A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The transcript of a talk given by Moira Briggs at the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Annual Conference, held at Newton Rigg Campus in Cumbria on the 14th of July 2012.
It was supposed to be an edited version, but as I can’t bear to kill my darlings (and will never, therefore, make a novelist) … it’s virtually all 4,800 words of it – so you might like to make sure you’re quite comfy before you begin.
There’s no such thing as bad publicity . . . . .
How many times have you heard someone trotting out that tired old piece of worldly wisdom – usually nodding sagely and trying to look intelligent? Or perhaps you’ve even said it yourself in a moment of weakness? Needless to say, it’s nonsense. Of course there’s such a thing as bad publicity: just ask Gerald Ratner or Mel Gibson – two men who, in their different ways, were felled by self-generated bad publicity.
In these days of social media, courtesy of Facebook and Twitter, you can generate more bad publicity, faster, than at any other time in our history, and on-line book reviews have opened up whole new avenues for people to make complete prats of themselves, in public, at the speed of light.
Positive – or substantially positive – reviews don’t generally attract much attention. It’s when the reviews veer a bit more toward the ‘less than glowing’ that things can get interesting …
In the good old days, when there were only print reviews, if an author was stung by criticism and wanted to respond to it they had to sit down and write a letter, stick a stamp on it, take it to the letter box and post it off to the editor, and as many of you will doubtless know from experience, the mere act of writing a letter and pouring all your hurt feelings and venomous loathing onto paper is terribly cathartic. Having done it you feel lots better and so, at some point between that last psychotic double-underlining plus three exclamation marks and walking to the post box … you’ve thought better of the whole idea.
With the internet … You spew that same venom into the comments box on the review and in a fine, righteous fury, hit the ‘send’ button. In that moment – sometimes referred to as the ‘ohno moment’ – you’ve done something you can’t easily retreat from, and it can – and often does – get horribly out of hand.
There are two main ways that authors respond to online criticism.
One is what you might call the ‘honest’ way, which is barging onto the review site as yourself and belabouring the reviewer with the blunt instrument of your righteous indignation. This is now known as ‘doing a Howett’ after the unhappy Jacqueline Howett who went postal over a review on ‘Big Al’s Books and Pals’ of her self-published novel ‘The Greek Seaman’ – that’s S-E-A-M-A-N, for the avoidance of doubt. It was an appalling, embarrassing, and utterly compelling public meltdown – like watching a slow motion train wreck. People told their friends, who told their friends, who told their friends and friends of friends – and it inevitably went viral, which is great if you want some notoriety, and may even be good for sales in the short term, but as a cool career move, it’s a non-starter – and backfires massively. With all due respect to Big Al, his readership was normally fairly small and the review – which wasn’t exactly a model of grammatical accuracy itself – would have passed under the radar and into oblivion, if only she’d left well alone.
We’ve only had some very minor examples of that on Vulpes – I remember one author rather pathetically nit-picking his way through a somewhat critical review, trying to find fault with the reviewer (always a bad idea) – pointing out things like it was salt water taffy his hero was eating not candy floss … It made him look a bit silly, frankly, but he eventually grumbled his way to a halt and then went away peacefully to cherry pick the complimentary bits for his website.
The other main method is sock puppets.
Put simply, a sockpuppet is an online identity used for the purposes of deception. The major difference between a pseudonym or pen-name and a sock puppet is that a sock puppet poses as an independent third party unaffiliated with the puppeteer.
Take the example of Orlando Figes.
He’s an historian, and professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, whose specialty is Russian history – and in what can only charitably be described as a bit of a lapse of judgement, he started posting anonymous reviews on Amazon – both praising his own work and criticizing that of his rivals. If he’d stuck to the first, he might just have got away with it – but one of his targets, Rachel Polonsky, smelled a rat, did some digging and eventually, with a little help from some of his other victims, blew Figes’ cover.
At first he denied all wrong-doing and threatened to sue anyone who accused him of posting fake reviews; then he said it was his wife what done it. It was only when Polonsky instructed the fearsome libel specialists Carter Ruck of Holborn that Figes ‘fessed up. Leaving aside the sheer stupidity of what he did, he demonstrated an extensive lack of knowledge of how the internet works. For one thing, the profile he created under the handle ’Historian’ carried the username ‘Orlando-Birkbeck’. Now I ask you – was that bright?
He’s been a bit on the quiet side of late, has Orlando …
A lack of understanding of the finer points of the internet is often a hallmark of those who go into battle in its virtual halls and it was certainly well to the fore when we had our own – rivetting and traumatic – experience with sock puppeteering back in 2010 – but I’ll come to that in due course, because it’s such an excellent object lesson on what not to do, it deserves a detailed description and some close consideration.
For the moment, I’ll divert in the direction of Joe Bloggs (not his real name, obviously, but in the interests of Peace on Earth, we’ll keep him anonymous).
This well-known, best-selling author came up with a whole new way of ‘getting his own back’ for a less-than-positive review from us.
The reviewer in question was the fearless Anne Brooke – who is not a woman to hold back from saying exactly what she thinks and is always so honest in her reviews, it’s breathtaking. Painful, possibly, if you’re on the receiving end – but breathtaking.
Anne’s review was by no means negative, indeed she found a lot to enjoy in the book – and she said so. She equally found much that was hilarious, infuriating and just downright daft – but she actually reserved her most withering criticism not for the book or the writer – but for the publisher’s cover blurb, which archly declined to give the book-browsing public the first idea of what the damned thing was about.
The review generated a lot of discussion and comment – and I imagine several people probably went out and bought the book because of it. It was, in short, the sort of review any sensible author would have welcomed.
That was in the summer of 2009, and we thought no more of it until – at the beginning of 2011, slightly unexpectedly, Anne was invited to a special lunch, arranged by a publisher, where nine of the UK’s biggest book bloggers were to meet nine of the publisher’s writers – one of whom was Joe Bloggs.
Anne fully intended to go – and there was much joking behind the scenes about finding her a pair of asbestos knickers – but then she found out that rather than it being a sit-down meal, or a buffet, or anything remotely civilized, it was being run as a speed-dating event … at which point she (sensibly, as it turned out) said “I don’t think so”.
And again, we thought no more of it until, that is, a piece about the event written by Joe Bloggs appeared in a national paper.
“I’d been expecting to finally meet the person who’d given me the worst review I have ever had in my life … bloody hell, it was a piece of work … it was like a hunting spider – so alien, so purposeful and so cold-hearted that by the end of it I had developed Stockholm Syndrome and formed a certain tentative admiration for my captor. The worst part of it, of course, was that so much of what she said was insightful and true. Like the greatest art, it had a very powerful effect on my emotions. And in saying this, perhaps I am admitting that her review was high art.”
Which was really very flattering …
Unfortunately, he couldn’t resist having little digs, dropping terms like ‘viciousness’, ‘casual meanness’ and ‘hatchet’ … and, worse, suggesting (obliquely you understand) that bloggers like us – like Anne – were routinely coining it from lucrative ‘money-for-clicks’ deals with Amazon. He even said that bloggers could make more from their reviews than the authors made from their books.
We thought about it for a while. We mulled it over. We considered taking the high ground and just ignoring him. Then common sense and bloodlust prevailed and we went for the jugular instead. We wrote an article setting out our side of the story, including the fact that our oh-so-lucrative but short-lived relationship with Amazon (dumped because no-one could ever remember to put the bloody links in …) had netted us the dizzying total of £4.58.
To our considerable surprise, one of the comments that came in on that piece came from Edward Champion … the name may not mean too much to you – but Ed is a New York based writer and literary critic who is the onlie begetter of the first – and still one of the most influential – in-depth literary podcasts on the internet, called The Bat Segundo Show. He’s so influential that he can attract the likes of Stephen Fry, Nora Ephron and John Updike (when the latter two were alive, obviously …) for interviews on the show.
Ed has quite a lot in common with Anne, now I come to think of it – in that he goes in swinging fearlessly where angels fear to tread … and there he was, in our comments section, putting the boot into Joe Bloggs on our – and all other book bloggers’ – behalf:
‘Joe Bloggs pissed into the vast pool of possibilities’ he said, ‘where book bloggers spend their own time and money to convey to any and all parties why they enjoy reading books. He has communicated to all of you that, unless you approach him like some sycophantic lapdog diffidently pawing his way to god’s altar, your selfless writing is worthless, that’s a catastrophic tactic for a writer of any ilk to take, I don’t care how successful you are. A reader, even one who doesn’t ‘get’ your work, is a friend. And a blogger who takes the time to write at length about your work should fall, as a matter of course into the same category.”
There was more. A lot more. But I’ve only got 40 minutes.
However – he wasn’t finished – oh dear me no. He promptly took himself off to Twitter and started battering the poor man about his virtual ears, until he got himself temporarily barred; something that I gather happens to him on a fairly regular basis. Meanwhile, in another part of cyberspace, on the original newspaper article the comments had taken a turn for the slightly critical. Someone had found the original review (which Joe Bloggs had declined to identify) and was directing people to it, like a traffic cop. They were saying that – really – the review wasn’t that bad at all, and a lot of the criticism was directed at the stupid cover blurb. Was this, they were beginning to ask- and with some justification – just some sort of publicity stunt? Did they hope to get Joe Bloggs and Anne together in the same room to see what happened?
Very shortly afterwards – and I mean the same day or the day after – Joe Bloggs announced that he was withdrawing from the internet – effective immediately – to concentrate on his next book. I leave you to make of that what you will.
And it was, incidentally, Ed Champion, bless his heart, who provided me with the title of this talk. When I wrote to him to thank him for galloping so gallantly to our defence, he wrote back:
“Good on you folks for taking the high road, which is more than I’d do if it had been me. But hey … I’m happy to act as if he just doesn’t exist. Too many great books to read – too many cool peeps to hang with …”
I mean – how neat is that?!
Anne’s review of the book is still getting hits three years down the road, as is our response. That’s a highly significant fact – and one I’ll return to shortly …
Before that however, I need to tell you about our very own sock puppetry experience.
About two and a half years ago Anne – yes, the same one– wrote a review of a book that I’ll call Batting my Eyelashes Madly by an author I’ll call Chloe Baker. The names have been changed not to protect the innocent, but because I don’t want to risk being responsible for one single extra sale of the bloody woman’s wretched book.
In typical Anne fashion, the review was blunt, funny, slightly tongue-in-cheek but impeccably even-handed. She wasn’t overly impressed by the book itself, but she was impressed by the writer, and she said so, unreservedly.
For a while, the comments on the review were entirely as expected … thoughtful ones from our regulars, making a few general observations about where the author might have gone wrong. Then someone called ‘Jayne’ who had never commented on Vulpes before popped up and said she actually quite liked the book. Fine. Still fairly normal – horses for courses. Anne replied that she was pleased someone had liked it. Then someone else called ‘Rachael’ materialized to say that she ‘totally agreed with Jayne’, pausing only to point out – strangely, but suggestively, with hindsight – that she lived in London. Then a third new commenter turned up styling herself ‘Katherine Hobbs’ – and that’s when it started to turn really nasty.
Anne fielded all the comments with her customary insouciance, but the more flippant she became, the more venomous and personal the responses became, which is when the suspicion began to dawn that ‘Katherine Hobbs’. ‘Jayne’ and ‘Rachael’ might be the same person … and that that person was none other than Chloe Baker.
Inevitably, other people began to weigh in on Anne’s behalf – putting ‘Katherine Hobbs’ in inverted commas – because by then it was so screamingly obvious what was going on, a child could have worked it out. Actually, one of today’s kids could probably have worked it out faster than we did. Eventually, our geek-in-residence had a delve around in the bowels of the blog and discovered that, in spite of several very clumsy attempts by the commenters to locate themselves in different parts of the country – one apologizing for her spelling after a night out in Soho would you believe – the IP addresses nailed them to a very tight geographical location. The exact same location that Chloe Baker hailed from.
There is no telling how long it would all have gone on if we hadn’t have decided that enough was enough and called her out, in public, in the comments. We didn’t specifically accuse her of sock-puppetry, but we did say that we’d checked the IP addresses and ISPs of the commenters and found they were all coming from the same place, and that if the inept attempts at manipulation didn’t stop we’d simply close the comment thread down (something we’ve never yet had to do, as a matter of interest …).
That was the last comment posted, to date, on the review. Neither Katherine Hobbs nor Rachael in London nor Jayne wherever-the-hell-she-was-supposed-to-be, ever surfaced again.
It wasn’t, however, the last we heard of Chloe Baker. About 10 months later, in November 2010, we received an email from her. From her own email address, in her own name. It’s so funny, and she was so obnoxious, I don’t have any qualms about reading it to you. In full.
A thread has been brought to my attention on your site, concerning my first book (she hasn’t to date, written another one …), ‘Batting my Eyelashes Madly’. Whilst I uphold free speech, I am not happy that my name has been dragged into what looks like a mean spirited and fairly vulgar spat. In short, I do not want my name associated with such behaviour and please note that this email is a complaint. (Yep, it’s called chronic idiocy). I have therefore been advised to ask that you remove my name and all references to me from your database with immediate effect. Many thanks for your assistance.
By emailing us directly she gave us the evidence we needed to prove that Katherine Hobbs and Chloe Baker were the same person – or at least that they used the same computer. And there’s that lack of understanding again. Not only did she not know that blog owners can seen things like IP addresses – the address of your computer basically – and details of ISPs, she also didn’t know that it’s easy to open up the full header on an email, which you don’t normally see, to reveal the details of who sent it, where from and via which route. The IP address of Chloe Baker was identical to that of Katherine Hobbs.
The internet is not as anonymous as many people seem to think it is.
Had Chloe Baker done the sensible, grown up thing and admitted that, as a debut novelist she’d done something really foolish and apologized for it, I suspect that Anne – being an amazingly forgiving sort of person – might have agreed to remove the offensive comments. As it was, I’m afraid we basically just holed her below the waterline and let her sink. We pointed out that she’d effectively given us the proof we’d been lacking and said that the behaviour of ‘Katherine Hobbs’ was at best foolish and at worst legally actionable and that if she insisted on pursuing the matter we’d be joining her agents in on the correspondence. And since her agents were Curtis Brown, I don’t think they’d have been very happy.
She had one final, pathetic bleat, about not liking the tone of our answer, and then shut up. Thus far, forever. But who knows.
Chloe Baker discovered – to her cost – that there is a price to pay for starting an almighty ruckus on an online book review: which is what brought her back to us with that fatal – for her – email.
The more contentious the comments on a review get, the more people come to watch the fight, the more links there are coming into the review, and the more Google’s little search bots look at it and think “Ooh that looks interesting – I think we’ll send people there” – and the higher up the search listings it appears. Chloe Baker found – to her undoubted dismay – that whenever anybody Googles her name, Anne’s review, with its comments, is the amongst the first things they find. And it won’t go away. It’s there forever like an open wound. And even had she succeeded in persuading us to remove it – the echoes of it would still remain.
The internet is an incredibly useful tool – but you need to know how to use it, and how not to use it – and you must treat it with respect, because it can turn around and bite you without warning.
The thing about online reviews on book blogs is that they’re often the first independent reviews many books get. Previously, friends and family will have been going great guns on Amazon and Goodreads, praising the book to the skies and giving it 5 stars – which is never a smart thing to do, incidentally, because it simply screams ‘friend or family’. R eal, independent reviews of books are seldom that glowing and in the real world, very few books justify five stars … but of course everybody does it. Unfortunately, quite apart from looking a bit silly, it also lulls people into false sense of security so that when the Big Bad Book Blogger comes along and reality bites – it hurts. Of course it does. It’s your baby.
There are book blogs that will only review books they like unreservedly, which is fine, if a bit anodyne and frankly a little unhelpful, especially if you’re trying to find out about one of the books they didn’t like and therefore didn’t review … We tend to take the ‘warts and all’ approach. The only thing we promise is that we won’t give an out-and-out bad review to a book, unless the author is dead past caring or is fabulously successful and wealthy and will, to quote Liberace, cry all the way to the bank. And we definitely do NOT do hatchet jobs on first time authors. If you’re prepared to risk a bit of constructive criticism – by all means ask us. If we really don’t like your book, we won’t review it – so all you stand to lose is a copy of your book.
Our email address is at the top of the right hand column – just drop us a line and tell us about your book. You’ll get an automated response – we get too many emails to answer them all in person these days unfortunately – but if one of us likes the sound of what you’ve told us, the automated response will be followed in due course by a personal reply.
I would recommend against the technique of one author who approached us recently. She started by making the basic error of not looking at the site carefully enough – and made her sales pitch in the comments section of one of our ‘Coming up this week’ posts.
If that wasn’t bad enough – she wasn’t actually offering review copies. Instead, she very thoughtfully provided links to her website and to Amazon where we could buy copies of her book at vast expense. She was, however, kind enough to warn us that we must be very careful not to buy another, similarly titled book, which was not hers. Her website carried an image of the badly Photoshopped cover of her book, a photograph of herself wearing a hat in slightly questionable taste, and an excerpt from her book, to demonstrate her literary ability, which unfortunately contained this grammatical howler:
“She was accused of murdering her husband in the presence of a full court of law”.
A word to the wise. If you’re going to have your characters murdering their husbands, try not to have a court full of witnesses present at the time. It makes for an awfully short storyline.
We all ignored her sales pitch – everybody naturally hoping someone else was going to deal with it – and next thing you know …. She’s commenting on reviews:
“The reviewer writes: ‘anyways’ it should be plain ‘anyway’, “outside of town’, that is not English, ‘outside town is. Those two Americanisms remind me of my ex Kiev-mother-in-law, is the reviewer from there too?”
And then, as if that wasn’t jaw-dropping enough, she surfaces again on the very next review …
“Yes, I liked this review. I would be delighted if I could have my book reviewed, but I don’t know how to ask Vulpis Libris (sic) . It is listed as fiction, but it is actually non-fiction and about being married to a Turk . . . And having to give up her life as an air stewardess.”
Anyway – at that point, I wrote to her and politely (if a litte icily) suggested she should:
(a) Read the website a bit more carefully.
(b) Resist the temptation to insult the reviewers and
(c) Offer review copies, not expect reviewers to go out and buy their own.
Which should have been the end of the matter except, of course, it wasn’t.
A few days ago – bugger me – but there she was again. This time on a review of Charlotte’ Brontë’s Shirley:
“If you liked Shirely (sic), then I think you’ll like my book. I am the author and have grown up in Yorkshire near the Bronte museum. In it you’ll read a bit more about the attitude of the Yorkshire mentality (think about that statement for a moment or two …). I would of course like Vulpis (sic) to critique my book, but I have not been able to communicate with ‘them’ …”
So I wrote her another email – still polite, but a little more icy this time – repeating my previous advice, asking her to stop plugging her book in random locations all over our website and adding that spelling the website’s name wrong was distinctly unimpressive. I managed to resist the temptation to point out that referring to us as ‘them’ in inverted commas was a pretty uncool move, too.
So far she hasn’t tried again – but we’re not holding our collective breath. Yet.
So, after that slight diversion – what IS my advice about responding to online reviews?
Well – I’d say, in general, DON’T.
Having said that, there are occasions when a response is both appropriate and welcome – such as when, recently, someone reviewed one of Jill Mansell’s books on Amazon, and it was perfectly obvious that the reviewer had either attached the review to the wrong book or simply got confused, because the review seemed to belong to one of Katie Fforde’s books – featuring a cookery contest. Jill gently pointed out the error which, under those circumstances, was perfectly sensible. And it’s also great when authors drop by to say ‘thank you’, answer questions and join in the conversation in a constructive way – as sometimes happens on Vulpes: so don’t be shy!
When I was doing some research for this piece I was directed to a message board where authors – both published and unpublished – were discussing online reviews and whether or not to respond to them. One person kept repeating a piece of advice that struck me as very sensible – even though most of the other people on the message board were paying precious little attention to him. What he said was this:
Once your book is out there, it has to make its own way in the world, and it will stand or fall on its own merits. Nothing you can do or say will change that. So – just let it go.
© M K Briggs, Vulpes Libris. 2012.
(Photographic credit: The wonderful photograph of the roosting bats was taken by fatedsnowfox and is reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)