In the age where book discovery depends more on reviews than getting books in stores, the reader has gained enormous amounts of power in a writer’s life. With self-publishing, writers can bypass the gatekeeping of slush pile readers at literary agencies or publishing houses and go straight to the ones who matter most – the readers.

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One of the first things we look at when buying a book are the starred reviews. All major online retailers offer them right at the top. Sites like Goodreads rely on those star-review forms to set up their social interaction between readers and books. Readers who host blog sites that focus on reviews get preferential treatment in blog tours. Never has the reader had such power at the ready of a few clicks and comments.

The phrase “power corrupts” has drifted over into book reviews. In the Washington Post, they featured the writer D Foy and an incident involving a tailor and a Yelp review. Foy experienced less than expected service from a local business when hoping to get a suit made for his upcoming wedding. When he confronted the business, he didn’t receive the communication and recompense he had hoped for. In order to ward off others from experiencing the same disappointment, he relied on Yelp’s review system.

However, the low-star, less positive review finally did manage to gain the attention of the business. It responded by writing an email to include, “…’I was just made aware of your Yelp review. We wanted to answer your questions but felt you were more interested in a fray. When your book comes out on Amazon, I will personally make sure our entire staff reviews in kind,’” and later, “Yep. I eagerly look forward to your book coming out. Going to make sure it’s flooded with scathing reviews. . . . Deluge of awful reviews unless that post comes down. Going to make it a top priority.’”

Foy’s novel Made To Break will be released in March 2014 by indie publisher Two Dollar Radio. For those cheering for Foy to stand his ground and fight the threatened bad reviews, you will have to accept that he knows what they can do for his book. Foy decided to take down his review of the business from Yelp. In response, the business owner offered him a free shirt.

Current review systems tend not to offer ways to curb misuse. We are supposed to be able to put forth true responses to things such as services and goods. It’s a way to try and keep things at their highest level when used correctly. But when reviews can be made anonymously, has that accountability of using reviews responsibly disappeared?

Updated: Due to this person’s Twitter feed and her feelings about the situation and attention including the salon.com article, I will not be including a link to the article nor to her own blog post. However, I will include the situation as it is relevant.

While Foy’s situation is a warning, even more disturbing is the one involving a debut novelist getting ready to self-publish her first book. She dutifully set up social media accounts as most self-publishing authors do when getting ready. One of the sites she set up was an author account on Goodreads, the book review site that was recently purchased by Amazon.

For those unfamiliar with it, an author can post the cover of the book and tout its coming arrival so that others can add the book to their “To Be Read” lists. It’s a way to garner some of that elusive discoverability that new writers need. Someone who added the book gave it a 2-star review. At this point, the book has not been released nor did the reviewer have access to an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy). When the writer questioned the validity of the situation in an open forum, she received the information that it just showed a reader’s interest.

However, asking the question in the open forum opened her to others who were offended. They decided to show their offense by bombing her unreleased book with intentional 1-star reviews and offensive comments*. When the writer responded by asking the bullying to stop, the barrage of anger and trashing increased.

*Those comments will not be repeated here due to their offensive nature.

The outcome? The writer has decided not to publish her debut novel at all at this time. As an intended self-published author, the book had already gone through the production process including editing, formatting, cover, and other expenses. But the expense of risking a first book getting not only so much negative attention on Goodreads prior to publishing but also what could happen with the important reviews on Amazon and other platforms could be dire.

Bullying on Goodreads isn’t a new issue. The website Stop The GR Bullies features situations such as this writer’s and others. However, highlighting and screen capturing the accused bullies may do more to stoke the fires than to quell them. In the Huffington Post, novelist Ray Garton claims that writers need to grow a thicker skin if they can’t handle negative reviews.

But using reviews in order to intentionally hurt a product that have little to nothing to do with it in the first place other than to use the rating system to tank the product and its owner is a form of bullying. It is an abuse of the review system. And although Goodreads does have a review policy that includes “Reviews that are harassing or threatening, or that contain hate speech or bigotry. These will be deleted outright and anyone posting them risks being removed from the site,” when someone is targeted, it takes time for those intended to hurt to be reviewed by admin and then removed.

On the other hand, the review system’s flaws have been gamed for authors and their books for a while. Back towards the beginning wave of the effect of online book reviews, in 2009 Todd Rutherford made a killing creating fake positive reviews. The dummy reviews-for-pay helped create best sellers and drove books up the visibility algorithms of online retailers. Today, one of the biggest marketing steps a writer has to do is to find ways to garner positive reviews for their books. Unethical methods like Rutherford’s still exist but are probably stealthier.

So who’s at fault? Does the fault lie with those who offer the review system in the first place? If Goodreads were interested in truly policing bullying, they’d have to hire more admin personnel and create stricter review policies. Or every review would need to include specific details from the book about what earned them the chosen starred level in order to authenticate the review. But that’s bordering on censorship, which doesn’t earn lots of site hits or millions of members.

Or does the fault lie with how the author goes about marketing their book? Some authors over-market with requests to Like books, Like Facebook pages, follow on Twitter, and add books to Goodread libraries. Constantly barraging potential readers with self-promotion doesn’t garner favor from readers.

It would be a utopian online world to expect people to give honest reviews based on honest experiences, and for those receiving the reviews to accept both the good and bad before moving on. Any writer has to expect bad reviews, and yes, he or she should grow a calloused, thick skin. But no one should have to accept being bullied, especially for work that isn’t even out there. Perhaps it’s time to readjust the review system to monitor how it’s being used and who is abusing it, but that would take time, money, and effort.

In the long run, I hope that the unnamed writer recovers from the ongoing incident and eventually gets back to writing. However, I fear that the wounds from such an attack may take a while to heal. In the meantime, I hope that those who do use review systems continue to be careful with star ratings and comments made so that truth may become stronger than bullying.