Tuesday 30 December 2008

“Thoughtless as monarch oaks that shade the plain.” (John Dryden)

“Patients to rate and review their GPs on NHS website” is the leader on today’s The Guardian. Aghast, I glance over the article and find exactly what I was dreading to read: Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, claims he wants the site “to do for healthcare what Amazon has done for the book trade … providing positive and negative feedback, warts and all, from consumers.”

Great idea, Ben, well done! This is the stuff of great policy-makers! We should all take example from Amazon, who have brought so much light, joy and happiness in the book world.

I know you’re too busy thinking up more epoch-defining reforms such as this, but I want to tell you a little story about Amazon’s book reviewing.

Pushkin Press published, a few years ago, Antal Szerb’s masterpiece, Journey by Moonlight, in a wonderful new translation from the Hungarian by Len Rix. Pushkin have exclusive rights for this work across the English world. Now, some US professor – without the shadow of a contract with the Szerb Estate or a publisher – took it upon himself to make another translation, called it The Traveler and self-published it using a large print-on-demand publisher. Then he reviewed his book – or had it reviewed by some of his students – two hundred and seventy-four times on Amazon.com. That’s right, two hundred and seventy-four times. These are long, glowing reviews of the professor’s translation, at times with a positive mention of the professor’s other unpublished works, and disparaging references to Len Rix’s translation.

Since the title is different from the canonical one, it was difficult for Pushkin to spot it in the Amazon jungle, and it took them years to notice it. The problem came to a crux this year. Pushkin sent a polite letter to Amazon and to the publisher, asking them to remove the book from their websites and giving the reasons. They got back a furious letter from the professor, with threats of a legal suit if they tried to prevent his book being on sale, because he claimed he was in possession of a valid contract from the Szerb Estate. The professor’s son is a lawyer, so it didn’t cost him much to resist any legal challenge.

To cut a very long story short, the result was that Pushkin had to hire a US lawyer and pay a lot of money to bring the matter to a close, as neither Amazon nor the publisher would do anything about it otherwise. In the end, the book was temporarily removed from Amazon.com, and the US professor was silenced and forced to disclose the sales figures of his edition. Pushkin received no compensation for loss of sales. As I write this post this morning, I see that The Traveler is back there online, with all its fake 274 reviews, warts and all.

Whoever thinks that this is the exception rather than the rule is wrong. I know that most authors ask their friends to review their book positively on Amazon on the day of publication. Many of the “impartial” reviewers are in fact people with an agenda of friendship, self-promotion, spite and rivalry, or a secret grudge against the author or the translator. Over the years, we had to ask Amazon.co.uk to remove quite a few moronic or nonsensical reviews of our books. Some are still there, for all our complaints. The only thing you can do, in that case, is to bury the bad or spoof reviews under a mountain of fake positive ones. So we end up feeding the system and wasting an inordinate amount of time on a “meaningless popularity contest”.

Where do our politicians live, I often ask myself? What have we done to deserve such inanity and short-sightedness? Cannot they see that Amazon, Facebook, Wikipedia and the like can be easily manipulated and abused? We need someone to check content, dear Minister, and it’s your job and that of your colleagues – not ours – to check the credentials and the performance of GPs and hospital staff.


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