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Posted by Tom, September 7, 2012

In which we uncover an internet sock-puppet

UPDATED BELOW

I wrote about sock-puppets only a few days ago, and the subject certainly hasn’t gone away since. Today, though, I’m approaching the subject from a different angle: we have found someone trolling the Amazon book pages of one of our authors, and I would like to explain how we came to this conclusion and what it means.

Lyn Gardner is the author of our highly-acclaimed Olivia books – a fantastic series of novels set around a stage school and its pupils, perfectly suited for performance-mad 9-12 year olds. Lyn is also a theatre critic for The Guardian, so she really knows her stuff – as well as being hugely enjoyable (and I say that as someone who is most definitely not a performance-mad 9-12 year-old) the books have an immensely appealing authenticity about them. Julia Eccleshare called Olivia’s First Term, the first volume in the series, “a gripping story with a sharp eye for the power struggles within the classroom.” For The Telegraph, Dinah Hall wrote that the book has a “timeless feel … It has all the classic ingredients for nine year-olds.” And The Stage called the book “A hugely enjoyable, escapist, quite traditional series of children’s books.” Earlier this year, Olivia’s First Term was also selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club.

Now, I don’t mean by all this that because The Telegraph and The Stage like Lyn’s books other people aren’t allowed to dislike them. But they have been well-reviewed and well-received, and I think that is important context for what is to follow.

There are five Olivia books on Amazon, and four of them have received a single negative review each. These four reviews are written under different names, and none of the profiles associated with the reviews have written anything else. They’re all of roughly equal length (a single paragraph) and, to my mind, are written in a generic style of all-purpose negativity – but we’ll come to that in a moment. The really interesting thing is that two of the reviews were written before the books had even been published. One of them (Olivia’s Winter Wonderland, the fifth book in the series) won’t be available for another month – it hasn’t even been printed yet – and already there’s a sniping review. It is categorically impossible for anyone to have read that book yet (we don’t tend to print uncorrected proofs for reviewers and booksellers beyond the first volume in a series). So the reviews on Amazon aren’t by someone who has seen the book. In theory, Amazon users should not be allowed to review books before they have been published, but because of a glitch in the system from which Amazon pulls its data, Olivia’s Winter Wonderland appears on their site to be available now (in fact, it will publish on October 4th).

Here is a review for Olivia’s First Term:

I don’t find anything about the book to be dull and self-important, but there we are. On its own there’s nothing to find suspicious in this.

Here is a review for Olivia and the Movie Stars, the third book in the series:

Now, granted, this book is not Trainspotting, but “Middle Class” strikes me as a very odd complaint (almost – ha! – as if it has been made by someone who is only trying to be rude). The speculation that the other reviews were “left by friends” also seems strange.

Here is a review for Olivia’s Enchanted Summer, the fourth book in the series:

You will notice that this review was posted on the same day as the first one, for Olivia’s First Term. It was also posted before Olivia’s Enchanted Summer was available (the book was not published for another week). Again, it’s written in a way that seems to me to be gratuitously negative without engaging with the book itself. Of course Lyn is not Roald Dahl. Her books are nothing like his. It’s a criticism which doesn’t reveal anything other than a general negativity.

Finally, here is a review for Olivia’s Winter Wonderland:

This is certainly the oddest review of them all. Whoever wrote this has absolutely not read the book. I’ve not read the book. It doesn’t exist yet. This review is totally without merit, and whoever wrote it has been caught in their lie.

I will concede that the evidence that all of these reviews are by the same person is circumstantial: they’re the only bad review for each book, written to a similar length and style (two of them not only use the word “embarrassing”, which stands out as a choice of adjective because it is so weirdly applied, but also do so in the context of forced analogies comparing the books to dancing), by people who haven’t reviewed anything else, and the names are generic. But there is cast-iron evidence that at least some of them have been posted by someone who hasn’t read the books.

I find this intensely irritating for several reasons. Firstly, because Lyn is a friend, and this is petty, malicious and totally inexcusable behaviour, directed at her. And secondly, as her publisher, this is potentially harmful to the success of her books. If these were genuine reviews, then that would be fine – that’s what happens. Lyn knows that better than anyone: she’s a critic by profession. But these are not genuine reviews, and this person is not practising criticism.

So we return to the question – what to do to fix this? As I said, the review for Winter Wonderland should not have been allowed and only was through an error in the metadata. But all that means is that we were able to spot the falseness of the review with greater ease: if it had appeared once the book had been published, it would be far harder to prove it to be fake.

If you’ve read the Olivia books, we’d love it if you would consider leaving reviews for them on Amazon. And if you haven’t read them yet, you can read the first chapter of each on every book’s page of our website.

UPDATE
Over the weekend, all four of the negative reviews have disappeared from Amazon.