Over Christmas the topic of author safety came up. When one writer mentioned disturbing experiences with safety issues and personal data, several others then joined in. Some of the stories were harrowing, and while most fans are not a problem, some of the group had come close to reliving Misery in their own lives.
To find out exactly how widespread the issue was, from 1st February 2022 to 30th April 2022, the Bookangel Club ran a survey on Author Safety Issues: harassment, stalking, privacy and more (for further details on the origins of the survey, click here).
979 authors had their say, and we would like to thank:
- the Insecure Writers’ Support Group
- the Crime Writers’ Association
- Alliance of Independent Authors
- and over forty small writers groups for their help.
The basic results were disturbing.
65% of respondents thought that less than one quarter of authors were harassed.
72% of respondents had actually been harassed.
28% of all respondents had suffered serious safety issues, including physical threats and criminal action due to writing.
41% of respondents had received threats of death or physical harm. The 28% were those who had experienced significant problems, including arson attacks, kidnapping attempts, assault or theft at signings, and going after author’s families in their day to day lives. Identity theft and credit card fraud were also reported.
As the survey was anonymous we did not capture any demographics on the age or gender of the writer, instead focusing on how long they had been writing for, what they wrote and, if appropriate, what genre they wrote in.
The anonymity issue cut both ways: while it made it harder to validate individual responses, we had a number of respondents say that they would not have replied to this survey on Google or responded to a less anonymous survey because of a harassment risk we highlighted on the survey: software linking accounts.
Number of Works the author has available:
Works included anything from short stories to media articles, to novels and white papers.
- 0.5% – Not Stated
- 25.6% – 1-5 works
- 47.6% – 6-10 works
- 26.3% – 11+ works
How long have they been writing for?
- 0.4% – Not Stated,
- 3.9% – Less than 1 year
- 22.2% – 1 to 5 years
- 42.2% – 5 to 10 years
- 20.0% – 10 to 20 years
- 11.3% – 20 years or longer
Genre written in
When it came to genre, the majority of writers write in more than one. We had over a hundred respondents in each of our categories of Crime or Mystery, Romance or Erotica, Suspense or Thrillers, Non Fiction, Speculative Fiction, and Humour or Comedy.
With 979 authors across a wide range of genres and experience levels, this gives, we think, a good overview of writers across all stages of their careers. This should make the harassment figures as representative as we could find them.
Causes of Harassment
The survey was specifically exploring harassment due to writing and we asked respondents to exclude harassment for other reasons, such as their personal life or behaviour on social media (e.g. comments on Twitter). This resulted in certain authors contacting us separately to expand on what had happened, and prove it was because of their writing and nothing else. This data has been securely disposed of, due to the anonymity requirements.
For the 72% of respondents who had been harassed, we asked what they thought triggered the problems. The percentages below are not exclusionary: many authors were harassed for more than one reason, or the harassment spilled over from one cause into another.
The Genre the author wrote in was a common cause. The triggers of fan harassment reported at over 1% included:
- authors writing a pairing the fan did not like (often romance),
- killing off a character,
- featuring the ‘wrong type of’ LGBT+ pairing,
- stopping writing a series or having it cancelled,
- writing content the fan found disturbing or obscene (often horror authors)
3% of authors reported they were harassed due to their perceived characteristics. We say perceived characteristics as authors with multiple pen-names reported varying degrees of harassment depending on how the pen-names were perceived. Of those perceived characteristics, Gender (56%) was followed by Sexual Orientation (41%) and then the Culture of the author(40%) as reasons.
More concerning is the small sub-group of authors reporting being harassed by other authors, usually believed to be for monetary or readership reasons.
When it comes to harassment due to writing, the cause does seems to lie with the harasser, and not the author’s actions. This is important due to the amount of victim-blaming, something we will go onto later.
Perceptions of harassment
Overall, more respondents suffered serious safety issues than most authors thought were being harassed in total. 65.3% of authors thought that only 25% or fewer of authors would ever encounter any form of harassment. As we have seen from the figures above, 28% of authors will experience serious safety issues.
- 12.6% – Rare
- 52.7% – Occasional
- 22.7% – Common
- 7.1% – Frequent
- 4.8% – Almost every writer
We did not investigate the reasons for the difference between how common harassment is and how common it is believed to be, as we did not know the gap between the two existed (or was this wide) until these results came in. However while many authors’ groups we contacted did not respond, some declined with reasons, most notably: “this is not the view of writing we want for our audience”.
If that is true for other groups, then it means that this is simply not being talked about among groups of writers. When those writers become one of the 72%, they think it is an outlier and may simply not discuss it or think it is their fault. This also means it is hard for them to find help.
Another common perception among the minority of authors who have not been harassed is the belief that “it won’t happen to me”, leading to people who suffered through this being blamed for not taking precautions. From several comments it seems to be part of a “just world” fallacy – the belief that bad things only happen to people that deserve it.
There is also an element of victim-blaming. Several writers who had not been harassed expressed the view that authors should “toughen up” or that “stop writing and kill yourself” is a funny comment. That was beautifully put down by an earlier respondent saying they thought it was funny until someone posted it through their letter box. (Permission to quote this was asked for and received).
Most online harassment happened on platforms that were not anonymous. Social media that required some form of identification to sign up to, e.g. Facebook or Amazon, (39.5% of cases), and those the required phone verification (39.5%) were well ahead of the truly anonymous platforms at 19.7%. However one platform was specifically mentioned in comments as a problem: Goodreads. Despite not being on the survey itself, 2% of authors specifically mentioned behaviour on the platform and the platform’s response as an issue.
- 26.1% – Pseudonymous social media
- 19.7% – Anonymous media
- 13.4% – Pseudonymous platforms
- 27.5% – Identifiable social media
- 12.0% – User Identifiable Platforms
Online harassment generally took the form of unpleasant comments, bad reviews left across all an author’s work, or similar.
However many reports came in of more serious or even criminal activities including extortion or blackmail attempts. One specific scam that kept coming up was leaving multiple bad reviews and then sending the author a demand that they pay for them to be removed. There was also identity theft and fiscal crime: having obtained an author’s details, the harasser went after them financially.
In each case the common thread was that when reported to the platform or the authorities, the response from them was ineffective. This included platforms refusing to take action over problems ranging from threats to extortion, to the police stating they could not get involved because it was ‘just online’ or that the person should have been ‘nicer’ to their stalker. That last issue affected both male and female respondents.
Another concern was DMCA requiring authors to disclose real names and addresses to people who had already committed plagiarism or copyright violations, and were often using false identities themselves.
Serious Safety Issues
The 28% of authors who reported more severe harassment had experienced (at over 1% of respondents):
- Arson attempts
- Threats delivered to homes or places of work.
- Family members being approached
- Attempted Kidnap
- Physical assault
- Identity theft
- Attack on credit rating
- Active attempt on life using third parties
- Romantic obsession including forced marriage and elopement reported by both male and female authors
Please note that these had all occurred to multiple authors, so they cannot be identified. Attempted kidnap and physical or verbal assault were rarer, but still sufficient that they cannot be tracked back to one respondent.
These generally occurred offline, at locations such as the author’s home address or at public locations such as book signings. The attack on credit ratings e.g. fraudulently applying for credit cards, is a notable exception.
Many of the affected authors reported involving the authorities, but that this was not always effective in protecting them or resolving the situation. Some were driven to move houses or change addresses to try to protect themselves.
Who are the harassers?
Of the authors who were being harassed, 8% did not know who was responsible. Although it was not one of the options in the question, 1% of authors clarified that they had been harassed by other authors.
The overall percentages were:
- 8% – Don’t Know
- 27% – Isolated Individuals
- 16% – An Organisation
- 38% – A group of Individuals
- 1% – Other Authors
Note: some authors were harassed by more than one of the choices given.
Precautions and Privacy
Despite so many respondents thinking it was rare, many of whom were being harassed while thinking they were one of the few, 60% of authors took precautions. The fact 73% were harassed shows both that these precautions were needed and, that for up to 40% of authors, these precautions were ineffective.
The most common precaution was to separate writing and personal identity, and leave social media. However several reported harassment on platforms that they were not on, by people using those platforms to organise campaigns or start rumours that they had no way to reply to.
26% of authors had problems with sites linking accounts, breaching privacy. There were also stories of agents, publishers, and platforms revealing authors’ real names publicly despite the use of pseudonyms and business identities. 15% of authors stated the use of real names for contracts was their major concern.
Regulatory issues also proved to be a major privacy concern: 31% of respondents had issues with Paypal, or did not use it due to reports of this, and it was repeatedly stated that harassers used Paypal invoices to trace authors’ real identities behind business accounts.
This appears to be a conflict between Know Your Customer regulations and online safety: we also had authors report readers had clawed back donations or sales because the invoice name did not match their penname. This is a problem in the UK because of the differences between DBA (Doing Business As) rules in the US where Paypal is based, and small company regulation in the UK where real names are required.
Financially this has a huge effect: 15% of authors have turned down or not applied for grants due to this issue. 5% of authors have turned down publishing deals. Another 15% have stated that their major privacy concern is the use of real names for contracts: borne out by the stories from other respondents of publishers, agents, and publishing platforms, revealing authors’ real names publicly despite the use of pseudonyms and business identities.
The majority of privacy issues apply when an author tries to make money from their work. Banking regulation exposes real identities to prevent crime, but also exposes real identities to the people who want to commit crimes. It is a catch-22 situation.
It was not possible to quantify how much financial loss authors had suffered, and this was not something we investigated within the scope of this survey. We would strongly suggest a larger organisation with more resources should investigate this issue.
Social Media Exposure
At the current time, reducing social media seems to be one of the ways to reduce harassment, but it cannot prevent it as a significant amount of harassment occurs on the platforms where books are sold and published.
Separating social media and real life, or simply not having social media, is not sufficient protection. We had authors who did not use social media say that it was used to co-ordinate harassment against them. Authors had used pen-names and other means to obscure their identity but in many cases the harassers had cut through this by using government records such as corporation requested owners, platforms disclosing real names despite pen-names and imprints being used to publish or by disclosure from their publisher or agent.
What changes do authors suggest?
Protection for Pen Names
Authors suggested protection for pen-names and identities in a number of ways:
- Allow contracts to be signed by pen-names
- Restrict who has access to pen-names and real identities inside publishers ( e.g. making disclosure a crime under GDPR). We had reports that such disclosures were defended for the purpose of marketing despite being a breach of confidentiality.
- Legal recognition of pen-names, restricting who can access the identity behind them. This is because currently DMCA and other legislation requires revealing real names to people who have already committed plagiarism and are often using fake identities themselves. Third Party, publishing contracts or royalty checks used to open bank accounts on behalf of, or governed by an organisation such as The Society of Authors. These records would have to be held offline due to the major concerns about linked accounts and hacks.
Better Responses from Platforms
Almost all affected authors were unhappy with the way Platforms responded to this. Suggestions ranged from voluntary codes of conduct to regulation enforcing a response with fines if they fail.
Better legal response
Authors reported being told either that it was a civil matter, or that it was “online” so not serious when dealing with issues like identity theft, credit card fraud and extortion.
The general consensus from authors was that they thought this was a rare problem, or that they did not know anyone who had been harassed. As these figures show, it is quite likely they do, but it simply has not been talked about. This is for reasons including personal privacy, fear they would be disbelieved and having to reveal their identity. Given these figures, one of the most useful things authors can do if harassment is mentioned is believe the victim.
In conclusion, this survey shows there is a deep-seated problem with safety and privacy in writing that only gets worse as people try to move into publishing their work professionally. Increasing regulation and the trend to tie all data to one online identity is making it far easier to harass people than it was twenty years ago.
There is a lack of awareness of how severe the issue is, driven by both denial, and difficulty discussing it. A reluctance to acknowledge the issue by many writers and writing organisations limited our sample size, specifically:
Authors are being told to live with it.
We didn’t hear from the ones that didn’t.
We heard from precisely two people who quit writing because of these problems, but we suspect the number who did is far larger, and we had no way to reach them.
The other single most important thing an author can do is believe another author when they say this has happened because from these results, this is far more about the fan who chooses to harass than their target than anything the victim has done wrong.
If you are currently dealing with this issue, some author groups are offering advice or support:
The Society of Authors (UK): “Online abuse, Harrassment and Bullying”
PenAmerica’s Online Harrassment Field Manual
This survey has thrown up some disturbing issues, and we would very much hope that larger groups with further resources can take this further, e.g. to investigate the problem, push for improvements in the way this cases are handled, or create guidelines for protection for author privacy.
We would like to thank all the groups that took part and everyone who had their say. It is not a perfect survey – we are a bookclub, not a statistics group – but if it gets people talking about harassment, the figures show that it is a discussion that needs to be had.
Full details of the survey results are available on the Bookangel UK website here: Author Safety Survey – Final Results
For anyone who did not take the survey and is curious, they can view it here. Author Safety Survey. We are not processing further results, but will store them under the anonymous terms as before.
If there are any other figures you would be interested in seeing, which we have not extracted, please contact us.