I was amused at the weekend seeing historians in a high dudgeon over the Orlando Figes Amazon affair, it bringing to mind the old saw that academic politics are the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low. I'm not sure what amused me more—that Figes put the reason he posted anonymous venomous reviews about rival historians' books down to 'health problems'; or that he first tried to pin the blame for them on his wife, which might make for a frosty old time at the Figes household in the coming weeks.
My chuckles aside, the whole episode does shine the spotlight once again onto Amazon's review policy, which has often come under fire, particularly from authors. Amazon first cleaned up its review policy about five years ago, not least because former KGB agent and writer Alexander Vassiliev sued for libel following a review on the site that questioned the validity of his sources. Since 2005, anyone wanting to post a review on Amazon has to have an account, linked to credit card details and email address.
This does little to stop the anonymity of the reviewers—Figes posted under the user name 'Historian'. And there is no editorial control, of course. A frequent complaint from writers is that reviews are often by people who have never read the books. A couple months ago Paul Carr noted on his Techcrunch blog that the majority of negative reviews for Michael Lewis' The Big Short were not about the content, but people complaining that there was no Kindle version.
Yet it seems misguided to complain about Amazon's review policy, or even call for it to be changed. The whole web 2.0 ethos is about opening these communities as widely as possible. In the past I've waited tables and worked in bookshops, I know that engaging with the public means having to deal occasionally with the ignorant, ill informed and the lunatic fringe.
Amazon has employed measures to lessen the impact of the single review, with its 'was this review helpful to you' button, and pitting the most helpful positive review against the most critical review at the top of a book's reviews page. Yes, there will continue to be cranks, idiots, authors settling scores, even publishing PRs puffing their own books. In the end what will win out is the weight of public opinion.