The Greek Seaman
The Greek Seaman is a self-published novel by Jacqueline Howett, a United Kingdom-born woman who resides in Clearwater, Florida in the Tampa Bay Area. She described herself as an artist, author, and poet. In 2011 the novel and its author gained media attention when the author reacted negatively to a review of her book on an internet blog post.
The book is about a romance between Don, a Greek sailor, and Katy, his English wife. The two live on a cargo ship with an all-male crew from many countries. The two have to survive a conspiracy set against them.
Reception and internet controversy
Blog post and Howett's response
On March 16, 2011, an internet blogger named "Big Al" posted a review of the book on his blog, "Big Al's Books and Pals". Morgan O'Rourke of Risk Management said that the blog, which had been established three months earlier, was "little-known". O'Rourke said that prior to the incident at the blog regarding The Greek Seaman the blog "had never seen more than a handful of comments on any one post." At the time, on its Amazon.com page, The Greek Seaman had three reviews. O'Rourke said that at least one of the three reviews "was likely from a family member" and that the book "had largely gone unnoticed".
"Big Al" rated her book two stars. Big Al said the plot was "compelling and interesting," but that most readers would not be able to finish the book. He said "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." Paul Constant of The Stranger described the review as "a fair-to-poor review", while O'Rourke characterized it as a "negative" review. Drew Grant of Salon said "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.)" Kiri Blakely of Forbes said that the criticism in the review was "tepid" and that the review itself "was, in reality, pretty tame."
Howett responded by saying that the blogger "didn't read the second clean copy I requested you download" and "I think I will stick to my five star and four star reviews thanks." She then made more posts quoting positive Amazon reviews. The blogger responded with quotes from The Greek Seaman. Howett made posts attacking "Big Al", and also other commenters who argued in favor of "Big Al." In the negative posts Howett accuses "Big Al" of being a "liar", and tells him to "Fuck off!" O'Rourke said that Howett's posts were "increasingly vitriolic, expletive-laden posts (that were, ironically, full of spelling and grammatical errors)". At one point Howett said that the extra attention on her responses led to an increase in sales of her book.
O'Rourke said that "BigAl’s blog wasn’t popular enough at the time to garner any sort of attention on its own and, besides, the review seemed fairly accurate" so if Howett had not responded in the manner that she did, no incident would have occurred.
Result of Howett's response
That resulted in a flame war. Morgan O'Rourke of Risk Management said "The comment section exploded with readers denouncing Howett’s lack of professionalism and vowing never to read anything by her again." Kiri Blakely of Forbes said "Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the posters were against Howett and called her out for being unprofessional" and that they feared that the reputations of other self-published writers would be damaged by the incident. Within several days, the blog post had over 300 comments. Ultimately the website administrator disabled posts on the blog entry.
Readers began posting links to the blog entry on other blogs, Facebook, and Twitter and the outcome of the blog post became viral. As part of the flame war, negative comments began to appear on the Amazon.com page of her book. By March 29, 2011 47 new reviews went on the Amazon page, causing the total rating of the book to decline to one and one half stars out of five. By the end of March 2011 there were over 100 reviews of the book, with almost 80 of them being "one star." As of May 31, 2011, of the 106 reviews on the Amazon page, 86 were those rating the book "one star." The reviews referred to the work as “not even a real book," trash," and "vile." Drew Grant of Salon said "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." Reviewers also ranked her other books negatively after the incident, in what O'Rourke describes as "collateral damage".
Mainstream publications such as The Guardian and Salon had covered the incident. Brandon K. Thorp of the Broward Palm Beach New Times said that within one week, Howett's name "went from being almost unGoogleable to having 22,000 links, none friendly." Big Al's blog previously received 50 hits per day; as the controversy broke out, it went up to 200,000 hits per day. Jean Hannah Edelstein of The Guardian said "This week, she is one of the world's (or at least the internet's) most famous authors – but not, alas, because her literary genius has been recognised." Ben East of The National said that the author "was, for a brief while, an internet phenomenon for all the wrong reasons" and that even through "a hitherto unknown blogger criticising a self-published book is hardly an international news story" Howett had "answered back. In style." and therefore had become the attention of a news article. Steve Burgess of the Calgary Herald said that becoming an "Internet sensation" is a positive development "if you're Justin Bieber" and a negative one "if you're the Star Wars kid doing a light-sabre dance." Burgess characterized Howett as having negative attention.
Most of Howett's comments on Al's blog have since been deleted.
Reception to the internet response
As a result of the incident, Neil Gaiman, in a Twitter post, linked to Howett's review and said "If you ever have dreams of being a writer, please trust me & DON'T DO THIS. Just don't. Just... don't." In another Twitter post, the International Institute of Modern Letters of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand used the incident as an example of "the perils of self publishing".
David Barnett of The Guardian said that "Reviewing's a tough business, and reading reviews of your own work is even tougher" and that because of the immediacy of the internet, a response to the reviewer not thought-out by the author could be sent instantly, while an author only access to pre-internet tools would reconsider after writing a hasty response and not send it to the reviewer. Kiri Blakely of Forbes said "Howett’s temper tantrum spotlights the fact that, well, self-published authors are often not professional authors" citing the fact that the "rather tepid criticism" from Big Al "was enough to send her over the edge" while a writing background held by a writer who had advanced through the traditional channels of publishing "includes receiving rigorous criticism and editing". She said "Writing is an inherently personal activity and creative types tend to be a little over-sensitive. Mix that in with so many ways to instantly fire back publicly, and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of less-than-stellar behavior." Ben East of The National said "It was a lesson in how not to handle bad reviews and Howett became a laughing stock" but that "it was difficult not to feel just a little sorry for the first-time author defending her pride and joy" and that today one could "let off steam immediately via the internet" while previously a writer who was unhappy with critics could write a letter, but that "by which time, one imagines, rage might have subsided a little".
Jean Hannah Edelstein of The Guardian wrote that she did not believe Howett's response was "entirely hysterical" because other people would likely like to make a similar reaction she made whenever they get negative reviews. Jane Sullivan of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that as more and more online reviews are made, "often by readers who don't have any particular expertise in reviewing or don't feel any obligation to be fair to the author" more authors are making attacks on the reviews, partly due to the potential loss of sales.
Caitlin Dickson of The Atlantic said that the incident showed "[h]ow to instantly lose credibility as a respectable, independent writer." Brandon K. Thorp of the Broward Palm Beach New Times said that a vanity press or self-published Kindle book such as The Greek Seaman is "not supposed to be international news", "There is such a thing as bad publicity", and "it's unclear what, if anything" the author can do to cause her "online literary reputation" to recover. Morgan O'Rourke of Risk Management said that Howett "likely sabotaged her career as a respectable writer" because the outburst would remain on search engines even after the public turns its attention to another scandal, and that he suggested that she adopt a pen name.
Drew Grant of Salon said the response made him wonder if she had intentionally responded to the review as a way to increase publicity for her book and make more money. Steve Burgess of the Calgary Herald said "More than one author is probably trying to kick-start something similar right now."
O'Rourke said "While the trials and tribulations of Jacqueline Howett are only a small-scale example of the destructive power of the online horde, the lessons that this incident teaches are applicable to any company with an active internet presence. Not all criticism merits a response" and "Choose your battles wisely. Because the reality is that the internet doesn’t care about your schoolyard rhymes. If given the chance, it will gladly find a way to make its words hit harder than sticks and stones ever could."
East stated "And better writers than Howett have succumbed to the strange lure of an online review's comments section," referring to Alain de Botton's response to a review of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work in The New York Times Book Review and Alice Hoffman's Twitter response to a review of Practical Magic in The Boston Globe. Both authors apologized for their remarks.
The New Zealand play Nucking Futs, about a self-published author who deals with the problems of going viral over the internet, is based on The Greek Seaman incident.
- Thorp, Brandon K. "On Feeling Bad for Jacqueline Howett." Broward Palm Beach New Times. Tuesday April 5, 2011. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- Dickson, Caitlin. "An Independent Novelist vs. Her Very First Critic." The Atlantic Wire. March 29, 2011. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- "Biography of Jacqueline Howett." (Archive) Jacqueline Howett Official Website. Retrieved on March 2, 2013.
- Grant, Drew. "The e-book that launched a thousand flame wars." Salon. Tuesday March 29, 2011. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- Scherstuhl, Alan. "Jacqueline Howett and the Dirtiest Review in Amazon History." San Francisco Weekly. Tuesday May 31, 2011. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- O'Rourke, Morgan. "Sticks and Stones." (Archive) Risk Management. May 1, 2011. Volume 58, Issue 4. p. 48 "Last Word" section. Retrieved on March 2, 2013. ISSN 0035-5593. Available on ProQuest (document ID 1009712434).
- Barnett, David. "How not to handle bad reviews." The Guardian. Wednesday March 30, 2011. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- Blakely, Kiri. "Self-Published Author Can't Handle A Bad Review." Forbes. April 1, 2011. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- Constant, Paul. "Author Meltdowns Are Very Entertaining." The Stranger. March 29, 2011. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- Burgess, Steve "Making sure your first book doesn't wind up on the remainder table is enough to drive anyone to drink. Thankfully, we were able to provide our favourite memoirist with a healthier outlet for his promotional angst." Calgary Herald. Friday April 22, 2011. p. 1. Swerve Section p. SW31. Retrieved on April 7, 2013. Available on LexisNexis.
- East, Ben. "What happened when author Jacqueline Howettan [sic] fired back at the critics." The National. April 5, 2011. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- Edelstein, Hannah Jean. "Hell hath no fury like an author scorned." The Guardian. March 30, 2011. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- "If you ever have dreams of being a writer," (Archive) Neil Gaiman at Twitter. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- "The perils of self publishing (they include a 300 plus comments thread) ." (Archive) Modernletters (International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington) at Twitter. Retrieved on March 2, 2013.
- Sullivan, Jane. "Writing wrongs - the author's lament." (Opinion) Sydney Morning Herald. April 22, 2011. Retrieved on April 7, 2013. Also available in The Age (under the same title) Friday April 22, 2011 First Edition. Life & Style Books p. 32. The Age version is available on LexisNexis.
- Benedictus, Leo. "Tough love." Prospect. April 20, 2011. Retrieved on March 1, 2013.
- "Downloading a meltdown." The Dominion Post at Stuff.co.nz. April 5, 2012. Retrieved on December 28, 2013.
- Jacqueline Howett Official Website
- Blog of Jacqueline Howett
- "The Greek Seaman / Jacqueline Howett." (Archive) Big Al's Books and Pals. Wednesday March 16, 2011.
- Smythe, John. "ENTERTAINING BUT LOSES ITS WAY." (Archive) (review of Nucking Futs, play based on the incident) Theatreview: The New Zealand Performing Arts Review & Directory. The Theatreview Trust, NZ Charities Commission Reg. No. CC45963. April 13, 2012.
- Finnegan, Matthew. "Author Jacqueline Howett has public breakdown on blog review." TechEye. March 30, 2011.