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Anonymity, Transparency, and Online Book Reviewing

When I first read about Anne Rice’s new pet project, a Change.org petition to convince Amazon to disallow pseudonymous reviews (they’re not truly anonymous, since they must be connected to an Amazon account), I was perversely charmed by her reference to “gangster bully” reviewers, thinking, ‘Oh, please, we’ve so been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, and wore it to the encore performance.’ Now, though, as the number of authors joining Rice’s crusade increases, I realize that we’re truly staging one more performance of this incredibly divisive drama. And I’m wondering just how much more our genre book communities can take of this specious rancor. And perhaps more important, how much we should.

First let’s break down some of the terminology here. Truly anonymous reviews are those in which there are ostensibly no identifying characteristics to the reviewer’s voice or person. This could be anyone writing this review, and as such, there is nothing to judge its credibility, compare its book-to-book reactions, measure its taste, and discern any undisclosed agenda. Anonymous reviews are probably most convincing to those who already hold the opinion of the reviewer, positive or negative, because they exist out of individual and community context. Even if the same person leaves multiple anonymous reviews, each review pretty much stands as a one-off, unless there are obvious patterns linking it to other anonymous reviews. Which, I would argue, spells the end of anonymity.

What I think authors like Anne Rice are really objecting to is pseudonymous reviews – that is, reviews written under a name that is likely not the legal identity of the reader-reviewer, but is an identifiable persona that the reviewer maintains over the course of multiple reviews. One of the first and most obvious problems with this position is that so many authors write under pseudonyms. Consequently, it seems unreasonable, even hypocritical, to demand that reader-reviewers – who ostensibly have no commercial interest in a book’s success or failure – receive less protection and take on more risk than those individuals who have intentionally entered the commercial marketplace for personal profit. Seriously, think about this for a second: why would you demand that the person who profits the least from a book’s success take the biggest risk?

And why is reviewing without pseudonymous protection a risk? For some of the same reasons that apply to a commercial author’s need for a pseudonym. Because people have judgments; because people have children and spouses and jobs; because people have ideas about what it means to read and write certain types of fiction. Carolyn Jewel spells these risks out in her recent post on this subject, noting that “If reviews must be accompanied by a real name, then there are reviewers who will no longer be able to post reviews for reasons that have nothing to do with mean, hateful, or threatening content in a review.”

Serendipitously, I happened to watch an episode of Bravo’s execrable new show, Online Dating Rituals of the American Male, and one of the men featured on a show, a 30-something single dad, had a blind date with a self-professed erotic Romance author. Now, in this case, it was obvious said author was trying to get some air time for her name and her books, as she came to dinner, book in hand, and recited a passage at the table. Still, after the date ended (unsuccessfully), the man pondered the question of how safe it would be to introduce an erotic Romance author to his young daughter. If you don’t believe me, check out the video. We know this kind of thing happens, else readers wouldn’t be so happy to be able to read erotic fiction on digital devices that do not expose covers and titles in public. It’s frustrating and reactionary and crazy, but it’s a powerful judgment, and one that can have real power over real people’s lives. So as Carolyn Jewel asks, “Explain to me why Jane Doe author can be anonymous but not Jane Doe reviewer?”

One explanation for demanding the legal names of reviewers is “transparency.” Actually, it’s less of an explanation and more of a word tossed into the ring, as if its very existence carries some unassailable ethical weight. However, like anonymity, transparency doesn’t really apply here, because there are plenty of pseudonymous and real name reviews that do not yield transparency. First, authors who write pseudonymously can review under their legal name without anyone knowing them. A legal name does not guarantee that any hidden relationship, agenda, or compensation is not still hidden. There is no immediately discernible difference between a pseudonymous review and a legal name review when it comes to disclosure of relevant details – was the reviewer compensated for providing a positive review; is the reviewer a writer in the same genre who wants to tank the other writer’s book; does the reviewer hate the author’s hairstyle and want to tank her books; is the reviewer a friend of the author and wants his book to succeed, even though he hasn’t read it…

A recent article on the impact of anonymous book reviewing on the Australian literary culture noted that anonymity is challenging for a robust critical culture. On the one hand, some writers in a small literary community may feel uncomfortable offering critique of their peers openly and without the shield of anonymity. But on the other hand, not knowing who a reviewer is can hinder the credibility of the review and decontextualize the reviewer’s unique “subjectivity.”

I think both sides are correct here. The problem is that in order to have readers want to reveal their identities in reviews, there needs to be an environment of absolute trust.  Which we’re nowhere near. Which we may never achieve, at least as long as we know that authors have paid for positive reviews, readers are referred to as “gangster bullies,” reviews are tone-policed, and websites are devoted to the doxing and humiliation of readers who provide negative reviews of certain authors’ books. Or when readers express a likely harmless but still problematic opinion that an author who writes a book a certain way doesn’t deserve to write, live, or breathe the same air as upstanding human beings. There are ways in which authors and readers may always remain at cross purposes, and that’s not always a bad thing. Still, I would argue that it’s not accountability that makes true critical discourse possible. Nor is it honesty that disallowing anonymity and pseudonymity will reveal.

What I think we need to be willing to talk about is what kind of community we really want around books and book talk. Do we want a community and book culture in which readers and authors feel safe to write, read, and talk about books openly? Because building that is going to proceed differently than a community in which certain types of reviews are aggressively discouraged, where readers are punished for being too “harsh” or “uncivil,” and where readers finally get to the point where they don’t feel like leaving a negative review is worth the hassle they can expect from an author and his/her fans.

More and more, I’m feeling like it’s this latter type of community that authors like Anne Rice want to cultivate. We don’t have a systematic study focused on the effect negative reviews have on book sales, but research on other types of reviews (Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc.) demonstrates that most of the dishonesty is clustered on the positive end of the scale. Trust in bogus reviews can be cultivated for a limited amount of time, but as Sunita recently noted, when reviews become too homogenous, their trustworthiness radically diminishes. In that kind of environment, it doesn’t matter whether people review under their legal names or in every permutation of anonymity; the aggressive discouragement against “unapproved” types of reviews — whether they be the “wrong” tone, the “wrong” content, or the “wrong” format — will inevitably create an unreliable review environment. And if the environment is unreliable, anonymity and transparency become irrelevant. Moreover, this way lies erosion of the kind of authentic reader enthusiasm that can neither be faked nor produced on demand. In other words, this way lies the destruction of a vibrant book culture and independent reading community.

If, however, we want to cultivate a community in which both authors and readers value books as books and reviews as part of a larger category of book talk, we need to embrace and promote different values. We may need  to be willing to push ourselves, perhaps beyond what’s comfortable to us in order to understand each other’s perspective better. We may need to examine our own double standards. Why, for example, are some types of books okay with us, but others are not, and are we willing to let others have the fantasies we find untenable without the same judgments we rail against when they’re directed at our fantasies? We may need to think about the way we use words and the extent to which we tolerate feeling offended. We’re all in control of how much rancor we subject ourselves to, and I wonder how many of us have simply overexposed ourselves to things that piss us off, to the point at which we’re triggered to outrage within seconds. Without question, a truly open “marketplace of ideas” will have its fair share of harsh outrage and strident offensiveness, but it also depends on a willingness to seriously and respectfully engage opposing, even outrageous and offensive points of view.

And authors need to lead the charge here. That probably sounds unfair, even like a double standard. But, as I argued elsewhere, authors are engaged in commerce and in commercial speech, which is inherently more robust and tenacious than non-commercial speech. The incentive readers have to speak honestly about books is more fragile and therefore more easily interfered with. This gives authors more power against reader voices, power that does not need to be magnified via a change in Amazon’s reviewing policies. Authors are selling a product. And if they want readers to value that product more than, say, the average vacuum cleaner, they need to value readers regardless of how many stars they give a book on Amazon. Yes, I realize that some readers have taken a pugilistic stance toward authors, but where has this come from? Because let’s face it: readers have zero incentive to warn each other against authors who support their freely and honestly rendered opinions.

I was tempted to say that cultivating an authentically open book community takes a lot more work, but I don’t really think that’s true. It takes a dedicated intensity to keep up the rancor and the aggression over reviews. It definitely takes a different kind of work, and a different kind of investment, to advocate and actively foster a more open, honest, book community. And while it may seem counterintuitive, I’d argue that it’s much more directly in authors’ commercial interest to support this kind of community. Spontaneous, authentic, reader buzz comes from independent reader engagement with a book and is therefore a valuable resource for authors. This is obvious in the vitriol with which certain types of negative reviews are being criticized. So what’s the best way to ensure the survival of this resource? Is it by making readers feel distrustful of authors and concerned about leaving negative reviews? Or is it by accepting that negative reviews are part of the job of being an author (and/or a publisher) and focusing instead on bringing the best possible product to market?

 

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

38 Comments

  1. DS
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 07:11:28

    Clear statement of the central issues. I don’t know why authors continue to shot themselves in their feet. I read somewhere that both DAM and Candace Sams signed the petition. That was good for a laugh.

  2. Steph from fangswandsandfairydust.com
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 08:12:20

    When will people realize that petitions on the internet mean very little unless it has to do with affecting your profit margin. Why would the board of Amazon care unless the current review policy affects profits?
    I don’t understand the whole issue to be perfectly honest. Amazon polices the reviews for language. I am not allowed to post under my blog name, I am forced to use a name connected to my account. Amazon claims ownership of all reviews. Therefore, they have to right to alter or delete them.
    I think instead of policing for whether reviews are anonymous or not, bullying and uncivil reviews should be as disallowed as anything else offensive, like sex or cursing, is by Amazon.
    And, I guess I don’t know what they mean by bullying. Is it a negative review, an uncivil review, a personally attacking review (“This author couldnt’ write a book while channeling Shakespeare!”)?
    I am being pressured to sign this by authors. In fact I may have given in and done so as I think it matters so little whether it is signed or not.
    I don’t write bullying or uncivil reviews and since it does nothing for my blog, would prefer not to put reviews on Amazon or B & N at all.

    My two cents.

  3. Isobel Carr
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 09:03:07

    Great post, Robin! I’ve been ranting about anonymous vs. pseudonymous on twitter. I seriously can’t wrap my head around that petition. Amazon already went the extra mile IMO by locking down reviews to verified accounts.

  4. jenniferk66
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 09:13:10

    I don’t think there are roving bands of internet gangs wanting to tear down authors. There are authors whose quality of work has gone downhill (or never went uphill) and have fans, therefore cant’ imagine being critiqued (i.e., saying “Ms. Rice should hire copy editor” doesn’t make me a troll*).

    Yes, there are trolls on the internet. But, I don’t understand overly sensitive authors who are just as much about stirring the pot as the trolls themselves.

    *Although, Ms. Rice just makes me want to start reviewing her backcatalog under ” A. N. Roquelaure” just to annoy her. “One star! Found out author’s full legal name is Howard Allen Frances O’Brien Rice. How can I trust her vision!”

  5. Cassie
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 09:59:39

    THIS from the post, 100%: The problem is that in order to have readers want to reveal their identities in reviews, there needs to be an environment of absolute trust. Which we’re nowhere near. Which we may never achieve, at least as long as we know that authors have paid for positive reviews, readers are referred to as “gangster bullies,” reviews are tone-policed, and websites are devoted to the doxing and humiliation of readers who provide negative reviews of certain authors’ books.”

    I’ve said before, and it’s been unpopular, but I don’t review a bad book because I don’t want to be tracked down if the book I dislike happens to have a rabid fan base. If that’s my mistrust of some readers, so be it. I’d rather focus my energies on writing, promo’ing and taking care of readers who care. Thank goodness, there are a lot out there. I’m on a book tour right now and all of the hosts and their readers are absolutely wonderful.

    I wish we lived in a world where we could leave our real names but we don’t. I won’t be signing the petition even though I feel change is needed for reviews–it’s just not this one.

  6. Jamie Beck
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 11:07:36

    I agree that reviewers, like authors who use pen names, ought to be permitted anonymity if they feel they need it for whatever reason. Carolyn’s post does offer reasonable motives for why people might prefer to keep their identity a secret. Plus, if you scare away readers, no one will be better off in the long run. When I read a ranting negative review (especially one that gets personal), I tend to dismiss it as over-the-top and move on to look for the more moderate or thorough reviews before buying a book anyway.

    However, as a person who lives a mostly transparent life (on and off-line), I must admit I am more likely to “trust” a reader/writer/reviewer who is not hiding their identity over someone who is. Is that fair? Maybe not. But when someone puts their real name to their thoughts (review or book), his or her message gains more credibility for me. Maybe I’m just odd that way.

    But honestly, I don’t see how we will ever achieve “an environment of absolute trust” as long as people give in to the fear of being judged for what they read, write, or say. Building a trusting environment requires both courage on one side and tolerance on the other. You make a lot of great points about the lack of tolerance, but most shifts in tolerance only happen once people start speaking up and banding together. I think standing up for what you believe under your real name holds more sway than doing so under a pseudonym.

    That said, I still believe in everyone’s right to choose how to interact and wouldn’t sign Ms. Rice’s petition.

  7. karLynP
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 12:03:26

    I loved this article. There is just soooooo much wrong with this laughable petition. It will never happen, so this debate is a theoretical one only, but sadly it has (once again) broken trust between authors and reviewers. It also has many of us reviewers shaking our heads at the authors we once thought to support. Carolyn Jewel’s article also hits the nail on the head in her article.

    So many authors want to be the next EL James, but yet do they fail to understand how many of these pseudonym reviews, and pseudonym book bloggers, it took to get her to where she is today? And they want to BAN that??!!

    I have to wonder if the petition supporters really understand what it would mean to the industry if this really, truly happened? Have they taken a look at who is behind it and why they REALLY want to know your full and legal name? Have they applied any critical thinking to this issue at all?

    Sadly, one of my new favorite authors came out in full support of this petition, so I supported her by deleting my anonymous 5-star review of her book on Amazon. She may have thought she signed an anti-bully petition, but what she really signed was a petition to ban all anonymous reviews on Amazon, so I obliged.

  8. MaryK
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 12:29:52

    IMO, this petition is all about intimidation. Authors want to be able to say, “I know who you are” if readers say something they don’t like. Threatening, much?

    For good or bad, people are more likely to say what they really think if they can do it with no consequences.

  9. Imani
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 12:30:28

    I’ll never understand this issue. I think I’m a meanie, by most people’s standards. To me, someone stating that Anne Rice couldn’t write a good book if she channelled Shakespeare (heh) is not a attacking her personally, it’s attacking her skill set, her ability to excel at her profession.

    Obviously, everyone has a different benchmark for what they like. I have no issue with site creators/reviewers who only want to feature positive reviews, who bar snark from their domain. I enjoy reading the great stories of how authors help out each other, how the conventions are welcoming too all kinds of writers — rare is it to read a romance author’s acknowledgements that doesn’t name 2/3 other authors who gave her a lot of support. Gives me the fuzzies :-).

    I do not seek out that kind environment when I’m looking for reviews. I do not seek out reviewers who are concerned with how hard the author worked, the sleepless nights she toiled over her published baby, her mortgage, her feelings, the family she has to feed, etc. What I value is her critical opinion of the book and a hopefully awesome gathering of readers.

    What I don’t understand is why authors are trying to turn Amazon into a writer’s club. You have your Amazon author page, your websites, writer friends who will promote your book in good faith and, reviewers who will sincerely recommend your work and, if you can afford it, “reviewers” who will happily take incentive to praise your books to the heavens and lead some of us astray. What more do you need? :(

  10. Janine
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 12:56:59

    Great post. That petition is ridiculous and I fervently hope Amazon doesn’t take it seriously. I wish some of the authors who oppose it would start a counter-petition.

  11. Jody W.
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 13:26:37

    Amazon will take that petition as seriously as it takes people’s complaints that it needs to plagiarism-check its KDP uploads, heh. Which is to say…. Nope.

    Actually, I can see them taking the plagiarism-check more seriously than this. Then who would be left to review Bic For Her and 50 Gallons of Sex Lube?????

  12. Cynthia Sax
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 13:35:09

    IMHO… this issue is about writers gaming the review system, not about the use of real names. Some writers buy good reviews. Some writers buy bad reviews for their competition. Requiring these paid reviewers to set up more legitimate-looking profiles isn’t going to solve this problem.

    I write under a pen name. I don’t expect or even want reviewers to use their real names when reviewing my erotic romances. I’d be completely crushed if any reviewer suffered because a family member/employer/friend/church group member knew she read one of my stories.

  13. cayenne
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 14:05:20

    Thanks for a very level-headed look at this issue. Even though I’m not a reviewer and I take reviews in Amazon or GR with a big boulder of salt, I’ve been quite disgusted by Anne Rice by prompting this whole brouhaha – to the point that I probably won’t even borrow her new book from the library, let alone buy it, even though I’ve been a long-time fan of that series.

    I think Carolyn Jewel (whose perspective I appreciate), in calling Ms. Rice’s actions “Author Fascism,” came very close to putting a label on my interpretation of what Ms. Rice is doing: Even though it’s covered by an attack on system-gaming of review sites, I personally see this as an attempt at censorship, in that she is trying to find a social or political reason to shut down opinions she doesn’t like. And considering that at various times her own books have been side-eyed, challenged, restricted, or outright banned, it’s the height of hypocrisy for her to suggest any limitations on the free speech of others.

  14. Lynn Rae
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 14:10:55

    Very interesting post. I tend to stay away from reading reviews, I don’t write reviews, and I certainly am not the sort of person who joins up to rail against a particular person, so petitions and ‘sides’ don’t appeal to me.
    I will speak from my perspective on the question of author responses towards unflattering reviews, and it’s summed up by this sentence from the article; ‘It takes a dedicated intensity to keep up the rancor and the aggression over reviews.’
    I hate to say this, but I’m seeing this more reaction more and more in some of my author loops and groups. Nearly every day an author will post their outrage over a poor review of their work, with the immediate replies of support and dismay from fellow writers. It’s usually the same folks going round and round, so my theory is that certain authors have reached their limit and cannot react in any other way to one star. It’s Pavlovian at this point.

  15. MrsJoseph
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 15:02:06

    I will not review anywhere that requires me to use my full name. I will not PURCHASE from any place that requires me to review using my full name.

    This isn’t going to happen – as I’m sure that I (and others like me) who are Prime members and shop religiously with Amazon – are MUCH MORE VALUABLE as a return customer than some author whining about *mean reviews on the internet!*

    So I see your *mean review* petition and raise it an “I’m a $$$$ customer.”

  16. AlexaB
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 16:46:52

    Great post, Janet/Robin. Very thought provoking!

    I stand by my opinions, negative and positive. I would be happy to give my review to the author’s face. I don’t use a pseudonym as a cover for words I’d otherwise be ashamed to own; I use it as a shield to protect me from those who would seek retribution and retaliation against me because they view my opinion as an attack on their income or self-worth.

    Otherwise, why do they need my legal name if there isn’t an implied threat that my words will be held against me in a way that can materially harm me? Amazon already has policies in place to remove abusive reviews and to curtail behavior that violates their TOS. Besides, a truly committed troll will find a way to keep on lulzin’, no matter the name restrictions.

    I used to review under my legal name on Goodreads. But I blew up that account a few years ago. I do not feel, well, safe leaving an honest opinion on an internet site without the cover of a pseudonym (even though there is no such thing as true anonymity on the internet). Especially when it comes to reviewing books. I’m not that concerned about Whirlpool fans attacking me for detailing my experience with a dishwasher, but authors and their fans? The trust has been broken.

    I’m not sure the trust will ever come back. Not when authors are incentivized to gather as many positive reviews as they can in order to run Bookbub ads that drive sales, and to get noticed by the “also bought” algorithm on Amazon. And the readers who care about their status on Amazon – they hope to be Vine reviewers, for example, or to use their “helpful” rating/reviewer ranking to gain access to ARCs on NetGalley – are also incentivized to be happy clappy instead of giving an honest critical review, as critical reviews tend to be downvoted by swarms of fans/street team members as soon as they appear on the site. And downvotes hurt the reviewer’s Amazon status.

    As it is, there just isn’t a lot of upside for an Amazon reviewer who wishes to leave a critical review, even though I know I use critical reviews to make a buying decision. Take away pseudonymity and there’s almost none.

    Which I suppose is the real purpose behind Rice’s petition and why so many people who self-identified as authors have signed it: they only want positive raves attached to their books. (And then, as Janet already identified, we’ll truly be knee deep in Sunita’s market for lemons.)

  17. Susan
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 18:14:16

    I’d be more upset by this foolishness if I thought there was a snowball’s chance in hell of Amazon paying any notice. Amazon loves having people review their products, and they know that there would be a precipitous drop in reviewing across all product lines (not just books) if they started trying to police reviews to ensure people were using their true legal names. Rice is overlooking the fact that people review many more things than just books, products that people would never ever review (for one reason or another) if their real name was publicly associated with those items. Not to mention that they’d have to delete all those older “A Customer”-type reviews that were grandfathered in before actual accounts were required.

    Nope, in all honesty, I think Amazon would rather drop Rice and her crony authors rather than fiddle with the customer review policies like that.

  18. EmilyAnn
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 18:15:23

    I am the only person in the United States with my first and last name (according to my regular google searches). It would take no time at all to figure out where I went to high school and college and every job I’ve had since with a search of my first and last name. I also worked in politics which for my own reasons I prefer to not have associated with every book review I write on Amazon. In an effort for my online, academic, and professional personas to stay separate I post reviews and comments under pseudonym. Until authors write books under their own names and list their resumes and education for all if us to see, I don’t really care for this idea.

  19. Susan
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 18:26:17

    Wait, I just looked at the petition. So, you sign the petition, but can opt to have your name not show on it? As in, you can support it anonymously? Hahaha.

  20. SonomaLass
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 18:27:53

    I tweet, blog, review and comment under a pseudonym; if forced to use my legal name, I probably wouldn’t review at Amazon at all. I’m a college professor whose students all know how to use a search engine, and I know from hearing them talk that they search for personal information about their professors, particularly ones they don’t like. While I’d love to think that none of my students dislike me, I’m a realist. So my Facebook page is almost all “friends only,” and everything else is pseudonymous. Because my taste in books, wine, and other areas is irrelevant to my teaching and none of my students’ business.

    I wish someone would do a study that quantifies what most of us know anecdotally, which is that some negative reviews sell books. LOTS of books. Identifying what you don’t like about a book is a way of spotlighting those elements for readers who DO like them. (Even complaints about writing style, grammar and punctuation, or historical accuracy aren’t going to drive some readers away.) If the review does it in a funny manner, or with clever snark, then more people read the review and more potential customers find out the book. (Pregnesia at SBTB is still my favorite example.)

    The worst thing for an author is not negative reviews. It’s NO reviews. Especially with the volume of genre fiction being self-published and published by small presses (including a lot of backlist titles), it seems to me that the biggest danger for most authors is that their books will languish in obscurity. Why in the world would you want to drive away reviewers?

    It’s different for Ann Rice, of course. She’s famous, and the media love to report on her wacky antics — this petition gets publicity for her next book. But I don’t understand lesser-known authors buying into something that (if it succeeded, which I agree is unlikely) would probably reduce the number of reviews of their books.

  21. John Green
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 18:48:06

    The facts behind this story are pretty grimy. Todd Barselow, the man behind the petition, is firmly entrenched in Rice’s camp and almost BFFs with her assistant, Becket. Barselow also wrote some fake reviews himself to try to help a friend tank a book.

    http://darkwriter67.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/thanks-to-anne-rice-todd-barselow-has-made-all-of-you-his-bitches/

  22. Amy
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 23:37:01

  23. SAO
    Mar 19, 2014 @ 02:34:37

    I review with a pseudonym for the same reason romance writers write with one — I don’t want people who have no interest in or respect for my reading/writing preferences to judge me. And I don’t want some crazy to become fixated with me.

  24. Kaetrin
    Mar 19, 2014 @ 03:16:22

    @SAO: Same here. An additional reason for me is that I have a school age son and I don’t want my online activities to affect him. The school he goes to would definitely not approve of some of my conversations – when there was a move to have those on Twitter follow his class last year I had to create a whole new account because my main one is not safe for school!

  25. Catherine
    Mar 19, 2014 @ 05:48:40

    I think, too, that if one disallows pseudonymous reviews, there is the risk that certain classes of books are going to be reviewed far less often. Romance novels and erotica in particular are things that people can be very weird about, as we all know. Do I necessarily want to review these books under my real name so that my colleagues can make judgments about my taste in books? I think not…

    (having said that, I have been using a particular pseudonym online for nearly fifteen years – and these days it is linked to my real name, if one takes the trouble to go looking for it. And that’s OK, because my circumstances are not particularly inflammatory. But for a while there, I was very careful to keep my surname and my pseudonym well away from each other.)

    Catherine

  26. KJ Charles
    Mar 19, 2014 @ 11:04:19

    Speaking as both an author whose success to date has sprung entirely from word of mouth, and an editor who cares passionately about the success of books I didn’t write, I agree completely with this article. People taking about books is *good* for authors overall, end of discussion. A reader who’s passionate enough to one-star your book and write a rant is probably passionate enough to spend money on a lot of other books. Meanwhile, the person who five-starred your book is probably busily one-starring someone else. That’s the circle of life.

    An author who can’t see further than ‘this review hurt my feelings, it must be stopped’ needs to step away from the internet (and stop reading Amazon reviews, which is the actual solution to the problem). Everyone in the book world will suffer if people are discouraged from talking about books – authors, publishers and readers.

    On the plus side, it won’t happen because negative reviews have been part of Amazon’s brand identity from day 1 and they will be well aware that removing pseudonyms will kill reviews of huge swathes of books. Not just romance/erotica, but self help, books about coping with difficult circumstances, any sort of books you wouldn’t want to advertise to your partner/schoolmates/potential boss that you were reading.

  27. Kris Bock
    Mar 19, 2014 @ 11:20:48

    A romantic suspense novel (on sale) +a New Mexico Recipe, a quicker, healthier version of enchilada casserole http://wp.me/p1oCxN-ki #Foodie

    The thing that makes me most sad is the divide between readers and authors. I am an author, but I am also most definitely a reader. As a reader, I enjoy talking about books that moved me or frustrated me. As an author, I like analyzing books for technique. I also want to post reviews of books I’ve enjoyed, since I know it helps readers find appropriate books and authors build their careers. But I sometimes feel like as an author, I’m not allowed to also be a reader or reviewer. I certainly would not post a negative review, for fear of repercussions.

    It’s also unfortunate that “authors” as a category are being blamed for the behavior of a small subset. And yes, the reverse is true as well – those authors are focusing on the very small number of reviews that seem inappropriate.

    I am on a couple of marketing listservs for authors, each with several hundred members. The question of negative reviews only comes up every couple of months, so I don’t think most authors are too worried about it. When the issue does come up, the author is usually complaining about a review that is not just unfavorable, but seems incompetent, like the reviewer didn’t actually read the book or is promoting another product. I still advise people to ignore it and move on, trusting readers to be able to recognize a review that should be ignored. But some people are caught up in the rating system, which does have potentially severe repercussions, such as affecting your ability to get certain promotions that are only available to people with a certain average rating. Still, as SonomaLass said, no reviews is worse than negative reviews or even bad reviews. (A reviewer I know makes a big fuss over the difference between a bad review – meaning badly written – and a negative review, meaning unfavorable.)

    Anyway, thanks for these thought-provoking conversations.

  28. Rose
    Mar 19, 2014 @ 11:56:20

    Sonomalass, I tried posting a link earlier which didn’t work, but check out this article:

    Berger, J., Sorensen, A.T., & Rasmussen, S. J. (2010). Positive effects of negative publicity: When negative reviews increase sales. Marketing Science, 29 (5), 815-27.

    Their results suggest that negative book reviews can sometimes have a positive impact on sales.

  29. Kate Pearce
    Mar 19, 2014 @ 15:18:38

    I can’t argue with any of the above, but I would comment that the current society we live in which is all about the “I”, as in ‘my opinion is equally valid as yours and I have a right to proclaim it’ leads to a society where the ability to have a detached, critical debate about ‘anything’ without it getting personal has disappeared. I’m not sure how we can restore that to be honest.

  30. Sara @HarlequinJunkie
    Mar 21, 2014 @ 14:06:18

    Great Post Robin, Well said.

    This pretty much sums it up for me:
    “One of the first and most obvious problems with this position is that so many authors write under pseudonyms. Consequently, it seems unreasonable, even hypocritical, to demand that reader-reviewers – who ostensibly have no commercial interest in a book’s success or failure – receive less protection and take on more risk than those individuals who have intentionally entered the commercial marketplace for personal profit. Seriously, think about this for a second: why would you demand that the person who profits the least from a book’s success take the biggest risk?”

  31. Lana Baker
    Mar 21, 2014 @ 22:29:58

    I review a lot of products on Amazon, not just books, and I post reviews on other sites as well. I use my real name, though it’s not my legal name. Anyone who’s ever met me and spent more than an hour in my presence, would likely recognize my personality from my reviews.

    I wasn’t always a good reviewer. I cringe at some of my early efforts, but my name’s still on them. Nowadays, I make a solid attempt to find something positive to say about each product (but most especially books) I review. I’m not afraid to say that I didn’t like a book and why, but I’m also not afraid to say that a book wasn’t my cup of tea, but was well-written and would probably appeal to someone else. Rarely does anything get a solid five stars.

    I’m out in nearly every area of my life now, and whether that’s a product of age or of something else, I don’t know. I do know that I no longer care what other people think of me. I don’t care if they know that I buy and read erotica, or that I’ve reviewed sex toys (or excuse me, personal health aids, rofl).

    Reading through this article reminds me that I’m a minority on that.

    I’m on a lot of author email lists, simply because I like to read, and hey, authors give stuff away sometimes. Happy coincidence. :) Twice in the last month, I have received announcements from authors about recruiting for new “street teams” of reviewers. Both announcements were similarly worded, and asked that anyone who wanted to be on the street team be willing to either post a five-star review or email the author directly and say why they couldn’t do that. I found the requests offensive, and emailed both authors to say so, politely, of course. Both replied with carefully worded denials – that they were specifically talking about pre-pub ARCs and both stated emphatically that anything less than five stars would hurt them in the ratings. That left me wondering where exactly they thought the reviews would get posted. Amazon doesn’t allow reviews on books until the publication date.

    I don’t know. If transparency is really the issue, the pseudonym shouldn’t matter, as each account is verified with Amazon with an email address. Would Amazon allow someone to have fifteen or twenty accounts using the same email address? Would there be a legitimate reason for anyone to do that?

    I mean, I can understand that maybe Jayne Seymour or Angelina Jolie wouldn’t want people fangirling all over her book reviews, so she might post them under another name, and I don’t see the harm in that. I use my real name because I can. I know that a lot of people can’t, and not just with book reviews.

  32. Weekly links & wrap-up (Mar. 23, 2014) - Here There Be Books
    Mar 23, 2014 @ 18:53:05

    […] great post from Dear Author: Anonymity, Transparency, and Online Book Reviewing. Personally, I don’t think reviewers should be required to use their legal names. Authors […]

  33. Links: 03/28/14 — The Radish.
    Mar 28, 2014 @ 09:31:47

    […] Anonymity, Transparency, and Online Book Reviewing […]

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    […] “Anonymity, transparency, and online book reviewing“. […]

  35. lacrimsonfemme
    Apr 01, 2014 @ 09:29:23

    I was just directed to this one. The problem is deeper than “fake” names or pseudo ones. Why doesn’t Anne work on some of the underlying problems? And it is people who have no manners and lack of civility. Seriously, she quotes author Joelle Charbonneau who says someone wanted her to die. The problem are these people who think it’s funny or acceptable to say these statements. When a well known comedian jokes about having a former president killed and she’s applauded for it, what kind of message does this sent to the society? Basically, people can say whatever they want and not have any ramifications.

    While I understand Ms. Rice’s “quest” for transparency and “accountability” it’s just a theater because those who are civil and follow a code of conduct aren’t then ones that need to be transparent and accountable. The ones causing mischief are going to find a way to do it – transparent be damned.

    All Ms. Rice and her quoted authors have done for a reader like me is choose to withdraw my support of their business through not spending money to buy their books and not read or review their books.

  36. Sunday Links, April 6, 2014 | Like Fire
    Apr 06, 2014 @ 07:01:33

    […] Another issue in reviewing is whether reviewers should be allowed to wield their criticisms under pseudonyms. Anne Rice is circulating a petition to bar the practice at Amazon. Janet (apparently also known as “Robin Reader,” seemingly doubling her pseudonyms) at Dear Autho…. […]

  37. The Guardian announces a new prize for self-published books | Soapboxing
    Apr 08, 2014 @ 11:12:17

    […] is more or less happening writ large in the publishing world. Anne Rice wants to strip readers of psuedonymity to keep them from “bullying” writers with their negative assessments of the slush […]

  38. Online Communities: Bullies, Anonymity, and Choice - Steven M. Long
    Apr 14, 2014 @ 08:52:14

    […] reviewers be able to post anonymously, or more to the point (as this article points out) pseudonymously? What should be done about the online bullying of authors, or when […]

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