Readersforum's Blog

January 27, 2013

Swarming a Book Online

Randall Sullivan is the author of “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson.”

Randall Sullivan is the author of “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson.”


Reviews on Amazon are becoming attack weapons, intended to sink new books as soon as they are published.

In the biggest, most overt and most successful of these campaigns, a group of Michael Jackson fans used Facebook and Twitter to solicit negative reviews of a new biography of the singer. They bombarded Amazon with dozens of one-star takedowns, succeeded in getting several favorable notices erased and even took credit for Amazon’s briefly removing the book from sale.

“Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly killed,” said Trevor Pinch, a Cornell sociologist who has studied Amazon reviews. “In theory, a very good book could be killed by a group of people for malicious reasons.”

In “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson,” Randall Sullivan writes that Jackson’s overuse of plastic surgery reduced his nose to little more than a pair of nostrils and that he died a virgin despite being married twice. These points in particular seem to infuriate the fans.

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November 22, 2012

Tim Ferriss and Amazon Try to Reinvent Publishing

Filed under: e-tailers — Tags: , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 6:24 am

The official publication date for “The 4-Hour Chef” is Tuesday.


Tim Ferriss, the author of the “4-Hour” series of self-help books for young men, hails from the nutritional supplements world, where the product is going to rot in the warehouse unless customers feel it is going to change their lives forever right now. Amazon, more than just about any other large tech company, does not pretend it sees any value in the old order.

Bring these two elements together in the publication by Amazon of Mr. Ferriss’ new book, “The 4-Hour Chef,” and the result is a lot of noise, hype and anger, as well as some hints about the future of book publishing. Here are a few preliminary conclusions:

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November 6, 2012

Booksellers Resisting Amazon’s Disruption


Timothy Ferriss is the author of “The 4-Hour Chef,” published by Amazon.

Amazon prides itself on unraveling the established order. This fall, signs of Amazon-inspired disruption are everywhere.

There is the slow-motion crackup of electronics showroom Best Buy. There is Amazon’s rumored entry into the wine business, which is already agitating competitors. And there is the merger of Random House and Penguin, an effort to create a mega-publisher sufficiently hefty to negotiate with the retailer on equal terms.

Amazon inspires anxiety just about everywhere, but its publishing arm is getting pushback from all sorts of booksellers, who are scorning the imprint’s most prominent title, Timothy Ferriss’s “The 4-Hour Chef.” That book is coming out just before Thanksgiving into a fragmented book-selling landscape that Amazon has done much to create but that eludes its control.

Mr. Ferriss’s first book, “The 4-Hour Workweek,” sold nearly a half-million copies in its original print edition, according to Nielsen BookScan. A follow-up devoted to the body did nearly as well. Those books about finding success without trying too hard were a particular hit with young men, who identified with their quasi-scientific entrepreneurial spirit.

Signing Mr. Ferriss was seen as a smart choice by Amazon, which wanted books that would make a splash in both the digital and physical worlds. When the seven-figure deal was announced in August 2011, Mr. Ferriss, a former nutritional supplements marketer, said this was “a chance to really show what the future of books looks like.” Now that publication is at hand, that future looks messy and angry.

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April 18, 2012

Daring to Cut Off Amazon

Randall White of the Educational Development Corporation, which in February removed its books from Amazon.


TULSA, Okla. — Plenty of people are upset at Amazon these days, but it took a small publishing company whose best-known volume is a toilet-training tome to give the mighty Internet store the boot.

The Educational Development Corporation, saying it was fed up with Amazon’s scorched-earth tactics, announced at the end of February that it would remove all its titles from the retailer’s virtual shelves. That eliminated at a stroke $1.5 million in annual sales, a move that could be a significant hit to the 46-year-old EDC’s bottom line.

“Amazon is squeezing everyone out of business,” said Randall White, EDC’s chief executive. “I don’t like that. They’re a predator. We’re better off without them.”

It is an unequal contest. EDC has 77 employees, no-frill offices on an industrial strip here and a stock-market valuation of $18 million — hardly a threat to Amazon, a Wall Street darling worth $86 billion. But Mr. White’s bold move to take his 1,800 children’s books away from the greatest retailing success of the Internet era is more evidence of the extraordinary tumult within the book world over one simple question: who gets to decide how much a book costs?

The Justice Department last week sued five major publishers and Apple on price-fixing charges, simultaneously settling with three of the houses. The publishers say they were not illegally colluding but simply taking advantage of a new device platform — Apple’s iPad — to sell their e-books in a different way, where they controlled the prices.

The publishers wanted to stop Amazon from using what one of them called “the wretched $9.99 price point,” according to court papers. Selling e-books so cheaply, they feared, would solidify Amazon’s robust grip on the business while simultaneously building a low-price mind-set among consumers that could prove ruinous to other bookstores and the publishers themselves.

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March 6, 2012

In a Flood Tide of Digital Data, an Ark Full of Books

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , — Bookblurb @ 8:19 pm

Lianne Milton for The New York Times


RICHMOND, Calif. — In a wooden warehouse in this industrial suburb, the 20th century is being stored in case of digital disaster.

Forty-foot shipping containers stacked two by two are stuffed with the most enduring, as well as some of the most forgettable, books of the era. Every week, 20,000 new volumes arrive, many of them donations from libraries and universities thrilled to unload material that has no place in the Internet Age.

Destined for immortality one day last week were “American Indian Policy in the 20th Century,” “All New Crafts for Halloween,” “The Portable Faulkner,” “What to Do When Your Son or Daughter Divorces” and “Temptation’s Kiss,” a romance.

“We want to collect one copy of every book,” said Brewster Kahle, who has spent $3 million to buy and operate this repository situated just north of San Francisco. “You can never tell what is going to paint the portrait of a culture.”

As society embraces all forms of digital entertainment, this latter-day Noah is looking the other way. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made his fortune selling a data-mining company to in 1999, Mr. Kahle founded and runs the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving Web pages — 150 billion so far — and making texts more widely available.

But even though he started his archiving in the digital realm, he now wants to save physical texts, too.

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February 1, 2012

Amazon’s Revenues Disappoint

An Amazon center in Ridgmont, England, last December. The company's profit exceeded analysts' estimates, but its shares fell.

By DAVID STREITFELD’s plans for world domination hit a slight bump on Tuesday.

For years, the retailer has been telling Wall Street to ignore how little money it was making and focus instead on the fact that it was bringing in more and more customers and keeping them so happy they never went anywhere else for anything.

In Amazon’s fourth-quarter results, however, investors finally glimpsed off in the distance that growth beginning to flatten. Its revenue rose to $17.43 billion, up 35 percent. Most retailers would die happy with such a jump. But for the e-commerce leader, sales were nearly a billion dollars short of what analysts had been expecting.

Even as investors are panting for Facebook’s public stock offering, established Internet stars are disappointing. Amazon’s poor showing came on the heels of a similar miss from Google.

Among the reasons for Amazon’s missed expectations: Video games were lackluster. There were supply issues from flooding in Thailand. And maybe there was a bit of backlash.

In December, created an uproar by encouraging customers to use a price-checking app on Main Street and in the malls, and then return to Amazon for a better deal. Booksellers, who have long felt themselves in the retailer’s cross hairs, were particularly offended. A tentative “buy local” movement sprang up.

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January 30, 2012

For $2 a Star, an Online Retailer Gets 5-Star Product Reviews

Filed under: e-tailers — Tags: , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 5:34 am

Bing Liu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is trying to devise mathematical models that can unmask fake product endorsements. “The incentives for faking are getting bigger,” he said. “It’s a very cheap way of marketing.”


In the brutal world of online commerce, where a competing product is just a click away, retailers need all the juice they can get to close a sale.

Some exalt themselves by anonymously posting their own laudatory reviews. Now there is an even simpler approach: offering a refund to customers in exchange for a write-up.

By the time VIP Deals ended its rebate on late last month, its leather case for the Kindle Fire was receiving the sort of acclaim once reserved for the likes of Kim Jong-il. Hundreds of reviewers proclaimed the case a marvel, a delight, exactly what they needed to achieve bliss. And definitely worth five stars.

As the collective wisdom of the crowd displaces traditional advertising, the roaring engines of e-commerce are being stoked by favorable reviews. The VIP deal reflects the importance merchants place on these evaluations — and the lengths to which they go to game the system.

Fake reviews are drawing the attention of regulators. They have cracked down on a few firms for deceitful hyping and suspect these are far from isolated instances. “Advertising disguised as editorial is an old problem, but it’s now presenting itself in different ways,” said Mary K. Engle, the Federal Trade Commission’s associate director for advertising practices. “We’re very concerned.”

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December 30, 2011

The Book Beyond the Book

NewsMelville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is the latest to arrive in the form of a HybridBook, which bridges the gap between electronic and traditional books. Kindle photograph by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

That sound you hear is the wrapping being torn off of millions of Kindles and iPads. When those devices are fired up and start downloading texts, it will be the greatest shift in casual reading since the mass market paperback arrived six decades ago. Will this dislocation destroy the traditional book? Will it doom the traditional independent bookstore? Will Amazon and Apple control the distribution of thought and culture in America? All these questions will be played out imminently.

The migration to e-reading is usually reported as a one-way journey: You get a device, start downloading and never look back to the old-fashioned book. You start mocking those type-filled volumes reeking of another century. Meanwhile, the defenders of the old ways are digging in their heels. I know readers who swear never to read anything electronic, saying they find the format muddy and confusing and sad.

Dennis Loy Johnson, a former academic who is the proprietor of Melville House, a small but innovative publishing firm, wants to reconcile these warring factions. Why should electronic and traditional not collaborate?

“It seems to me that most of us in publishing have been far too quick to look to a print-book-less future,” Mr. Johnson said in an e-mail. “But that’s like saying we don’t need the wheel because someone invented the airplane.”

Melville has introduced a new series, HybridBooks, to meld the two cultures. On the physical side, the Hybrids are attractive, stripped-down paperbacks, with nothing inside but a short classic text. The first five were all called “The Duel,” reprinting tales by Casanova, Kleist, Conrad, Kuprin and Chekhov. The latest is Melville’s tale of the first Wall Street refusenik, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Bartleby, for reasons that do not become clear until the end of his tale, decides to opt out. The connection with the Occupy Wall Street movement is clear, and is no doubt the reason the Melville House edition is already in its fifth printing.

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November 6, 2011

Uncovering Amazon Publishing

Laurel Saville’s account about her beauty queen mother’s decline and murder, Unraveling Anne, was published by Amazon this week. It is hard to tell how well it is selling.


The legacy book publishers are pretty much open shops. If you want to know how many titles they are publishing this fall, just get a catalog and add them up. Amazon is taking a different tack, shrouding much of the plans for its publishing venture in the secrecy it extends to most of its business dealings. (Apple, no slouch at being close-mouthed, at least reveals how many iPads it sells. Amazon does not do the same with Kindles.)

Amazon issues a press release when announcing a new imprint — a half-dozen so far, plus a somewhat anomalous operation run by the entrepreneurial thinker Seth Godin — but little more. Since the books are sold almost exclusively on the Amazon site and are usually digital, they do not appear on any of the traditional best-seller lists. What is selling is unclear; how and why is even murkier.

Laura Hazard Owen at took a dive this week into the subject with her article “The Truth About Amazon Publishing.” After counting the books one by one, she found 263 current and forthcoming Amazon titles. Just about all are also published in physical form. Readers are enthusiastic about reviewing these efforts and tend to give them high grades (average: 4.09 out of 5).

About a fifth of the titles become digital best sellers, too. But this tended to happen when the titles were sold at promotional prices, which illustrates the power of becoming the Kindle Daily Deal but little else.

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October 21, 2011

Analysis: If Amazon ruled book publishing, too…


  The world’s largest book retailer offers royalties to authors of self-published digital editions that traditional publishers can’t hope to match. But this is not the real reason that Amazon may be about to upend the publishing game as we know it. With 122 titles set for release this season, Amazon’s own imprints have the major New York houses in a panic. Who will the upheaval benefit?


In August this year, an award-winning Hawaiian author of three internationally bestselling novels posted an item to her blog that shook the upper echelons of New York publishing to its core. It had been four weeks since her last posting, wrote Kiana Davenport, and in that time she had learned first-hand how deeply the digital revolution could affect her life. By way of explanation, she referred to a decision she’d made eight months previously, a course of action taken “in innocence and exuberance, and [out of] a need for income,” the consequences of which had ruined her credibility among book publishers. What had Davenport done? The unthinkable. She had self-published an e-book through

Like most writers – including the successful ones – Davenport was debt-ridden and in January 2010 needed the cash that an advance from a “Big Six” house such as Penguin could provide. So she signed a contract with the group for a forthcoming novel, understanding full well that she was being “coerced” into giving away 75% of all future royalties on the electronic edition of that book (standard practice in author/publisher agreements nowadays). After the contract was concluded, Davenport packaged a collection of her short stories for Amazon, believing in her ignorance that since this collection had been rejected by Penguin and all the other major New York houses some years before, she was doing nothing wrong.

“To coin the Fanboys, they went ballistic,” she explained. “The editor shouted at me repeatedly on the phone. I was accused of breaching my contract (which I did not) but worse, of ‘blatantly betraying them with Amazon’, their biggest and most intimidating competitor. I was not trustworthy. I was sleeping with the enemy.”

And here, as a result of their rage, is what Penguin demanded of Davenport: “That I immediately and totally delete Cannibal Nights [the aforesaid collection] from Amazon, iNook, iPad, and all other e-platforms. Plus, that I delete all Google hits mentioning me and Cannibal Nights. Currently, that’s about 600,000 hits. (How does one even do that?) Plus that I guarantee in writing I would not self-publish another e-book of any of my backlog of works until my novel with them was published in hardback and paperback. In other words they were demanding that I agree to be muzzled for the next two years, to sit silent and impotent as a writer, in a state of acquiescence and, consequently, utter self-loathing.”

Way to go, Penguin. Especially since a précised version of Davenport’s blog entry appeared prominently in the 16 October edition of the New York Times. The bosses at Penguin’s plush offices in Manhattan would no doubt have noticed that while Davenport did not refer to them by name – her blog entry spoke only of a certain “Big Six publisher” – the reporter at the Times, David Streitfeld, wasn’t quite so respectful. He found out who the publisher was, and splashed it all over his piece. He also spoke to top executives at Amazon, one of whom said: “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”

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