Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Are Some Reviews an Abuse of Power?


Imagine you're driving down the road on a warm spring morning without a care in the world. The top is down, you're thinking about that bag of Dove you're going to dig into at noon, and you're going 50 mph in a 35 mph zone.

Then you hear that ominous sound and you look into the rear view mirror. There's a cop with flashing lights signaling you to pull over. When you glance down and see that you are going 50 mph, you hit the signal and pull over. You know you're screwed, you should have been paying attention to this, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Imagine this now. The cop who pulled you over just found out his son is gay, the son is working part time doing drag shows on Sunday afternoons, and he's going to the prom with the captain of the football team. The cop knows now that all the money he spent on baseball camp, little league, and tickets to football games that he hoped would make his son a man was a complete waste of time. To top this off, the cop's ex-wife just broke off her engagement and he will have to continue paying alimony for the next five years.

You lower the window, without saying a word. You expect a small lecture about speeding, you know you're going to get this ticket, and you're even ready to apologize to the cop for not paying attention. You know you should have been paying attention to the rules of the road and there's no way out of it but to remain silent and suck it up.

But instead of giving you a lecture and a ticket, the cop yanks you out of the car, grabs you by the throat, and shoves you up against the hood. He screams and curses, belittles and demeans you, and continues to shove you around. He even kicks you a few times and twists your arm. There are no witnesses, and this time nothing is on camera. What he does to you is an abuse of power and there's nothing you can do about it. You know you can't fight back because he will only make it worse for you. In this case, it will always be his word against yours because he has the power and you did, indeed, break the law.

The best you can do is hope this cop calms down and leaves you alone. You know this kind of abuse of power happens all the time and you don't want to get into more trouble than you already are. This guy has the ability to ruin your life and he knows it. No matter what happens, it will always be his word against yours. You can't even tell another cop because you know that all cops stick together and one will never question the motives or actions of another. What the cop does to you is traumatic and will leave scars for the rest of your life. But he didn't actually cause any major physical harm and you know you can learn how to live with the psychological harm.

I know this is a dramatic example. But I also know it happens. It happened to me once when I was speeding and there was nothing I could do about it at the time. I paid the ticket and kept my mouth shut.

And while it might be considered too strong to compare a book reviewer who abuses her power to a cop who abuses his power, the psychological damage...the damage that can't be seen...hurts just as much in some cases.

Imagine this: You're a self-published author who is learning more about writing and publishing every day. You feel confident enough to self-publish a novel and to your surprise it actually hits a few bestseller lists on Amazon. You now know you made a few mistakes and you're going to fix all this in your next book. You've read reviews that are both good and bad and you've tried to learn from both the good and bad. In fact, some of the bad reviews on Amazon helped you learn more than the good reviews. Most authors will agree that this happens more often than not with bad reviews.

You're feeling good about being a published author and thinking about the next book you're going to self-publish on Amazon. And then one morning you wake up and find you have a google alert that says one of the most prominent online book reviewers decided to read and review your book. This lady has power, big time. People take her word as gold. At first, you're excited. You know how important a book review can be from this particular reviewer and you can't wait to read it. But when you click to the web site, you find that your book wasn't just given a bad review, it was ripped apart from page to page, line by line. You wonder why this happened and what would motivate someone with this kind of power to go after a small self-published author in such a way. You can live with a bad review, just like you could have lived with getting a ticket for speeding.

You know you should expect both good and bad reviews. This is part of being a published author; it's inevitable. But a review that rips out your soul and leaves you stripped of your dignity is almost more than you can handle. This review was so venomous, not to mention catty, that the book reviewer actually listed, in public, examples of what she thought you did wrong each time. Most of this is debatable. A lot of it was twisted and turned around. And in the end you know there is nothing you can do. You can't rant about how unfair the review was because you'll be labelled a disgruntled author, and we all know how everyone hates that. Some even love to see when it happens. They can't wait to see an author melt down and rant.

What I've discussed above doesn't happen often. Most book reviewers are reliable sources where readers can gain excellent information. But I have seen it happen a few times. To be clear, I'm not talking about bad reviews. Unfortunately, I have seen authors melt down over a bad review without good reason. But good book reviewers are important. They have a right to post an opinion and comment about a book, good or bad. Readers need this now more than ever. But whenever I see an overly detailed bad review that not only has the potential to harm an author's career but also cause serious psychological damage, I have to wonder about the reviewer's motivation. And then I have to wonder whether or not this was an abuse of power that was intended to garner attention and help build the reviewers online platform.

As a reader, I rely on the ethics and moral character of a book reviewer. I respect them for having the courage to stand behind their negative and positive reviews. However, there are no limits to which a book reviewer can go on the Internet as long as she follows the law and doesn't actually come out and defame the author. And if the book reviewer knows the law well enough, this kind of knowledge might even be considered more abuse of power.

And it begs the question: Are some reviews an abuse of power? I honestly don't know the answer to this question because I don't see it happen very often. And while it is an important question, I don't believe it's important enough to pursue. The only thing that is important is for readers to learn how to vet book reviewers. In other words, if you see a book reviewer who might be abusing her power and attacking authors because of a personal agenda, most likely the rest of her reviews will be questionable at best. This is why vetting book reviewers nowadays is so important. And it's not that hard to do. You just have to go back and read previous reviews to see how good and bad reviews were handled. If something strikes you as odd and it doesn't make sense, it's most likely not reliable information and you should look elsewhere to find out about the book you're planning to buy.

2 comments:

mary gresham said...

Ryan, as a person who loves to read and also reads more thatn the average person, I very seldom rely on what others say about books in their reviews. I'm the type person who likes to form my own opinion, because while they might not like a certain book, I might love it or the opposite, although so far, I have never found one yet that I outright hated and when I do leave a comment or review, it is always a good one.
And you know, there are ways to write a unfavorable review without tearing apart the book or the author as a person. I call it common courtesy, but so many don't have that anymore. The ones who don't, I have no respect for.

ryan field said...

Thanks for commenting, Mary. I heard from one book reviewer I respect a great deal...and who hasn't always given me five star reviews...who said the same thing you just said. I wanted to make it clear in the post that it's a small segement of book reviews, not the majority. And I find that most of the time when I see a scathing review that attacks the author/publisher it's always written by someone with an agenda. That agenda is usually about building a platform and gaining attention.