Suing e-book reviewers and being a public jerk: Two bad ideas in one

withoutruleoflawA friend pointed out to me a slightly older blog post that is rather interesting. In fact, it’s interesting not just for the article, but for the comments. It’s kind of a gift that keeps on giving.

The blog post, by writer Greg Strandberg, quotes (and screencaps) a post by self-publishing writer Joe Nobody on KBoards, a semi-private forum for people who self-publish through Amazon. Nobody is a highly-successful pseudonymous self-publishing author, who Strandberg estimates has made over a million dollars from his e-book sales. Nobody writes in the post-apocalyptic SF genre, in the footsteps of mens-adventure writers like Jerry Ahern, but also writes some non-fiction books on how to survive in the wake of a civilization-collapsing disaster.

And it is in a situation pertaining to one of those books, Without Rule of Law: Advanced Skills to Help You Survive, that Nobody posted his KBoards post. On said book, a reviewer going by the moniker “Biology Book Worm” had posted a one-star review indicating that some facts were incorrect. Joe Nobody had replied, intending to straighten out the reviewer’s misapprehensions, but ended up getting into an argument. The reviewer also expressed the belief that some of the five-star reviews that had “tricked” him into buying the book were sock puppets for Nobody himself.

In the end, Joe Nobody felt he felt he could prove he owed a $23,000 drop in sales to that review (given that, as the voted “most helpful” review, it ended up at the top of his reviews list), and was wondering about the feasibility of suing the reviewer (who, he had determined, was “a 23 year-old recent college graduate who never severed (sic) anything but a hamburger”). He posted to KBoards wondering whether he should consider suing. (The article includes a screencap of the original post; the thread itself seems to have been deleted from the site or otherwise protected from casual viewing even from someone with a KBoards account.)

Strandberg suggests that it’s more likely that drop in sales could be attributed to Nobody showing a fairly ugly side of himself in arguing with the reviewer. Seriously, that’s something you don’t ever want to do; when you get down in the mud with someone like that, you end up getting more mud on you than him. Strandberg points out that engaging with negative reviewers is almost always a big mistake.

First, that reviewer doesn’t care about you. Second, anyone who wants to buy your book can read those comments. I’m willing to bet a large chunk of that $23,000 Joe Nobody is pissing and moaning about was lost due to his own misguided comments.

The idea of suing over a bad review is frankly ridiculous, For one thing, the lawyer fees would eat up that $23,000 in about fifteen minutes. Even if he won the suit, he’d never see the $23,000, let alone compensation for his legal fees—where’s a 23-year-old college grad going to get that kind of money? It would be purely an exercise in dumping money down the drain in order to assuage his own ego, while driving someone who had the temerity to post a bad review into dire financial straits for life. (And that’s assuming that he won, which is not exactly assured.)

That being said, I haven’t heard anything about such a suit going forward—in fact, this is the first time I’ve heard of this Joe Nobody at all—so I can only assume he cooled down and got on with his life instead. Which is good. Judging from some of the things I found out when I googled him in research for the story, he seems like an interesting enough person in his own right, a self-publishing success story with some ideas about how to self-publish that might be different from others’ but nonetheless show he’s put some thought into it. For example, there’s this podcast in which he talks about why he prices his books higher than most other self-publishing authors.

So, yes: suing reviewers, or even engaging with negative reviewers, is generally a bad idea. (And I’ve brought this up before. For instance, Anne Rice’s campaign to get Amazon to block anonymous reviews would be a whole lot less necessary if she could just bring herself to stop responding to negative reviews.)

If you let their negative comments pass by, they’ll probably go unremarked—especially if there are a lot of other positive reviews there already, as there were for Nobody’s book. If you engage, you suddenly add importance to them, and you make it look to bystanders as if there might be something to what they’re saying if you’re taking the trouble to respond yourself. Just don’t do it.

That’s one thing to come out of all of this…but wait, there’s more. The article’s comments are an interesting study all by themselves.

Usually comments on articles are pretty much disposable, and consist of random people on the Internet being idiots. But in this case, you can tell a lot from the calibre of comments Strandberg gets…and makes himself.

It’s actually almost funny, in a way. Reading the blog post in isolation, it seems like a fairly sensible piece looking at the entirely-understandable reaction a writer had to a negative review, and considering why that author’s first reaction might not be the one he should roll with. But when you look at the first dozen or so comments, you see a lot of people from the KBoards forums with axes to grind, accusing Strandberg of having his own axe to grind.

Strandberg replies to them in a prickly, no-nonsense sort of way, like you’d expect anyone to respond to trolls. But you get the sense from reading through these comments that there may be more behind the blog post than you see at first glance. It feels like the dirty laundry of an insular, semi-private community being aired in public. Goodness knows that there are plenty of communities out there that like to hold discussions in (what they feel is) privacy, not paying any attention to the fact that anyone who wants to create a free login on their site can read it. (For another example, see the recent SFFnet SFWA kerfuffle.)

And then the really puzzling thing comes when Biology Book Worm, the author of the original review itself, chimes in. From the timbre of the blog post, it seemed as though Strandberg was at least somewhat sympathetic to him…but then Strandberg turns around and cusses him out, calling him:

[…] a stupid, young prick that can’t even put his own name on anything.

I take you about as seriously as I take that shit that’s collected on the bottom of my shoe.

Why don’t you go write a bad review? Isn’t that all you’re good for?

Don’t visit my site again you worthless, young and entitled asshole.`

He goes on to complain about BBW posting the link to his blog post in an update to his review on Amazon in Mr. Nobody’s book’s product page, which he feels was “abuse.”

I feel it’s worth bringing up, again, that this is about a review posted for a book written by a “Joe Nobody.” If you’re going to complain about a reviewer using a pseudonym when writing about a book written under a pseudonym, it feels like there’s just a bit of a double standard there. Perhaps Mr. Strandberg should suggest Joe Nobody should publish his books under his real name if he wants to be taken seriously?

And there’s another irony here: Strandberg accomplishes the same thing for himself that he just accused Nobody of doing—giving people a reason to take him less seriously by behaving like a jerk in comments. And in this case, he was doing it to someone who started out with a favorable reaction to him instead of an unfavorable one!

Anyway, it’s an interesting post all around, and a doubly important reminder to be careful of how you engage on the Internet. If your public persona has a bearing on the way you earn your living, you can’t afford to behave like your average “someone-is-wrong-on-the-Internet” user who is free to get into flamewars. You just can’t.

10 Comments on Suing e-book reviewers and being a public jerk: Two bad ideas in one

  1. So the question remains: Can we engage anonymous reviewers who cast aspersions on our work in a positive way? How should Joe Nobody have interacted with this and his other readers more effectively? Is silence the only viable response?

  2. IMO, silence is the only viable response, for the reasons I laid out in the article. If you refute the reviewer, you draw attention to and validate his point of view. If you leave him alone, he’s just one voice among many.

  3. Andrea Gerber // April 19, 2014 at 9:25 pm //

    Yes, exactly this! I’m always turned off and suspicious when authors just *can’t resist* the temptation to just let the negative review slide. Worse, when they attack the reviewer! Most reasonable folks can see when a reviewer is a loose cannon. When I see an author do this, it has exactly the opposite effect on me…it means I’ll probably just pass on the book entirely.

  4. Andrea Gerber // April 19, 2014 at 9:25 pm //

    …Ha, too late in the evening. I meant I can’t stand it when they don’t resist the temptation to respond to negative reviews and FAIL to let them slide.

  5. Right, and then there’s also the issue of perceived power imbalance. If you’re the published author, even if you’re just self-published, having your name on the cover of that book and that book on Amazon gives you a certain imprimatur, an appearance of authority. You have to be really careful how you use that.

    If you disagree with a reviewer publicly, even if you’re absolutely provably in the right and they’re wrong, you still look like you’re “punching down”—which is to say, using your position of power as the big bad author to bully a poor hapless reader. It’s like editing your own Wikipedia entry. It just looks tacky.

    If they’re really in the wrong, and you’re worried readers might be confused by their misrepresentation, you could ask one of your fans to engage with them and present the opposing view in your stead (though it actually does need to be another person and not a sock puppet account for yourself—those always come out in the end and make you look even worse). That way it’s just one reader versus another, and it’s more of an even match. (But just ask one or two fans who are also close friends, privately, to do this—don’t ask all your fans to dogpile on this person, because then we come back to the “punching down” thing again.)

  6. OK, on matters of opinion it’s best to keep quiet but what about matters of fact? In your book you say, “The water boiled at 212ºF in our cottage by the sea …” The reviewer says, “This book is riddled with errors such as water boiling at a mere 212ºF. Anyone who has ever camped out knows that it takes much more heat than that.”

    Can the author not help the reader get the facts straight without resorting to denigrating tactics? Surely this is possible.

    Of course, opinion is supposed to be undergirded by fact. Thus, establishing that a factual assertion is in error may have the effect of eroding the opinion that relied on that assertion.

  7. Frank, the whole deal with Joe Nobody started when he tried to correct someone over a matter of fact, and we see how that turned out. Or, at least, what he felt was a matter of fact. I’m not in any position to be able to judge whether he was in error or the reviewer was.

    And that’s where you have the problem. When readers aren’t sure who’s right, all other things being equal, they’ll be more inclined to see the author as “punching down” and the reviewer as the poor underdog, especially if the author is being a jerk about it. (In this case, it looked as though the author and reviewer were being a bit jerky, but that’s just another case of “all other things being equal.”)

    As I said in my last comment, even if you’re absolutely sure you’re right and the reviewer is wrong, you still shouldn’t get into it. Getting into a debate with a reviewer is a no-win situation. There’s no possible outcome where you come out ahead. (Maybe there are a few times authors have been able to make it work, but I’d tend to suspect in those cases the authors were very, very lucky.) As the computer said in War Games, the only way to win is not to play.

  8. I don’t read the reviews of my work because of this problem. Everyone has a right to their opinion, whether I agree to it or not, doesn’t come into it.

  9. And it is fun to fool around with my own personal filter. It makes me feel in control and troll proof when the nice words get through and sparkle and make me happy. The petty, nasty, (uninformed!) comments are left to shrivel in the desert. Easy to do, but takes practice.

  10. As a reader and author of more than 1300 reviews on Goodreads, my observation is that to speak of “reviewers” or “authors” as some kind of monolith is mistaken. I, for one, encourage and enjoy interacting with authors and love to have them comment on my reviews. There are some reviewers and authors, seemingly mostly in the YA and SF genres, who self-righteously like the drama. Those folks are easily and rightly ignored as are ratings without a review. The star system is meaningless and silly and should be regarded as such. Frankly, I’ve never understood anyone giving a one star. Why would anyone bother to finish a book they so abhorred? It’s always been my policy never to review a book I haven’t finished nor to review or rate one I didn’t like. (There are a couple of exceptions for some non-fiction books that dealt with important policy issues, but I always explain why in the review and welcome comments to the contrary from anyone.) On the other hand, my cynical nature warns me that Mr. Nobody may have used this tactic as a way to get lots of publicity.

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