There has been a spate of abusive, bullying tactics at Goodreads, about which I blogged very recently HERE. This has been spawned by bad behavior by authors and reviewers/GR users.  As to the authors, they have erred mainly by entering discussions to randomly toss up marketing for their books – something which (justifiably) annoys readers no end and by wading, uninvited, into discussions about their books.  As to the reviewers/GR users, the bad acts go from small – labeling their shelves in a manner designed to insult authors personally –  to large – ganging up to harass and threaten authors on GR and by leaving bad reviews on Amazon.

Frankly, I suspect that my prior blog post led to my receiving a dose of the bad Amazon reviews.  It may or may not have led to bad reviews or insulting shelves on Goodreads.  Like most writers, while the readers have been in a “posse” or “follow the bully” mentality, I’ve stayed off GR.  Now, thanks to a move by GR owner Amazon, I may return – along with many other writers who love reading and discussing books as readers.

Sheriff Amazon finally waded into the fray, enforcing a couple of important, basic rules and announcing them at the same time.  What are they?   (1)  Reviews must be about the book; and (2) Members can’t harass or threaten others.  They’re such basic rules, one wonders how they weren’t always the standard at the site.  However, Amazon’s announcement led to a mass backlash at GR, with users crying the expected charge of “censorship.”

The cause of the backlash was Amazon’s decision to delete reviews and user shelves that violated the rules prior to making the announcement.  Users feel that they were entitled to a warning in advance, so that they could have saved the reviews elsewhere and changed the labels on the shelves.  Amazon surely felt that the behavior involved was so basically bad that users were not entitled to advance notice of acts they should not have committed in the first place.  Both sides have a point, but to me, the most important point is that Amazon now has its eye on GR, and has announced that the site has returned to its original mission — to be a place where everyone focuses on books and reading.

Mercy Pilkington of the “Good E Reader” site described the controversy as follows:

Now, it’s the Goodreads community that is firing back at the website itself, claiming censorship and supporting the justification to target authors whom they believe are deserving of being ridiculed and threatened. The comments below Goodreads’ anti-bullying announcement are very telling of the type of behavior that was taking place, most of it aimed at authors.

For the authors’ part, Goodreads posted author guidelines earlier this year, warning them of the potential for backlash if authors–who have not all been the proverbial saints, to be sure, but have engaged in ugly diatribe and specifically called out by name reviewers who did not like their books–comment on reviews of their works.

Where authors were threatening a mass account cancellation to protest the bullying, many of the reader users who commented on the announcement are now threatening the same thing. And while much of this might seem like nothing more than petty playground behavior between children who honestly do not have a clear good guy or bad guy, keep in mind that several ebook retailers incorporate the Goodreads’ API into their sales pages, effectively posting book reviews that many in the Goodreads community knew to be false, and nothing more than an act of revenge against an author; real-world sales decisions have been made by consumers based on these reviews.

The whole point is very basic and very important – criticize the work, not the worker.  For example, let’s say you bought a shirt cleared by “Inspector 12″ of Mr. Monk fame.  When you got the thing home, you discovered the seams weren’t aligned properly and the pattern was mismatched.  It would be perfectly proper for you to take a photo of the shirt and post a review that this work by Inspector 12 was sloppy and unacceptable to you because of the seaming and pattern issues.  It wouldn’t be acceptable for you to post a review that this work proves that Inspector 12 is an incompetent hack who should be tarred and feathered.  And it surely wouldn’t be proper for you to stroll into stores and post signs on the shelves under the shirts saying;  “Tar and Feather Number 12.”

Just like “Inspector 12″, a writer’s work is always open for discussion, debate and critique.  In putting out the book, the author understood and expected that it would be read and adored by some and abhorred by others.  Authors understand that readers are free to share why they adored or abhorred the book.  Writers do not understand and should not have to tolerate readers who aren’t discerning enough to separate them from their work.  Patrick Dempsey is not Derek Shepherd and Ellen Pompeo is not Meredith Grey Shepherd.  Similarly, EL James is not Christian Grey or Ana Steele and Mary Anne Graham is not Nial Maclee or Heather MacIver.  Whether you love or hate “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “A Faerie Fated Forever,” you have no right to transfer either emotion into a campaign targeted at the authors’ character, nor to make threats or harass the writers because of their work.

Again, it should be noted that the sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander.  Authors are not free to invade reader threads with marketing, nor to call out, harass or threaten readers who dislike their work.

Worry about the shirt, but leave Inspector 12 alone.

This week Amazon stepped up to protect all of the good Inspectors – whether whey designed the shirt, made the shirt or reviewed the shirt.  The Goodreads issues are volatile and sentiment runs high on all sides so it took great respect for the important mission of the site for Amazon to step in, create rules and enforce them.  I appreciate Amazon’s efforts to keep Goodreads a place to discuss, debate and share about the world of books.

And how should readers respond to the way Amazon chose to direct its efforts at Goodreads?  They should focus on the shirt, not on Inspector 12.  Whether readers think Amazon’s actions were divinely inspired by God or directly incited by Satan, they should review and react to those actions, not devolve into name-calling or mindless insults.

The shirt’s the thing – not the designers, seamstresses or Inspectors.  By returning the focus of Goodreads as a place to focus on books, Amazon has begun the process of returning the site to being a virtual front porch where a group of friends can sit down, share a cup of coffee and engage in a good-natured argument about the tale rather than a vicious brawl designed to destroy the teller.

And the one thing I am absolutely certain of is that given the state of the economy today and the challenges we all face just trying to exist — we surely need more of those virtual front porches.

Thanks Amazon!

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