Posted in Ethics, Publishing, Self-Publishing

Barter, buy or blackmail: The ethics of book reviews

five star 2It matters not whether one of the “big” publishers puts out your book, whether your great-aunt with a penchant for publishing edits and distributes it for you from the trunk of her car, or you publish it electronically all by yourself, if you want people to read your book, you’ll probably want book reviews.

Book reviews, and the concomitant moaning that goes on in writers’ circles about reviewers, has a long and storied history. According to Jane Hu, the term book review first appeared in 1861, but the notion of the review or “criticism” (after all, those who write reviews of books or movies have traditionally been referred to as “critics”) goes back as far as 1661 in Paris.[1]

As Sarah Fay, writing in The Atlantic has said, throughout history book review writers, “seem to delight in publishing manifestos that outline the book review’s shortcomings and inadequacies.”[2] She went on to suggest that book reviews have been criticized as reeking of “mediocrity, elitism, nepotism or all three,” and further that they lack intelligence.  In the current Wild, Wild West world of digital publishing, it has never been truer.  And although as Hu says, “Most often, dissatisfaction with the state of book reviewing has come not from the readers who are the reviewers’ intended audience, but from writers who have felt their work mishandled, unjustly ignored, or cruelly misunderstood,”[3] this too has changed.  Discontent with the reviews is now springing from readers – like me.

Although traditional book reviewers – those who through history largely worked for magazines and newspapers – have been criticized for their overall general meanness, today’s book reviewers seem to have the opposite problem.  According to Amazon, the majority of book reviews are in the four-and-a-half to five out of five range.  How is it possible that so many books are truly worthy of five stars?  Well, they’re not.

Earlier this month, Amazon filed a law suit against four web sites that they believe are producing fraudulent book reviews.  According to a report in Entrepreneur, “The suit alleges that fabricated 4- and 5-star product appraisals dilute Amazon’s brand and negatively impact sellers on its site who don’t subvert the system by paying for fraudulent reviews.”[4]  It is this notion of the fraudulent (read: paid-for) book review that incenses me the most.five star 1

The companies in question just might be ones with whom you have dealt, but I hope not.  It seems that Amazon and its readership are no longer going to stand still and accept that so many books can possibly be as good as they appear to be. But the lack of integrity demonstrated by buying book reviews is only one of the loathsome ways that writers these days (self and traditionally published, mind you) are procuring deceitful reviews.

A writer recently related a story about being approached to do a review.  When the honest review was completed, the writer was informed in no uncertain terms, that anything less than a five-star report would result in one-star reports being posted for her books.  Clearly, no honest review could be forthcoming.

Then there are the writers who approach you with the offer to provide your book with a terrific review – in exchange for one for their books.  Honest?  I think not.

Who suffers in all of this wrong-minded marketing?  The readers.  I can hear writers out there now telling me that readers will, in the end make the decisions.  The problem with that line of thinking is that it smacks of a very utilitarian approach to ethics (i.e. the end justifies the means – in this case, very clearly, they are saying that lying up front is okay if they make a sale.  I beg to disagree), and it fails to recognize that readers will already have purchased god-awful books, spending hard-earned money on crap that could have been avoided if honesty had been forthcoming.

Although I recognize that great reviews are terrific for marketing books, why are so many people afraid of honest reviews?  The reason is probably related to the fact that most people don’t write as well as they think they do (if you haven’t been exposed to this truth, read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well immediately), aren’t interested in hearing negative criticism, or don’t care.  The latter care only that you buy their book and quality be damned.  Maybe readers aren’t going to take it anymore.  Bravo Amazon.

[1] Jane Hu. 2012.  A Short History Of Book Reviewing’s Long Decline. The Awl online. http://www.theawl.com/2012/06/book-reviewings-long-decline

[2] Sarah Fay. 2012. Book Reviews: A Tortured History.  The Atlantic online. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/book-reviews-a-tortured-history/256301/

[3] Jane Hu.

[4] Kim Lachance Shandrow.  April 10, 2015. Amazon Sues Alleged Sellers of Bogus 5-Star Product Reviews. Entrepreneur. http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/244950

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Posted in Book publishers, Publishing, Self-Publishing

The dumbest publishing decision I ever made

dumbI’ve made some great decisions about my writing and publishing through the years, but I have also made some less-than-impressive ones.  I’m going to share with you the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.

Once upon a time…there was a young woman who had wanted to be a writer ever since she read Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca way back in junior high school.  That young woman – me – worked hard at her writing over the years until many years later she actually had enough expertise to write a non-fiction book that she was actually able to sell to a trade publisher.  That was a good decision and allowed me to take off the training wheels.

I happily continued to write (but never left my day job as a communication professor), hone my skills and sell a few more books (six) to a variety of other publishers.  But, like many bona fide non-fiction writers out there (at least that’s what I was told by a tetchy literary agent one time), I wanted to write fiction.  More than that, I wanted to see it published.

Caught by the historical fiction bug, I meticulously researched and wrote a novel about a 12th century Catholic nun in Germany (Hildegard of Bingen if you’ve ever heard of her).  I finished the manuscript and set about finding an agent.  I ran head-long into a wall of rejection, including one from the aforementioned agent who prefaced her rejection by saying, “If I had a dollar for every bona fide non-fiction writer who wants to be a novelist, I’d be rich.”  She wouldn’t even read my fiction.  I suppose I ought to have been flattered that she considered me to be the real deal in non-fiction, but that didn’t support my passion to publish my novel.  So I decided to take a different route.

I researched what was then the budding self-publishing industry.  An entire industry of so-called self-publishing companies was springing up before my very eyes.  One of them – quite new at the time – was one whose name you will know if you’ve dabbled in this area yourself.  It was iUniverse.  I was about to make the worst publishing decision of my life.

The cover I dislike.
The cover I dislike.

I scoured their web site for information about editing, file set-ups, cover design, distribution and marketing.  I knew from experience in traditional publishing that editing was crucial, and that I’d need professional help.  So I selected what I’d now refer to as a supported self-publishing package and knew that Grace Note would be a reality before long.  This much was true.  The process, however, has haunted me for years.

I was assigned a “publishing consultant” who would take me through the editing and production process.  The book was edited, but then I received an email telling me that the book was good enough to be a part of their “editor’s choice” program.  All it needed was a second edit – which would cost more. Then it was chosen for the “rising star” program.  More services required.

Wanting the book to be the best it could be, and perceiving that there might be marketing advantages to the “rising star” program, I agreed.  At the end of the editing process, I had a good product; that much I knew.  Then we were on to production.

The book cover had to be one that their designers produced – they didn’t like my ideas.  In order to remain in this marketing program, I had to agree to that cover.  I always felt uncomfortable about the cover, but I knew that even with traditional publishers, the cover issues could be fraught.  (Read my post What’s in a book cover? (Part 2): The Whole Damn Thing!)  So, I was stuck with this cover.

The book was published, and then the real sales pitches began.  Hardly a week went by when I didn’t receive a call or an email from my “marketing consultant.”  They wanted to sell me book trailer development services, book review services, and then there was the offer of the movie treatment services. (Read about this debacle at Finding a home for the next book.) This went on for months regardless of how many times I told them to stop calling and emailing.

By this point I had come to the conclusion that their business model was based on selling services rather than on selling books (although that would be nice, too, since they do take quite a chunk of the royalties).

The worst thing about this dumb decision on my part is that it’s so difficult to retake control of the book.  I’d dearly like to change the cover.  I’m told that this will cost me $140.00 even if I do it myself or hire a talented cover designer to do it.  My contract with them (yes, you have to sign a contract that gives them very specific rights to the book), indicates that I can get out of it with notice, but it’s difficult to find anyone to discuss this with who won’t try to sell me another service that I don’t want.

In 2013 US-based law firm Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart LLP began “investigating the practices of Author Solutions and all of its brands (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford, Xlibris, Inkubook, and Wordclay). Authors using Author Solutions have complained of deceptive practices, including enticing authors to purchase promotional services that are not provided or are worthless, failing to pay royalties, and spamming authors and publishing blogs/sites with promotional material.”[1]  Although there doesn’t seem to have been much progress on the development of a class action law suit, it does speak to the widespread discontent of authors who have purchased these services.  Upselling isn’t actually illegal, just annoying and a bit disingenuous.

I am going to try to retrieve my rights (and dignity) when I have the time.  Until then, iUniverse gets a big chunk of any sales and the cover is still hideous.  It’s a good book though!

So, this was my dumb mistake.  I offer it only as a cautionary tale.  We all have to make our own mistakes!

dumb happens

[1] http://www.theindependentpublishingmagazine.com/2013/03/us-law-firm-investigates-author-solutions-for-class-action-suit-updated.html

Posted in Self-Publishing

Ethical issues in self-publishing: Why you should care

j0321197It’s probably safe to say that most of us don’t think about ethics on a daily basis — at least not consciously.  But every once in a while we see, read or hear something that makes us think that something is not quite “right.”  Something about it makes us feel that it’s just wrong.  That something might be perfectly legal, but still doesn’t feel right.  That’s your own internal ethical compass telling you to look at the issue more closely. The problem is, often when we ought to see something as not quite right, we don’t even notice.  Self-publishing comes to mind.

Writers have been self-publishing for many years. Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Beatrix Potter and Virginia Wolff come immediately to mind, giving self-publishing what should be a kind of positive cache.  However, the image of self-publishing has, over the years, diminished in the eyes of many — the media, literary critics and even many readers are among those who often carry a negative prejudice toward self-published works and their authors.  This bad reputation is not always unjustified. There are myriad ethical transgressions perpetrated by self-publishers every day. These are the activities and people who give everyone a bad name.

Historical novelist Jane Steen in her article Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing suggested we should be concerned about ethics because “we owe it to our readers,” but perhaps even more importantly,”we owe it to ourselves. Our indie career is not just about the books we write—it’s about the person we are.” Improving the image of self-published works is important to their (and the authors’) broader acceptance, and in the end it has to be said, success as an author.

My own personal experience and observations suggest that there are a few key areas that have contributed to negative perceptions and that are ethical minefields for indie authors. They are behaviors to be avoided at all costs.

  1. Writing 5-star reviews for crappy books. It is beyond irritating to buy a well-reviewed book only to find it riddled with stylistic errors (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure etc.) at a minimum, and be practically unreadable at the worst. Some indie authors write these reviews for others to ensure glowing reviews for their own publications.  This is dishonest and therefore unethical.  Don’t do it.
  2. Asking friends and family to write glowing reviews for your books.  This is hardly third-party endorsement.  These individuals are biased, and will likely want you to succeed so their reviews are not objective.  Readers are looking for objective, honest recommendations.  This is unethical. Don’t do it.
  3. Buying reviews.  Since the surge in self-published books, a whole industry has grown up for paid book reviews.  You can find thousands of review writers more than willing to write and post (for a fee of course) glowing reviews for you. This disingenuous practice can also be used by traditionally published authors.  Any way you look at it, it is a dirty practice and should be avoided at all costs.  Dishonest.  Unethical.  Don’t do it.
  4. Flooding the ebook stores with appallingly poor, ill-conceived ebooks.  There is another cottage industry that has grown up around the notion of simply writing ebooks on anything you can think of simply to generate income.  This is one of the most insidious ways that the reputation of all self-published authors is dragged through the mud.  Unless you are an expert on your subject matter, step away from the computer with that brilliant idea for an ebook. Unethical.  Don’t do it.
  5. Over-inflating your wonderfulness and success.  This is so problematic in the self-publishing industry.  Every time someone sells themselves to me as “best-selling” or “award-winning,” I get out Mr. Google and have a look.  That award should have been from a credible, well-known organization and you had better have had a best-seller on the New York Times (or equivalent) best-seller list or you’re padding.  This is dishonest.  Unethical.  Don’t do it.  (If you want to see how even being on these lists can be dishonest, read Here’s How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List)

There have been a number of bloggers who have suggested codes of conduct for self-published authors.  They are worth reading and are among the following list of pieces you should read if you care about your reputation as a self-published author.