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.

[2] Sarah Fay. 2012. Book Reviews: A Tortured History.  The Atlantic online.

[3] Jane Hu.

[4] Kim Lachance Shandrow.  April 10, 2015. Amazon Sues Alleged Sellers of Bogus 5-Star Product Reviews. Entrepreneur.

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.

Posted in Plagiarism, Writing

Plagiarism: The scourge of the writer, part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about plagiarism lately as I make my way through another fall semester at the university – my excuse for neglecting my blog. My undergraduate ethics students have discussed it, as have my grad students (although I hope that since most of them are experienced public relations professionals they have a good handle on it — but I’ll get to that), and yet the topic keeps rearing its ugly head.  If I may — a couple of anecdotes…

A couple of years ago, just as IPads made their first appearance on campus, a new wrinkle was added to the increasingly complex topic of how to avoid plagiarism, given the plethora of new and juicy sources for information just begging to be ‘stolen.’  I was conducting that one task dreaded by every single university professor I know: I was marking.  I had just read one student’s submission, thinking that it had some unusual phrasing when I picked up the very next one on the pile.  I was then treated to precisely the same wording in at least two paragraphs of the next submission.  So, I did what all good university Profs do these days: I plugged the offending phrase into Google.  Then, as if by magic, its source appeared before my eyes on the screen.  No wonder it had looked familiar, it was from a document whose URL I had provided to students as a resource.

I emailed the offending students immediately, telling them that we needed to talk about this problem.  Within hours, one of them sent a sobbing email to me ensuring me that whatever happened had not been her fault, not intentional, not like her, blah, blah, blah. And then she cried in the office.  And I believed her insofar as it had not been her intention, it was not like her…but it had been her ‘fault.’  The other student had not yet contacted me at that point thinking that it was a trivial matter.

Here’s what had happened: The student with her shiny new IPad had taken notes during class that day.  She had been so taken with the subject, she immediately surfed over to the site during class and copied and pasted a bit into her notes.  Without referencing the source.  Then she lent her offending notes to her friend who had missed class (another lesson here, perhaps?).  In any event, they both used the material in their submissions thinking it was their own work.  Now, of course the second student was then doubly at fault since she used the other student’s notes verbatim without referencing it, adding insult to injury.

More recently, I marked a feature article a student had written when it occurred to me that not only had he referenced too few, weak sources, they were both on the internet and were both from the same online publication.  I surfed over to the site and found that much of the piece had been plagiarized (oh, it is so easy to copy and paste, isn’t it?).  I was then curious about the rest of the piece, so I again plugged a few sentences into Google and presto!  I came up with the sources — the same online publication, but this one he had hidden from me.  Busted.

When confronted, he freely, if not happily, admitted to doing it.  He had been busy; he knew it was wrong; he almost reconsidered, blah, blah, blah.  This instance particularly angered me because he had to have thought one of two things: Either he thought that he could get away with it (or he would not have done it and risked his complete degree), or he thought I was an idiot (which was probably the part that made me especially angry), both of which I shared with him.  In any case, he said that just before he clicked ‘send,’ he did have second thoughts.  But he did it anyway.

Both of these situations are slightly differently ethically, since in one situation there was no intention to deceive, whereas in the second, there was clear intention to pass off someone else’s work as his own.  Although I don’t believe these two are ethically equivalent, they are both academic offences.   The result was that there had to be consequences for both.  Those among us who plagiarize inadvertently might be ethically less treacherous than those who do it with intention to deceive, but it’s a practice that has to be curtailed – or they might end up with a copyright infringement charge at some point in their lives.

The first two nitwits lost a considerable number of marks, but there was no permanent scar on their academic record.  The second required a bit more thought and more than a passing glance at the university regulations on plagiarism and cheating.  I had to fill out forms and lodge a formal complaint against the student, including a recommendation for penalty.  I had the option of either giving him a failing grade with a notation of an academic offence on his permanent record, or asking that he be summarily dismissed from his degree program.  I took the former route, and he did not lose his place in the program.  This decision did not come without considerable thought and later reflection on whether I had done a good thing for the greater good or not.

This student was studying to be a public relations practitioner.  Should I have had him kicked out of our field?  Or at least the program: he could still have worked in the field if he could find someone to hire him.  Should people in public communication fields be held to a higher standard?  I sometimes think that we should.  Research indicates that those who will lie and cheat in their student days are more likely to lie and cheat in their professional careers.

So, I’m going to consider plagiarism I public communication fields the next time I get around to blogging – that’s after I finish marking the next batch of papers.  Wish me luck!