Saturday, September 08, 2012

Get Over Yourselves

Updated below.

I had a long talk with a friend last night, and we realized something obvious.

Amazon allows one star reviews. 

In other words, the existing system allows and encourages people to publicly trash books. 

Reread that sentence. Just about every book has one star reviews. So there are, quite literally, MILLIONS of one star reviews.

Every one of those millions of reviewers who trashed a book deliberately did it to harm that book's sales. That's the whole point of a one star review. Someone yelling to the world "Don't buy this!"

This is why I don't leave one star reviews. I think it is a shitty, mean thing to do.

But it's allowed.

If it was wrong to trash a book, it wouldn't be allowed. Like murder isn't allowed. Our society doesn't allow murder.

But society does allow people freedom of speech. And that includes the right for people to offer their opinions. Even anonymously. Even stupid opinions. Even biased opinions. Even opinions with agendas.

Recently, three authors were exposed using an existing system--one built upon the very principle of people voicing their opinions--to their advantage, and they're branded immoral and beyond reproach.

Sorry, no.

Ellory did a shitty thing, and because he didn't sign his name to his reviews he was also cowardly, but what he did wasn't any different than what millions of other one star reviewers did and continue to do.

Ellory didn't want people to buy his rivals' books. He wanted them to buy his books. That was his agenda.

He's allowed his agenda. And I'll defend his right to do things like that, even if I wouldn't do it.

If I have a bad meal at a restaurant, I'd warn my friends not to go there. I'm deliberately preventing that restaurant from making money. That is my agenda.

And if I warned my friends to avoid a restaurant I never ate at, I'd be doing the same thing, except I'd be a dick.

And if I owned a restaurant, and publicly denounced other restaurants, I'd also be a dick. (Or an advertiser using Pepsi Challenge rules.)

There are dicks on the Internet! Gasp! Circle the wagons, Pa!

As I said, I don't leave one star reviews. I think trashing books is shitty. That's my personal opinion.

But if you want to throw Ellory under the bus, you need to condemn the millions of others who give malicious one star reviews, and then condemn the system for allowing it.

If you want to throw Locke under the bus, you need to condemn the millions of others who give unsubstantiated five star reviews, and then condemn the system for allowing it.

If you want to throw Leather under the bus, you need to condemn the millions of others who use sock puppets and post anonymously, and then condemn the system for allowing it.

And if that's what you're trying to do, condemn the entire system, then you are a pinhead condemning what comes down to personal freedoms, and showing you have zero faith in writers or readers.

No reader automatically believes every review they come across. Before all this uproar, there have always been fishy one star and suspect five star reviews. Reviews are a tool readers use, and Amazon has done all it can to give readers more tools to judge their veracity--comments, likes, verified purchases, etc.

We may not approve of an author leaving one star reviews, or buying reviews, or using fake names. Personally, I don't approve of authors trashing me on Twitter, posting anonymously on my blog, or getting a ton of coop money and front page NYT ads while I get none.

I don't think it's fair.

Boo hoo, poor me.

That's the sum total of this scandal. Some authors bitching that other authors aren't playing fair.


Let's all gather together in self-righteous solidarity and change Amazon, then change the whole Internet, then change the behavior of every single person on the planet, so everyone plays fair!

Good luck with that. Especially since everyone's definition of "fair" is different.

It is my opinion that 95% of one star reviews are shitty. But because I don't like something, or because I wouldn't personally do something, doesn't mean I need to go on a holy quest to punish those who displease me, and gather up a lynch mob of like-minded hysterics.

Reviews and the reviewing system have never been some sacred act beyond reproach.

Pinheads have dumb opinions, and the Internet lets them shout their dumb opinions without any fear of repercussion. We're all free to condemn whoever we want to condemn, and be outraged by whatever gets us off.

Right now I'm outraged at all the unwarranted outrage.

Locke didn't hold the world hostage by threatening it with nuclear annihilation to get people to buy his books. He bought reviews which MAY have lead more people to buy his books.

Leather didn't put on a mask to hide his identity and then go on a bank robbing spree. He used a fake identity to make fun of people who were making fun of him.

Ellory didn't go into a rival's house and beat him to death with a hammer. He left one star reviews, which MILLIONS OF OTHERS DO.

But Joe! If this kind of behavior is allowed, the system will devolve into chaos and madness! Madness I say! MADNESS!!!!

Don't be a pinhead. This kind of behavior IS ALLOWED RIGHT NOW, and has been allowed for decades. Every book has one star reviews. There are millions of one star reviews. I'd bet there are also millions of fake reviews. And millions using sock puppets. Just because three authors were discovered doing what millions already do, within a few days of each other, doesn't mean the system is going to hell.

The system works fine. We're all able to sell books, even when some pinhead gives us one star reviews.

We're all not in danger of losing our morals. But we are in danger of losing our perspective.

Amazon, and the Internet, and the Bill Of Rights, allow free speech. Even anonymous free speech. Even speech we don't like.

That petition was stupid. This whole issue is stupid. The hysteria is unwarranted. This is just a self-righteous mob who feels the need to jerk off in public by pointing fingers and declaring themselves superior.

This sums it up:


I published an earlier version of this blog inadvertently while I was still tweaking it. The previous opening was:

Buying reviews isn't wrong. Using sock puppets isn't wrong. Leaving fake one star reviews isn't wrong.

It's shitty, and I wouldn't do it. And that's how I'm able to prove I'm right.

Amazon allows one star reviews. In other words, the existing system allows and encourages people to publicly trash books. 

Here's a snapshot of that earlier version.

I don't believe that was as strong an opening as my current one, but I still stand by those words.

You either believe in freedom of speech, and allow people to say things within a system where freedom is allowed, or you try to police the system, which is impossible and also very wrong.

Get it? It isn't wrong to speak your mind. It's wrong to not allow people to speak their mind.

That's the problem with democracy. People do things we don't like them doing. But it beats the alternative, doesn't it?

Calling an action wrong because you wouldn't do it is bad logic. There are certain legal sex acts I wouldn't do. I don't condemn them as being wrong. It just isn't my thing.

In the comments, people are trying to say that fraud was involved.

They're wrong.

Fraud involves damages. No one was damaged here. Amazon allows one star reviews, so that doesn't count as damage. Amazon allows book returns for full refunds. So again, no damage. People call each other names all the time on the internet. That's allowed.

Show me every paid review is a lie. Hint: they aren't.

Show me people bought books based on lies. Hint: people buy books for lots of reasons.

Show me that people who felt duped were prevented from getting full refunds and then leaving negative reviews of their own. Hint: Anyone can do this.

Show me one star reviews harm authors. Hint: Amazon allows one star reviews.

In the comments one of the authors who created the petition is insisting it isn't a mob action. Here is my reply:

When there is a call for many to condemn the behavior of three, I am comfortable calling that a mob.

When that call for action has media coverage, it makes me even more suspect.

When that call to action involves moral superiority, it clinches the deal.

You're part of a mob, whether you intended it or not.

You're signaling out three people for scorn and ridicule and humiliation, whether you intended it or not.

The wording of your petition sucks, whether you intended it or not.

I pick on groups. Big groups who do authors harm.

I don't pick on authors behaving badly.

I'm fine with going against a mob of 400 even though it is an incredibly unfair, one-sided fight. (Hint: you'll need at least 500 more signatures before I'd consider us evenly matched.)

But I'm not okay picking on individual writers.

Say I took every negative thing you've ever said on the Internet, strung it all together in a blog post, then rallied my large readership to publicly condemn you, then called my vast media contacts to join in the excoriation.

That's what your mob is doing. And it doesn't matter if that wasn't your intent.

Update #2

So let me sum this up, because I seem to be getting misunderstood a lot.

If someone buys reviews, I don't care. I don't value reviews enough to pay for them, so I wouldn't do this. I see a very thin line between asking for honest reviews with the reviewer disclosing they'd been paid, and a review where the reviewer discloses nothing, doesn't even read the book, and gives it five stars. I believe readers are savvy enough to figure out which reviews are worth listening to, and how much they affect their buying decision. Considering that readers can download free samples, return the book for a refund, and post reviews of their own (along with comments and like/dislike buttons), I think Amazon is doing all it can to make the system fair. They don't police reviews, and that's a good thing.

If someone gives me a one star review, I don't care. Doesn't matter if they read the book or not, or use a fake name or not. All one star reviews intend to hurt sales. Amazon allows them, and there are millions of them, yet people still buy books.

If someone posts anonymously or uses false names, I don't care. Anyone who has been on the Internet for more than ten minutes soon learns to distrust everyone and everything. The web, by its very nature, is much different than communicating face to face. People say and do things on the net they'd never do in person. Reasonable people understand this, and are automatically wary.

I don't give one star reviews, use sock puppets, or pay for reviews. I understand how my peers might think these things are unfair. They may be unfair. But they aren't serious, and they aren't automatically morally wrong, because they are a by product of free speech. Just because I wouldn't do them doesn't mean I have the right to prevent all others form doing them. That road is a dangerous one to walk, because it leads to sanctimony, witch hunts, censorship, overreacting, hate groups, and mobbing.

Everyone is allowed to be upset about whatever they want to be upset about. But publicly humiliating these three for their minor transgressions is silly. The press covering this is no different than the tabloids printing pictures of drunk celebrities.

I think witch hunters and muck rakers are scum. Humiliating a peer so you can get your name in the paper is pathetic. Exposing author dishonesty, when dishonesty abounds in the publishing industry, is hypocritical. My previous posts have shown that there is no such thing as universal morality, and we all do various questionable things in our careers.

Last, and certainly least, I do finally understand why some authors are so pissed off. Someone just emailed me Nielsen Bookscan number scans of several authors who signed the petition. Wow. I've sold more books in a week than they've sold in years. No wonder they're upset at me, Locke, and Leather.

I'm sorry, guys. I really am. I'm sure your books are good, and I say that with utmost sincerity even though (full disclosure) I haven't read them. But maybe you guys should stop spending so much time on social networks spewing hateful nonsense, and more time on your careers.

I've heard that self-publishing pays 70% royalties and you can set your own prices. If you need pointers, I have a lot of them on my blog. If you have any specific questions, email me. I get a lot of email, but I am being completely honest when I say I'll help you if I can. Seriously. The legacy system is screwing you, just like it screwed me, and you have my sympathy. And you can go right on hating me even though I'll help you.

Ebooks aren't a zero sum game. I wish you nothing but success.