On reviewers, authors and online behaviour

I recently heard of a situation in which an author had allegedly been bullied so much by reviewers that she withdrew her book. Because she has expressed the desire to move on and a distaste for the drama and misinformation that has grown around the situation, I won’t link to her story. The fact is, though, it’s not the first time I’ve heard reports of authors being bullied by reviewers.

So I mean to set a few things straight here regarding the behaviour of both authors and reviewers. I will not be naming any names in this post as I don’t think it will do any good.

I’ll warn you now, this is going to be a long post.

Bullying online is not okay

I’m surprised this needs saying, but apparently it does, because people are still doing it. It is not okay to make threats against people, whether they are an author, a reviewer, or someone who wants to see the face of an author on a banknote.

Bullying can include:

  • making threats of violence
  • making threats of a sexual nature
  • telling someone they should be subject to some form of suffering including violence and sexual harassment
  • revealing private information to the public, including home address, workplace, private email address and information about family
  • sending messages of abuse
  • encouraging others to send messages of abuse
  • encouraging others to negatively review a book they haven’t read (I’ll expand on this later).

These activities should not be dismissed as “just a bit of fun” or “just trolling”. They are not acceptable. They cause the recipient to experience anxiety. They are an attempt to silence someone and deny them a voice on a public stage, or drive them away from somewhere they have every right to be.

They are not freedom of speech, they are an attempt to deny freedom of speech to someone else.

But it should be noted that some actions which have been called bullying are not bullying. Posting a negative a review of a book you have read and which you honestly think deserves a negative review is not bullying. Posting a blog post describing or recording abusive behaviour by an individual or group is not bullying. Posting a blog post highlighting factual inaccuracies in a review is not bullying. Posting a blog post recording an author’s reactions to negative reviews is not bullying.

Inciting others to contact an individual (an author, a reviewer, or anyone else) because you don’t like their reactions to or approach about reviews or blog posts is bullying. If the author or reviewer isn’t breaking any rules of the site they are posting on, asking others to act in a manner which constitutes harassment is not okay. If the author or reviewer is breaking the rules of the site on which they are operating, or is acting in a manner which is abusive or constitutes bullying, then the correct action is to contact the site to inform them of the breach of rules. If the content breaks the law, such as threats of violence, then it’s the police you should contact.

Reviewers have a responsibility to readers to be honest

A review is posted for the benefit of the readers and the author.

The benefit derived by the reader is that they are able to judge if the book is right for them. They will make this judgement based on what reviewers have said about pacing, plot, characters, spelling and grammar, formatting, structure, prose, and whatever else a reviewer might have discussed. They will make the decision based upon the rating the reviewers have given, particularly the average rating.

The benefit derived by the author is that positive reviews will encourage readers to buy and all detailed reviews (whether positive or negative) will highlight flaws in their writing which they can choose to try to remedy.

The primary purpose of reviews is to give readers an idea of the quality of the book and whether they will enjoy it.

A review is not, and should never be, a mouthpiece for the reviewer to complain about the author or about the publishing route they have chosen.

A review or rating is not a means by which the reviewer can indicate their interest in reading a book. It appears that some Goodreads members use ratings to indicate they plan to read a book, but this really doesn’t make sense to me. Goodreads has, as a default for all members, a shelf system which includes a “to read” shelf, and even a “want to read” button that automatically adds a book to a member’s “to read” shelf. In other words, it has mechanisms in place to allow readers to express their interest in reading a book.

As such, rating a book to indicate intention to read is unnecessary. It is also dishonest. In creating a rating or even a review, a reviewer has declared their opinion of a book. If a reader then closes to buy on the basis of that opinion, when it was actually just an indication that the reviewer wanted to read the book, then the reviewer is misleading the reader. The same goes for the other way round – if a reader was considering buying a book, but decides not to because they see a lot of seemingly negative ratings which are actually just statements of intent, then they have been deprived a read they might have enjoyed, and the reviewer has prevented a sale the author would have otherwise had.

As a reviewer, I strive always to be honest. Every review I have posted reflects my honest opinion of the book. In many cases with books I have reviewed, I want to support the author, either because they’re a friend, or because they’re really nice or post useful or interesting blog posts. I want to support them, but I will not lie about their books. If I see a flaw in their writing, I will mention it. I will no more omit to mention flaws because I like an author than I will fail to mention strengths because I dislike the author.

The review is for the book. If you have a problem with an author, a review is not the place to make this known. A blog post is more appropriate. If a reader wants to filter their reading material by certain criteria (like reactions the author has to reviews, political stances on various issues, reports of racism or sexism, and so on), it is up to the reader to research the author to determine whether they want to read the author’s books. It is not up to a reviewer to shout and complain about an author in a review about a book.

Authors are professional writers; they should act like it

Authors aren’t always happy with the reviews they receive. There are many reasons this might be. The review might be factually inaccurate (Mark Lawrence has received a review complaining about how a space ship apparently appears toward the end of Prince of Thorns, for example; there is no spaceship). The review might be insulting and derogatory rather than objective. It might be a fake review posted by or at the behest of a rival.

The author might feel a reviewer has made a mountain out of a mole hill, such as dismissing an entire book on the basis of a solitary missed typo on page 14. They might feel the reviewer has a vendetta against the publishing route they have taken and is seeking negative things to say about their book to justify that vendetta. Or the author might just be rather thin skinned or blind to their own weaknesses. It could be a combination of several of these, or any number of other reasons.

It is how an author reacts to these reviews that demonstrates how professional they are.

I will not here advocate that every author at every single bad review should shut up and put up. There are ways in which an author can justifiably talk about a negative review.

Firstly, I think that when or if an author discusses a negative review, it should be in one of two circumstances: privately, with the reviewer or the site it was posted on (in the case of factual errors, to correct them, directly to the reviewer; in the case of bullying, review rigging and so on, to the website); or publicly, with the name of the reviewer not revealed and complaints neutrally paraphrased rather than quoted. An author should not ever publicly name and shame a reviewer.

I don’t think commenting on a review should be synonymous with “answering back” or “having the last word” or anything like that. This is not a battle between author and reviewer and it should not be. If a review constitutes bullying or harassment there are others who should be contacted, in private.

If an author is commenting on a review, it should be in the spirit of approaching constructive criticism with grace: “a reviewer felt that my pacing was poor. I’ve looked through chapter 1, and found the following sentences where pacing could be improved. So I guess the reviewer was right on that account. Another reviewer said they felt my character Bob was too flat. I’m not sure I have the right perspective on the situation to comment – what is the consensus of my readers?”

An honest, detailed review gives an author a great opportunity to learn and improve. Any author who, rather than seizing that opportunity, instead goes on the defensive is failing to acknowledge that the publishing world is a business in the entertainment sector, not a place for their ego to be stroked.

An author who responds to “Bob is a flat character” with “Well he’s only in five chapters anyway, what am I meant to do?” or “I read your book and you’ve got much flatter characters than me” or “What are you talking about? Bob has a whole load of depth –” and then reels off paragraphs of information from their character outline for Bob, is not acting professionally, they are acting defensively.

Your book should stand on its own merits. If you feel you need to defend it against bad reviews and refute views you don’t like, either you published the book before it was ready, or you published the book before you were.

However, if an author does act in this immature manner, that does not give the reviewer or anyone else the right to harass them. Answering back is just as immature. Having shelves titled “badly behaved authors” on Goodreads is immature. Trying to silence an author or drive them away because you don’t like that they made a blog post about a review is not only immature but also a huge over-reaction. Ignore them, and focus your attention on the books you did enjoy, the authors you do like, because they deserve your attention.

A quick aside – another situation in which an author can, in my opinion, talk about reviews without it warranting criticism is when they post “strangest things in reviews of my books” blog posts. Again, this should allow the reviewer to remain anonymous. These kinds of posts aren’t about reviewers criticising the books honestly, they’re about having a friendly chuckle at reviews where the reviewer clearly hasn’t read the book – where they accuse an author of landing a spaceship in the middle of a medieval fantasy, or using a term anachronistically when the book is set 30 years after the term was first recorded, or accusing the author of having ripped off a novel that was published more than a decade later. Because those are funny.

In conclusion, don’t be a dick

It’s fairly simple. Whether you’re an author, a reviewer or a reader with a blog or twitter account, don’t be a dick. Don’t be rude about someone because you didn’t like what they wrote. Don’t threaten or harass people. Remember that you’re only human, just like everyone else, and like every good character, humans are flawed. Don’t write anything that, in ten years time, you would be ashamed of having written.

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