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The Attack of the Rabid Fan Cults

Fans are the lifeblood of a writer’s career. We need them to buy our books, to tell their friends how much they enjoy our work and to basically act as our mobile PR attack force. But there can be a downside to some fans as well. I’m not talking about those who stalk their favorite writer or actor or artist. I’m talking about those who take it upon themselves to become the enforcers for the author, going on the attack any time they think someone has slighted the author in question.

Just as fans are the lifeblood of a writer’s career, reviews are as well. Reviews are also the bane of our lives. To say we have a love-hate relationship with them is to put it mildly. A good review is like a pat on the back. It tells us we’ve done what we set out to do. We created a book or story that pulled the reviewer in and made them care about what happened next. A bad review is like a blow. It is like telling new parents that their baby is ugly. No one wants to hear that.

Add a rabid fan together with a bad review and you have the makings for a perfect storm. I watched the beginnings of the storm clouds as they gathered yesterday. A friend had posted a review that, to be honest, wasn’t really bad. In fact, it was a very constructive review. It told what she had problems with in the book and why. There was no attacking the author and the reviewer even went so far as to say she’d enjoyed the earlier books written by the author. Okay, so it wasn’t a glowing review. But it was honest and the reviewer added that just because the book didn’t work for her, it might for someone else.

Enter the rabid fans. Instead of posting their own reviews of the book in question, they decided to comment in the response to the original review. Suddenly, the review was being down-voted. When the reviewer responded to their criticism, one of them continued the debate. Finally, after someone else entered the “discussion”, wondering if the fan was actually a sock-puppet, the person commenting admitted that she had not read the book in question but was attacking the review out of a sense of loyalty to the author.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been known to grouse to what we jokingly call The Coven when I receive a bad review. The Coven — Sarah, Cedar and Kate — will listen, tell me to quit reading my reviews and just write. There have even been times when I’ve answered the call by author friends to leave a review of their work when I have time. Sometimes these calls have come after there has been a negative review. But never have I felt the need to attack another person’s review because they didn’t absolutely adore a book by an author I happen to like.

There are several problems inherent with this sort of behavior. The first is simple. If readers feel like they might be attacked for putting up a review that doesn’t meet someone’s arbitrary definition of what is acceptable, they will quit leaving reviews. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I do look at the number of reviews a book has, whether the reviews are heavily weighted to the 5-star or 1-star level and what the overall rating is.

For me, as a reader, if I see a book with nothing but 5-star ratings, especially if there aren’t all that many reviews, I wonder if the reviews were left by friends and family of the author. After you get more than a couple of reviews, chances are you’re going to get at least a 3 or 4-star review. Why? Because not everyone is going to think your prose is classic-worthy. If the book has nothing but low ratings, I will look at the preview because I have to wonder if the low ratings are because of price or topic or for some reason other the quality. But that’s just me.

I am also suspicious if the only (or the majority of) reviews I see are those listed in the product description. Almost always, those reviews are ones the author or publisher have paid for. Call me cynical, but unless a book totally sucks, a paid review isn’t going to give it a basement level review. Add in another level of cynicism if the only customer reviews are 5-star.

But, as an author, there’s another concern I have when I see fans going after reviews like I did today. That sort of behavior reflects badly on me, as the author. There are going to be those who will wonder if I at the very least “suggested” that my fans go attack the reviewer who dared give anything but a glowing review. Frankly, the last thing I want to do is make potential customers — and reviewers — think twice about buying my books.

If you just have to respond to a review, at least have the guts to do it yourself, as the author. Personally, I don’t see any reason why you would. There is nothing to be served by telling a reviewer that you don’t agree with what they said or, worse, that you don’t appreciate the fact they didn’t give a glowing review. It will only leave a bad taste in the reviewer’s mouth and will make them think long and hard before ever buying, much less reviewing, anything by you again.

That said, if you do respond, stay classy. As my grandma used to say, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” An example of what I mean can be found here. The review was pretty specific about what the reader found wrong with the novel. The author, instead of going on the attack, thanked the reviewer for taking the time to leave the review. Over a series of posts, they discussed calmly and reasonably what the various concerns were and, in the end, the author actually convinced the reviewer to consider trying another book in the series. (Note, the author even pointed out that if the reviewer had purchased the book less than seven days previously, he could get a refund.) In other words, he stayed a class act and scored points as a result.

Another example — and unfortunately I can’t share specifics with you because I haven’t been given permission to — is from another reviewer I happen to know. They’d given a book a poor review because the set up simply didn’t work based on the reviewer’s personal experience. A very worried editor contacted the reviewer. The editor laid out their concerns about what was said, never once asking the reviewer to amend or take down what they’d said. The editor’s concern was for her author, who was reacting badly to the review. All the editor was trying to do was make sure she understood what the reviewer’s concerns had been so she could then explain them to the author and, hopefully, help the author avoid them in the future. In this case, the editor did several things right. She acted as a buffer between her author and the reviewer. She didn’t make demands or carry on in public about how bad the review had been nor did she send the “troops” out to downgrade the review. Most of all, she was doing her best to protect not only her author’s feelings but her career by making sure she understood why the reviewer had concerns so she could judge whether they were valid and, if so, help the writer avoid those problems in the future.

Indie or “pro”, writing is your profession. That means you have to act like a pro. Part of that is keeping an eye on what your fans are doing in your name. If fans who are part of your inner circle are going around making life miserable for folks who paid for your books but who didn’t love what your wrote, you need to rein them in. If they aren’t part of your inner circle and are going around saying they are acting in your name, you sure as hell need to contact them and tell them to cease and desist. The last thing you need is to be fighting battles they started, battles you may not be prepared for.

An example of what can go wrong happened to our very own Sarah. She had a “fan” running around telling people, including her agent and editor, that they were collaborating on a project. It took Sarah some time to clean up that particular mess. It was compounded by the fact this person was also representing herself on social media as Sarah’s right hand and enforcer, calling out folks when they said or wrote things she didn’t think Sarah would approve of. Even though she wasn’t a moderator, she actually tried doing this in Sarah’s forum. So you have to keep an eye out and an ear open or you may find yourself with a mess you can’t easily clean up.

Fortunately, those sorts of fans are the exception and not the rule. But lately it seems like I’ve seen more and more of them on social media as well as on Amazon and similar sites. It’s great as an author to have fans who really do love your work. But it isn’t good when their “love” works against you by running others off or by scaring away potential readers and future fans.

So, just as employers and administrators of volunteer opportunities have to be aware of what their people are doing, authors need to keep an eye out as well. Readers are our customers. Reviewers help get the word out. Anything that might run readers off needs to be stopped sooner, rather than later.

I guess it basically comes down to this. As writers we need to grow up, grow a set and realize that not everyone is going to love what we write. If we can’t accept that, then we either need to stop reading our reviews or we need to stop publishing. We can’t throw ourselves on the metaphorical floor and pitch a fit every time someone says our baby is ugly. Or, if we do, at least we should have enough sense to do it in the privacy of our homes and not where anyone can take it as carte blanche to go out and “protect” our reputation against the evil infidels.

13 Comments
  1. “the person commenting admitted that she had not read the book in question but was attacking the review out of a sense of loyalty to the author”

    Right. Because what the world needs is more reflexive yes-men. *GAAAAHHH*

    “A very worried editor contacted the reviewer.”

    Careful now, it’s almost like you had something positive to say about the traditional publishing format…

    (A valuable column, one that I’m going to show a couple aspiring writers that I know.)

    July 8, 2014
  2. What? You mean being an author with fans isn’t all unicorns and faery dust? OMGosh – I think I need to choose a different calling. 🙂

    July 8, 2014
  3. I never thought of the out-of-control fan issue. Sobering, indeed.

    July 8, 2014
  4. Pat Patterson #

    Read the column once, rabit-trailed, read it a second time, with the intention of following the ‘more-flies-with-honey’ link, and did; and WOW!!!! I wasn’t familiar with the work of David Adams, but ANYBODY who can consistently respond with such tact and grace to slam reviews is worth a second look! And THAT goes to proving your point! It also illustrates the concept that yer gonna get more barks than purrs. The work in question had 139 customer reviews, averaging 3.5 stars. However, the only comments left were by customers who gave the work 1 star.

    July 8, 2014
  5. masgramondou #

    So what do you think of this review?

    http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=5982
    In part:
    This was very nearly a bad book. As it is, it persuades me that we need a term for the opposite of “hack writer”. A hack writer plays the keys of a certain emotional register so skillfully that the reader is drawn in despite the writer’s actually caring little for the genre and themes he works in, too little to try adding any breadth or depth to them. The opposite of a hack writer is a sort of naive enthusiast – clumsy and relatively unskilled, but so earnest and fascinated by the kind of story he is trying to tell that the result is lit up by an energy and an ingenuous charm that no hack can quite duplicate.
    [SNIP]
    The result is a book whose technical defects are redeemed by the author’s infectious determination to write a good yarn in a fine old style. The prose is a bit primitive; the technology and space-combat tactics could use a stiff dose of Atomic Rockets to up the SFnal plausibilty. But the plotting is good, the character interactions vivid, and the story carries the day.

    As a reader it is extremely informative and it may in fatc lead me to buy this book whihc I was thinking about doing last weekend but then didn’t.

    As an author I could see feeling hurt even though the criticism is positive overall. And that means I could definitely see the potential for a rabid fan to go all crazy on this and ruin the overall positive impression of the author amongst the reviewer’s regular readers.

    July 8, 2014
    • I’ve got 18 reviews up for my first novel (released on April 25). While most of the reviews are favorable, I did have the following as my only two star review:

      This is a novel for very young adults who would probably prefer comics with words within balloons. It a little bit amusing if you enjoyed Flash Gordon but overall boring. One starts to read every second word, than every third, etc. The author should also eliminate his exclamation point key – speed does not substitute content. One is better off re-reading a Heinlein juvenile book!!!!!!!!!

      I was amused at the reviewer’s reference to “comics with words within balloons” since I spent ten years writing comic books, the review didn’t hurt my feelings in the least. No one will ever write a book which everyone will enjoy. Further more, provided the review is at least moderately thoughtful, there is always something a write can learn from any review. Yeah, we love the “Wow, I loved it!” reviews (and 11 of my 18 reviews are five star reviews), but thoughtful criticism is far more useful to me as a writer.

      Frankly, any writer whose feelings get hurt by poor reviews should give serious consideration to another line of work. You’ve got to have thick skin in this business, because it’s hard to write new stuff if you’re all broken up because someone you don’t know and will probably never meet didn’t like your book.

      July 8, 2014
      • Synova #

        Assuming the reviewer thought that the prose was too simple… no mega best seller ever made a misstep by writing to a lower literacy level. Lots of people who love to read, love stories, love adventure… are slow readers. There was some famous “how to” book a decade or so ago that analyzed mega-best sellers and determined that they were usually written at a third grade level. I don’t know how true that was, but I don’t find it hard to believe.

        I took a book out of the library once. I don’t remember what it was or who the author was other than that it was a well known writer and considered fluff science fiction-fantasy… it may have even been fantasy. Popular, not some high brow literature.

        What I remember was that every page up to… 20 maybe… was annotated in pencil. Less common English words were underlined and then above them or in the margin would be a note of what that word meant. I imagined a determined reader with a dictionary and a pencil, trying to read that book and giving up after about 20 pages. I was amazed the reader lasted so long.

        July 8, 2014
      • Synova #

        Also, did they really misspell “then”?

        July 8, 2014
        • Yeah, I copy/pasted from the review.

          I had a rather pleasant exchange of messages with the guy, actually. I told him I was sorry he hadn’t liked the book and mentioned Amazon’s digital return option. Somehow, he decided I was offended by his remarks and tried to explain his opinion. After I assured him I was not offended, he decided to give me another chance and will buy my next book. I might get another two star review out of it, but I suspect most readers distrust books without at least a few low-star reviews.

          As for word selection, words are my tools and I see no reason to use a tool more complex the necessary. The idea is to tell a story, not demonstrate the size of my vocabulary (or thesaurus). If a reader doesn’t get that, that’s the reader’s problem.

          July 9, 2014
    • Draven #

      Anyone who uses more than 10% of the stuff on Atomic Rockets in a single story is going to have a rather boring story. Not everyone wants strict ‘this is how the universe works’ science in their SF, especially when you go back and read hard SF from fifty years ago and we have things NOW that were thought to be impossible then. If I went back to 1965 and wrote a story where everyone used hand computers with gigabytes of memory in them to communicate near-instantaneously over a global computer network *that wasn’t the property of any single government, corporation or individual* I can guarantee I’d get reviews saying it was implausible.

      Not bashing your post, not bashing Atomic Rockets- but i have things i disagree with them on. For near-future stuff its great… anything after FTL travel, it starts getting wonky (Once you have the energy necessary for FTL, a lot of the other pages start to look like… comparing a smartphone to 1960s computers).

      July 9, 2014
  6. I am a stiff-necked old fogey, and proud of it. I have a temper and I’ve been known to vent my — concerns — strongly. Thus I’ve never asked for a review and never will — which probably explains why I don’t get many. I recently quit a writer’s site which announced that members could “trade” reviews. I’m sorry, but I don’t do many reviews and trading seems to me to be the equivalent of paying for reviews. I do read all the reviews of my work, and yes, I’m obsessive about it, checking every day,

    July 8, 2014
  7. jselvy #

    This internet thing is causing a little cognitive realignment. The thought that authors are actually people and I might interact with them is a new one. Previously my favorite authors were far away or safely dead. It’s an odd sensation that authors may actually care about what I have to say about their books. I will have to adjust my critique styles in light of this.

    July 8, 2014
    • Speaking as an author, all I ask from any reviewer is that they be honest and refrain from personal attacks on me or my readers. If you don’t like my book, tell me why. If there are objective issues with it — grammar or spelling errors, incorrectly presented facts or theories, etc — tell me about those, too.

      One person’s perfectly entertaining story can be unreadable to another person. Smart authors understand that and will not be offended by an honest review (provided, again, the reviewer doesn’t get personal).

      July 9, 2014

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