When the public turns scary

by Tess Gerritsen

When I sit alone in my office, writing my stories, I imagine my readers as a big, sprawling community of friends around the world, and I want to please them.  I know I’m bound to disappoint some of them from time to time, but I hope that they’ll give me another chance, and that I’ll redeem myself in their eyes with my next book.  We writers depend on our readers for our livelihoods, and most of us try very hard to stay in their good graces. 

But sometimes, those readers make us want to run for cover.

So far, I’ve had only a few such experiences.  There was the man who leaned close and whispered how much he liked THE SURGEON (my book about a killer who slices and dices women) because it allowed him to enjoy his secret fantasies.  There was the agitated woman in the leopard-print pants who waited until the end of my booksigning to insist that I write her life story.  Which she then proceeded to tell me, ending with the sentence: “And after all that, the jury only convicted me of manslaughter!”  At which point my media escort swooped in, insisting that we had to leave now.

I count myself lucky that my fans, by and large, are nice, reasonable people, especially when I read the latest news about Susan Boyle, the shy spinster from England who shot to fame with a show-stopping performance on “Britain’s Got Talent.”  Poor Susan now has a stalker and her home has been broken into several times.  Then there was the frightening incident at Stephen King’s house several years ago, when a mentally unstable man broke into the kitchen, forcing Tabitha King to flee in her bathrobe.

This past week, I’ve witnessed yet another example of how the public has teeth — and how quickly those teeth can start ripping into an author.  I’m talking about the astonishing wrath exhibited over at the Amazon.com page of Douglas Preston’s new book, IMPACT.

Full disclosure #1: I know Doug Preston.  He’s a charming, delightful, literate man.  And we both share a lifelong passion for science.

Full disclosure #2: I’m a fan of his books.  When I board an airplane, if I’ve brought along a thriller by Preston, or by Preston and Child, I know I will be well-entertained during that flight.

Soon after Preston’s new book was released, I hopped on over to Amazon to see if readers were enjoying his book as much as I did.  I was surprised to see a number of 1-star reviews.  My surprise turned to consternation when I read those poor reviews and realized that almost all of them weren’t about the book at all.  Instead, the “reviewers” were using the site to express their fury that the Kindle edition of Impact wouldn’t be released until months after the hardcover went on sale. They expressed their rage by attacking Preston and his work, saying they would never buy another one of his books.  The New York Times caught wind of the turmoil, got Preston to comment on it, and he expressed his quite understandable annoyance with the whole affair.  Which resulted in an even more furious, even vicious onslaught of one-star reviews on his Amazon page.  (Note to self: if the New York Times ever calls asking for statement, politely decline and hang up phone.)

The public e-lynching of Douglas Preston is a frightening spectacle that will almost certainly be replayed, with other authors as fresh targets.  As a result of the recent battle between MacMillan and Amazon, Kindle e-book prices for new releases will probably be increasing across the board.  Already, I’ve received an email from a reader, complaining that the Kindle edition of my upcoming book, ICE COLD, is priced at $14.30.  “I will not be buying your book at that outrageous price,” the reader said.  The email was a civil one, but I’m bracing for others — far less civil — that will probably follow.   

What’s astonishing is that “greedy” authors are being blamed for this.  That’s like blaming the fisherman for the price of  sole meuniere on the restaurant menu.  Writers, like fishermen, are simply responsible for delivering the raw product.  Standing between us and the final consumer are processors, packagers, and retailers.  Unless a book is self-published (in which case the author can set the price) writers have absolutely no control over the final list price, in whatever format it may be published.  

Let me repeat: traditionally published authors have no control over the final list price of their books.  

In all my twenty-three years in the publishing industry, I have never been asked what my book should cost in the marketplace.  Not once.  Just like the fisherman never gets asked what the restaurant should charge for its Catch of the Day special.

Because of what happened to Preston, I thought long and hard about whether I should even be discussing this subject on a public blog.  It’s tempting to just dive under your desk and stay out of sight, where the bullets can’t find you.  But that doesn’t change the fact that every author is a potential target.  When the public gets enraged about book prices, and they want to attack, they won’t be hurling their stones at something as nameless and anonymous as the “publishing industry.”  They’ll be aiming their fury at the people whose names they know.  The names on the books.  The “rich and greedy” authors whose $14.00 e-books are — to the public — as potent a symbol of avarice as a banker’s multimillion-dollar bonus.

Put on your armor.  It’s going to get rough.

(I’m afraid I’ll be on the road when this post goes up.  I’m sorry I won’t be able to respond to comments.)




30 thoughts on “When the public turns scary

  1. JD Rhoades

    As I’ve mentioned before, in any group of people there’s going to be a certain, thankfully small, percentage who are just nucking futs. If the group gets larger, that percentage means that there will be larger number in the group who really ought to be locked up and fed under the door, and the chance of running into one becomes correspondingly larger. Therefore, if you have a large enough fan base, there are going to be more loonies crossing your path.

    Now, don’t you feel better?

    On the subject of the Amazon reviews, JESUS CHRIST WILL YOU PEOPLE STOP READING THOSE GODDAMN THINGS!?! Or, if you do, stop taking the bad ones so seriously?

    One of my favorite SF writers, John Scalzi, coincidentally did another one of his excellent blog entries on this topic yesterday, which is worth reading here.

    This is a guy who’s written some great, bestselling SF thrillers, a guy who’s just been nominated for the Nebula award, and you should see some of the reviews he gets. In fact, you can see some of them at the blog post, because Scalzi, as is his habit, takes the worst ones and posts them.

    The money quote:

    I think it’s useful for all us writers to remember no one work pleases everyone, and you can’t make anyone like it if they don’t, and you can’t keep them from telling other people what they think of it, even if they hate it… and that’s fine. Learn to deal with it. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how much success or praise or satisfaction you earn through your writing, you’ll still obsess over those one-star reviews and it will eat away at your joy. That’s no way to live.

    There are also some great comments there, two in particular being germane to this discussion:

    One thing that becomes fairly obvious is that successful titles tend to have lots of one and five star reviews with relatively few falling into the “mushy middle”.

    Intensity, not love, is the arbiter of success.


    If the weakest reviews fall into any of the following categories:

    1) Personal hatred of author/topic/whatever
    2) Trashing for the sake of trashing
    3) Incoherent rambling, bad spelling etc.
    4) Other *personal* reasons

    I those cases I can safely dismiss the criticism for obvious reasons that they are not particularly universally relevant and check out the higher reviews and try to sort through the fanboy and marketing stuff to see if something is worth buying.

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    Stalkers, I can’t comment on … unfortunately that is the result of celebrity and they haven’t come up with a solution yet.
    The complaining about the price. Sorry, authors aren’t alone. I can’t tell you the number of calls I get at unemployment insurance saying "YOU PEOPLE didn’t send me my check…" and other complaints. My husband gets it in his business, sales people get it in retail, nurses hear it daily, and on and on. So I can’t give sympathy there, it is just the human condition and everyone deals with it. HOW you deal with it makes the difference.
    And it’s safe to vent about it here. 🙂

  3. Mark Terry

    I suppose it’s all over. My wife works for Quest Diagnostics, the largest clinical medical laboratory in the U.S. and possibly the world, and she’s a medical technologist. If she tells people she works for them they’ll start going on about some billing problem that they expect her to fix. Hello? This is like telling some guy who works on the assembly line for General Motors that you don’t like your paint job. Take it to the dealership.

    I have had ZERO input on price of books, electronic or otherwise, except my one self-published Kindle book, and even there, friends, I set the price and Amazon discounted it.

  4. Alafair Burke

    I’ve had friends subjected to 1-star reviews when Amazon set the price of their kindle books above 9.99. Amazon, which DOES set the prices, should be responsible for deleting those types of posts.

  5. Rob Gregory Browne

    It amazes me that people who are educated enough to read and enjoy fiction regularly can be naive enough to think that the author sets the prices on Amazon.

    Can I set my own prices? I’d love it if I could.

  6. Louise Ure

    You said it well, Tess. Don’t blame the fisherman.

    It’s hard for me to understand why those readers would take it out on one writer in a review format. That’s just not clear thinking.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Tess, I’m so glad you chose this public blog for discussing this issue. Your voice will make a difference. It would be great if more well-known authors shouted this message, so that every reader can understand the position the author is in.
    The only "crazed" fan situation I’ve been in was when a woman came to one of my signings, traveling from some great distance, very, very excited to see me and pitch me the idea for her musical. It took us fifteen minutes of odd repartee to discover that she thought I was the composer Stephen Schwartz, the man known for writing Godspell, among others.
    And that’s why the "Jay" is in my name.

  8. anonymous

    Guys guys guys. Calm down now. The good readers don’t waste their time complaining about book prices and all……….they just find a way to steal them. Yeeesh.

  9. Allison Davis

    Ok, ok, I know that authors are getting the brunt of the publishing changes/pricing but try being a lawyer…everybody wants to tell you their legal problems, have you solve them for free and then berate you because you didn’t do enough (for free)…(I’m sure the same happens with other professions, car mechanics and doctors).

    There are scary people out there, but hey, we also write about scary people. The Alabama professor is absolutely chillingly frightening.

    Part of what is happening is everything is so exposed and public because of the internet and people write the most horrifying things when they would not necessarily tell you the same to your face…how email and other electronic communication has taken thoughtfulness out of the communication.

    All for the price of a book. Good start, Tess, to explain to the public that "best seller" doesn’t always translate to "banker’s bonus." thanks.

  10. kit

    BULLSHIT!!! because while you might FEEL like hiding under the desk…I can visual you jumping on top of the desk,keyboard in hand, leading the charge against this…for your friends, yourself.

    This is my personal opinon and concerns ME, I’m egocentric enough, that if I want to read a book, I will find a way to do it, I have enough gumption and imagination to do this, either borrow from friends or library….I haven’t pirated a book yet and it’s not something that appeals to me, anyway, when there are other ways.If not, I will just wait.

    Also, I don’t look at the reveiws, usually…I don’t go looking for them(and in general, when I do stumble across them…I skip alot)I look at it this way…I want to read the book…Joe Blow"s, down the street, experience isn’t mine…it would be like being friends in high school with only the popular kids and leave out the individualism of each person(author).It’s my opinion that counts, not theirs.

    One last thing, I’m highly opinionated, I know this…so when I read a negative or hyper-critical reveiw..I have 2 basic thoughts…one is GET A LIFE and the other…GET OFF YOUR DEAD AZZ AND WRITE YOURSELF…..oh yeah, I got slammed back, when I wrote that on an open forum, by someone that knew me from there and knew the history of one of my favorite writers, he’s a critic!LOL but he critiques like he writes, i will say that after reading his work.

    Bottom line, in this busy, busy world…time is at a premium. This is something to be aware of, as in *be aware of your surroundings* . I have little to no experience with stalkers….but I would like to believe they represent a very minute slice of your total readership.

  11. Erin Cole Roth

    Just popped over to Amazon and looked in at the controversy. You’re right, Tess. It is scary. Many of the 1-star reviewers are simply copying each other’s posts verbatim. I am surprised Amazon hasn’t deleted more considering that many of those 1-star reviews do not follow the guidelines they set for reviews (no comments on availability/pricing….no spiteful remarks). Anne Rice has taken up the battle flag and is doing her best to counter, but is taking on criticism herself for it. Truly a lynch mob mentality.

    And to think that I feel guilty when I buy a hardcover at Costco for what seems like a ridiculous bargain!

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Wait a minute, Louise – the fishermen are to blame for this? Get ’em!

    I take Dusty’s advice, and try not to read reviews at all. Occasionally, people pass on the nice ones. The others, unless they contain a valid point about an error, I really don’t need to see.

  13. Chris Hamilton

    Fourteen bucks is too much for a book? Seriously?

    People aren’t entitled to ten dollar books. I have sympathy for people who are having trouble making ends meet. A lot of us our one layoff notice away from joining them. But it’s four friggin bucks.

    And authors put an awful lot of time and energy into that and it’s not like all fourteen bucks goes in their pocket. You did the work, you deserve to get paid.

  14. JD Rhoades

    Erin, I don’t think Amazon does anything about inappropriate reviews unless enough people hit the "report" and "not helpful" buttons.

    So get to it, It’s easy n’ fun to do!

  15. anonymous

    I think it is interesting that authors actually read the reader reviews on Amazon. I didn’t ever think about that. I never read them. I know that I want to buy a book and just buy it. I don’t scroll down and read the reviews. I don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks about what I choose to read.

    The book price thing. Do you really get upset about criticism over that? Isn’t this part of what an agent is supposed to fuss over FOR you? You write the book and turn it over and your job is done. Then the agents and publishers and retailers do their jobs. Don’t read reviews unless they are from professional critics and don’t listen to idiots at book signings. If you want to get away from someone just say "What a great idea! I never thought of that!" then hand them your agent’s card and split.

    I am still laughing over the secret fantasy guy. Are you sure he wasn’t kidding? What a BAD pick up line.

    Besides, as everyone knows you guys write the scariest creepiest stuff ever. All the mad psycho bad guys, etc. Who was it who said that her own writing creeped HER out? Good ol’ J.T. I cracked up when she said that. Loved it. If you guys are going to write this stuff, you better be prepared for some of the "real" creeps to come out of the "Cold Room". People who read about crime are voyeurs looking for that vicarious thrill of ‘scare’. Look at weirdos who come up to you as just another book sold. You’ve got to be realistic. You’re not going to like the personality of every guy who goes under your surgical knife and you don’t have to like all of your readers. Hell. I don’t like MOST people, period. And I don’t listen to many.

    This is what bugs me about a lot of "book clubs". Everyone sitting around telling each other what they thought of a book that everyone read at the same time. Everyone sharing their ‘review’ on it as gospel. Kryst. Takes all the fun out of it. Reading a book is a personal religious experience. Other people’s thoughts on it impinge on that magic. For me, anyway. But then, I am a curmudgeon and am also full of shit. End of book club rant.

    Don’t you guys listen to that negative crap. Getchya down. and we don’t want ya down we want ya WRITING!!

    Whew. The Murderati February blog has been wearing me out. So much angst. Can hardly wait for March….

    Just kidding (sort of)……always interested to see what’s on your minds.

  16. anonymous

    BTW. For those of you who don’t get my snarky remarks….what I said about good readers stealing books was A JOKE … I was thinking of Tess’s blog post on pirating stuff and now the rant about book prices


  17. pari noskin taichert

    I marvel at people’s capacity to blame, to pass the buck rather than look deeper. Sitting back here almost on the sidelines, I’m astounded at how public absolutely everything is becoming — and how THE public is venting more and more inappropriately. There’s this massive ambient anger in the world right now. It’s coupled with a staggering sense of entitlement.

    I don’t know how to turn any tide but my own. I’m working on my attitudes about many things right now. Am thinking about my assumptions and how to walk this world in a better, happier — and non-blaming way.

  18. Judy Wirzberger


    (I’m afraid I’ll be on the road when this post goes up. I’m sorry I won’t be able to respond to comments.)

    Are you really on the road, or are you hiding in the closet? Thought this a very funny ending after you mentioned stalkers, and irate fans.

    Excuse me. I have to go talk to a cow about the price of milk.

  19. Fran

    Pari, I think you hit it, as did Doug. There’s a sense of entitlement coupled with the ability to say whatever comes to mind anonymously so there’s no responsibility. Hence the anonymously unleashed anger at the wrong people over imagined slights, and it’s obviously not just in the book world. The internet has done a lot of good, but it’s also provided a platform for any disaffected person with a keyboard. And if we think they don’t matter (a la Amazon reviews) all we have to do is watch the power of blogging and Twitter, which are becoming massive.

    Interesting but at times scary, I must say.

  20. kit

    holy cow! I followed the link that Dusty gave to Mercedes Lackey’s essay…I had an idea that something like this happened(trekkies and such) but no idea it was as far-gone as it is…how sad, scary and delusional.

  21. Nancy Laughlin

    I’m with Kit. Mercedes Lackey’s post and the following post explaining her rant are absolutely terrifying. I enjoy her writing and I’m so sorry she’s going through all that.

    Tess and Louise, I’m also very sorry you’ve both had bad experiences like that too. What is wrong with people today?! Good Lord.

  22. PK the Bookeemonster

    The posts have been very interesting. I agree with anon about reading reviews or being involved in book clubs. I have my own tastes — I only pay attention to lists to see if there is a book I haven’t heard of yet.
    Re prices. I don’t really see how posting non-stellar views of a book affects the price. The only way consumers have a say or vote in the matter is to not participate. You don’t like the price– don’t buy it. That doesn’t mean STEAL it, but voice your dissatisfaction in the only way producers look at things — numbers. If I don’t like a movie or tv show, I don’t watch it. If I don’t like a restaurant, I don’t patronize it. And on and on. It’s not that hard. There comes a level where the consumer does accept the price point and that is where the producers eventually should set it. Yay, capitalism. No, I really mean that, I truly think the system works.

  23. anonymous

    Ah. Louise. You have set the element of suspense. Now all readers are waiting for Tuesday. Searching their consciences……. ‘Am I The Scary Reader’ ?? Does she KNOW?……

    This whole blog is about another book, isn’t it. THE SCARY READER. What Authors Go Through and Their Fans Can Only Guess At…….. are YOU the SCARY READER???!!!! The Inside Story of the Sickening Reality ………………..

    Doodly doodly doo doo doo………..

    (Tess. Not making fun, just playing. This was an eye opening post. Sorry that some readers can’t step up to their responsibility. There are inherent rules. )

  24. Jen B

    The ebook pricing war in the US bewilders me. Here in the UK it’s tough to find an older ebook for less than 10 pounds, let alone a new release. I think Amazon and the Kindle store are placing bizarre expectations into American readers’ minds, enough that I avoid Amazon no matter what country I’m in.

  25. L.C. McCabe


    Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

    I spent the last ten minutes or so hitting the "report this" link on the Amazon reader reviews of Doug Preston’s book which only dealt with the Kindle delays. I didn’t keep track of how many there were, but it was probably several dozen.

    I felt like I was performing a Karmic duty.

    Those types of reviews violate Amazon’s policy and they need to be taken down. Hopefully when the person tasked with surveying the flagged reviews gets enough in their inbox they will act to enforce their own policies.



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