Last week the internet exploded with drama over one little newbie SPA and her unpublished novel. Despite the fact that she (briefly) admitted the whole thing was all in her head, people are still accepting the initial story — that this poor debut author was bullied into cancelling her novel — as the gospel truth. Here, for example, is where a Goodreads author blatantly admits that she didn’t check her facts, but that she didn’t want to, and so was just going to side with the author. Because.
Seriously? This is what passes for logic and reason these days? As behavior becoming of an author?
All snarkiness aside, this both irks and concerns me. Partly because so few people are bothering to do their own thinking, partly because I’m a member of the “bad guys” who saw her in action and decided not to touch her book with a ten foot pole, and partly — mostly — because so many people have come out of the woodwork to express shock and outrage that not only was Lauren bullied, but so were they. When — and this is important — nobody has been bullied at all. All the endless retweeting, and reblogging, and “speaking your [piece]” without evidence is just serving to perpetuate and spread false ideas. About everything. About what happened, about what bullying is, and about what is tolerated on Goodreads. Heck, even Lauren has come out and said as much:
When even the “victim” is saying it didn’t happen, shouldn’t her supporters pay attention?
Labeling any and every unpleasant social interaction as bullying needs to stop. Not only is it a lie, and an overreaction, but it downplays the horror of actually being bullied. It’s robbing the word of it’s true meaning and emotional power.
So while this isn’t, strictly speaking, going to be a post about reading or writing, it is something that’s affecting the reading community, and therefore I think it’s important to address. Reading books and interacting on Goodreads is supposed to be fun for readers, but behavior like Lauren’s is ruining it for everybody.
Some Pertinent Facts
As this is going to be a very long post, I thought I’d put the most crucial information first, before anyone gets tired of reading.
- Goodreads explicitly allows reviews/ratings before the book has been released.
A great number of people jumped to Lauren’s defense by rallying around the idea that, in their opinion, nobody should rate a book before it’s been released. However, it doesn’t matter how many people think that it’s wrong. On Goodreads – which is where the offending rating was posted – it’s allowed, and for good reasons. ARCs, for example, are pre-release copies sent out solely for the purpose of publicity, and often in such numbers that keeping track of them is impractical. Yet each recipient could certainly leave a review, and many Goodreads giveaways stipulate that it’s expected in exchange for the free copy. Regardless, this is not a new policy, but one which has been in place for years, and harassing those who review in compliance with the TOS is generally frowned upon.
It should also be noted that Lauren had no problem with a friend outright lying on her behalf in order to give her five stars. If giving a “fake” rating is wrong when it’s “negative”, then it’s just as wrong when it’s “positive”. Yet authors only ever ask about the negative ones. It’s very difficult to believe the problem is truly that the user has not read the book, when it’s only an issue if the rating is low.
- Nobody ever told Lauren they wished violence upon her, or that she should be sexually violated in any way.
As Lauren revealed later, she was interpreting shelf names as threats. Which is a nice way of saying she overreacted and flat-out lied. If someone uses the shelf name “kill it with fire” for books they really hate, that’s not the same as saying they used a shelf called “author should be burned to a crisp and die”. The first is an internet meme, the second is abusive. Yet that’s the kind of twisted spin – or “misinterpretation” – Lauren used in her tweets, comments, and tumblr posts. For example, the “author should be sodomized” shelf was actually “sodomy by lawn sculpture”, and was a reference to how painful reading the book was expected to be. It had nothing to do with wishing sodomy on the author.
While shelf names are sometimes hyperbole at its finest, they’re not attacks, and they’re not bullying.
- This did not start because Lauren dared to ask a question.
That she thinks it did is just further evidence of how lacking in self-awareness she is. This started because Lauren took offense to a two star rating of her unpublished book, and wanted it removed. To that end, she didn’t just ask a question. She commented on the review, called the reviewer a troll, and broke the rules by posting a link to his profile. She also talked about it incessantly on twitter. In fact, despite her claim to have been “fine to move on“, her Twitter activity clearly shows that she continued to complain about it, after her question was answered. That’s not the action of a woman who was over it, or who had learned how things worked on Goodreads and was ready to cope.
This was never just about asking a question. Besides: as time went on, she racked up additional offenses, and the initial comment took something of a back seat.
- There was never any great volume of negative feedback for Lauren’s book.
By claiming she was bullied into canceling her book, Lauren created the impression that she was facing a huge amount of unreasonable negativity. To hear her tell it, there was a veritable barrage of people making fun of her, shelving her book, and giving it one star reviews.
That didn’t happen. Prior to the 20th, which is the day she decided not to publish, it appears there were no more than a dozen users who had shelved her book “negatively”, and only four or five of those left a one star review. The number of people who had shelved it as “to read’ outnumbered those boycotting by more than three to one. Also note: the five-star reviews might have been comparable in number to the one star if her friends hadn’t jumped to her defense with abusive comments (subsequently getting banned from the site), or self-righteous flouncing (i.e. they deleted their accounts because Goodreads was mean). As Lauren’s actions are responsible for both the shelving and her friends’ over zealous defense, she has no one to blame for this but herself.
Go check on Goodreads. It’s easy enough to see the numbers for yourself.
- At no point did Goodreads librarians refuse to help her, nor did staff ignore her.
Bluntly put, Lauren was asking librarians to do something that (a) is against policy and (b) they don’t have permission to do. The first is explained and the second heavily implied in the help file regarding removing out of print books. Given that Lauren claimed to have “read in the rules that if books were not going to be published, they can be deleted EVEN if there are ARCs”, I think she must have seen this at some point. Typically, however, she read into it things that weren’t there (the help file never mentions ARCs, nor does it say that there is a guarantee of deletion). Also, exactly when she read it is unclear. Did she read it before she asked the librarians to delete the book? If so, did she ignore the “contact us” link, or did she do both? (Alternatively, did she think contacting a librarian was the same as contacting staff?) Or did she read it some time after the librarians refused to delete the book for her? Given her earlier failure to read the FAQ, and the fact that she kept complaining on Twitter about librarians, I think it’s probably the latter rather than the former.
Which is relevant, because Lauren’s tendency to use the terms ‘Goodreads’ and ‘librarians’ interchangeably, muddies the water concerning exactly how long she really had to wait for “Goodreads” to get back to her. Librarian responses were always prompt. The first time she asked about deletion, she had an answer in ten minutes. The second time it took longer, but no longer than it took Lauren to get back to them (i.e. everyone needs to sleep). And, of course, the answer given was exactly the same as in the help file, so she could have had it at any time, no wait required. Staff did take a little longer, but even assuming she contacted them at the same time she contacted the librarians, it was still just over a full day before she tweeted she’d had a response. (And if she didn’t use the contact form until prompted by the librarian, it was more like fifteen.) I don’t know what Lauren was expecting, but twenty-four hours on a site with twenty million users is still pretty prompt, and they got back to her around midnight Goodreads-local time. That doesn’t sound like they ignored her to me.
I’d also like to mention that there is an eight hour time difference between Lauren and the Goodreads offices. Unless they’re working overtime, it’s highly unlikely that she will receive a response from staff during her “day”. The hours just don’t work out. That’s not a conspiracy, it’s just the way time zones work: Nine AM in Liverpool is one AM in San Francisco. Reasonable people make allowances for that sort of thing.
Considering that non-existent threats and imaginary abuse formed the base of the bullying accusations, clearly, the so-called bullying never actually happened, and Goodreads’ tolerance for it doesn’t exist.
Alright, So What Really Happened?
Well, as I said in the title, Lauren essentially threw a tantrum. She got bent out of shape because of a negative rating. Rather than accept it and move on, her ranting on Twitter and elsewhere created a massive feedback loop: the more she complained, the more people noticed; and the more people noticed, the more she complained. She was never going to win. Goodreads, not Lauren, makes the rules, and the people she was complaining about were following them. Instead, each complaint just prompted one more person to shelve her book as “do not buy” because they didn’t want to deal with her.
Unable to cope with the fact that the rules were not going to change, and that she wasn’t going to get her way, Lauren flounced. She took her toys and went home, loudly proclaiming that everyone else would be sorry. Several other authors noticed, as did Salon (which: how? why?) and the story of how she was bullied into cancelling her book was born. People all over the internet rushed to offer her
candy five star sympathy ratings. If we wait a week or so, I suspect the overwhelming support will result in her book being published after all, and the internet will give her a bike buy it.
…alright, that’s me editorializing somewhat. It’s still generally what happened. If you want the more detailed version, complete with copious screenshots and other such evidence, read on. Otherwise, let’s talk about how this could have been avoided.
The Long Version
On August sixteenth, someone gave Lauren Pippa/Howard’s unpublished book a two star rating on Goodreads. Unhappy about it, Lauren left a comment on the review. Minutes later, she was in the Goodread’s Feedback group asking if there was anything that could be done about this “troll” rating/account. She also linked back to the user in question, which is against Goodreads policy.
Seeing that she had (a) called the reviewer a troll, (b) broken the rules, and (c) also commented on the review, another Goodreads user decided to one-star the book and shelve it as “author to avoid”. Note: it really doesn’t matter if you think this was unnecessary, or an overreaction, or that “two wrongs don’t make a right”. What he did is not against the rules, he had his reasons, and one person shelving and rating a book is not bullying. Also, IMO, he proved to be right: Lauren is an author to avoid.
Meanwhile, she took to Twitter to complain. Repeatedly. Interestingly enough, in the middle of complaining about how unfair it was to receive a “fake” review, she stopped to say that one of her friends was “awesome” because he gave her book five stars “even though I know he wouldn’t like it”. Of course, with an absolute lack of self-awareness, she went right back to complaining immediately after.
The following morning, Lauren realized there was a second negative review, and complained again on Twitter. As a result, some of her friends went over to Goodreads to further castigate both reviewers, going so far as to “suggest” that one of them stick his hand in a blender. Lauren had nothing to say to her defender and friend, even when prompted on the thread. Instead, her focus was on further castigating the second reviewer for being mean, vindictive and inconsiderate. I believe this is around when other readers started to notice Lauren’s behavior. Certainly by the eighteenth, several people had shelved her book under various avoidance-themed or otherwise “negative” labels.
Distraught, Lauren claimed “people are straight up attacking me”, and that she was being added to shelves such as “author should be sodomized”, and all because she had asked an “innocent question”. This, of course, led to further furor on Goodreads, as people read her tweets and headed over to show support. Notably, one such supporter told a reader to hang herself because she’d shelved Lauren’s book.
Then someone noticed that Lauren appeared to have two accounts, both of which had given her book five stars. When it was pointed out that gaming the system that way is explicitly against Goodreads rules, she went off on a screed about how unfair it was that people could “wish death, rape and sodomy” on her, and “viciously” bully her, but that she couldn’t leave herself duplicate reviews to “counteract the immature, vindictive 1-star ratings”. Except, as has already been covered, nobody ever wished harm on her at all. Readers were simply shelving and rating her book, which is allowed, while she was engaging in sock-puppetry, which is not.
Deciding that the only way to make the problem go away was to have her book deleted from Goodreads (and “focus on Amazon instead”), she set about doing just that. By the next day, however, she had decided not to publish the book at all. Exactly what changed is unknown. Perhaps it’s the fact that she was told her book wouldn’t be deleted from Goodreads, as anyone would be able to add it back as long as the book was out there. Or maybe it’s that the backlash didn’t disappear overnight.
Unfortunately, Goodreads librarians wouldn’t delete the book for her, which only made her even more upset. Now the librarians were bullying her, too! By… refusing to break the rules of her. (It should be noted that the one librarian who ignored the rules to help Lauren had her changes promptly reverted, and has presumably lost her librarian privileges. I believe she has since voluntarily left the site.) Cue more posts on Twitter about how mean everyone was being. In the end, she made so much noise that sites such as Salon noticed and wrote articles about it. Those articles in turn caused more people to rush to give the “cancelled” book five star ratings.
And suddenly, perhaps in light of all that support, Lauren was — briefly — over it. Or maybe it’s because her inability to understand left her feeling vindicated: Goodreads told her that reviews about the author would not be displayed in the Community Reviews section, and within the hour she was tweeting rather snidely about how the librarians had lied to her. Except she asked the librarians to delete a two-star rating about the book, which is different from hiding a one-star review about the author. “Hidden” reviews are not deleted, and still count toward the overall rating; they just aren’t displayed. So once again Lauren either misunderstood what she was told, or deliberately spun it in her favor. Either way, the practical upshot is that she lied. Again.
Regardless of the reason, for a single, shining moment, she came clean: nobody had actually threatened or attacked her at all. See, she’d just misinterpreted shelves as attacks. Mind you, she made sure to tell everyone she hadn’t actually lied about what happened, because she just “made statements”. Later, when she realized that no, that’s what a lie is, and that coming clean wasn’t actually working in her favor, she deleted the post. She deleted all the others where she ranted at length about stuff that never happened, too.
As a final insult, when she reappeared to ask for more help from those bullying Goodreads librarians, she confessed that the whole thing was the result of PMS. Isn’t that charming? Countless people are still up in arms about how evil Goodreads is, because Lauren had uncontrollable PMS. And that continued upset is why her deletions, and her flouncing, and her lies, and her insistence that she never wanted any part of this, is so very infuriating. Despite the fact that she still maintains her innocence, she created this situation. With her thin skin, her immaturity, her histrionics, and her impatience. With her lack of responsibility. With her frequent and varied lies.
How This Could Have Been Avoided
Lauren’s supporters seem to think that none of this would have happened if only that horrible reviewer hadn’t left a two star rating. I disagree.
Firstly because that reviewer didn’t reach through the internet and force Lauren to go off the rails; she was in charge of her own actions. Nobody made her do anything. She chose to react in a certain way.
Secondly because I strongly believe, given Lauren’s outrage over a “fake” review, that if this blow-up hadn’t happened now, it would have just happened later. As soon as she received a review or rating she felt was invalid in some way, or the first time someone shelved her book “negatively” – say, perhaps, using a “kill it with fire” shelf – she’d have been having this same conniption. Do I have proof for that belief? Well, I certainly can’t tell the future, particularly not alternate ones. But I am pretty good at logic (mathematician, me), and looking at the evidence, my reasoning is solid.
And I also have this: several reviews have appeared on Goodreads discussing how the blurb for Lauren’s book sounds very similar to Pretty Little Liars. With just the synopsis to go on, the similarities are, perhaps, superficial; yet it is still perfectly “valid” to note that they exist. Lauren, however, doesn’t think so, and has taken offense again. (Please note, I haven’t seen anyone calling her a plagiarist; she’s been called unoriginal and derivative, and it’s been implied she might have had some copyright issues, which is the “real” reason she threw a fit over nothing. I.e., she needed an “excuse” to cancel publishing. Tweets like this one lend credence to that notion.) Anyway, my point is that it’s not unlikely someone would have pointed this out after reading the book, and clearly Lauren would have reacted poorly… and then we would have had this same (or a similar) mess.
But this still could have been avoided.
If Lauren had just ignored that single two-star rating – which is what countless other authors, agents, and publishers recommend – that would have been the end of it. She wouldn’t have had to deal with the shelving or the additional low-ranking reviews, because they all came in response to her behavior. If she needed to vent about it, she should have done so in private — not on Goodreads and not all over Twitter.
If Lauren had bothered to read the FAQ before asking her question, then perhaps she never would have asked it. There certainly wouldn’t have been a need to ask it, as the answer is clearly spelled out. If she didn’t decide to ask the question, then she wouldn’t have called anyone a troll, or broken additional rules by linking to said reviewer, and thus maybe nobody would have noticed her other bad behavior: castigating the reviewer, and complaining all over twitter. Although possibly not: given that she continued to complain after she had her answer (as explained above), it’s likely that she still would have prompted her friends to jump to her defense, which would have started this same ball rolling.
Regardless: reading the FAQ wouldn’t have hurt, and if we’re going to talk about who should or shouldn’t have done what, then Lauren, quite simply, should have read the FAQ. That’s what it’s there for: to stave off questions that have already been answered.
And finally, if Lauren hadn’t denied her own bad behavior in favor of telling lies about what happened, she wouldn’t have escaped unscathed, but she could have done some damage control. Apologies, especially if the author sticks to them, can go a long way with readers.
Which Brings Us Around to Bullying
Or, more appropriately, “Bullying”.
I’ve hopefully proven that there were no death threats, no rape threats, no sodomy threats… basically, no threats of any kind. There was no refusal to help her, and no appalling lack of concern on the part of Goodreads staff. There was no bullying. There was just one young woman who, frankly, needed to calm down and stop blowing things out of proportion. Everything, from her initial upset to her decision to cancel her book, was one long, extended, over-reaction. Which is why I’m willing to accept that maybe Lauren cried bully because she’s just flat-out too immature to be trying to publish. Ranting about Goodreads aside, her Twitter feed sounds like a stereotypical teenager, right down to the way she phrases things. (Literally. No offense to any actual teenagers.) Her attitudes and reactions are not those generally accepted as “adult”.
As for why everyone else went down this road… I can only surmise that a lot of people are gullible. Gullible and compassionate, and Lauren was undeniably upset. Gullible and lazy, and Salon had presumably done all the research for them. Which, of course, doesn’t make it right. Letting someone else think for you is never a good idea. (Not even me! Which is why I provided the long version with links and screenshots.)
Then there are the authors who have a bone to pick with Goodreads, or have been influenced by those who do, and thus were happy to stick their oars in and churn the waters.
Where the smart author learns to take negative reviews in stride — water off a duck’s back and all that — others, like Lauren, turn confrontational. They’re the ones who are fine with criticism… just so long as that criticism meets their personal set of subject-to-change-without-notice standards. Thus the list of reasons a review isn’t valid — and therefore is wrong and should be edited and/or deleted — is long, varied, and continuing to grow. Objections to rating a book based on “interest” are just the tip of the iceberg.
Unfortunately, none of these objections address anything that is against the Goodreads TOS, so neither staff nor librarians will act on them. And when an author takes matters into their own hands — their actions running the gamut from commenting to complaining to sock-puppetry (honestly, Lauren really did mark off all the checkboxes) — it never falls out in their favor. And that’s what’s at the heart of the whole “Goodreads Bullies” propaganda. Since they can’t make the site or the users behave the way they want to, and have even been banned in some cases because of their behavior, they’ve opted to bad mouth both instead.
Everything that happened to Lauren — that really happened to Lauren — is something that these authors have previously labeled as “bullying”. So of course they answered her call for help. Rating a book before it’s out? Bullying. Rating a book you haven’t read? Bullying. (For some of them, rating any book less than five stars seems to count as bullying.) Shelving a book “negatively”? Bullying. When fundamentally, these actions are clearly not “bullying” at all. Even if someone shelves or one-stars a book just to upset the author, it’s not. You could argue the reader was being deliberately unpleasant, but being deliberately unpleasant is not bullying. I find a number of professional pundits to be deliberately unpleasant all the time, but they’re not bullying me, even though I know they’ll still be there tomorrow. Waiting.
But unpleasant is not synonymous with bullying. Neither are rude, mean, asinine — well, you get the idea. Disliking someone is not bullying. Telling other people that you dislike someone, and why, is not bullying. Disliking a book — which is what a negative rating indicates — is so far from bullying that it’s obviously ridiculous, or at least it should be. How would one bully a book, exactly? Or is it bullying anytime we rate a product, film, or experience? Have you bullied any movies lately? How about the hotel you stayed in on your last vacation?
Everything we rate has people behind it somewhere. The fact that they may get upset by your rating does not mean they were bullied.
If I persuaded everyone I know to one-star someone’s book, for no reason other than my own pleasure, that wouldn’t be bullying, either. It would be wrong (and weird), certainly, and it would probably qualify as abuse on Goodreads, but it wouldn’t be bullying. Now if I got them to one-star the book on Goodreads, and Shelfari, and Amazon; and then we all stopped by the author’s Twitter and Facebook accounts to talk about how much it sucked; and left messages on his answering machine and called him at work… then it would be bullying. Which is a much larger and more malicious thing than simply rating or shelving a book on Goodreads. That’s why it’s so infuriating to see someone claiming to have been bullied on Goodreads: because I know that whatever happened, if anything, it wasn’t bullying.
The closest thing to “bullying” these authors have experienced, is the tendency for some users to boycott anyone who mouths off to or about readers and reviews. If one ignores all the relevant details, the two (bullying and boycotting) can have much the same shape. Like two people standing in the rain, at night, in the dark, viewed through a textured glass window pane can have the same shape. But only if you ignore the relevant details, such as that the action is in response to objectionable author behavior, and is an accepted — tried and tested — method of dollar voting. Unfortunately, “I was an ass and now I’m being boycotted” doesn’t have quite the same impact as, “I was bullied on Goodreads because they hate authors!”
Boycotting, for the record, is one of the perks of a capitalist economy. It’s also rather more highfalutin than your average bully.
Now, most authors do actually “get” this. Or, rather, even if they don’t “get” it, they are willing to act like it. Through agents and editors and word-of mouth, they explain to one another: do not comment on negative reviews. Do not complain about readers. Do not insult their intelligence. Do not tell them how to review. Goodreads has a page that advises the same.
But some authors… Well, like Lauren, they want to change the system. Oddly, for people who claim to be motivated by the damage these “bullies” are doing to their bottom lines, they seem completely unconcerned about the people they push away with their behavior. They’re more concerned with their feelings, with taking reviews as personal attacks, than they are with impressing potential customers. Which is fine if that’s the choice they want to make, but that’s exactly what it is: their choice.
But the bullying? Never. Happened.
I’m not saying that nobody has ever had an upsetting experience on Goodreads. I have an upsetting experience every time I read about another author having a fit over reviews. I’m also sure Lauren was upset about that first two-star rating. The thing is, though, that she really shouldn’t have been. Negative reviews are going to happen for an author, and telling yourself you can accept them if, is setting yourself up for failure. “If” they’re fair, “if” they come after an arbitrary deadline, “if” they’re written nicely — eventually you’re going to run out of excuses, and have to accept that someone didn’t like your book. It’s better to just accept from the start that you won’t be able to please everyone, and then let it go.
What I am saying is that just because someone hurts your feelings, or your business, doesn’t mean that you were bullied. Bullying requires time and intent and a constant barrage of behavior — not someone shelving your book and never thinking about you again because you threw a fit. Let’s keep some perspective, okay?
ETA: Someone pointed out that ARCs are a fantastic example of why preventing pre-release reviews would be a Bad Idea. She’s absolutely right, and I have edited that section to include this point.
Comments are moderated. Not because I don’t want discussion, but because I have no time for anyone who can’t be bothered to read what I’ve said before they tell me I’m wrong. Lauren herself admits the threats never happened, so don’t waste my time claiming you saw them. Don’t waste your time or damage your credibility making up lies. If you want to tell me someone was bullied on GR, bring me the proof, not just some unsubstantiated sob story. In short: if you want to talk here, use your brain.