Anne Rice. Photo: Getty
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Your book sucks: are authors being bullied with one-star Amazon reviews?

Anne Rice thinks there are communities of “parasites” intent on dragging down writers by slating their books online. Is she right – and why are we such slaves to the star rating, anyway?

I frequently fall down internet rabbit holes – I google medical symptoms late at night, I look up animals who have won awards (I have not won awards), I try to find out the exact length of intestinal worms pulled from dogs’ bellies on old episodes of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not that I vaguely remember watching in the ‘90s (results so far inconclusive). I also habitually read the one-star Amazon reviews of books I love. Why? I have no idea. Try it. It’s like sitting mutely at a dinner party with aliens.

Here's Lolita

The book arrived on time in and was in great condition but the actual literature itself was just terrible . . . its turgud, pretentious crap, which is badly written and really just utterly dull, I doubt a combination of the literary talents of Katie "Jordan" Price and Alan Shearer could come up with something more indescribably poor.”

Go find a book you love. Click the one-star reviews – there will always be some. Cancel your plans for this evening.

But one-star Amazon reviews are more than a space for performance art or green-ink rantings. Some authors believe that they amount to “bullying”. Anne Rice, writer of Interview with The Vampire has signed a petition snappily entitled Protect Amazon.com Users and Indie Publishing Authors from Bullying and Harassment by Removing Anonymity and Requiring Identity Verification for Reviewing and Forum Participation – a collective effort to eradicate trolling and abuse in one particular corner of the internet. The petition wasn’t her idea, nor was it one of the dozens of daily causes sent to our inboxes courtesy of 38 “pick your battles” Degrees as a way of enabling Rice’s long and personal war against The Unfavourable Reviewer. (ICYMI: Last year she took umbrage with a small potatoes blogger (who not only didn’t like her book but cut it up for some arts crafts project), posted a link to the offending review on her Facebook and invited comments. Essentially she just set her fanbase on someone who didn’t like her book, and opened the blogger up to a world of shit-slinging from the more slavish of the group (others called Rice out on it).  In terms of picking a postergirl against being a dick on the internet, you could do better than Rice.)

Anne Rice is not the only writer to have gone after a bad reviewer. In 2011, a self-published author in Milton Keynes launched libel proceedings against the guy who wrote a series of bad Amazon reviews of his book, The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know. Also summoned to the courtroom were Richard Dawkins and his foundation (for discussion threads relating to the review on the foundation’s website) and Amazon (for allowing this to happen in the first place). Earlier this year there was a story about another self-published author in America threatening to sue a reviewer because their single bad review allegedly lost the writer $23,000. Whether it’s back-of-the-envelope maths or real maths we’ve only got his word, but at this point it’s irrelevant. Stay with me.

While I’m up late googling intestinal worms I shouldn’t be, there’s a thing I always try not to do and invariably end up doing anyway on Twitter: argue. As a rule, it’s best not to engage. If you engage, you will not come out looking good. I have argued in favour of outlawing shorts. I once swore, in a sleepless blaze, that taramasalata is better than hummus (I GOT MY WORDS AROUND THE WRONG WAY). We all make mistakes. Nobody comes out looking good and screenshots last forever. This rule is also applicable to Amazon.

The author-who-thought-the-one-star-review-put-him-down-$23,000 broke this rule. He engaged. He commented on the bad Amazon review, the reviewer wrote back and by the end of it there was a 19-comment thread right there on the Amazon page where anyone thinking about maybe possibly buying the book would see it. I’m speaking for myself here obviously, but I’d consider that kind of a turn-off.

Had he left it alone that one-star review would have been an outlier compared to dozens of better ones (35 of them being five-stars) and probably regarded as the anomaly it was. But – like Jerry Seinfeld evening up his chest hair in that werewolf episode – he went too far. Could it be as simple as that thing where you don’t remember compliments, but you do remember the place, the time, and the tone in which you’re pretty sure someone implied you have a fat arse? Internet nemeses are easily gained and rarely forgotten. I should know – I have them as saved searches in my Tweetbot.

But of course there is a big difference between bad Amazon reviews and disagreeing on Twitter: here there is money involved. Bad reviews pull the book’s overall rating down – the rating that sits right under the name of the book in yellow stars. The temptation to “game” that kind of system is often irresistible – to fans, to haters, to the authors themselves.

Reputable sites make a point of not tampering with customer reviews, or at least being transparent about what's fair comment and what's not. Richard Longhurst, co-owner of Lovehoney, Britain’s biggest online retailer of sex toys, says that while his staff do go in and correct grammatical errors, Lovehoney will never outright remove a bad customer review from their website – the presence of the bad lends validity to the good.

What prompted Rice to sign the petition were her experiences in an Amazon forum this past January (although she’s been talking about the Amazon problem for some time). She was answering questions while “predatory career bullies” (screengrabbed here) spat venom and abuse, anonymously. She told the Guardian: “They've worked their way into the Amazon system as parasites, posting largely under pseudonyms, lecturing, bullying, seeking to discipline authors whom they see as their special prey . . .  They're all about power. They clearly organise, use multiple identities and brag about their ability to down vote an author's works if the author doesn't 'behave' as they dictate."

Rice is right about one thing: there are reviewers out there who pride themselves on only leaving bad reviews. Meet Chris Roberts.

Roberts has 50 followers on Twitter, where he describes himself as a “short story writer, Pushcart Prize nominee and Lord High Executioner of the Amazon One-Star review”. I first started following him in June 2013. I found him underneath a listing for a book I was thinking about buying and he was rubbishing, in verse. It was a one-star review, the absolute hammer-to-the-balls of the Amazon world. This month he reached a landmark 350 one-star reviews. Authors range from the relatively unknown, to Paul Auster, to Vladimir “nowhere near as good as Katie Price” Nabokov. Since he started in 2010, Roberts has read and loathed more books than I have stacked guiltily and unread by my bed. By review number five he was signing off as “Chris Roberts, God”.

He has reviewed a collected edition of Nora Ephron's work by writing a one-act play in the style of Tennessee Williams. Signing himself “Chris Roberts, lord God of the spooky edge”, he reviewed a Thomas Pynchon book in free verse averring that "YOURS is a cyclical pantomime". He reviewed a book about Bob Dylan by noting, “Insanity is knowing Bob Dylan can't hold a note.../ And calling him a great artist.../ Insanity is his response to the Holocaust...”

I wanted to know why he rubbished, on average, two novels per week consistently for the past four years. I asked him but was evidently too slow in answering my emails (I am shit at emails, I will give him that). It went: less than brilliantly. You can still find these daily updates on his Twitter if you ever need reminding:

Matthew Taub at OTBKB had better luck than me in interviewing Roberts: here he ponders whether he is an “obstinate troll or literary muckraker”?

Roberts has a very clear view on one-star reviews: he likes giving them, and Amazon won't stop him. He told Anne Rice as much: “even if Jesus Christ signed the petition, Amazon will do nothing”.

Chris Roberts is probably right. But would removing abuse make Amazon purer?

While an Amazon rating might matter little to you, it matters a lot to the author. Nobody checks an Amazon rating more frequently than the book’s author. It’s the sort of thing that keeps a person up at night. I should know, I have slept in the houses of the Amazon-ranked.

Here’s what writers do in their dressing gowns: writers write back to people who slate them. We know this because in 2004, for one stomach-flipping week, the anonymous reviewer names on Amazon Canada were replaced with real names. By the time the glitch was rectified we’d already found out that the anonymously named “a reader from New York” was actually Dave Eggers, rebutting bad reviews. Some writers wrote five-star reviews of their own books (and their friends’ books) in order to boost the rankings. Don’t judge those guys, you’d do it too. When ratings equal sales, it’s a means to survival. It’s the online equivalent of going into a bookstore and rearranging the display so that your own book is front and centre (also left, right, above and below if my time as a bookseller taught me anything), or putting in a fake order and then cancelling it so the store is forced to put it on their shelves (where it can be rearranged in a week’s time to front, centre, left, right, etc). In areas of creative work, games are always being played: for good and bad.

Remember that self-published author from Milton Keynes? The judge threw the case out, a) because such a small portion of the reviews would actually be considered libellous and pursuing it would be a waste of time and money, and b) the judge thought the author might have trouble convincing the jury that he had been wronged, considering his own online behaviour. He has been pseudonymously rebutting bad reviews and adding favourable ones. (He owes £100,000 in legal bills.)

Essentially this Amazon petition is just a part of the wider discussion about people being dicks on the Internet. Even if you take away their anonymity, people will still find a way to be dicks on the internet because it’s the internet. As for Amazon reviews, they have become bottom half of the internet at worst, strategic puff pieces at best, and therefore irrelevant unless you're buying a washing machine or being funny about Penetrating Wagner's Ring. In the same conversation you have with your mum about that man from Nigeria asking her for money, you need to explain how Amazon reviews need to be ignored.

Will the petition work? I doubt it. If Amazon’s customer reviews were a stain on your shirt, they’d be a go-home stain. No amount of scrubbing will get this out. 

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era