The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The woman who wrote 31,014 Amazon book reviews and upended the Internet, dead at 63

Harriet Klausner in 2000. (Chris Stanford/The Washington Post)

Harriet Klausner never read a book she didn’t like.

Literally. “If a book doesn’t hold my interest by page 50, I’ll stop reading,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2005.

But Klausner liked most of the books she encountered, and she said so, with gusto. Most of the 31,014 reviews she wrote for Amazon — the most from any one user on the site — sounded like this one:

“Readers will feel an adrenaline surge throughout Dr. John Benedict’s twisting and at times shocking hospital suspense; while also looking forward to the sequel,” she said of a medical thrilled titled “Adrenaline” (judging by Klausner’s typical writing style, the pun in the review was completely intentional). As she almost always did, Klausner gave the book four stars.

They were the last stars Klausner ever gave out. The former librarian, self-appointed star Amazon book critic and frequent subject of scrutiny and celebration died this month at age 63. A funeral home announcement did not identify the cause of death. She is survived by her husband Stan, her son Eric, a brother and numerous nieces and nephews.

Harriet Klausner’s story might be that of a woman who loved books and wanted to praise them in effusive (if somewhat error-prone) prose. It might also be the story of a numbers-obsessed shill who pretended to read thousands of books and then duped consumers by posting pointless reviews about them.

Regardless, it’s a story about the Internet, where democracy and mediocrity go hand in hand and powerful communities can form around topics as obscure as one lady with a (disputed) love of books.

Klausner, a former acquisitions librarian, began writing reviews for Amazon in the late 90s, right after the site first launched. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is owner of the Washington Post.)  She has described herself as a “freaky kind of speed reader,” capable of tossing back at least a couple books a day. It helped that her favorite genres tend toward the potboiler and bodice-ripper variety: “You ever read a Harlequin romance?” she asked the New York Times in 2012, “You can finish it in one hour.”

From the start, her reviews were as cookie-cutter as the novels she often wrote about: usually a two-paragraph plot summary followed by a few lavish run-on sentences about how great the book was. “Fabulous” appears in many of them, as do “superb,” “enjoyable” and “adrenaline pumping.” Klausner never gave a book fewer than four stars; she often asked: what’s the point of all that negativity? She always said she was never paid for her reviews.

Klausner picked up steam — and lots of mainstream attention — in the mid 2000s, right around the time that people decided this whole “Internet” thing was going to stick. Time magazine wrote about her for its “People of the Year” issue in 2006, the year that “You” won for “seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game.”

“Klausner is part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made,” read her glowing Time write-up. “The influence of newspaper and magazine critics is on the wane. People don’t care to be lectured by professionals on what they should read or listen to or see. They’re increasingly likely to pay attention to amateur online reviewers, bloggers and Amazon critics like Klausner. Online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can’t match. They’re not fancy. They don’t have an agenda. They just read for fun, the way you do.”

Readers took Klausner seriously, so the book world did too. Within 10 years of her first review, Klausner — now the top rated reviewer on Amazon — was receiving boxes of advanced readers copies from editors and publishing houses.

“I’m sure there are people who go online and think, ‘I wonder what Harriet has to say about this book,'” Knopf publicity director Nicholas Latimer told the Wall Street Journal in 2005. He said he sent Klausner every fiction title published at Knopf “because I’d like her to weigh in. There are authors she covers that don’t get covered by a lot of major review outlets because of space limitations. Harriet’s their champion.”

Klausner does come across as a true book worm, someone without the pretensions and prejudices of a typical critic. On her bio for “Books ‘n’ Bytes,” a mystery, sci-fi and fantasy site with a circa-2003 aesthetic, comic sans font and all, she gushes about the “Sandras” (romance writers Sandra Chastain and Sandra Brown) and thriller author Dean Koontz. When she had to write a thesis for her Masters in Library Science degree, she says, her topic was “the impact of science fiction reading by high school seniors on standardized reading scores.”

But with the new attention came plenty of scrutiny. People were hardly done celebrating the Internet’s democratizing influence before they began decrying its penchant for mediocrity.

Klausner, many said, was not a good book critic. Her unrelenting positivity made her reviews utterly uninformative. Skeptics speculated over whether she was being paid to write all those reviews. Others wondered whether she was even a real person.

It was Klausner’s uncanny productivity that raised the most eyebrows. How could one woman read and review two or three — and sometimes 10 or 20 — books a day? In 2007, a group of reviewing purists set up the Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society to monitor her overwhelming output. Despite the name, the site’s users had little appreciation for her.

“Here is a discussion starter,” goes an early post on the site. “When did you first become aware of Harriet Klausner’s reviews, and what made you decide to comment on them?”

“I noticed HK about 3 years ago when she would review for books that don’t come out for months in advance,” an annoyed Klausner critic responded. “At first I was so jealous wondering what was so great about this woman’s reviews to be able to get all these arcs and [galleys]. Then I also noticed she starting posting over 10 reviews a day! I mean for me on a good week I can probably post 4 or 5, but over 50 in a week?!? There has to be some scam going on. Anyone going to call 20/20? LOL.”

The site hosted a “HK review contest” (promising a $25 Amazon gift certificate to the person who could write the best Klausner-style review) and encouraged users to write mocking comments on Klausner’s Amazon reviews.

One person came to the site to complain about being misled by a positive Klausner review, but wound up being cheered by the snarky comments Harriet Klausner Appreciation Society members wrote on her Amazon posts.

“I had so much fun reading the comments that I barely even read the reviews and kept going farther and farther back just for a good laugh,” “appifany” wrote. “You guys are hilarious!! Keep up the good work.”

It was a classic Internet community origin story — a few people who hated the same thing banding together to rant about it. And just like Klausner’s collective of followers had done, her critics were able to gain clout in a way that would never have been possible in another era.

They finally got their way a few years later, when Amazon reconfigured its rules for reviewing. In addition to barring friends and family of authors from praising their books and cracking down on fake reviews, the 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.

As Amazon revised and refined this system, Klausner dropped in its power rankings (she currently sits at No. 2,447). In a nod to her devotion, though, Amazon kept her at No. 1 in its reviewer Hall of Fame — a largely symbolic gesture.

For her part, Klausner was never much bothered by the haters.

“Get a life” she said in a 2012 New York Times interview. “Read a book.”

If they needed recommendations, she had 30,000 or so to offer.