Dark Side of the Net

Funny business at Amazon.com in June ... Patrick Rothfuss's 2007 fantasy debut The Name of the Wind had made a terrific splash, winning awards and storming the New York Times bestseller list. So why was this mob posting one-star reviews to Amazon, saying in strangely similar phrases that the book was rubbish, and furiously agreeing with each other in a discussion thread titled "rothfuss is a fraud"?

Most had no track record of Amazon reviewing and seemed to have signed up solely to slam a popular book. Here my spies remembered another US author's on-line habits. Let's not give him the oxygen of publicity; I'll call him Bob Direhack.

Direhack is a self-published writer of woefully inept fantasies. If you believe his Amazon reviews, though, he bestrides the genre like a colossus. When negative comments appeared – complaining of feeling defrauded by the actual books being raved about – Direhack would report them as malicious abuse and have them deleted. Now that particular tactic has worn thin, bad vibes are rapidly pushed out of sight by a fresh surge of five-star reviews, often with strangely similar phrases. Reportedly Direhack uses scores, even hundreds, of Amazon accounts to hype his own books. Or maybe – let us strive to be fair – his hordes of loyal fans all write in the same style.

There's more! Back in 2002, my newsletter Ansible noted a rash of oddly similar Amazon reviews that rubbished newer fantasy authors and instead plugged George R R Martin, Robert Jordan and Bob Direhack. Or maybe C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and Bob Direhack. Our man's name got dragged into praise of Philip Pullman by reviewers who independently used the spelling "Phillip". Who could possibly be writing these barely disguised puffs?

Tactfully I let readers guess for themselves, but the wrath of Bob Direhack or of his devoted fandom was roused. In those days the Ansible web archive lived at Glasgow University ... which soon had threatening email from a supposed US attorney, claiming that evil Langford had "caused continuing material and economic harm" to Direhack and should be suppressed with extreme prejudice. This was transparently fraudulent. Real lawyers don't operate from throwaway Hotmail accounts, conceal their street address, or talk about "malice of forethought". Ignoring such clues, the spineless Glasgow authorities took down the Ansible archive. Happily I had a mirror site elsewhere, but it rankled.

Then the Direhack promotional bandwagon hit Wikipedia. Dedicated Wiki editors with curiously similar styles peppered the on-line encyclopedia with dozens of articles about this author's hugely important fantasy series. His name was thrust into unlikely contexts – the Literacy entry, for example, because Literacy is something what Bob Direhack does real good. There was a purge of all this "non-notable" Wikipedia hype in 2006, and last summer the entry for Direhack himself (already heavily cut) was hurled by popular acclaim into the dustbin of history. Great crocodile tears of sympathy rolled down my face.

What of the recent mass attack on Patrick Rothfuss? This had the flavour of Direhack's co-ordinated team of "sock puppet" identities, but without the usual recommendations of his dismal novels. The mask began to slip when one of the faceless attackers took time out to slag two other authors, who by uncanny coincidence had both blogged disapprovingly about Direhack's relentless self-promotion. Also, several of the attack dogs amended their Amazon profiles, adding tags that steered profile viewers to the books of ... well, what a surprise: Bob Direhack! These tags were hastily deleted when someone blew the whistle; but the secret was out.

Direhack-watchers suspect this failed writer may be simply jealous of newer fantasy authors who crash the fame barrier. Rothfuss isn't alone in being blitzed with one-star writealike reviews for no clear reason. Are accusations that Rothfuss wrote all his own positive feedback (with help from friends and family) intended to distract from Direhack's well-known habits: "Hey, everyone does it"? Do they expect us to believe that Rothfuss fiddled the bestseller lists by having those sycophantic pals buy untold thousands of books in several countries? Meanwhile at Wikipedia, someone with a cryptic agenda and a fondness for sleazy innuendo tried to get Rothfuss's and our own Joe Abercrombie's entries deleted – like Direhack's – as "non-notable".

It's all terribly sad; and while Amazon keeps turning a blind eye to anonymous hype and anonymous denunciation, it's not going to end any time soon.

David Langford has no secret on-line identities. Honest.