The author blog of C. J. Ivory

Tinkerer with words. Dresser-Upper. Adorer of Steampunk and VictoriaNoir fiction. Occasional Lawgineer.

April 5, 2011

Author Self-Sabotage: A Shakespearean Tragedy in Three Acts

Wowsers. Here I was, minding my own business and browsing my favourite author blogs, when Nathan Bransford's blog pointed me to one of the worst cases of author self-sabotage I've ever seen. Behold, a Moderne Shakespearean Tragedie:

Oh be quiet - you know you prefer this version of Shakespeare.

The Cast

Jacqueline Howett is the self-published author of a work called The Greek Seaman, a novel of the suspense/literary fiction genre.  
A quick note about self-publishing: Nowadays, with the commercial publishing business being so hard to break into, many authors are choosing to self-publish their first novel(s). This is often in the hope of creating that elusive "author platform," which has become so important in convincing publishers to take a punt on your work. Self-published, therefore, is not synonymous with bad writing, or with novels so awful that they would never be picked up by an agent. On the other hand, there's no vetting process, so the odds are fairly good that the self-pubbed book you download is going to be a howler.

Big Al from Big Al's Books and Pals. Big Al is a blogger who reviews self-pubbed indie novels. Considering the fairly good odds that self-pubbed novels are howlers, I consider this a benevolent public service: it not only saves the potential reader time and money, it also highlights the genuinely good books from the dreck.

The Internet. A bit like a Greek Chorus, only meaner and with emoticons.

Act One

The blog post started out in a pretty ordinary way: Big Al reviewed a book called - you guessed it - The Greek Seaman

The review came across to me as fairly balanced. Big Al gave the book's stats (genre, length), a short background about the author, and included a link to her blog. He praised the book as "compelling and interesting", if the reader stayed with it till the end. 

However, he noted, the book contained many spelling and grammar errors that had the effect of jarring a reader out of the book. He also felt there was too much flowery description, some of which worked and some of which didn't. "Reading shouldn't be that hard," he concluded, and gave The Greek Seaman two stars out of five.

The first commenter on the blog was none other than the author herself, Jacqueline Howett. She called the review "unfair," because "you obviously didn't read the second clean copy I requested you download that was also reformatted." She suggested that Big Al didn't "get" her style, because she was an English author. She concluded by saying that her other readers on Amazon had given her rave reviews, and she would "stick to my five star and four star reviews thanks."

Ms Howett, obviously feeling like one comment wasn't enough, then went on to paste three reviews from Amazon into the following three comments. Each were four or five stars, and said they found the story interesting and enjoyable.

At this point it's worthwhile to reiterate that Big Al actually said he enjoyed the story itself. His beef wasn't with the formatting, either (which can be an issue as an e-book is translated to various types of e-readers). It was the spelling, grammar and general use of language.

Big Al replied to Ms Howett's comment, and pointed these things out. He added that he had downloaded the second clean copy, but naturally this hadn't made a blind bit of difference to spelling and language issues. 

He generously repeated his point that "the story, which is the most important part of a book, is good.... I would encourage anyone who thinks the story sounds interesting to sample the book. Read the first few chapters and decide for yourself." 

In the same post, Big Al did share two sentences from The Greek Seaman, which he felt illustrated his point about poor language use:
"She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs."

"Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance."

Act Two

This, apparently, wasn't good enough for Ms Howett. She replied with a heated comment, saying there was "no way" Big Al had downloaded a clean copy, and that he was "a liar". She also said that the sentences he had shared were "flawless". (At this point I'd like to invite you, Gentle Reader, to have another look at those sentences: flawless they are not.)

Ms Howett also demanded he remove his review, and told Big Al he should have asked her permission via email before he put the review up.

That's when the other blog readers waded in. Most of them quite rightly pointed out that Ms Howett was being unprofessional and graceless. 

She responded with the profoundly professional and graceful comment: "F*** Off" (sans stars, if you catch my drift). Several further Howett comments bordered on abuse to both Big Al and the other commenters.

Act Three

Anyone who knows much about the nature of the internet will not be surprised at what happened next: the whole thing went viral. 

As blogger Nathan Bransford put it: "Literally hundreds and hundreds of commenters piled on the author with snide remarks and scorn. Then the virtual mob took to Amazon, where they trashed her book, wrote faux five star reviews, and are continuing to have a great time at her expense." Bransford likened the internet reaction to a "virtual witch hunt."

If you type "Jacqueline Howett" into Google now, you'll get hundreds of results (including, of course, this one). Many are vitriolic and hateful, some (usually a bit later) feel rather sorry for Ms Howett.

If you're thinking, no publicity is bad publicity - think again. Publishers do Google-search their potential clients, and any publisher who found this hornet's nest would be very likely to back away, slowly.


My opinion? Writing a novel is hard. And when you publish it (or self-publish it), you're making yourself incredibly vulnerable. I wish I could remember who it was that compared sending one's novel out into the world with pushing one's child out into a street full of traffic.

And so, Jacqueline Howett reacted no differently from most authors who get bad reviews: hurt, angry, defensive. Except that she shared her reaction on the internet. She didn't take a deep breath, sleep on it, vent to a friend. She went ahead and published her bad feelings to the world. It came across as small-minded and unprofessional. And worst of all, now it can't be undone.

What would have happened if Ms Howett had written the following comment:
Thank you for your review, Big Al! I'm so glad you enjoyed my story-telling. Sorry you found some parts of the novel challenging - did you download my free updated version? As for the spelling and grammar errors, I'm always trying to eliminate these, but sometimes the pesky things just get past. Thanks for your patience with this new author!

I'll tell you what would happen: Big Al would have thought, what a nice lady, as would all the other people who read the comments section. People might have been more likely to read her book, and more likely to forgive her spelling and grammar issues.

If we can learn from this - and let's face it, all good plays should have a didactic, preachy message - it's simply this: if the world is a cruel and callous place, the internet is much, much worse. It doesn't give you the benefit of the doubt. It doesn't assume that you're having a bad day. It doesn't even see you as a person. And it's eminently public.

So if you get a horror review (or even a two-star review you think is unjustified), go and write a really mean, vindictive reply to that reviewer. In long hand. On the back of envelope. Then throw it in the rubbish.


Anonymous said...

I read that a couple of days ago. There is a part of me that thinks it might be a publicity stunt. Lots of people know her now, but I am not sure how long she'll be able to ride this wave.

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

As a publicity stunt, did you think it worked? For me, I don't know if I would want to read a novel by that author now - partly because of her public meltdown, but partly because she appears to genuinely not understand why her use of language was being criticised.
Then again, people seem to find fame in notoriety, so perhaps you're right... I'm not sure a publisher will be keen to work with her, though.

Donna said...

I heard about this when it initially happened and I read Nathan's blog today. While I agree that people heading over to Amazon to rub salt in the wound are just being plain nasty, I don't agree that someone like this deserves pity.

The woman obviously is unable to look within herself and find her own faults, in a few different ways. She then goes insane on the blog owner and the commenters. The internet is nothing new. If you don't know by now that you can't hit rewind and unshoot yourself in the foot, then quite frankly you need a wake-up call.

I'd feel sorry for her if she tried really hard and still got unfairly lambasted. But this? No, sorry. The majority of writers know better than this. Why should we feel sorry for the assholes that throw feces at the rotating device when they're standing right in front of it?

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

Thanks for your comment, Donna. To be honest, I'm just not sure what I think about Ms Howett. As I mentioned, I feel for any author who gets a bad review - it hurts, whether it's justified or not.
I got the feeling from reading the review and the subsequent comments, that Howett was getting more and more wound up, and digging herself deeper into a hole. At some point she may have realised how silly she was being, but by then it was too late. I know I've done that before - but thankfully only in RL (real life), where conversations aren't recorded forever! :)

Anonymous said...

I saw all this on Nathan Bransford's blog and thought it was a fascinating example of the power of the internet. As I read the first couple of rounds of comments by the author, it seemed like she was asking for a backlash, but when she wouldn't let it drop, it became pretty clear that she was having a meltdown and was unable to act in her own best interests. At that point, the pile-on just seemed voyeuristic and cruel.

Thanks for sharing your comment on how she could have responded in a positive way. If I ever have to face what I think is a bad review, I hope to be able to channel that kind of constructive graciousness.

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

Thanks for your thoughts, RPFW. I'm a firm believer in "grace under fire, and a tantrum in my bedroom"! But it's not always so easy to let the criticisms slide off your back in public.
The most recent update I've heard is that Howett's sales have gone UP since this incident. I'm still not convinced it was a publicity stunt, but I hope she'll be able to move on from here in a positive way. And perhaps handle the next criticism a little differently!

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