Within the last couple of weeks, science fiction and fantasy writer Cait Corrain, whose novel Crown of Starlight, which was to be published in May 2024, was dropped by her agent and publisher due to Corrain’s “review bombing” on Goodreads. It didn’t help that she targeted primarily BIPOC authors (Black, Indigenous, [and] People of Color). The story has been everywhere. If you’re unaware of what review bombing is, it’s basically giving books one-star reviews so that an author’s overall ratings drop. It’s been reported that Corrain created a bunch of different email accounts, and then went on a review bombing spree attacking her competition. She also upvoted her own novel, to raise her rating, and she did so using the same email accounts. I won’t get into the specifics of the controversy surrounding how she got caught; there’s plenty of that out there already. But there’s something else I’d like to touch on, and that’s the why of why Cait Corrain may have done what she did.
Now, if you’re a writer, traditionally published, self-published, whatever, you know how hard it is to get your name out there. You may have written a great book, worked hard to get an agent by doing your research on which agents represent authors and books like yours, worked with that agent to find a home with an acquisitions editor at a publishing house, and then, if you’re one of the lucky few, actually ended up getting a publishing contract for your book. It’s a long, tedious process, and that’s all after you wrote your novel. If you self-published, obviously it was easier to see your novel in print, but you still had to deal with getting your book out there for the world to find, which meant you had to market your book in some form or fashion. Still, there’s no guarantee anyone’s going to shell out ten or twenty bucks for your book. That’s just the life of a writer.
So, back to the why of why Corrain felt the need to review bomb. According to Bowker (a publisher of book industry data), there are anywhere from 500,000 to 1M books traditionally published every year, and another 2M self-published books. That’s 3M books published every year, which is an enormous number. The majority of the authors of those books are charged with doing their own marketing. Traditionally published authors are in the same boat, at least most of them are. According to literary agent Jane Dystel, 15,000 books sold by an author would get a publisher’s attention. “But if the second book doesn’t sell well [. . .] odds are you won’t get another chance.”
According to WordsRated, the average self-published book sells only 250 copies over the lifetime of the book. 250! Now, I know a lot of those books aren’t always at the level of a traditionally published book. Oftentimes self-published books lack the professionalism of publishing houses, which is too bad, especially if the book is worth reading. At any rate, there’s a lot of competition out there for authors, and it’s easy to worry about how your book will do once it’s out in the world. The stats are not on your side. Goodreads can make the difference between whether or not your book “makes it” prior to the book even being released. The problem is that Goodreads allows for reviews to be posted even if you haven’t read the book. And that’s where the problems arise.
As someone who worked in the advertising agency world for 15 years, my first thought is that one way to handle the issue would be to connect bookselling sites with Goodreads, so that it’s clear when someone purchases the book they’re reviewing. Obviously, that isn’t foolproof—I don’t have to buy a book to review it. I can borrow it, check it out from the library, buy it at a book sale, whatever. So, that route, while potentially helpful, doesn’t solve the problem. And what about addressing the ratings system? Is there something that can be done to prevent reviewers form manipulating the system? Goodreads is taking some steps in the right direction. According to them, they are going to “temporarily limit submission of ratings and reviews on a book during times of unusual activity that violate our guidelines, including instances of ‘review bombing.” It’s a good step, but I’m not so sure it’ll be as effective as it sounds. We’ve learned plenty from social media sites that, while they have good intentions behind the steps they take to prevent bad actors on their platforms, they don’t always prove effective. Or, in most cases, the users just pivot to something else. It’s a never-ending problem social media sites will always face.
Corrain explained, via another deception (creating a fake conversation between her and a “friend” she invented), that the reason for the review bombing was that she didn’t want her book to get “overshown by bigger books at your publishing house.” Now, I neither condone, appreciate, support, nor can rationalize Corrain’s actions. I find them reprehensible, especially because of who she went after. But I see her logic. I see why she would think that maybe it might be a beneficial thing to do (it’s not, clearly, but I do understand it). How do you get your name out there? How do you get people buying your books? I’m a member of a number of social media groups where authors are always trying to hawk their books. They sell a few copies, but from what I can tell, it’s nothing life-changing for these authors. I haven’t heard of other such high-profile instances of this happening, but I absolutely believe it’s happening even right now as I type. Corrain just took it to the next level. And she got caught. This begs the question: How many authors haven’t gotten caught?
The pressure to sell books is an enormous burden on the author. Sure, it’s something the publisher has to deal with as well, but they’ll survive and move on to the next book, hoping that it’ll be the one that’ll see and thus cover the books that don’t quite make it. But what about the author of the books that don’t make it? Their careers are at stake, and that’s a heavy burden to carry, especially if all you’ve ever wanted to do was write. We live in different times, and in the age of technology, those times change daily. Before the past couple years, how often were you afraid AI was going to write books using your words? That’s an argument that’s alive and well right now, with advocates on both sides of the issue. Corrain is one of the exceptions that said, You know what, I have to take this thing into my own hands if I’m going to make it. If I don’t, I’ll fade away. Again, I don’t condone it, I’m just trying to understand the logic. Hate her all you want, she just put into motion what she believed would remedy a number of concerns a lot of authors think and worry about. She wanted to stick out. A bad move on her part, certainly. But name me a few other guaranteed tactics that’ll get your book above others being published at the same time.
Corrain is paying the price for her actions. She’s been dropped by her publisher and by her agent. What that means for her is still unknown. But she has a name now. This reminds me of the James Frey scandal on Oprah, where a good amount of Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was found to be fabricated. Oprah reamed him, which I personally thought was too much. She put him on television with her enormous audience and scolded him as if he were a five-year-old who she’d seen kill a kitten. It was horrendous to watch. Frey continued writing and has delved into other ventures.
But, and I hate to admit it, controversy sells. Getting your name out there is often the most important part. Do I believe that if Corrain now self-published her novel that it’ll sell? Absolutely. Is that fair? Probably not. But in the age in which we live, our attention spans are about eight seconds. Writers feel under attack. They’ve always felt under attack. What I mean is, it’s a very difficult thing, trying to get a book published. It’s even harder trying to get it to sell. Someone smarter than me will hopefully figure out a more equitable way of highlighting books that doesn’t lead to random people being able to manipulate ratings systems to bump their books to the top of book lists. Corrain isn’t the problem; the problem is how we, as authors, don’t disappear into the ether once our books are out there. It’s a question I can’t answer. But it’s one I’m sure we’ll see plenty of authors trying to navigate, some of which we aren’t going to like.
Cully Perlman is an author and Developmental Editor. He may be contacted at Cully@novelmasterclass.com