withoutruleoflawA friend pointed out to me a slightly older blog post that is rather interesting. In fact, it’s interesting not just for the article, but for the comments. It’s kind of a gift that keeps on giving.

The blog post, by writer Greg Strandberg, quotes (and screencaps) a post by self-publishing writer Joe Nobody on KBoards, a semi-private forum for people who self-publish through Amazon. Nobody is a highly-successful pseudonymous self-publishing author, who Strandberg estimates has made over a million dollars from his e-book sales. Nobody writes in the post-apocalyptic SF genre, in the footsteps of mens-adventure writers like Jerry Ahern, but also writes some non-fiction books on how to survive in the wake of a civilization-collapsing disaster.

And it is in a situation pertaining to one of those books, Without Rule of Law: Advanced Skills to Help You Survive, that Nobody posted his KBoards post. On said book, a reviewer going by the moniker “Biology Book Worm” had posted a one-star review indicating that some facts were incorrect. Joe Nobody had replied, intending to straighten out the reviewer’s misapprehensions, but ended up getting into an argument. The reviewer also expressed the belief that some of the five-star reviews that had “tricked” him into buying the book were sock puppets for Nobody himself.

In the end, Joe Nobody felt he felt he could prove he owed a $23,000 drop in sales to that review (given that, as the voted “most helpful” review, it ended up at the top of his reviews list), and was wondering about the feasibility of suing the reviewer (who, he had determined, was “a 23 year-old recent college graduate who never severed (sic) anything but a hamburger”). He posted to KBoards wondering whether he should consider suing. (The article includes a screencap of the original post; the thread itself seems to have been deleted from the site or otherwise protected from casual viewing even from someone with a KBoards account.)

Strandberg suggests that it’s more likely that drop in sales could be attributed to Nobody showing a fairly ugly side of himself in arguing with the reviewer. Seriously, that’s something you don’t ever want to do; when you get down in the mud with someone like that, you end up getting more mud on you than him. Strandberg points out that engaging with negative reviewers is almost always a big mistake.

First, that reviewer doesn’t care about you. Second, anyone who wants to buy your book can read those comments. I’m willing to bet a large chunk of that $23,000 Joe Nobody is pissing and moaning about was lost due to his own misguided comments.

The idea of suing over a bad review is frankly ridiculous, For one thing, the lawyer fees would eat up that $23,000 in about fifteen minutes. Even if he won the suit, he’d never see the $23,000, let alone compensation for his legal fees—where’s a 23-year-old college grad going to get that kind of money? It would be purely an exercise in dumping money down the drain in order to assuage his own ego, while driving someone who had the temerity to post a bad review into dire financial straits for life. (And that’s assuming that he won, which is not exactly assured.)

That being said, I haven’t heard anything about such a suit going forward—in fact, this is the first time I’ve heard of this Joe Nobody at all—so I can only assume he cooled down and got on with his life instead. Which is good. Judging from some of the things I found out when I googled him in research for the story, he seems like an interesting enough person in his own right, a self-publishing success story with some ideas about how to self-publish that might be different from others’ but nonetheless show he’s put some thought into it. For example, there’s this podcast in which he talks about why he prices his books higher than most other self-publishing authors.

So, yes: suing reviewers, or even engaging with negative reviewers, is generally a bad idea. (And I’ve brought this up before. For instance, Anne Rice’s campaign to get Amazon to block anonymous reviews would be a whole lot less necessary if she could just bring herself to stop responding to negative reviews.)

If you let their negative comments pass by, they’ll probably go unremarked—especially if there are a lot of other positive reviews there already, as there were for Nobody’s book. If you engage, you suddenly add importance to them, and you make it look to bystanders as if there might be something to what they’re saying if you’re taking the trouble to respond yourself. Just don’t do it.

That’s one thing to come out of all of this…but wait, there’s more. The article’s comments are an interesting study all by themselves.

Usually comments on articles are pretty much disposable, and consist of random people on the Internet being idiots. But in this case, you can tell a lot from the calibre of comments Strandberg gets…and makes himself.

It’s actually almost funny, in a way. Reading the blog post in isolation, it seems like a fairly sensible piece looking at the entirely-understandable reaction a writer had to a negative review, and considering why that author’s first reaction might not be the one he should roll with. But when you look at the first dozen or so comments, you see a lot of people from the KBoards forums with axes to grind, accusing Strandberg of having his own axe to grind.

Strandberg replies to them in a prickly, no-nonsense sort of way, like you’d expect anyone to respond to trolls. But you get the sense from reading through these comments that there may be more behind the blog post than you see at first glance. It feels like the dirty laundry of an insular, semi-private community being aired in public. Goodness knows that there are plenty of communities out there that like to hold discussions in (what they feel is) privacy, not paying any attention to the fact that anyone who wants to create a free login on their site can read it. (For another example, see the recent SFFnet SFWA kerfuffle.)

And then the really puzzling thing comes when Biology Book Worm, the author of the original review itself, chimes in. From the timbre of the blog post, it seemed as though Strandberg was at least somewhat sympathetic to him…but then Strandberg turns around and cusses him out, calling him:

[…] a stupid, young prick that can’t even put his own name on anything.

I take you about as seriously as I take that shit that’s collected on the bottom of my shoe.

Why don’t you go write a bad review? Isn’t that all you’re good for?

Don’t visit my site again you worthless, young and entitled asshole.`

He goes on to complain about BBW posting the link to his blog post in an update to his review on Amazon in Mr. Nobody’s book’s product page, which he feels was “abuse.”

I feel it’s worth bringing up, again, that this is about a review posted for a book written by a “Joe Nobody.” If you’re going to complain about a reviewer using a pseudonym when writing about a book written under a pseudonym, it feels like there’s just a bit of a double standard there. Perhaps Mr. Strandberg should suggest Joe Nobody should publish his books under his real name if he wants to be taken seriously?

And there’s another irony here: Strandberg accomplishes the same thing for himself that he just accused Nobody of doing—giving people a reason to take him less seriously by behaving like a jerk in comments. And in this case, he was doing it to someone who started out with a favorable reaction to him instead of an unfavorable one!

Anyway, it’s an interesting post all around, and a doubly important reminder to be careful of how you engage on the Internet. If your public persona has a bearing on the way you earn your living, you can’t afford to behave like your average “someone-is-wrong-on-the-Internet” user who is free to get into flamewars. You just can’t.