In January, I declared a hiatus from anything to do with the romance community to work on my mental health. I thought that I could carefully weed out the bad apples and toxic pontificators in the community and everything would be fine. Instead, I found that when you see a wide-reaching, long-running campaign of doxing, stalking, racist attacks, and threats against dogs and children, it’s a lot harder to sleep at night when you’re trying to not get involved or just watch from the fringes and you know you have the platform to bring the abuse to light.
At least, it’s harder for some people to sleep. Others are snoozing comfortably. But we’ll get to that later.
Much later. Because whoo doggy. This is a long one.
Before we go on this journey today, it’s important to note that there will be chunks of this twisted, complicated tale left out, at the request of individuals who are trying to disentangle themselves from what has been a months-long battle. Also, some parts of the story may be told out of order as the narrative calls for it due to issues of clarity and continuity; I’ll note when this is the case.
But for right now, let’s start in June of 2018, in the aftermath of Faleena Hopkins’s failed attempt to trademark the word “cocky”. #CockyGate, as it became known, sparked a sometimes heated, genre-wide debate among indie romance and erotica authors who were tired of the scammers and cheaters running roughshod over the self-publishing world. A new tag, #GetLoud, covered issues from bookstuffing to shady marketing tactics. One such popular trick used to earn the coveted orange #1 Bestseller badges on Amazon is by putting your book in a category it doesn’t belong in. For example, shortly after Fifty Shades of Grey fell out of the top slot in the erotica, erotic romance, and contemporary romance categories, readers found it inexplicably listed as the “#1 Bestseller” in “humor/pets/dogs & cats”.
Not a joke. It’s currently coasting at a sweet #257 in the “Holiday Romance” category, despite featuring precisely zero depictions of any holiday festivities.
Obviously, this kind of trickery doesn’t sit well with authors. As much as we talk about how there’s room for everyone on the playground and this is a community, not a competition, the fact remains that Amazon’s algorithm (upon which indie authors, especially, depend for visibility and book sales) doesn’t care about sisterhood. Get your book to #1 in any category, even the wrong category, and you’ve increased the number of eyeballs in front of which Amazon will place your book. It’s an easy system to abuse, and authors are right to be fed up with it. This led some on the #GetLoud tag to suggest mass reporting books that had been miscategorized.
In a private message to me, Individual A explained that at the time, emailing Amazon about which categories to place your book in would result in Amazon not only recommending inappropriate categories but categorizing your books for you based on the keywords you entered into your book’s description. For example, if I were to write a book about a vampire mechanic who falls in love with a ballerina but I was unsure if it belonged in paranormal romance or romantic comedy, Amazon might helpfully look at the keywords “ballerina,” “mechanic,” and “vampire,” and decide to categorize the book as, “non-fiction/arts & entertainment/ballet,” “non-fiction/automotive/repair and maintenance,” and “fiction/young adult/paranormal/vampires.”
I’m not sure if those are real categories, but you understand what I’m trying to illustrate here. Some of the books being reported weren’t the result of authors breaking the rules, but authors trying to follow them. To prove their point, Individual A contacted Amazon through the same channel and received a response that proved their theory, then presented this evidence to the #GetLoud tag. They warned that mass reporting books due to incorrect categories could harm innocent authors. There was a disagreement; authors M.R. Rutter, G.L. Geiger, Paula M. Hunter, and Lissa Gromley were apparently on the side that felt Individual A was undermining the goal of #GetLoud. Words and subtweets were exchanged, and it created an animosity that lingered among the four authors.
On October 28, 2018, Individual A became the topic of a group Facebook message between Rutter, Geiger, Hunter, and Gromley. In the chat, 3,000 pages of which were shared with me for this profile, Hunter revealed Individual A’s real name and links it to Individual A’s pseudonym:
“Bad to [real name redacted] aka [Individual A]. [They] jumped all over me after I kindly provided a list of Amazon categories. [Individual A] was getting nasty at Pippi about category squatting, saying that not everyone does it on purpose and then going on about stockphoto (of people)profile pictures on Amazon not being a problem.”
There is no indication of any interaction between Individual A and “Pippi” on the subject beyond a single, cordial conversation. As for going on about stock photos, that was also a limited interaction with Hunter’s sockpuppet account, a chicken persona. Individual A had merely cautioned that mass reporting might have ill-effects on authors in the indie community and that an author using a stock photo to hide their identity wasn’t uncommon or necessarily nefarious. After scouring Individual A’s timeline, I can personally find no evidence of any nastiness on Individual A’s part. Certainly, nothing that would justify Hunter’s seeming obsession with Individual A; shortly after the above message, Hunter added:
“I got plenty of screenshot on [real name redacted]. LOL [Individual A] has even hidden [their] personal info on [their] website. I got that before [Individual A] started paying to hide it.”
It seems that simply by disagreeing with Hunter, Individual A was deserving of a gross intrusion into their privacy. Whether or not Individual A was even aware it was Hunter they were talking to isn’t clear. What is clear is that this one small interaction that took place over the course of a single day was enough to incite Hunter to find Individual A’s personal information and file it away for future use months later.
An exchange with an almost comical lack of awareness followed those messages:
Hunter: “[Individual A] was tagging Meg in everything at the RWA Con. Lol.”
Rutter: “It was bizarre”
Geiger: “Omg. Stalker much”
Rutter: “I know. Creepy”
Individual A tagging someone they believed was a friendly acquaintance on social media was creepy stalking to Hunter, Rutter, and Geiger; Hunter investigating Individual A over a conversation between Individual A and Hunter’s sockpuppet account was reasonable. As was their obsession with “trolls” and “bullies” and “haters”. At numerous points in the months-long conversation, members of the chat congratulate each other and themselves in their skill at taking on people they viewed as their enemies, including finding out personal information as they did with Individual A. At one point, Geiger even brags:
“Yes but we also know how to trigger him and he knows it but he is too stupid to know how to mess with anyone of us”
The five of them (the group later grew to include author Kay Blackburn) not only celebrated the thought of causing psychological harm to the people who ran afoul of them, but Hunter continued to ferret out the personal information of other twitter users. Three of the authors ran multiple Twitter accounts; Hunter’s chicken, Geiger’s @AuthorPrime01, and an account Rutter referred to as “Maggie.” Throughout the chat log, coy references are made to “Maggie” becoming angry and unleashing abuse on a target. Hunter gloats that someone arguing with her chicken handle didn’t know it was her. Geiger simply seemed to want to keep her social media attacks partially hidden behind her secondary account. While Geiger tweeted official book news under her real name, she engaged in these Twitter fights as @AuthorPrime01. None of them seemed terribly concerned with keeping these secondary identities secret, but separating their author identity from their increasingly aggressive and cliquey online behavior was something they were certainly familiar with.
In a post to her blog made in December of 2018, Gromley explains that she and the other authors had created the Sassy Literary Ladies, a Facebook group for reader interaction. Gromley describes the private chat between the authors as a fairly common group message between online friends:
During the Sassies private conversations, we discussed many things, from how one person was in constant pain, what their family was doing, the books in general that we had published, and so forth. Every so often, I’d talk about my dog or about other things too, sincerely believing I was a part of this group and that we could share anything together without judgment.
It’s unclear from reading the chat transcript how, why, or when this changed. It appears to have done so literally overnight; after a friendly chat into the early hours of November 28th, the group goes unusually quiet. At 7:37 pm, this conversation takes place:
Gromley: “What happened to Gloria’s account? 🙁 ”
Geiger: “I paid with no interaction is not a successful page so I shut it down I’ll be doing other things anyway and I’m too busy with the group and with my Twitter which is far more successful so I worry about an author page on Facebook some other time”
Gromley: “Ohhh. Oddly, on my side your personal page isn’t showing either. 🙁 I has a sad.”
Geiger: “[shrug emoji] Facebook go figure”
Blackburn shows up to second Geiger’s comment about Facebook, and once again, the discussion in the group message slows to a trickle but nothing seems to be wrong. Everyone is busy with other things. On November 30th, Gromley informs the group that she’s updating the Sassy Literary Ladies website and asks Blackburn if she has a logo. At 6:37 p.m., Gromley posts:
“Gloria… 🙁 I’m blocked from you on Twitter. Did I do something wrong?”
When no one answers, Gromley posts again at 6:54:
” 🙁 I has a sad…”
Two minutes later, Rutter responds:
“Hey Lissa I forgot if you had a college degree. I’m doing a personal survey.”
Gromley confirms that she has four degrees, and Rutter asks where they’re from. A minute later, at 7:01 p.m., Gromley responds with the names of the schools she attended. The chat goes silent until her next message at 7:20:
“-still doesn’t understand why she’s blocked-“
At this time, Blackburn enters the chat to say she won’t be answering messages for a while due to a family situation. Gromley asks Rutter to message her, but Rutter is unavailable and indicates that she’ll contact Gromley when she returns home.
The next exchange begins on December 1st, when Rutter opens the chat for the day with:
“I got a disturbing call from a friend. Did anyone query agents and editors using my name?”
Geiger, Rutter, Hunter, and Blackburn bemoan the unprofessionalism of an author who would stoop to such tactics. Gromley appears in the chat at 12:37. No one responds to her messages. At 3:20, Rutter asks:
“I’m confused. I looked at the years you were in college Lissa and can’t figure it out. Why 4 years for an associates but 2 years for both a bachelors and a masters and 1 year for a second masters. Did you misenter the dates?”
Remember, Rutter had asked for the information about Gromley’s degrees for a personal survey. Supposing we gave Rutter the benefit of the doubt here, perhaps there was a personal survey asking about the college degrees of online friends. And perhaps Rutter asked the follow-up question because she truly feared that Gromley’s degree may have been given to her by a fraudulent school. But what follows over the course of the next few hours amounts to a cross-examination that culminates on Gromley sharing her official college transcripts on December 2nd.
At 9:05 p.m., all hell breaks loose:
Geiger: “I’m going to put this kindly as possibly. For quite some time you have been saying and doing things that are questionable. You make grandiose claims of things then later your story changes. It raises more than a few eyebrows. But I chose to let them slide. Then your behavior started to get stranger. You seemed to have a constant need for attention. Wanting all conversations to revolve around you. You’d but into a conversation I was having with Meg or Kay or Paula about your
Dog and how it’s pestering you. When our conversation was about my book covers
Or Kay’s new release, or when we were all chatting with Bean. It felt as if a spoiled child
Was demanding attention away from the child we were taking to. “Somebody come get this dog before I throw him in the closet!”
That was not appropriate and certainly not funny. If you have nothing to add to an already in progress conversation then you say NOTHING! But you chose to continuously try to get our attention away from Bean and on to you. This was extremely annoying. The next day we are discussing the song I wrote for my book 2 and you suddenly cut in with a story that has noting to do with the conversation but screamed of “Pay attention to me!” A very childish maneuver. When we were dealing with Bob and I had THOUGHT James was the culprit what did you do? YOU outed him as the troll so others would attack him. Which another account did. When I said I wanted to keep that info under wraps, as we were still investing, what was your answer to me? “OOPS” and laughing faces. When we all apologized to James… you didn’t. And you didn’t straighten out the FACT it was YOU who outed him and NOT me! But that was okay with you, right? Let me take the fall for your bad judgement. This was completely inappropriate. Did you bother to apologize to me for making me the bad guy? Did you apologize to James? No! You went on your marry little way doing as you always do, AS YOU PLEASE AND DAMN THE CONSEQUENCES TO ANYONE ELSE. We make plans for our group and you make promises you cannot keep or do not intend to keep. Aka the flyers. We had seen NO proof of them even though BOTH Paula and Meg asked to see them. Your response to their requests went completely ignored. My biggest grievance with you is your complete lack of respect and boundaries. I shared my sons post on MY Facebook page. Which is kept private for a reason and what you did is exactly why. You wormhole through my account and comment DIRECTLY to my son. This is completely inappropriate and crosses all kids of boundaries. Yes, I realize my son is a public figure and an adult, but the key words here are MY SON! Someone else would have commented to ME not Matt. All my friends see my posts about him, do they wormhole through and address him as if they know him personally like you did? No they don’t! They comment to me. Ask me to tell him they congratulate him. But you go on his Facebook and comment as if he knows you, which he does NOT! I did show your comment to Kay and she agreed that your comment came across flirty as well. I am not and NEVER will be okay with anyone using ME to get to HIM! Good grief! His career is just taking off and you cross the freaking line? Your behavior is why you are blocked on ALL my social media
And why I will NOT be speaking to you after today. We are done. And I’m completely offended at the fact you will try to backpedal like you did about using Meg and [redacted] by Querying their friends in the publishing world. How dare you do that and when given the opportunity to be honest dodge and say ‘Whoever used Meg’s name to query without permission shows a complete lack of disrespect. I’m so sorry, Meg.’
The WHOEVER IS YOU! I don’t want you to ever contact me or my family ever again. And DO NOT follow ANY of my kids social media. They already know who you are and what you’ve done. If anything, you should be ashamed of yourself, but we all know you aren’t.”
At this point, Hunter shows up to assert that all of Geiger’s allegations are true. Rutter says she’ll keep an open mind. Gromley denies every allegation and is shocked at Geiger’s insistence that she’s tried to further her career through association with Geiger’s apparently famous son, or that she’s begged for attention. The suddenly un-busy Blackburn returns for another cross-examination, telling Gromley:
“…don’t take this the wrong way, because I’m nobody myself. But…why would anyone query with your name? I mean…you’re nobody yourself.”
But she doesn’t mean it in a mean way.
Though Gromley produced her college transcripts, Rutter can’t produce the query, the name of the agent who was allegedly queried, or which email address was used for the query. Gromley insists that she hasn’t queried any agents in a year (and in her blog post corrects it to two years and asserts that she can provide proof of the queries she has made and the contents of the letters, none of which mention any other authors).
Blackburn: “I’ll be honest, this sounds…well. Very suspicious, at best.”
Rutter: “I know that. I told her that it didn’t come from my end and moved on. She did read me the first paragraph and I was appalled by the bad writing.”
When Hunter returns, it’s to add another charge to the growing list of offenses the group wishes to level against Gromley:
“Lissa, why do still continue to be friends with Craig and joined his groups after the way he behaved towards me and the bad mouthing he gave us? To me it smacks of disloyalty towards to Sassy group.”
Gromley insists she never joined any of this Craig person’s groups, though she still followed him on social media to keep tabs on him. Much in the way Hunter routinely scouted out the personal information of the “bullies” they encountered online. This, however, seems suspicious to all of them, even through Rutter admits to still being friends with this Craig individual. Gromley offers to provide screenshots of the groups she’s in on Facebook, but Blackburn says that the only thing it will prove is that Gromley left the groups, then took the screenshots. Blackburn also claims to have seen screenshots of Gromley participating in Craig’s group, but won’t produce them for Gromley.
The chat devolves from there, with Blackburn feeling “uncomfortable” with Gromley’s presence, Geiger feeling that Gromley congratulating her (adult) son on a role was inappropriate contact with her “child” (as her own friends from childhood would never dream of speaking to her children without her being involved), and Rutter criticizing Gromley’s “non-committal” answers about her education (which included providing her transcripts and student I.D. numbers). When Gromley steps away from the conversation in frustration and hurt, it’s declared evidence of wrong-doing. When she responds again, she’s “digging”. And all along, Blackburn continues to talk about how uncomfortable she is, how she’s worried about what she’s gotten into by attaching her name to the group, and how she’s not sure she wants to invest in the Sassies with Gromley’s involvement. So suspicious, that Blackburn interrogates Gromley about a GoFundMe organized by a family member and accuses her of lying about a legal matter. Again, Gromley provides too much information to appease them, giving them the name and phone number of the magistrate handling the case, as well as the case number, the county the case is going to court in, and the real names of her family members. These answers come rapid-fire, with timestamps often noting the questions have been answered in the same minute they were asked.
Eventually, Blackburn says (and please, remember this for the record in upcoming installments, it will most certainly come up again):
“I cannot be associated with someoen who lies, uses people, or manipulates.”
Gromley tells them that when she proves their allegations false, she wants an apology, but Blackburn insists:
“Sorry, but we gave you multiple chances to show us proof. You didn’t do that.”
On December 2nd, Blackburn announces the dissolution of Sassy Literary Ladies and the departure of Gromley. On December 3rd, Gromley leaves the chat.
In her blog post, in which Gromley addresses each of the group’s allegations, she also speculates on the motives of the group to turn on her:
I’ll be honest. It seemed like they got bored because nothing was going on on Twitter that they could get involved with. Cockygate, the bookstuffers, Bob Villian and so forth were over with. It was like they needed a new target […].
Now, you may be thinking, “Wow, Jenny, that’s some garden variety mean girl stuff…but what does it have to do with all the wild shit you talked about in the first paragraph of this long ass post?”
This was just a primer on how Blackburn, Rutter, Geiger, and Hunter cultivate online excitement. And as damaging as their treatment of Gromley was, it’s nothing compared what they embarked on in January of 2019.
Next time: “Part One: MAGA Martha”