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.

Thick Skin and Bad Reviews

I get prickly when I run across an author who whines about the awful, nasty, undeserved bad review he has received from some illiterate, jealous wannabe who obviously can’t write his own Magnum Opus. Why, this book has so far received only 4 and 5 star reviews, so it is plain that this is a spiteful, hate-inspired attack from the sock puppet of an insecure competitor.

Spare me.

I touched upon the subject of thick skin some time ago, a full year before Diary of a Small Fish went live. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to avoid too many bad reviews, which is something, I suppose. But the ones I have garnered, I’m rather fond of.

There was the 1 star review from the Christian lady who didn’t appreciate the profanity, and subsequently deleted her review despite my plea to leave it.

There is the one remaining 1 star review that complained that “the author rambled on and on with too many characters and too many irrelevant details, eventually I lost interest and prayed for the book to end, seemed like 2000 pages which I had to skim through for the ending.”

And my all-time favorite, from a prolific reviewer with a real resume, who characterized my hero, Paul Forte, as a “sneaky, petty, subsumed-guilt Bush-loving Michael-Scott frat-boy douchebag” and described the novel as a “sometimes ugly book that often wallows in casual stereotyping and the mocking of others for its small-moment humor, and loaded with the kinds of mistakes that almost every attorney who tries fiction seems to be guilty of…”

Now that’s some first-class criticism right there! The only thing wrong with it is it was accompanied by 3 stars – when clearly the reviewer ought to have given it 2 at most. I feel cheated.

Let’s get this straight.

Diary of a Small Fish is not my child. Even if it was (in a strictly anthropomorphic sense), I’d probably be inclined to let it figure out how to defend itself. Teach a man to fish and all that. (Did you know the origin of that proverb? See what blogging does?)

It is also a first novel. Of course it’s far from perfect. I’d only been writing fiction for 3 years, for crissakes. What kind of fool would take this criticism personally?

It is said that writers, engaged in a form of the cultural arts, are sensitive types, as though that is some sort of license to rant over a bad review. It isn’t. It simply compels one to work harder at being professional about the pitfalls of putting your work out there. As Nathan Bransford said, steel yourself.

While researching this piece, I found a fine opinion from Kimberly Vargas at the Wordserve Water Cooler (“A community of agented authors, encouraging, engaging and enriching others throughout their writing journey”). The title of the piece says it all: Sticks and Stones: The Highly Sensitive Writer Toughens Up. Kimberly recounts her experience at a writers’ workshop with a defensive, thin skinned novice, and reminds us that literature’s greatest stars have received some blistering rejections:

1. Sylvia Plath: “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”

2. Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

3. J. G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”

4. Emily Dickinson: “[Your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”

5. Ernest Hemingway (regarding The Torrents of Spring): “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.”

Then she recounts her own war story as a painter:

At one of my showings, I overheard a man telling his friend that my art might be best displayed at a fast food restaurant. “It’s convenience store art,” he said as I looked on, trying not to have any sort of facial expression. The critic didn’t know I was the artist or that I was in earshot. It stung, but feedback is still feedback and should be regarded as just that. It proved to be a valuable lesson – you can’t win them all. If you will accept nothing less than 100% acceptance, you will be plagued by disappointment. But here is the silver lining: You don’t need to win them all. You just need a percentage, and as long as you keep putting your work out there, the correct audience that appreciates you will find your work. It’s all about maintaining perspective.

(Emphasis mine)

So, what is the value of a bad review?

Well, even if it is one that lacks common courtesy, is crude, insulting or downright slanderous (very tough to pull off since it is merely an opinion), it teaches us how to grow thicker skin.

That in itself is worthwhile.

Remember, we all make our work available in a commercial transaction, the terms of which we, ourselves, dictate. If we give it away for free, that’s our decision, and there is no refuge in the lame defense, “what do you want for nothing?” The buyer does not waive his right to express his opinion.

If anyone wants to insist that he be spared bad reviews, then let him put a disclaimer on his buy page that insists no buyer shall have the right to post a bad review. See how well that goes down.

Whatever he does, he ought not emulate Wink Wordless.