Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Writers' Code of Ethics

Lots of controversy on the internet concerning writers lately. It's time for...

THE WRITERS' CODE OF ETHICS

1. I will never pay people to write positive reviews of my books.

2. I will never use a false account (aka a sock puppet or anonymous account) to leave negative reviews of any of my peers.

3. I will never use a false account to review my own books.

4. I will never send reviewers copies of my books if they review in a periodical where my publisher buys advertising.

5. I will never ask friends, family, peers, or anyone who knows me to write reviews of my books, since they are biased toward me.

6. I will never ask fans to write reviews of my books, since they are biased toward me.

7. I will never pay a publicist to send out books of mine to be reviewed, since I am essentially paying someone for reviews.

8. I will never allow a publicist working for a publisher to send out books of mine to be reviewed, since they are being paid to do so.

9. I will never allow anyone to send out copies of my books to be reviewed, because if they were doing that they must know me, and if they know me it is impossible to get an unbiased review.

10. I will never allow any review from anyone I've ever met. Every review must be from someone who has never met me, heard of me, or read me before, and must come with a signed affidavit proclaiming such.

11. Every review must be from a professional reviewer who has true integrity. But this professional reviewer cannot accept money in any way, shape or form, because getting paid for reviewing could compromise their ethics.

12. I will personally interview every reviewer to make sure they are unbiased, and then ask them to remove their review because upon meeting them (The Konrath Uncertainty Principle) I may have affected their review, which renders it biased.

13. I will never blurb a book by an author I know.

14. I will never accept a blurb from an author I know.

15. I will never blurb a book from any author, because I may know them some day.

16. I will never review anything, or blurb anything, or allow any of my books to be reviewed of blurbed.

17. I will never allow anyone I have ever known, or ever might know, to blurb or review anything.

18. I will never use a sock puppet or post anonymously online about anything at all, because I should stand by my own words.

19. I will never post anything at all online, ever again, because it might impinge upon someone else's ethical standards.

20. I will publicly chastise, denigrate, ridicule, mock, and lynch anyone who has breached any of the above.

21. I will tattoo this code of ethics permanently upon my back to show all how ethical and moral I am.

22. Those who don't ask about my ethics will still be forced by me to memorize the tattoo on my back, in public, as many times as I demand.

23. All who do not comply will never be allowed to write again, and will broken on the wheel, their intestines forced down their own lying, cheating, dishonest, unethical throats while they beg for mercy, then they'll burned at the stake, drawn and quartered, their charred, smoking, crispy body parts placed on spires for all to view. This punishment will be meted out to any person, living or dead, who has ever had contact with, or has heard of, the offending party.

Joe sez: If you haven't figured it out yet, this isn't about dishonesty. It's about degrees of dishonesty. And everyone, to a degree, is dishonest. Glass houses and throwing stones, folks.

The only way to make the system pure is to never allow anyone to do anything, ever. But that's impossible. So instead we have people pointing fingers and masturbating to their own smug sense of superiority because they haven't been caught in the "ethical lapse du jour" yet.

I say "yet" because I'm working on a law to install cameras in every shower in the world. No secrets anymore. We'll catch your shameful masturbation, you knee-jerk finger-pointing self-pleasuring holier-than-thou folks. EVERYONE does things they aren't proud of. I shall now make it my mission in life to discover your secrets and broadcast them to the world so I can feel better about myself and show everyone how righteous I am.

For the pinheads among you, this is satire. I have never bought a review, or used a sock puppet for any reason, let alone to positively review my own books or negatively review a peer's books. Morals and ethics are slippery slope, and I think muck-rakers are on par with sock-puppeteers as far as scum-suckers go.

The current level of sanctimonious bullshit on the Internet that makes me feel I'm required to publicly proclaim my innocence is repulsive. When honest people get defense, there is something wrong with the world. It's a witch hunt. It's the HUAC.

All of you pointing your fingers and proclaiming your piety? Get back to working on your books, not judging your peers.

To my knowledge, I've publicly signaled out one writer in all my years of controversially bitching about the system, and that writer was spouting bullshit as President of the Authors Guild. He was truly hurting other authors. Not by buying reviews to sell more books. Not by cowardly denigrating a peer because of envy or jealousy. He was SELLING ALL OF US OUT and needed to be publicly spanked.

Plus, I spanked him for his arguments, not his business behavior. He took public positions which demanded a public response.

Those guys in the crosshairs right now, accused of buying reviews and using sock puppets? I may not agree with what they've done. But I won't get off rubbing their noses in their mistakes, and I don't have to sign a code of ethics to separate me from them.

When we start turning on our own, ask yourself why. Is it really to correct their behavior? Is it to join the mob so they don't come after you next? Is it to feel superior?

In all my years of blogging, of tweeting, of social networking, I can say this with honesty and candor:

NONE OF YOU IS SUPERIOR.

That includes me. We're all human beings with fragile egos, trying to be the heroes of our own movies. Sometimes we fail. That's human.

Pouncing on those who fail with torches and lynch ropes? That's also human, but a lot uglier.

Siding with the mob because you fear they'll attack you next? That's cowardly.

Recognizing that certain behavior is wrong, and making a silent pledge to not do the same?

That's what strong, self-confident people do.

You all fail.

So do I.

Shame on us.

Addendum: Hey! All you whistle-blowing muck-rakers out there who want to humiliate people!

How about humiliating businesses instead?

The NYT just ran an article on buying reviews. I'd love for some investigative journalist to:

1. Count every publisher ad in the NYT for the last ten years and guestimate their worth.

2. Count every NYT book review of the last ten years and note the publishers.

3. Compare the top advertisers with how many books they've had reviewed. Compare that to reviews received by those who never advertised. Might also check if the review was favorable or not, but let's be serious--we all know even bad reviews sell books. No such thing as bad publicity, right?

If you like that one, you might try investigating how the NYT Bestseller List works. Hint: it's based on pre-printed write-in ballots, which bookstores fill in without any verification of actual sales. Hint #2: Every publisher knows which bookstores are reporting stores.

Or maybe you'd like to investigate how the Authors Guild and the Association of Authors Representatives are publicly supporting agency pricing, even though authors earn less under agency.

Or perhaps you'd like to take up the torch to support libraries, who are getting screwed by publishers with ebook acquisitions.

Or how about an article supporting the DOJ suit? I can't recall anyone in the mainstream media that has done so, even though collusive price-fixing has already been settled in three of the six complaints.

I really believe that investigative journalism is an important part of a democracy, and freedom. But there's a difference between Wikileaks exposing government cover-ups where people are tortured and killed, and a tabloid posting pictures of a drunken celebrity without her underwear on.

Reread my Code of Ethics above.

My guess is everyone will agree with some of them, but eventually there comes a point when it becomes silly.

That point differs for everyone.

Pick your arguments. Because when you argue ethics, it's very easy to be proven wrong.

Pick your targets. It's cowardly for a mob to attack one person. It's a lot harder, and more worthwhile, to attack organizations, whether they be government or big business.

Pick your battles. It ain't a battle if you join the majority. Your righteous indignation could be better spent on more productive debates.

There's a lot wrong with the world. A lot of people doing stupid things.

Just because you have a mob on your side doesn't mean you aren't being stupid.

For a more balanced look at this issue, check out Barry Eisler's thoughts. He manages to make points without any hysteria and without two minutes hate, which is the vibe I get from the NSPHP.

You know what you should have done, Society of Authors, if you really wanted change?

You should have forgiven the trio you named, and invited them to sign your petition.

But instead you signaled them out for more derision, so you could feel smug and superior. You're using that blog like a chastity ring, proclaiming your purity to the world because it isn't enough keeping it to yourself.

I don't need to join a mob, or excoriate my peers, or proclaim to the world how righteous I am. I can do the right thing in spite of that.

So come, oh ye witch hunters. Come hunt me.

Update: In the comments, I mention one of my truisms: people would rather fight to the death for their beliefs instead of honestly questioning that they may be wrong.

I value my ability to change my mind as more information comes in, and this blog has documented me reversing my opinion on several things over the years. Sometimes I need to be hit over the head with contrary evidence or logic a few times before it sinks in, but I try my best to constantly question my actions and motivations.

Barry Eisler does that as well. He just removed his support of the NSPHP.

I recommend that those behind that petition read Barry's blog carefully. When reasonable people opt out of what is supposed to be a good cause, something is amiss.

139 comments:

L.M. Sherwin said...

Well said. At some point, we all have to examine our own moral standings without expecting the whole world to fall in with one set of "ethics". The best policy? (i.e., the one teachers all over the world tell children every day?) WORRY ABOUT YOURSELF and not about what THEY are doing.

Bob said...

I've been laughing at this whole thing. Everyone is so focused on this, while ignoring the now 79 million three publishers have to pay out to several states because they ripped readers off. Why is no one up in arms about this? It's a lot bigger than someone buying reviews.

Where are all the sanctimonious authors slamming Amazon now? Why aren't they going after these publishers? And here's the real funny thing, fellow authors; you know where those millions are going to come from? Your royalties. Start checking your statements. You're going to be paying those readers back out of your already crappy eBook royalties.

Actually, with regard to reviews. I get a sense of: Gee wish I'd thought of that back then and it's too late now so I have to call it UNETHICAL now.

Also, I saw a double page spread for an author I know in the center of the NY Times book review back in January. Next week she was #1 on the hardcover list. Coincidence? She was #1 for one week. That book disappeared so fast off the list, it had to be a mistake. But it wasn't. Talk about paying for things.

What a lot of writers don't realize is the Discoverability Wars are already upon us. In the past the competition was for an agent, a book deal, distribution, placement, etc. Now it's all for Discoverability. And there's only so much of it to go around.

AstroNerdBoy said...

Well, not being a published author, I guess this doesn't apply to me, but I wasn't aware of stuff going on. Heck, I do get review copies of manga and anime from time to time (and I've even got one waiting for me at the post office). If I like it, I say so. If not, I say so.

Still, I learned years and years ago that publishers always manipulate the system. So called "best seller" lists were easily manipulated to produce results, especially if buyers for bookstore chains got involved.

J. R. Tomlin said...

LOL Joe, for a couple of seconds I thought you were serious. I have to agree the sanctimony abounds! I have my sanctimonious moments like most people.

I tell you what would be interesting is to compare the NYT Best Seller list with the list of publishers who advertise with them. I suspect it would make interesting reading, but like most of us here, I have better things to do with my time--like writing that next novel.

Bob is right about the Discoverability Wars, I think. But there was always some sort of war. It's just moved to a new stage.

Jack Eason said...

Way to go Joe. Very appropriate considering two writers here in the UK have just been outed for admitting to writing favourable reviews for their own books whil writing unfavourable ones for their competition using 'sock-puppets'. :)

Anonymous said...

Joe, I’ll happily sign your list but would like to include a few additional pledges:

1. I won’t tag the latest James Patterson book with my name;
2. I won’t join a group of authors who self-promote each other;
3. I won’t leave comments of agreement on author’s blogs in hopes that they’ll like me and someday do me a favor;
4. I won’t blast my name and book titles all over the Internet unless my books are the best ones out there.
5. When I go to a book signing I will include on my table a copy of every book that is actually better than mine.
6. I will always follow the pack.
7. I will clean my garage every spring.

Jill James said...

Joe, thanks for that post. I loved it.

B. Justin Shier said...

I agree that it is not our business to go after individual bad actors like we are some sort of band of vigilantes, and thankfully, I have not seen any of that behavior from all the writer colleagues that are known to me, but what about your old adage about the cream rising to the top?

I was one of those 'pure' indies that took the chance and self-publishing early last year. I had been warned by two agents that self-publishing would 'destroy' my career, but I had been reading yours and DWSmith's blogs for a few months and came to my own conclusions. I had no name recognition nor industry experience, but I still decided to jump into the self-published pool. The entrepreneurial aspects the indie world were attractive, and I didn't feel like spending two years in the trade publishing loop just to publish a few light novels about magic adventures and ritualistic homicides. I had fun designing covers. I had fun working through all the tiny challenges of publication, but I had no money for advertising, and no megaphone of celebrity to announce my wares with.

At first, sales only came in at tiny trickle. Every single sale was thrilling, but the revenue was not nearly enough to sustain a career. That was until a few kind reviewers took the time to post their opinions on my Amazon product page. It was only then that things started to change. One sale a day turned into five. Five turned into ten. Within a month, I was in the hundred-per-week club. Within two, I was in the thousand-per-week club. By the end of the summer, I was getting fan mail, book blogger requests for review copies. By November, I was receiving print publishing offers. I never put my books on sale. I never bought an ad. I just kept reminding myself what had got me there: readers, readers, readers. Before a few choice also-boughts spread the fire, before a Kindle Daily Deal sponsorship showed me what hanging out in the Kindle Top 10 was like, there were those first few readers that spent their hard-earned time and money to read and review a nobody.

So I do worry, not for myself, but for writers like me, minus one year of time spent in the marketplace. How can they enjoy the thrilling run I did if the entire Amazon review system becomes suspect? (And it now appears Goodreads was not immune, either.)

I fear these recent revelations are but the tip of a festering ratberg. A modest amount of research convinced me that many other big-name authors may be implicated in the near future, but I don't think these established authors have anything to worry about. They already have strong followings. They aren't dependent on the number of stars in their Amazon reviews anymore. It is instead the unknown authors of the future that are best placed to bear the consequences of their actions. Sure, the cream may always rise to the top, but if the entire concoction smells like doodie, who are we going to get to drink it?

B.

Athena said...

Not long ago, and angry person on Amazon sent me a notice that I should take my book down “before I blow the cover on your shill reviews”. I was baffled and had to google what ‘shill’ meant. My first thought was, “OHMIGOD! People do that?” my second through was… “hmm… you can do that?” I wrote her back and asked if she’d read the book, and she replied, “of course not, it’s not my kind of book. But I might be tempted if the reviews were real.”

I had no way of assuring her the reviews were real. No way to verify in order to earn her trust so I offered the book for free which she quickly rebuffed. What’s a newbie to do?

Ultimately, I opted not to do shill reviews or sock puppets because I didn’t want to start my career that way – and yet, I could see (1) why someone assumed I had and (2) why others would do it.

Releasing a self-published novel onto amazon is like throwing your needle in a haystack full of needles. While I can be impressed or admire your success at self-publishing, Joe, I am just getting started and my discoverability is significantly lower. For people like myself, other authors who are just beginning the journey, I can truly understand why they might have these lapses in judgment to write their own reviews. I do believe, however, that over the course of a long career, such tactics will eventually catch up to them.

But what I can never understand, at all, is creating negative reviews with the sole intent to harm or discredit. Don’t understand that kind of venom and probably never will. If this scandal has revealed anything truly worth dissecting – it’s the compulsion some authors have to tear down their competition rather than build their own voice.

I hope at least that the conversations to come from these men being put in the spotlight, is that there is a lot still to do in the “community” of writers that is supporting your peers and fellow artists, so they aren’t put in a position to feel like they have to resort to undercutting another person’s hard work.

As always, thanks for posting, Joe.

bettye griffin said...

I'm embarrassed to admit how far down your list I got before I realized you had switched from serious to folly...

Joe Konrath said...

The ones who really need to take this post to heart are the ones who will immediately dismiss it.

One of my truisms is people would rather fight to the death for their beliefs instead of honestly question that they may be wrong.

My first reaction to the AoS petition was like Barry's. Good for authors to frown on bad behavior. If someone can be shamed into not using sock puppets, I'm okay with that. Hell, I shame anonymous posters on my blog regularly.

I don't like sock puppets. I also don't give negative reviews, or signal out individuals for my scorn, under my own name, unless they have already made public statements. And even then, I try to attack the statement, not the person.

There is a difference with trying to educate, and trying to punish. There is a difference between trying to become a better person, and trying to show everyone that you're better than others.

A lot of my friends, Barry included, signed that petition. So did a lot of hypocritical pinheads who, judging by their Twitter feeds, exist only to foster negativity, hurl insults, and insult people.

Be careful when you align yourself with pinheads. And be careful when your goal is self-pleasuring, especially at the expense of others.

We can all justify our behavior. That doesn't mean we always should.

evilphilip said...

The great part of being nobody here is that as a nobody I don't have to worry about things like this. Ha!

Sam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam said...

Joe, you had me going up till #7...

I don't like the idea of buying reviews. I also dislike the Amazon Vine program because it gives select books an unfair advantage. And there are several other companies that publishers use to essentially buy reviews (I've seen one called "BookSneeze"), but their reviewers always note that they received a free copy.

I think it's fine to give away copies of your book and ask for unbiased reviews.

That said, I agree that people have over-reacted to the author in question who bought reviews. First, it's always been clear he is a clever marketer, not a literary artiste. Second, most of his books have only 50-100 reviews, so clearly reviews aren't mainly responsible for his sales. His books sell because readers enjoy them as Kindle-candy.

Sock puppets are another thing entirely, and I get frustrated when I see books with hundreds of reviews that I suspect of sock-puppetry...

But, I must note-- Walt Whitman launched his self-published "Leaves of Grass" with a sock-puppet review he mailed to New York newspapers!

PS-- I can't read the damn Blogger catchpa to post this comment. I've tried 10 times...

Joe Konrath said...

I invite all to show me how these don't apply to this situation:

Mobbing

Circle jerking

Sanctimony

Sam said...

I don't mean to sound high-horse about Amazon Vine and buying reviews.

My thought was: since Vine and publishers are already enlisting teams of people to review particular books, I can see why indie authors would hire their own reviewers. I don't like the whole situation, but think it's easy to justify.

Bridget McKenna said...

Thanks, Joe, for bringing this subject down to earth. Laughing at myself is good medicine.

And Bob, mainstream media isn't up in arms about pubishers' various shenanigans because they're the guardians of culture! They're the last bastion of literary excellence standing between unwitting readers and the likes of you and I.

Oh, and they also advertise a whole hell of a lot in mainstream media.

RJ Lockett said...

Bridget, we understand why the media isn't up in arms about trad. pubs ripping off readers, but his questions were directed towards authors.

"Where are all the sanctimonious authors slamming Amazon now? Why aren't they going after these publishers?"

Its would actually take critical thought to realize that they should go after those entites, and balls to actually do it. I really think this controversy is silly and that people should mind their own business and concentrate on their own affairs. It seems like it takes too much energy to assume double-duty as a writer and the self-appointed review police. I'll pass.

nlowhim said...

Slow clap in the background. I'll have to say that this is a great little piece, Joe. well thought out and provocative. Clap picks up pace. It is indeed troubling that people still have no problem with a mob, and never take a second to look at themselves. Or publishers and what they do. Clapping at a furious pace. Like I said, well done. Not much I can add to that. Keep it up.

Broken Yogi said...

"5. I will never ask friends, family, peers, or anyone who knows me to write reviews of my books, since they are biased toward me."

I think it's enough to simply make sure that when anyone you know well posts a review, they disclose the relationship.

That goes for most everything else. If you want to pay someone to review your book, fine, just make sure that is disclosed in the review. Readers can then factor that in.

Disclosure and openness resolve almost all these ethical issues. It would make a huge difference, even for paid reviews, or reviews by your Mom, if she has to says, "I'm the author's mother."

Same goes for publicist solicited and paid for reviews, like Kirkus. Every review should have a disclosure posted at the end.

Jude Hardin said...

I think it's fine to give away copies of your book and ask for unbiased reviews.

That's what Amazon Vine does. So why do you dislike them?

Amazon Vine reviewers are not paid. They actually read the books, and I can tell you from experience that not all of the reviews are positive.

There's a big difference between sending someone an ARC and handing them cash. Handing them cash makes it tempting for them to write scores of five-star reviews a week without reading the books.

I'm not part of any mob. I'm not aligning myself with anyone, and I'm not signing any petitions. I don't care which particular authors bought phony reviews and used sock puppets. But, I do think those practices should be frowned upon, and I think from this point forward greater efforts should be made by Amazon and other online retailers to ferret out the phonies.

Otherwise, retailers might as well discontinue customer reviews altogether. If things stay as they are, patrons will soon learn not to trust any of them, and this of course will render all of them useless.

Thomas Knip said...

Ego? This ism't about ego. It's about money. So just dont't get caught, whatver you do.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Thomas, it's more about money and some of it is about damaging other people's product. I like to think (or perhaps hope) that my book is going to win readers on its own merits and if someone sticks up a nasty review there'll be other readers who put up good ones.

Trouble is this sort of stuff damages the credibility of reviews for all of us 'unknown' indie authors and that sucks.

Sam said...

Jude-- good distinction that the Vine reviewers aren't paid, but don't publishers pay to have their books in the program? And of course, Amazon puts the books they publish (AmazonEncore, etc) in the program. So I don't like it because it gives an advantage to the big publishers and to Amazon Publishing.

For the same reason, it bugs me that I can't post my book trailer to my Amazon sakes page-- but a big publisher can pay to have a book trailer put on a sale page, and Amazon Publishing will also put book trailers on their own pages.

Christopher Wills said...

Totally agree with you. Personally I wouldn't pay for reviews and I would never be negative abut a fellow author but the rest.... And as you so rightly say, what have publishing companies been doing with their 95% of cover price (minus the bit they spend on themselves) if they are not paying for reviews? But they call it marketing and it is supposed to be legit. Hmm...

dan said...

...and people should stop listening to Chuck Berry tunes, because they benefited from payola.

John Barlow said...

One of my truisms is people would rather fight to the death for their beliefs instead of honestly question that they may be wrong.

Isn't 'one of my truisms' essentially synonymous/interchangeable with 'beliefs'?

Alan Spade said...

@Jude Hardin : I agree with you (and with B Justin Shier) and that was the main purpose of my previous comments : to protect the reviewing system.

I confess I also reacted on John Locke's name. I didn't want to become part of a mob, but I'm human.

Some months ago I've written a post on my blog titled : "John Locke, a model to follow". So I reacted with much disappointment at first, because for me, he was a model.

But I entirely agree with Barry Eisler when he says NSPHP (No sock pupper here please) shouldn't have named the authors.

I agree with a lot of what Barry said, and notably that : "But I don't think it follows that because we can't cost-effectively fix all aspects of publishing, we ought not bother to try to improve any."

My previous comments may have showed some envy, sanctimony and self-superiority feeling. I regret that.

Leviathan said...

Wow, you're right, there's something deeply wrong with pointing out rampant corruption when you see it, because somewhere in your life you might have picked up a penny without seeking out its rightful owner.

There are genuine sleazebags out there, lying in order to enrich themselves, which is unethical, and to impoverish others, which is disgusting.

There are writers who do have ethics, who stand up for honesty and tell the truth.

Then there's you, stepping on the throats of the truthtellers, while claiming you're not supporting the liars.

You, in short, have proven yourself a douchebag.

My name is Jonathan Andrew Sheen.

I'm done with you.

Anonymous said...

Great post Joe.

I'd question a couple of points. For instance, the idea that you can't complain about authors paying for reviews on Amazon without also doing something about whatever is going on in other areas of the review industry. Adopt that attitude and nothing gets done about anything.

Better to tackle the inequalities you know about. Strike while the iron is hot so to speak. One step at a time rather than indulging in endless debate about who is the wrongest of them all.

Joe talks about mobs but I suspect that he's just suffering the collective guilt of all Amazon writers who will now feel their own reviews are under scrutiny. One bad apple and all that to use yet another cliche.

However, no one has asked for any authors to be lynched, people are just expressing some surprise that the review system on Amazon has been misused by some relatively well known names.

It will be interesting to see whether Amazon heed Joe's words and do nothing. After all if other elements of the review industry can't guarantee the integrity of their reviews why should Amazon? Or whether they pay attention to public opinion and media stories and do something.

Hard to see what Amazon can do given the open nature of the internet. Which is why the review system might have suffered some reputational damage.

This is a pity as a survey of restaurant reviews on Yelp recently demonstrated that good reviews can make a lot of difference to business.

One suggestion that has been put forward is that we should no longer pay attention to the number of four or five star reviews but instead count the number of one and two star reviews. That way you get a much better indicator of the real quality of a book.

Authors have been posting bad reviews on the sites of their rivals. But I'd like to think that there were more honest readers than there are dishonest authors. And maybe the good would outweigh the bad. We live in hope.




Joe Konrath said...

Isn't 'one of my truisms' essentially synonymous/interchangeable with 'beliefs'?

No. Belief is faith, which is the absence of proof.

I've proved my truism over and over.

Christinekling said...

Bob Meyer is right when he says that this is about Discoverability.

Many traditionally published authors' sales depended on their publishers using coop money to buy them space on the tables and racks right at the front of the brick and mortar store, or buying ads for them in newspapers and magazines.

The Kindle Top 100 Paid List is the new front of the store, and publishers can no longer buy that level of discoverability.

While some authors are trying to do it through sock puppetry and bought reviews, I'm not so sure I see it as drastically different from the fake debut author (who just changed her name) or the many other tactics used by the industry to "game" sales.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Best post on the subject, hands down. Thanks Joe.

AD said...

Bob said, "Everyone is so focused on this, while ignoring the now 79 million three publishers have to pay out to several states because they ripped readers off. Why is no one up in arms about this? It's a lot bigger than someone buying reviews."

Focusing on the minors is the American way. And as far as Joe's COE is concerned, I am already there! I can finally proudly say I have no reviews. Even though it was sad when mom turned me down, I feel more liberated after having read this blog post. Thanks, a lot.

Joe Konrath said...

"But I don't think it follows that because we can't cost-effectively fix all aspects of publishing, we ought not bother to try to improve any."

I agree. But does that mean we can do whatever is necessary to fix things? Should be do it through shame and fear and a mob mentality? Should we do it self-pleasuring in public? Should we hunt witches? Should we wear our chastity rings to shame others, and to show the world we are beyond reproach?

When I was a kid, and someone picked on me, we settled it on the schoolyard. These days when a child gets picked up, the parents call the police.

I'm against bullying. I'm against sock puppets. But when I catch an author doing something wrong, I send them a private email saying, "quit it." I don't publicly humiliate them while sanctimoniously basking in my own ethical superiority.

It's gonna get worse. Watch.

MeiLin Miranda said...

The reviews are one thing, though I don't particularly agree with your moral equivalency stance. If that's your position then no one should ever say anything about anything because no one can pass the purity test; Woodward and Bernstein should have let the Watergate burglary go because maybe one of them shoplifted a candy bar as a kid.

No, what I'm really pissed about: I bought his stupid "how to" book and he didn't tell me the actual "how to." :)

That said, I'm sure Mr Locke is blushing all the way to the bank and doesn't give a rat's ass about any of this. And I'm hardly losing sleep.

Back to work. Deadline a-comin'.

Joe Konrath said...

There are writers who do have ethics, who stand up for honesty and tell the truth.

I know. In this case they're stopping traffic in front of photographers yelling "I HAVE ETHICS! LOOK AT ME! I THINK OTHER WRITERS ARE BAD!"

Then there's you, stepping on the throats of the truthtellers, while claiming you're not supporting the liars.

I'm done with you.

If I had a penny for everyone who ever said that then kept coming back...

Jim Self said...

Joe, I don't agree with all of your rules, but I did realize you were pushing it to extremes to make a point.

Any writer who listened to self-publishing advice, pouring themselves into their marketing and website and whatever, only to find out the advice came from someone buying shill reviews, that writer has a right to express outrage. So do readers.

Anyone else is definitely free to talk about how it's right or wrong. And it does affect all of us to some extent. Resisting this particular temptation might make you innocent, but innocence isn't anything to brag about. I never murdered anyone. You gonna buy my book now?

Joe Konrath said...

that writer has a right to express outrage. So do readers.

I agree. People are allowed to be upset about whatever they like.

In this case, I also dislike sock puppets.

But when outrage becomes a witch hunt, and when pointing fingers becomes self-pleasuring, it's time to take a step back and find some perspective.

innocence isn't anything to brag about

I agree. And I'm seeing a climate where authors feel like they should not only publicly declare their innocence, but be afraid if they don't.

The next step is signaling out the authors, like me, who didn't sign the petition. It's my guess there are many people pouring over my blogs and reviews, desperate to dig up something to discredit or humiliate me with.

That's the type of behavior mob mentality fosters. And in my humble opinion, that's worse than buying reviews.

Alan Spade said...

"That's the type of behavior mob mentality fosters. And in my humble opinion, that's worse than buying reviews."

Yes. And when we focus on each other, that distract us from adressing the other problems in the publishing industry (as Bob stated in his commentary). And from writing.

Joe Konrath said...

If that's your position then no one should ever say anything about anything because no one can pass the purity test; Woodward and Bernstein should have let the Watergate burglary go because maybe one of them shoplifted a candy bar as a kid.

I think the glass houses/throw stones analogy is a good one, as is "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" and "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

However, I also believe that it is vitally important for good people to do something.

I've read a lot of posts about this, all expressing vehement outrage, and it has culminated in a poorly worded petition of ethics.

This concerns me, because I have a good idea what will happen next if the mod is not dispelled.

It starts with more hunting down sock puppets and phony reviews. Guilty people will be caught, sure. But innocent people will also be accused, and hurt. And the lines of right and wrong will be even more blurred than they currently are.

This may be an attempt by the majority to remind the world that we should all play nice. I agree with that.

I don't agree with branding an A on the forehead of an adulterer. I don't agree that innocent people be coerced into proclaiming their innocence out of fear. I haven't appointed anyone to be Grand Inquisitor.

This will blow over, like controversy always does. We'll have to wait and see how many innocent people get hurt before it does.

Boris Starling said...

I see this as two almost separate issues rather than one.

Firstly, giving yourself 5-star reviews under different names. Wrong? Yes. But if we're being honest, not a million miles away from asking your friends and family to write you good reviews, and indeed not a million miles away from your publishers paying a bookstore to put your book in a promotion or paying amazon to put it on their welcome page. Bookstores and amazon don't say 'the publisher paid us to put these titles front and centre.' Friends don't end their review saying 'I've known the author since we were five.' And in any case, when I read 5-star reviews on amazon or goodreads or wherever, I factor in a certain amount of this anyway. I presume that some reviews are by the author's friends rather than that all of them are written by total strangers.

Second issue. Trashing another author under a false name. Spiteful, cowardly, petty. Wrong in every single way. I didn't (until last week) factor in a similar level of bullshit to 1-star reviews as I do to 5s. If I see a 1-star review which is well-written, and which contains no obvious beef with the author per se, I tend to take that as genuine. It might affect my decision to buy the book, it might not. But everyone in this game is just trying to make a living. If you're trying to trash someone else's work without meaning it, and without having the balls to do it under your own name, you're a 24-carat asshole.

I don't really mind if someone buys another author's book because of a false review. I sure as hell mind if someone doesn't buy one of mine because of a false one.

Jude Hardin said...

Jude--good distinction that the Vine reviewers aren't paid, but don't publishers pay to have their books in the program? And of course, Amazon puts the books they publish (AmazonEncore, etc) in the program. So I don't like it because it gives an advantage to the big publishers and to Amazon Publishing.

I didn't know that publishers pay to have their books in the program. Do they? I was under the impression that the program is by invitation, and that the vendors provide free products in exchange for customer reviews.

But of course there are some advantages to signing with a publisher. I signed with Thomas and Mercer for my Nicholas Colt series because they can market the books better than I could ever hope to. That's one of the reasons, anyway. There's also an advance, professional cover art, professional editing, copy editing, proofreading...

So yeah, there are some advantages to being with a publisher. If you like the advantages enough, you find an agent and start submitting.

Ty Johnston said...

It's gonna get worse. Watch.

Truer words have not be spoken. I've been watching this whole scenario for what seems a few weeks now. No, not any one specific author, but a half dozen or so who have been publicly called out of late for one alleged sin or another. From what I can tell, the British press is so far hitting this harder than the American media, but I expect that to change.

Joe Konrath said...

I sure as hell mind if someone doesn't buy one of mine because of a false one.

I don't condone sock puppets, and I don't leave false reviews.

That said, have you ever bought a review even after reading the 1 star reviews?

Almost every item on Amazon.com has some 1 star reviews, just as they all have 5 star reviews.

Assuming there are other people who shop like me, reviews are only one factor I consider before buying, and I weigh them case by case. I have 1 star reviews on all of my books. That doesn't stop people from continuing to buy them.

We need to give readers a little more credit.

Jude Hardin said...

I don't agree with branding an A on the forehead of an adulterer. I don't agree that innocent people be coerced into proclaiming their innocence out of fear.

Exactly. Well said, Joe.

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

Love the way this one sneaks up on you... I was reading through #1, okay, #2, never done that, #3, I'm in the clear, phew... then they got ridiculouser and ridiculouser. Good one, Joe!

I have heard folks (before this latest brouhaha broke out) saying that indie writers should never let friends review their books, only strangers. Of course, without a fan or friend to start the review process, most new books would never get any reviews at all.

Keep on speaking out, Joe.

Graham Smith said...

As a reviewer for Crimesquad.com myself I have been watching all this unfold with a growing sense of disheartenment.

Reviews from all sources are now suspect in the public eye.

I neither receive nor ask for payment for my reviews. If I have nothing nice to say then I say nothing. I am a FAN and ENTHUSIAST of and for crime fiction. Nothing more nothing less. I have met most of the people at the forefront of this storm and cannot believe the shitstorm which has developed.

Apologies have been offered and accepted.

Two things above all others get me wound up.
1) Don't waste time slagging others when you can be writing YOUR next book.
2) Sockpuppets are for kids. Grow up.

Anonymous said...

Keep in perspective that the underlying thing being sold is a BOOK, not a review, or a person. In purchasing that book (a form of entertainment), sure, the reader can look at the anonymous reviews, almost all of which are written under some fake/code name, but we all know those are subject to being gamed by authors, friends, publishers, trolls, haters, stupids, and anyone and everyone who has their own agenda for posting a good, bad or indifferent review, whether they’ve read the book or not.

In purchasing the BOOK, the buyer can look at the cover, title, author name, product description, editorial reviews and, most importantly, can pull the book up and read a lengthy sample. None of those can be gamed. If the reader then spends some money on the book (usually minimal money in the case of indies) and doesn’t like the book, it can be returned for a full refund, no questions asked. The right to get a refund can’t be gamed either.

If the world is shattering, I personally don’t see it.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Joe said: "I invite all to show me how these don't apply to this situation:

Mobbing

Circle jerking

Sanctimony"

Personally, I can't. I find the mob mentality in this situation alarming and disheartening. Worse, people urging reason seem to be pissing into the wind.

Sock puppets and paying for reviews are unfortunately practices but 1) hardly new and 2) not even close to confined to indie authors. People need to get some a sense of proportion but I'm not holding my breath for it to happen any time soon.

Anonymous said...

Joe said:

"That said, have you ever bought a review even after reading the 1 star reviews?"

Amazon list their books according to "average" reviews so it's easy to miss the bad ones.

If you didn't read all the reviews maybe you'd end up with a 1 star book without realizing it.

If you bought it intentionally, it might have been because of some other reason. Personal recommendations are often good. Media interviews can also shift a lot of books. Not the indie author necessarily (E L James excepted they rarely appear on mainstream shows) but those going the traditional route.

Now that we know about the author scam, it would be wise to take those 1 star reviews more seriously if they seem to be well written and well reasoned.

I agree with Joe that author blurbs can be valueless. Thanks to Google it's easy to see which authors are praising each other in a tit for tat fashion on blogs, forewords and blurbs. Those are easily ignored.

But the best defense against a bad book is the free sample that Amazon offer. If you enjoyed that, you'll probably enjoy the rest of it.



Joe Konrath said...

Heh heh. Obviously I meant "bought a book" not "bought a review."

Joe Konrath said...

Heh heh. Obviously I meant "bought a book" not "bought a review."

1001 Secrets of Successful Writers said...

Thanks for such a well balanced posting on this issue. Most of the authors on that list - if not all - have had their publishers pay for reviews. Most, if not all, have had their publishers send free copies of their books to reviewers. That's called a bribe. They should look up the definition in a dictionary.

The 'review' system on Amazon is basically a joke. Anyone can post anything - and they do. Where's the evidence they've even read the book?

I don't need a readers review to decide if I want to read a book. All I want is a blurb and a scan of the first few pages.

This whole issue can be very easily settled by Amazon and other sites by simply stating at the top of the reader reviews: "The statements below may not be geniune." Easy.

Now I'm getting back to my writing.

Darrell Pitt.

Alan Tucker said...

Just wanted to thank you for the post, Joe. You made me take a long look at my own feelings on this issue and understand that McCarthyism is, unfortunately, still alive and well.

I believe the reason reality TV is so popular is that so many people want to have something to point at and say, "Hey, I'm not as bad as those people!"

Joe Konrath said...

I believe the reason reality TV is so popular is that so many people want to have something to point at and say, "Hey, I'm not as bad as those people!"

Heh heh. I've always had a problem with critics, as a breed. The need to tear down someone else's hard work is an odd one. The Internet, which is buffered and anonymous, makes it very easy to cut someone down.

All of these folks giving Locke and Ellory and Leather 1 star reviews without having read the books? Fail, and hypocritical to the max.

But part of living in a free society with a free Internet is putting up with flame wars and sock puppets and trolls and anonymous pinheads and 1 star reviews from people who didn't read the book.

I don't like it, but I prefer it to an Internet that is policed by those who wish to impose their moral standards upon me.

My immediate reaction to this whole thing was the same (I'm sure) as many others. I went to Amazon, looked at all the reviews I've written, and tried to see if I could spot anything unethical lest the dudgeon mob descend.

Now if I were some sock puppeteer leaving phony 1 star reviews, that sort of pressure is a good thing. But I'm not. I review things I like, using my real name. At the same time, I thought "I don't want this mob coming after me."

My guess is others felt that way too. And that some people signed that petition to keep the mob at bay.

That made me angry. Innocent people being afraid is a bad thing. Hence this blog post.

TeriB said...

Well, I've called bullshit on one 'Amazon 500' ad one 'Amazon 50' reviewers for giving 5 star reviews to books that were absolutely awful. They raved about these books, never once mentioning any of their many flaws, including awkward writing and dense editing and grammatical errors.

I give more weight to the critical reviews now - a well-considered, thoughtful critical review is more likely to give me an idea of whether I will enjoy a book, what the flaws might be and whether I will mind them or not.

Kim Mullican said...

It's so difficult for a new author to know what to do. There's so much conflicting information out there. I just had this very discussion with a fellow writer TODAY!

So I decided to keep writing books. Let the chips fall where they may. I'm happy to report I can now afford to go to Burger King and take a date! a/k/a sales are up!

Ron Edison said...

I’m not endorsing blatant buying and selling reviews, but let’s face it, for the most part, what little book advertising there is consists of showing the cover with an announcer reading the blurbs and cover copy. Reviews are the real currency of book advertising, and since when has advertising been honest? Actors are hired pretending to be real people who’ve used the product and recite scripted lines singing its praises. Is that any more honorable than the NYT’s reviews-for-hire?

Anonymous said...

Um ... what about this service?

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/06/interview-with-catherine-macdonald-from.html

Joe Konrath said...

Um ... what about this service?

Why post anonymously? The post is at:

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/06/interview-with-catherine-macdonald-from.html

Book Rooster was (and maybe still is--dunno if it is still around) a service where an aggregation dolled out free books to reviewers--the same thing a publicist does. So we're clear, the reviewers weren't being paid. There is an interesting discussion of ethics in the comments.

The owner of Book Rooster let me try it for free, and I did get some reviews. I never paid for the service, but here are some of the terrible, underhanded, loathsome things I have done:

Emailed people and gave them free books to review. Which is what publishers do. Publishers send Harriet Klasner free books, for heaven sake.

Asked on my blog and newsletter if people wanted advance copies of my books for review.

Whenever I get fanmail, I send them a thank you, and say it would be great if they reviewed the book.

I've mailed out galleys to be reviewed.

Lessee, what other nefarious acts have I committed?

I once had dinner with a reviewer at a conference, and paid for it. (If memory serves it was a bunch of authors and we all chipped in.)

I bought an ad in a magazine that reviewed me (though my ad was years after the review, and I also contributed articles to this magazine, Crimespree.)

In short, I've done exactly the same thing publishers have done to promote my books. And done so without guilt. And I'd do it all again. And thousands of other authors have done the same thing, but in this climate of witch hunting fear, I'd be surprised if any admitted to it.

That's okay. I've been a pariah for years.

But it's a damn shame when good people have to defend themselves to anonymous pinheads.

Joe Konrath said...

Reviews are the real currency of book advertising, and since when has advertising been honest?

I agree. I also believe they are about as successful as advertising in selling stuff. By which I mean: not very successful.

I don't buy much stuff because I saw an ad. And I don't buy much stuff because it has five star reviews.

Joe Konrath said...

Also, after rereading the Book Rooster blog, I forgot to mention that reviewers for Book Rooster always disclose they got the book for free.

That's something I try to do when I review a friend.

W. Dean said...

Joe writes:

Or how about an article supporting the DOJ suit? I can't recall anyone in the mainstream media that has done so, even though collusive price-fixing has already been settled in three of the six complaints.

Bob writes:

I've been laughing at this whole thing. Everyone is so focused on this, while ignoring the now 79 million three publishers have to pay out to several states because they ripped readers off. Why is no one up in arms about this? It's a lot bigger than someone buying reviews.

There are thousands of children starving in Africa and you're worried about a few people getting ripped off on book prices? Where are your priorities! Now you’re the navel gazers. But that’s only because anyone can play at this game.

Seriously, the recent revelations are one more nail in the coffin of the customer review systems that the little fish depend on for lunch. And the credibility of their hard-earned reviews just went a little further out the window. So why wouldn’t they be defensive? Why wouldn’t they come up with some kind of over-the-top ethical pledge? They’d be crazy to sit by and let the last bit of air hiss out of what they perceive as their only means of discoverability.

Besides, Bob, it’s easy to laugh and take the high road when you’re already established. The credibility of the system won’t affect you (or Joe) all that much. But like I said, its demise will hurt those with the most to gain from it.

Barry Eisler said...

I just posted this update to my blog post. The links got stripped out here; for anyone whose curious, you can find it at:

http://barryeisler.blogspot.com/2012/09/and-why-beholdest-thou-mote-in-thy.html

Almost immediately after putting my name to it (with reservations and a link to this blog post, for what that's worth), I've been feeling increasingly uneasy at the way people are rushing to ostentatiously demonstrate their GoodThink at NSPHP.

I've found myself thinking about what it must have been like to be in Congress at the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, or after 9/11 when the Patriot Act and Iraq War Resolution were passed. Too many scared and angry people, too many people afraid of being accused of not supporting the ends because they couldn't condone the means. Too many people acting in haste and not sufficiently in touch with their real motivations.

(The critical difference, of course, being... what did Henry Kissinger say when asked why academic politics are so vicious? "Because the stakes are so small.")

Hoping to foster a bit more reflection, I posted at NSPHP the following video. The moderators removed it (explaining publicly that they did so because they want the comment section to be only for signatures).

Although I think it would have been useful for the NSPHP site to note in advance that the comment section is only for signatures, I respect the right of the moderators to run the site however and for whatever purpose they wish. But given everything else I've discussed here; given what I've seen since; and given my increasing concern about the applicability of the Two Minutes Hate, I've come to believe I made my close call in the wrong direction. NSPHP has plenty of engine; what it really needs, I think, is more brakes. Had I thought of this a little earlier, I would have made the right call the first time around. But better late than never. I've asked the moderators to remove my signature. I think I can better serve authors and readers with disinterested individual commentary than by being just another Me Too.

P.S. Power said...

Still, don't be a jerk and sabotage other people. I don't want a witch hunt, but that's obnoxious and forces otherwise good people to respond with positive fake reviews to keep from sinking.

Do some people start out stacking the review deck in their own favor? Sure they do.

I don't care.

Five stars is just about the same if it's ten reviews getting it for you, or five hundred. If you think it makes you look better, knock yourself out.

But stacking fake reviews to gain a better position than someone else is just creepy, and I don't care what Joe says on that score.

I think we do need to remind people that things like that are wrong and to cut it out.

Sure, Joe wasn't saying you should cheat, I got that message clearly enough. But how many people are reading about all this and going back to work in the morning thinking... "Hmmmm you know if I can get rid of only five books or so I can make that top 100 list in my genre..."

Please don't do it. Please.

It just contributes to hard feelings and won't help you at all. Not even in the short run.

If you want to do well, just write good books and do it often. Don't attack others for doing well.

Joe Konrath said...

If you want to do well, just write good books and do it often. Don't attack others for doing well.

I couldn't agree more. Which is why I don't attack others, don't write bad reviews, and don't condone sock puppets.

Treat people like you want to be treated.

Joe Konrath said...

Enjoyed this take:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/9520244/Ignore-the-sock-puppets-they-wont-bite-you.html

Broken Yogi said...

Ron wrote:

"Reviews are the real currency of book advertising, and since when has advertising been honest? Actors are hired pretending to be real people who’ve used the product and recite scripted lines singing its praises. Is that any more honorable than the NYT’s reviews-for-hire?"

Yes, it is, because everyone knows that TV commercials are made by hired directors, actors, etc. Unless they explicitly say so.

Whereas customer book reviews on Amazon and other sites are supposed to be written by real customers, and everyone assumes that's the case, unless they explicitly say so. Which is why I think everyone should explicitly disclose in their review if they have been paid or if they have a personal relationship to the author. Then we know we are getting an ad, rather than a genuine customer review.

We all know what ads are. Some are useful, some not. But these fake reviews are insidious because they are pretending not to be ads. So, yeah, they are way worse, unless they disclose their source.

Joe Konrath said...

Which is why I think everyone should explicitly disclose in their review if they have been paid or if they have a personal relationship to the author. Then we know we are getting an ad, rather than a genuine customer review.

Hold it right there, Yogi.

Something not brought up with all the Locke hullabaloo was the fact that some of those paid reviewers no doubt enjoyed the books.

I review my peers, some of whom are friends. I genuinely like their books, and can ably defend why I enjoy them. I am not an ad or a shill. I'm a fan.

Go read my Bookrooster blog, and look at the reviews I got. I found them to be just as honest as reviews I'd gotten without asking. In fact, I can recall getting 1 star reviews when asking for reviews, because I always specified I wanted people to be honest.

All reviews are suspect, because all are subjective, and few people are professional critics who know how to capably defend their opinions.

I don't mind disclosing relationships, but those that don't doesn't mean they are truly dishonest.

Melanie Walsh said...

It certainly is an interesting issue, controversial and suddenly topical despite the fact that it has been going on for decades, or longer. Most of what we've read on gaming or sock puppetry, until now, has been aimed at independent authors, so to that extent only, it is good to see that it has been exposed in traditional publishing circles for what it is.

We obviously don't agree with lynching, ever, and in particular, authors trashing other authors especially 'under cover', is not acceptable and unprofessional. Sadly, it happens A LOT, especially on Amazon.com.

We believe the only solution to the entire problem is to do away with anonymous and pen name reviews; if you're not prepared to stand by your review, don't write it.

Joe Konrath said...

We believe the only solution to the entire problem is to do away with anonymous and pen name reviews; if you're not prepared to stand by your review, don't write it.

Amazon doesn't allow anonymous or pen name reviews. To leave a review you have to have a verified purchase, which means a real name and credit card info. It was different a while ago, but things have changed.

Corflute Signs China said...

hmm..exactly..! whatever we write, we have to prepared to stand by our review.

Joe Konrath said...

Call me a trouble maker, but part of me wants to go on Amazon and post this review--

"Five stars! Best book ever! I can't wait to read everything else by this author! My highest recommendation!"

--on every single book written by every single author who signed the NSPHP petition.

Mischievous nonviolent protest. But I'm pretty sure I'd be kicked off of Amazon pretty quick due to the resultant complaints.

Still, I think it would be funny as hell.

MJ Ware said...

I've been following the blog for a couple years now and one thing I've noticed is that with Joe it always seem to come back to masturbation?

What's up with that, Joe? Umm, never mind.

Personally, I don't see why everyone is picking on a small fish. How about the big publishers that send out ARC's to blogs that only ever post 5-star reviews?
I see these things re-posted on Amazon all the time.

Joe Konrath said...

I've been following the blog for a couple years now and one thing I've noticed is that with Joe it always seem to come back to masturbation?

It's because I like to take matters into my own hands.

Mark Asher said...

I haven't read all the comments but I will say this: if you love to read and you love books, only post legitimate reviews that look at the flaws as well as the good points.

Be of service to the reader, not other writers. Be of service to the written word.

Review the book and tell us about the book. Don't tell us how much you like the writer's work without talking about the specific book being reviewed. Don't cut and paste the same one paragraph review over and over for each writer's books because you like the writer. Give each book a real review that talks about that book.

Why not do better than the NY publishing machine? Why just blurb each other's books and give them five stars because that's what the NY publishers print on the jackets of their books.

Think of the reader, not the writer, not your friend. You were all readers before you were writers. Give the reader a real review. Don't excuse yourself by saying everyone else does it this way.

And please don't say you only give five stars or else you don't post a review. How lame. How kissing up to one another.

chris said...

I'm all for gaining an advantage in business and that's what many authors/publishers were doing using fake reviews.

Good on them.

But that's not really the issue here for me. Many of us knew exactly how to get those reviews but we chose not to. We did the usual thing that all authors discuss - we reciprocated reviews with fellow authors, we hit up friends and family and we even posted one from our own account for our piss-poor performing titles.

But the purchasing of reviews on the scale that has been suggested in the articles around the net is a different beast.

Why?

Because no one wanted to talk about it. It was the dirty little secret. A marketing advantage that certain authors/publishers didn't want to give away to all and sundry.

Locke didn't say in his marketing book... "Oh, and I guess I should mention that I also bought a shit load of reviews."

Nor did any of the successful authors on the forums ever mentioned that fake review services were helping their titles, nor did the bloggers who were already using the services available.

Everyone was silent...

Why?

Because they knew it was a fucking low act and not something you would want to own up to. It was easy to say, "I got my family to write the obligatory 5 star reviews.". But it's not so easy to own up to being the central part of a scam to take advantage of consumers.

Personally, I didn't buy any reviews back then.

But I bought a bunch of them yesterday!

Joe Konrath said...

And please don't say you only give five stars or else you don't post a review. How lame. How kissing up to one another.

I only post positive reviews or I don't post.

As a writer, I recognize the effort that goes into writing. When someone does well, I say "atta boy" like I would if we were both on the same baseball team and they just made a great play.

If someone doesn't do well, I don't bitch them out in public.

I've never blurbed, or reviewed, a book I didn't read. But I have refused to blurb or review books because I didn't like them and didn't want to be negative.

Maybe that makes me lame, but I don't do things for the approval of others, or because I fear the disapproval of others.

Broken Yogi said...

Joe,

"I don't mind disclosing relationships, but those that don't doesn't mean they are truly dishonest."

Let the reader decide that for themselves.

I agree that some ads are quite good and even convincing, even when we know they are paid for and designed to sell us something. Nothing wrong with selling a product that's worth buying, and explaining just why you should buy it. But the reader should know that's what's up, and factor that into his appreciation of the ad.

If the reader/consumer is told that the review is paid for, or by someone who knows the author, then they can figure that into their evaluation of the review. It doesn't mean a positive review is bogus, it just means we should factor in that information. Good ads have real marketing value, even when we know they are paid for. So there's really no reason to be deceptive, and pretend the review is anything more than a paid ad, if that's the case.

The problem is that deceptive reviewers who hide their relationship to the author are trying to capitalize on the ignorance of those who think the review is unbiased, and not an ad at all. You can't get away with that with a print or TV ad. No one is foolish enough to imagine that someone would pay for such a thing out of the goodness of their heart. But an online review at Amazon is presumed to be just that - something one writes out of the goodness of their heart, rather than for money or out of loyalty to a friend or relative. It's that added authenticity that the deceptive review is trying to capitalize on. So disclosure doesn't take anything away from the positive review itself, it merely places it in its proper context. It could still be convincing, if well written and showing a real appreciation for the value of the book, rather than just the relationship to the author.

Melissa said...

Well said and my thoughts exactly. Lately, I feel like some of the things going in writers' circles has been utterly absurd and I wonder if some people live on a different planet to me. A lot of people getting worked up over not very much these past few months. I agree that authors should concentrate on writing drama inside their novels, not creating drama on the internet.

Broken Yogi said...

Joe,

I don't want to leave the impression that I think anyone who has posted a review without disclosing their relationship to the author is dishonest.

What I'm suggesting is that if we want to create a broad, widely acceptable solution to this whole ethical problem that most everyone could agree on, it's that we should all start disclosing these things whenever we write reviews.

Like you and Barry, I don't really like either the righteousness of tone or the solution in this petition. "Just say no" is not a solution. I don't think we can eliminate friend, relative, and business associate reviews, nor should we. Even paid reviews are a long standing tradition in the publishing industry. I don't think that has to change. I'm just suggesting that what could reasonably be expected to change is that it become widely, even universally accepted as a standard practice throughout the industry that any such connection to the author should be disclosed.

No big deal, I think. It leaves all those questions of dishonesty out in the open, for the reader to decide for himself, just as we do every time we hear or see an ad for anything. That, to me, resolves the ethical issues, and still lets the sincere review by a friend stand. It even lets paid reviews stand. It's no longer dishonest, if it's disclosed.

We don't need long-winded speeches by self-righteous poseurs, or complicated rules of what we can or can't do. We just need honest disclosure. And we need that to become an accepted, standard practice that everyone knows about and follows. Why would anyone even object to it, unless they really were trying to be dishonest?

Archangel said...

it's not 'kissing up' to only give sincere 5 star reviews. It means you look to praise or lift what you like a lot. Gangsters and saints have similar impulses.

Joe Konrath said...

The problem is that deceptive reviewers who hide their relationship to the author are trying to capitalize on the ignorance of those who think the review is unbiased, and not an ad at all.

Allow me to be clear that I don't approve of deception. But caveat emptor. I don't know of any book buyer so naive that they automatically take all reviews as gospel truth. It is pretty easy to spot deceptive reviews. That's why it is easy to discover sock puppets on Amazon. Look for positive or negative reviews, click on the reviewer, see what else they've reviewed.

A reviewer who posts a lot of positive reviews of one specific author, and negative reviews of everyone else, can easily be deemed suspicious. So can people who only review one title, or titles by one author, or only 1 star reviews.

Reviews don't make people buy books. Other factors are involved in purchase. And more importantly, reviews can't make a reader enjoy a book. If a reader hates a book and feels duped, they can return it for a full refund and post a 1 star review.

I don't see a lot of people being harmed here. Including those who trash other authors.

Look, I'm regularly trashed all over the world wide web. People hate my books. Hate my blog posts. Hate me. I'd assume some post anonymously or use sock puppets (I never checked because I don't read my own reviews). If some pinhead author hates me so much they need to insult me publicly, that's the price all public figures pay.

Again, I disapprove of it. Especially when it is done to authors with small sales and not many reviews. It's a shitty thing to do.

But it doesn't justify witch hunting. And I'm not convinced it is as harmful as everyone wants to believe.

I also agree that disclosure is a good thing. But should it be mandatory? I dunno. Freedom of speech allows anonymity. Yes, it means that assholes can flourish, which I don't like. But the whole point of free speech is to protect what we don't like.

Joe Konrath said...

Lately, I feel like some of the things going in writers' circles has been utterly absurd and I wonder if some people live on a different planet to me.

I agree. Absolute Write used to be helpful. Now it's laughable. Twitter is overrun by guys who like to get off by calling people names and then back slap each other.

If you ever call someone a name on Twitter, that name applies to you.

I like some blogs--Passive Guy, David Gaughran, Kris Rusch, Mike Stakpole, Bob Mayer, Dean Wesley Smith, and a few others. But they are outnumbered by pinheads spewing bad advice and insults.

I'm widely disliked. Yet no one even tries to debate the points I make. Anon posters here will hurl insults, cherry-pick, misquote, quote out of context, and use fallacy after fallacy in sad attempts to engage me.

I've practically begged to be fisked. Someone please take something I write and refute it line by line, point by point. I'd welcome that kind of discourse.

Hasn't happened. Which is kind of sad. All that anger leveled toward me, and the best argument against me is disliking my tone.

chris said...

I can't wait to see what happens over the next few months.

People weren't just buying reviews to mislead the general public to purchase a well-liked work. It was about manipulating Amazon's ranking system.

If Amazon doesn't catch this then you'd be a fool not to take advantage. It would be akin to not marketing your book. Or putting out there with no cover.

If the game is gaming the system... you gotta game it.

Which is really sad.

Sasha said...

I think reviews do matter, especially for new authors and I agree with the NSPHP idea that genuine consumer reviews could drown out shills and sockpuppets if people reviewed in greater numbers.

I read somewhere (Michael Alvear's book?) that only 1% (or 0.1%, can't remember) of readers leave a review on Amazon. I suspect a lot of people don't realise how valuable their review would be and they perhaps think it would be time-consuming to do.

I think it's a poor feature of Kindle that at the end of a book, you can rate the book but can only "share" that rating (presumably this is some Facebook thing) rather than have that rating upload onto the Amazon page. What a waste of an opportunity for verifiable, give-with-a-click, high-volume customer feedback!

Could authors with some clout with Amazon (Joe? Barry?) suggest to Amazon that end-of-book Kindle ratings should upload direct to the product page, as an additional option, if they agree that's a good idea?

Joe Konrath said...

I agree with the NSPHP idea that genuine consumer reviews could drown out shills and sockpuppets if people reviewed in greater numbers.

Really? That's one of the things I didn't like. Complaining that authors are gaming the review system, and then using that same blog to beg for reviews, strikes me as a bit hypocritical. Or if not hypocritical, than at least slightly unseemly.

But I like your idea about being able to review at the end of a Kindle ebook and have it uploaded to the website, and I'll pass that along to Amazon. Recently I've been trying to get them to adjust their location number so they finish when the story ends, rather than finish when the back matter ends. Too many ebooks have back matter (excerpts, interviews, bibliographies, etc.) and when readers are expecting 5% more story but instead get extras, they complain.

I'd hate to get rid of bonus material, so I think having two completion bars would solve this issue.

Sasha said...

"Really? That's one of the things I didn't like. Complaining that authors are gaming the review system, and then using that same blog to beg for reviews, strikes me as a bit hypocritical. Or if not hypocritical, than at least slightly unseemly."

I don't see the hypocrisy there, or any conflict between the two ideas. They're saying it's wrong to game the review system by posting vested-interest reviews (shills, sockpuppet attacks on other authors) and saying that the solution is to drown these out with non-vested interest reviews from customers with no axe to grind, just an honest opinion to offer about the book they've read. They're not begging for favourable reviews, they're begging for honest reviews. I really don't see a problem with that - indeed, a culture among readers that they should post reviews of books would be a good thing if they did it in sufficient numbers to drown out the dishonest stuff.

"But I like your idea about being able to review at the end of a Kindle ebook and have it uploaded to the website, and I'll pass that along to Amazon."

Thanks, Joe, that would be great - and I agree about the placement in relation to the back matter.

Adam Pepper said...

Locke put out a book that he knew was a crock just to make a few bucks off the backs and dreams of those who admired him and aspired to be like him. Call me sanctimonious but in my book that's a lousy thing to do.

P.S. Power said...

I know that I should ignore the reviews totally, but being kind of new to writing a perverse little part of my soul calls to me and seems to require I look anyway.

It's a bad habit, since all it does is make me want to not write.

Don't get me wrong, the good reviews are good and more plentiful (which has helped me keep going!) but the negative ones have so much more impact on my.

I've lost entire days of writing, feeling bummed out over obviously fake one star reviews.

Even knowing that they are, most probably sock-puppets. It leaves me worrying why someone would bother to attack a person that has only been an author for nine months.

Then I get over it and get back to work, but it isn't all that pleasant.

So I guess I have to start ignoring reviews like the pro's do, since this is my living now.

Joe Brewster said...

If there is no Zero Sum involved in book sales why should it matter how anyone sells their books--ethical or not? Or how many they sell?

All of this should be moot.

Jim Self said...

Joe sez:
"The next step is signaling out the authors, like me, who didn't sign the petition. It's my guess there are many people pouring over my blogs and reviews, desperate to dig up something to discredit or humiliate me with.

That's the type of behavior mob mentality fosters. And in my humble opinion, that's worse than buying reviews."

I think I can see your point more clearly now. And I agree 100%.

I had to threaten family members to prevent them from leaving reviews on my first book, and one of them ignored me and did it anyway. They didn't understand how scummy it could make me look, but I'm glad I stopped them.

I think the next step on the part of review mills is to start leaving unsolicited fake reviews on books by authors like you, Joe, and then saying, "See? These kinds of reviews show up everywhere. Just go with it."

Joe Konrath said...

They're not begging for favourable reviews, they're begging for honest reviews.

That's what Locke wanted. Honest reviews. But it is different because he paid for them? Surely you see the slippery slope I wrote about here.

Locke put out a book that he knew was a crock just to make a few bucks off the backs and dreams of those who admired him and aspired to be like him.

You think? I'd put my money on Locke writing that book because he believed in himself and wanted to share the secrets to his extraordinary success.

I've spoken with Locke at length. He's not motivated by money, because he already has money. One of the reasons he was fine with the 99 cent price point for full length novels.

I've lost entire days of writing, feeling bummed out over obviously fake one star reviews.

One of the greatest journeys in life is overcoming insecurity and learning to truly not give a shit.

Is there is no Zero Sum involved in book sales why should it matter how anyone sells their books--ethical or not? Or how many they sell? All of this should be moot.

Because we live in a world where we are obsessed with what other people are doing.

Why the fuck would any rational person want to ban gay marriage? How is it anyone's business but the couple who wants to marry?

And yet people feel the need to judge, condemn, and legislate the behavior of others.


Adam Pepper said...

If that's true, Joe. Why did Locke charge 99 cents for his fiction but five bucks for his "secrets?"

M.P. McDonald said...

Aw, come on, Joe. You know the reason everyone is writing blogs about this...it's because it attracts people to their blog.

I almost did it myself yesterday, but realized I didn't have anything new to add to any of the discussions so I blogged about how reading and teens/children. Guess what? I think I have about ten hits on it. If I would have blogged about the controversy, I'd have more visits.

Tom Maddox said...

"To leave a review you have to have a verified purchase, which means a real name and credit card info. It was different a while ago, but things have changed."

I don't think that is true. I think anyone can still leave reviews regardless of whether they have purchased or not. It is one of my biggest complaints about Amazon's (and similar sites) review system. It is too easy for anyone with a bone to pick to trash a product.

As an example look at the one star reviews for the newly released "No Easy Day". No way that many of these people bought or read the book.

http://www.amazon.com/No-Easy-Day-Firsthand-ebook/product-reviews/B008MG1E4A/ref=cm_cr_pr_hist_1?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addOneStar&showViewpoints=0

If there was one feature I wish amazon would add it would be an option to filter reviews so that I could only see verified purchases.

Fred said...

All's fair in love, war, politics, and writing. How the hell else am I supposed to sell books if I don't rip everyone else's? :)

Sasha said...

"They're not begging for favourable reviews, they're begging for honest reviews.

That's what Locke wanted. Honest reviews. But it is different because he paid for them? Surely you see the slippery slope I wrote about here."

I'm not familiar with the service that Locke paid to get his reviews but if that's what they really do - write honest reviews even though the author is paying them a fee - then there wouldn't be a difference. In practice, I question whether such a service is genuinely unbiased, given that money has changed hands (there is a lot of research in experimental psychology on the nature of perceived social obligation and you can trigger it powerfully with a free pen, let alone a cash fee) and given that the service will want repeat business. I question it - I don't know.

But I don't think that the argument in favour of getting lots of uninvested customers to write reviews rests on their relationship to any other source of reviews on your slippery slope. Surely the ideal review is one from a customer with no vested interest? And so many customers buy any one book that the volume of their reviews could easily drown out reviews from other sources, if customers started taking an interest in that reviewing role.

That seems to me to be win-win. If his customers had bothered to review Locke's books, he wouldn't have had to shell out for reviews. All authors stand to benefit, except those trying to inflate their ratings with shills or those trying to do other authors down with falsely low ratings.

Sasha said...

Tom Maddox said "If there was one feature I wish amazon would add it would be an option to filter reviews so that I could only see verified purchases."

That's a good idea. I put reviews on Amazon of library books I've read as well as books I've bought from Amazon but I agree that reviews from verified purchases have more credibility.

W. Dean said...

Joe writes:
That's what Locke wanted. Honest reviews. But it is different because he paid for them? Surely you see the slippery slope I wrote about here.

So business savvy Locke was at the same time so naive as to believe that a review service had any incentive to give impartial reviews? I find that remarkable. I guess he must’ve suffered a brain-fart that day, missing what's even obvious to business newbies.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

It's because I like to take matters into my own hands.

I usually go for the assist.

David L. Shutter said...

Long thread over at KB on this topic, my 0.02$ just as a reader and consumer.

[i]"Seriously, I have no control over what other people do. If they want to fake their reviews, let them. I for one think readers are SUPER SMART and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out a book sucks."[/i]

While I have a variety of opinions on this topic, none of which I feel a need to spout as they've all been mentioned elsewhere, this is one point I don't think enough people are giving thought to; that readers and the market will sort itself out. Readers and consumers aren't as stupid as a lot of sellers think.

In only the last year I've acquired well over a hundred e-books, most of which I've finished (most have tended to be short) and many I have not, for different dissapointing reasons. I did something for the first time this past week; I clicked and returned an e-book. When I first started finding duds I empathized with the writer, figuring that at .99-2.99$ it was ok to support an indie artist despite not liking their work. After a year and several dozen duds, the time consumption and not the money spent being the dissapointment, my patience has worn out and I won't hesitate to return any book that goes out of it's way to be awful.

Good cover+good blurb+good reviews are what sells e-books (I think, as a reader) especially when it comes down to looking at something new that you weren't already planning to buy. The first two can be had with minimal effort I think. it's not hard to get feedback, suggestions and editorial advice on short blurbs and anyone who doesn't mind spending the dough can get a top shelf cover. That leaves reviews, which we all now know can be suspect.

So you got tricked into buying another dud: hit the con-man scammer or the delusional hack who doesn't take the craft seriously where it hurts: in their royalty statement.

If you think Locke and certain others are scum of the earth con-men then I think you have a right (as a consumer, reader and a writer) to be upset and to speak your mind. Ultimately, I think you should vote with your wallet. You'll send a far stronger message.

If you think Locke and certain others have simply done what NYC have been doing for decades and they only did it within the workings of a new system. That they're "indie-sales heroes" and that their ends justified their means; feel free to say so, but ultimately vote with your wallet.

But all that still leaves out the sock-puppet, rival-flaming types? Well, as much as I agree with Konrath concerning the lynch-mob type activites that are rampant right now, I think that problem is being thoroughly adressed.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I fail to understand why there never seems to be a word about Kirkus, which openly solicits indie authors to buy reviews using their service.

Think about it. Kirkus, one of the leading book reviewers in the world, will review your book for a mere $400+. They make claims that you won't necessarily get a GOOD review, but it seems to me that if they want repeat customers, they might be inclined to look at those books more favorably.

I'm just saying. Then again, they may be true to their word.

If nothing else, however, there's the APPEARANCE of impropriety, yet I haven't heard a peep about this. Ever. And they've been doing it for quite some time now.

Why the double standard?

By the way, do they also charge TRADITIONAL publishers for reviews?



David L. Shutter said...

It's because I like to take matters into my own hands.

I usually go for the assist


LMAO!!

Larry Kollar said...

Amazon doesn't allow anonymous or pen name reviews. To leave a review you have to have a verified purchase, which means a real name and credit card info. It was different a while ago, but things have changed.

Not quite, Joe. You have to have an Amazon account, yes, but you don't have to buy the product in question (book or otherwise) at Amazon to leave a review. They do have an "Amazon Verified Purchase" tag they put on reviews where the person bought the product/through Amazon.

I uploaded my first novel a month ago, and one of its two reviews so far is one I simply couldn't have afforded to buy. The reader "got" what I was doing with the book, spelled it out, and then pointed out a couple flaws I somehow dropped before addressing (dangit!).

The NYT article mentioned that Kirkus has been in business since 1933, and will take your $425 to review your book. But if you're not writing litfic, prepare to get trashed. I wrote a blog post last week about the paid review brouhaha, in which I said I won't do it but I can't really ding other people for what's really a marketing expense. (Although if I found myself unemployed, I'd take $400 to write an honest review, but I'd be more specific about which genres I prefer. :-)

Joe Konrath said...

You have to have an Amazon account, yes, but you don't have to buy the product in question (book or otherwise) at Amazon to leave a review.

That's not what I meant.

I mean you have to buy something in order to leave any reviews or likes or dislikes. You have to have a credit card on file and have made a purchase.

Yvonne Hertzberger said...

You make some good points - and some not-so-good. The one that stands out for me, and that I take exception to, is "When we start turning on our own, ask yourself why." True - yet that is exactly what some of the protest is all about - those that post negative reviews via sock puppets to hurt others in their own field.

The way you place that statement here implies we ought to ignore such behaviour.

Bullshit.

When we, as a society, turn our backs to reprehensible behaviour, we are actually supporting it and allowing it to proliferate. That applies not only to sock puppets, bad reviews or paid reviews, it applies to everything we encounter in life. That is the primary cause of all major conflicts in this world, including WW II and other wars. If we turn our backs at the beginning and refuse to speak out we will lose the power to do so later.

And so I publicly declare myself Sock puppets, paid reviews or unwarranted bad reviews of our fellow writers is reprehensible, unethical and needs to be addressed and stopped. If declaring that I have no paid reviews and will never have any is self-righteous, so be it. I will always stand out against injustice, even when it may cost me. But I sleep well at night.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

While I'm not defending the use of sock puppets, it's not exactly a new practice. Not in publishing, not in movies, not in music (ever hear of payola?), not with your average everyday corporation.

How is a publisher buying front rack placement in a bookstore any different? The only reason these books become the HOT NEW RELEASES is because the publisher paid for the books to be shelved in that particular rack. It has nothing to do with the quality of the book and everything to do with the quality of the dollars the publisher is offering the store in question.

Publishers also pay to have books mentioned in newsletters, etc. How is THAT different?

I've heard of corporations hiring people to pose as everyday consumers on social networks to push products. I've heard of corporations hiring people to go into bars and other places to do the same. I've heard of corporations hiring lackeys to post reviews on Amazon and trash competing products.

None of this makes it right. But it's been the way of the world for quite some time now. Why should any of this be shocking?

Joe Konrath said...

yet that is exactly what some of the protest is all about - those that post negative reviews via sock puppets to hurt others in their own field.

No. That's one person being petty toward another. Not a mob swooping down on an individual. Big difference.

When we, as a society, turn our backs to reprehensible behaviour, we are actually supporting it and allowing it to proliferate.

We are the majority! Let's lynch those who disagree with us! And then let's lynch those who disagree with us lynching people! Then let's lynch those who don't part their hair the right way!

You're not seeing my point for some reason, and I thought I was pretty clear.

I will always stand out against injustice, even when it may cost me.

Actually it costs you nothing, because you have a hysterical mob backing you up.

The ones who go against the mob pay the costs.

I encourage every person to stand up against injustice. But I discourage people from joining groups who seem to bask in the righteous humiliation of others.

Joe Konrath said...

How is a publisher buying front rack placement in a bookstore any different?

Those publishers nurture authors and support culture, Rob. Indie authors are just greedy miscreants.

adan said...

"When honest people get defense, there is something wrong with the world" -

amen

Anonymous said...

"...or proclaim to the world how righteous I am."

Oh give me a fucking break. You do hardly anything BUT proclaim how righteous you are. You have your own hallelujah chorus for fuck's sake.

planetkimsmith said...

Joe, you are a warrior for truth. I am following Joe! Write. Work hard. Care deeply. Never do anything wrong On Purpose. Never hurt anyone on purpose. Ever. I won’t “launch” for many months (followin’ Joe) and I’ve watched this storm- all of it - roiling over my head for two years. I am too wounded to even scrap in this fight… I am so accurately thankful. Joe doesn’t lie, he doesn’t cheat, he doesn’t steal, he tells the truth, he cuts to the bone, he cares deeply, and Joe works his butt off. When I am too frozen with fear, I come here and hear. And, then I’m okay again… and it’s - Followin' Joe. (Still feel you need a cape.)

Anonymous said...

Electronic Code of Federal Regulations
Title 16: Commercial Practices
PART 255—GUIDES CONCERNING USE OF ENDORSEMENTS AND TESTIMONIALS IN ADVERTISING
255.5 Disclosure of material connections.
“When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement ( i.e. , the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed. For example, when an endorser who appears in a television commercial is neither represented in the advertisement as an expert nor is known to a significant portion of the viewing public, then the advertiser should clearly and conspicuously disclose either the payment or promise of compensation prior to and in exchange for the endorsement or the fact that the endorser knew or had reason to know or to believe that if the endorsement favored the advertised product some benefit, such as an appearance on television, would be extended to the endorser.”

Rich Meyer, harbinger of Chaos said...

Personally, I think the whole Amazon policy of allowing anyone who buys SOMETHING once to leave reviews on ANYTHING after that is the problem here.

If you haven't bought the product from Amazon, why should you be able to leave a review on the site?

It's not like, say, Goodreads (a site with its own intrinsic liabilities, of course) that is just a reader forum and everyone should be able to leave reviews on any book.

Add a requirement that all products have to be verified purchases, and maybe that might help things a bit. Though I suppose the deep pockets and obvious mental irregularities of the many of the sock-puppets won't curtail their activities. But maybe it will help a little bit.

Jonathan C. Gillespie said...

I don't think a public, shared decree really means a lot. To be completely Malthusian for a moment -- folks could just sign the promise and then choose not to follow-up on it.

Upset with the controversy in question, I did publicly declare on my bog that I'll never engage in buying reviews -- and a few other practices -- but I was also quick to remind everyone that it was a personal decision on my part, and that I wasn't slamming every activity in my list, or slamming those that participated in them -- just saying I wouldn't engage in the activities. The reader is free to decide if my stance matters or not.

But it matters to me, and that's the most important thing.

That said, while your post is sound and makes a good point, we do have to be careful with being too cavalier and relativistic about this stuff. No one is perfect, but I think we do have a responsibility to do the best we can and not betray readers' trust.

Sasha said...

I was just checking Joe's Newbie's Guide to Publishing to see if Kindle reviews are all verified purchases and they're not, oddly:

http://www.amazon.com/Newbies-Publishing-Everything-Writer-ebook/dp/B003I6496Y/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1346951611&sr=1-1&keywords=konrath+newbie%27s+guide

Does anyone know what "This review is from: The Newbie's Guide to Publishing" means? It's on all the reviews of that book. Is that something that appears on reviews of all Kindle books? Why?

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I think the best way not to betray our readers' trust is to write a damn good book.

Everything else is sideshow bullshit.

Broken Yogi said...

Joe,

"It is pretty easy to spot deceptive reviews. That's why it is easy to discover sock puppets on Amazon. Look for positive or negative reviews, click on the reviewer, see what else they've reviewed."

Joe, I think that's asking too much of most readers. If every review requires a Sherlock Holmes investigation, it destroys the whole purpose of the informal online review system.

And I don't think disclosure should be mandatory. Who would enforce that? It should just be expected, like good manners. I think those who actually do disclose their relationship to the author gain in credibility by the very act. Honesty is the best policy, and we tend to reward people who are honest in their dealings.

"Reviews don't make people buy books. Other factors are involved in purchase."

True, but they do get attention. A book with a lot of positive reviews gets our attention over its rivals with fewer positive reviews. And attention does translate into more sales overall.

"I don't see a lot of people being harmed here. Including those who trash other authors."

This is not the world's most important issue, granted. What I'm worried more about than any individual gaming the system at the expense of others is that the whole review system can be destroyed by a few bad apples. It tends to leave a sense of widespread corruption in the review process that hurts everyone, including honest reviewers and authors.

Which is why I'd like to see authors be allowed to put a statement at the beginning of the review section at Amazon, stating that they don't pay for reviews, and that they ask anyone who knows them who reviews their book should disclose that in the review. Some simple, standard statement to that effect that could be used by every author to disclose their own practices. And sure, even that could be gamed, but the presence of reviews that do indeed disclose relationships to the author will actually make them seem more honest and genuine.

"If some pinhead author hates me so much they need to insult me publicly, that's the price all public figures pay."

Sure, but you're also a born fighter, which most authors are not. We can't expect everyone to be like Joe. At least they spell your name right.

"But it doesn't justify witch hunting."

Agreed. Witch hunting tends to make things worse, while seeming to make them better. That's why I think a generally accepted disclosure policy could work well. If people disclose their practices, no witch hunt. It's hard to even object to paid reviews if that is disclosed. It becomes just another marketing strategy, without any overt deception involved. We don't object to paid ads, do we? Of course not, because the fact that it's paid for is inherent in the ad. A paid review that is disclosed is in the same category. Problem solved, as far as I can see.

W. Dean said...

Rob Gregory Browne writes:
How is a publisher buying front rack placement in a bookstore any different? The only reason these books become the HOT NEW RELEASES is because the publisher paid for the books to be shelved in that particular rack.

It’s hard to believe you don’t know the difference between paying for premium shelf space and paying someone to pose as a satisfied customer. Maybe you should consider that Joe’s slippery slope runs in both directions. You can rationalize anything by playing the “What’s so different about x?” game until you’ve moved your way by increments to the behaviour you want to justify.

None of this makes it right. But it's been the way of the world for quite some time now. Why should any of this be shocking?

Red herring. No one is shocked by bad behaviour; they’re angry because it affects them.

W. Dean said...

Broken Yogi,

While I agree with you generally, I don't really see how the witchhunt characterization applies in this case. The sine qua non of a witchhunt is that there are no witches. In other words, no one has done anything wrong. But that's not true in this case. People did act unethically.

At most it's a case of piling on. But I tend to see this as problem that's been building for some time. People are sick of the BS, and this time the cap finally blew off.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

W. Dean wrote, It’s hard to believe you don’t know the difference between paying for premium shelf space and paying someone to pose as a satisfied customer.

What difference? They're both deceptive. They both lead readers to believe that a book is special in some way. The reviewer praises the book, the bookseller features it as a hot new release.

In both cases, the party doing the promoting is getting paid in some form. So any endorsement is disingenuous at best.

How can we trust "bookseller recommendations" if we know the publisher paid for that? And most readers DON'T know.

I never heard of co-op until I was published. And I have to say, I felt cheated as a reader when I found out about it.

Joe Konrath said...

ENDORSEMENTS AND TESTIMONIALS IN ADVERTISING

I'm pretty sure user reviews aren't considered advertising.

You do hardly anything BUT proclaim how righteous you are.

Really? Then it will be very easy for you to post a few examples, in context, since I do it all the time.

I go after businesses, industries, organizations, and public figures who make public statements. I attack them with facts and logic and good arguments.

Please show me where I declare myself morally superior, and point fingers at peers like the NSPHP petition did.

I was just checking Joe's Newbie's Guide to Publishing to see if Kindle reviews are all verified purchases and they're not, oddly:

The ebook is free on my website, which is where some people download it.

If every review requires a Sherlock Holmes investigation, it destroys the whole purpose of the informal online review system.

So you automatically believe every review you read, automatically agree with it, and automatically buy the product if the review is good?

I'm pretty sure no one does that.

A book with a lot of positive reviews gets our attention over its rivals with fewer positive reviews.

No zero sum, so no rivals. I agree that reviews draw attention to books, which is why everyone solicits reviews. But looking at my own buying habits, reviews aren't that important.

I have no interest in Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey or Harry Potter or Steig Larsson, even though they have thousands of great reviews.

I've also bought things that have gotten many bad reviews.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Joe said, I have no interest in Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey or Harry Potter or Steig Larsson, even though they have thousands of great reviews.

You're missing out on Harry Potter, Joe. Really. Especially the last four books. Truly great books.

That's my review, anyway. Now I'll just keep checking my mail for Ms. Rowling's check.

But seriously, they're great books.

Broken Yogi said...

"While I agree with you generally, I don't really see how the witchhunt characterization applies in this case. The sine qua non of a witchhunt is that there are no witches. In other words, no one has done anything wrong. But that's not true in this case. People did act unethically."

Actually, I think the definition of a witch hunt is to go after a few people, and demonize them, then sacrifice them, so as to relieve the community of its guilty feelings and general anxiety. The crime can be real or imagined, the point is to relieve guilt and restore some feeling of order and righteousness.

As Joe has pointed out, the whole publishing industry has been very shady in regards to reviews and marketing, and so there's a lot of guilt to go around, and to aussage. Witch hunts are not the way to go about that. You target a few guilty people, shame them publically, and then go back to business as usual. It doesn't actually change anything.

But I agree that there really are some guilty people here. It's just far more widespread, and always has been, in the highly incestuous world of publishing, than anyone wants to acknowledge.

Broken Yogi said...

Joe,

"I'm pretty sure user reviews aren't considered advertising."

I think that changes when reviewers are paid by the author. Then it really is a paid ad. It's just that amazon doesn't get paid, the reviewer does. Same thing as far as the reader is concerned.

And let's face it, when you ask a friend or relative to write a positive review, that's also advertising, paid or not. It's part of one's own personal advertising campaign. I don't think that makes it wrong, but I think it ought to be disclosed to the reader.

"So you automatically believe every review you read, automatically agree with it, and automatically buy the product if the review is good?"

It's embarrassing to admit, but yes, I generally do trust people at their word. Of course I don't automatically buy the product, there's other considerations that matter, but it does influence me rather strongly. I think it does with a lot of people. It's Amazon's real strength in marketing I think. Customer reviews are a big part of why I choose one product over another. I've never done a background check on a reviewer, and I've bought thousands of books or other products on Amazon. I doubt most people do.

I understand that your buying habits are different, but to be honest, I think you are the exception (in many ways other than this also). A whole lot of people really do look to reviews and ratings as a significant part of why they get interested in one book over another. It often tips people over the edge to try a new book or author. Which is why people have been paying for reviews. John Locke put tens of thousands of dollars into buying reviews, and obviously it worked for him. And yet, he was ashamed enough not even to mention this strategy in his book on how he made so much money selling ebooks.

Now of course good reviews aren't going to make you run out and buy Harry Potter if that kind of book just doesn't interest you. You know that argument doesn't mean what you think it means. But if you are interested in a particular type of book, good reviews really will sway many, many people.

You're a fiercely independent character, but you have to realize that most people are not. Most people want to know what other people think before they plunge in. They want some sense of social acceptance and acknowledgement, a kind of safety net. Reviews provide that for them. It's human nature. As a writer, you must know that. As a political, opinionated character, it's tempting to think that everyone is like that, but most aren't. You aren't alone, but I would say that you are a rather rare breed. And that's a good thing.

Broken Yogi said...

"It’s hard to believe you don’t know the difference between paying for premium shelf space and paying someone to pose as a satisfied customer."

I have to side with Joe here. It wasn't until well into adulthood that I realized that producers and publishers actually had to pay for shelf space, and that the premium spots commanded more money. I had always presumed that the store put the best and most desirable products in the most prominent locations.

Displaying an item in a prominent location is a form of endorsement. It's saying "this product is worthy of being showcased". That all changes when you find out those locations are for sale, regardless of the quality of the product.

But nowadays, most people know how marketing works.

I would say, however, that personal product reviews have been so popular precisely because they seem to be honest customer responses, and not part of the paid hype of the marketing world. And that's precisely why marketeers (and authors) are trying to game them. People are intensely cynical about marketing, but they trust individuals to be honest. Now, they aren't sure they can even trust individuals. Kind of sad.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Same thing as far as the reader is concerned.

Not QUITE the same. Readers know ads are paid for. Not so with paid reviews.

W. Dean said...

Rob Gregory Browne writes:

What difference? They're both deceptive.

This is a perfect example of that slippery slope of rationalization. Telling your wife she doesn’t look fat in those jeans and phoning in a bomb threat at a daycare are both “deceptive.” But that hardly makes them the same. “Deception” is an abstraction that covers a wide range of behaviour, some of which isn’t immoral or unethical.

Manufacturing hype by calling something “hot” and “new” is marketing. As venal as it is, it’s not the same as getting shills to pose as disinterested customers—much less posting fake one-star reviews on your “competition’s” books.

any endorsement is disingenuous at best

Any endorsement? How is it disingenuous if I write a review of a friend’s book and disclose that in the review? Sure, the reader can’t know whether I’m sincere or not—but then who can know that about anyone?


Broken Yogi,

That’s scapegoating (see Rene Girard, whom you already might have based on your remarks). The point of a witchhunt is that witches don’t exist. A problem of some sort exists and it’s blamed on the witch. There’s no witch here.

As for blaming the “publishing industry,” well, that’s a fashionable excuse trotted out by lawyers and PR firms to diffuse culpability. Bringing everyone else down to the guilty party’s level makes it look like he’s being singled out—that he’s a victim of sorts too. But it’s misdirection, mud in the water. A murderer from a family of them is still a murderer.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

This is a perfect example of that slippery slope of rationalization. Telling your wife she doesn’t look fat in those jeans and phoning in a bomb threat at a daycare are both “deceptive.” But that hardly makes them the same. “Deception” is an abstraction that covers a wide range of behaviour, some of which isn’t immoral or unethical.

First off, I'm not rationalizing any of this behavior. I think both are wrong. I'm merely saying, why are we shocked because it's really nothing new?

Second, your analogy is ridiculous. I think we all know what deception is. There's nothing ambiguous about the word.

Manufacturing hype by calling something “hot” and “new” is marketing.

Absolutely. That's the publisher's job.

But when publishers offer booksellers money above and beyond their cut of the book, in return for pushing certain books as hot and new—AND THE CUSTOMER IS UNAWARE OF THIS ARRANGEMENT (which is most of the time)—that isn't creating hype. That's an outright deception.

The bookseller is a shill just the same as the reviewer for pay. They are both deceiving the potential readers by failing to disclose the fact that money has changed hands in return for the hype.

The easiest test is to go into a bookstore and tell the average reader about the arrangement and ask them if they feel deceived? I don't think many of us would be surprised by the answer.

If there's nothing deceptive about it, why don't the booksellers disclose the fact that they're being paid to push the books? Why don't the publishers disclose it?

As venal as it is, it’s not the same as getting shills to pose as disinterested customers—much less posting fake one-star reviews on your “competition’s” books.

The only difference is the actual method of deception. And suggesting one is less immoral or unethical is pretty silly.

Broken Yogi said...

W. Dean,

A witch hunt is a search for scapegoats, real or imagined. Even when they are real, the point is to sacrifice a few for the sake of the community. There is no meaningful distinction between a witch hunt, and a scapegoating ritual.

For example, the anti-Communist scare of the 1950s has often been called a witch hunt. Not because there were no communists, but because the whole enterprise took on a ritual quality of looking for scapegoats to sacrifice.

Witches are always real to those who hunt them.

Broken Yogi said...

Rob,

"Not QUITE the same. Readers know ads are paid for. Not so with paid reviews."

That's exactly my point, if you read the rest of my comment. Which is why I argue for disclosure, rather than the banning of paid reviews.

Lisa Fender said...

Wow! I am shocked by all this! I am not published yet, but plan to be self-pub the beginning of the year. Thanks for the heads up of what I have to look forward to. This is ridiculous to say the least and I can't believe people stoop this low.I realize there is a lot of competition out there, but to blatantly give another writer a bad review because of competition, I had no idea. Thanks for the information.

pagerd said...

@ Sasha 12:18 pm

>Does anyone know what "This review is from: The Newbie's Guide to Publishing" means? It's on all the reviews of that book. Is that something that appears on reviews of all Kindle books? Why?

It's to let people know what version of a book has been reviewed. If you look at the reviews of a book that has been published in hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, kindle, and audiobook, you'll see the reviews differentiated like this. A problem with typos from bad OCR conversion may occur in the kindle version that wouldn't apply to the other versions of the book. A bad narrator (or good) is a factor in the audiobook alone. The reviews are aggregated because regardless of form factor, the story remains the same.

Robin Page, September 9th

James A. Moore said...

I tend to want to post "Well Said," a lot on your blog. But here, especially, Well said!

C R Myers said...

Yes, well said....as per usual. I must confess to not understanding all the fuss. I don't run my life based on other's choices and opinions and I certainly don't choose my reading material through reading reviews. Reviews are nothing more than opinions...and we all know what opinions are like...and everybody has one. There is a vast different between "judging" and using good judgment. We need less of the former and much more of the latter.

Michelle Hughes said...

Peace, love and chocolate! Seriously what gripes me more than anything is people not seeing this as a business. It may be a labor of love, but it's also hours of hard work and doing whatever it takes to get a product to sell. Don't agree? That's your right, but it won't change my opinion or the fact that I will do whatever's in my BOOKS best interest and that sure doesn't mean listening to people who are perfectly content to throw out moral ethics while their book rankings are sitting at over 100,000.

Sure I have limits on how far I'll go to promote, but those limits are from my personal ideals. If I had listened to certain people I would still be sending out queries to publishers hoping they'd pick up my work! I like being a self-published author, I like knowing that I can do things the way I want them done. Great article!

Michelle - 10 Nights

Vampirique Dezire said...

This was a very insightful post Joe, thank you for sharing it with us. You have now made me want to go and check the reviews I have written for my peers.
Aa a reviewer I only provide my honest opinion of a book. To date I have only given two maybe three bad reviews but not aimed at the author but more at the editor and publisher for allowing the blunders to be published in the first place.
As an employee of a publisher, I organize different people to review our author's books. The only thing I ask from them is complete honesty, whether good or bad and if one of our authors receives a bad review, they wear it. We don't stop the reviewer from reviewing any more of our work as that then would be saying that complete honesty wanted only if it is a good review. Bollocks on that!
Have they targeted a specific genre at all or is it an across the board one?