We’re pleased to welcome back author and blogger Anne R. Allen!
Everybody tells new authors to build an Internet presence, but they don’t talk much about the dangers that lurk here.
Unfortunately, there are lots of mean people in Cyberia. Anonymity can make otherwise normal people devolve into cybermonkeys throwing around verbal poop.
After I wrote a post on “Gangs of New Media” last year, dozens of people contacted me with heartbreaking tales of online bullying in the publishing industry. Authors, readers, and reviewers alike had horror stories. And more recently, social media guru Kristen Lamb ran a week-long series of blogposts in January 2014 on “Goodreads Gangs and Amazon Attacks”. The comments ran into the hundreds on each post. Everybody seems to have a bully story.
Amazon and Goodreads have made some attempts to crack down, and you can help by reporting abuse when you see it.
Meanwhile, writers need to learn how to avoid gang-infested neighborhoods and stay off the radar of the bullies and vigilantes.
Unfortunately, marketers sometimes tell us to go into those neighborhoods and do the very things that will set off attacks. I’ve seen “marketing handbooks” that are the equivalent of sending children into gangland wearing a rival gang’s colors.
There’s no way to protect yourself 100% from these people. I’ve been sent death threats just for saying I’ve witnessed bullying.
One thing you can do is not give them an excuse to terrorize you. Follow the rules. Nobody deserves to be bullied, but you’re safer if the bullies don’t notice you.
However, ferreting out those rules can be daunting. Even when they’re posted, they’re usually obfuscated by legal jargon written in a fly-speck font. I’ve only learned the following by trial and error. Lots of error.
Rule #1: Never Spam
Easy to say; harder to follow.
But one person’s spam is another person’s “savvy marketing.” One of our biggest problems is that spam is defined differently depending on where you are.
Here’s a detailed post on how NOT to spam on specific sites like Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, forums, etc. Each site has different rules.
A few authors have spammed and gamed the system so badly that we’re all paying the price.
Some readers have reacted so negatively they’ve invented a bizarre dichotomy of readers vs. writers. They consider anybody who writes to be the mortal enemy of “readers.”
Don’t ask me where they think their reading material comes from. A Magical Book Stork in the Sky may be involved.
Rule #2: Never Trade Reviews
One of the tricks of the early Amazon-gaming authors was to give a book a 5-star review, then contact the reviewed author and demand a 5-star in return. If the targeted author refused, the 5-star would be reduced to a one-star.
Not all trading of reviews is the result of blackmail. Lots of authors drop hints they expect a quid pro quo when they’ve written a good review. But if you do, you’ll be violating Amazon’s TOS.
One of Amazon’s rules is that you can’t review a product if you will benefit from the proceeds. That’s why your Mom can’t give you a review. Or your editor.
You also can’t review if you have a “rival” product. In the great Amazon review purge following the purchased-review scandal of 2012, thousands of reviews were removed, some simply because they were by a “rival” author in the same genre—even if they were raves. I hear that rule has been relaxed now, but it’s good to be aware it can be a problem.
If you fear another purge by the “review police”, you can give the author a spotlight or interview on your blog or offer a blurb to be included in the “editorial reviews” instead of appearing to trade.
Rule #3: Don’t Pay for Customer Reviews
Buying “customer reviews” is a major no-no. When John Locke got caught doing it a couple of years ago, his reputation was seriously compromised.
It’s OK to pay for a professional review from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, or other respected publication like Library Journal. But those reviews can’t be posted on Amazon as “customer reviews.” You can paste a quote into the “editorial reviews” section. But a customer review is not supposed to be for sale.
Even a free book is considered “payment” by some, so book review bloggers are required to post disclaimers when they review a book they have received from the author or publisher, although free review copies have always been a standard practice in the industry.
Free book/free review seems a good trade to me, as long as the reviewer isn’t obligated to review (it’s often a kindness if they refuse). Most reviewers work hard for no pay.
Rule #4: Never Respond to Your Reviews
If a review violates the rules, you can ask admin to remove it, but responding—even to a good review—makes some reviewers nervous. They don’t want to feel authors are looking over their shoulders.
On places like Goodreads, people will call you a “badly behaving author” simply for thanking a thoughtful reviewer for a good review. (I’m only talking about review sites here: not blogs. Most book bloggers welcome a thank-you for a nice review.)
What you can do when you get a fantastic review is follow the reviewer on other social media and hope they’ll initiate contact.
But never comment on nasty reviews. People who write cruel reviews are getting pleasure from your pain. Don’t invite them to dish out more.
Here are a few facts about reviews that may help to keep your fingers off the keyboard when the nasties hit:
1) Online review sites do not require reviewers to read a book and often allow people to rate a product even before it’s available to anyone. It’s something videogame companies did in the early days to gauge interest in a new game. Now, unfortunately, it’s become a convention in online bookselling.
2) One of the most common nasties is the “I hate this genre” review. I’ve seen plenty of review pages by people who apparently do nothing but troll Amazon for books in genres they hate (especially chick lit and romance) so they can write one-star reviews. The reviews usually have nothing to do with the specific book. Unfortunately, reviewers have that right.
3) Bestsellers pretty much always get snarky reviews. So accept it as a mark of success. Sometimes they’re from sour-grape wannabes and sometimes from sock puppets. (Those are other authors with fake id’s trying to get you “out of the way” if you’re on a bestseller list.) But sock puppetry is hard to prove. If the person has no other reviews and mentions a “rival” book, report abuse and hope the Zon will give you a hearing.
4) Free books are magnets for cruel reviews. It’s one of the reasons free books aren’t working as well as they used to.
Give-aways of free paper review copies on Goodreads and other book sites are being gamed. I often see authors complain that their expensive review copies are immediately sold on Amazon as “new” and they get no review, or worse, a one-sentence one-star.
So I advise that authors only send paper review copies to bloggers and reviewers they have a prior relationship with. NOTE: Always query a book review blogger before sending a review copy.
5) Your readers can usually spot a troll review and may even buy the book because of it. There really are a lot more nice people than nasty ones. One way to fight all this is to be one of the good guys.
Writing honest reviews of books you like is the best way to negate the effects of the trolls.
Rule # 5: Always Report Abuse (and take a screenshot)
Cyberbullying crimes are new—and span continents—but when a few sociopaths interfere with the bottom line of multinational corporations, you can be sure somebody’s going to figure out how to control them.
That may result in restricted freedom for us all, so cutting down on it now is in everybody’s interest. That’s why you need to report abuse whenever you see it. Awesome Screenshot is a tool that puts a button right on your toolbar. You can record the abuse and send it as an attachment to site administrators.
NOTE: a negative, snarky review is not abuse. A review that’s obscene, threatening, or attacks the author personally is. So is an ad for another author’s book or services.
So you have to live with a review that says:
“This wud be the wurstest buk i ever red, if i wudda reeddid it.”
But you can report one that says:
“I won’t read this book because the author is a cyberslut who sexted with my cousin’s best friend’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend.”
“Somebody should *@#! you sidewayswith a %*%@#!!!”
“This book is soooo boring. My erotic romance FIFTY SHADES OF DRYING PAINT is much more exciting. Here’s the link.”
A barrage of One-star personal attacks, called “swarming” can usually be removed, although it may take some time. Character assassination by “review” is one of the more heinous misuses of Amazon and Goodreads.
Even if you don’t see an immediate result, things are probably happening behind the scenes. Site admin. usually pays attention to abuse reports only after they get a lot. So report.
Rule #6: Never Argue with a Drunk or a Fool
Internet bullies are both. They are literally drunk on their own rage. Rage can trigger endorphins that create a high similar to cocaine or meth.
How far do you think you’d get using reason and logic with a crazed tweaker on the street? Right. Then don’t try it on the Internet. Even if they are wrong. Because guess what? They almost always are.
The most important thing to remember when you encounter unpleasantness is: take a breath, verify facts, and don’t over-react. As Bob Mayer said, “The internet is a very dangerous place. I’ve seen internet lynch mobs go crazy over the slightest thing (done it myself a time or two) but a day or two of waiting and watching isn’t going to change anything.”
When cybermonkeys start tossing verbal feces around a forum or blog, treat it like any other pile of poop.
- Carefully walk around it.
- Realize you don’t have to tell anybody what it is. Its stink will give it away.
- Call maintenance.
- Go someplace cleaner.
You can send private messages of support to victims, but don’t stand up for them in cyberpublic no matter how much your inner Atticus Finch is hurting to speak. I did and have the one-star reviews to prove it.
If the abuse happens on your own blog: do not respond. Take a screenshot and delete the comment immediately.
As the blog owner, it is your job to keep your readers safe, not provide a forum for “free speech.” “Free speech” is only a right in a public space, not a private home or business. Your blog, like Goodreads and Amazon, is privately owned. If someone threatens somebody’s life on your blog, report it to law enforcement just as you would if they did so in your house.
Absolute Write is no longer recommended. I used to suggest looking there for info on bogus agents and scam publishers. These days, it’s so dominated by bitter, bad-tempered snark, you might be safer with the scammers.
Amazon Forums: The “Deadwood” of the publishing frontier. Out of control with vigilantism and infighting.
LinkedIn Writers Groups. Some may be safe, but I’ve seen too many rageaholics spreading misinformation. Plus LinkedIn tricks you into letting them invade your personal address book. They once notified me a friend wanted to connect with me on LinkedIn—two months after he died. He was a Luddite who’d never been on social media, so I know they took his name from my own contacts list. Creepy.
Goodreads: If you venture into the wrong place, or comment on a review—even if it’s not of your own book—the place can seem like Mean Girls meets Lord of the Flies. After a nasty brouhaha last year, they made small steps toward cleaning up the site, but if you’re published, don’t let on. The site is for readers only. To be really safe, follow the advice one agent tells her clients: “Go to Goodreads to put up an author profile. Link to your blog. Log out. Never go back.”
Rule #8: Change your definition of “review” and don’t take online reviews so seriously
1) An online product review is nothing like a traditional book review. When most of us think of a book review, we think of something in the New York Times, or a thoughtful assessment of a work written by a sincere blogger. But online product reviews—as established in the early days of the Internet—are essentially comments, like the comments you see at the end of online news stories or a You Tube entry.
2) Cruel, angry reviews say more about the reviewer than they do about your book. And they put you in excellent company. I know yours hurt like a physical wound, but it helps to read some of the idiotic one-stars of the classics.
3) It’s an urban myth that Amazon requires a certain number of reviews or stars or “likes” on your author page to “move you up the ranks.” Only one thing does that: sales. For actual readers, it’s much more important to have a few good reviews and some good editorial reviews from well-known authors. So don’t obsess.
4) Many people treat reviews as a place for comic relief. Some can be hilarious. Actor George Takei has “top reviewer” status on Amazon for his reviews of odd products. I dare you not to laugh.
5) Bad reviews don’t always mean bad sales. The week I got a bunch of one-stars from a gang of notorious bullies, my sales quadrupled.
6) Amazon has an ultra-competitive “top 500/100/50 reviewer” program and you can get caught in the infighting. It has nothing to do with you or your book. Reviewer-on-reviewer bullying and competition can be toxic. I’ve seen them use review comments and “useful” voting buttons to harass each other. Or they give one-stars to books their rivals love. This is obvious breach of Amazon rules, so clicking the “report abuse” button can solve the problem if enough people report.
7) NOTE: Most people who write product reviews and comments are sincere, helpful customers, and some Amazon book reviewers are old school literary experts who could be published in any literary magazine.
The best way to clean up the review system is add your honest reviews to the mix. Join the ranks of the sincere and helpful! Every time you write a review that’s genuinely about the book and keeps the reader in mind (not your personal agenda or bad hair day), you help fight the bad guys. Write a review of your favorite book this week!
What about you? Have you run into bullying in the online writing world? Did you try reporting it? Did you get results? Do you have any other tips for keeping off the radar of the vigilantes and cyber-meanies?
Author Loucinda McGary joins us on Wednesday, February 19th.
Anne’s latest, THE LADY OF THE LAKEWOOD DINER debuted in December. It’s a comedy about a six-decade friendship between an aging rock star and her childhood best friend—the owner of a seedy diner in Central Maine, who might be the only person who can figure out who’s been trying to kill the rock diva.
Anne R. Allen is the author of seven romantic-comedy mysteries. She has also written a guidebook for authors with Catherine Ryan Hyde: HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE. Her blog, “Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris” was named one of the Best 101 Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.
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