Last Saturday, I was browsing Twitter when I came across the article, “‘Am I being catfished?’ An author confronts her number one online critic”. There was a whole lot of discussion surrounding it, so I clicked on the link to give it a read.
Published in The Guardian and written by author Kathleen Hale, the article chronicles Hale’s obsession with a reviewer who left a negative review of her first book on Goodreads. Hale admits to becoming obsessed with the reviewer. She combs through online profiles, gets the reviewer’s home address under false pretenses, and even visits the reviewer’s home to leave a passive aggressive gift.
It gets worse: Hale calls the woman she believed to be the reviewer at her work. She tries to force the woman to admit that she’s the reviewer, becoming belligerent on the phone.
Not once does Hale seem to understand that she crossed a line. She’s portrayed as a hero for knocking the villainous reviewer off her high-horse. Yet she stalked a woman who happened to dislike her book.
I’ve been very, very fortunate in my reviewing career. I starting reviewing books in the early summer of 2013, and I haven’t encountered any authors that went to that extreme. But one incident does stick out in my mind.
In January 2014, I requested and received an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) of a mystery novel. My initial interest in the premise of the book disappeared before the end of the first chapter. I struggled getting through each page of the book, and my review reflected that. I posted the review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads, along with a copy posted here on my blog.
Then I started another book and forgot about it. I’d done the exact same thing for half a dozen books before without incident or having a second thought.
Except this time, another reviewer liked my review on Goodreads. I couldn’t type the website into the search bar fast enough. Someone else liked my review! They agreed with me and hated the book as well. I felt validated. Excited. But I quickly realized that the reviewer, Riley*, only liked my review so that I’d see his. He wrote that he couldn’t believe we’d read the same book and claimed that I’d missed the point of the book.
My disappointment mixed with frustration before I forced myself to chock the situation up to different people having different opinions of books. Not everyone likes the same thing. I certainly disliked the “classics” I read in high school, though I knew plenty of people in college who loved them.
My blog sent me an email notification a month later. Riley had commented on the post reviewing the book, and his comment looked almost identical to the one on Goodreads. Two more comments appeared on that post over the next few days, one from Freddie** and a second from Riley. Freddie posted her own review of the book while Riley tacked on another version of his review. They reviewed to each other’s reviews on Amazon as well.
Something wasn’t right. It was as if Riley and Freddie put their positive reviews of the book on my blog in order to counteract my one negative review. If that wasn’t strange enough, my review had been in the minority on every single review website. I seemed to be the only person to dislike the book of those who’d read it.
I thanked both Riley and Freddie for their comments and then tried to start a discussion with Riley about the book. He never responded, but Freddie did. He minimized my complaint about the book (that I figured out the bad guy before the end of the first chapter), before asking if I thought another aspect of the story was clever.
WordPress doesn’t require readers to have an account in order to comment on a post, but it does require an email address. So I decided to do a simple Google search. Riley’s email turned up absolutely nothing: a complete dead end.
Freddie’s email showed promise, even before I pasted it into the search bar. The author worked at a pretty unique place, and Freddie’s email appeared to be from that same location. I figured that she knew the author. Maybe she decided to defend a friend or a mentor. I could certainly understand that, even if it’d been taken a bit too far.
But when I pasted Freddie’s email into Google, I got the shock of my life.
The first result was the author’s employee profile on his business’s website. And the reason that came up? Because Freddie’s email was actually the author’s.
Neither Riley nor Freddie ever commented on my blog again. Maybe they decided that they weren’t going to change my opinion of the book. I also never heard from the author, though I never did send him an email about what I learned.
Fortunately, the majority of authors aren’t like that one or Kathleen Hale. Most avoid the reviews of their books, understanding that engaging reviewers can be more devastating for their book than the original negative review. They also know that not all readers are going to like their book. It’s part of being an author and sending work out into the world.
Have you ever spoken with an author after reviewing their book?
*Not the reviewer’s real name.
**Also not this reviewer’s real name.