Reading Rage Tuesday: Goodreads “bullies” and why authors need to stop the crusade.
Update #2: One of the targets of the GR Bullies site pointed out, rightfully I think, on Twitter that the backlash from this particular site isn’t focused so much on bad reviews but on the reviewers pointing out bad author behaviors. Per @_Ridley_, “This is not about reviews. The four of us are being punished for publicizing bad author behavior.” Although I did focus on authors responding to reviews, it must be pointed out that other behaviors–like gaming the system by having friends review and like positive reviews to promote your books, spamming and promoting in inappropriate places, and other things that interfere with an honest review community–reflect just as badly on authors; for someone to point out this behavior is a natural consequence of engaging in said behavior.
For someone to tell others not to support an author’s products as a result of the author’s behavior may not sit well with an author, but it’s what we naturally do as consumers. We as consumers don’t like to support products that don’t align with what we think is right, and we have the right to make the incidents known to other consumers so that they can make informed decisions. Thanks to Ridley for clarifying for me what the issues are surrounding the site.
Bullying. It’s a subject that’s been coming up often in the review community lately. Some claim that reviewers who write mean book reviews are bullies. I don’t follow any of this Goodreads drama closely, but I sometimes hear tales of authors who just wanted to make “one little comment” (whether this was a reasonable comment or not surely differs from case to case) and are set upon by bands of marauding reviewers, having abuse spewed at them left and right for “daring” to reply to a bad or nasty review. Then, in the other camp, the reviewers claim that authors shouldn’t be responding at all to their negative reviews, that it hurts the review community and makes people afraid to post honest reviews. Some reviewers say that this practice silences reviewers, thus making the authors bullies. (I agree more or less with the latter assessment–more later.)
The situation has come to a head recently on a site that someone created called Stop the GR [Goodreads] Bullies. On this site, people who swear that they aren’t authors (yeah right) took up the mantle of trying to stamp out “review bullying.”
Their methods are weak but unsettling for reviewers everywhere: the person or persons behind the site dug into the social media of reviewers that they consider the worst “bullies,” posting tidbits like real names and spouse’s names, cities where the reviewers live, and even going so far as to track them down on Yelp! to find the real-life places where the reviewers hang out–possibly to incite harassment against the reviewers? I can’t think of any other reason why anybody would need to know where the reviewer likes to get a pizza in order to “stop the bullying.”
Update: In regards to their “weak methods,” which I thought were a bit silly on the part of the site owner (not that the Goodreads users targeted were silly), I was mistaken and I apologize to the people who were targeted for underestimating the situation. One of the reviewers targeted spoke out about her experience, which included a nasty phone call. Apparently, the information-mining and threatening behavior went further than indicated on the website.
Here’s a sample screenshot (click to embiggen) in which I’ve blurred out the identifying information–I know that you can go to the site and see it easily, but I blurred it in case the site gets taken down in the future:
I, and reviewers everywhere, have found this upsetting. The “detective work” done by the operators of the site isn’t exactly stellar: some last names, none of which were particularly hidden; no home addresses (thank stars); and, in the case of the screencap above, a couple of places where the reviewer checked in to eat dinner. These aren’t staggering revelations that are going to cause massive problems for most of these reviewers . . . unless, of course, you throw in a big ol’ dose of crazy, which is why this site goes from laughable to queasy-making. I, myself, am an active Yelper; I keep my personal and private social media somewhat separate, but it wouldn’t take Einstein to find my Yelp! account. Could I, in the future, anger an author so much that they would take a page from the Stop GR Bullies playbook and come after me at my neighborhood coffee shop or the produce aisle of my preferred grocery store? When you get crazy involved, there’s no telling what someone will do. I think it takes a pretty hefty dose of not-being-aware-of-your-own-crazy to make the unironic statement that someone else is a stalker after you’ve just cyberstalked the entirety of their social media.
Authors: if you do, or have in the past, come out in support against Goodreads “bullies,” you need to come full stop and throw that shit in reverse right now, especially in light of this “action” against reviewers. If you don’t believe me, read on.
Authors shouldn’t, under most circumstances, give in to the desire to respond directly to what they feel are “attacks,” even if they go after the author personally. I know, I know–it’s not fair, why should they get to say whatever they want and authors can’t say anything. Authors should be able to defend themselves, right? Freedom of speech and all that. What if the bad review hurts their sales, etc. Authors, just for a moment, I want you to take off your author hat and put on your consumer hat.
Got it on? All snug? Okay, let’s explore this for a minute.
I’m going to use an example from Yelp!, from a business in my hometown. I blurred out the identifying information, once again because the owner or reviewer might decide to change their response in the future. The review:
So, this review isn’t terrible. It doesn’t compare to some of the nasty book reviews I’ve seen. It could, however, definitely dissuade a few people from trying their products, even though the business has otherwise great reviews. Here’s his response to the above review:
While his response isn’t terribly nasty, despite being a bit passive-aggressive, do you see how condescending it sounds to answer a negative review of your work–even if you think you’re in the right? And do you notice where he made a mistake, assuming she waited four months to eat a brownie at all because she mentions a four-month timeline twice? (She clearly ate some of the brownies when she got them, then stuck them in the fridge and didn’t touch them again for four months–the earlier four months reference meant four months after she learned the product existed.) He basically says that her opinion of his business is wrong, chides her for doing it wrong and then for writing her honest review even after they gave her a refund (which, he shouldn’t hang the refund over her head as a tool to keep her from writing a review), and turns the reply into a pro-his-business advertisement at the bottom . . . which gives no credit to the average consumer for having even a modicum of intelligence.
In my opinion, he comes off like a giant douche; in his mind, he probably thinks that he sounds extremely professional and that this reply was a good damage control move. His reply to the review shows that he doesn’t respect the right of consumers to voice their negative opinions about his product, even if the opinions are erroneous; by “correcting” her, he makes it clear that he thinks her opinion is invalid, which is a no-no if you run a business. He also proves that he doesn’t respect the basic intelligence of consumers to figure out that all products, even great ones that have dozens of 5-star reviews, will get bad reviews by people who don’t understand the product or don’t find it to their personal taste, and that we can generally figure it out. Like I said, he comes off like a douche, which really makes me want to shop there. (Not.)
What does this have to do with Goodreads reviews?
Readers. Are. Consumers.
As an author, you’re not just an artist. Your book is not just an expressive work. The minute you decide you sell your book to the public, you’re also a business person; that book is now a product. Despite talk of “fairness” between reviewer and author, the fact that authors are selling a product they want people to buy puts reviewers and authors immediately on unequal ground. Authors, even if they don’t do it primarily for the money, have a profit motive and reviewers don’t. Of course authors want only positive reviews out there. Authors want to sell books. So, authors, when you try to argue against a review–even if you feel it is “abusive”–the potential consumers of your books see this in a wholly different light than you sticking up for yourself. They see it as authors trying to artificially inflate the reputation of their book by silencing, persuading, or discrediting reviewers who give them bad reviews. Nobody likes to feel like they’re being tricked.
As an author, you don’t want to be seen as the kind of person who would silence reviewers for your own gain; yet, by insisting that reviews should be “fair” or that reviewers are “bullying,” you are expressing a desire to exert some sort of control over what reviewers say about your books. It doesn’t work that way. We want all of the reviews to stand because we want to be able to make our own choices. We want to be able to decide if we think a reviewer is full of shit. Defending your book against bad reviews makes readers suspicious about what you’re trying to hide from us.
Another reason not to organize against “bullying” reviewers? Goodreads has an abuse policy! Here’s their abuse policy:
If you notice abusive content on the site, you can usually click a small “flag abuse” link to alert the Goodreads community managers. Here are the guidelines we use to decide whether or not to delete content that’s been flagged as abusive:
We do not delete:
- Content for bad language alone.
- A review because it has a negative opinion of the book.
- Spoilers (we may flag reviews as spoilers if we can tell, though)
We do delete:
- Extremely offensive content, such as pro-Nazi, pornography, child abuse, etc.
- Reviews or posts that are extremely off-topic and irrelevant.
- Reviews or posts that contain a slanderous personal attack on another member. Content that is argumentative is fine, so the post must be extreme in its malicious attack on another member.
- The account of any member who is a scammer or an outright spammer. We make sure to check if they use the site first.
Note that these are only guidelines, not rules. If you accidentally flag something as abuse and it clearly wasn’t abusive, don’t worry, we can tell!
–accessed on Goodreads.com on 7/17/12
So, you don’t even have to take it up with reviewers personally if someone writes an “abusive” review. If a review is truly abusive? Flag it. Goodreads will handle it like a boss. If they don’t handle it? It means that they don’t consider it abusive, and at that point, drop it. Bitch about it privately to friends, write about it in your diary, but for the love of Pete, drop it. Goodreads is not your site. You don’t get to control what is considered abusive or not there; further, I imagine that Goodreads has hired professionals to ensure that they have an abuse policy that fits with what should be done in a review community, if only to avoid lawsuits. If the reviews were going to cause actionable harm against you, you can bet that Goodreads would remove it because they don’t want to get sued.
Notice that the policy says that reviewers who use “bad language” won’t get automatically deleted. Reviewers are free to curse and swear and be (almost) as foul as they want when reviewing. It’s just the way of things. You can’t control it. For more information on why these reviews really aren’t abusive bullying, see the awesome post over at Dead White Guys.
In summation: Because authors have a profit motive, any attempt to fight against negative reviews–even if they “know” they’re in the right–is likely to backfire. Consumers want to decide on their own what reviews are valid and will probably look at any interference with suspicion. Your customers–aka, readers–are smart enough to figure out if any review, good or bad, has merit or not. Goodreads doesn’t consider reviews that contain bad language or that are argumentative to be “abusive;” the reviews are on their site, so authors would do well to abide by their rules. Also, authors look like a bunch of whinypants when they complain about bullies on Goodreads–not to mention, being even tangentially in agreement with the Stop GR Bullies site is creepy. Learn how to take it on the chin, authors. You’re really, really, really not doing yourselves any favors.
Am I right? Am I wrong? Does the Stop GR Bullies website give you the heebie-jeebies? Do you think that reviews need decorum police (beyond extreme cases)? If you could only take one book with you on a trip to a distant planet, which one would you take? Drop it all in the comments below!