Thursday, September 06, 2012

Ethical Roulette

Let's play a game.

There has been a lot of talk about ethics and morals around the Internets lately. A lot of name calling. A lot of shaming. A lot of sanctimony. 

Writers are quick to proclaim they'd never pay for reviews, or use sock puppets to promote their own work, or to denounce someone else's work.

This has generated a lot of discussion within my peer network. It's a nice excuse to test our morals, fine tune our sense of right and wrong, and work harder to understand human behavior.

But I don't see a lot of level-headed discussion on the web. I see hysterics, mob behavior, and action motivated by fear or righteous indignation.

I get angry when groups begin acting badly. The AAR. The Authors Guild. Harlequin. The Big 6. When I see this happening, I take them to task for it, using logic and facts and arguments to show how they are wrong.

I recently did this with the NSPHP petition. A petition that named and accused three writers of "damaging publishing", using "underhanded tactics", and stating other authors are doing it as well.

The NSPHP built a carefully constructed case showing how these writers damaged publishing.

Oh, wait. No they didn't. They simply accused and denounced.

But at least they clearly defined "underhanded tactics" and explained in detail how they are illegal and immoral.

Oh, wait. What the trio did wasn't illegal. And there was no posted debate, no public discussion whatsoever of their actions (in fact, discussion in the comments is discouraged and comments encouraging debate have been removed).

But surely they have proof that many other authors are doing this as well. I mean, you don't suddenly post a call to arms unless this is a deeply rooted, widespread problem, right?

Oh, wait. There is no proof. Only assumptions.

Welcome to the wonderful world of moral panic.

So the NSPHP judged three authors, convicted them without any trial or allowing the authors any defense, and then took the moral high ground by shaming them publicly, denouncing their acts without any attempt to dissect or understand those acts, and then shamelessly begged readers for reviews.


In fact, if anyone reading this edits Wikipedia, they need to add the NSPHP petition to the moral panic examples. Feel free to use my blog as a citation.

I much prefer debate to name calling. And when someone is accused of something, I try to put myself in their shoes, and wonder if I'd act the same way. If I don't think I'd do those same things, does that make me morally superior? Or am I just lying to myself? 

Has anyone, while witnessing all the vitriol going on right now, asked themselves, "There but for luck go I?"

I have.

We all have morals. Having morals doesn't mean we're always able to follow our own moral code. We're human. We make mistakes. We have moments of weakness. We're also uncannily good at justifying our actions.

I'd never kill another human being. 

But what if your family is being threatened?

I'd never steal. 

But what if you're starving?

I'd never pay for reviews or use sock puppets online. 

Really? Are you sure?

Unless I missed some link or secret page on their website, no one signing the NSPHP petition has proven that what the three accused have done are crimes, or how they are even morally wrong. No one has clearly demonstrated how other writers or readers have been hurt. No one has tried to explain or discuss motive.

There has been no talking about the issues whatsoever. Only assumption, finger pointing, condemnation, and a growing list of author signatures that methinks is growing so fast because innocent writers don't want the mob to turn on them.

Isn't it more productive to have a discussion about the ethics of reviewing than rushing to a snap judgement and joining a mob?

I think these things should be discussed. I think the accused should be considered innocent before proven guilty.

Hence this blog post.

I like John Locke. I've spoken with him at length in the past. I believe he's done a great deal of good for the indie movement. I've found him to be personable, gracious, and good-natured.

I like Stephen Leather. I've only traded emails with him, but I've found him to be personable, gracious, and good-natured. Last year we discussed collaborating on a horror novel together; something I still plan on doing. What kind of man would I be to back out of working with someone because they're currently controversial?

Do I agree or disagree with what they've admitted to doing? Would I do those same things? Have I done similar things?

Ask yourself those same questions. But before you answer, try to open your mind and be honest with yourself.

That won't be easy. It's much easier to express moral outrage. It feels good to see the mighty fall, an unfortunate trait of human nature called Schadenfreude. It feels especially good when people more successful than we are get publicly thrashed. If we can convince ourselves Locke and Leather sold so many books because they are cheaters, we can point to that as the reason why they outsold us, and boldly state, "They sold more than me because they cheated, while I would never stoop so low!"

Actually, they sold more than us because they write books people like, are savvy marketers, and got lucky.

Hard to admit that to ourselves, though. Knee-jerk condemnation and public chastisement is much more pleasurable.

So let's take a little morality test. You can post your answers in the comments, or keep them to yourself. I'm not writing this post to make you feel ashamed, or make you feel morally superior. If you feel the need to post your answers and take the moral high ground on every question I'm about to ask, that doesn't mean much. Being asked something on a blog is not the same as actually being confronted with the issue in real life.

We can all be pious in our minds, and we can proclaim our piety in public. But actions are the real indicator of morals.

So let's begin.

1. Would you accept a glowing blurb from Stephen King (or insert your author of choice) even if he only read 3/4 of your book? 

How about only half of your book? 

Just the first chapter?

What if he didn't read it at all?

2. Would you give someone a free book to review it?

What if instead of a book, you gave them the cash to buy the book with?

Would you hire a publicist to send out books you paid for to reviewers?

Is it ethical to have your book reviewed in a periodical that you write articles for? One that you buy ads in?

3. If your mother wrote a book and wanted you to honestly review it on Amazon, would you? 

Would you give Mom one star if it were bad?

If Mom asked you specifically for a five star review, would you do it?

4. Would you ever review or blurb a book you haven't read? 

What if it was for someone you were friends with? 

What if it was a family member?

What if you were paid $5000 for it? How about $50,000?

5. If your book was getting one star reviews from a fellow writer, would you give their book one star in retaliation?

If that competitor used sock puppets to trash your book, and Amazon didn't remove the phony reviews, would you ask for reviews from family and friends to counter the damage?

Would you post phony five star reviews of your book to counter the damage? 

Would you use sock puppets to trash your competitor's books in retaliation?

6. If spending $5000 on paid reviews guaranteed you'd sell 2 million ebooks, would you do it? 

Would it matter if you publicly disclosed it or not?

What if the reviews were honest reactions from people who read the whole book? 

What if they were written by spambots who automatically gave you five stars? Is their a difference?

Would you pay $1000 to guarantee a front page review of your book in a major periodical? How about $500? Or $50? What if it also guaranteed a place on the periodical's Bestseller list? Does that make it more or less appealing?

7. Would you ever review a book for money? 

Would you ever take a job as a reviewer for Kirkus and PW (two periodicals who charge authors for reviews)?

Would you review books on Amazon for $50 per book?  What if you swore to yourself you'd be impartial?

Would you do so without disclosing the review was paid for? Would you do it and not read the book?

8. Would you ever trade reviews with your fellow authors?

Would you ever ask friends for reviews? Family? Fans? Strangers?

9. Would you ever promote your books on forums, blogs, or social networks?

If you were being trashed on forums, blogs, or social networks, would you defend yourself? And if defending yourself just brought more vitriol, would you consider defending yourself anonymously?

How about under a fake identity? Would you ever use a sock puppet to defend yourself from mob behavior?

Would you use a sock puppet to praise your own work? Denounce the work of others?

10. Would you ever give a one star review to a book you haven't read?

Would you give a one star review to a book because you disapprove of something the author did?

I've seen lots of recent one star reviews for Locke's How I Sold a Million Ebooks in Five Months, and lots of people chiming on on the Locke Hate Parade, and I really have to wonder how these people think they're any better than what they're accusing Locke of.

11. Would you ever trash someone on the Internet? 

What's the minimum a person must have done in order to deserve your trashing them? Must they have done something specifically to you or someone you care about? Or simply something you don't agree with?

Would you do this anonymously?

Is there a difference between criticizing someone on the Internet, and criticizing their books on the Internet? If so, why is one okay and the other not?

And finally...

12. Would you ever sign a petition denouncing authors for buying reviews without closely examining the issue, and in the same breath begging readers to give you reviews?

Here are my answers. As I said, I don't expect people to post their answers in the comments. And some that do, no doubt will be lying to the world and to themselves. I don't think I'm any more honest than anyone else, but I'm going to try my best to answer these as truthfully as I can. I'm sure if I fall short, there will be plenty of people eager to pounce on me.

1. Years ago, I would have loved for Stephen King to blurb me, even if he didn't read the book. I agreed with my publishers that blurbs were an important and essential marketing tool.

Today, I don't feel the need for anyone to blurb me.

Blurbs have always had an element of corruption to them. I blogged about this years ago. So did Barry Eisler. I was more comfortable with it than he was, but I believe we both had sound arguments, and we both agreed there was some shadiness going on.

2. I've never paid for reviews, or a publicist. But I've given out hundreds of my books, both paper and ebooks, in order to get reviews. I've always been upfront that I wanted honest reviews, and have gotten my share of negative reviews from people I've sent books to. 

I still solicit reviews. On my blog. Through my website and newsletter. Whenever I get fan mail, I thank them and ask them to post it as a review.

But I don't read my reviews anymore. Except for a close circle of friends and family, I'm not interested in the opinions of others, either about me or about my work. If I ever become so jaded or self-important that I start writing crap, I expect my support network to bring me back down to earth, just as I'd do for them.

3. Mom would get five stars from me, even if her book was terrible, and I'd help her promote it any way I could. If that reflects badly on me, so be it.

4. Every book I've ever reviewed or blurbed I have read, and I did my best to review it honestly, though I focused on the good and downplayed or ignored the bad.

However, in some rare circumstances, I would review or blurb a book I haven't read for someone I liked. I wouldn't do it for money, because I'm not motivated by money. (I'm serious, I just turned down a speaking gig for $20k) But if an author I respected needed a blurb right away, and I didn't have time to read his book, I'd do something generic such as, "Author X is one of my all time favorites, and he never disappoints."

Actually, it's wrong of me to say I'd blurb a book I haven't read, because I'd actually be reviewing the author instead the book.

So I'd have to say no, I wouldn't review a specific book I haven't read, but I would endorse an author via review or blurb if I'd read them before.

5. I've got lots of one star reviews, lots of haters, and I don't care. I don't give out one star reviews, under my name or via sock puppets. Not because I love everything, but because I don't feel right trashing other people's hard work.

I don't use sock puppets, or post anonymously. But would I ever?

I don't know. My ego is healthy. I don't care if people trash me, so I don't feel the need to defend myself, anonymously or otherwise.

The right to anonymous free speech is protected under the First Amendment. As for sock puppets, check out how Benjamin Franklin used them.

I remember an incident years back, where a comment thread about Stephen Leather was deleted by, or comments were deleted, or something similar. I'm not bringing this up to dredge up old controversies, but because I remember reading the thread.

Commenters were absolutely viscous toward Leather. I remember being surprised at how nasty it got. I also remember Leather's attitude as bemused more than anything.

Would I create sock puppets to defend myself in a situation like that? I don't think so, because I really don't care. But I also can't condemn someone who does. While deceptive, that doesn't mean it is illegal or immoral.

Publishing is full of deceptive practices. Bestseller lists. Coop. Reviewing. Blurbing. Is a celebrity endorsing a product deceptive? I believe it is, to a degree.

We place a lot of value on honesty and integrity. I think that's good. But judging people who fail to live up to your ideals? That's a problem with the judge, not with the judged.

In other words, it isn't my fault I don't live up to your standards. And there's only one reason you would feel the need to judge me: moral masturbation.

6. If spending $5k on reviews guaranteed I'd sell two million books, hell yeah I'd do it. And I wouldn't care if those reviews were honest or not. I would admit to doing it, and probably encourage others to as well, if selling books were as simple as that. 

But selling books isn't as simple as that.

There's a lot of bad logic floating around about buying reviews. Namely:

a) There is no real guarantee buying reviews, even a lot of them, will lead to sales. It's a risk, and a potentially expense one, both in terms of money and in terms of the disapproval of peers.

b) I don't believe reviews influence buyers very much. I've bought books with one star reviews, and passed on books with hundreds of five star reviews.

c) A paid for review doesn't automatically mean it is disingenuous. I was a judge, several times, for the Writer's Digest short story contest. I was essentially a paid reviewer. And I worked my ass off to be as good a judge as possible. I believe that many paid reviewers have integrity and follow a code of ethics, no matter who pays them.

I've yet to see a single decent argument that explains how buying reviews hurts other authors. Some include:

It isn't fair to game the system!

Joe sez: All systems are gamed, and none are fair. Amazon didn't institute a user review system to make sure all authors had a fair and balanced playfield. They did it to encourage user participation and sell more books. Someone else doing well doesn't hurt you in the slightest.

Lots of reviews lead to higher Amazon ranks! 

Joe sez: Someone prove this. 

If someone has more reviews than me, customers might buy their book over mine! 

Joe sez: Ebooks aren't zero sum. No author makes money at the expense of another author. 

Reviews lead to bestseller lists, which pushes off the honest books and makes them less visable!

Joe sez: There is no proof a lot of good reviews leads to increased sales. In fact, I have ebooks with a few reviews that outsell ebooks with a lot of reviews. Also, ebooks are forever. If you feel you missed a shot at the Top 100 because someone else bought reviews, you can always have another shot later. My ebook The List has been in the Top 100 on four different occasions spanning three years.

Bad reviews hurt authors!

Joe sez: My ebook SERIAL has 156 one star reviews. People have been absolutely virulent in their hatred of that story. Sales remain steady.

All books eventually get one star reviews. Bestsellers. Beloved classics. Award winners. It's one of the hazards of being an artist. I talk more about one star reviews, and why I don't leave them or care about them, in my controversial post Be Deliberate.

I would not pay $1000, or any amount, for a front page review in a periodical, for the same reason I wouldn't pay any amount of money for any reviews. I don't believe reviews are worth paying for. I have more than enough fans who are eager to review me for free.

But if I were a new author, just starting out?

I once used a service called Book Rooster, which connected authors with reviewers. The reviewers weren't paid--they were avid readers who agreed to do reviews in exchange for free copies, and disclosed in their reviews that the copies were free. The website running the service charged $49. I didn't pay--I was given a chance to try it for free. Details on my blog here. The comments are also worth reading, because they discuss ethics.

I wouldn't use the service John Locke did. I also refuse to condemn him for using that service, especially since he is on record as saying he asked for honest reviews.

So why wouldn't I do it?

I'm really trying to be honest when I answer this. Bear with me.

I wouldn't go into a store and steal something because I don't feel it is fair to the shop owner, because they would lose inventory and money.

But I have used file sharing, mostly to get things that are no longer available to buy, such as old TV shows never released on DVD, or out of print music. In that case, no one is losing money, because no one is selling it.

I consider buying reviews to be victimless. Any reader who felt duped because they bought a book based on phony five star reviews could return the book for a full refund, then leave their own one star review.

I have seen ZERO compelling arguments that false reviews or bad reviews hurt other authors. As I've said many times, ebooks are not a zero sum game.

So why wouldn't I buy reviews?

Because I think it would eventually be discovered, and people would judge me and attack me, just as Locke is being attacked right now.

I don't feel the amount of anger leveled against him is worth the benefit he received from paying for those reviews. In fact, I don't think he received much benefit from paying for reviews at all.

I'm not morally superior to Locke. What he did just isn't worth it to me.

7. I would review for money, if I needed money. As I said, I've been a paid judge for writing contests, and I feel it is the same principle. 

But I have little respect for paid critics, and there are many things I'd rather do than be a paid reviewer. Such as clean sewers.

Seriously. Judge a writing contest. It's hell. 

I wouldn't work for Kirkus or PW, because I don't like either publication. I think their programs charging self-pubbed authors for reviews are sleazy.

Not because paid reviews are bad. Not because paid reviews besmirch the integrity of unpaid reviews. But because Kirkus and PW charge a lot of money, and the author won't get their money's worth because Kirkus and PW reviews aren't important or necessary. They just seem important and necessary to newbie authors just starting out.

8. I don't trade reviews with authors. But I do review friends' books, because I truly like their writing.

Anyone looking at the Amazon reviews I've written (I'm also a Vine Reviewer, which I'll get to in a moment) will see I've reviewed almost every one of Robert W. Walker's books with the same review.

I was a big fan of Rob growing up, and meeting him for the first time in person was a rare and memorable treat. A few years ago, Rob hit a patch of very bad luck and was broke. I was just getting started with self-pubbing ebooks, and I predicted this would be a boon for writers. So I paid Book Leaf to scan every one of Rob's books (about 40) and then went through each one to correct typos (book scanning produces lots of errors) and then formatted each one for Kindle and uploaded them with product descriptions. Then I posted the same 5 star review under each of his books, because it applied to all of them, as I'd read all of them.

It was a labor of love for a dear friend whose writing I enjoy. I'm thrilled Rob is doing well with these ebooks. I'd do it again.

I'm not posting this story so the world sees what a swell guy I am. I'm posting it because there are pinheads on the Internet looking for dirt on me, and I don't want Rob or I to get accused of sock-puppetry or shilling or trading favors.

I help my friends. That's part of who I am.

As for Vine Reviews, I'm part of the Amazon Vine Program, which means Amazon regularly sends me free stuff in exchange for a review. In the program I received a free $600 espresso maker. I did my best to review it honestly, and 25 out of 25 people found my review helpful.

That said, aren't I essentially a paid reviewer? The machine costs $600, and I got it for free. It was like the ultimate bribe, especially for a coffee lover like me. But I still wrote what I believe is an honest review, and I stand by that review.

In a discussion of ethics and deception and buying reviews, I'm not comfortable using black and white terminology. I think there are lots of shades of gray. Condemning behavior without discussing it or analyzing it or even asking the offending parties for their side of the story is, in my humble opinion, bullshit.

9. This one baffles me. There are authors who are chastising other authors for buying reviews or using sock puppets by leaving one star reviews on those offending author's books.

How can anyone leave a one star review for a book they haven't read? How can they use reviews as a platform to attack the author? Especially when they're trying to take the moral high ground?

I'm especially baffled because one of the authors doing this had once emailed me, and others, asking us to leave positive reviews of his books.

Notice I'm not naming names, publicly shaming, or preaching sanctimoniously. That's because:

10. I don't trash people on the Internet. I think it's cheap, and petty, and cowardly. Every so often, some pinhead gets chastised in my blog comments, after fair warning. But I don't go on Twitter calling other writers names, I don't dedicate blog posts to their stupidity, and I don't hurl insults that might be read by their family, or their fans, because I think that sucks.

I speak my mind when I see groups of people behaving badly. The Big 6. The Authors Guild. The AAR. Harlequin. The latest group to have a circle-jerk Konrath hatefest on Twitter are some authors who didn't like my opinion of the NSPHP petition. Which brings us to...

11. I would not sign a petition denouncing authors for paying for reviews, while at the same time pleading for readers to review them.

I haven't ever paid for a review. But I think I've shown in this blog post how slippery ethics can be, and I'm not going to jump on the hate wagon to denounce others.

Plus, I'd never ask readers to review me with a line like: Will you use your voice to help us clean up this mess? It makes me wince just reading it. It smacks of hypocrisy and neediness, and is beneath them.

Four hundred plus authors needed to band together to urge readers to review them to "drown out the phoney voices, and the underhanded tactics will be marginalized to the point of irrelevance." 


Those "phoney voices" are three people! Three people have harmed those four hundred plus so heinously that only readers can step in and correct this terrible injustice?! Three people have caused so much mayhem they must be drowned out?!

Much as I weep for those poor four hundred authors and how they were irrevocably damaged (hint: they weren't)--especially those mega bestsellers whose get full page New York Times ads (hint: that their publishers paid for)--and much as I'm swayed by their persuasive arguments explaining how three people harmed them and the entire system (hint: they have no arguments, persuasive or otherwise), I'm going to have to say a petition that denounces unseemly reviewing methods that ends with an unseemly plea for reviews is very, very, very silly. And I'm being very, very, very kind.

The world doesn't  know, or care, about the problems in the publishing industry. The average reader doesn't care about the DOJ suit, or the AAR and Authors Guild selling us out, or Harlequin screwing writers, or authors behaving badly.

They simply want good books to read.

Those books won't get written if we're all on Twitter 24/7 condemning on another, or blogging incessantly, or spending all of our time pouring over Amazon reviews trying to uncover which are legit and which aren't (seriously, how fucking pathetic is that?)

Now I'm going to unplug for a bit and get some writing done. Which is what we all should be doing.