Bad reviews and trolls
Hi and welcome back to my blog. If it’s your first time here, I hope you enjoy the post and consider visiting every week.
We are finally here, The fifth installment of the series of posts regarding the legal problems, tasks, and tribulations all writers and, particularly, authors, face.
The very first thing I must point out is a disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. What follows are comments on what I have found scouring the internet, talking to published friends, and some insights from a couple of Q&A sessions I’ve had with actual legal professionals.
So, what do bad reviews and trolls have to do with legal problems for authors? Depends on the circumstances.
Can we, as authors, take legal action against bad reviews? Against trolls?
Short answer: No.
Bad reviews are simply that, the opinion of someone who did not like the book and decided to share their impressions about it with the public at large. There is nothing you can do to stop them from expressing themselves and you have to hope that there are enough good reviews to counteract the bad ones.
Let me give you all an example I read on Twitter just last week.
An author was complaining bitterly about a bad review. The author stated in very strong terms that the person writing the review was a hater and there should be something, some option, to take the review down. Curious, I read the review. Unfortunately for the author, the reviewer indicated that they had to force themselves to finish the book because the story idea was so good. The concept was a very attractive one to them. But. They complained in vivid detail, giving examples from the novel itself, about terrible grammar, many spelling mistakes, and at least one glaring inconsistency in terms of character description (in this particular case, three scenes excerpts, in two a character is male and in one- chronologically in the middle- the same character is female).
The author can only do one thing against this review: have the novel edited and proofread. There is little else to do. Here the problem is not a “hater” but that the novel, in this case, the literary product, is not a good one. If authors put out a bad product, they can expect bad reviews. And, regardless of how much you want your books to be art, if you are selling them for profit, they are products. They are art too, of course, but there are some quality standards expected from people that put money down to enjoy your art.
Another example I came across. This author was getting bad reviews and was very surprised. The book was well written, well-edited, the cover was very good, so, why was it getting such bad reviews? It’s a long story, but the short version is the book was being offered as a SciFi space opera and every single reader referred to it as a sexually explicit romance novel. The author switched the genre where the book was offered, modified the marketing to appeal to adult romance readers and the book took off, many four and five-star reviews started coming in, overshadowing the previous bad reviews.
This is not to say all bad reviews are sincere and justified. I have read some bad reviews of books that I have read or read afterward and quite frankly end up scratching my head wondering what’s wrong with the people that wrote those reviews.
We finally get to the meat and potatoes of this blog post.
Some reviews can be malicious. From people that have a personal dislike for the author to people that dislike the subject matter to people that simply give only bad reviews, no matter what (yes, there are some people like that out there).
So, if the review is not fair, what can you do?
Here it will heavily depend on how they go about the review.
For starters, legally speaking, the author must, let me emphasize this, MUST have the correct wording on the copyright page. This does not mean you have to register the copyright (check out my previous blog post) but the author must indicate that no portion of the novel may be reproduced without permission.
The author must indicate that all rights are reserved. Furthermore, must explicitly state that no portion of the book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law (I’m writing here about U.S. publishing, other countries have different laws). The author should also provide a means to contact for permissions (email, mailing address, etc.)
This will not allow the author to bring legal action against a reviewer that states: “I hated this book. It’s trash.” The only way to protect yourself against this is: good reviews.
However, if the reviewer uses your work, the actual text, you may, perhaps, under the right circumstances, be able to defend yourself. If it’s a single review, then, no matter how extensive, the author will have to endure it. But if the reviewer is using the text to post numerous reiterations of the review on the same site, then, under the right circumstances, you may be able to force them to stop. It usually doesn’t work well for authors to have to stop a reviewer, no matter how underhanded or hateful the person. There will be many that side with the reviewer and against the author. Freedom of speech and all that.
It’s very difficult to deal with bad reviews. Authors have to protect themselves as much as possible. That’s why copyright might be the best alternative.
Trolls are a different matter. Here, I refer to people who are malicious and literally seek out conflict with the author. The kind of people that will confront the author in the different social media platforms for the explicit and manifest purpose of making their life miserable. I have seen many examples of this. From body-shaming (the author is too fat, too skinny, bold, sports facial hair, etc.), to abuse because of ethnicity, affiliations, or religion. Here, blocking is your only option.
There is one way to defend yourself robustly. Have a large community. They may be your followers, they may be members of pages, clubs, groups, etc. that share a common interest with you, the author. Here the author must have done the leg work. That is to say, the author must be an active participant in the community. Must be well known and have been present and visible in discussions, and other activities. Then the community will be the one doing the heavy lifting, making the media an unwelcoming environment for the troll.
If the author is alone, just beginning to participate in forums and group activities, the community will not know if the troll is, in fact, right, and will not automatically rally around the author to protect them from unfounded attacks, because, the community will literally not know if the attacks are unfounded.
Trolls are very difficult to deal with.
Imposter syndrome, a malady all authors suffer at some point or another in different degrees of severity, will be exacerbated by trolls. If they detect that the author is susceptible to this particular criticism, they will pounce mercilessly and not stop until the author has disappeared from every venue the trolls have access to. They will do this relentlessly. As authors, we must keep our impostor syndrome in check when in public. Arrogance is a dead giveaway of impostor syndrome, as is false modesty. You have to project confidence and you must trust your work. Most of us have to work for many months, often years, to put a book out. Let that work be your armor against the trolls. Let them break their teeth and swords on it. Yes, it’ll hurt. A lot. But endure it. You will come out stronger on the other side.
I’m reading a book on writing craft at this time. I saw an interview with the author, I found out through people I respect in the industry, that she was a very good author and had several craft books out. Since I’m always trying to improve my writing, I decided to take a look at a couple that seemed interesting. To my surprise, the first two reviews on the book I chose were one star. Both said about the same thing, that the book was no more than a quick Google search (they actually had that term “Google search” in the review), and that you’d be better served to search yourself rather than acquiring the book. My curiosity stimulated, I read more reviews. The rest were four-plus stars and all indicated the many benefits not only of the book itself but the many links (YouTube and web pages) and examples given. I am now reading the book and can say it is indeed a very useful tool. There are many links, both to examples and to further teaching tools, peppered throughout the book. Could I find these on my own with a Google search? Probably. Would that be a suitable substitute for reading the book? No.
I went back and checked the reviews. I was, after all, writing this post at the time. The first one was a “verified purchase”. The second was not. The name of the second reviewer was… clearly a pseudonym. I suspect both come from the same person. The comments are too close to be anything else. I checked on other reviews by the “verified purchase” person. ALL the reviews were one star. No exceptions. Not one.
The point I’m trying to make here is bad reviews will happen. Reviews are for readers, not for the author (God, don’t I know that, but can’t get myself to internalize it), but we, as authors will read the reviews and agonize over them anyway.
Can anything be done about a bad review? Can anything be done about the attacks of a troll? Legally? Not much unless they cross some very esoteric and blurry lines. You have to be armed to the teeth, however, with as many legal weapons as you can have in case they do cross those lines.
Your copyright must be spotless. Your record in the different communities must be good. You must try your best to participate and be a well-known entity to your audience.
As you can see, writing is difficult. Publishing and being successful in selling the book is even more difficult and complicated. We, as authors, want good reviews. That elusive word-of-mouth promotion which will catapult our book to the bestseller list. However, putting the book out exposes us to bad reviews too, and we must be ready to accept them and/or deal with them as the case may require.
Being in the public eye, being a public figure, will also expose us to trolls. Fact of life. We must be ready to deal with them too.
So, there it is, a brief comment on bad reviews, trolls, and what we can do legally about them.
What do you think? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading and have a great day.