In the past week, there has been a great deal of exposure of a petition to Amazon seeking to remove anonymity from all Amazon book reviewers. With a great deal of help from author Anne Rice’s nearly one million Facebook followers, the petition, initiated by one of Rice’s fans, has garnered over 5,000 signatures.
In the scheme of things, 5,000 is not a lot of signatures, but I am still baffled that this many people – I might assume many of them are authors and Rice fans – could put their names behind the mandate expressed in the petition.
Before we get to the petition itself, though, I want to point out a few things.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Amazon forums, and perhaps out of morbid curiosity, followed and reviewed the history of many of the more egregious instances of author versus author, author versus reviewer, and perhaps the worst instances: author fans on reviewer. These nasty encounters occur in the dark recesses of the Amazon book world, more commonly surrounding self-published works of erotica, romance and paranormal romance. As I read none of those (I swear), I am a mere wide-eyed spectator.
Let me say that one of the worst examples of this kind of gang attack was perpetrated by Ms. Rice herself, who posted a one-star review on her Facebook page, for all of her nearly 1 million fans to see, with a link to the review. You need no imagination to know what happened.
So then, this petition was submitted by one Todd Barselow, an independent editor and avowed fan of Ms. Rice, last week. (Mr. Barselow once attempted to raise money via gofundme to pay for a trip to New Orleans to visit the author and her son.) In just a short period of time, news of the petition – and more importantly, Ms. Rice’s championing of it (complete with PR photos)- has reached a variety of press outlets, all liberally using the press package delivered to them. Interesting! Still, with all of that worldwide press coverage, the petition still stands at just 5,280 signatures.
In the midst of this all, it was announced that Ms. Rice’s long-awaited next novel is to be released imminently. Ah. It starts to make sense.
Saturday the 7th, a freelance writer from Tampa, FL initiated a thread on the Top Reviewers Forum, identifying herself as a reporter and asking for comments on the Rice petition. She had already written the piece covering the “authors” perspective (Rice and two others); she wanted to cover the reviewers. Amid suspicion that she might be a Rice fan, she assured forum members that she would report “objectively.” The freelance writer pens a regular column for the Tampa Bay Examiner called The Anne Rice Examiner, in which we can peruse such objective news articles as “Five Reasons Why We Love Anne Rice Novels.” Other hard-hitting pieces can be found, such as Anne Rice Has a New App, and Random Facts You Might Not Know About Anne Rice (she prefers Jack-in-the-Box tacos to room service at the Ritz Carleton).
Needless to say, the article purporting to convey the opinions of reviewers in that forum wasn’t the objective reportage one might have expected from a typical journalist. In her lead, she stated that “some were suspicious of my motives and tried to expose me as some spy for the other side.” Gee, I can’t understand why they would have thought that! The freelancer’s next piece, published the very same day as her “Reviewers Fight Back” piece, is titled, Anne Rice’s Big Reveal – What will the subject of her new book be?”
Anyway, I’ve come to the regrettable conclusion that this petition, launched by an Anne Rice fan, promoted far and wide by Anne Rice’s PR team, and reported on by Anne Rice’s hand-picked accolyte, is a publicity stunt – and successful one, at that – by the author, timed to occur immediately prior to the release of her newest book.
Now that we’ve covered the origin of the petition, what does it say? Well, here are a few of its utterances, and my reaction.
Anyone can now quickly and easily publish a book using the tools freely provided by Amazon.
This is a problem, because “anyone” covers a lot of people who (a) have no business putting a price tag on their so-called “book” (ouch, I know – but it’s true) and (b) are not emotionally equipped to handle the reaction of a disgruntled customer.
What is at issue is the fact that there is an incredible amount of bullying and harassment of some of these self publishing authors taking place on the Amazon platform/system.
Well. “This is the worst book I’ve ever tried to read” is not bullying and harassment. Blunt, hard to accept (if you’re the author), yes. Warranting the removal of anonymity? No.
I believe, as do countless others—many who will have signed this petition—that the reason this bullying and harassment is able to take place is because of the allowance of anonymity on Amazon.
The book has to be uploaded first, so that starts the ball rolling.
These people are able to create multiple accounts and then use those accounts to viciously attack and go after any author or person that they feel doesn’t belong on Amazon or who shouldn’t have published a book, made a comment on a forum post, etc.
Is the problem anonymity? Or is it multiple aliases under one account? I’m all for eliminating the use of multiple sock puppet accounts – frequently used by authors to post fake five star reviews of their own work, as well as to attack competitors.
Reviewers and forum participants should not be anonymous. By removing their anonymity and forcing them to display their real, verified identities, I believe that much of the harassment and bullying will cease.
We really do need to define these terms, “bullying” and “harassment.” Both are laden with subtext. But what Ms. Rice proposes is that the tens of millions of customers who buy from Amazon and might wish to review a product must surrender their anonymity because a few authors have had bad receptions to their work.
The impact of such a policy is hard to over-estimate. What soccer mom is going to continue to review the erotica she buys when she fears the judgmental eyes of the PTA board? What sufferer of mental or physical illness is going to review books on those subjects? The list of products reviewed on Amazon is endless. And so are the people whose opportunity to provide other customers with feedback will be impaired by this intrusive demand for identification.
Author Anne Rice has recently taken up this cause, as well, after experiencing the vitriol and hatred spewed by sock puppet account holders in the Amazon forums. She has publicly spoken out against these types of activities on numerous occasions and I’m sure that she will support this petition.
This is where the sheep’s clothing starts to look fake.
First of all, Ms. Rice was not subjected to “vitriol and hatred.” She initiated discussions in the Amazon forums, made deliberately provocative allegations against “careerist reviewers,” and “gangster bullies,” and met with disagreements. I invite anyone with the idlest curiosity to have a look. Furthermore, who knows whether any of the people daring to challenge Ms. Rice’s opinions were “sock puppets” or not. I know I did, and here I am. Many other authors disagreed with her, by name.
The petition was posted by Ms. Rice’s fan on change.org on Monday, February 24th. Ms. Rice signed the petition that day, and appears to have been the first person to have done so. She posted a link to the petition on her Facebook page on March 3rd, the day before the media campaign began: The Guardian (“Anne Rice signs petition to protest bullying of authors on Amazon”), Entertainment Weekly (“Anne Rice stands up to haters on Amazon”), Mediabistro (“Anne Rice Fights Author Bullying on Amazon”), the Toronto Sun (“Anne Rice wants Amazon to ban anonymity”) and (of all places) the American Conservative (“Anne Rice Against Amazon Bullies”), all on March 4th, Time on March 5th, the Christian Science Monitor on March 6th, and a variety of secondary sources picked it up.
All with Ms. Rice’s name in the headline. All featuring lovely pictures of Ms. Rice. Some of them repeating false information about things that didn’t happen; none of them repeating the gory details of Ms. Rice’s own penchant for attacking her critics.
It offends me that a famous author would use such a far-reaching cause to both punish her critics and promote a new book. It’s shameful, really.
I get it that some folks have thin skin (Ms. Rice said, “thin skin got me where I am today”), and I’m not one to stick up for malicious people. I am not pleased at all by a lot of the anti-social behavior exhibited on the Internet. I’d like to see Amazon more aggressively monitor and moderate their customer forums, and I can think of a number of users I’d love to see banned outright.
But compelling millions of customers to reveal their names as a condition of reviewing a product is the equivalent of dropping a bomb on an anthill. You get rid of the ants, and a whole lot more than you intended.