Anonymity, Reviews, and the Definition of “Bullying”

If you’re reading this post, chances are you’ve already heard about the petition requesting that Amazon require reviews to be posted under the reviewer’s “real” name. Last I heard, the petition had about 6,000 signatories, including Anne Rice. The idea here is that, if people are required to use their real names when reviewing books, they will be less likely to post “bullying” reviews.

Lots of people have posted their thoughts about this, but I really have to address the mindset behind these movements that set out to reduce “bullying” in the review sphere. Put simply, I find instances of anything that resembles ACTUAL bullying in reviews to be so few and far between that calls to put an end to it are a bit like recent legislative efforts to prevent/end voter fraud. I mean, sure, it sounds like a solid idea in principle: voter fraud is clearly a bad thing. It’s just that the actual problem with voting in the US is that people who are eligible to vote DON’T, not that people who aren’t eligible DO. Similarly, the problem in the review sphere ISN’T that people leave lots of bullying reviews, but rather that to few are comfortable leaving reviews at all.

Let’s define bullying, shall we? I like the Wikipedia definition:

“Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively impose domination over others.”

When an author tells me he/she has been on the receiving end of a “bullying” review, I always ask what they mean by bullying. Most of the time, what I’m told is that this author has a fellow author nemesis who has set up a sockpuppet account to leave cruel one-star reviews on the first author’s books. This is “bullying” because the writer of the review is doing it solely to damage the author’s sales and improve his/her own.

Except, no, that’s not bullying. It’s fraudulent (assuming you can prove that the reviewer is actually sockpuppeting and not just someone you suspect of it) and it’s certainly vindictive (again, assuming you’re right that it’s a jealous author and not just a reader who genuinely didn’t like your book), but it’s not the use of force, threat or coercion. It’s the expression of an opinion. Period. And unless the reviewer has enough time on his/her hands to set up multiple sockpuppets and write multiple reviews, a single one-star review from a jealous competitor is, frankly, not likely to have much impact on your career. Plus, that jealous competitor’s career is going to suffer if he’s spending all his time writing mean reviews of your books instead of writing books of his own.

Of course, that isn’t the only kind of review that’s labeled as bullying. Snarky reviews are often called bullying. (They’re not.) DNF reviews are often called bullying. (They’re not, either.) And then there is the special category of reviews wherein the reviewer makes credible threats against the author or his/her family. The latter would, in my opinion, qualify as a bullying review. I’ve also never seen one. Lots of folks have claimed to get them. But Internet Rule #1 is that if there aren’t screen shots, it didn’t happen. And if it did happen, I can guarantee that any of the major sites, including Amazon, alerted to the existence of the threatening review, would remove it.

(Note: Saying on Twitter that you’d like to “cut” the author for killing off a beloved character is not a credible threat. It’s hyperbole. It’s also not a review.)

So, the bottom line is that this petition to require real names on Amazon reviews is a solution in search of a problem. It’s also a foolish solution that would likely lead to many, many fewer reviews of any kind for all books. In this respect, the proposed remedy is precisely analogous to the voter ID laws intended to prevent voter fraud, but which actually wind up discouraging eligible voters from voting.

And fewer reviews isn’t good for anyone. Not for readers. Not for authors. Even those who’ve actually been bullied.

Why I’m So Passionate About Contract Terms

It pains me to have to write this post so soon after writing one promoting the potential benefits of going with a digital small press. I’m still a believer in the digital small press model, but frankly, authors have to be so, so careful when signing contracts these days, even when the publisher is well-known and reputable. If you don’t have an agent, I really believe it’s downright dangerous to sign a boilerplate contract from any publisher these days without first having the contract reviewed by an attorney with a specialty in publishing. And honestly, even if you have an agent, it might not be a bad idea to have the contract reviewed by an attorney. Because man, publishers are getting sneaky these days.

The latest contract clause to trip my trigger is in the boilerplate of a major epublisher. A publisher I would have recommended authors consider up until I was made aware of this clause, which is apparently relatively new. At this point, I’m not at liberty to name either the publisher or the source of this information. I will also say, in the interest of full disclosure, that I haven’t seen the precise wording of the clause; I only know what I have been told it says. Notwithstanding, I think it’s important to give everyone a heads-up about this particular rights grab, because it’s one you might not even see coming.

So, in a nutshell, the clause states that the publisher “owns” the metadata associated with the book, then further defines metadata as “work-for-hire, including cover copy, blurb, tagline and sales hook.” What’s wrong with this clause, you ask?

Well, first of all, it’s an odd definition of “metadata.” Metadata is usually understood to be things like the author’s name, the book’s title, the series title, and the keywords used to promote the book (for example, “historical romance” or “secret baby”). These are all pieces of data that get sent with the book to retailers to assist them in classifying the book on their site and in searches. I don’t think of any of the items listed in the actual contract as “metadata” at all, so that leads to the head-scratchery question of whether the publisher is trying to claim ownership of the items I consider metadata IN ADDITION TO the items listed in the clause.

Second, the clause defines metadata as work-for-hire and provides a list for inclusion but none for exclusion. And if cover copy and taglines are “work-for-hire” that the publisher owns, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that content and copy editing (which the publisher pays for) might also be covered by the clause. The contract doesn’t specifically state that edits ARE work for hire, but it doesn’t say they aren’t, either. As far as I know, there’s never been a case where a publisher tried to prevent an author from republishing a reverted book because they owned the edited version of the text, but that doesn’t mean one might not try to, and a clause like this in the contract could certainly give them leverage in the attempt.

I hope from the above explanation that it’s apparent why I think this is a dangerous clause to agree to. If the publisher is really claiming ownership of your book’s metadata (its title, the series title, your name), that means that when the rights revert to you, you might not be able to republish it with the same title, series title, and pen name. (I have a hard time seeing how they could claim to own your name, especially if you’ve used it for books with other publishers, but the fact that your name is metadata and they are claiming to own metadata is troubling.) And if the metadata is really only the “work-for-hire,” you still might be in a bind if the publisher tries to claim that the editorial work on the book belongs to them or even if they try to claim you can’t use words and phrases in your version of the book’s description and tagline that are similar to those they used.

Is keeping you from requesting reversion by making it difficult, if not impossible, for you to republish the book the purpose of this clause? I can’t say. But I also can’t say I see any other logical reason for the publisher to claim ownership of these items. Even if the clause is truly limited to the listed items, at most epublishers, all of them are written by the author, not by an employee of the publisher. Very often, the blurb the author used when submitting the book to the publisher is the basis for the cover copy. How can the publisher own in perpetuity something the author wrote before contracting the book? It’s the kind of rights grab that sets my teeth on edge.

Anyway, the bottom line here is that if you are offered a contract by a publisher, be sure to look for clauses like this that assert perpetual ownership of metadata and/or work-for-hire. If you find one, request that the publisher either strike or modify the clause to your satisfaction. Even if the publisher wouldn’t prevail in preventing you from republishing the book on reversion, you don’t want to get tied up in court over something like this.