Amazon asked to investigate 'stalker' leaving poison-pen reviews

Author Rosie Alison has asked Amazon.co.uk to intervene over the reviews of her books on its site, after tracing a pattern of negative reviews which appear to suggest she has become the target of an online "stalker".

Alison, whose novel The Very Thought of You was shortlisted for the Orange prize earlier this year, approached the online retailer after a series of critical reviews appeared on the site using similar phrasing and language. In one instance the posting was made using the name of her daughter, the dedicatee of the novel in question.

But press reports that she had hired a private detective and was in dispute with Amazon over the issue were inaccurate, Alison said, and she did not believe the reviews were being posted by a rival publisher as had been alleged. "I have put through a request for Amazon to look at some reviews which seem suspicious. There is a process going on, but I hoped it would go through in private," she said. "I am perfectly open to critical reviews when stated under somebody's real name, but over a number of months I have had a few reviews that have made me suspicious, because the phrasing was similar and the names involved do not appear to have reviewed any other titles on the site. I let it go for some time but it was getting me down. A friend said 'Do something about this anonymous assassin'." Alison added: "It's a personal thing and I feel distressed. It could be someone I know."

Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the Society of Authors, said the problem did occur "not widely but quite often." He said: "We hear occasional complaints about malicious reviews motivated by other than pure literary assessment. My understanding is that Amazon, if contacted about this, are good at taking down offensive reviews or others if they are persuaded that have not been posted in good faith."

There was controversy earlier this year when historian Orlando Figes admitted he had anonymously posted negative reviews of rival historians' books on the online site. Meanwhile authors including Iain Banks and Elizabeth Buchan recently suffered a spate of Amazon one-star reviews posted by disgruntled customers in protest against rises in the prices of the Kindle ebook editions of their novels.

Publishing insiders say organising the posting of positive reviews for one's own authors is a fairly common practice, with publishers asking writers if they have friends or family who might want to offer their new book some praise. People employed within publishing houses also post favourable reviews for books they are bringing out, often under aliases. "Everyone does it on their hotmail address," confirmed one. "There was a case a few years ago where a publisher was caught out. We were told, 'Remember, everything can be tracked back to you.'"

However, publishers would stop short of using false reviews to badmouth books from their rival publishers, according to publicist Stine Smemo, who runs Smemo Books and PR, and has an extensive background in publicity work for London publishers. "Most editors I know will review books they feel passionate about under an alias, but I've never known anyone to slag off a competitor," she commented.

David Miller of literary agency Rogers, Coleridge and White said he always recommended authors look at their sales figures on Amazon rather than the reviews. "I'm not going to trust either five-star or one-star reviews on Amazon, as there's always a potential agenda," he said. "Who am I going to trust? Someone who has taken time to review a book, and is being paid money to consider it judiciously, or somebody who is a disappointed customer?"

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