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 Writing craft

Eight common delusions of unknown writers

stack of books

There are lots of little lies we all tell ourselves regardless of our art, craft or career.  Sometimes we even share these little lies with others.  Over the past quarter of a century in the trenches of writing books, teaching writing and publishing, I’ve told myself any number of little lies – lies such as “the editor is wrong,” or “I could design a better cover than this one,” or “this first draft is pretty good.”  Sometimes all I need is a swift mental slap up the side of the head by someone whose literary opinion I trust to know that these truly are lies.  These days I notice that the more people who think of themselves as writers, the more the list of those little lies grows.

I belong to a number of very interesting online writers’ and authors’ groups, mainly on LinkedIn and a few on Facebook.  I had the misfortune the other day to read an excerpt posted by a young woman (at least she looks to be a young woman from her photo) of her new self-published book.  To say that it was abysmal would be an understatement.  Where do I begin?  Should I describe her sentence structure mistakes, her appalling lack of any grasp of writing transitions, her continual use of dangling participles to the point that I had no idea what many of her sentences were trying to say – or should I jump directly to the preposterous situation in which the heroine finds herself?  A modicum of research would have led this young writer to a more realistic and therefore more compelling story.  And this is the point at which I sigh and worry about the lack of quality control in self-published writing.  As I’ve said before…

the problem that faces writers and would- be writers in the 21st century is that it is actually possible to publish every bit of genius and garbage that we produce.  And it needs to be said that we all produce some garbage, but only a few produce works of genius.  Most of us inhabit that place somewhere between those two extremes in our usual writing

Maybe we’re not really lying to ourselves: perhaps many unknown wannabe writers are actually living in a dream world where certain delusions govern their behavior.  So, based on 25 years of experience and anecdotal observation, I offer you my eight common delusions of unknown writers:

  1. Talent is over rated. Anyone can be a successful writer. The sad truth is that although talent is not enough, it is necessary for success. And this is true of any field. However, along with that talent, you need to work hard, develop your craft and practice before you’re ready for prime time.
  2. grammar copyNo one cares about grammar. I beg to differ. Everyone cares about grammar; it’s just that some of them don’t know about it. First there are the grammar police readers who will think you a complete idiot if you demonstrate a lack of command of the language. The second group is those who note that you are making grammatical errors and will tell everyone who might otherwise read your book to stay away. Then there are those who wouldn’t know a grammatical error if it came up and bit them, but they do know when they don’t understand the meaning of something. It seems to me that you want to be able to convey a particular message or story and to do that accurately, we all need a shared understanding of the use of our language. Period. Get out the grammar book.
  3. I write better than most people. Can you hear me laughing? This is so untrue as to be hilarious. I have spent almost a quarter of a century teaching and marking university students’ writing – and these are students whose writing will form a very large part of their careers. I’ve seen many good writers who need just a bit of sharpening; but more often I’ve seen honor students who don’t know that their writing is a problem. As American writing guru William Zinsser says, “Most people have no idea how badly they write.” And if you don’t know who he is, stop reading and go immediately to Amazon and order his book On Writing Well. Then read it.
  4. Thousands of Twitter followers guarantee success. Now I’m grinding my teeth. If would-be writers spent as much time practicing their writing and having it edited by someone who knows what he or she is doing rather than amassing thousands of Twitter followers, success would be more likely. Most of our followers are not potential readers; rather they are other writers who are using Twitter for exactly the same reason you are.
  5. I don’t need an editor. Au contraire. Everyone needs an editor. My arguments over the years with editors notwithstanding, I am singularly unable to completely free my own work of errors, typographical and otherwise. I have never met a writer who didn’t need an editor.
  6. If my friends think my idea is great, so will everyone else. I just have one question for you: how did you get friends with such deep knowledge (backed up by data) about how your target readers will think at any given time? The rest of us would love to know. Your friends are your friends for a reason and if you hope that your book will garner more readers than your circle of friends, you’ll have to open your mind beyond that circle.
  7. I don’t need to plan my writing, I just need to write. Well, you do need to write, but this kind of unplanned writing is called “writing practice” or “journaling” and it isn’t for public consumption. If, however, you plan to publish, you need to think about the writing, as well as ‘do’ the writing. The amount of planning you need, however, is very variable. It depends on genre, process and your own writing style. For example, if you write non-fiction, it needs considerable research and a complete outline (fleshed out into a complete proposal if you’re planning a traditional publishing route) before you even write word. Even fiction can benefit – and especially genres like historical fiction that follow a time-line and need extensively researched background. Plotting for mysteries and thrillers also helps the writing process. That said, once the writing begins, it need not stick to the outline!
  8. I don’t have time to read. If you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time to write, and you shouldn’t. Writers are readers. They read in their own writing genre. They cross-read. They read to do research. They read to flesh out or even come up with ideas. They read to improve their own writing. They read to get to know the competition. They read to get to know what their target readers like. They read to see what sells. They read because they love language and books are important to them.

There you have them.  My eight delusions.  Now I’m going to go back to my incomplete manuscript and convince myself that indeed, I do need and editor.  And soon.