Review Series Part 4: Protecting Reviewers (and Review Sites)

Before the reviewing series ran in full, I realized I needed to write another article. This was inspired by a recent tweet proposing a podcast (titled “GOODREADS BADDEEDS”). The premise involved inviting authors to come on the podcast and reading them their worst Goodreads reviews.

Last I looked, the tweet had 347 likes. Despite the staggering number of reviewers who shared stories about being stalked, receiving death threats, being harassed via emails, the tweet’s author went radio silent. The only people who received responses were those expressing an interest in co-hosting or appearing on the podcast.

The very basic question of whether the reviewers would be asked for consent before using their reviews was ignored.

I can’t say this person’s idea was inspired by the BookTok trend featuring authors reading some of their worst reviews (often to mock the review or reviewer) but it’s hard not to see the correlation between the trend and this idea. And this prompted some research on my part, and these are things that reviewers, review sites, authors, and aspiring podcasters should know.

Reviews Have Copyright Protection

What does this mean? It means it’s a violation of the fair use act to quote a review in full without consent. Here’s a screenshot from Goodreads in terms of their policy of quoting other people’s reviews:

You can visit the thread here.

Many authors don’t understand how fair use works, and neither do many critics. The U.S. Copyright Office defines “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use” and goes on to outline examples of what would and would not be considered fair use. For example, quoting an entire review would be far less likely to qualify as fair use and would, in fact, be a copyright violation.

Furthermore, if the purpose is not to educate or engage in commentary on the review, the purpose becomes suspect. This means that an author reading bad reviews of their book while rolling their eyes and drawing circles by the side of their head would not be engaged in fair use. If the purpose is to mock the reviewer or try to make them look bad by using accents, gestures, or expressions that make the reviewer look stupid/silly/wrong, then it does not fall under the stated definition of fair use.

What Can Reviewers Do About Copyright Violations?

Reviewers can initiate a DMCA strike against the offender. It isn’t terribly complicated, and this site outlines the steps required to file a DMCA strike. It’s certainly an option to pay, but it’s also possible to file a DMCA strike for free. I have done this. I did this when a former employer removed my byline from all content I wrote for one of the work sites and put their byline in its place. 

The website was taken down.

You can also complain directly to the host site. If someone’s mocking your reviews on a podcast that’s hosted by Anchor, notify Anchor of the copyright violation and state you’re filing a DMCA claim. If TikTok or YouTube or other sites receive enough complaints, the offender’s account may be suspended.

Copyright strikes may affect your ability to monetize… if your active live stream is removed for copyright, your access to live streaming will be restricted for 7 days. If you get 3 copyright strikes: Your account, along with any associated channels, is subject to termination.

What About Review Sites?

Copyright laws extend to every website. That means that pulling one quote and identifying the source may fall under fair use (as long as the purpose complies with the Copyright Office’s guidelines), but pulling entire reviews does not fall under fair use.

In other words, any site that pulls an entire review from a review site and quotes it can be subject to a DMCA strike.

I think most reviewers understand that authors and publicists/publishers may wish to quote a positive review, and this is usually okay because it’s a small quote from the review. However, if any site wants to quote an entire review, they should seek written consent before doing so. This includes the author, publisher, publicist, and any other party wishing to quote a complete review.

A DMCA Strike May Be Too Little, Too Late

While reviewers certainly have the right to pursue DMCA strikes, if they’re mocked on a podcast, it can lead to harassment, and the DMCA strike won’t undo the damage done. Don’t think this is serious?

Author Attacks Reviewer with Bottle

Author Stalks Reviewer

Author Spits on Reviewer, History of Aggressive Behavior

This is why all reviewers should take steps to protect themselves. In addition to the examples via the links above, I’ve seen authors harass reviewers. I know reviewers who’ve received death threats, who’ve been harassed, who’ve been stalked.

Reviews are for readers, which is why authors should not be involved in podcasts featuring their worst reviews or reading or singing their reviews on social media. I should note I offer no protection for reviews that are clearly personal attacks or written by someone who hasn’t read the work. However, in that case, the review can be reported and most sites posting reviews will promptly remove them with evidence the review is presenting false information or personally attacking someone.

We live in a system built on consumer reviews. For better or worse, lack of support for genre magazines and publishing sections in newspapers featuring book reviews by trained journalists has contributed to the rise of Goodreads and other sites (Amazon) featuring consumer reviews. And those consumer reviews affect the algorithms and can make or break a book’s profile. Authors need them.

Attacking those reviews means fewer people will review, and this will ultimately hurt authors and book publishing

It feels like I have to stress the merits of reviews to get authors to take this seriously. I’m not sure how else to impress upon authors engaging in these BookTok and SM trends that their fleeting ratings bump on TikTok is hastening the demise of publishing, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that. What happens after reviewers stop reviewing? The next group in the line of fire is anyone engaging in discussion about books, such as online book clubs. 

Soon, nobody will even talk about books for fear they’ll be the next person targeted by an unhinged author. I’ve already highlighted The Greek Seaman controversy from a decade ago. A search on Twitter for Silk Fire Goodreads controversy will turn up hostile behavior from an author that prompted fans to attack reviewers. This conduct is ongoing; it’s not limited to one author, one book, one publisher, or one decade. If anything, it’s escalating as competition for readers intensifies and it gets harder to make a book stand out from the competition.

What Reviewers Should Do

  1. Make sure you note at the bottom of your review that you retain copyright and that improper use of your review by another party may result in a DMCA strike.
  2. Clearly state you do not consent for all or part of your review to be used on podcasts or social media sites without written consent.
  3. Have a posted reviewing policy that states you will consider submissions for review but do not promise reviews and do not promise positive reviews.
  4. State that any authors/publishers/publicists engaged in harassment may be banned from future review consideration.
  5. Follow through and file DMCA strike notices.
  6. Set up Google alerts to increase the likelihood you’ll see unfair use or online attacks against you so you can take action to protect yourself. 

What Review Sites Should Do

  1. Make sure your site notes at the bottom that your rights are reserved and the site’s copyrighted.
  2. Have a clear review request policy.
    1. Having review requests run directly through site management prevents miscommunications between reviewers and authors.
    2. Make it clear you’ll accept copies for review consideration but do not promote a review and that any review written will be an honest assessment of the work as provided.
    3. Make it clear that trying to get your review prioritized or engaging in “discussion” with reviewers to argue about reviews is unacceptable and may cause you to ban authors from future review consideration.
    4. Have a clear list of authors/publishers/publicists banned from your site that all reviewers can access for future reference to avoid issues.
  3. Have a clear set of written guidelines for reviewers.
    1. You may want to discourage all, or at least new, reviewers from interacting with authors about potential reviews. This prevents reviewers from misspeaking and eliminates possible misunderstandings.
    2. Make it clear to all reviewers that no review is guaranteed, even if they accept a review copy. Make it clear that they should never promise a review to anyone.
    3. Identify potential conflicts of interest that would be grounds to avoid reviewing specific works, authors, or publishers. For example, editors should not review books they edited. Publishers should not review books they published. Authors should not review their books. However, if Author X has the same agent as Author Y, and the agent asks Author X to give Author Y’s book a positive review so it gets some good publicity, that’s a conflict of interest. While many authors review books, review sites should be aware of potential COIs and ensure author reviewers are reviewing different genres or works for different readers if it’s necessary to ensure there’s no COI. Even the appearance of a COI can be damaging. I say this as someone whose professional reviewing experience goes back three decades, and who is also a published author. One of the most effective ways to reduce your potential COI is to write negative reviews in addition to positive reviews. Why? Reviewers writing negative reviews show they’re willing to give a negative assessment of a book that didn’t work for them based on the book, not the author. It’s much harder to know if a reviewer’s being honest if they only post glowing reviews. I understand consumer reviewers that do this because they’re devoting their time to reviewing products, but I think it’s fair to have different expectations for author reviewers because of their unique role in the industry. 
  4. File DMCA strikes as required.
  5. Ban authors from future review consideration if they engage in mocking reviews on SM or podcasts.
  6. Talk to reviewers about their goals before taking them on. If they’re actively querying agents or pursuing publication, then you should have clear boundaries established to ensure there isn’t even a chance of what appears like a backroom deal exchanging reviews for publication opportunities.
  7. Clearly state that the reviews on your site are not to be quoted in part or in full on a podcast or TikTok video without written consent.

What Really Needs to Happen

One of the professional organizations or individuals should launch a review organization for independent and professional reviewers. The purpose would be to inform reviewers of both their rights and their obligations when reviewing. Ideally, a thriving body of reviewers would agree to professional reviewing practices (such as not posting racist or bigoted reviews or attacking authors in reviews). 

And ideally, such an organization would lend support and guidance when reviewers come under attack. A collective of reviewers (particularly with the support of an organization behind them) could lobby sites like Goodreads and Amazon to uphold review standards and take action to protect reviewers.

Ultimately …

We’re on a precipice. I’ve shied away from reviewing on Goodreads for some time. I had my own experience, writing a negative review of a book that really didn’t work for me. The author never took issue with me. I’ve been friends for years with one of their family members, and it was never an issue between us.

But others took offense and many crime fiction authors shunned me for years. Consequently, I’ve written many reviews under pseudonyms for years, and much of what I do have on GR is under a pseudonym.

However, I’m no longer willing to even take that risk because of these TikTok and podcast trends. I will quit reviewing first. I’ve always believed in paying it forward and back by contributing reviews because they’re a valuable sales tool, and even bad reviews sell books.

I know a lot of great reviewers who’ve quit in recent years. Authors threatening nonsense lawsuits and harassing reviewers has taken a toll on our industry. Critics have a vital role to play in the book business. We don’t have to agree with every review. We don’t have to like every review. But we do need to respect every legitimate reviewer who’s making an effort to provide an honest reaction to what they read. No, not the people who just attack those they don’t like on Amazon (here’s looking at you, LemurMagic, who used a review to spread libel and changed their name Y…Y..Y.. after Amazon removed the review) don’t get any protection because they’re not ethical, honest reviewers.

But those that are should be protected. Authors need reviewers. It’s a symbiotic relationship, but it’s a relationship that will end if attacks continue. This is why I strenuously argue for professional criticism of every genre. Genres dominated by small presses and self-published authors may lack the oversight given to “popular” genres that get regular NY Times reviews, and that’s created an unhealthy dynamic because some authors take everything personally and lash out on SM instead of treating the review process as an essential part of publishing and promotion.

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