Let the Receiver BewareNovember 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.