Every author understands that negative reviews are a fact of life. But what’s one to do when his book is targeted by malicious actors who exploit a corporation’s feckless approach to content moderation? A group of people leveled untrue personal attacks against me in the guise of reviews on Goodreads, a social network for books owned by Amazon. My publisher warned me that my books were in jeopardy on Amazon platforms, and I flagged the reviews as personal attacks. But Goodreads let them stand and then banned me from its site without explanation.
The affair began in April, when I noticed a one-star review of my latest book, Mad Travelers, on Goodreads. The reviewer—let’s call her Courtney—categorized my book as “awful garbage” and added that she was “pretty sure I hated women.” Mad Travelers is a nonfiction book about wanderlust that tells the story of a group of extreme travelers who believe that they were conned by a young Brit named William Baekeland. All the characters in the book are men because no women were involved in the events. Nothing controversial or derogatory about women appears in the book; and though I’ve written many columns in my career, I’ve never covered women’s issues.
Since the review contained nothing about the book, I believed that she’d never read it. When I flagged the review, Goodreads left it in place, so I wrote a response, pointing out that I do not hate women and asking Courtney what she was referring to. The comment was deleted, but the review remained, even though it was an ad hominem attack—supposedly prohibited, according to Goodreads’ review guidelines.
Courtney is a writer, with several published articles, book reviews, and blog posts, and multiple websites with contact forms. When I asked her over email why she wrote that I hated women, she responded that all the female characters in my book are “portrayed as villains.” (Mad Travelers contains no women and only one man who could be construed as a villain.) I asked what she meant, but the conversation went nowhere, and I considered the matter over.
But a few days later, I checked my book’s Goodreads page and saw that Courtney had inspired several of her friends to “like” her one-star review—elevating it to the top of the page and hurting my reputation. She accused me of “tracking down” her personal email address to threaten and harass her. I followed up over email and asked her to stop lying about me. She replied, asking me to stop contacting her. I did.
Then things got weirder. I sent William Baekeland, the main character in my book, a link to Courtney’s “review” to ask his opinion on it, as he had recently won a settlement for a defamation lawsuit that he’d brought against a U.K. publication. Apparently, he then decided to contact her on his own volition, and the following day, Baekeland forwarded me correspondence with Courtney in which he had threatened her with a lawsuit—to which Courtney replied that she believed the emails were coming from me impersonating him.
After that incident, the publisher of Post Hill Press, which published my book, called me. He said that Courtney had contacted Goodreads via Twitter and had sent messages to executives at Post Hill and at Simon & Schuster, the book’s distributor, claiming that I was harassing her and threatening her with lawsuits. My publisher said that all of my books—all about travel, none political—risked being pulled from the Amazon platform. And so, a corporation that sells about 70 percent of my books, according to my publisher, wasn’t just providing a platform for “reviewers” to defame me but also had the power to effectively kill my sales, too.
By this time, Courtney had deleted her review from Goodreads, but a few dozen other people whom she relayed her version of events to had apparently trashed the book in her place. Many just left one-star ratings for Mad Travelers, but a few, including a pair of fledgling romance novelists and one woman who described herself in her Goodreads bio as the dean of the Gotham Writers Workshop, left one-star reviews or ratings for all four of my books. A few others wrote “reviews” claiming that I was harassing Courtney and threatening her with a lawsuit for the crime of leaving a perfectly innocuous one-star review.
I noticed that on April 12, the day the cancel crescendo crested, an anonymous user going by @smartgirlsfinishlast tweeted, “Today I will be calling out author Dave Seminara, who thinks it’s okay to stalk and harass young women who dare give his book a critical review.”
Again, critical reviews, spiteful comments, and literary enemies are the price of a career in writing. But this had the distinct whiff of a coordinated campaign—and one that had nothing to do with my books. One reviewer, with no prior reviews, wrote that I “clearly hated all women.” Another claimed that I “appeared to be harassing those who draft unflattering reviews by sending them repeated emails and threatening to sue.” Another titled her review with the bold type warning, “Reviewers beware” and claimed that I “relentlessly harassed” and “bullied” Courtney. “She felt so hounded that she deleted her Goodreads account,” she wrote in bold type. The writer admitted she hadn’t read my book but said that my “actions today were to hunt down a person I didn’t know . . . and insult, berate and threaten them into keeping their mouth shut.”
I flagged the reviews, along with one on Amazon that stated my book was “ripe with misogyny,” and contacted Goodreads about the campaign. Amazon is stricter in policing reviews, which is probably why the crowd only got one negative review on me to pass their system. But on Goodreads, most of the flagged reviews and ratings remain there.
Since I wasn’t allowed to respond to the malicious reviews and it was clear Goodreads wasn’t going to delete them, I left my own book a review stating that all of the attacks on my character were false. I asked Baekeland to refrain from contacting Courtney. He told me that he wrote a five-star review of my book along with a separate response to the smears, indicating that it was he who had threatened Courtney with the lawsuit, not me. Perhaps an hour or two after I saw his review and comment, they were gone—and so were both of us, from Goodreads. Around the same time, we both got emails from Goodreads saying our accounts were deleted for violating their terms of service.
Why did Courtney try to have me canceled? I don’t know for sure, but I found posts that she wrote in which she described herself as a leftist and socialist whose ideal man is Karl Marx. Given that I’ve penned dozens of conservative-themed columns, it’s likely that she read something other than my book that she hated.
This is not my first brush with Big Tech harassment. Last year, when my third book, Footsteps of Federer, was published, I tried to advertise the book on Instagram and Facebook but was “permanently banned” from advertising on the platform for reasons that remain a mystery to me.
Silencing users with unfashionable opinions—while allowing those with the right opinions to break the rules—is all too common online these days, as conservatives have learned. Those with huge platforms, like Matt Walsh, can overcome such treatment. Leaked videos indicate that Walsh’s children’s book, Johnny the Walrus, supposedly traumatized Amazon employees, who attempted to suppress and subvert it and later banned his publisher from advertising it. Nevertheless, the resulting publicity shot his book up to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list—and good for him. But those of us without such a high profile are easier to vaporize.