Go get yourselves a cup of tea or something first, kids. I’ve got my ranting pants on today.
So, there’s this little review blog out there on the interwebs called BigAl’s Books and Pals which focuses on “indie” books, specifically those available on the Kindle eReader. The label is problematic in itself, with the site owner (“BigAl”) defining an “indie author” as being “any author whose book isn’t published by one of the ‘Big Six’ publishing companies” — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster — either directly or via an imprint. This leaves a wide range of books within his scope, from out of print backlist titles (even if these were original published by a Big Sixer), through to boutique and small press publications, and all the way into the wilds of self-published authorship.
However, it’s the self-published books that seem to be primary focus of the site. Acknowledging that self-published authors are largely without the resources available to major publishers, and that this can result in lower standards of quality control, BigAl’s Books and Pals declares: “We can help you separate the wheat from the chaff. Point you towards books you might like and steer you away from others.” A worthy enough goal, if a sometimes thankless task.
A couple of weeks ago, on 16 March, BigAl posted a review of a self-published eBook called The Greek Seaman by Jacqueline Howett. It’s not a great review — garnering only two stars out of a possible five — with the major concern being the “numerous proofing, typo, and grammar issues” with which the novel seems to abound. A potentially good story, essentially, lost somewhere in amongst the overwrought and overly wrong prose. “Reading shouldn’t be that hard,” says BigAl. Ouch.
Now, until two days ago, the site doesn’t appear to be all that heavily trafficked, with most reviews only attracting a handful of comments, if any. Often the author being reviewed will pop along to say thanks, and maybe another couple of readers will offer words of agreement or otherwise. A fledgling blog, a developing community, some publicity for the self-published author without a lot of marketing resources of their own. Nice.
When the review of The Greek Seaman was published, the first comment came two days later (18 March) from Jacqueline Howett herself — and it wasn’t pretty:
You obviously didn’t read the second clean copy I requested you download that was also reformatted, so this is a very unfair review. My Amazon readers/reviewers give it 5 stars and 4 stars and they say they really enjoyed The Greek Seaman and thought it was well written. Maybe its just my style and being English is what you don’t get. Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea, but I think I will stick to my five star and four star reviews thanks.
The next day she re-posted the two reviews her book had thus received so far on Amazon: five-stars from a person with the same last name as the author, and an earlier one which gave the novel four-stars. On 23 March she returned to re-post a new five-star review which had subsequently appeared on Amazon. On 25 March, two “anonymous” commentators posted brief replies (essentially: facepalm) before BigAl came back to post a lengthy and very restrained follow-up, pointing out that he had in fact read the “reformatted” copy for the review and quoting a few lines to demonstrate the awkward and error-riddled prose that bothered him.
Then, on 28 March, things got really nasty. “My writing is just fine!” Jacqueline replied to BigAl, before going on to demand that the review be removed from the site. “Who are you any way?” she demanded of him. “Really who are you? What do we know about you?”
It’s probably around about this time that someone posted a link to Twitter. The site was quickly flooded with commentators who both critiqued the author’s online behaviour and writing style, and encouraged BigAl to “stick to his guns” and leave the review in place — not that there had been any indication that the review was in any danger of being withdrawn. Jacqueline Howett certainly made no friends that day. She continued to defend work which, in terms of grammar and spelling and outright readability, seems largely indefensible, insulted the reviewer and accused him of hiding behind “anonymous” screen names, and repeatedly demanded that people contact her via email rather than post their criticisms in public. Finally, she left the site, but not until she posted a succinct parting shot: “Fuck off!” — twice in quick succession.
Comments continued, despite the lack of any further input from either Jacqueline Howett or BigAl, with posters offering (increasingly snarky and patronising) advice to the author, as well as arguing among themselves the merits or otherwise of self-publishing and “indie” authors. The thread was finally locked off at 307 comments.
I was intending to post about this on 28 March when it all blew up. Not at great length, merely to point it out as an object lesson in how not to respond to a bad review. It’s not the first time an author has reacted in an outlandish fashion to criticism, and not even the first time it’s been done on a relatively insignificant blog (sorry Alan), but it was a fairly amusing example of Authors Behaving Badly. I’d also had this presentation from Scott Edelman on “How to Respond to a Critique of Your Writing” sitting open in a browser tab for a few days and thought it would make a nice contrast. (It still does — you should go and watch that clip. Especially if you’re likely to be in a critique group or workshop situation any time soon.)
But I was busy and I’m not allowed to blog when I’m busy and I figured enough people were linking to the site already, having a chuckle and shaking their heads. Then last night I read this blogpost by Ben Payne in which he remarked:
The pervasive sense of enjoyment that permeates the comments, the sense of self-righteous judgement and animosity, just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m sure not all the commenters had that intent, and as I said above, I laughed too at first. But piled together, on top of one another, it’s hard not to feel that the response verges on being a kind of bullying.
Ben makes a good point in regards to the tone of self-righteous judgement, but I wasn’t entirely in agreement about the bullying part. Let’s be clear about this: the author of a reviewed book came onto the reviewer’s own blog and began to repeatedly harass and insult him — “You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom” — accusing him of dishonesty and demanding that he remove the review on the grounds that it was “abuse”. To me, it is this sort of behaviour which smells of bullying. If other people defended BigAl and the basis for his review, so the much better. It worked; the bully picked up her bat and ball and left the field. Sure, perhaps the comments could have been closed earlier, but it’s BigAl’s blog and he gets to do with it what he likes.
Now, if the discussion had begun on Jacqueline Howett’s blog — if, for example, BigAl had posted his review as a comment to her own announcement about her book — then I would regard what happened as clearly bullying behaviour. Location, in this case, is context. You don’t get to come into someone else’s backyard, yell and scream at them, and then feel like you’re the one being bullied when their friends — and passersby attracted by the noise you are making — start to yell and scream back until you leave or apologise. Yes, I know it’s an imperfect metaphor: BigAl’s blog, as a stated review site, is not entirely “private grounds”; Jacqueline Howett didn’t accuse anyone of bullying her. But you know what I’m saying — and if the whole thing had ended there, on BigAl’s Books and Pals, I’d be standing by it.
But then Ben Payne made mention of a number of negative reviews that suddenly seemed to be popping up on the Amazon page for Jacqueline Howett’s novel, and I wandered over to have a look.
Prior to 27 March, The Greek Seaman had precisely the three reviews, each with either four or five star ratings. Sure, at least one of them seems to be from family and maybe the other two are from family/friends as well — certainly they read more as copies of the author’s own book description than actual reviews — but then it’s a brand-new, self-published book on Amazon, isn’t it? Prospective readers are probably more than capable of reading between the lines. Of course, the fact that Jacqueline Howett reposted these three reviews to BigAl’s blog in defense of her novel was highly inappropriate — not mention highly idiotic.
On 27/28 March, BigAl simultaneously posted his own review to both Amazon US and UK sites (the date discrepancy is accounted for by international timezones) as he does with all his reviews. I would hazard a guess that it was these postings that inspired Jacqueline Howett to return to BigAl’s Books and Pals on 28 March, and we all know what happened then.
From 28 March and as of this writing, there are now a total of 92 “customer” reviews of The Greek Seaman posted to the US Amazon site. Of these, a staggering 72 are one-star reviews. And don’t get too excited about the ten five-star reviews either, as most of these are snarky and sarcastic negative comment in disguise — “the greek seaman was a rivolting romp threw history and made me know how it feel to be a young woman taken advantage of by men and who trys to escape through exceedingly poor english,” begins one. (The Amazon UK page, though less trafficked, fares little better in terms of content: seventeen reviews with thirteen being one-stars.)
It’s depressing, although perhaps unsurprising, to note that the majority of the one-star reviewers proudly declare that they have either not read the book or have only read the first few pages. More quote material originally cited on BigAl’s Books and Pals as the reasoning behind their review, which again suggests that they themselves have not actually read The Greek Seaman, let alone formed their own opinion. “My review of this book is unfair in that I have not had the desire to read the whole book after the few paragraphs I have already trudged through,” admits one reviewer, with at least a modicum of honesty.
And this is the point where I find myself in 100% agreement with Ben Payne — what’s happening on Amazon is absolutely and deplorably a case of bullying.
Okay, The Greek Seaman doesn’t sound like a great book. It doesn’t even sound like a particularly good book, although it might have been with some help from an editor and proof-reader. But, you know, there’s a free sample available right on the Amazon page, so a prospective reader can judge this for themselves. And yes, Jacqueline Howett broke the first rule of successful social marketing: Don’t Be a Dick on the Internet.
I’m in no way defending anything she said or did on BigAl’s site, but when a whole bunch of self-righteous, pitchfork-wielding tossers rampage themselves off to Amazon to spam her review page with recycled vitriol and oh-so-clever quips, you’d be forgiven for thinking the woman had been torturing meerkats and uploading her antics to YouTube. You know the old adage, two wrongs don’t make a right? Well, I’m pretty damn sure that 72 wrongs don’t come any closer to balancing that scale.
I mean, really, is this a thing we do now? Isn’t it enough to laugh and shake our heads, and send links around to our friends, and maybe even blog a little about how this soooo not the way to respond to criticism? Do we actually need to sally forth and stomp the object of our derision into the cyberdirt? Just in case they, what, dare to write another mediocre novel that none of us will ever actually be forced to read anyway?
Why yes, that was me ineffectually waggling my finger at the interwebs, so glad you noticed. Ben Payne puts it a little better:
If the internet is incapable of forgetting, we need at least to teach it to be forgiving.
Amen to that, Ben. I don’t know if Jacqueline Howett is doing anything about it, but I hope Amazon will decide to pull most of the dodgy reviews if she requests them to look into the situation. (It seems they have already pulled some of the more offensive.) It drives me to both despair and anger when I see this sort of thing happening. Because human beings really are capable of being so much better than this, and of encouraging each other to be so much better as well. When we’re not encouraging each other to be so much worse.
And this is why I’m not allowed to blog why I’m busy.