SAN FRANCISCO — Lynn Manning Ross, author of a book about Internet business planning, got a shock when she checked reader reviews of her work posted on Amazon.com, the hugely successful Internet bookstore.
None other than Jeff Bezos, Amazon's world-renowned chief executive, had posted a vicious pan of her book under the heading "Stupid Book . . . Don't Waste Your Time!"
Or so it seemed. As Ross soon discovered, the pan had actually come from an anonymous individual who had, unbeknownst to Amazon.com officials, appropriated their boss' real e-mail address as a form of cybernetic camouflage.
That was the most embarrassing example of what authors, publishers and other industry insiders say is a growing problem on Amazon--and in some cases, on other commercial Web sites that invite the general public to comment on products, artistic works or other items of value.
Privacy and free speech may be cornerstones of Internet communications, but the very anonymity of the process, they say, is an invitation to mischief-makers or even professional rivals to besmirch the reputations of authors and their work without fear of being caught.
Many commercial sites view public reviews as sure-fire audience builders or as a way to create the illusion of an online "community." On Beyond.com, one finds user reviews of software; Gamespot.com offers reviews of video and computer games; Buy.com offers reviews of books, music, games and videos. There are also countless sites in which investors can comment on public companies, with online remarks by anonymous touts sometimes engendering huge changes in the shares' prices.
Earlier this month, the telecommunications company Carnegie International sued three Web users for posting inflammatory messages about the company on a public Web site. And in October, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged 44 individuals and companies with touting stocks on the Web, often anonymously and generally without disclosing that they had relationships with the companies they were promoting.
But the issue has caught the eye of the publishing industry in particular because of Amazon's tremendous visibility. Its reader-supplied reviews, which carry ratings of one to five stars that are compiled for an "average" rating for each work, have become an easy touchstone of buyer reaction.
Moreover, some publishers say a few negative reviews can attract others.
"It's like a lot of things on the Internet: It can increase the lemming effect," boosting or killing a book much faster than in the past, said Tim O'Reilly, chief executive of computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates.
Amazon's reviews and ratings are far from foolproof predictors of success in the marketplace; some in the industry believe that the reader reviews, in particular, are less integral to a book's success than the snippets of professional reviews that are posted even more prominently on many works in Amazon pages.
But the site is "increasingly significant as a measure of what's important out there," O'Reilly said. Publishers, he said, value the site's reviews because they offer instant consumer feedback.
Jim Price, vice president of Macmillan Computer Publishing, said his staff uses Amazon extensively to make publishing decisions and to evaluate potential authors.
Some authors have become Amazon-obsessed, using software applications to track Amazon sales rankings minute by minute.
"We have over 2 1/2 million customer reviews at Amazon.com," said Paul Capelli, a company spokesman. "We're all about empowering the customer, providing information so that they can make a smart decision."
But critics wonder whether the empowerment of readers has become less than edifying for book buyers.
On Amazon, the problem may be unusually severe because of the site's resolute policy not to pre-screen anonymous reviews and its disinclination to remove negative ones, even at an author's request.
In the case of the "Bezos" review of Ross' book, no one at Amazon apparently noticed that the anonymous reviewer had baldly signed the review as "email@example.com," Bezos' actual e-mail address. Amazon does not have a system of verifying the e-mail return addresses given by reviewers. Ross complained for a week before Amazon.com finally removed the bogus review.
"Once we're notified and verify that a comment is not within our guidelines, we do our best to take it down as quickly as we can," Capelli said.
"You can make a comment saying anything and it gets posted," Ross said. "In this instance, it's absolutely gone too far."
Author Suspects a Coordinated Effort
Computer book authors are particularly concerned about the lack of pre-screening--perhaps because they are more tuned in to the Internet than authors of general interest books. But malicious reviews have become common in many categories.