Another day, another story about questionable Amazon reviews. This time it’s crime author R.J. Ellory, who has allegedly been writing positive reviews of his own novels on Amazon while writing negative reviews of the work of a number of other writers. According to , Ellory has been using a number of Amazon accounts, including one named ‘Jelly Bean’. The Daily Mail claims that Ellory issued an apology when they contacted him, though there’s nothing so far on his blog or Twitter account. But as the witch hunt gathers pace, I can’t help wondering if this is going to all end up with a LendInk-style mess.
The story about R.J. Ellory was originally broken on Twitter by writer Jeremy Duns. Others have started making similar claims about other authors, and it seems there’s a real desire in some quarters to root out all authors who have been using sockpuppets and other questionable strategies. The problem is that there’s obviously a real danger of some over-zealous ‘detectives’ making false accusations. In fact, I’m sure that sooner or later there’ll be false claims of sockpuppetry against a well-known author. Mud sticks, and I really wouldn’t be surprised if the moral crusade against this practice ends up getting out of control.
Away from the hysteria, there are questions about what can be done to prevent sockpuppets from working so well. In the wake of the Ellory news, novelist Andrew Taylor has suggested that Amazon needs to get involved and sort out the problem of alias reviews, while The Woman in Black author Susan Hill has weighed in on the subject of fake reviews, saying that they can permanently damage the reputation of anyone who is found to be using them. There definitely seems to be a growing campaign for Amazon to do something, but it remains to be seen whether there’ll be any changes to the current policies.
Currently, Amazon requires reviewers to have completed a successful purchase before they can write a review. The idea is that this ties each account to a credit card, which should make it harder for people to set up fake identities. While some people have probably found a way around this, a bigger problem seems to be the world of paid reviewers, whereby authors and publishers can use sites such as Fivrr to secure 5-star reviews for their own books for as little as a few dollars. And no matter what new system is introduced by Amazon eventually, you can guarantee that people will find a way around it eventually. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to deal with the problem, just that the history of witch hunts suggests that good intentions can often unravel fast.