A five-star review? Thanks, darling


Readers might be obsessed with Amazon’s reviews and rankings – but not nearly as much as the authors are

WHEN IT emerged recently that the wife of respected British historian and best-selling author Orlando Figes had been rubbishing rivals’ books via anonymous reviews on the Amazon website it threw into focus not only the potentially self-destructive insecurity of the authorial ego but also the whole relationship between the retail behemoth and the authors whose work it sells.

As an author I have what I presume is a typical attitude to reviews. I lie about ignoring them but go into deep melancholic swoons at the bad ones and at the same time hail the writers of good reviews as genius interpreters of the literary zeitgeist.

Amazon has escorted the review into a new realm with its facility for readers to share their opinions of your work. It takes book reviewing away from the smug cliquery of the artistic and academic sets and allows authors to see what the people who actually buy their books think of them.

My particular favourite – in fact, from an author’s perspective it’s pretty much the perfect review – is the person who said they hadn’t actually read my book but was looking forward to it so much they were giving it five stars anyway.

Like any such open forum however, the system is open to abuse, something the Figes affair has blown wide open. This isn’t the first time that an author has been caught out: a software glitch in 2004 meant that reviews posted anonymously suddenly had the reviewers’ real names appearing next to them and some are still there six years on.

Hence, for example, it’s interesting to read that Nicholas Coleridge’s novel Godchildrenis “really gripping with good strong characters and gets better and better as it goes along”, and worth five stars in the opinion of, er, Nicholas Coleridge.

Publishers are known to ask authors to rope in friends to post positive reviews when a new book comes out.

It’s fairly easy to spot: when there’s a flurry of positive endorsements so ringing that you’re in danger of contracting tinnitus, posted close to and even before the book’s publication date, there’s probably something fishy going on.

A friend of mine tried this once only for his wife to post a sparkling homage to his literary genius under the pseudonym “justthewife”.

It’s not all about puffery though: in a forerunner to the Figes affair another acquaintance saw his first book targeted by a campaign of negative reviews by the author of a book on the same subject (with some of them giving the game away by actually advising shoppers to buy the other book instead). Luckily his sales weren’t significantly affected.

Beyond the reviews, authors also use Amazon as a rough guide to how well their book is selling. It can take so long for sales feedback to reach you that ice ages are known to come and go, meaning Amazon can become a real-time barometer of how your books are doing.

ON PUBLICATION DAY and on the rare occasions when my books are reviewed in the national press I, for one, am clicking refresh on the title’s Amazon page practically every two minutes hoping for a nosebleed-inducing charge up the rankings. I’m usually disappointed of course, with the most spectacular backfiring coming after I’d done a radio interview about a book I’d written about Elvis Presley. Two hours after the interview I checked Amazon and found the book had actually plummeted 120,000 places down the rankings. That’s 1,000 places a minute. I’m a natural on radio, me.

It was largely as a result of this that I learned to stop relying on twice-daily visits to Amazon to prop up my quivering self-esteem. When I read about Figes’s faux pasI winced on his behalf and decided to check my rankings for the first time in weeks.

Imagine my delight to discover that one of my books currently stands proudly at number one in Amazon’s chart for books about Liechtenstein.

It’s a cut-throat niche though, so I’m off to pen a coruscating anonymous clobbering of the German edition of The Fungi of the Tirol, Vorarlberg and Liechtenstein. They’ll never know it was me.

Charlie Connelly is the author of nine books including And Did Those Feet: Walking Through 2000 Years of British and Irish Historyand the forthcoming Our Man In Hibernia: Ireland, The Irish and Me