Cyberbullying for Dummies

It starts with a call from Beth, my ex-wife.

“I got a threatening email,” she says.  “They said they would trash my new book on Goodreads unless I paid them off.”

She forwards it to me, and it’s not pleasant.  The email comes from Anonymousemail, a service that lets you send emails that can’t be traced. Apparently it’s the venue-du-jour for extortionists, whose threats might be less disturbing if you knew who was making them.  (Never one to miss an opportunity, Anonymousemailprefaces each message with the promo, “To unlock all features go premium,” offering a wider selection of threatening email options.)

Then comes the message.  YOU WILL NEED TO BUY OUR PAID REVIEW OFFERS ELSE WE WILL BADMOUTH YOUR BOOK EVERYWHERE STARTING HERE, they begin, apparently unable to turn off the caps lock.  NEXT UP WIL BE MORE SH*TTY COMMENTS AND 1 STAR REVIEWS.  NEITHER GOODREADS NOR YOUR F*CKING AUTHOR BUDDIES WILL BE ABLE TO SAVE YOU FROM US.

Goodreads, if you’re not familiar, is a service that lets you rate whatever book you’re reading, and keeps an aggregate score of all the book’s ratings.  (For example, my book My Trashy Romance has a Goodreads rating of 4.56 out of 5, based on a grand total of 9 ratings, some from people who know me, but I’m not supposed to admit that.)  For an author just starting out in the self-published book business, that rating can be critical, a key index used to generate more sales – something the Anonymousemail senders hope to exploit.

(Dumb aside:  Doesn’t Anonymousemail sound like a rodent who can’t be identified?)

PAY US OR DISAPPEAR FROM GOODREADS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD, they continue, a bit confusingly.  ALWAYS REMEMBER, YOU MAY BE CLEVER BUT WE ARE CLEVERER.

That last sentence is distressing to Beth, because her email address contains the word clever, so the message was clearly targeted at her, not just a blanket email. But to me it sounds like someone trying to sound dangerous, not someone who is.  “I mean, they’re not exactly Mensa candidates,” I point out.  “They can’t spell, they never heard of lower-case letters, and clevererisn’t a word.”  In addition, they say SH*TTY instead of the actual cussword, with a prissiness that’s not very frightening.

Beth declines to pay them off.  She thinks they got her email address from a group within Goodreads, where you can exchange advance copies for book reviews.  (One “reviewer” asked her to email a PDF file, which is probably how they got her virtual address.)  The scam works because reviews are important to new writers, trying to boost their Goodreads profile – people vulnerable to bad publicity.

I urge Beth to go public with this, telling all her writers groups and friends about this club-footed extortion attempt.  “They’re probably hoping you’ll keep this quiet,” I point out.  “Just the opposite of what you should be doing.”

She agrees.  Soon Facebook and Twitter and whatnot are filled with Beth’s account of this failed extortion attempt.  In the process, she finds lots of other novice writers getting the same Anonymousemail threats, which are more common than I realized. “If you see a few 5-star reviews for a book, and then lots of 1-star reviews, it might be someone they’ve targeted,” she explains.  The books are called racist, misogynist and anti-Christian, regardless of their actual contents.  Beth starts getting 1-star reviews on Goodreads, calling her books “the worst I’ve ever read in my life.”

Then another Anonymousemailmessage comes in.  IF YOU DON’T PAY US WE WILL MAKE SURE YOU GET NO BENEFIT OUT OF GOODREADS, they insist, which seems an oddly stilted way to threaten someone.  I’m picturing a line in a cop movie: “Freeze, or you’ll get no benefits out of this transaction!” Beth finds this worrisome, but to me the danger seems unlikely.  “These aren’t hardened criminals,” I surmise.  “They sound like unemployable dropouts, working out of mom’s basement.”

Then the tide starts turning.

Beth finds support from her fellow writers, including me, posting 5-star reviews for her books, instead of the libelous ones.  She contacts Goodreads and has the negative reviews expunged.  (“What if they post more?” she asks.  I tell her, “Have Goodreads remove them, too.”)  She has to evolve a sort of battlefield mentality here, not unlike the way every writer feels, trying to stay afloat in today’s ruthless and competitive marketplace.

Then Beth starts selling.  Despite Anonymousemail’sreview-bombing, people are ordering books.  “Maybe this controversy has created new interest in them,” I suggest.  “It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing that ever happened – at least, I don’t think so.”

Speaking of which, let me take this opportunity (if the editor permits) to promote Beth’s new short story collection, Extraordinary Treasures, now available on Nook and Kindle at https://www.bethscape.com/extraordinary-treasures.  Feel free to review it on Goodreads.  (I especially like her fresh take on James Thurber, “The Secret Wife of Walter Mitty.”)

Beth’s failed extortionists may think they’re “cleverer” than she is, but I can’t help thinking she’s more clever.  Properly exploited, this club-footed ransom attempt could be a windfall, drawing unexpectedly favorable attention, promoting her book as nothing else quite can.

I’m jealous.  Why doesn’t anyone ever threaten me?

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