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November 2, 2015

Amazon mega-reviewer Harriet Klausner ends her run

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Harry Klausner at her home in Georgia when she was the #1 Amazon book reviewer

Harriet Klausner at her home in Georgia when she was the #1 Amazon book reviewer

When the news of Amazon book reviewer Harriet Klausner’s death on October 15 began circulating online, book publicists across New York City realized they’d no longer be getting regular phone calls from Morrow, Georgia.

Klausner, a self-professed “speed reader” who started reviewing books on Amazon not long after the site launched in the late 90s, had a habit of calling publishing companies to request review copies long after everyone in the business had switched to email for routine correspondence.

Her ability to read several books a day (primarily romances, thrillers, and science fiction) made her Amazon’s #1 reviewer and led to lengthy profiles by journalists trying to make sense of a new online landscape where anyone, regardless of credentials, could weigh in on nearly every book on the market. As Sarah Kaplan explained in a lengthy article about Klausner’s passing in The Washington Post (owned, coincidentally, by Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos), many questioned whether Klausner’s reviews should be taken seriously. After all, they were uniformly positive and rarely included substantive commentary. Klausner may have authored 31,014 reviews in her lifetime, but what purpose did they serve other than to adorn Amazon’s many book pages with gold stars and plot spoilers?

As David Streitfeld noted in a report for The New York Times, there was even “an ad hoc group of purists” formed to “track” Klausner because they “do not see how she can read so much so fast or why her reviews are overwhelmingly — and, they say, misleadingly — exaltations.” Or, as one member told Streitfeld, “Everyone in this group will tell you that we’ve all been duped into buying books based on her reviews.”

Partly in reaction to the criticisms, Amazon overhauled their rules for reviewing. As Kaplan describes in her report for the Post:

“[T]he site set up a new system for ranking its reviewers. No longer would the most prolific critics get their reviews listed first. Instead, ‘top reviewers’ were ranked according to how many other readers had found their comments helpful.”

And so Klausner fell from #1 to being ranked in the 2,000s, but she continued requesting advance reader’s copies and posting her unfailingly enthusiastic reviews. There’s a charm in her succinct write-ups; it’s hard not to chuckle at her recent description of Rick Mofina’s crime novel Every Second as an “adrenaline pumping, gender-bending (don’t mess with a momma grizzly protecting her cub or an intrepid journalist snooping the story) chiller.”

In a 2006 article, Time’s book critic Lev Grossman described Klausner as “one of the world’s most prolific and influential book reviewers…Klausner is part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made.”

This was years ago, and the anxiety was in response to the pervasive cuts to newspaper and magazine book coverage that hasn’t let up (see the recent changes at the Cleveland Plain Dealer). The power ascribed to Klausner by the media dwindled as the voices pullulated on the pages of Amazon, then on Goodreads, Reddit, and a whole host of other platforms. But how, exactly, did her reviews of Harlequin romances and vampire sagas (cheap forms that have been around for ages) influence the collective American taste? Were there really more readers flocking to buy mass-market paperbacks than there would have been without her stamp of approval?

At this point it might make sense to think of Klausner as just another eager voice in the opinionated, confessional online world we’ve built for ourselves: a touchingly energetic bookworm staying up late to write a few more cheerful posts, surrounded by stacks of review copies, her husband Stan, two dogs, and four cats.

 

Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.

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