Everybody tells indie authors to participate in social media, but they usually fail to mention the dangers that lurk out there in Cyberia. Behind a keyboard, normal people can devolve into bullies, trolls, and raging vigilantes. Yes, even in highbrow literary neighborhoods. The weapons of choice are death threats, obscenities, and one-star "reviews."
A handful of authors have spammed and gamed the system with such abandon that some people are suspicious of us all. There's no way to protect yourself completely from meanies—I've had death threats simply because I witnessed the bullying of a naïve author who broke an unwritten Goodreads rule.However, ferreting out those rules can be daunting, so here are some I've learned by trial and error. Lots of error.
#1: Don't Spam
Spam is unwanted promotion. If your Twitter feed, Facebook page, or Pinterest boards are full of your book covers and pitches for your work, you're spamming. Use the 20%-80% rule. Only 20% of your feed should be promos. If you join groups on the Kindleboards, Goodreads, Facebook or other writing forums only to pimp your book, you're likely to be blocked as a spammer. And never post promos on somebody else's page or pitch your book in a DM. That's an auto-unfriend.
#2: Never Trade Reviews
Early Amazon-gamers liked to give a book a 5-star review, then demand a 5-star in return. If the author refused, the five stars became one. Not all review-trading is overt blackmail. But many authors will hint a quid pro quo is expected for a good review. Don't do it: you'll be violating Amazon's TOS. Punishment can be severe. And be aware Amazon also forbids reviewing a product if you'll benefit from the proceeds. So your Mom and Bestie can't give you reviews.
#3: Don’t Pay for Customer Reviews
Amazon has been cracking down on paid reviews with a heavy hand. They don't care if you pay for professional reviews from Kirkus or wherever, but you can only paste a quote from those into the editorial reviews section. Buying a customer review is forbidden. Including a gift card or a free book other than the one reviewed. If you're caught buying a review, you can be banned from selling on Amazon forever.
For more details on what is considered a paid Amazon review, see my post. "Disappearing Amazon Reviews: the Facts behind Amazon's Review Purges." Even the book to be reviewed is considered payment, so reviewers are required to post disclaimers. Yes, free review copies have been standard practice in publishing, but Amazon sells many expensive products, and their rules apply across the board.
#4: Never Respond to Reviews
If a review violates a site's rules, report abuse, but don't comment. On a site like Goodreads, people may call you a "badly behaving author" even for responding to a good review. (This is not true of blogs. Book bloggers welcome thanks.) When you get a fantastic Amazon or Goodreads review, you can follow the reviewer on social media and hope they'll reciprocate. But never comment on unkind reviews. People who write cruel reviews are getting pleasure from your pain. Don't invite them to dish out more.
#5: Report Abuse
Character assassination by review is one of the nastier misuses of Amazon and Goodreads. It's the vigilantes' weapon of choice. Even if you don't see immediate results from a report, things may be happening behind the scenes. They pay more attention after reports reach critical mass. So reports matter. A barrage of one-star personal attacks, called "swarming" is usually removed quickly. Others may take longer, but if there is a clear violation of the TOS, reviews will usually come down.
NOTE: a negative, snarky review is not abuse. A review that's obscene, threatening, or attacks the author personally is. So is an ad for another author's book or services.
#6: Never Argue with a Drunk or a Fool
Internet bullies are both. They are literally high. Rage can trigger endorphins that create a cocaine-like high. How far would you get using reason and logic with a crazed tweaker on the street? Right. So don't try it online. When cybermonkeys start tossing verbal feces around, treat it like any other pile of poop.
- Walk around it.
- Realize the stink will give it away.
- Call maintenance.
- Go someplace cleaner.
Send private messages of support to victims, but don't stand up in cyberpublic no matter how much your inner Atticus Finch wants to speak. I did and have the one-star reviews to prove it. If abuse happens on your own blog, take a screenshot and delete it immediately. It's your job to keep readers safe, not provide a forum for "free speech." "Free speech" means the right not to be arrested for speech in a public space, but it doesn't apply to private spaces. Your blog, like Goodreads and Amazon, is privately owned. If somebody's safety is threatened, report it to law enforcement, just as if it happened in your house.
#7: Change your Definition of “Review."
Online product reviews—as established in the early days of the Internet—are essentially comments, like the comments you see at the end of online news stories. They are nothing like book reviews as we know them. Bad reviews don't always mean bad sales. The week I got a bunch of one-stars from a gang of notorious bullies, my sales quadrupled. They hurt my feelings, but I survived.
#8 Stay out of Rough Neighborhoods
No author is welcome in the Amazon Fora. Especially indies. If you've ever written more than a laundry list, don't go there. Ever. And when you go to Goodreads, wear your reader hat and discuss other authors' books. Don't go to Goodreads to promote your own work except in designated areas.
There's no way to be completely safe in the Wild West online world. But if you follow the rules, you can avoid giving the vigilantes excuses to terrorize you. Plus you're more likely to stay on the good side of the Mighty Zon.
Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) is a popular blogger and the author of ten books, including the bestselling Camilla Randall Mysteries, and How to Be a Writer in the E-Age: a Self-Help Guide, co-authored with Amazon #1 bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde. Anne shares her blog with NYT million-seller Ruth Harris, at Anne R. Allen's Blog…With Ruth Harris. Their blog was named here as one of the top ten blogs for indies by Frances Caballo.