Un-customers, and the internet village mob

As a creative businessperson, you will inevitably face this question: how willing are you to allow complaints and harangues to change the way you do what you do?

Because you will get complaints. It’s inevitable. People will either complain about your product, or they will complain about your presentation, or they will complain about you as a human being. This has been true for as long as artists have been selling their work, but it’s especially true in the internet age — where every single person has a (potentially massive) megaphone at her disposal.

In other words: do you dare make anyone mad at you?

I think the first question to ask is: is the person doing the complaining, even a customer? Are they actively buying you, or have they actively bought you in the past? Someone who is actively buying you, and who might walk away, is a voice that probably should be taken seriously. That could be a genuine customer relations matter, and in cases of genuine customer relations, I think it’s always a good idea to be good-humored, generous with your sentiment, apologetic in your approach, and take things on the chin.

The voice that probably shouldn’t be taken seriously, is the un-customer: the guy who never bought you to begin with, and is liable to never buy you in the future — either because of taste, or because of politics, or some other damned thing — and who only came to your blog or your Twitter or your e-mail in-box in order to poke a stick in your eye. Such un-customers are common. Everybody has them. Doesn’t matter how big or small your creative business is. The un-customer is just in it to mess with you.

But what if the un-customer threatens to spread the word?

That’s a somewhat different issue. Before the advent of the internet, un-customers didn’t have a lot of influence, nor much ability to negatively impact you. Now? Depending on who your un-customer is, (s)he might have a small army of social media followers, ready and willing to launch a bad press campaign — if the un-customer decides to make a stink. Numerous creative artists are rightfully terrified of this possibility: that some stranger on the internet will get angry, and decide to ruin that creative artist in the public sphere. It’s a possibility that haunts the dreams of many. As columnist Cathy Young noted recently, the village mob has made a comeback. Only, this time, it’s the global internet village. And the mob is an anonymous animal that can come from anywhere, at any time, for any reason.

It’s enough to make any artist pack up forever and leave the public sphere!

But you don’t have to let them win. Here’s why.

First, you have to decide what your principles are. The nexus between art and business has always been a hot crossroads. Artistic businesspersons feeling the heat, is as old as the hills and twice as dusty. If you don’t understand your own principles, or what you’re willing to fight for — despite the global internet village mob, despite the un-customers — you’re probably going to get mowed down.

Make sure you can answer Sean Connery’s question, from The Untouchables, “What are you prepared to do?” Are you willing to keep creating and selling your art, despite the un-customer? Despite the threat of the village internet mob? How hot does the fire have to get before you cave? Or are you your own person, able to withstand the flames, and chart your own course? If you don’t fully understand yourself — what you really believe and think, as an artistic businessperson — it’s not a bad idea to sit down and write or type out some kind of personal artistic businessperson mission statement. Beyond merely making money. What are you for? What is your work about for you? Be bold. Fill it with declarations of independence. Frame it or make it your desktop wallpaper. So that every time you sit down to work, or check e-mail, or look at Facebook, you can see your own words talking back to you. So that you don’t forget yourself when the internet mob and the un-customers come trick-or-treating to your digital door.

Second, un-customers and social media mobs don’t realize that at the same time they are broadcasting to a friendly audience — the choir — they are also broadcasting to the rest of the world, including your extant customers, and people liable to be sympathetic to you for any number of reasons. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad press. If Person A tries to make a stink against you for the sake of Audience A, this travels across the World Wide Web to reach Audience B, and Audience B might consider anything negative said about you by Person A, to actually be a positive, as much or even moreso — in the inverse — than Audience A. So, if you’ve got an un-customer threatening to influence the potential audience against you — especially if it’s over something political, or involves an issue that has more than one side, or more than one perspective — realize that this person is going to be doing simultaneous free advertising for you, among the folks who think the un-customers views or opinions are wrong.

Third, nothing can stop someone who is good at entertaining. Nothing. If you can create a wonderful thing that speaks to the hearts of many, all the stink in the world cannot overcome what you do. In fact, if you can entertain and make people appreciate what you do — on the level of raw enjoyment — the more somebody tries to make trouble for you, the more people who enjoy your product are going to launch their own efforts to speak up and speak out on your behalf; or at least on behalf of your work.

Consider the case of the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain, which came under fire for political reasons. The plaintiffs seemed to assume that only their “side” mattered, and that only their “side” would have a say. What they didn’t realize is that Chick-Fil-A makes damned good chicken nuggets, chicken sandwiches, waffle fries, etc., and the nominal extant customer base made sure to show up in force in support of Chick-Fil-A. Moreover, people who’d never really bothered to eat at Chick-Fil-A — but who disliked the political message of the original plaintiffs — also showed up in force, and discovered that Chick-Fil-A makes terrific food. So, what began as un-customers and a small internet village mob, going after a national chain business, ended as a much larger and much more demonstrative counter-effort — by Chick-Fil-A fans, and people opposed to the mob in the first place — ensuring that Chick-Fil-A saw record business.

Now, being an artist and being a food vendor aren’t exactly the same thing, but you get the idea. If you’re good at what you do, and people appreciate it, then there’s almost nothing that can really stop you. Oh, you may have to endure some unkind words and scrutiny — in the wider public sphere. Especially if you’re a small creative businessperson who doesn’t have a large social media footprint, while your un-customers and their cranky allies enjoy a substantial footprint. This kind of “punching down” is endurable. Trust me. And you just might find that what began as a rather atrocious case of negative press, works to your advantage in the long run. Because there is a world of people who will make up their own minds about you, and what it is you create, and they won’t always listen to complainers. Especially if the work you’re doing is quality work — no hype, it’s verifiably good according to your extant customers and fans.

Good stuff will ultimately sell itself, and outlast the efforts of people who want to negatively impact your bottom line.

Fourth, the same power that the internet gives to complainers, also allows you to work beyond the reach of “gatekeepers” who might try to stop your work from reaching the marketplace. Gatekeepers were a significant hurdle in the past, for artistic businesspeople of all descriptions. If you couldn’t get a deal with a record label, you were fighting a titanic uphill battle; as a musician. If you couldn’t get a publishing contract with a traditional publisher, you were also fighting a titanic uphill battle; as a writer who couldn’t “cut it” with the major editors. And so on, and so forth. But the internet has allowed anyone to open a virtual storefront for any reason, selling practically any kind of creative product. Any singer or band who can lay some tracks down in a digital studio, can take that work to Amazon.com or another vendor, and begin selling music. Any writer who can put words to the page, can do the same. With the only caveat being: you’re necessarily competing with everyone else who is doing likewise, so it’s probably tougher than ever to stand out.

But then, it was tough to stand out in the old days, too. Which gets back to my point that if you’re genuinely good at what you do (for all definitions of “good” that include, “This makes people happy and they will buy it, and tell their friends,”) then you can have success. It might not be monster success. But monster success — millions and millions of dollars — is never a guarantee to anybody, at any time. Regardless of venue, or genre, or product, or who might be giving you positive/negative attention on social media.

As Kris Rusch has said, this is the “wild, wild West.” Are you ready to cowboy up?

If the answer is, “Yes,” then you shouldn’t have any career-crashing problems. Complainers come, and complainers go. Quality wins. Productivity wins. Nobody can stop you, but you. The internet may be forever, but nothing anybody says against you on the internet can touch you — if you don’t let it. You simply have to decide who you are, what you think is important, say damn the torpedoes, and set your sails — regardless of the flack. Un-customers were never part of your business income anyway. Dollars that did not exist in the first place, cannot be taken away from you. Bad press does not exist, because there is more than one kind of audience paying attention. The rotten fruit hurled at you today, may become fruit pies delivered to your door tomorrow.

All you have to do is make sure you know who you are, and keep your eyes on the goals that you care about.


  1. Of course you realize, Brad, that certain parties are now going to say you’re a raciss sexiss homophobic bigot because you spoke in a positive way about Chick-Fil-a…

    1. It’s been my observation that people who deploy the ist accusations at the drop of a hat, have one-track minds. Everyone and everything is ist and the targets change week to week, day to day. The slander itself never changes. Just the people who happen to be under the crosshairs at any given moment. I suspect these particularly pernicious individuals — I sometimes call them bell-ringers — have a limited cultural shelf life. It’s the proverbial little boy who cried wolf. Ring that bell all day every day, people will get tired of you, and stop paying attention.

      1. What gets me about that is that the “ists”, as you call them, will never (in my experience) address the actual problem. They’ll only respond in terms of this or that “ist” – never deal with the facts as they exist ‘on the ground’. My recent bust-up with the SJW’s over Tor is a classic example. I still can’t understand how not a single one of them has ever addressed the actual points I raised, or the factual problems with Irene Gallo’s statements. They were quite happy to attack me for objecting to the statements, and the Puppies of various spots and stripes for daring to exist, but they never once addressed the specific issues I raised.

        I call that cowardice. Others may have a different perspective, of course.


        1. I think they are the same ones that expound at length in person, and then when you start to say, “I’m not so certain that—”
          They scream “Racisss!! Sexisss!!” And leave you blinking in awe at their telepathic powers. (NOT) And then they wonder why you no longer answer their phone calls or respond to their e-mail.

          Perhaps because I’m/ we’re too busy doing volunteer work, or quietly doing what we can to take care of problems in our own backyards? Nah, that can’t be it, because applying elbow grease and my own $$ to meet a local need can’t possibly address the “Great Issue.”

    2. **SOME** of us have been eating at Chick-Fil-A since the 1980s, when they only sign of their politics was they were closed on Sundays, and each cash register had a small placard on it: “God’s Commandment: Thou shalt not Steal!”

      1. Not quite that early but 90s… yummy chicken readily available in the student union. and cheaper than most of the ‘home made’ (aka cafeteria food) stuff.

  2. I think that is one of the things the nay sayers have trouble comprehending: That we will make up our own minds, not just accept what they say.

    I was reading some Facebook posts yesterday, and my hindbrain was telling me that, yes, these are the people I am expected to agree with, but I don’t know if I necessarily do. There are some extenuating details where I am not a 100% backer. It seems neither side of an issue can take its supporter for granted, any longer.

    Which is a great thing to know as an artist. Libertarian freedom is exerting itself more and more, people can make up their own minds.

    Excellent! Thank you for posting.

    1. I think sometimes what happens is that people go into the profession of nay-saying, because they desperately want to make it as creative businesspersons, but they lack the drive, or the talent, or the perserverence. So they become “snipers” against those who do have the drive, talent, and perserverence. In SF/F in particular, there is a well known critic who typically dislikes my stuff. She has a perch at a well-established venue. Many authors fawn over her. I never have, because the more she dislikes my stuff, the better my stuff tends to do with my target audience. In fact, that’s usually a dead giveaway: if she craps on one of my stories in Analog I can usually bet that the same story is going to do well on the annual readers’ poll, and get me some kind mail from enthusiasts.

      This individual used to have the juice, as a storyteller.

      Now? Now she plies her trade as a shin-kicking “authority” in the field. And I honestly think the only people who pay attention to her, are small-time writers who are forever hoping to be in her good graces.

      1. That’s the eunuch in a harem theory, and it might be true. But unfortunately it’s also true that it’s easy to do hatchet jobs, and quite if you have a malicious bent.

        Last week someone handed me a note with a couple of mainstream books they thought I should review. I might end up doing reviews, but I’ve done a few for non-fiction and historic fiction, and they were time consuming things. But the main issue is if I could review an author who I personally dislike, and that answer is probably not. It’s the hatchet job aspect, and since they’re so easy to do, there’s a risk that it can influence the review even for good reads. And that isn’t fair to the author or the customer.

        1. Who’s going to waste time actually *reading* a book before reviewing it? Just unreel a few yards of Narrative and flip through the pages to find things you can pull out of context for support.

          At least that’s how the “professionals” seem to do it…

      2. They exist in the hard sciences too. Often, at least in my adoptive country, they are frustrated staff scientists working under an actual professor. Can tell you all about why nobody in their department deserves to be a professor, but when you ask to see their independent research work (as opposed to work as glorified technicians for somebody else) it is either scant or nonexistent.

      3. Liz Bourke did a nasty hit-piece review of Michael J Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations a while back.

        I now own the entire series. 🙂

        1. There’s a certain troll who we all know and…well, not love, but we all know him.

          Every time he starts bashing my work, sales shoot up. Why? Because the stuff he loves, a lot of folks like us can’t stand, but the stuff he can’t stand are things like Larry’s work, Sarah’s, Ringo, Mike Williamson, etc. So, since he can’t stand my stuff, folks figure I’m in that vein too.

          It’s worked pretty well too. I probably need to put him on the payroll, except that he’s quite willing to bash my work for free. 😀

  3. The other point to keep in mind is that giving bullies what they want doesn’t make them go away. Instead, it lets them know that you are an easy target.

      1. Other than, when applicable, cleaning their clock. That’s a real option, too, and I learned early on that if you hit ’em hard enough, they go away a lot faster than if you ignore them. They stay away, too.

        1. I try to hit the points and refute them for the benefit of onlookers, but then you get the ones who are just.. not right in the head. Although I’ve been effective with the Mom Voice on one of those.

        2. Maybe about twenty years ago, the editor of a hunting and fishing magazine did that with a critic. He chose to run the complaint as a letter to the editor, and proceeded to eviscerate it. But as the guts were flying, he made a comment that essentially “We don’t need your business and we don’t care if you drop your subscription.”

          That comment is why I never bought another copy, and never renewed my subscription because it came across as an arrogant “We don’t care what our customers think.”

          Some years ago I picked up an old copy in the barbershop, found a different complaint and a similar evisceration. I just set it back on the table and stared at the walls. The walls were better entertainment.

          1. Back in the early ’90s I pitched an article to one of the hunting magazines. The editor sent it back with a foaming-at-the-mouth two-page rejection letter, mostly bragging on his own prowess as a writer, and the rest implying that I should slink away in awe of his glory.

            Well, even that kind of rejection letter was better than simply being ignored… someday when the letter returns to the top of the Archeological Filing System I should take it down and have it framed.

    1. ‘Let me be perfectly clear.’ said the Dane. ‘Once you hand me my Danegeld, you will be forever rid of me.’

    2. Yep. Exactly. One of the best ways to not be given a ration of sh*t — is to project the appearance of one who will not accept delivery of said ration.

      1. Very good post and good comments. I don’t know about selling books, but in other businesses we’re bound to offend someone regardless of what we do. I guess the thing is you don’t go out of your way to give offense, and pick your hills to fight on.

        Some friends caught flack for some edited comments on a “news” program and it went viral for a short time. Some were upset at negative comments on social media from people who had never done business with them, and, because they lived several thousands of miles away, were never going to do business with them in the first place. Had anyone local complained? Why, no. Then why sweat it?

        When it does cut into business it’s time to take a hard look at the hill. Is it because the complainers have triggered the village mob, or is it something legitimate to the complainer? And do we take it to heart or is it a hill we want to defend, and if so, how do we do it? You can be entirely right, but defend yourself in a way that makes you lose more business.

  4. There’s a time I would have been afraid of such people. But that time has passed. They aren’t nearly as numerous or powerful as they like to believe.

    1. Also, now that we’re no longer beholden to traditional publishing, we don’t have to worry that these sorts of people will lead the gatekeepers to regard us as toxic and dump us like a stone. There was a time when a sufficiently loud internet mob saying sufficiently horrible things about an author could render him or her unpublishable (except maybe under a pseudonym that was a very carefully held secret), but now we can afford to thumb our noses to them and hope that the racket they’re making will actually attract an audience to our indie books.

      In fact, right now there are a lot of indie authors who are struggling to even get noticed and might welcome that sort of ruckus, simply because it would attract some attention and might actually lead some people to notice them.

      1. I wouldn’t mind a bit of a ruckus which drew attention to my books … any good ideas on how to honk off the SJW mob that won’t seem too obvious?

          1. The key note here is the reality that there are different tastes – various people will want different things, have different causes of enjoyment. Assuming that there is only one valid form of taste will ensure that there will be people the tastemaker wannabe will drive towards the very creators that s/he want to drive out of any industry. The attitude itself is really stupid, since that variance of tastes and interests ensure that there are different genres of fiction and nonfiction, as well as publishers which target those audiences.

            A fantastic example of this is how the known troll and stalker known as Clamps constantly will badmouth a long list of authors and artists – and every time he does so, those artists and authors have spikes in sales. It also really helps that he badmouths artists and writers with real talent.

            Ultimately though, it’s this kind of attitude that ensures that publishing houses like Castalia House will find an audience. (That, and well, they pick good writers as well as know their target audience.)

                1. With luck, in time for SP4. 🙂 Computer problems have really been stomping me since I got back from LC. But more than likely after that.

  5. “Hey, there are some people on the internet complaining about how we do business.”

    “So? Should we worry?”

    “Nah, there’s always someone out there who will complain.”

    “Yepper. Say, do you hear barking?”

    Some complaints are valid…

  6. a) Chick Fil-A actually does pretty well with the stores it has opened in blue strongholds. Quality will cause gay people to eat at chick fil-a and confess online that they are embarassed to let their friends know.

    (The fact that they find it necessary to keep it hush-hush says more about the culture and the legitimacy of concerns about a culture war than bloody near anything else)

    b) Re: TOR. Several comments from the P-kicker side made it clear they thought we’d be no threat. Not only because there weren’t many of us (or somesuch) but because we couldn’t possibly be TOR customers or we’d understand that people have different tastes and worldviews.

    Well – it will be a while before I finish out my Mistborn-related books, or ready anything past the (already purchased) Way of Kings, or (sadly) finish out Wright’s “count” series. If ever.

    1. Before all this I was slowly buying all of Brandon Sanderson’s stuff in ebook. (I have all but the most recent in hardback)

      I was also working my way through John C Wrights stuff.

      And Dan Wells.

      And Elizabeth Haydon finally put out another Symphony if Ages book, it’s been long enough that my first impulse was to buy the earlier books in eformat and retead them – but first I checked the publisher.

      And that list is just off the top of my head. D:

  7. I got a “review” that was just a rant about my anti-Christian story. You just cannot please everyone, and hitting hot buttons happens occasionally.

    1. That’s a good example of this post. Being shocked at an anti-Christian story in Science Fiction is like being shocked when Marxists show up at a Communist rally. Be that as it may, knowing that it is an anti-Christian story means I’ll pass on it, for the same reason a Jew will pass on an anti-Semitic story. However, I don’t think I’ve bought your books (time is short and money shorter), so you haven’t lost a customer. Any complaint on my part is that of an un-customer, and can be disregarded.

      Except usually I don’t complain because I’m lazy and it’s not worth the electrons. I just go elsewhere. That’s why businesses sometimes look at complaints as the tip of the iceberg. That was before orchestrated campaigns and the village mob effect, so that skews things, but its something to mull over.

      That customer/un-customer thing still holds, though. If you get complaints from a demographic you aren’t trying to reach, that’s the same as an un-customer. If, however, you do want to reach that demographic at some point, an un-customer complaint today might be valuable in the long run. But does pandering to the un-customer you wish to turn into a customer drive away a large percentage of the customers you all ready have? That’s a tough call.

      1. It was a semi-professional blog review. I was quite surprised. Basically I’ve got genetic engineering producing some ESP effects. In the _background_, I have media jumping in to call the test kids Gods, and some religious over-reaction on top of the overall unease the society has over human experimentation. It’s not dwelt on, not the focus of the story, and living here in Texas, where all too many want to at least teach Intelligent Design as an equally valid scientific theory, if not out right eliminate teaching evolution in schools, I didn’t think my background unbelievable.

        But, it was a hot button for that person, so I’ll send no more books her direction for review.

  8. Thank you. This is something I’ve needed to hear. I’ve become a lot more timid over social media as a result of watching the internet mobs with their torches and pitchforks go after anyone who exhibits even the slightest whiff of Badthink™. I’ve watched good people become so focused on Goodthink™(like diversity that’s skin deep) who I’ve had to unfollow because their feeds have become so toxic, which has made me withdraw even more.

    Because I don’t have the health or the energy to combat those mobs.

    I hate feeling like a coward going under a screen name or keeping my mouth shut and my head down. I would write and create art regardless, but I’m not certain I would keep publishing if the mobs invaded the review space for my books in an attempt to kill my career. (I’ve heard people bragging about doing this as well. 😦 )

    Everything you said above is right, it’s just hard to believe when you feel alone out there. (Which sounds a lot like whining, but that isn’t my intent.) I know who I am and I know my goals. How do you become bullet-proof? Honest introspection tells me I’m pretty fragile at the moment, and will be until I’m able to get a couple of those health issues fixed. I hate being weak, but prefer acknowledging the weakness to running screaming into a battle without armor and a rusted frying pan with a crooked handle. :p

  9. Yes, Brad, many of the puppy kickers were “punching down” or they should have realized they were. But as you note small press and indie make their threats less and less important.

  10. “All you have to do is make sure you know who you are, and keep your eyes on the goals that you care about.”

    And always remember the difference between goals and dreams.

    A goal doesn’t require anyone else’s agreement or permission to achieve, but realizing a dream depends on someone else’s ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

  11. As a creative businessperson, you will inevitably face this question: how willing are you to allow complaints and harangues to change the way you do what you do?

    I have a reputation for being confrontational, abrasive, arrogant, and loud. Those are my good points! Complaints? See the gentleman with the executioner’s axe please. Next?

    Joking aside, whether the person is a customer or not you always have to ask yourself ‘Are They Right‘.

    Because even the worst jerk in the world, who will never, ever, buy your book, is sometimes right. And your greatest fan who buys all your books and has a criticism is sometimes the worst person to accept suggestions from.

  12. Brad may have implied it, but the message needs stating in very clear and very strong terms: The Collapse of the Middlemen means that the Streisand Effect works for writers, especially genre writers with a presence in online communities.

    It’s almost a law of physics: Commotion attracts attention. The online mob has been running in circles around Vox Day for years, baying for his blood, and all it’s done is made him famous and gotten him new customers, all while he’s been laughing his ass off at them. I defended the Sad Puppies on my blog, was cited by Mike Glyer–and reaped lots of new readers.

    It’s this simple: Be good at what you do, be true to what you are, and harvest the commotion when it happens.

    1. Well, I don’t think I’ve seen any sales out of it, but I got a few boosts in Blog readers from commenting on F770. I got nearly Instalanched from plugging a post of mine on MZW’s FB feed (it was relevant, not just plugging) but it falls off really rapidly. Now I’m lucky to see one page view a day.

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