Publisher Drops Author After TikTok Backlash and GoodReads Review Bombing

Angry readers flooded TikTok and the GoodReads page of an author’s forthcoming book with one-star reviews after the author attacked one particular reviewer for rating the novel four out of five stars. GoodReads seems to have paused reviews of the book in response, freezing the page as it was on Wednesday. The book’s publisher dropped the author in response to the controversy. The author later apologized to the reviewer privately. Welcome to a bona fide BookTok scandal.

Commercial producer Sarah Stusek’s debut novel Three Rivers, a work of young adult fiction, was slated for publication on September 12 of this year. Its former publisher, Sparkpress, described it with the logline: “Two strangers take Stella from her bedroom in the middle of the night and haul her off to Three Rivers, a wilderness therapy program for troubled teens.” Sparkpress’ site noted the book had already been optioned, with production scheduled to begin later this year. The novel is somewhat autobiographical—Stusek describes undergoing a similar ordeal to the protagonist’s. The producer, who goes by @sarahshooots on TikTok, posted a video on the anniversary of her orchestrated abduction detailing how two strangers appeared in her childhood bedroom and spirited her away in the middle of the night at age 17. According to her website, Stusek worked on Veep and House of Cards.

The controversy began over the weekend when GoodReads user Karleigh Kebartas, an event planner at a nursing home in Massachusetts who graduated from Pace University last year, posted a positive review of an advance copy of the book. It was the first book she had ever gotten early, she said. The initial version of her review praised Three Rivers as “a really great first novel!!!” but said that “the ending was kind of predictable,” hence the near-perfect score.

“This was a really great first novel!!! Stella’s experiences were obviously based off the true stories of the author. And I loved how intricate the details about the show Stella was on were lol. The ending was kind of predictable, but other than that is was incredible!” she said.

But a Tuesday update to her comments indicates the reviewer’s opinion of Stusek soon soured: “EDIT: the author is now attacking me on tik tok for not giving her a 5 star review(it was a 4) 😭😭😭😭 giving her a 1 just for her attitude! I didn’t think the book was bad but her attitude certainly is!”

Stusek responded to Kebartas on TikTok: “I had a perfect 5 star average till this bitch came up. She said, ‘The ending was kind of predictable.’ Yeah, well, it’s my life, not a fucking murder mystery. ‘But other than that, it was incredible,’ so you just gave me four stars?” The video attacking Kebartas’ review no longer appears on Stusek’s TikTok profile, removed for violating TikTok’s community guidelines, according to screenshots and Stusek herself.

Kebartas never watched the video, knowing it would make her upset. In a TikTok, she asked Stusek to “apologize for being mean to me for no reason… I don’t think it’s funny, and I don’t find it as a joke.”

Videos summarizing the confrontation between the two women and commenting on it have accrued tens of thousands of likes and millions of views. Nearly all come down on the side of Kebartas.

When a comment on TikTok asked if Stusek would offer a public apology, she doubled down and said she would not: “I got a community guidelines violation because you guys can’t take a joke. I’m literally a comedian. You obviously haven’t read my book. But anyways, welcome to the show!” Shrugging off calls for a public apology, she posted a video of herself wearing a hat reading “It’s not that deep” late Wednesday. Commenters did not agree. Author Kevin T. Norman wrote in the top comment, “Sorry I can’t read backwards but I think it says, ‘I have 1 star on goodreads.’”

On GoodReads, the book boasts 651 one-star reviews at the time of publication, 97% of its total reviews. One review, indicative of the hundreds that followed Stusek’s video, reads: “In another life, I probably would have enjoyed this book. Went out and brought it and everything. Was about to pop it open and decided to scroll through tik tok where I saw a video of the author calling someone a ‘bitch’ because they left her a four star review. A FOUR STAR REVIEW. Not a one or a two or even a three but FOUR FREAKIN’ STARS.”

Another simply says, “The author thinks that it’s funny to cuss out reviewers so let’s be hilarious!”

No reviews of Three Rivers were posted after May 31, indicating the site may have paused reviews in response to the massive influx of negative comments. Videos posted to TikTok also show a message of “Rating this book temporarily unavailable” on Three Rivers’ page. IMDB struggled with the same problem over reviews of The Little Mermaid this week, deciding to weigh one-star reviews less heavily in response to “suspicious voting activity”—a similar deluge of one-star reviews. GoodReads did not deny it had frozen reviews for Three Rivers, instead issuing an equivocal statement on the matter: “In times of unusual activity on a book page, we pause new reviews/ratings of that book while our team moderates recent reviews to ensure they meet our review guidelines.”

Sparkpress, which published Three Rivers, tweeted Thursday, “For a number of reasons, including but not limited to attacking a reviewer and multiple others online, we have decided to part ways with one of our authors.” Navigating to Three Rivers’ page on Sparkpress’ website returns a “Page not found” error message.

Stusek apologized Kebartas via Instagram DM. In a voice memo sent to the reviewer, the producer said, “I did not mean to be aggressive, and I’m so sorry that it was. I want to make sure that you’re ok. I was being sarcastic, and I’m sorry that I was way off base and that it didn’t land. I don’t care about the one-star reviews or the angry mob coming after me. I just want to make sure that you’re ok. I’m sorry that I hurt you.”

Reached by phone, Stusek told Gizmodo she was feeling “great.” She said she had seen the inflamed comments on her videos, including ones saying Kebartas was upset by her video about the review. She hasn’t read the reviews on GoodReads.

“I regret hurting her,” said Stusek. She said she wouldn’t be posting any more public statements. She’s hoping the book can still come out on its slated publication day, just with a different publisher.

Kebartas told Gizmodo, “I’m glad she apologized and that she reached out. I appreciate that.”

Stusek removed her video about the whole affair being a joke at Kebartas’ request and bought Kebartas books from the latter’s Amazon wish list as a peace offering.

“I completely intended it as a joke,” Stusek said. “I didn’t want to make her feel bad. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. A four-star review was amazing. It was so nice of her to take the time to do that. Being upset about a four-star review is ridiculous.”

Kebartas said she asked Stusek to remove the video calling the whole thing a joke because “it’s not true, it’s not funny, and it’s not ok.”

“I asked her to take it down because it’s clearly not a joke,” Kebartas said. “It was unnecessary for her to make that video. I just didn’t want it to be there.” Stusek’s first video about the review made Kebartas feel anxious, like she had done something wrong.

As for as her publisher dropping her, Stusek counts that as a “blessing in disguise.” She said authors reached out to her with congratulations for being disentangled from the publisher. She is still in negotiations with Sparkpress, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Those people are sketchy as hell. I didn’t hear from them once until they asked for a public apology to SparkPress. They’re just worried about it making them look bad. It’s kind of like an MLM, I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said.

For her part, Kebartas said she has received an outpouring of support and positivity in response to Stusek’s comments. She’s very grateful.

“The fact that so many people are commenting nice things is so insane. I have no idea how to react. Authors have reached out asking me to review their books, and my tiktok has gone up from 2000 to 3000 followers,” she said.