Thursday, August 30, 2012

The End and the Means

A few days ago, the New York Times featured an article about a man who made a small fortune running a business that sold positive book reviews to authors trying to promote their work. Reading it left a sour taste in my mouth and a queasy feeling in my stomach. The gentleman in question didn't see anything wrong with his business model (author pays X dollars for Y positive reviews - where X could be in the hundreds or even thousands). Neither, apparently, did the authors who utilized his services.

You've written a sensational book. However, no one will ever know if you don't get people to read the book, to talk about it and to recommend it to their friends. Rave reviews are simply one way to attract attention. And if you truly believe that your book deserves that attention, why not pay someone to help get the word out? Plugs-for-pay aren't all that different from paid advertising, right? And nobody objects to that!

Anyway, the end justifies the means, doesn't it? If you succeed in making your book a best-seller (as a few of this guy's customers apparently did), you've accomplished your objective. And your book really is wonderful... the reviews aren't lies...

Sorry. I know I'm old-fashioned, but a review is supposed to reflect the real reactions of the person who wrote it. It's worthless if it's no more than praise-for-hire. And pretending to be a sincere reviewer when you're actually employed to say nice things is just plain unethical. There's no gray area here, at least not for me.

I review for several sites. This month marks my sixtieth review for Erotica Revealed. I get the books for free (that's standard practice) and sometimes, they're written by people I know. Nevertheless, I put a lot of mental energy into being honest, even when that honesty might hurt. I'm always careful to indicate that my reviews reflect my personal opinions, but if a book disappoints me, I'll say so. (Or, occasionally, I won't review it at all.)

Still, it's naive to think that this guy outed by the Times is the only person out there making money in this way. The article estimates that at a hefty proportion of the "reader reviews" on Amazon are fake. That's so depressing!

The trouble is, although I deplore this entrepreneur's business premise, he's right. Without lots of positive buzz, your book has a vanishingly small probability of being noticed. Anyone who's honest is very likely dooming herself to literary obscurity.

I don't care that much. I'd love for my books to become best-sellers, but that's not why I write. As long as the readers who do find me enjoy my work, I'm fairly satisfied. Sure, I'd love to sell thousands of copies (I can't even imagine what it would be like to sell millions), but I'm not willing to compromise my principles for success. For me, the means matter.

It's a slippery slope, though. Every day I get emails from fellow authors asking me to "like" and "tag" books I haven't read. Is this dishonest? I've decided that it's not - exactly... I'm not claiming I've read the book, after all. It's perfectly reasonable to give a thumbs up if the cover or the blurb appeals to me (and I always do read the blurb first). Still, in our efforts to support one another, I think we authors should consider the ethical aspects.

Otherwise, it's like making a bargain with the devil.

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