Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Reviews Are Not About You, Take 2

So, Jon Stock, author of the Daily Telegraph post I linked to earlier today, responded to me on Twitter today. Based on our conversation thus far, he seems like a decent fellow although, in my opinion, terribly misguided. His rationales for considering it part of his job to contact reviewers fall into three basic categories. I’d like to address each of these and explain why none of them actually pass the sniff test.

  1. But…sockpuppets!

    One of the reasons he cites for contacting so-called “hostile reviewers” is that they might be sockpuppeters. Presumably, this requires the author’s attention because the person in question is out to sabotage the book’s sales by “review bombing” it. The author must put a stop to this because it is unfairly tanking the book’s review average on Amazon.

    Setting aside the question of how common this is (I think it’s pretty much equivalent to voter fraud in frequency) and the degree to which low review averages actually harm sales (not nearly as much as many authors believe based on my observations of recent bestsellers), what is the benefit to the author of finding the sockpuppet? If this person is truly out to destroy your career, I’m betting large wads of cash that he/she is not going to respond to your inquiries and is certainly not going to change or take down the reviews as a result of your polite inquiries. In fact, odds are pretty good that your stalkerish behavior will induce the sockpuppeter to create even more sockpuppet accounts with which to review bomb your book because you have proved you’re a whiny jerk.

    In short, then, sockpuppet=ignore.

  2. But…spoilers!

    Stock’s next rationale for contacting the reviewer in the instance he describes in his article was that it contained spoilers, and not just for one book, but for all the books in the trilogy. That actually seems like a pretty fair reason from contacting the reviewer–if for no other reason than to ask them them to add a spoiler warning to the review.

    Except…okay, here’s the real truth about reviews, especially on Amazon: most book buyers don’t actually read them. How do I know this? Because my short story, The Reiver, gets repeated reviews complaining that it’s short. Even though its length is disclosed in the product description (at the beginning, no less). Even though at least a dozen, if not more, reviewers have given it low ratings for being, in their opinion, too short. Surely, if people who were buying (or in this case, downloading for free) a book for which they had read the reviews, and many of those reviews complained that the book was short, they would not feel compelled to post their own review complaining that the book was short.

    Beyond this, however, how many of you have read a book more than once? Even though you KNEW how it was going to turn out? Stock says that since his book is a thriller, the plot is so important that knowing who gets killed will ruin the experience. But I have never yet had my enjoyment of a good book (emphasis on good) spoiled by knowing how it was going to to turn out. I’ve read some mysteries and thrillers multiple times, even though I clearly know “whodunnit” when I start.

    So, while I do think it would have been nice if the reviewer had labeled her review as containing spoilers, in the final analysis, I don’t see this as a legitimate reason for making contact. Especially since I firmly believe that people who want t a particular book are unlikely to be dissuaded from doing so by a few plot spoilers…unless, of course, you as the author really believe that’s all your book is about.

    But…it was about me!

    The third reason the author in this case gives for contacting the reviewer is that the review called him a misogynist and a serial killer. Now, I have to give him credit here in that he’s right–that’s certainly what the review title says. However, the review makes it clear that it’s the content of the books that has informed her judgment on this subject…and I don’t think that any rational person would actually believe the reviewer was suggesting the author is, in actual fact, a serial killer, although they might well believe she was suggesting he was a misogynist.

    Look, I get it. No author wants his character impugned based upon what he writes. But in the final analysis, you have to ask yourself why it matters. Is your professional reputation on the line because one Amazon reviewer called you (insert slur here)? Is this a hill you need to die on? My answer, plainly, is no. I’m not willing to make it more about me by engaging with the reviewer, however unfair or personal the comment may be.

I can, however, think of one time that I tracked down and contacted an Amazon reviewer and I think I was right to so. Someone left a review on Hot Under the Collar on Amazon. It was a lovely, 4-star review. It was also not for my book, but for another book with the same title. So, here’s the one situation in which I think it is “not creepy” to track down the reviewer or, failing that, to comment on the review. Because the other book deserved that four-star review, not mine.


  • Jeremy Duns October 13, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Your post here is specifically about contacting reviewers, and why it’s a bad idea. I tend to agree, but think there are some exceptions. I would certainly have tried to contact a reviewer who wrote multiple reviews that seemed to suggest I was a misogynist and serial killer in the title! But we’ve been discussing this more generally on Twitter, and it’s quite hard to do – tweets overlap, it’s hard to follow conversation threads sometimes, nuances are lost. And it tends to be rather confrontational, as well. So I thought I’d reply here instead, if that’s okay.

    You say you think Stock was terribly misguided. I’ll remove the terribly, but some of what you have written here seems to me misguided. On sockpuppets, you suggest it may be rather rare – comparable in frequency to voter fraud. And you say you don’t think low review averages harm sales nearly as much as authors believe, based on your observations of recent bestsellers.

    Here’s my take. I think sockpuppeting is absolutely rife in reviews on sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. This summer, a bestselling British author, Stephen Leather, admitted on a public panel that he used sockpuppets online, not in reviews, but to create buzz about his books in forums on well-known sites, using a ‘network’ of false identities, often talking to himself, and also using others to assist him.

    I found this admission scandalous. It’s simply deceiving readers. In the UK, it’s illegal for a vendor to pose as a consumer of their own products in this way. I did a little digging. It’s a long story, and a lot of it can be found in a lot of blogs and newspapers online. But not all of it can. I uncovered several rather high-profile authors who use sockpuppets for reviews on Amazon. One of them very high-profile. The chances of them being alone seem to me very slim indeed. What can be done about it is another matter, but I really don’t think it’s the case that this is rare.
    As for how much this sort of thing can harm sales, it’s impossible to know, of course. But I don’t think it should be dismissed simply because it’s impossible to know. I’ve been informed by several bestselling authors that they have been review-bombed with obvious fake reviews, and that it worked and their sales plummeted, they went out of the charts and their sales plummeted further still. I can’t go into a lot of detail on that, but I am as sure as I can be that this is a real and rather widespread problem.

    As for how many people read reviews, I think you’re right: a lot of people, perhaps most, don’t. But a lot of people do. Potential readers, of course, in their droves, read reviews on the biggest book sites in the world. But so do agents, editors, publicists and many others, and they stick around for a while. If someone writes a really damning review, and it is particularly convincing, it can influence lots of people for years. I’m not saying it always will. It depends on the review. But you seem to be either minimizing or even discounting the possibility of this. I think with the number of eyeballs on these sites, it is clear reviews can cause serious damage to sales and reputations. You seem to be kind of shrugging your shoulders and saying fraud is no big deal! I think it can be a big deal.

    You also have your cake and eat it, by saying that although Stock’s reviewer titled her reviews suggesting he was a serial killer and a misogynist, people would not read the titles but would carefully read the reviews. But people don’t really read reviews, according to you. Again, I think we’re talking millions of eyeballs. There is a possibility that someone would simply read the titles of the reviews and have some weird ideas implanted. That he is literally a serial killer? Doubtful, I agree. But they are very strange reviews, making the basic mistake of conflating what fictional characters do with the character of their creator. And the reviews themselves do, as you say, make the argument he is a misogynist, which is a damning accusation. If someone accused me of it because women die in my novels, I would certainly contact them. Especially if the reviews’ titles were that inflammatory.

    Would my reputation be impugned by one reviewer slurring me? It could be, absolutely. Is it a hill to die on? No, but I don’t think contacting a reviewer is dying on a hill, or responding to false allegations. I know people say don’t feed the trolls. I’m not sure why I should simply let people slur me publicly and I shouldn’t respond. That applies to reviews, blogs, articles, and the rest. If someone publishes something about me and I think it steps over a line, I will respond to it. I won’t die on a hill by doing so. But sometimes I think it is important to respond to damaging claims.

  • Jackie Barbosa October 13, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    There is a possibility that someone would simply read the titles of the reviews and have some weird ideas implanted. That he is literally a serial killer? Doubtful, I agree. But they are very strange reviews, making the basic mistake of conflating what fictional characters do with the character of their creator. And the reviews themselves do, as you say, make the argument he is a misogynist, which is a damning accusation. If someone accused me of it because women die in my novels, I would certainly contact them. Especially if the reviews’ titles were that inflammatory.

    I understand why it’s hard to ignore this kind of accusation. The problem is, I don’t think there’s any way to respond that lessens the sting. When you answer such a hyperbolic allegation, it’s my opinion that you lend it credence. You are telling the world that you take it seriously. And my question is, why would you want anyone to think you do take it seriously?

    I also don’t think really I’m having my cake and eating it, too. People who don’t read the reviews probably don’t look at the titles of them, either. (Again, I go back to the reviews on my short story, the TITLES of which repeatedly say that it’s short!) There may be people who skim review titles, but generally, I suspect they do so with the intent of reading the ones with titles that are compelling/interesting/shocking. You have to admit, that review has a compelling/interesting/shocking title!

    Of course, I can’t say that there are no people who read that review or its title and concluded that Stock is a misogynist/serial killer. I just don’t think his response would do anything to change their minds if they had.

    For me, the whole thing boils down a cost-benefit analysis. The cost of worrying about what reviews say about me or my book and the potential backlash if I respond in a way that readers find unpalatable is far, far greater than any benefit I could possibly achieve. I see this as all pain and no gain. It’s just too much brain damage for me and, I firmly believe, trying to do something about it has a much greater likelihood of damaging my career than could be done by a thousand trolling reviewers out to “get” me.

  • Jeremy Duns October 13, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    I get that – and I think it is usually the best course of action. As I said, in most cases I don’t think responding to reviews is a great idea.

    But there is a bit of a Catch 22. Yes, if you respond you risk giving it credence, drawing attention to it, and a backlash, too. But it really does depend on what the review is. If you leave it, the risk is it festers, and materially damages your reputation and sales.

    I think it’s a mistake to see it as so specific, ie don’t respond to reviews, as though they are a different creature. I don’t think it makes all that much difference if it is a blog post, a review, a newspaper article, in principle. In practice it can make a lot of dfference. So if it is a review that is particularly damaging, is false, and is very visible and I think might continue to damage me unless I address it, I would. Just as I would with a newspaper article, blog, tweet, or anything else published about me. I don’t subscribe to the idea that reviews are sacred ground and authors should never respond to them.

    But I do agree they need to tread carefully, and consider it may be a waste of tiem and effort, and may even be counter-productive.

    I wish I could be as laissez-fair as you. A few years ago, I was much more. Then another author made false claims about me online, and I thought they had a lot of potential to damage my reputation, so responded. I decided then and there not simply to let people trample over my reputation. A bad review of my work is absolutely fine, of course. But there are limits. And so if I think someone is spreading smears or whatever, I generally think it is worth putting my side, and not risk them spreading. But I may be over-sensitive, or foolish, on this issue.

  • Jackie Barbosa October 14, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    I would agree that there are certain circumstances in which it may be appropriate (and even necessary) for an author to respond to a detractor; I just think these situations are so rare that they are exceptions proving the rule.

    I will also say that from what I’ve seen, the more convinced an author is that a slur requires a response, the less likely it is that answering it is a good idea. This is not to say that you erred in responding in the situation you mention. I have no clue what was said or how you answered, so I can’t make any judgment at all, nor am I interested in doing so.

    Finally, I also observe that we travel in very different reader communities. Romance readers are primarily women, and I think the way women perceive confrontations of this nature is very different from the way men perceive them. Neither perception is right or wrong, but when your readers are mostly women, I think you have far more to lose by trying to defend your reputation in a confrontational manner than you have to gain. From what I’ve seen over the years in the romance community, ignoring false allegations is far more effective in making them go away than answering them. It’s responding that causes the brouhahas and then leads readers to put you on their “DO NOT READ” shelves.

  • Jackie Barbosa October 14, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    P.S. I deleted Pinto Panto’s comment because it added nothing meaningful to the discussion.

  • Jeremy Duns October 14, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Thanks, Jackie.

    I think we do broadly agree on this. I suppose it does come down in part to the different fields. Jon Stock writes spy novels, and so do I. Quite a few people die in my novels, men and women. My books are also set in the 60s, and many characters in them are misogynistic, racist and worse. That doesn’t mean I am any of those things, though.

    So when i read Jon’s article, I immediately wondered what I would do in that situation. I didn’t have to wonder long. The allegation he is a serial killer – not his character, but he, the author – is not something I think many people, if any, would believe. But it does mark the reviews out as disturbing, and with a basic failure to grasp the difference between fiction and reality, and the appropriateness of making such a link with him in a review title on such a widely visited site where his books are sold. It is, I think, a pretty obviously disturbing title. But the titles and the reviews themselves also make this claim he is a misogynist. And I think it is a damaging claim. It is really very possible that readers, writers, agents, editors, and many others could read those reviews and mentally note ‘Oh, I see. Someone accused Jon Stock of being a misogynist. Interesting.’ And not look all that much more into it. It could have an impact.

    The reviews miss a very basic point about the relationship between art and reality that could be applied to any crime fiction writer in the world – Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith and many others are misogynists and serial killers by this reasoning. But the reviews are also evidently from a highly educated person, well written, fairly long, and are therefore much more convincing than a scrawl on the wall. Much harder to dismiss. Misogyny is a serious thing to accuse a writer of, and can affect their career. So if I were accused of that in reviews like this, and as here the reviewer had given their real name and listed their email address on their Amazon profile, I would absolutely do as Stock did and email them to point out that I am not my characters, these reviews are unfair and could seriously affect my reputation and profession, and would they please consider removing them.

    So the example you wrote this blogpost about would, for me, be one of the rare examples.

    I also think there’s a difference between what always will happen and what can happen. It isn’t the case, for example, that sockpuppet negative reviews will always damage a book’s sales. But I don’t think that’s the point – it is clearly the case that they can do. Just because some books have hostile reviews and are betsellers doesn’t mean they can’t have an impact. They clearly can. Not everyone reads reviews – but some people obviously do. Not everyone sockpuppets, but so what – a lot of it is going on, so dismissing the problem because there is no evidence every single person misses the point. So I think it’s really the other way round for me – I don’t need to prove that something will have an effect to recognize that it might do, and that is enough.

    There are more complicated issues involved, I know, and we discussed some of them on Twitter, and you changed my mind on some of them, too. And I take the point about the dangers of putting ones head above the parapet commercially. But occasionally I think it is worse to let lies spread unchallenged.


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