I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney concerning your specific needs.
After 20 years of publishing books, and with 9,000 titles under our belts, you’d think no new sensitive topic could possibly come across my desk. Wrong.
I received three “book reviews” from an author. We’ll call her Sweet Sue. (She really is a nice lady.) She wanted our publishing company, BookLocker.com, to add them to her book’s metadata in Ingram’s system (Ingram is the largest book distributor) so the reviews would be distributed to all of Ingram’s retail clients (Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, BooksAMillion.com, and thousands of others across the globe).
As always, I read the “reviews” in their entirety so I could check for typos, and ensure they were appropriate for public posting.
The typos part is easy to understand. People post book reviews with typos all the time and they never mind when you insert a missing apostrophe, or correct a misspelled word. However, the “appropriate” part is a bit more tricky.
People who post reviews of books directly online know they’re being posted for the masses to see. They won’t often include personal information about themselves, especially if they’re using their real name. Sometimes, they will include personal info. (i.e. this book helped me overcome my drug problem), but they’ll post it anonymously.
However, some readers simply send emails to authors with personal comments about the book. And, some of those authors will then use those positive comments as book reviews for marketing purposes. Unfortunately, many authors think this is acceptable because, after all, the reader did send the email to the author directly and…doesn’t that mean the author now owns those words? Nope! And, doesn’t the reader know that, by sending those comments, the author can automatically use those in any way they want? Nope again!
First of all, the person who writes something owns the rights to those words, even if it’s personal correspondence being sent to another person.
Second, many people write to authors after liking a book, and even want to share how it affected them personally (with private details). But, in most cases, they do NOT intend for the author to take their name and comments, and to distribute them publicly.
Third, some readers send compliments to the author and state outright that the author can share their words with anyone and everyone, which would include posting them online. Some of those will request anonymity while others will state the author can publish their name.
Let’s get back to Sweet Sue. She sent us three “reviews” to help promote her book, which is about a specific mental illness.
Review #1 was pretty safe but not entirely so. It contained complimentary comments about the book and only had the reader’s first initial and last name.
Even though she had given the author permission to use her name, I removed her last name and used just initials because of the subject of the book. I didn’t want that reader to be associated with that mental illness if that was not what she intended. Some people don’t understand the full consequences of what can occur when you post something online that might indicate you have a mental illness. Family issues. Job issues. And, legal issues. (What if her adult child didn’t know, found out, and then tried to take over her finances?) I know that sounds extreme but, believe me, I have seen FAR WORSE done to people by family and so-called friends alike.
Review #2 had a red flag. The woman had signed her real name, and had discussed helping her mother deal with that mental illness. This was a potential invasion of privacy issue.
I told the author that she needed to get written permission from the woman who sent the review and, even if she obtained it, I would not post the woman’s real name to protect the privacy of her mother.
Review #3 had a screaming, humongous red flat. It was written by a man in his 80’s who suffers from that mental illness. He complimented the book, and included several personal examples of how he’s trying to deal with his issues. He used his real name and did not state that the author could share his comments with anyone. Worse, since he admitted he had this mental illness, it was doubtful he would even have the mental capacity to give consent. His situation was so bad that it’s likely someone else is handling his day-to-day affairs and he certainly did not seem capable of understanding the ramifications of sharing his mental illness and resulting problems to the masses online.
So, authors, when a reader sends you awesome comments about your book:
1. Always, ALWAYS request permission to quote them in your marketing materials and anywhere else.
2. Never, ever share comments from someone who may not have the mental or legal capacity to authorize use of their comments. This includes anyone under the age of 18 because they can’t sign releases or contracts.
3. If your book deals with a sensitive subject like mental illness, abuse, or anything else that might embarrass someone, never, ever use that person’s real name, even if they give you permission to do so.
The only exception would be if that person is also well known in that area, and had already written about their struggles. For example, if an author of a well-known book on child abuse wrote a review for your book on the same topic, and gave you permission to use their name, that would be okay. (Be sure to promote their book, too!)
If you reveal private issues about someone online without first having obtained written permission, or if you publish something by someone who clearly doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand the ramifications of that, they or their family members can sue you. Even one such lawsuit could lead to bankruptcy.
Writing and publishing always carry some risks. Be educated about problems that might arise but, more importantly, ALWAYS respect the privacy and rights of others – the way you would want others to respect yours. And, always consider any possible legal, financial, or other problems that might arise from you “outing” someone with your marketing materials.
POSTSCRIPT: Many publishers, knowing they aren’t legally liable for the content of their authors’ books, nor for their authors’ marketing activities, will not inform those authors of these types of potential problems. At BookLocker, we always treat others as we’d like to be treated so we never hesitate to alert an author when they’re about to make a really, really big mistake.
EMAIL COMMENT RECEIVED FROM HARVEY RANDALL, ESQ.
Your item, “Can Your Book’s “REVIEWS” Get You Sued? Yep!” is excellent.
In my opinion, there are two basic types of “safe” reviewers from an author’s perspective.
One is the “professional reviewer,” usually associated with some publication or other [even if a free-lance] whose work is published by a newspaper, journal, magazine, blog or similar vehicle and the other is the “subject matter” expert reviewer who is qualified and recognized as such by his or her peers in that field or area of expertise.
I suggest that “reviews” or “comments” from a “lay reader” received by an author be retained only for inclusion in his or her private and personal scrapbook of “kudos.”