Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

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.


  • Jody W. March 14, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Just think of how we’d also be deprived of the many wonderful reviews for “Bic for Her Pens” and “Banana Slicer” and “50 Gallon Drum of Lube”. That would be a sad day on the internet.

    • Jackie Barbosa March 14, 2014 at 2:16 pm

      Hey, I’m sure those reviews are useful to the people who buy those books. Bless their hearts.

  • Kinsey March 14, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    There are valid reasons for reviewers using pen names, just as there are valid reasons for authors using them. I’m not comfortable with people at my church or my daughter’s school knowing that I write sexually explicit books. And I’m certain many bloggers and Amazon reviewers don’t want certain people to know that they read and review sexually explicit books. Why is it okay for the author to have a psuedonym but not the reviewer?

    Some reviewers are assholes. The Internet is full of them. If you can’t ignore them, don’t publish.

    I think for some big name, been around a long time authors like Rice, it’s the openness of the Internet, the lack of gatekeepers, that appalls. They miss the civilized, pre-Web days, when the only published reviews were in books and magazines and written by “professionals” — now the rabble can make their opinions heard and felt as well. I’ve seen the complaint from newer authors as well, that all these reviewers are “amateurs” and not “qualified” to review books. As if anyone could be objectively qualified to review inherently subjective material.

    The appropriate tools for dealing with nasty reviews, or negative reviews in general, are wine and voodoo dolls.

  • Suzanne Cowles March 24, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Art is subjective, and opinions are something everyone has. The beauty of our freedoms in this country are that we can speak our mind. Some people don’t have manners and only make themselves look like idiots by the biased critical comments they leave.

    I think it is obvious to authors and readers, who has a personal agenda and who really did not like a book.


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