The Future of History

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Amazon Reviews (About Last Night)

I've often thought of the post-war generation as the luckiest in history.  The Baby-Boomers - in the UK, at least - had so much: universal healthcare, free education, welfare, jobs and houses ...

The present generation appears to have even more.  But I think they have less.  True, they have access to the most remarkable invention of all time, the internet.  Practically all the knowledge in the world is available to them in an instant.  We can talk, face-to-face, with almost anyone, wherever they are, in real time.  Music, books and films can be downloaded, often for free.

No one has ever enjoyed privileges like those before.  And I suspect that they will not last.  The infrastructure required to maintain a healthy internet is mind-boggling.  Besides which, the internet may effectively eat itself.  The way things are going ...

Let me illustrate.  Yesterday, a really rather lovely review of my book, The King Arthur Conspiracy, was posted on the new Review blog.  The reviewer knew nothing about the book when it first arrived, and I had never met, heard of or communicated with the reviewer before she received it.  For the record, she is an avid and active reviewer of books, for the Historical Novel Society and others.

She very kindly posted her review on the Goodreads website, entirely on her own initiative, and then posted it also on

And then something odd happened.  Her review on Amazon was instantly "disliked".

Now, I'm no expert on Amazon.  So when I heard through Facebook that her review was attracting numerous dislikes, all very suddenly, I couldn't pretend to have any idea what was going on.  All I  do know is that she became very hurt and upset by the reaction, which seemed to have little or nothing to do with the review itself.

Within a very short while, Amazon had deleted the entire review.

Previously, The King Arthur Conspiracy had attracted four 5-Star reviews over a fair period of time, all extremely enthusiastic and complimentary.  Then, a while back, somebody took the trouble to post a 1-Star review, pronouncing the book "pure junk".  His reasons for doing so were a bit bizarre (he criticised my use of place-names, which he pointed out were not recorded until several hundred years after Arthur lived - but then, Gaelic culture was entirely oral, and no one felt the need for maps, and to pretend that place-names were spontaneously invented just before the maps were drawn is silly, to say the least).  Otherwise, his review was a mere bile-spewing exercise.  But hey, what can you do?

I didn't respond.  What would be the point?  Just as you can't really answer back when a professional reviewer slates you, so you can't do much when an amateur tears into your work.  Best to stay out of it.

However, it is a problem - because anyone who visits the page for The King Arthur Conspiracy sees, first amongst the customer reviews, a rather savage - if barely reasonable or logical - assault, instead of the preceeding 5-Star reviews, which were uniformly glowing.  In that regard, another pleasant 5-Star review was a bit of a boon, because that would then take precedence.  The crude rubbishing would fall back into second place.

So having that 5-Star review attacked and then removed is disappointing.  It means, of course, that the nasty - and entirely less-than-typical - review returns to the top of the pile.

I'm really not sure what happened.  There are two ways of looking at it:

1) the reviewer has her detractors, who keep an eye out for her reviews (of which there are plenty) with the intention solely of "disliking" them

2) the book has its detractors, who keep an eye out for positive reviews, which they then seek to spoil and, if possible, force Amazon to take them down as quickly as possible

I can't think of any other options.

Whichever it was - concerted intolerance towards the reviewer or the book - we're looking at something unpleasant, ignoble ... and sadly all too common in the internet age.

There are "reasons" why option (2) might be the right one.  Arthur arouses strong emotions, especially among those who have - shall we say - imperialistic notions, and want Arthur to be the familiar knight-in-shining-armour of the medieval fantasies.  Such people are hugely intolerant of any research into the historical Arthur.  In much the same camp, broadly speaking, are those of a hard line religious persuasion, who would no doubt seek to harm the book and its reputation because of its revelations about the early Church.

On the other hand, if option (1) is correct - the frenzied attack on the review was motivated more by animosity towards the reviewer - then I'm slightly more perplexed.  Why do that?  As far as I have been able to determine, the reviewer is a hard-working, conscientious person with a genuine love of books and a commendable desire to promote authors if and when she feels that their work is worthy of recommendation.  And she recommended The King Arthur Conspiracy very highly.

It's all rather puzzling.  Whatever the cause or motivation, an independent review of my book on the historical Arthur immediately became the target of a concerted attack for reason or reasons unknown and by persons who were too cowardly to show their faces.

Overall, Amazon's policy of inviting and encouraging customers to leave reviews of their products has always struck me as a good thing.  It's very democratic, and intended - no doubt - to be helpful to all parties.  But human nature is what it is, and the system has repeatedly come in for abuse.

Some writers have got all their friends and family to flood their pages with excellent reviews.  Some authors have set out to sabotage rivals by posting anonymous scathing reviews.

Now, either individual reviewers are being targeted (why?) or individual books are being targeted because a group of people don't want others to read them and so they will take steps to ensure that only the most vicious (if wholly useless) reviews remain immediately visible.  Either way, we're dealing with some extremely sad and twisted people here - people who will undermine the unpaid work of a dedicated reviewer or strive to harm book sales for their own ideological reasons.

I would ask everybody to be aware of this.  For the sake of free speech - which I believe is a given - I do not seek to have negative reviews deleted, nor do I respond to such reviews.  Assuming that the review in question represented a genuine response to my work (and not, say, a kneejerk backlash based on ignorance or prejudice), then it has every right to remain there.  The balance remains with the positive, 5-Star reviews.

But it would appear that there are people - acting in concert, it would seem - who don't believe in free speech at all.  Whether it's the work of the reviewer which they seek to spoil or the work of the author which they disapprove of, the outcome is the same.  A good review is attacked and then removed.  The reviewer suffers (she was very upset), as does the author, whose sales are inevitably affected.

If the type of internet troll or bully who indulges in this sort of behaviour had any form of moral courage and integrity, they would either ignore reviews they disagree with or give reasoned and rational grounds for attacking them.  Entering into any sort of debate, though, is anathema to such people.  In fact, free and open debate is the opposite of what they want.

They want to shut down free speech and bury historical research.  They want to prevent hard working writers and reviewers from having their say, simply because they have developed a grudge.

You are not allowed to write about the historical Arthur or the early Church in Britain, unless you do so in the terms approved of by these invisible trolls.

In other words, you are not allowed to write about history.  Or religion.  Because they will swiftly move to have you censored.  And anyone who reads and admires what you have written will be victimised.

It would seem that we don't burn books on bonfires anymore.  We just rubbish them on Amazon.  And so the internet proves to be every bit as bigoted and fanatical as the Inquisition.

In years to come, people will gather in caves and tell stories of their predecessors - gigantic people, who ate whatever they wanted whenever they wanted (food was "fast"), who made heat and light happen just like that, and who had all the knowledge in the world at their fingertips. 

But they destroyed it all through petty bickering, jealousy, selfishness, and a weird fascination for the pointless and inane. 

And because some of them could not tolerate free speech and the results of painstaking research.


  1. It always amazes me that people who troll think they are decent people just giving an opinion.Why, I don't use foul language or abuse anyone or cause emotional distress to someone. Just as there are aggressive trolls, so are there passive aggressive trolls. But anyway a troll free world would be a dull world, for even drama is better than nothing LOL!

  2. I'm stunned Amazon took it down. Even though I had a spate of 'spite' reviews Amazon refused to take them off. The sick part is some went against all Amazon said they won't stand for.1) Nothing at all said about the book in review 2) promoting another book with no comment on mine 3) another author promoting his book that was nothing like mine, but just spamming as many books on Amazon as he could. 4) attacking the author in a personal way and again, not mentioning the bookThese three things. All of these things are deemed breaking the rules, so why when told about them, did Amazon respond saying they were within their guidelines!!!!

    Simon, I ignore ALL reviews on Amazon and elsewhere now and so do most serious readers. Most reviews are fake and done either from friends who were asked to 'up the numbers' or spite and jealousy ones. Some are real and genuine, but they are so far and few between it isn't worth trawling through the others to find them.

    REAL readers still do it the old way, look at a title, the blurb and the first page (or free bits) to see what a book is like, the story and way it is written. If those all look ok, buy it. Never fails.

  3. Thank you both for your comments.

    Frankly, I'm not terribly hurt by the reaction to the review so much as I'm upset by the effect on the reviewer. As you point out, non-partisan reviews are a rarity these days. When such reviews are attacked (for whatever reason), it is more than possible that the reviewer will give up, and so an independent reviewer retires from the scene, leaving the scammers and the trolls to run riot.

    It certainly seems to me that Amazon don't have an effective policy here - if they'll allow such abuses as you've mentioned while deleting perfectly fair and honest reviews, apparently because a few people don't like the book or the reviewer. That's caving in to mob rule, and no good has ever come from doing that.

    If Amazon is going to continue encouraging customer reviews (and I think it's a good idea), then they really ought to find a way to make sure that the game is being played fairly.

    Best wishes,


  4. Dear Simon,
    It happens to all of us, and I think the important thing to keep in mind is that most people out there are reasonably intelligent and fully capable of recognising a diatribe when they see it.

  5. My heart goes out to you, having been in your shoes. Under another pen name I have written novels that prominently feature two sacred cows: one who may have lived and one who most certainly did -- Helen of Troy and Jane Austen (no, they were not in the same novel, but that's a novel idea). As many trolls savaged the books on Amazon (Goodreads did not yet exist and I despair of hopping over to check) as gave the titles 5-star reviews. This carried over into my other titles and I suffered personal attacks by people who had never reviewed another book on Amazon and never met me, as I daresay they would not have called me "sick, sad, and psychotic" to my face. The problem is that, as you state, these negative reviews are clicked on as "helpful," and raves are clicked as "unhelpful" and Amazon won't remove the savagery because the reviews are so "helpful," according to so many consumers. And it's obviously b.s. Why is it that a rave becomes suspect, but a pan is considered bona fide? It's like living in Wonderland where everything is topsy-turvy.

  6. Kind, wise words from you all. Thank you.

  7. Read with interest. So far, my books have not attracted trolls. I hope it continues.

  8. I will read a number of reviews. It becomes quickly apparent who the trolls are and I try to avoid feeding them. If the reviews are highly combative and conflicting (Love it or hate it), I go to Amazon's "Look inside" and check things out for myself. I think most serious readers follow this behavior or as askamedium wrote, "REAL readers still do it the old way, look at a title, the blurb and the first page (or free bits) to see what a book is like, the story and way it is written. If those all look ok, buy it. Never fails."

  9. I find this all terribly concerning. This reviewer (and I know her well) takes her reviewing very seriously and, in my opinion, does a wonderful job. This is not the first time I have personally know someone attacked on amazon and I think it is time amazon stops permitting people to post a review unless they leave their actually name. These people who choose to be vicious hide behind made up names and emails. This kind of behavior is exactly why we try to keep the readers of our books anonymous- so that they can make an honest and fearless determination of a book based on what they have read.
    Slowly amazon's reviews are becoming less and less influential in assisting a reader in choosing a book. Between 5 star reviews loaded with family and friends and trolls, how can you possible let them influence your choices?