Sunday, July 15, 2012

In All Seriousness...

Let's talk about negative reviews. And authors' reactions to negative reviews.

I'm sure by now most of you have heard of the Stop The GoodReads Bullies website and how it's been stalking and terrorizing bloggers known for writing snarky reviews, under the misguided belief that bloggers of that stripe are bullies and harass innocent authors.

Now, while the Stop The Good Reads Bully site is run by one woman and her stable of sockpuppets (not unlike an angry, unstable, literary-minded Sherry Lewis), she is not the only author with this sort of opinion about GoodReads.

And they insist over and over again that their anger is not simply about negative reviews. Oh no! We know how things are! Everyone is entitled to their opinion! We respect negative reviews so long as they're professional!

So, what are these authors really complaining about, if it's not simply negative reviews? Well, from what I can gather, their main problems are with:

1) Snark 
Now, I can sort of get this argument. It's hurtful enough to get a bad review, but one that reviews your book negatively in a comedic way can pour salt on a wound. But just because a review is funny, doesn't mean the reader wasn't paying attention to your book. Bloggers are writers, too. That's the difference between a blogger and the average reader, because when we're done a book, we're compelled to write about it. And for many of us (myself included), it's not enough to write something that covers all the basic points - it also has to be entertaining and easy to read.

I, myself, prefer blogs with a lively and entertaining writing style - not just ones that mirror my particular taste. I have to want to read what they've written, otherwise I just skim to the rating at the end, taking in the relevant bits along the way. Just like authors, we have to be honest to our writing style because that's what makes us want to write. We don't write like that to be mean, it's not a personal attack on you, we write like that to express ourselves.

I do think that snark can be taken too far - but everyone has their own snark saturation point, so it's unfair to set some sort of arbitrary standard for it. If you find it hurtful, STOP READING IT AND AVOID THEIR BLOG. It's that easy.

2) Freedom of Speech
Well, isn't that interesting! Authors complaining about freedom of speech! Specifically, I'm referencing the arguments made on the Bully site and elsewhere that authors have a right to comment on their reviews. Authors are readers, too, you know, and it's not fair that they should be "silenced" and "treated like second-class citizens" while their precious babies are being dragged to the literary pillory.

And, as a matter of fact, they do have that right. However, the general belief that "authors shouldn't comment on their reviews" doesn't come from the idea that they aren't allowed to do so, but rather from the fact that it won't make a difference. The book is already read. The opinion has already been formed. There's no way to retroactively change a person's opinion. So when we say that authors shouldn't comment on reviews, we say it for their own benefit, because at best it will waste their time and energy and at worst will tarnish their public image and damage their fanbase.

Authors shouldn't comment on their reviews, even if the blogger allegedly gets something wrong in their review. Yes, even then. Why? Because "getting something wrong" is so incredibly subjective that you'll be stepping in a minefield just by bringing it up. To paraphrase Joss Whedon, one of my favourite screenwriters - your writing isn't your pet, it's your kid. It's going to grow up and start talking back to you. Meaning - people are always going to get things out of your story that you didn't expect or intend. 

Now, while these two points bring up common author complaints, neither of them constitutes bullying. Bullying constitutes being continually harassed, in such a way that you feel unsafe and cannot escape.

Which is why these first two reasons are bullshit - firstly, the internet is such a vast place, that it's a fairly easy thing to avoid the blogs that don't like your stuff. This blog hated your book? Don't visit it again! This tumblr negatively reviewed your novel? Blacklist it! Block it! Block the users! It's that easy!

Secondly, how in HELL does a bad review or snarky remark on GoodReads make you feel physically unsafe? How in HELL do negative words make you feel "assaulted"? I'd love to see you mosey on down to a battered women's shelter and explain how assaulted and harassed you felt when you voluntarily read a hurtful book review on the internet.

Now comes the third part:

3) Fan Response
Book bloggers, as a whole, are an expressive bunch. Now, as bloggers like Katiebabs have pointed out, when an author misbehaves and the story of this behaviour goes public, bloggers tend to react quickly and furiously and the author often finds herself with an avalanche of negative feedback that may or may not be proportional to the inappropriateness of her behaviour.

This, I think, is where the idea of "blogger bullying" comes from. The author feels like she's being ganged up on. She thinks she's only expressed her own opinion, or tried to correct a misconception about her book, or simply tried to point out with helpful links that other people reacted positively to her novel - and the result is a bunch of harshly-worded comments on GoodReads by complete strangers who then vow never to read her books.

Some authors have interpreted this as harassment and mob mentality, when really, the reason for this reaction is that bloggers are still considered (and even consider themselves) to be lower on the literary foodchain than authors. Authors are high on the literary foodchain - they're the creators, the shapers, those who can fashion sophisticated stories from the raw materials of their imaginations. Without authors, there would be no books to blog about.

So when an author bitches out a blogger, to other bloggers, that's the equivalent of a 200-pound-wrestler picking on a 90-pound weakling. That's a person in a superior position picking on someone in an inferior position, which gives bloggers an urge to defend their own. And that's why we react this way. Now, is this professional? Probably not. And two weeks ago I would have said that an author can't really do anything to a blogger except spew bad words, and bad words are easily blocked, deleted, or ignored, which would be the more mature response (that, and never buying the author's books again).

But the creator of the Stop the GR Bullies website demonstrated a desire to cross the line of professionalism into downright crazy and illegal.

So while I will commiserate with authors that the bottom of a sweaty, martini-drenched book blogger pile-on is probably a shitty place to be, bloggers are in no way restricting their rights, singling them out for punishment because they didn't like their book, or making them feel physically unsafe in their homes.

But despite all the GR Bullybashers' protestations, deep down at the heart of things, it really is all about negative reviews. You don't see authors getting mad at people giving them five-star reviews despite not reading their book (some of them do just that with sockpuppet reviews). You don't see authors bitching out five-star reviews that said their hero was a pirate when he was clearly a privateer. I've yet to see an author question the professionalism, education, upbringing, or literary success of a reviewer who gives her a good review.

Honestly, authors? You will lose more readers through acting like a jackass on the internet than by getting a negative review on the internet.  Danielle Steel's books have been critically pissed on for years and yet she still sells enough books to afford the ballgowns in which she poses on their back covers. Why? Because her fans love her. And last time I checked, there were about 150 million blogs on the internet. One negative review is a drop in the fucking ocean.

Are there examples of blogger misbehaviour? Sure. Reviews that insult the author's personal life are unprofessional. Reviews made without reading the book (or that aren't transparent about not finishing a book) are unethical. Ironically, a blogger who was targeted by the GR Bully Site for inciting "lynch mobs" against authors by publicizing their misbehaviour also broke the news on blogger misbehaviour - specifically, the story of the blogger who got in a snit about an author's misinterpreted Tweet and proceeded to give her book a scathing one-star rating without actually reviewing the book or finishing it. That's dishonest, and the worst thing a blogger can do is be dishonest, because our business is all about opinions and the readers who trust ours.

So yeah, if you're a blogger who gives five-star reviews because you're being compensated for it, or you're giving one-star reviews without reading the book because of a personal grudge against an author, you're not a blogger I want to know or associate with. 

But even so, the very worst a blogger can do is spew bad words. Sticks and stones.What do you think? Are there ways in which bloggers have been unprofessional? Are there ways in which authors can respectfully respond to reviews without criticism? Please discuss in the comments!


  1. Hear, hear! Thank you for so eloquently putting into words exactly why this is nonsense. It has been demonstrated over and over again that authors acting like crazy people on the internet is far worse for their careers than any bad review.

    1. Exactly! EVERYONE gets a negative review now and again - that's why it's particularly puzzling when an author rants at a negative reviewer by saying "all these other people liked it!" Really, now? If all these other people liked it, why do you care what I think? And thanks to being rude, they lose more readership.

  2. I never mind bad reviews. Okay, let me rephrase that... I don't love reading bad reviews because my first reaction is to have a bit of a hurt feeling because hey, who wants to hear that something they put heart and soul into sucks (at least to that one person) BUT on the whole I let it roll off my back. Here is why:

    1. It's the reader's opinion, which she is entirely entitiled to. She bought the book, she read the book, she felt how she felt about the book, for better or for worse.

    2. ANYONE talking about a book is really a good thing. Books sell on press, and if everyone hates a book, it often sells as well or better than if everyone loves a book, so honestly, anyone reviewing anything is a great thing.

    3. I'm never going to write a book that everyone loves. It's just not possible. I just hope people who don't like my style or voice or whatever you want to call it don't continue to torture themselves by buying more and more of my books. It seems like a painful exercise for us both.

    As for talking back to reviewers or commenting on reviews, I rarely do it. The review isn't really for me, it's for readers, so unless someone points it out specifically to me via email or @me at twitter or on my facebook, I won't respond.

    1. 1. Spot on. There's no real way to change an opinion after the fact.

      2. Exactly! Remember that gal whose book PREGNESIA was reviewed by the Smart Bitches? She posted a HILARIOUS response that was essentially "thank you for reviewing my book, no press is bad press" and it actually got people in the thread to READ her book. Because it's true - no such thing as bad press.

      3. Yes. That is true - I don't doubt there are a few bloggers out there who continue to buy shit books just to see how hateful they can get. But life is short, I say.

    2. I was one of the people who read that book because of her response. I thought the book was so-so, but I still have a positive feeling when I see one of her books in a store.

    3. And by "the book" I mean Pregnesia. I really shouldn't push "publish" until after I've had my morning coffee...

  3. I've really enjoyed both your thoughtful posts on this issue. Most book bloggers are NOT professional bloggers, and no reader is a professional Goodreads user. So inevitably, there are a lot fewer consequences if they're nasty and childish than if the "professional" author is. It is, as you say, simply not an equal relationship, nor is a review the same type of "speech" as a book (sure, you can review a review, but it's ill-advised).

    My feeling about the "they incite a mob!" argument is "oh, FFS." Goodreads is a *social* site. People talk to their friends there, and they tend to have friends with similar tastes and attitudes to online behavior. My bet is most of the time when someone clicks like on a snarky review, it's because she thinks it is funny, not because she's trying to keep it at the top of the list to punish an author. If you have friends who like snark, and you write an epic snarky review, you get a lot of comments--and then dissenters notice and join in and their friends notice and it snowballs. I doubt any of this is coordinated. I've also never seen someone respond negatively to a polite correction of a factual error from the author, though I'm sure it could happen. So I have to wonder how these authors are defining "fact" (and maybe "polite") or whether these stories are even true--because there's remarkably little evidence offered for a lot of these complaints.

    Do I always agree with my online friends about author behavior and how they react to it? No. But 100% of the time, they are reacting to an author's behavior or comments, not instigating.

    1. True enough. I think perhaps that's another reason why people get angrier at authors who lash out. They're supposed to be "professionals." Their income and careers are invested in their public image - why be so careless with it?

  4. Anonymous8:45 PM

    Loved this post! I'm especially glad you brought up the fact that no matter what someone says in a five star review they don't get crap for it. This is so true and really does negate a lot of the arguments I've seen against negative reviewers. I've seen plenty of five star reviews that weren't constructive or simply say something like "LOVED this!" Yet they don't get raged at for being "unprofessional," which is a ridiculous statement anyway. How many bloggers are professionals? Would anyone consider Goodreads users professional?

    I'm glad this post is getting passed around.

  5. The only comment I have is a quibble over the literary foodchain thing. Without readers no one will buy the books the authors write, so really who has the power there? In a way goodreads is like word-of-mouth amongst friends that happens to be online and thus up there for everyone to see. And it's not just bloggers on goodreads, there are a lot of plain ol' readers there putting their opinions online.
    That said I think in several of the incidents, the reader or blogger being attacked tends to have way less followers/fans than an author, but all it takes is for something to get on twitter. And most of the time, it is really obvious the author is in the wrong (verbally attacking a reviewer never goes over well with most people), so everyone putting in their two cents seems like a tide of the readers/bloggers "friends" coming out of the woodwork, when really, you're online people. Controversy like this travels fast. People are going to weigh in, and if you are clearly doing something unkosher, you aren't going to like the number of people who have a bone to pick with you.

    1. Awesome comment! I didn't necessarily mean that bloggers are at the bottom of the foodchain or not - I mainly meant that they are PERCEIVED to be lower on it than authors. They're not paid, they do this out of their free time, there are no standards on writing style, post length, etc. So seeing one getting picked on is like seeing someone picking on the sassy underdog.

      But that is true - you'll suddenly get a lot of attention if you're involved in a scandal, from people you've probably never met. It's not necessarily a good thing, but it's more understandable.

  6. I'm flattered by both negative and positive reviews. I don't really understand the hurt feelings thing. I used to feel a bit of a sting but I don't get that anymore. Maybe the cure isn't avoiding bad reviews, it's reading more.

    Yes, I've seen some bad blogger behavior, namecalling and physical threats against authors. But usually it's authors behaving badly.

    In some cases, I don't think it's necessary for reviewers to rally the troops. I once had an author link to a positive review in the comments of the DNF review I gave her. So what? I just thanked her and moved on. Her comment wasn't an attack, my review wasn't an attack. No drama necessary.

    When an author starts namecalling, that's different. But bloggers can get away with it, to some extent, because the standards of professionalism for author behavior is higher.

    I don't think authors should engage reviewers or worry about correcting mistakes, defending their work etc. Goodreads is for readers, so authors should respect boundaries or stay away.

    1. Oh yes, on the good reviewing linking, if it's just one, that's fine. I was referencing the time recently where an author filled up a reviewer's commments section with 40 (!) individual comments and links to good reviews - many of which were sockpuppeted.

    2. Jill Sorenson4:29 PM

      Ah. I think I remember that. 1 link or comment is probably not wise, in most cases. 40 is just crazy.

  7. I certainly agree that there are some bloggers who take it too far with their negative reviews; heck, I even love some of them. The thing is, though, is that it is generally very clear that it's been done for comedic effect. It's pretty easy to tell when a review is analytical and professional versus giftastic snark. Both have their places and serve a purpose. I enjoy reading both. I generally write the former (I think), but I've definitely done the snark thing too.

    These authors that comment on bad reviews and spark such drama need to realize that readers can go to more than one source for information. What I find so completely baffling about this is that they're particularly hung up on Goodreads. You get a few trolls on the actual blogs, but 90% of the time, it's the same review on Goodreads that gets the hate. On the blog, the reviewer is the sole arbiter of taste, in their little microcosm of a world. You'd think the author would be worried about people who might only read this blog, leaving them with just that one review to judge the book off of if they're too lazy to google for more. On Goodreads, though, that review is cozied up to a ton of other reviews of their book. So what's the big deal? The first two people gave it a one and got tons of thumbs up for their GIF reviews? OH NOES! But wait, everyone else gave it five stars and said that your stalker hero was the sexy. People glance at the overall rating, they scroll through reviews. The situation is not that dire on Goodreads.

    What pisses me off more than anything is the bloggers that, whether paid or not, almost exclusively rate books 4 or 5 stars. These bloggers are really obvious and generally get a shit ton of books. I averaged the ratings of one blogger's reviews for the first six months of the year: 4.6. How the fuck is that helping anyone? Answer: it's not. Their opinion is clearly worthless. Ugh. That sickens me.

    1. "The situation is not that dire on Goodreads."

      This is exactly what I keep thinking every time I read a post about this. I've been a member of Goodreads since 2007 and I've seen some snarky/borderline mean reviews of books--but it is very much in the minority, and, seriously, they are almost always the most well-written and well-thought out reviews for a particular book. I've used Goodreads when I was blogging and when I wasn't and I've never had the sense that there is a "bullying" problem. (If we set aside for a moment the fact that it isn't actually bullying.)

      And you have a really good point about the quantity of reviews for a particular book. Those negative reviews are almost always sandwiched between a gazillion positive reviews. I have to believe I'm much like the average user of Goodreads...I read a few good reviews and a few not-so-good reviews and I make a judgement call based on my preferences--and then I move on with life.

    2. I have no problem with people who only choose to review books they liked - SO LONG AS THEY ARE TRANSPARENT ABOUT THAT. It takes time and effort to write a review, so if they don't want to waste the time on an awful book, that's their call. But they need to state that upfront.

    3. Some of us don't finish books that we don't love, so that's something else to consider. I have no problems tossing aside a book if I get through 50-75 pages and it's not doing anything for me. As a result, my reviews are often skewed to the positive (3+ stars) because if I can't finish a book, I clearly can't review it.

      I don't think this makes my opinion about the books I DO review "worthless," as the people who follow me are more than aware that I don't generally finish books that I don't like . . but also because I try to write reviews in a manner that shows I actually considered the book.

      I think the way in which a book is discussed means more than an average of ratings. I would trust a blogger who could review a book and back up his or her opinion articulately, but had mostly four- and five-star reviews, over someone who has a mix of ratings but mostly wrote things like "OMG I hated this book, don't waste your time with this garbage. FAIL." or "I loved it! Everyone should read it!" but didn't back up the opinion with well-argued points.

  8. Wow, I had no clue that website even existed. Thanks for this post, it was very enlightening!

  9. Sometimes bloggers are jerks. It's true. In any subset of people, you're going to find a few who are jerks. The whole crux of the blogger vs. author thing is, like you said, they're not on equal ground--and the reader is far more likely to sympathize with the blogger in many cases, because bloggers 1) are readers, and 2) give their content away to other readers for free, unlike authors. The blogger has no stake in the review other than to express an opinion.

    A lot of authors think it's not fair that they can't respond to bloggers . . . but it's not really about fairness, it's about the fact that they DO have a stake in the book's (and their own) success. It's not that they can't respond, but it's in their best interest not to do so. I wrote on BookRiot that authors shouldn't bother "correcting" reviews unless it's something like a glaring error in the New York Times, or a really high-traffic site where there aren't competing reviews--and it should be an actual error, such as the one I read about recently where the reviewer mixed up the entire storyline because she mistook one character for another early on. Otherwise? Give the consumer some credit and take the high road to avoid looking bad.

    1. Rather, in a comment on BookRiot--I am not a BookRiot author.

  10. I'm not surprised by the GoodReads activity because I also write fan fiction - not so much now, but my account's still there and on occasion I'll add a chapter to an unfinished story.

    One misstep on and the trolls come out, and spend a lot of time jacking a story's review page before moving onto the rest of the author's stories that may even be in other genres.

    I receive an email re: each new review. They might spend hours on this when they have the time even though they are only pasting the same negative review over and over. If I block anonymous reviews, another account is set up so I don't bother trying to circumvent them any more since it does seem to keep them from bothering someone else for that period of time LOL

    However, I do see a difference re: Goodreads. I post fan fiction for fun - no $ involved. I don't think my trolls are trying to find out who I am and where I live and work, even though my pen name and stories get blogged about outside

    Since they're not obsessively stalking me, I can be the mature one and delude myself into thinking my writing is powerful enough for others to waste away hours of their lives protesting it.

    I also agree with other comments that I view Goodreads as a word of mouth site. It is easier to interact on the site than to invite everyone over to a blog party, and it is not exclusive to one vendor.

  11. I would disagree with the part that authors shouldn't respond to reviews, they only shouldn't do so if it can't lead to a productive discussion.

    Reviewers, the serious ones, not the ones that snark for snark's sake, can get things wrong, too, after all like authors they are only humans. They can miss things in a book they read or come up with a wrong interpretation of events, and it can help there to have an author voice up and set things straight, or to fill in a part the reviewer might have missed.