amazon.com.


Deborah Scoblionkov
June 21, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Katherine Neville writes sweeping romantic historical novels that span the globe and centuries, chronicling the eternal conflict between good and evil. Interestingly, she is now involved in a similar struggle unfolding on a more prosaic playing field -- the Web site of Amazon.com, where loyal Neville fans are battling a malicious critic who has been posting negative reviews of her latest thriller, "The Magic Circle."

A rash of vicious -- and suspiciously similar -- critiques of "The Magic Circle" began appearing on Amazon.com soon after its paperback release in March 1999. And a handful of glowing reviews about another of her books have mysteriously disappeared from the Amazon site.

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"BUYER BEWARE! THIS IS A TERRIBLE BOOK," "TERRIBLE WRITING, TERRIBLE PLOT," "A COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME" are headers on these "Magic Circle"-slamming reviews -- making quite a contrast from earlier negative reviews that criticized "The Magic Circle" for being ambitious but "disappointing," "confusing," or having a "weak ending."

"At first I was absolutely horrified," says Neville, who was alerted to the posts by concerned readers. "People have a right to hate any book," she allowed, "but earlier bad reviews of 'The Magic Circle' had very specific complaints and the writers had personalities, while this appears to be a concerted attack by one person who says the same thing over and over. It's a campaign to drive the book's score down and to prevent other people from reading it."

Many of the negative reviews have similar peculiarities -- common spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. The word "unbelievable," for instance, is misspelled in nearly a dozen of the reader reviews, and "worse" is mistakenly used instead of "worst" in several instances.

Neville says that the book -- which has received mixed, but basically favorable, reviews from professional critics and readers alike -- saw its Amazon rating slip from four stars (out of five) in March down to two stars shortly after the negative reviews began flooding in. Neville's publisher, Ballantine Books, contacted Amazon.com last month. Amazon.com responded that the company has no way to verify or check against multiple review submissions and that readers have the right to "voice their opinions -- even repeatedly!"

In that spirit, Neville's passionate fans are rushing to her defense and posting gushing reviews to balance the negative impact of her critic. "The Magic Circle" (first published in hardcover in 1998) had accumulated 246 reader reviews as of Friday morning -- boosting the rating to three stars; Neville's 1988 international bestseller "The Eight" had racked up only 69 posts.

In early June, Vicki Kondelik, a librarian at the University of Michigan and host of the Unofficial Katherine Neville Home Page noticed that her 1997 review of "The Eight" had disappeared from Amazon.com, along with at least five other reviews. A computer printout of the reviews from late April confirms the disappearance.

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Lizzie Allen, Amazon.com's director of public relations, said she could not explain the mystery of the disappearing reviews. She said that submissions are deleted only when they don't adhere to the review guidelines prohibiting "profanity, obscenities, or spiteful remarks."

Neville expects her next step will be to speak with Amazon.com's security and legal departments. "If it's happened to me, it can happen to anyone," she said. "I'd like to correct this across the board."

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Deborah Scoblionkov

Deborah Scoblionkov is a Philadelphia writer.

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