You Be The Critic

Reviews: Online amateurs get publishers' attention.

June 05, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Authors beg them to review their books -- and sometimes privately curse when they do. Publishers quote them on book jackets. Book lovers bombard them with thank-you letters and hate mail.

They are's citizen critics, a corps of amateur online pundits who have become a force to be reckoned with in the publishing industry. They may not have the impact of Oprah, but they're numerous and noisy enough to give publishers and authors a case of the literary willies.

Amazon, the world's largest online bookseller, pioneered the idea of allowing shoppers to post book reviews in 1995. Today, reviews are a staple of e-commerce sites across the Internet, giving surfers a chance to debate the merits of everything from CDs to salad spinners.

But nowhere is the practice more controversial than in a cozy literary world long ruled by a coterie of professional book reviewers.

"It's very democratizing. I know when a book is good and I know when readers are going to like it," says Harriet Klausner, a 48-year-old speed reader from Atlanta who is the undisputed queen of Amazon critics, with a whopping 513 reviews online.

Detractors say Amazon's online reviews are the literary equivalent of Wrestlemania -- turning the genteel world of book reviewing into a morass of cheap shots and petty bickering. It's not hard to understand why they feel that way.

"It bites," begins one stinging review of author Thomas Harris' latest thriller, "Hannibal."

"Victorian cow-dung," sputters another critic in a review of Emily Bronte's 19th-century classic "Wuthering Heights."

"Hey Shakespeare!" wrote a reviewer of "King Lear." "Nobody's gonna think you're smart just because you use big words and try to be complicated."

While many publishing professionals write off amateur rants like these -- many of which are misspelled or ungrammatical -- others are beginning to take notice.

When Pocket Books published the novel "Lip Service" by M.J. Rose, it used comments from citizen critics in promotional blurbs on the book jacket.

"I do look at what they [online reviewers] have to say. I know my authors look, especially, " says Rachel Sussman, a publicist for Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, Calif.

One reason: Amazon's reviewers can generate a buzz. For example, most readers had long forgotten Alfred Lansing's 1959 tale "Endurance," a chronicle of Ernest Shackleton's expedition to the South Pole. But a casual mention of the tale in an Amazon review of Jon Krakauer's Everest adventure "Into Thin Air" created a flurry of orders for the 40-year-old title that helped propel it from obscurity to the New York Times best seller list.

Unknown authors are starting to contact well-known online reviewers, hoping to generate interest in their new titles. "I've got a lot of people wanting me to review their books," says 24-year-old Angel Lee, one of Amazon's top critics, with 241 reviews to her credit.

Amazon's system is simple. Reviewers can assign books a rating of up to five stars and post detailed comments -- anonymously if they like. Urging reviewers to focus on content, Amazons bans "profanity, obscenities, or spiteful remarks."

Even so, authors and publishers say anonymity makes slander and silliness too easy.

One famous Amazon review of the Bible was signed, "God."

Another impersonation wasn't so obvious, when Lynn Manning Ross discovered that her book on Internet business planning had been trashed by none other than Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

"Don't waste your time," Bezos wrote.

Or so Ross thought. When she complained, Amazon found the review was bogus and eventually removed it.

But company spokesman Bill Curry defends anonymity. "There are books about very private or sensitive areas, like people dealing with miscarriage or unwanted pregnancy. People should have the right to comment anonymously on things that might help others."

Some authors say the reviews shouldn't be there at all.

"After all, you don't see a grocery store selling Del Monte vegetables on their shelves and then posting a sign that says, 'Del Monte stinks!'" Robert J. Randisi, executive director of the Private Eye Writers of America, wrote in a letter to Amazon last month.

Randisi, a St. Louis author of more than 300 mysteries and Westerns, wants Amazon to leave reviewing to the professionals.

"The only requirement Amazon has for its reviewers is they have a computer and can type," he says. "'Whether or not they can string two words together is another matter. It's a little frustrating."

Others feel similarly bruised.

"Someone put that I couldn't write grammatically," huffs award-

winning Baltimore mystery writer and Sun reporter Laura Lippman. "I consider that libelous."

Amazon's Curry says critics of the citizen review system are missing the point.

"Philosophically, we don't see ourselves in the business of selling, as much as in the business of helping people make purchase decisions," he says.

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