Behaving badly: authors and reviewers on Goodreads

In a suspenseful piece in the Guardian about her relationship with a toxic anonymous reviewer, author Kathleen Hale touched upon some of the ways that authors and their readers relate online. Of course breaking down the boundaries between writer and reader is often a good thing. Writers benefit from an engaged fanbase, and readers get the kind of access that would have been a fantasy pre-internet. But access, the power to network and organise, and the lure of anonymity can combine to produce less desirable results.

After listening to me yammer on about the Goodreads review, my mother sent me a link to a website called stopthegrbullies.com, or STGRB. Blythe appeared on a page called Badly Behaving Goodreaders, an allusion to Badly Behaving Authors. BBAs, Athena Parker, a co-founder of STGRB, told me, are “usually authors who [have] unknowingly broken some ‘rule’”. Once an author is labelled a BBA, his or her book is unofficially blacklisted by the book-blogging community.

In my case, I became a BBA by writing about issues such as PTSD, sex and deer hunting without moralising on these topics. (Other authors have become BBAs for: doing nothing, tweeting their dislike of snarky reviews, supporting other BBAs.)

However inaccurate a review may be, even if it is part of a co-ordinated campaign, the writer’s only viable recourse is no recourse at all. In other words, to resist the temptation to respond. The Goodreads site is unequivocal about this:

At the bottom of the page, Goodreads had issued the following directive (if you are signed in as an author, it appears after every bad review of a book you’ve written): “We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review, even to thank the reviewer. If you think this review is against our Review Guidelines, please flag it to bring it to our attention. Keep in mind that if this is a review of the book, even one including factual errors, we generally will not remove it.

“If you still feel you must leave a comment, click ‘Accept and Continue’ below to proceed (but again, we don’t recommend it).”

According to STGRB, breaking this injunction can have very serious effects upon a writer’s public profile.

Patricia warned me that this was exactly what Blythe was waiting for – and Athena Parker agreed: “[GR Bullies] actually bait authors online to get them to say something, anything, that can be taken out of context.” The next step, she said, was for them to begin the “career-destroying” phase.

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