Request to fellow fiction writers: please stay away from the crazy glue.

Well, then!

For the past several days, the internet has been buzzing with the astonishing exploits of one Kathleen Hale, a Harvard-educated YA author who wrote openly and in detail (if not completely honestly, I suspect) about tracking down a book reviewer, calling her at home and work, and knocking on her door. As the social media storm grew, we’ve been treated to some of her previous exploits, wherein she doused a girl with bleach and stabbed a feral hog in the heart. Whoosh, there’s one adventurer!

Ms. Hale’s narrative managed to take Ellora’s Cave’s ridiculous lawsuit against Dear Author and Jane Litte off page one. That lawsuit had pushed aside the grotesque display of plagiarism and social media harassment by Tiffinie Ruston (note: twitter trolls still attacking the “bullies” who’ve been mean to Ms. Rushton) against Rachel Anne Nunes.

And now we hear from the other side of the pond that some fellow who received an unflattering critique drove from London to Glasgow to bonk a review over the head with a glass bottle. Charges are pending and the author is out on bail.

All of it makes Just Desserts all too prescient.

I am mildly reassured that a huge number of fiction authors are singing from the same hymnal, deploring the actions of Hale, Rushton, Jade Black, and assorted others, yet there are enclaves where other authors have ardently supported Hale and her methods, most infamously, Ms. Anne Rice, who had this to say on her Facebook page:

I was impressed with the writer’s honesty, and I felt she did what she had to do to stay functional. She is candid about it. And she did no harm to this Blythe person. She simply felt she had to confront a person who had set out to make her life miserable. I do understand where the author is coming from here. I would not myself do what she did. But I know why she did it. These people, the harassers, the bullies, the tormentors, they have no real “standing” in the world of books and writers and they misuse every tool available to them; they lie, they cheat, they manipulate and they seek to harm. I think this article is very revealing. (emphasis mine.)

Yes, yes it is revealing, Ms. Rice. But I don’t think it reveals what you think it does.

(Note to stalkers-in-training, Ms. Rice’s fan page is teeming with aspiring Anne Rices who’re too eager to agree with her.)

Anyhoo, I figured these displays of impulse control issues were just a side show from the usual debates in this field – chief among them the comparatively dull dispute between Amazon and Hachette, where you’re either a sufferer of Amazon Derangement Syndrome or a sycophant of Jeff Bezos. (Now that Simon & Schuster has announced that they reached a deal with Amazon in the space of about three weeks, I’m waiting for all those Authors United to call S&S “traitor!”)

Now it seems that there is considerable support for the notion that hunting down a book reviewer at her home is perfectly okay, since the reviewer was involved in what more than one commenter has referred to as “online assault.”

I don’t know what “online assault” is, but it reminds me of this Jerky Boys bit, where Saul Rosenberg calls a lawyer because his boss “hurt me with his woids.” There is no tort called Insult in the First Degree.

Clearly, the vast majority of us understand that a scathing book review is not an “assault;” and whatever one calls it, it is not an invitation (or excuse) to retaliate by means of personal contact of any sort.

Before most of this conduct seeped into the social media consciousness, there was an incident in which a person affiliated with a notorious website obtained the personal information of a pseudonymous Amazon forum regular, and wrote a letter to her employer (a school superintendent), suggesting that it was reckless to leave this person in charge of young children. A small community of readers and reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads was justifiably outraged, but the rest of the online book community barely took notice. And this person doesn’t even write reviews!

There exists no explicit, articulable Code of Conduct for authors or reviewers, and although it might be a good idea, it ought not be necessary. What is necessary to prevent the further escalation of these incidents of aberrant behavior is to call them what they are.

Aberrant, extreme and outrageous displays of anti-social behavior that cannot be tolerated in a civilized society.

Now please excuse me while I go lock my doors.

Surviving in the Amazon Jungle – How authors and reviewers can co-exist in a hostile environment (and run to court if they don’t)

Well, the Rice Petition has lost a lot of its steam as author after author continues to sign it with no apparent understanding of exactly what it proposes (based upon their own comments), but in the meantime, there has been a lot of discussion, and agreement, that Amazon’s review guidelines could use a few tweaks and a lot more enforcement.

There has also been a fair amount of criticism that demanding the true identities of ten million customers of Amazon products was too high a price to pay for a few dozen militant female reviewers to be “taught a lesson” by Queen Anne.

In that light, I began to consider the kind of actions the author and reviewer could take to both clarify their expectations in the book review arena and provide meaningful remedies against wrongdoers. There is no reason to send the cockroaches into the woodpile when a few well-coined provisos and wherefores can bring about harmony and understanding.

As a (dreaded) litigation attorney, I am forced to parse the language of contractual covenants, indemnifications, waivers, warranties, representations, certifications, promises and disclaimers. While the reading is excruciating, I take comfort in the fact that, pedantic and dull as they are, these kinds of clauses are usually enforceable according to their terms, no matter what they say. As long as both parties agree to the language and it is otherwise unambiguous and capable of only one meaning, it will be enforced in the event of a breach and consequent suit.

This kind of dirty business is not something fiction writers find tasteful (to say nothing of affordable), but believe me, knowing at the outset what your rights and obligations are gives you the comfort that your engagement in the Amazon marketplace is not going to land you in an FBI sting operation or subject you to nasty pranks or sudden food poisoning.

In the spirit of conciliation and cooperation, indie author to indie author, indie author to book reviewers of all kinds, and officious interloper to guileless newbie, I offer you these helpful tips to avoiding the snake pits and alligator jaws lurking in the Amazon jungle.

Authors and Their Babies Books

 When you’ve spent several hours a day, several days a week, over several weeks years, on your next series blockbuster; when you’ve waited days months for your friends experienced beta readers to return their uncritical praise detailed criticisms and smiley emoticons line edits; when you’ve begged paid your BFF copy editor to go over it with a blow-kiss fine-toothed comb; when you’ve spent hours putting together your cover using stock photos and impossible fonts hundreds for a professional cover from a reputable graphic artist, and run your word file through the free software you downloaded from someplace paid for professional formatting and design of interior matter, the last thing you need to worry about is having no control over who reviews your book and what they say. One opinion from a gangster bully the discriminating reader, and your new baby book is floating face down in the Amazon swamp, has met its first troll review unflattering opinion, a victim proud new participant of the evil unnamed cabal of bully gangster trolls rough and tumble of the new book marketplace.

To enhance the opportunity for your book’s immediate and unqualified acceptance by avoidance of the mindless fangurlz “thought leaders” of the Amazon review system (as represented by the vaunted Society of Top Awesome Reviewers – STAR), I suggest that you insert the following language into the front matter of every one of your ebook offerings:

By receiving a copy of this book from any source whatsoever, the reader agrees that s/he will not post any review of said book in any Internet venue, without prior disclosure to and approval of the author. The author shall have no obligation to approve any review that contains undue criticism of any aspect of the author’s craft, imagination, story, cover or author page. The determination of what is “undue” shall be at the sole and unfettered discretion of the author, with or without regard for fact or reality. The author reserves the right to employ any and all means of social media (included but not limited to Amazon forums, Facebook, Kindle Boards, Facebook, personal weblog, Facebook, Pinterest, DiggIt, Tumblr, Fivrr, Facebook and Facebook) for the purpose of criticizing, mocking, ridiculing and otherwise defaming any review or reviewer, whether or not such review has been published in any public venue (including but not limited to the Internet generally, message boards, bulletin boards, telephone poles and public urinals); and the reviewer hereby waives any and all claims s/he may ever have against the author for the exercise of said right. As security for the performance of the reviewer’s obligations hereunder, the reviewer hereby grants the author an unlimited, unconditional lien upon reviewer’s residence located at _____________ as described in a deed dated ____________ and recorded at the _______________ county registry of deeds at Book ___, Page ___.

(Notary Public)

Please note that the notarization is a very important detail, as many foreign states require that contracts contain the raised seal of the notary to be enforceable.

Authors new to the business might consider the recommended language to be more aggressive than necessary. Who would agree to such ridiculous terms just for the pleasure of writing a review?

Those authors are dipshits not inured to the risks of the marketplace. They have not witnessed the permanent damage temporary setbacks that can result from the ravings of a psychotic stalker troll the expression of a frank opinion.

You are business people. Business people use contracts. Contracts protect rights. You can’t be too clear with your expectations!

The Rabid Stalker Bully Gangster Trolls Reviewers

 Only a few short years ago, the average stay-at-home mom spent her relaxation time reading Jackie Collins and staring at the pool boy. Now, half of them are outselling Jackie Collins writing porn about the pool boy.

The other half are writing reviews of them.

Make no mistake – some of these reviews are the evil and illiterate rantings of jealous nobodies  can be controversial, as they may shine an unduly harsh light on perceived shortcomings such as spelling, grammar, usage, style, characterization, plot, pacing and other frivolous details.

As many of these hypercritical reviewers do not boast MFA degrees and over-blown writing resumes, their criticism is often met by rabid hoards of fans attacking en mass in a deliberate prompt from the author’s Facebook page emphatic disagreement. The troll truly dedicated reader, a devoted two-book-a-week genre junky who has been a big meanie and said bad things to me written hundreds of reviews (good and bad) and been responsible for destroying the destiny of fame and fortune for tons of indie authors the word-of-mouth sales of thousands of indie books, might be publicly attacked by a bestselling household name as a “cartoonist reviewer” or like term find her opinion challenged by informed and respectful fellow readers.

There is only one way to protect the avid reviewer from the repercussions of harsh attacks on illiterate tripe honest intellectual criticism. Get it in writing.

The next time those indie authors contact you via email with a review request, send this back to them, auto-reply:

Hi!! I’m so GLAD that you contacted me to request a REVIEW!!!!

I’m glad to oblige and I can do it almost immediately!

Just send me back a (prc)(epub)(pdf)(doc)(other__________) file and your signed acknowledgement of the following statement:

“By delivering a copy of my book to REVIEWER, I hereby acknowledge that I have no expectation that the reviewer will read, like, or even review my book; and should REVIEWER publish a review in any venue, I will not criticize or otherwise comment negatively upon the review or the reviewer in any Internet venue; and further, I will not request or exhort any family member, friend or fan to do so. I further agree that any violation of this covenant shall entitled the reviewer to damages in the amount of $5 for each such comment made, in any venue, times $5 for each day such comment(s) remain visible. I hereby certify under the penalties of perjury that my true and correct legal name is _________________, and my true and correct residential address is ____________________.”

It comes down to communication. Problems arise between author and review when there is a failure to communicate. By both utilizing the form language above, or such modifications as they may mutually agree, the risk of miscommunication is substantially reduced. Each party knows their rights and liabilities. And they have an ironclad, enforceable promise in writing, upon which they may escalate any possible dispute.

I am available for consultations, should a problem arise.

That Damned Anonymous Panned My Book!

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 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 4thTime 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.