The e-book that launched a thousand flame wars

A self-published author takes on a critic -- and becomes a cautionary tale

Topics: Writers and Writing, Amazon.com, E-books, Publishing News, Books,

The e-book that launched a thousand flame warsThe cover of the "The Greek Seaman"

Every year, hundreds of thousands of books are put out by independent presses that let you pay to publish your own story. And with the popularity of the iPad and Kindle, these would-be authors can bypass the cost of printing entirely, making your writing-to-publishing process a one-step deal. That may have been one step too few for British author Jacqueline Howett, whose book went out into the world before it was copyedited — and full of typos.

The Greek Seaman” is the third of Howett’s self-published, straight-to-Kindle affairs, and it probably would not have drawn much attention had it not been for a blog called Big Al’s Books and Pals. On March 16, Big Al reviewed “Seaman” and gave it the most positive review the writer could muster:

“If you read ‘The Greek Seaman’ from the start until you click next page for the last time I think you’ll find the story compelling and interesting. The culture shock felt by the newlywed bride, Katy, who finds herself far from her native England, living on a cargo ship with her seaman husband Don is a good story in itself …

However, odds of making that final click are slim. One reason is the spelling and grammar errors, which come so quickly that, especially in the first several chapters, it’s difficult to get into the book without being jarred back to reality as you attempt unraveling what the author meant. At times, you’ll be engrossed in the story when you’ll run across a flowery description of the emotions Katy is feeling about her situation or her husband. These are numerous and sometimes very good. Chances are one of these sections originally pulled you so deeply into Katy’s world. Then you’ll run into one that doesn’t work and get derailed again. Reading shouldn’t be that hard.”

It’s not the worst review in the world: Big Al’s biggest problem with the story could be fixed with a good editor. (Think of how many novels need so much more than that to be engrossing.) The story could have just ended there, and if Jacqueline had stumbled across the review and taken those words to heart, maybe it could have. Instead, the book’s author went on to the comment thread for the post and did this:

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This led to a 400-comment flame war that eventually spilled over to Jacqueline’s Amazon page. Now, 47 customer reviews later, “The Greek Seaman” has a total rating of one and a half stars. Commenters have taken to calling the book “vile,” “trash” and “not even a real book.” It’s doubtful any of these reviewers would have even found “Seaman” had it not been for the author’s public blow-up on Big Al’s blog.

Which makes me wonder if there isn’t some method to all of Jacqueline’s madness. After all, she got a bunch of people who would never have checked out her book to actually go ahead and buy a copy, just so they could crap all over it. (“Not only have I wasted my money, but I’ve wasted my time,” reads a typical comment.) Who really has the last laugh in that situation: the guys who spent $5 to write an angry Amazon review, or the author who took the money from a group of people who have nothing better to do all day than get into fights about grammar on the Internet?

Drew Grant is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @videodrew.

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