Neyer, Kettmann, Davidoff, & Amazon
Oh, what tangled webs...
September 6, 2004
A lot of books arrive on my doorstep. Books I’ve ordered from Amazon, mostly, but also books that people have sent me, either because I contributed in some way or because somebody’s hoping I’ll enjoy the book and will help promote it. Free books is one of the perks of being a writer.
A couple of weeks ago, a new book showed up. The author’s name is Steve Kettmann, and the title is One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America. Kettmann, who I’ve never met, nor heard of before the book arrived, apparently came up with a pretty cool idea. He would, with the help of various other writers and reporters, document a single Red Sox-Yankees game by tying together the experiences and reactions of various fans (most famous, a few not), players, and team employees (most famous, a few not). There have been books written about a single regular-season game -- most notably, Dan Okrent’s excellent Nine Innings -- but nobody’s ever tried to do it exactly like this. As I said, it’s a cool idea.
Immediately I sat down and read a few pages. I didn’t care for it much, but neither did I pass immediate judgment. I wanted to like this book. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for those particular pages. It happens. So I gently laid the book down, with plans to give it another try later, when I was in a different frame of mind.
That’s exactly what I did, the next day. But while my frame of mind might have been different, my reaction was not. Or rather, my reaction was not better; it was worse, much worse. After reading a dozen or so pages, I stopped. And threw the book across the room. I’d never thrown a book in anger, and I hope I never do again. It’s not something I’m proud of, because I love books and anyway there’s nothing rational about throwing one.
But this book offended me. I don’t know why, exactly. I’m offended when a baseball writer won’t consider a pitcher when he’s filling out his Most Valuable Player ballot, because the rules clearly state that pitchers must be considered. That offends me because it’s just so bloody unprofessional. But this is different. I’m sure that Steve Kettmann tried to write a good book, and I’m sure his editor tried to turn Kettmann’s manuscript into a good book. It just didn’t happen, not even close. And I guess what offends me -- as a writer, yes, but also as a reader -- is that thousands of people will wind up spending something like $25 on a book that’s not worth the paper on which it’s printed, mostly because they don't know any better. There are so many wonderful baseball books sitting on the bookstore shelves, waiting for good homes, that it offends me to think about how many unsuspecting readers will spend their money on this one instead. I wasn’t personally offended. But I was offended.
Of course, I could be wrong about One Day at Fenway. It's my opinion, though, and I’m entitled to it. I’m lucky, too, in that I have a public outlet for my opinions. If I want to announce to the world, ROB NEYER HATES STEVE KETTMANN’S NEW BOOK, I ccould do that in a variety of ways. I could plant a question (or ask a friend to plant a question) in one of my weekly chats (“Hey dude, what are the best and worst baseball books of 2004?”). I could figure out a way to mention the book in one of my ESPN.com columns, or I could simply write something on the front page of this Website.
It didn’t even occur to me to do any of those things. I’ve always been bothered when writers use their forum (and their talent, if they’ve got any) to act like bullies. And maybe, having written a few books myself, I subconsciously sympathized with Kettmann. When it came down to it, I didn’t want to do anything that might really hurt the guy. On the other hand, I had such a visceral reaction to Kettmann’s book that I felt compelled to do something. Something that might save potential readers, if only a few of them, from wasting their money and their time.
So I decided to write a customer review on Amazon, where it presumably would be seen by a few readers and mostly ignored. And I wrote the review under a pen name. Why a pen name? Because I didn’t want this to be about me. If I used my real name, people would notice. It certainly wouldn’t do Kettmann any good (because people would, I figured, take it somewhat more seriously) and it probably wouldn’t do me any good (because Kettmann’s cronies might, I figured, take revenge by savaging my books). I’m not saying it was the right thing to do, but the truth is that I didn’t give it a lot of thought. There’s a long and honorable history of anonymous writing in this country, and I didn’t even imagine that it could do anybody any good if I wrote as myself. Instead the review and its (anonymous) author would be mostly ignored.
Except they were not ignored. My review didn't have anything good to say. l'm not able to quote or link to the review -- we’ll get to that in a moment -- but I do remember concluding that One Day at Fenway is a waste, both of talent and trees (and money, if you’re foolish enough to spend yours). The book includes hundreds of quotes from interesting people like Theo Epstein, Spike Lee, and George Mitchell, and yet somehow not more than a tiny percentage of these quotes are remotely insightful or interesting. Quotes aside, the writing is amateurish throughout, seemingly written for an audience of sixth graders of the non-precocious sort. It’s just a bad book.
I thought I was done. I had this thing inside me that wanted out, and I let it out. A couple of hours after I submitted my review, it became the first posted on Amazon’s page for One Day at Fenway. End of story, right? I wish.
Within twelve hours of my review being posted, three more were up. All of them were glowing, five-star reviews, and all of them lacked specifics but shared common generic compliments. It seemed quite likely to me that these were not legitimate customer reviews, but were instead part of an orchestrated campaign to overwhelm my review (in fact, I soon discovered that one of the reviewers certainly is a friend of the author).
And now I was personally offended. For one thing, somebody -- Kettmann, or somebody close to him -- was pissing all over what I wrote, orchestrating a campaign of disinformation in direct response to my honest and considered opinion. For another, somebody was pissing all over every single Amazon customer who relies on customer reviews for help with buying decisions. If every book comes with half a dozen five-star reviews from the author’s friends and family, then what good are the reviews? They’re not worth the bandwidth they’re printed on, that’s what good they are.
Okay, the truth is that now I wasn’t just offended. I was pissed. I was pissed, and I did something stupid. I should have let it go (healthy reaction), or I should have just complained to Amazon (just slightly less healthy reaction) and forgot about the whole sordid mess. But instead I wrote another scathing review and asked a friend to post it, which he did.
I am not saying that was the right thing to do (it wasn't), but my addled brain told me that my two one-star reviews were merely balancing the three five-star reviews that had almost certainly been submitted under false pretenses of objectivity. Where all this would have ended, I don’t know. They would have responded with more five-star reviews, I would have responded with another one-star review . . . It all seems so petty, doesn’t it? Probably one side or the other would soon have realized the futility of the silliness, but you never know. People can be stubborn.
Anyway, my anonymity didn’t last long. Thursday morning, I received this e-mail…
Hi, Rob, Ken Davidoff from Newsday in NY. We've e-mailed before. I was wondering what compelled you to write a scathing review of Steve Kettman's new book, and to do it under the pseudonym of Ike Farrell. I might write something about it for Sunday. Thanks.
I immediately e-mailed Davidoff my phone number, and late that evening we had a nice talk, probably ten or fifteen minutes. I told him why I'd used a pen name, he explained how he knew it was written by me (there’s a quirk in Amazon that I didn’t know about), and I tried to convince him that I didn’t have some sort of hidden agenda. I also said I thought the real story here was that apparently Kettmann’s family and friends were submitting over-the-top five-star reviews, and Davidoff told me that he knew for sure that one of those first few five-star reviews was, indeed, written by one of Kettmann’s friends.
After talking to Davidoff, I went back to Amazon and replaced Ike Farrell with Rob Neyer. If Ike was going to be outed, I might as well do the outing myself.
Again, that was Thursday night. By the middle of Friday, two more five-star reviews, sounding almost exactly alike, had been posted. This was ridiculous, and I complained to Amazon. Shortly, two of the five glowing reviews (including the one written by the friend Davidoff told me about) had been removed . . . along with all three negative reviews: the one now attributed to me (rather than my alter ego), and two others (including the second one I wrote).
And so by Saturday afternoon, what was left? Four fawning reviews. One of them, the most recent, actually includes some details, and the reviewer does admit that he and Kettmann know each other. Objective? Probably not. But at least we know where this guy’s coming from. It’s the other three reviews that are, or should be, an embarrassment to Kettmann and Amazon...
Kevin J. Riveroll "Awesome!"
It’s fairly obvious that all three reviewers are reading from the same basic script. Two of them use the words “weaves” or “weaving,” and two of them say it doesn’t matter if you’re a Red Sox or Yankees fan. What happened was, somebody came up with a list of “talking points” (to borrow a political term) and e-mailed them to a list of friends and family (the two reviews that were removed stressed the same points).
Whether you root for the Sox, the Yankees, or the others, One Day at Fenway is worth the read. Kettmann's unique perspective keeps you enthralled page after page. I only wish One Day ... lead to Two Days or even Three Days at Fenway.
J. Canfora "A baseball treasure"
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author takes a unqiue perspective on one game and weaves the tale of fans, owners, players and coaches through it. It appeals to the hardcore baseball fan and non-sports lovers as well and is well crafted and weel thought out. You have never seen a game presented like this before.
J. Klingner "Love it!"
I love baseball, and I love this book! Steve does an awesome job weaving together an amazingly rich set of quotes and stories. A work of art, and a must read for anyone who likes baseball (whether or not they are a Yankees or Red Sox fan)...
Speaking of which, let’s look at the three reviewers...
Kevin Riveroll hails from Greenwich, Connecticut, which is about as close as you’re going to find to a residential hub of New York publishing. It doesn’t seem at all a stretch to suspect he might be personally connected to Steve Kettmann.
J. Canfora (wisely, perhaps) neglects to mention where he lives, but if you google Canfora you discover that somebody named Jason La Canfora writes about sports for The Washington Post. Steve Kettmann was a sportswriter for The San Francisco Chronicle for a number of years, and I think it’s reasonable to suspect that Canfora -- Jason, if not necessarily “J.” -- and Steve Kettman might have crossed paths at some point.
J. Klingner, who lists her hometown as Denver, Colorado, is almost certainly Janette Klingner, PhD, who teaches at a big-time university. She’s well-educated, and I’m sure she’s a nice woman besides. Also, her middle name is Kettmann.
They're clever, actually. If you use just your first initial, you get the Real Name tag below your name, but you make it a bit tougher to actually track you down. Not that tough, though, and so again I complained to Amazon...
When Sunday morning’s Newsday hit the Internet, I read this:
Well, gosh. I appreciate the ethics lesson, I really do. But did Davidoff, who took the time to 1) figure out that Ike Farrell = Rob Neyer, and 2) have a substantial conversation with me, consider doing a bit of additional (minimal) detective work, just in case every single one of those five-star reviews was bogus? I know, I know . . . it’s a juicier story if the ESPN employee wrote a biased review than if half a dozen of the author’s pals wrote biased reviews. Still, it seems to me that fairness would dictate at least a mention of the other side of the story (perhaps even a few words about Janette Kettmann Klingner). (And by the way, who tipped off Davidoff, and why did he feel the need to implicitly slander me? Is it unfair of me to wonder if he's a part of this whole tawdry conspiracy?)
If you went to amazon.com early last week and checked the reviews of Steve Kettman's new book, "One Day at Fenway," you discovered a scathing, one-star review from someone named Ike Farrell.
But with minimal detective work, you could discover that "Ike Farrell" was actually Rob Neyer, who writes for ESPN.com and wrote an unsuccessful book of his own about Fenway a few years ago.
By Friday, Neyer had switched the review to his own name, which he should have done in the first place.
The real story here isn’t that Rob Neyer hated a book that bears little resemblance to a book that he wrote four years ago. The real story isn’t that Rob Neyer wrote a nasty book review, initially under an assumed name, that would have been mostly ignored and quickly forgotten.
No, the real story is that if somebody writes a negative review and somebody else doesn't like it, Amazon will kill it. The real story is that Steve Kettmann wrote a crummy book, and in response his friends and family are flooding the Internet with ridiculously generic reviews that are designed to fool the public. Shame on my colleague Ken Davidoff for helping them, and shame on Amazon for letting them get away with it.
Postscript: This morning, I finally received a response from Amazon, regarding my complaint about the five-star reviews which were so obviously written by the author's family and friends. The response read, in part, "Please know that I have researched this situation and all of the reviews fall within our guidelines and none of the customers who submitted these reviews is associated with the author of this book in any way, shape or form. We do, by all means, encourage you to submit your own review for this title."
And I thought Davidoff was a lousy detective.
Postscript II: Sunday afternoon, I e-mailed Ken Davidoff to express my displeasure with his Newsday item. Specifically, I told him I regretted talking to him, as he apparently didn't really care what I might have to say. Roughly twenty-four hours later, he responded...
Rob, I apologize that your side was not represented, and I appreciate the time you took to speak with me. Here is the item I sent into my desk Friday night:
All this still doesn't quite add up, at least not in my mind. But on Tuesday the Web version of Davidoff's column was changed to what he originally submitted, so I'll take him at his word.
Head: Book Wars
I called for questions on Saturday, as per my usual procedure, and I was not informed of the cuts. I will absolutely present your side next Sunday and explain that it was cut out from last week due to editing.
(Graf) If you went to amazon.com early last week and checked the reviews of Steve Kettman's new book, "One Day at Fenway," you discovered a scathing, one-star review from someone named Ike Farrell. But with minimal detective work, you could discover that "Ike Farrell" was actually Rob Neyer, who writes for ESPN.com and wrote an unsuccessful book of his own about Fenway a few years ago.
(Graf) "If I write it under my own name, they're going to look for motives, other than me having an opinion," Neyer said. "They're going to think its personal."
(Graf) It's not, he insisted, explaining, :"I had a very visceral reaction to the book, and this was my way of coping with that reaction."
(Graf) By Friday, Neyer had switched the review to his own name, which he should have done in the first place.
My only agenda in writing this was because I thought it was somewhat interesting. The fact that Kettmann's relatives/friends/whatever wrote something positive, I fail to see the relevance or newsworthiness there. Your acts were newsworthy, in my mind, because you are a professional baseball writer, and a well-known one, at that, and I thought it was bizarre that you would kill another writer's book under a fake name.
So, that's that. I don't mind that I didn't mention the positive reviews, but I do mind that your side wasn't represented. So I guess we're still in disagreement.
Postscript III: I'm not taking credit, and in fact I hope this has absolutely nothing to do with anything I've written. But the day after I posted all the above material, two scathing reviews were posted on Amazon. And I suspect that more are on the way.
Postscript IV: On September 10, Tracy Ringolsby tore me a new orifice in his column. He didn't bother checking more than the bare bones with me first -- even though we've been in touch a few times in the past, always in a friendly way -- and as a result there are some silly and insulting factual errors in Tracy's column. Worse, he assumed and implied a number of things about me that just aren't true. Not to worry, though . . . in the midst of an e-mail correspondence afterward, Tracy assured me that it wasn't personal. Thanks, buddy.
Postscript V: The evening of September 10, Amazon apparently pulled every customer review of One Day at Fenway: scathing, glowing, and everything in between (though, to be honest, there weren't any in between). On the 12th, however, I was informed by Amazon that the reviews had disappeared because of a "technical glitch." Most of the reviews, including my original review that started all this, were restored (but not all of them).
Postscript VI: In the weeks following the events related above, I've learned some disturbing things about how Amazon manages the customer reviews. I literally don't have the space to even summarize what I've learned, but I can tell you that it's not pretty.