Let the Receiver Beware

November 12, 2008 at 4:08 am | Posted in Book Blather | 48 Comments

I’m a coward, I’ll freely admit it.  I make a point only to review books I liked.  This way I get to avoid offending anyone – at least, I hope nobody will ever be offended by a positive review from me.  My good friend Trish over at Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?, on the other hand, is quite brave.  She takes chances on advance reader copies.  Sure, she gets free books, but sometimes they aren’t necessarily worth reading!  Now she’s really gone and done it, because she made the dire mistake of agreeing to review a self-published book.  Unfortunately, she didn’t like it and she said as much.  Oops.

I’ll quickly summarize the situation, while carefully avoiding naming the author, with whom I do not want to tangle, and then I’ll move on to the larger questions this scenario raises for book bloggers.

Trish and I often recommend books to each other, but otherwise our reading lists do not overlap much, mainly because I read so much nonfiction.  She handed me this particular book and told me I had to read it, or at least part of it.  I stared at the lurid cover art in disbelief.  Was she kidding me with this?  She said I had to read it because she wasn’t able to describe just how bad it was.  She was right.  I read through the first chapter during lunch, and right away I called and told her to come get the book away from me.  I’ve read a couple thousand books, and flipped through, oh, several others, but never had I encountered writing so shockingly bad.  It was so bad we brought it to book group and made everyone there flip through it too.

Anyway.  Trish reviewed the book and included a quote and the cover art.  The author first anonymously posted a comment, then sent an e-mail as himself demanding that she remove the quote and the cover art because she did not have his permission to use them.  Now, I’m no lawyer, but to my understanding a brief quote from a work used for the purpose of criticizing or even parodying it is considered fair use.  He may have a point about the cover art, since it’s difficult to “quote” a work of visual art and the artist did not put that work out for reviewing purposes, but again, I’m no lawyer.  It’s unfortunate but true that fair use includes quoting for purposes other than showering the author with roses.

The trouble here is that if what this author is trying to do becomes common, there will quickly be no point to reviewing books online.  If a book blogger – an unpaid blogger who most likely earns pennies at some lame wage-slave day job – risks threats of legal action from anyone who mass-mails some sad drek to people, then what would be the point of doing it?  The trouble with lawsuits is that even if they are completely spurious, even if they are thrown out of court, one still has to pay for a lawyer to defend oneself.  It’s a liability that I for one would not have the financial wherewithal to handle.

Books used to be reviewed by paid journalists.  Sure, that still happens, but the trend is the same as with reality television.  Why pay writers when you don’t need to?  Book bloggers don’t ask for a paycheck or benefits.  They’re thrilled to get free books in the mail.  Book bloggers are already generating unprecedented word-of-mouth sales and sending (readable) books to the top of best-seller lists.  The reason this works, though, is that people trust this army of homegrown reviewers.  If an author comes along and wants a quid-pro-quo arrangement – either a positive review or no review in exchange for, whoopee, a free book – well, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

The literary world is not for sissies.  Authors get their works panned all the time.  First they can’t get an agent.  Then they can’t get published.  Then the critics don’t like it.  Then it doesn’t sell well and it winds up on the remainder table.  Ouch!  Even truly great writers like e.e. cummings and John Kennedy Toole, and smashing commercial successes like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, had a tough time with publishers – Toole so much so that he went home and killed himself over it.  Sometimes the publishers and the critics and the reading public ignore great books and celebrate lousy books.

Other times, the critics are right.  Last I checked, we still had a Bill of Rights and it still protected freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and, most importantly, freedom of conscience.  Let’s keep it that way.

Addendum:  To my surprise, this post has generated quite a bit of interest, a certain amount of controversy, and perhaps some miscommunication.  A careful read will show that I never actually said Trish was blatantly threatened with a lawsuit – what I actually said was that the potential for this happening would have negative consequences.  This post was entirely intended in the abstract, which is why I’ve gone out of my way to avoid naming any names.

On the other hand, the author in question did send her e-mail using an address that contained …..lawfirm@….com.  I believe a prudent person would do well to consider any requests made from a lawyer using official law firm stationery or e-mail as strongly hinting at the possibility of further legal correspondence, up to and including a suit.  Otherwise, what would be the point of using it, instead of one’s personal e-mail?

As far as I know, I’ve also seen all the correspondence between Trish and this author.  It’s up to her whether she’ll wind up posting this correspondence on her blog, as the author has requested at least one other person should do.  Anyway, what I saw was that Trish included her URL in her original request for the giveaway book that started all this, giving the author a chance to see what her reviews are like; he inquired some time later whether she had read it yet; she said no but that she’d try to move it up in her stack; when she posted on her blog that she was reading it, he e-mailed again asking if she liked it; and finally, she wrote back that she didn’t like it and wasn’t sure she wanted to review it, but that if she did she’d be polite and honest.  This correspondence forces me to the conclusion that the author not only knew quite well that Trish intended to review his book, but that he heartily desired it, until he saw the review itself.

I also think that her review was lackluster, but not mean or even all that negative.

To close, the author has posted no fewer than 14 comments to this particular post, none of which I have accepted, to spare him embarrassing himself further.  It never pays to embroil oneself in a flame war, especially when one asks someone to explain exactly why she thinks he’s ‘insane’ or ‘nuts.’

Second Addendum:  The blogger who was asked to post her e-mail correspondence with this author has since been contacted again and asked to remove it, as well as every other mention of his name and his book.  She complied and recommended that everyone else who posted naming this person follow her example, to avoid possible legal action.  I’m leaving this one up, since nobody reading it would be able to determine to whom I refer, and none of the author’s fans would be led to it by Google or other search.  In my mind, this all goes to show that the publicity around this case is not only not hysterical, but perhaps has not generated as much concern as it could have.  Again, how this affects the average blogger is purely a matter of speculation, but here we have a documented case of Aggrieved Authors in Action Badgering Benighted Bloggers.

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48 Comments »

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  1. [...] 11, 2008 by trish Please please…go read this post my friend wrote. I’m in the middle of something I don’t want to talk about right now, so if you could [...]

  2. AHHHHHH! This is horrid. I have been thinking about posting on this. I still may, not this specific incident, but more the idea that we have to review books gently in case an author reads the review.

  3. Oh MY GOD! I definitely don’t have the time and energy to fight a lawsuit!

    and this is basically a very serious issue.

    When you send books for reviews, you should be ready to hear an uniased opinion, if you can’t then don’t send them at all.

    Book bloggers are known for their honest reviews, and this is such shameful thing to do! I think it is perfectly alright to quote [ we do that mostly for all the books ] and put up a pic too.

    This is very very BAD!

  4. This happened with a romance blogger….I remember reading about it on Dear Author…legal dept of pub. wrote her a letter and everything!

    Like Bethany said, though, I do believe in gentle reviews (as talked about in my tension in book blogging posts) but that’s me. I’m not sure gentle reviews really fit into Trish’s overall tone.

    Each blogger should be true to their voice but also avoid getting sued. ;)

  5. You are correct. Short quotes for the purpose of reviews is covered under the fair use laws.

    I’ve been thinking this is a topic I’ll post about, too. Definitely worth putting up. I think I’m also going to post a disclaimer on my blog for anyone sending me anything.

    This is absolutely ridiculous!

  6. I avoid self-published books like the plague. I need a publisher to go through the bad stuff first.

    I applaud Trish for sticking to her guns. If you don’t want an honest review, don’t ask anyone to read your book. Put it on a shelf at home and occasionally take it down to pet it. All real writers get bad reviews at some point.

  7. This is definitely an extreme case, but I never understand when authors get on their soapbox and yell and scream that a reviewer got their book all wrong. It just makes them look like jackasses and puts them on my ‘never read’ list.

  8. This is NUTS! I have a policy on this myself. If an author/publisher sends me a book, I usually let them know up front that I will be honest in my review. I’ve posted several negative reviews recently and so far, no one has come complaining … but this is really scary. Thanks for making everyone aware of it. I’m going over to send Trish hugs now.

  9. I agree wholeheartedly and second everything you’ve said here with a hearty AMEN! It’s best to stay away from self-published books, but there are some real gems out there that deserve to be discovered, and sometimes it’s worth taking a risk. It is unfortunate, though, that this author has not written one of those gems and clearly isn’t prepared for what it means when you put your book in the public domain.

  10. How terrible! I’m kind of a wimp too – not only do I not review books that I really don’t enjoy, but I usually do not even finish the book.

    Poor Trish! I love her reviews so much because she is so honest about everything she reads. I hope this all works out well for her.

  11. Very well written post! I totally agree.

  12. ARGH! Another author acting up (I could give you about a dozen examples of this happening, including one where the author threatened to sic a PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR on someone who just happened to not like her book). I agree that it takes a thick skin to publish a book, but to threaten someone like this is uncalled-for.

  13. Excellent post! I have an entire page dedicated on my blog to what my reviewing policy is and what an author or publisher can expect if I agree to have a book sent to me. Perhaps an issue like this could be avoided by making sure everybody has one as well. You can see an example on my blog under “contact me.” Using cover art and quotes for a book review, I would consider fair game. Sounds like this author can’t handle the heat.

  14. The whole point of being a book blogger is to give real reviews. What’s the point of asking for a review if you really just want someone to say it’s wonderful? I can do that without reading something but noone will believe me if I keep doing it. It was a great review.

    Did the author give Amazon or Library Thing or Shelfari or whoever permission to use the cover art? I think if you put it out there to be purchased, the cover art is available to use wherever. She wasn’t using it to make money for herself. My thought would be he’s out of luck.

    Hugs Trish!

  15. I decided I had more to say about this, so I blogged my take here.

  16. [...] Some authors need to grow a pair. [...]

  17. [...] at the Both Eyes Book Blog has written an eloquent and intelligent response to this issue that says almost everything I would want to say about this topic, so I encourage you [...]

  18. Having been on the receiving end of authors sending their best friends to come and ‘put me in my place’ for having the audacity to not see the genius that is their friend’s work, I totally understand how Trish feels and it amazes me that there are authors that don’t learn from other authors mistakes.

    *shakes heads*

  19. This is pure craziness! I had an incident back a couple of months ago where I agreed to review a book through a publicist that caused me trouble. Click here for that post. What is happening to Trish is awful. I have a couple of self-published books on my list. It’s making me reconsider one just in case it’s the same one Trish has had this trouble with. I won’t be accepting any more. That is for certain. I understand that this is their life’s work, but getting nasty almost proves the point of the reviewer, doesn’t it? Trish, my heart goes out to you. Please contact me if there is anything I can do to help. I would think he can’t sue about the cover art. Amazon and Barnes & Noble display it. I would also be inclined to believe this author is just blowing smoke anyway. I am so very sorry!

  20. Validates my decision not to accept self published books.

  21. Amy’s right…my review wasn’t gentle. That’s not my style in writing or in real life. While I do think the review is fair, what really makes me angry is someone, specifically an attorney trying to bully me just because he’s an attorney and I’m not. And he’s trying to make me take the quote and cover down, which are totally legal. Ultimately, that’s what I think is wrong.

  22. Hi guys. I’m a lawyer. That guy is out of line. It’s called Freedom of Speech. You are entitled to your own opinion.

    Just for future reference, threats to sue and actually succeeding in a lawsuit are two different things. I realize that since i am a lawyer, I have no fear of litigation. But I personally would tell the guy that I was
    waiting with bated breath for his filing papers.
    Its lawyers like him… Whether this guy likes
    it or not peope are free to critique his work. extensively.

  23. The book blogging community should probably develop an all purpose disclaimer we could post somewhere on our sites to provide “fair warning” to authors, and perhaps prevent this kind of thing from happening.

    Any attorney’s out there who’d like to come up with one?

  24. I am behind Trish all the way. I have said this before on book blogs but the reason I read them is because they are honest. I know they aren’t getting paid to say nice things. It is like talking to a good friend about a book and you expect her to tell you her true feelings. Too bad the man wrote a book Trish didn’t like. Maybe someone else will but she is entitled to her opinion. Go Trish!

  25. Wow, what a crap situation. Thanks for sharing, and you’re exactly right that if this is the way things are going to swing, there soon won’t be any point in reviewing at all!

    I hope to have an author guest blogger post at Estella’s Revenge (http://www.estellasrevenge.com) in the very near future. Probably the December issue. We’ll see!

  26. Yes, I also stay away from self-published books because about 95% of them are crap. Which is why they are self-published. The author in question is completely out of line to expect a glowing review from anyone. I doubt anybody is going to read his book now — not from the “bad” review, but because of his childish response.

  27. Yikes! I think Trish is definitely being treated unfairly.

    I enjoy writing about books I’ve read on my blog (it is not a book review blog, but since I read a lot, books are something I blog about often…I would hate to feel that I, or anyone else, would have to think twice about publishing a blog post that is honest, but potentially seen as negative, opinion of a book!

    I am sure Trish will survive this unpleasantness– and it will just get back in a bad way for the author.

  28. That is terrible. I like what the post said. We don’t get paid for posting our blogs. We do it for the passion of the written word. Now we have to worry about being honest. How terrible the next time I don’t like a book I have to worry if I am going to get threatened by the author’s lawyer. Don’t tell me he was not even man enough to talk to you. Just get a lawyer.

  29. As far as I’m concerned, your doing someone a favor by reading their self published book. Poor Trish–I hate to think she is suffering over this!

  30. I agree with every comment here. Wow. You’ve cemented my resolve not to ever accept a self-published book, and I’m even leery about getting any from publishers now. I just hardly ever seem to get noes I like, and feel bad about being honest why they suck, but I can’t avoid that either. It’s why I write a blog. So you can all avoid the terrible books I stumble across. And go after the good ones!

  31. Amen to that. I accepted one self-published book. Never again! There is a reason it is self-published.

  32. My own policy is akin to the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

    That’s not to say that just because I haven’t reviewed a book yet, I didn’t like it. More often, it means I simply haven’t gotten around to it…not the same thing and my profound apologies to authors whose books I have yet to read and/or review (Dear Andy Zhang, Gretchen Lee Bourquin, Christopher Meeks and Darin Strauss, I loved your books and promise to review them soon – really). Similar apologies to publishers…

    In any event, this is an important topic and I applaud you for bringing it up!

  33. Excellent post and one I completely agree with…I accept ARCs and I’m picky about the ones I take. Not because I’m afraid of some author sending me nasty emails (I’ve gotten one of those), but because I don’t want to waste my time reading stuff I don’t like or that is poorly written. I pretty much turn down self-published books with one or two exceptions (ie: when a blogger whose opinion I respect enjoyed the book). I find myself laughing (perhaps even chuckling!!) that this guy seems to think he can sue someone for using the cover image of his book (which I assume is all over the place since he’s trying to sell it) and a quote from his book. A judge would toss that out in a nanosecond. Trish didn’t attack HIM, she merely reviewed his book…she was probably far more kind than most print reviewers would have been.

  34. *huf* The author really needs to learn how to accept criticism. Writing is not all sunshine and roses.

  35. I am definitely torn on self-publishing. But I don’t really think that’s the issue here (maybe a different debate).

    I think the underlying issue is that NO ONE IS REQUIRED TO LIKE A BOOK.

    I have been contacted by publishers (as I’m sure Trish has too) to review books. They usually send me some guidelines too (ie don’t talk about the publishing house, just the book & author. if you want quotes or cover images, contact us for appropriate released ones. etc etc) They also say “you are not required to like the book. please be honest.”

    If you can’t take the heat, get outta the sun. I’d love to be an author, but I know my writing is not good enough (yet?) to take the heat.

  36. This is an amazing situation. Who knew one little review could cause people to blogg about it everywhere.

    I don’t avoid self-published books, but I consider myself fortunate that I’ve only read a few really bad books; you know, the kind where you are reading as fast as you can to get it over with.

    No matter what happens with this situation, I see it having a long-term negative impact, especially for self-published authors.

    Cheryl

  37. self-published books should be treated with caution and an extra light hand…remember these authors are already often rejected by agents and publishers and simply sought self-publication to get their babies out there…they are very attached to their words and their works…this makes them comparatively more sensitive than authors who have been through the publishing process…the rejections, the edits, the rewrites, the changes, and all that stuff. As a writer, I know all too well that rejection is harsh and hurtful no matter how softly it is given…but as a writer, you have to pick yourself up and move on! Just because it is rejected in one place, does not mean it will be rejected everywhere.

    However, on the other hand, it is perfectly legal to quote a section of the book for the purposes you stated above. Additionally, copyright law allows you to use cover art if you are promoting the book to your readers….helping them buy it as it were.

    In this case, I would appease this author by removing the cover art simply because the review is not a recommendation for the book, but a recommendation against it. Though since I’ve seen this about the blogs…I highly doubt he will be appeased.

  38. The author is insane. If someone is going to ask you to review their book, they should expect an honest review – otherwise what is the point of getting reviews in the first place. There can even be a wide range of opinions on books that are generally recommended. Why even read book blogs if all the bloggers out there felt like they couldn’t be honest in their assessments because of the authors reaction. I agree with Becca, it might be time for book bloggers to write an all purpose disclaimer.

  39. To a Certain Someone:

    I don’t know if you realize how blog comments work, but when someone comments, it’s entirely likely that they not only don’t go back and read later comments, but that they never even go back to that blog again. You’d be wasting your breath, even IF I clicked ‘approve’ on each of your 14 (so far) comments, because nobody you want to respond to would even see your messages, much less do what you want. I don’t have the power to force people to apologize for things, and neither do you.

    Also, you’re better off if your name never appears here, because then people who Google search on your name or the title of your book will not be led to this blog. I’m sure you’ll realize this is in your best interest.

    This blog is about me, not you.

    You may not have noticed, but I’ve continued to post about other topics. The blog has moved on, as has its audience. I suggest you move on too. Go promote your books or start work on a new manuscript. By next week all of this will have blown over.

  40. Wow. When I started blogging I split my blog between book reviews and local politics. I gave up local politics because the comments got very nasty very quickly.

    I sure hope that doesn’t happen with book reviews.

  41. I have reviewed several “self-published” books in the last year and have had some pleasant surprises. I’ve also had a couple of real duds show up in the mix and I pretty much said so – and why I considered them to be bad books. I heard only from the authors whose work I praised – nothing from the others.

    However, I’ve seen three or four authors get really nasty with reviewers on Amazon.com, even to the point of disguising their “names” and claiming to be someone else. One, a writer who sells in fairly large numbers, has become a laughingstock on Amazon as a result and no one will review him there anymore, in fact.

    This kind of thing should not be happening to amateur reviewers like us – but it will, on occasion. We can’t let it stop us from enjoying the hobby we so much enjoy.

    Hang in there, guys. It’s worth it.

  42. Oh, I’m so sad for Trish! It shouldn’t have to be this way…

    Normally, If I’m thinking of posting a negative review of a book that an author (or agent) has sent me, I’ll get in touch with said author or agent and let him know that I’m going to be saying some negative things in my review. In a couple of cases, the author/agent has told me NOT to post the review and I haven’t.

    This beats having to lie and pretend that you like a book that you actually hated. Plus, none of your readers will even know that you read it!

    The funny thing is that you never know who is going to be reading your blog. I’ve had several e-mails and comments from well-known authors thanking me for my critiques. It really is quite extraordinary for a little-ol’ person like me to be contacted by Jonathan Maberry or Dave King. This “opaqueness” of our book blogs is both wonderful and a bit daunting, and the open quality of the web something we always need to keep in the backs of our minds.

  43. I’m fairly certain I know who this author is, being that I’ve seen similar reactions/interactions with other bloggers in the book blogging community concerning one particular author. He e-mailed me the other day to see if I wanted to review his book and I just deleted the e-mail without responding. I don’t want to get embroiled in that kind of nonsense, especially because he seems like the type who would keep hounding me to read/review the book as though I don’t have 237 other books in my TBR stack.

    Ugh, I wish he’d realize that all of this bad attention and his inability to accept constructive criticism only does harm to his book sales and NOTHING to further promotion of his book.

  44. Can we perhaps avoid the whole generalizing a few idiots’ behavior to all self-published authors?

    Also, minor nitpick, but the Bill of Rights only protects freedom of speech from Congress (“Congress shall make no law” etc.). I agree with your sentiment, though.

  45. My goodness, I would certainly hope we all feel we shouldn’t expect this kind of behavior from anyone! I know of only one “idiot” at this time who has been obnoxious enough for me not to allow comments – the fact that he happens to be a self-published author is merely a coincidence.

    I have no personal policy about self-published authors. Personally, I’ve never taken an ARC to review, regardless of publisher.

    I’m sure you’re right, freedom of speech isn’t the particular law that would be most applicable in this case. What I do know is that it’s definitely a bad thing if reviewers start to feel that they risk personal liability for giving honest reviews.

  46. HOLY COW!

    What a schmuck!

    14 Comments. Let it go!

  47. [...] role that book bloggers do and/or should play in reviewing books, and about authors behaving badly (here too), and such other sundry things. I haven’t been commenting on this much on other [...]

  48. [...] This actually reminded me of a little scuff that Trish @ Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’? unfortunately experienced. It’s old news now, but the long-and-short of it is she received a book directly from an author and reviewed it. She didn’t think it was well written, and she substantiated her thoughts with quotes and reasons… but the author got upset. [Here's the full story if you're curious.] [...]


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