Updated: May 17
It began quietly. I was launching a novel called Where You Go, I Go and needed to draw attention to it. This is a monumental challenge for writers new to the self-publishing game. Few people were discovering my work on their own. They were even hesitant to read free samples to prove to themselves that my work was worth their expense and time. And my fabulous website— BethScape.com — built to evoke a desert-isle, was living up to its theme a little too well. So to beat my marketing drum loudly, I desperately needed some ARC reviews. In the publishing industry, Advance Review Copies (ARCs) are offered to reviewers — sometimes professionals in the field — in exchange for their honest, posted reviews of the books. I signed up for goodreads (lower-cased sic) and joined a community group where authors and reviewers could make these deals. It turned out, that’s also where cyber-extortionists hang out, because they know they can easily take advantage of our anxiety.
I should have smelled a writers’ rat when a couple of the self-proclaimed “reviewers” asked for PDF copies of the book. It was a phishing scam. The explanation came across eerily the same: “My computer doesn’t work with ereaders, so could you please email me a copy?” Naively, I emailed them PDFs — a rookie mistake I won’t repeat.
Because flash forward a few months. To last week … when I received an anonymous email demanding a ransom or they would bomb all my books with trashy 1-star hateful reviews. They even used an anonymous email server that I suspect is designed for criminal clientele. Often, extortionists use hateful threats to beat the writer into submitting payment. They know they can attack those with fragile egos and extort money. It’s like a mugger who pistol-whips his victim just to ensure compliance. And even though this attack was virtual, it was still a CRIME of very real damage and threats.
Their ransom demand threatened that they would destroy my career by badmouthing my books everywhere … unless I paid them. I took my chances and ignored the demand.
Within hours, my books were attacked by dozens of aggressive and negative reviews. Sometimes extortionists accuse a book of being racist, homophobic, or some other offensive label that has nothing to do with the book. In fact, these guys don’t read the books they trash! In my case, a pretend customer posted all over goodreads that it was the worst book she’s read in her life. It’s called Review Bombing for a reason. Devastation everywhere: To the books, to the authors’ mental well-being, and to the careers based on sales that are often associated with those simple little stars and comments.
Let’s look at mental well-being for a moment. Most writers invest years of their lives toward developing their craft. I did. I took community college courses in every kind of writing for years. I began writing short stories decades ago and saw many reach publication in literary journals. In mid-life, I returned to UC, Irvine, home of one of the nation’s top writing schools, so I could raise my skills from the level of general practitioner to word surgeon. Those improvements came at great cost. My younger son and I were poor for a few years.
But I’ve always believed it was worth the time, effort, sacrifices, and expense. See the comma toward the end of the last sentence? I know an Oxford comma when I see one. And my expertise empowered me to be hired as a staff writer and magazine editor, which later led to my freelance career. It’s been a long, tough road. So when the extortionist wrote, “… EITHER YOU TAKE CARE OF OUR NEEDS AND REQUIREMENTS WITH YOUR WALLET OR WE’LL RUIN YOUR AUTHOR CAREER,” it damaged my sense of self-worth more than I’d like to admit. I wondered how I could choose a career that came with so much risk. It shook me for a couple days. Note that they threatened me with three emails written in entirely in all-caps. It’s a virtual way of yelling. Like a mugger shouting, “PAY UP OR DIE!”
And in the same way a real-world mugger grabs your driver’s license then threatens, “I’ll be watching you,” this creep added, “YOU ARE UNDER OUR WATCH” and then made a joke about my email address to prove I’d been singled out.
As it happens, Canva is my favorite hobby. I love piecing together visuals to coordinate with and emphasize messages. And that’s what I turned to. At first, it was to calm down. But then it quickly became a game of outsmarting the extortionist. I created a few strong memes explaining clearly about the poor reviews. Shielding my works and my career from further attacks helped me regain a sense of personal power.
More importantly, I posted about the incident, in real-time, with authors on other social media sites. They rapidly formed an army of counter-attack reviewers, pushing my books back up where they deserve to be and reigniting my love for humanity. Writers are wonderful people, attuned to the challenges of our field and ready to leap into the fight with a word and a sword. A bunch of them even purchased my books to show their solidarity. Yes, I could feel the LOVE! And I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all of them!
Of course, I also immediately contacted policing agencies. They pointed me to the FBI’s cyber-crime division. If you need it, the site is at: IC3.gov. Trust me. Criminals DO NOT want to be on their watch. Because now I can honestly say right back, “Yeah, punk! And we’re watching you, too!” Though I don’t yell with all-caps.
This attack wasn’t just aimed at me. They must have been phishing for email addresses for a while so they could launch their attack on numerous authors at the same time. I hope no one paid them. So much attention was drawn to this incident, goodreads took it seriously and removed the offending reviews within a day or two — faster, I'm told, than their responses to prior reported attacks on other authors. It's critical to note that goodreads is owned by Amazon.
So … what do I do now? I’m still fairly new to the self-publishing game and the challenges remain. The extortionist threatened that I could never ask for an ARC exchange again, or they’d target me with more attacks. Frankly, I think there are better ways to let people know about my work. Bookbub is popular. LibraryThing is there. So is Reedsy. And let’s not forget Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc.
But the main idea is to charm people into purchasing and reading my books … AND THEN SHARING THE FUN WITH THEIR FRIENDS. I’ll have more to say, later, about how Amazon forces writers to beg for reviews in their lopsided treatment of vendors selling through their platform. Meanwhile, I’m just going to send you to my Facebook page, @BethScape for updates. And I’ll let you know that my two published books are out on Kindle. The short story collection, Extraordinary Treasures, is also out on Barnes and Nobles’ Nook. Soon, I’ll add Where You Go, I Go to Barnes and Noble.
It’s said that Mrs. Fields had trouble selling her cookies until she marched into a shopping mall food court carrying a tray of free cookies to sample. In that spirit, I’m offering some tasty free treats, too, on my Free Samples page. Enjoy! And please share!