Recently there was a ruckus over on Twitter. You may not have heard about it, since Vermonters tend to have, you know, actual stuff to do. And ordinarily I wouldn’t bother you with it, but in this particular case I think it raises some interesting issues.
Let’s go through the timeline, although I should warn you: this story features somebody acting like a card-carrying trophy-winning nickel-plated buffoon. You’re not going to have much trouble picking out that somebody, and you’re going to feel a deep, molecular urge to ground that somebody until roughly the next Ice Age. I sympathize.
The story begins on what is usually a deliriously happy occasion for an author: the release date of their book.
They work on it for years. They write and re-write. They work with beta-readers, agents, and editors. And then, after months or even years, suddenly it all feels more real: your book is actually going to appear in bookstores.
This was true for an author named Lauren Hough, whose book of personal essays “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing” was brand-new on April 13th.
Instead of popping champagne and cheering with friends, Hough seems to have spent the day Googling her own name and, more disastrously, keeping a careful watch on Goodreads for any new reviews of her book that might pop up.
Goodreads is the world’s most popular social media site for readers. It’s famously clunky in design, and it shed its innocence when it was bought by Amazon, but it’s enormously popular with readers, who use it to chart their own books, have fun in book discussion groups, and – the important point in our little story today – rate every book under the sun, with one star being a sledgehammer and five stars being a great big bouquet of roses.
That was the rub. A few day’s after her book’s release date, Lauren Hough found two Goodreads users talking about her book. One of those readers mentioned that they were rounding their review from 4.5 to 4 stars (Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars, you see).
You’ll notice that 4 stars isn’t quite 5 stars. And boy-howdy, Lauren Hough sure noticed.
She then did the single worst thing any author can ever do in such a circumstance: she complained about the reviewer.
“Nobody likes you” was just about the nicest thing she said in the sporadic Twitter tirade that followed. She whiningly implied that these Goodreads users were refusing to give her book a perfect rating right there in its release week just to spoil her special moment. She implied that she’d have the last laugh when it comes to the quality of her book, because someday it would be taught in schools. She implied that getting a 4-star review on Goodreads was pretty much the equivalent of sexual abuse.
This went on for days, and two things stayed true: one, Hough kept doubling down on her persecution complex mania, and two, her publisher Vintage, seeing this weird, aberrant behavior on the part of one of their season’s authors, did nothing at all. One of their authors compared getting a four-star review to being abused, and Vintage certainly doesn’t seem to have revoked her book contract and severed ties with her. Maybe they figured there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Those of you who have any familiarity with Twitter or Goodreads might be able to guess what happened next. Yes indeed: her book got “review-bombed” on Goodreads by dozens and dozens of people intent on registering their disapproval of her Twitter behavior by giving her book one-star reviews even though they haven’t read it.
At the time I’m writing this, the book has nearly 4000 ratings on Goodreads, most of them one or two stars. And as far as I know, Hough has continued to escalate her own protestations of victim hood to roughly the level of Joan of Arc. And the rest of the bookish world can only stand back and wonder what all of it means.
The most obvious thing first: with almost no exceptions, everybody deplores what Lauren Hough did. It was the pinnacle of unprofessional behavior – spoiled, entitled, and petty.
Another element often raised: how awkward and uncomfortable it can be for Goodreads users – who are ardent readers and amateur reviewers talking about books on a site built for friendly chatter – when an author steps into the site and responds directly to reviews. People started referring to Goodreads as “a reviewer space” – and to authors like Hough as “bullies.”
And then there’s that question of bad publicity. There’s been quite a bit of speculation about whether or not her weird, childish behavior would end up hurting Hough’s career. It was just a few years ago, for instance, that author Kathleen Hale not only went on a vendetta against an equally-harmless Goodreads reviewer but also tracked down their home address and traveled to their actual doorstep. There was talk that it might end her career. Instead, it got her a deal for a book that ended up being titled “Kathleen Hale is a Crazy Stalker.” I’d lay the likelihood that Hough’s next book will be about this Goodreads/Twitter debacle at about 100%.
The end result, at least for normal people who don’t live their lives on Twitter?
Two things, I think. The first I’ve mentioned already, and it’s aimed at authors: never, never, never attack your reviewers. It will always make you look like a petulant loon. And the second has also already come up: if you’re an employer – in this case a major publishing house – and one of your employees – in this case a contracted author – starts acting in such a mean-spirited and unprofessional way, you call them in for a Come to Jesus meeting in about four seconds.
Will either publisher or author in this case actually learn from this whole embarrassing mess? I doubt you need me to answer that one.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. He is the Books section editor of Big Canoe News in Georgia. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.