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Dear Author

Poisoning the Well

For better or worse, I have always been a fighter. For the people and principles I care about most, I will go to the mat, and the more unfair a situation becomes, the more energized to set things right I seem to become. I’m one of those cynical idealists who generally doesn’t trust people and yet can’t stop believing in basic ideals about how justice prevails and everything comes around in the end.

But over the last year –and especially the past month– I’ve seen things in and around our book communities that, honest to God, have so shocked and appalled me, and that seem so far beyond what any decent human being would do, that I can’t even figure out where and how to engage effectively and productively. It’s like one of those computer games where you can’t get from point A to point B without stepping in an unseen sinkhole or explosive trap.

This weekend, when the Internet exploded with The Guardian’s appalling breach of reader trust in publishing the disgusting account of author Kathleen Hale gleefully stalking a reader-reviewer, right on the heels of the somewhat less damaging, although not completely unrelated rant by Margo Howard over negative Amazon Vine reviews, I feel like we’ve reached a new level of ethical corruption in our book communities, where corporate systems – be they publishers, newspapers, or even authors — are more openly and unapologetically preying on readers, while readers seem to have fewer and fewer places to find safe harbor.

That, for example, The Guardian saw fit to publish the Hale piece, despite all of its obvious problems, is not merely baffling to me, but downright horrifying. How could anyone miss the massive hypocrisy of the moment where Hale’s obsessive distrust and pursuit of a pseudonymous reviewer is unselfconsciously eclipsed by her wholly uncritical trust in and promotion of a pseudonymous practitioner some of the most vile online vigilante injustice against book bloggers we’ve seen in the past decade? How could anyone think that publishing a professional author’s vaguely apologetic and yet not at all regretful hunting down of an amateur book reviewer was a good idea, especially when the author made a slew of completely unsubstantiated and suspect claims against the reviewer, who had NO VOICE in the piece. And for those of you who may have been taken in by Hale’s obviously practiced ‘aww shucks’ confession of her obsessive tendencies, think about the fact that every single thing you think you know about that reviewer comes from a person who a) writes fiction for a living, and b) has absolutely no incentive to fairly represent, let alone make sympathetic, the person she’s hunting down like an animal.

And perhaps worst of all, The Guardian, in running that piece without context or counter-point, threw their considerable journalistic weight on the side of vigilante injustice and thus far seems content to hold to that position. We also know, direct from Hale, that a “contact at a publishing house” confirmed private blogger information with her, and I know we’re all holding our breath in anticipation of a statement from Harper Collins.

But the fact that ANY publisher might have furnished that information to Hale is likely scaring the hell out of anyone who has provided their address to an author or publisher for an ARC or contest. To those authors and editors and promotional staff who have not violated the trust of readers, thank you. To those of you who have spoken out in support of readers and reviews of all varieties, even snarky, sarcastic, snotty reviews, thank you. It sucks that you end up suffering the consequences of these incidents, too.

But for me, the lesson here is explicit: there are publishers and authors who are more than willing to exploit the value of readers to promote their books and then equally willing to participate in the ruination of that valuable resource, should it not seem valuable at the moment to them. Many of us are used to the systematic devaluation of female voices in, well, virtually every community you can name. But this feels like a sucker punch to the gut, and now that I’m getting my wind back, all I can say is congratulations to any of you who helped, supported, or cheered while Kathleen Hale — or anyone like her — lashed out at a reader-reviewer. Not only have you helped diminish the serious implications of real bullying (because wishes are not ponies and negative reviews are NOT bullying), but you are fundamentally damaging the community you simultaneously rely on for its honest, spontaneous enthusiasm about books. You are, in fact, poisoning the very well from which you’ve been drinking.

That there are authors who are endorsing Hale’s behavior is reflective of how twisted the power relationship between authors/publishers and readers is. Authors who are professionally producing commercial products for profit feel entitled to hunt down those who have expressed their dislike of those products, but authors are the powerless ones here? This skewed dynamic, by the way, is one of the reasons I think it’s so important to fight the ‘specialness of books’ rhetoric – because the more we buy into that kind of exclusivity, the more we seem to be removing authors (and publishers) from the realm of commercial producers, and, therefore, from their role as business people and even corporations unto themselves. And let’s not forget how many of these business people see no harm in purchasing positive reviews or hiring marketing services to promote their work, regardless of the ethics or legality of such endeavors. Apparently the decision to ‘put food on the table’ by writing books has become license to stalk. Good to know the rules, although for readers this is no game.

For the most part I’m just pissed way the hell off and galled that authors like Hale benefit at all from the precious resource of honest reader reviews. But I know that many readers are legitimately scared. Blythe Harris has apparently announced that she is giving up book blogging. And anyone who believes that this is a victory does not yet understand how important it is to a vibrant bookselling community to have a diversity of honest reviewing voices, nor how the real value of those most positive reviews is revealed only in the context of the negative ones.

For the first time in the decade plus that I’ve been engaging in book talk online, I feel like in every facet (NOT every author, editor, publisher, and journalist, but every part) of the book writing and publishing industry there is some kernel of tolerance and even advocacy for the victimization of readers, who, if we are to believe all the marketing rhetoric, are supposed to be one of the most important constituencies when it comes to keeping the industry in motion. Theoretically, ideally even, one would think that you would want to protect the autonomy and safety of those you rely on to purchase your books and indirectly market them through independent reviews. Oh, how quaint and nearly old-fashioned Signet’s ethicality in the face of the Cassie Edwards plagiarism case now looks. Although perhaps we should have taken more seriously and ominously Kensington’s acquisition of Janet Dailey or their silence in the aftermath of the Deborah Anne MacGillivray revelations.

Not that I begrudge any publisher or author those business decisions that legally maximize their profit – after all, that is part of what makes commercial publishing a viable industry. And the fact that genre fiction, especially, seems to draw so many of its authors from the ranks of its readership makes all these violations seem particularly illogical, even depraved.

In fact, one of the things that strikes me as so odd about this whole fiasco is that we routinely tolerate – even advocate – pseudonymity in the creation of author names, especially when the specter of social disapproval is strong (erotic fiction, for example). But even in more mundane circumstances, like when an author continues to review, or is trying to re-brand, perhaps in a different subgenre or genre, pseudonyms are wielded like shields of divine protection against the possibility or harassment, stalking, and other unseemly effects of daring to be an artiste. If we are so willing to let those who are writing for commercial profit these protections, why in the hell would we not extend them to reader-reviewers and bloggers, many of whom are getting nothing out of their reviews except the fun of talking about books with people on the Internet?

When I really think about this, I realize it’s been growing in plain sight for many years. I know that there have been some more blatant examples in the past few years, but all of the ‘oh, we should be nice in our reviews’ talk, tales of the so-called Dixieland Mafia, reader stalking of yore (remember the Emily Giffin incidents), and other admonitions associated with “mean” book reviews have been swirling for years, and apparently we are at a point where enough momentum has built that readers no longer have any reason to trust that an author, publisher, or media outlet will protect their rights and interests at the most basic level of legality, ethics, or human decency. And that’s a seriously fucked up state of affairs, especially when you think about Sunita’s point that the value of the community – its honest, spontaneous, and sometimes viral conversation — is what has made it a target to begin with. It’s clear to me that unreasonable people cannot be reasoned with, that no one who justifies the victimization of others would ever think it’s okay if it happened to them. Logic won’t prevail here, and calls for human decency and accountability continue to go unanswered.

So where are we now? Have we finally turned the final corner into complete corruption and chaos? Is there nothing for readers to do but evacuate the community completely, leaving it to those who refuse to do something to keep reading safe? As I said initially, I have always been a fighter, but I am at a loss at this point. I do know that our book community still has many important voices, and it wasn’t too long ago that we saw a powerful communal stand against the silencing of book bloggers. As inspiring and awesome as that was, we’re clearly dealing with something that manifests destruction in myriad ways and from multiple directions at once. Just yesterday a UK reader reported being physically assaulted by an author. How many more have been threatened, stalked, harassed, or even assaulted?

And yeah, I get that not everyone likes everyone else, blah blah blah, but if you look at those standing most steadfast in support of reader rights, it’s reader bloggers – not just the bigger blogs, but all of the wonderful, intelligent, engaged, generous, and interesting readers who care enough about books to put up with all the unwarranted bullshit that being online attracts. And among all of these voices, there has to be something we can do. I know that for the foreseeable future I’m done sending traffic to The Guardian via the Dear Author news. But there has to be more. Among the options that come immediately to mind:

  1. Make our blogging communities private to protect the book talk. This would allow us to keep our priorities intact and to keep ourselves from being so easily exploited and preyed upon;
  2. Stop taking ARCs from publishers, and only take them from trusted authors. It does seem that these promotional items are viewed by some as a contract or an entitlement;
  3. Shut down completely and let the industry professionals deal with this amongst themselves. Let’s see how great things are when there are only 4 and 5 star reviews out there, and god knows how many of them actually authentic;
  4. Collective boycotting of authors, publishers, and/or newspapers. This is unwieldy, I know, although I don’t think a bunch of change.org petitions would do anything at this point.
  5. Would anyone be up for a coordinated, temporary (week-long?) review blackout?

But what do you think? What are your suggestions for how our book communities should be dealing with this? And where are you, personally, in dealing with this?

 

ETA: The blogger who initially provided the reviewer’s address has posted her account of the incident, and not surprisingly, it differs in important ways from Hale’s. To wit:

Let me back track a second since this seems to be the super important part. When KH requested Blythe as her blogger, she also asked me to get Blythe’s mailing address for her because she wanted to send her a gift for hosting her for the Bash. I sent Blythe an email and she seemed super excited and gave me her permission to pass on her mailing address to KH. It seemed safe and simple. I read in KH’s article that she was requested to donate some signed books and that’s why she wanted Blythe’s mailing address. When we send invitations out to the debut authors we give them a set of questions. One of those questions is whether or not they will be hosting a giveaway for the event and if it will be open to US, US & CAN, or INT. We never ask any of the authors to host a giveaway nor do we ask them to donate specific prizes. If they have questions about the giveaway we answer them, but that is completely up to them. Most of the authors chose to do a giveaway this year, but we did have quite a few who did not host one.

Additionally, Hale has indicated to someone on her Tumblr (a screenshot is available here) that she is “proud of myself” for her article. Just let that sink in for a few minutes as you think about how our reading communities need to respond.

And here is Harper Teen’s completely anemic Twitter response to Jane’s inquiry about the incident: 

We were not involved in this incident, and we do not disclose our blogger contact information as a general matter.

Extended version of UK reviewer’s recent attack report, as well as Yahoo’s article on another incident involving the same author. 

On the importance of pseudonymous activity

On the importance of pseudonymous activity

We here at Dear Author have always supported anonymity and pseudonymity. We have allowed people to use pennames and alias in the comments even when it meant they would be hurling insults at us, even when they engaged in sock puppetry (by changing their alias but posting from the same IP address).  We do this because we believe in providing a safe place to express your opinion. We don’t always carry out this philosophy perfectly. We’ve made mistakes (and will continue to do so because we’re human and imperfect).

Most of the reviewers at DA use a pseudonym as do many authors in the romance community. Some people use their full legal name and some do not. There are many reasons for using a pseudonym and most of them are valid and as Justice John Paul Stevens noted, it’s a protected right.

On Saturday, author Kathleen Hale was given a platform on the Guardian, one of the most venerable book outlets in the English speaking world. Using that platform, she chronicles a months long stalking campaign to a Goodreads reviewer who Hale charactered as her number one critic.

I’m not sure why Hale assigns the moniker of #1 critic to this particular Goodreads reviewer because Hale’s book is the subject 170 one star ratings on Goodreads.

Hale became strangely fixated on the GR reviewer and proceeds to spend months (yes months) infiltrating the GR reviewer’s online life until she is one day able to obtain the reviewer’s address. From there, Hale took her stalking offline.

This is the course of events. On January 31, 2014, Goodreads reviewer begins chronicling her reading of Hale’s book through the use of status updates. This is a behavior that Goodreads promotes and places the status updates box on the front page. It is literally the second thing on the sidebar and one of the first things on the mobile app.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 8.22.38 PM

Here’s what Hale alleges the blogger did:

  • She had tweeted me saying she had some ideas for my next book. It should be noted that this was (if it happened) in response to Hale’s request ON TWITTER for IDEAS FROM READERS! In an attempt to connect with readers, I’d been asking Twitter for ideas – “The weirdest thing you can think of!” – promising to try to incorporate them in the sequel.
  • The “review” (it was never a review but a collection of status updates which, as identified above is a GR approved and promoted activity) “warn[ed] other readers that my characters were rape apologists and slut-shamers. She accused my book of mocking everything from domestic abuse to PTSD.  This is accurate. The status updates (as well as other reviews) were disturbed that the characters in the book fake being in a abusive domestic relationship in order to gain information about someone else).
  • The “review” noted that there was rape and Hale contends there is no rape in the book. In the original status update (and these cannot be edited. I know bc I’ve had awful typos in status updates and hate that I can’t edit them), the reviewer noted that there was statutory rape. Hale doesn’t acknowledge this but instead uses it as part basis for her later actions.
  • Hale then is directed to Stop the GR Bullies where she finds a page on the GR Reviewer. According to fake person Athena Parker who co founded Stop the GR Bullies, the GR Reviewer attacked a fourteen year old. Stop the GR Bullies is a well known hate site that uses out of context screenshots to construct stories out of whole cloth. They have targeted people like Courtney Milan as well as many other individuals I respect. 
  • The GR Reviewer has a ripple effect. In the following weeks, [the GR reviewer's] vitriol continued to create a ripple effect: every time someone admitted to having liked my book on Goodreads, they included a caveat that referenced her review. The ones who truly loathed it tweeted reviews at me. At this point, the GR reviewer status updates have become “vitriol” and Hale starts blaming everything on the GR reviewer. I did a quick click through and did not see any references to the GR reviewer’s updates. But let’s be fair, even if this did happen how was it the GR reviewer’s fault. Referencing another blogger’s take and acknowledging problematic themes is not uncommon and certainly not “bullying” behavior.
  • The GR Reviewer began tweeting ridicule. There isn’t any evidence of this and “that same day” refers to no date at all. In other words, Hale makes up a date. Her previous paragraph was “In the following weeks…” so who knows what date Hale is referring to. It’s convenient not to have a date. That way we can’t verify Hale’s claims.  “That same day, [the GR Reviewer] began tweeting in tandem with me, ridiculing everything I said.”
  • Watching the GR Reviewer tweet about her manuscript, Hale subtweets and is subsequently bombarded with unhappy responses.One afternoon, good-naturedly drunk on bourbon and after watching [GR reviewer] tweet about her in-progress manuscript, I sub-tweeted that, while weird, derivative reviews could be irritating, it was a relief to remember that all bloggers were also aspiring authors. My notifications feed exploded. Bloggers who’d been nice to me were hurt. Those who hated me now had an excuse to write long posts about what a bitch I was, making it clear that:1) Reviews are for readers, not authors.  2) When authors engage with reviewers, it’s abusive behaviour.  3) Mean-spirited or even inaccurate reviews are fair game so long as they focus on the book. “Sorry,” I pleaded on Twitter. “Didn’t mean all bloggers, just the ones who talk shit then tweet about their in-progress manuscripts. I actually saw this one happen on Twitter and Hale’s memory is occluded here, either intentional or not. She actually subtweeted about a three star review. 
  • The review she subtweeted is here. The characters using these words were unlikable and supposed to be that way, but I still think the author could have made them plenty unlikable without using language that pisses off a large portion of the population.”

And the screenshot which Hale deleted is here:

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To summarize, the extent of the GR Reviewer’s actions includes:

  1. Making status updates about a book.
  2. Possibly getting into a fight with a previous author or reviewer.
  3. Possibly subtweeting Hale.
  4. Tweeting about her own work in progress.

You might assume by the response of Hale to the blogger’s actions and the nearly 5000 words devoted to this response that the blogger was engaged in really terrible behavior. Certainly commenters and twitter denizens believed the blogger was “deranged” and “no angel” and “vicious”  I read the Guardian piece carefully, probably five times, to ascertain exactly what it was that the blogger/reviewer had done and arrived at the above four actions. Let’s take a look at Hale’s actions.

  • She obtains the blogger’s address under false pretenses from a book club.  Over the next few months, my book came out, I got distracted by life and managed to stay off Goodreads. Then a book club wanted an interview, and suggested I pick a blogger to do it.“[GR Reviewer],” I wrote back. I knew tons of nice bloggers, but I still longed to engage with [GR Reviewer] directly. The book club explained that it was common for authors to do “giveaways” in conjunction with the interview, and asked if I could sign some books. I agreed, and they forwarded me [GR Reviewer]‘s address.
  • She pays for a background check to determine the blogger’s name and employer. According to the telephone directory and recent census reports, nobody named [GR Reviewer's name] lived there. The address belonged to someone I’ll call [ ] who, according to an internet background check ($19), was 46 – not 27, as [GR Reviewer] was – and worked as [job] of a company that authorises [stuff].
  • She rents a car and drives to the GR Reviewer’s house using the address she obtains under false pretenses. “Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Sarah said, sending me a car rental link. “Go talk to her.”…I opened a new tab to book a car.
  • Because her feelings got hurt. “How did you know that she hurt my feelings?”
  • She goes to the blogger’s house. Examines the property and the contents of the owner’s vehicle, looks at the dogs, compares the information with all the information the blogger has innocently shared online such as vacations and her pets. Before I could change my mind, I walked briskly down the street toward the Mazda parked in [GR Reviewer's] driveway. A hooded sweatshirt with glittery pink lips across the chest lay on the passenger seat; in the back was a large folder full of what looked like insurance claims. I heard tyres on gravel and spun round to see a police van. For a second I thought I was going to be arrested, but it was passing by – just a drive through a quiet neighbourhood where the only thing suspicious was me.  I strolled to the front door. A dog barked and I thought of [her] Instagram Pomeranian. Was it the same one? The doorbell had been torn off, and up close the garden was overgrown. I started to feel hot and claustrophobic. The stupid happiness book grew sweaty in my hands. I couldn’t decide whether to knock. The curtains were drawn, but I could see a figure silhouetted in one window, looking at me. The barking stopped. I dropped the book on the step and walked away
  • Calls the blogger’s work under false pretenses.  Instead of returning to [her] house, which still felt like the biggest breach of decency I’d ever pulled, I decided to call her at work. Sarah and I rehearsed the conversation. “What do I even say?” I kept asking. “Just pretend to be a factchecker,” she said. “So now I’m catfishing her.” I called the number, expecting to get sent to an operator. But a human answered and when I asked for [her], she put me through. I spat out the line about needing to factcheck a piece. She seemed uncertain but agreed to answer some questions. “Is this how to spell your name?” I asked, and spelled it.
  • Confirms that this is the address of the blogger with a publisher. An hour after I got off the phone to [her], [she] deleted her Twitter and set her Instagram to private. A contact at a publishing house confirmed that they’d been sending books to [GR Reviewer's] address all year, and as recently as two weeks ago.
  • Publishes the sick account on Guardian and receives accolades.

My hope is that Guardian will wake up and realize that the publication of this stalking account should be deleted. That it and whomever applauds this piece understands it is enabling completely out of bounds (and likely criminal) behavior.  Sarah from Smart Bitches writes:

I don’t understand why the Guardian chose to publish that essay. I don’t understand the thought process of the editor who gave it the green light and effectively condoned the stalking and harassment of a reviewer. The fact that the Guardian published it is as disturbing and abhorrent as Hale’s actions – to say nothing of the degree to which she and the editors at the Guardian both seem to lack understanding of how inappropriate those actions were. The fear and horror and wariness that Hale’s and the Guardian’s decisions have created in many people is absolutely real and justified.

There is no question that some authors think Goodreads should be shut down and wish that there were only “professional” reviewers left to review books and that readers should be allowed to only say good things about all products. And there’s no question that this type of action by Hale will lead to some reviewers/bloggers deciding that the hobby of blogging is simply too rife with complications to continue. Possibly that is the outcome that some want.

I’m horrified that anyone thinks that what Hale did was okay. If this was for publicity, it’s even more sickening. I know that by publishing this, I’m raising the signal for Hale but it was in the Guardian so the signal is pretty damn big right now. There are very few instances wherein Hale’s behavior is justified and nothing in the twisted, one sided account by Hale articulates even one of those few instances.

The following is a storify account compiled by BookThingo of various reactions.

View the story “What happens when The Guardian lets an author gloat about stalking a blogger” on Storify