There was a pretty unfortunate scene at a book blog recently after a reviewer wrote an unfavorable review of a self-published author’s book. The author responded with unseemly umbrage and profanity.
And then the Internet got involved.
Literally hundreds and hundreds of commenters piled on the author with snide remarks and scorn. Then the virtual mob took to Amazon, where they trashed her book, wrote faux five star reviews, and are continuing to have a great time at her expense (96 reviews and counting).
They may not have been wielding actual pitchforks and torches, but there are burnt embers all around the Internet.
Now, I want to clearly acknowledge that the author in question behaved extremely unprofessionally. No author, with the singular exception of Emily St. John Mandel, has ever responded to a bad review and come away looking good. Let alone with rudeness and profanity. It was an extremely unprofessional and unfortunate scene.
But did she really deserve this?
The heart of the mob
What are the motives of the people trashing this author? Does anyone really think that a virtual mob scene is going to prevent authors from behaving unprofessionally in the future? Authors have been lashing out over bad reviews for several millenia, methinks an Internet freakout will not bring peace in our time.
In truth, the actions of a mob say a lot more about the people participating in them than the person being scorned. And I think in the dark heart of a mob you’ll find a quiet sense of relief. People are secretly and ardently glad that they’re not the ones being targeted.
You can feel the relief and sense of superiority in numbers behind the mocking: Well, at least I’m not that bad off. And a hundred strangers agree with me.
But really that’s a false sense of security. As the old quote goes, “A mob has many heads but no brains.”
To “deserve” is divine?
The other justification you’ll hear is that the person in question deserved it. She brought it on herself by failing to edit her book or behaving unprofessionally or using profanity or etc. etc. And sure, there are consequences for bad behavior.
But what she deserved is compassion.
We’ve all made mistakes in our worst moments. We’ve all taken criticism too hard. We’ve all lashed out when we should have kept quiet. We’ve all said things we shouldn’t have.
Now imagine that the mistake we made was met not with sympathy and fair consequences but with a mob trying to tear down everything we’ve ever tried to build.
This is a person who just wanted to have their book out there and has the same hopes and dreams as any other writer. Some rude Internet behavior negates all of that? People will ridicule her and scorch the Earth and trash what this author has built in the name of teaching a lesson?
Let’s not kid ourselves that a lesson was taught, other than to remind us, yet again, that the Internet is a terrifying place to make a mistake.
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I always enjoy reading your thoughts, Nathan, but I have to disagree with your conclusions here.
First, the review wasn't a bad one. In fact, it praised both the story and the author.
Second, if you read those comments, the first kajillion or so are actually quite restrained. Most people, including the author of the review, took the time to explain clearly and respectfully (sometimes even kindly) why the author's response wasn't appropriate or helpful. The author chose to respond to those comments with vitriol, even calling the reviewer a liar.
The author of that book didn't have an embarrassing drunken photo of her posted on the internet–a one-time mistake that, as you say, terrifyingly lives on in perpetuity online. She made a choice and acted on it. And then she made another one, and then another one.
And as she said herself, she made lots of sales because of it. Casting her as a victim is to negate her own agency–she was perfectly capable of doing something different, or of apologizing, or even of deleting her own comments.
Does she deserve compassion? Does any jerkwad? Yes, absolutely. And so does everyone who glommed on with the mockery. And so does everyone who finds that self-published authors have taken another PR hit because of her actions. We all deserve compassion. But don't mistake compassion for pity.
Internet is all about action – reaction and this case present this so clearly; the author bashed the reviewer for the review she didn't like, and then she got bashed in return by the people who didn’t like her bashing.
I didn't agree with her behaviour and I don't agree with what is happening to her over at the Amazon, even when I feel that that is a result of her rude behaviour. And I do believe that a public apology would take the wind out of the ‘mob’ sails.
I associate compassion with sympathy and I don’t sympathize with her, but I do pity her, because those things would happen to her over and over again until she learns the value of manners and silence. Until that happens I hope that she is strong enough to survive what’s happening to her and to learn for her mistake as soon as possible.
Sonya Thomas says
Brilliant post and agree with every word of it. In the end, after reading the 'virtual kicking' the author in question was getting from everyone, it started to feel wrong. I felt compassion for her. She made a huge mistake, one that she will no doubt regret for some time to come, but the commenters were just enjoying it too much. Really steeping themselves in the fun of the hunt. Goading her into posting more ill-considered comments. Shame on them.
Sarah Mäkelä says
I totally agree. She behaved poorly, but the mob response isn't fair.
I've been a long-time admirer of yourself so I hope it's okay for me to leave this comment here. It's not aimed at the individual 'you' but at the collective 'you' of people with clout.
I've been increasingly uncomfortable with the post-incident blog posts and discussions that have sprung up, and I think I've finally pinned down a pretty decent analogy as to why:
You teach your kid that bullying and ganging up on someone is wrong. Then one day you both head off to the store and see a random kid throw a punch. The other kid defends himself. Then suddenly two of his friends pile in. Then two more. Eventually the one kid can't defend himself even if he wanted to (nor is he even trying to any longer). Meanwhile a growing crowd gathers watching, some of them texting, tweeting and calling their friends to come down and have a look because this is 'absolutely hilarious'. You turn round and walk away. A week later you hear that this kid's house is being pelted every night and there's all sorts of graffiti being left. You sit your kid down and say, "Well, that whole thing was pretty wrong. You should feel sorry for him, Timmy. I know I do."
What logical question do you think Timmy might ask?
Doing the right thing can't really be taught hypothetically, or from a distance. If something is 'wrong', it's wrong at the time that it's happening, not days past the actual incident itself. It's noble to try and instil compassion, but the timing of that lesson is crucial, otherwise your words appear to be at odds with your actions.
The truth, of course, is that you really can't stop a mob. No matter how powerful you are as an individual. But by stepping in, it isn't really the mob that you are trying to impact, it's the people who are walking by and standing around, and those that might be actively looking to you for guidance.
So next time this happens, and we all know it will, I really hope that people like yourself step in to the fray. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how much weight your actions will carry.
Again, please don't take all this as some sort of dressing down. It's not, it's just an observation. I greatly admire your work and think that you are a really good guy. Otherwise I wouldn't have chosen your blog to say this.
The internet makes it so easy to be unprofessional.
Carolyn Rosewood says
Well said, Nathan. Great post.
I just had an author respond in a hostile manner to a review I wrote of his book. I did not publish the comment and let him know I didn't because it would make him look unprofessional. That calmed him down and made him think.
Querulous Squirrel says
"The Internet is a terrifying place to make a mistake." This is why I continue to blog under a pseudonym. I am moody and at times overshare. I have a job that requires I keep my personal life secret. And yet I am constantly trying to figure out if there is some way I could write some sort of blog on the side that uses my real name, for recognition. In my worst moods, though, I would not have the nerve to rant against a negative review. I know from experience it only feeds the flames.
You say many things I agree with Nathan, but not here.
Compassion for this boorish author is misplaced. She got exactly what was coming to her.
Some things you might consider:
1) This author is no Hester Prynne who was hunted down by the "mob". The author REPEATEDLY baited and provoked many people who were simply trying to get her to calm down.
2) Her behavior reflectly poorly on all indie authors, and this was pointed out to her. (One reviewer even used her as an example of why he won't review self-published books). And STILL she carried on.
It is your place to feel bad for her if you like. But I can no more feel compassion for her than I could for a spoiled brat who's warned by their parents not to play with the hot stove and ignores it and winds up burning off half their face.
This abuse is called bullying. Cyberbullying has caused several high school students to commit suicide. I echo RobynBradley's concern for the author's wellbeing.
wry wryter says
I find it interesting that after all this jabber, and Nathan's very wise post, the author has not posted here.
(Or perhaps I missed it.)
She's quiet…maybe that's a good thing.
Thanks Nathan for your clear voice in the wilderness.
Sydney Katt says
I couldn't help feeling sorry for this author, even though I had the strong feeling she was bringing it on herself. I mean, my characters get to tell people to "F off," I don't.
Actually, the initial responses to the authors rebuttal were quite sensible and compassionate. The reviewer even returned to justify the review in an effort to placate the author (something he certainly had no obligation to do).
It was the author's follow-up(s) that raised the ire of Anonymous, and rightly so. People like that only earn compassion when they keep their mouths shut and don't try to infect others with stupid.
To be honest, by the author's third response,I got the vibe she was somehow trolling everyone. Even if she wasn't, with the sheer insanity of what she was saying she could say she was and I'd have to believe it. When someone insists their grammar and spelling are fine and goes on to point out how 'discusting' everyone is and that it 'don't make sense'…I dunno, it seems a bit fishy.
Julie Hedlund says
Thank you for writing this thoughtful post. Hopefully it will restore sanity to the masses. I read through the comments on that site, and I too, felt bad for her. That's not to say she didn't bring it on herself, but still…
The book blogger wrote a fair and balanced review. The writer called the blogger a liar because she didn't like some of the things he had written, and she demanded he remove his review. When he politely refused, the writer told him he had no right to review a book if the author didn't agree to it. Then she repeatedly told him FU. Several people posted comments in defense of the book blogger, and the writer told them FU too.
I'm sorry, but while the book-blogging community might have gone overboard, it was in defense of one of their own. I have no compassion for bullies. This wasn't a witch hunt; it was an act of self-defense. The writer was attacking the book-blogging community's rights under the fair-use law, which allows reviewers to comment on copyrighted work. It wasn't just an attack on one reviewer but on book blogging in general. https://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/greek-seaman-jacqueline-howett.html
Considering that I'm a writer and I would love book bloggers to read and review my work fairly and honestly, like this book blogger did, I'm going to have to take sides with the book bloggers. We need them to promote our work. But what we don't need is a bully who calls herself a writer making the rest of us look bad to the very people whose primary goal is to help readers and writers find each other.
I feel only some compassion to her – for the fake Amazon reviews. I despise fake ratings and reviews with a passion.
However, in today's virtual wonderland of information, she should have known better when it comes to the backlash of comments. She brought a great lot of it on herself by being completely unprofessional and totally rude. I don't feel sorry for her in this respect because when you're yelling at reviewers to take down their review and all sorts of other things (f-bomb included) then of course people are going to respond to your negativity. And even then, some of those initial comments were supportive and pointed out things that perhaps she'd misread, but she lashed out at them too.
Remember, as mama always said, "Think before you speak."
I know this comment is coming late, but I didn't get a chance to read this post until today. I just had to say thank you, Nathan, for saying this. It needed to be said, and, as usual, you said it so well.
Annie Sisk says
Nathan, you said (I'm paraphrasing) "So the only ones who deserve compassion are the ones who apologize?"
One could argue that. One could – I don't. But that's not at all what I said, nor is it what I implied. (I checked. Sometimes I get carried away, admittedly. I don't think I did here.)
She not only didn't apologize. She was the instigator of a full-on assault against anyone who disagreed with her (admittedly deluded) vision of herself. Not just "you're wrong" but "F- you, you're an idiot and what's more, etc., etc."
But moreover, you're castigating people as a group who do not deserve to be castigated. (Except for the few that went off to Amazon to post fake reviews. Those folks were wrong to do so. Do you have compassion for them?) The comments were by and large (I'd say "almost universally" but I really don't feel like going back and counting them up as a percentage of the whole) not vicious or mean-spirited. They were pretty freaking reserved, as a matter of fact, at least by modern 'net standards.
This just wasn't a witch hunt, is my point. It was unpleasant, to be sure — calling someone out on horrible offensive behavior usually is — but it wasn't a display of mob mentality run amok. The "punishment" such as it was absolutely fit the crime. If anything, it was understated. (Again: Amazon fake reviewers excepted.)
This is not a case where an author made a mistake, Nathan. It's a case where an author went on a rampage. It's the difference between leaving a loaded gun lying around negligently and hitting the bell tower with a few dozen rounds for the assault rifle you're packing. (OK, awful analogy. Gimme a break. I've got a monster cold and I have chronic pain. There. Feel compassion for that, even though I blatantly went fishing for it.)
Kathryn Tuccelli says
Great post, Nathan. I am co-owner/moderator of a forum unrelated to writing and I have seen first-hand how vitriolic people can be when hiding behind anonymous screen-names.
I followed what was going on when it first happened, and while I was appalled at how the writer reacted, I know how it feels to have your writing criticized, no matter the manner in which it is done. Writing is extremely personal. It takes a strong-minded person to remain objective and rational about their writing and how it is perceived.
I wish that writer the best and thank Big Al for handling the situation with class – you, too, Nathan.
John Durvin says
Frankly, I think the main problem is that the author forgot one of the most important rules of the Internet today: "do not feed the trolls." There is an entire subculture today dedicated to saying the awfullest things possible with a goal of making people feel horrible about themselves, and the easiest way to provoke them is to respond like this to negative criticism.
Nathan Bransford says
I'm not trying to lump everyone who responded to her together, and as a lot of people in this thread have noted, many of the early responses were very kind. But things got out of hand. People said and did a lot worse to her than she said and did to the reviewer. I think who started it or who deserved it is kind of beside the point. Things got out of hand. It was disproportionate. She made a real mistake, but I don't think she "deserved" the ugly scene that followed.
Two wrongs don't make a right, you can fight fire with fire or with water, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, etc. etc.
The internet lets losers be bullies.
Book Mawnster says
Ah Nathan, if only responses were precisely proportional. If only we lived in a just Newtonian universe in which equal and opposite forces were met with equal and opposite forces. But then Einstein came along and ruined the symmetry — and now anything goes. It means the amount of time spent on a novel is not directly related to its quality. It means shouting at someone at one decibel will not be matched by the same decibel; there might be a sonic boom in return.
Dana Stabenow says
I never know what's going on in the publishing world until I check in here. Sane, measured and wonderfully written post, Nathan, thank you.
(Would you be willing to allow Sisters in Crime to reblog it? Of course with proper attribution and a link back.)
I got curious enough to look further, and found this article on Salon, https://www.salon.com/books/2011/03/29/jacqueline_howett_greek_seaman. This quote made my heart sink: "It's doubtful any of these reviewers would have even found "Seaman" had it not been for the author's public blow-up on Big Al's blog."
Raquel Byrnes says
"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."
I guess its true.
I can't believe how far this went. I agree with Sheila Lamb. This makes us all look terrible.
Edge of Your Seat Romance
Susie Kelly says
It is horribly cruel, the worst kind of bullying, the sort of thing that chickens do to other wounded chickens.
From her reaction it looks as if she may have emotional problems. The relentless torturing of her on Amazon could have serious consequences.
I know there are hundreds of comments already here, but I just had to chime in to say – I think this is the best thing you've written on your website.
When I got to, "she deserved compassion" I was surprised, and in the way best way possible – becaue you were right, and it was an unexpected rightness.
Sigh. I think I love you, Nathan Bransford, for your heart and your compassion. The Internet is a frightening venue. Many people sit behind their computers and say things they would never say to someone's face. That, in itself, is hypocritical (and evil).
Not many said a word when several years ago a popular web site for readers and authors viciously attacked authors and publishers under the guise of Romfail. On the contrary readers (and sadly, authors) jumped on the bandwagon and had a merry old time — at the debilitating suffering of many fingered authors/publishers. What is it about the Internet that allows some to act like morons bent on the destruction of their fellow man? Why do we allow them to get away such intolerable behavior? Why do we join in?
I'm not a huge fan of RWA, but I think I love them now too, because they were the only ones who came forth and said to Romfail: Enough! Your site does NOT support the romance community. No kidding? We needed RWA to point that out to us?
For as long as I've been writing, this type of behavior has occurred . . . and worsened since the Net. I would bet all those 1 star reviews for this latest debacle were written out of hate, had nothing to do with the substance of the author's book. I don't know the author and did not read any of the posts, either from the review or on Amazon. I tend to stay away from those things that make me sick to my stomach.
So she made a bad choice, she challenged a reviewer in a most unprofessional way I assume. Let's get a rope and hang her, or better yet, burn her at the stake.
Because an author publishes a book, whether it's Indie or traditional does not give reviewers and bloggers "open season" to trash the author or say anything even slightly personal. No author sets out to write a bad book, but it happens to all of us.
I have two questions: Where is our humanity, and number two, why do we follow this mob mentality?
I'll never understand it, and I'm truly ashamed to be a part of the publishing industry when I see this open hostility directed at any human being over something as simple as a book/review.
Tana, bless you! You absolutely rock in my world for extending the olive branch.
I guess I will be next on the virtual lynch pad. Nathan, you often say great things but this one blog post I could toss to the birds. No,I don't feel an ounce of compassion for this author. Yes, as authors, our work can be considered our child or children. Have you ever been around a kid so aweful you secretly wished some one or something would fall out of the sky and wack it/him/her? I know you have. We all have. They are the kids that go into stores and pull things off the rack, push other children in the park, curse at their parents, etc. and this is exactly what this author represents. It's also what those that posted all the faux reviews represent. The internet isn't a dark, scary place. The entire world is. It's what happens when bad behavior is pardoned just because there happens to be worse behavior. Bad does not turn into good in the presence of the worst. As writers, we assume that we deserve the time and attention required from our readers. With that assumption, we must also accept when said readers feel it wasn't worth it.
anonymous 10:16 am said: "I can no more feel compassion for her than I could for a spoiled brat who's warned by their parents not to play with the hot stove and ignores it and winds up burning off half their face."
And three years later, I sure hope you haven't had any children… God forbid. In fact, this is why these things happen: people like you, anonymous, have children and you teach them your horrid ways (i.e. engaging in sh*t slinging).
And another one who said the author "deserved it", really? And that outbursts aren't a sign of mental illness? What the hell do *you* know about it, lady? And you're an author of children's books? And an editor at Entangled Publishing? You disgust me as well, Miss Kate Fall.