Tuesday, September 04, 2012

And Why Beholdest Thou The Mote In Thy Brother's Eye...?

*Updated Below*

In response to recent revelations of novelists buying Amazon reviews and creating sock puppet accounts to praise their own books and trash those of others, a group of writers has come together to post a message -- No Sock Puppets Here Please ("NSPHP") -- condemning these practices, urging other writers not to engage in them, inviting readers to "take possession of the process," and asking "anybody who loves books" to sign the document, too.  I had my own idea for a voluntary code of conduct regarding purchased reviews and sock puppets a few days ago, and overall I'm glad to see that others have thought of, and have adopted, their own approach.  After a lot of consideration, I've decided to add my name (I don't flatter myself that my name would make much difference one way or the other, but still, it's my name) to the message these other writers have posted.  But I did so with reservations, and I'd like to talk about those reservations here.

My first reservation about NSPHP is that it names three recent authors who, to varying degrees, have outed themselves or have been outed engaging in the practices NSPHP addresses (purchasing reviews; self-praising sock puppets; sock puppets attacking third parties).  This made me uncomfortable.  After all, the problem isn't specifically RJ Ellory, Stephen Leather, and John Locke -- the named authors.  These three are just recent examples -- and examples of something probably much more widespread (NSPHP itself acknowledges that "Few in publishing believe they are unique," and if these three were likely the only ones, there would be no need for an NSPHP in the first place).  Why make a document, presumably intended to be relevant and read for many years to come, about three specific examples who are primarily notable because they did what they did in 2012?  Historian Orlando Figes was caught using sock puppets to praise his own work and to attack that of his rivals in 2010, but he isn't shamed by name in NSPHP.  It's not that I object to people like Ellory being shamed -- he's been widely, and, in my opinion, deservedly shamed, including here just now -- but is NSPHP supposed to be about shaming individuals, or about articulating the details of an enduring code of conduct designed to guide authors and reassure readers?  If the latter, the former strikes me as unnecessary, unhelpful, and even unseemly.

My second reservation was about this odd, italicized paragraph:

But the only lasting solution is for readers to take possession of the process. The internet belongs to us all. Your honest and heartfelt reviews, good or bad, enthusiastic or disapproving,­ can drown out the phoney voices, and the underhanded tactics will be marginalized to the point of irrelevance. No single author, ­ however devious, ­ can compete with the whole community. Will you use your voice to help us clean up this mess?

It's hard to know what this is.  I don't know what process readers are supposed to take possession of, or what taking possession of a process would mean.  The only way I can make sense of the whole thing is as a request for readers to post more reviews than they have so far.  Because if the current quantity of "honest and heartfelt" reviews is insufficient to "drown out the phoney voices," then "Will you use your voice to help us clean up this mess" can only logically be a request for readers to post more reviews -- and presumably many more, if any meaningful level of additional dilution of dishonest by honest is likely to occur.

This strikes me as… strange.  Is it really proper to try to recruit readers to post reviews as a way of protecting the integrity of the review system?  Maybe.  But I can't help feeling the most honest and disinterested course of action would be to just leave readers alone and let them post whatever they want for whatever reasons they want.  And that in attempting to recruit readers to join this battle -- even if the suggested weapon is itself honest reviews -- the authors of NSPHP have perhaps muddied their own message.

Now, maybe I'm reading this wrong.  But at a minimum, NSPHP seems susceptible of this interpretation, and I wish it weren't.  I wish the document were clearer and more straightforward in pursuit of its purpose, which I think, as noted in the first paragraph, is the protection of "the health of this exciting new [online] ecosystem."  This separate plea to readers seems, again, an odd and confusing way of furthering that end.

My third reservation is about the use of "unreservedly" in the paragraph, "We the undersigned unreservedly condemn this behaviour, and commit never to use such tactics."  As I mentioned above, adding my name to NSPHP wasn't an easy call.  I believe there's a significant difference between buying reviews, on the one hand, and using sock poppets to trash other authors, on the other (more on this below) -- so in addressing these practices without distinction, am I condemning "unreservedly?"  I'm not sure.  I think I'd rather condemn with some explanation, self-reflection, and nuance.  In the end, I decided NSPHP was likely to do more good than harm, and on that basis, decided to sign it.  But still -- adverbs, as Stephen King pointed out in his book On Writing, are not your friend.  I think NSPHP would have been improved by the absence of this one.

My fourth reservation stems from my belief that, for behavior to be ethically wrong, it has to in some meaningful sense harm others.  And while I find many of the alarums regarding the severity of damage to author finances and to the perceived integrity of the customer review system to be overblown, I do think that, in general, revelations that authors are buying reviews can only weaken reader trust in a system that has been a huge boon to authors (and particularly to indie authors).  For this reason alone, I think it's ethically wrong for authors to buy reviews.  Think of it as an author's version of the Kantian Categorical Imperative:  if all authors did it, all authors would suffer, and by this measure, it can't be right to do.

Self-praising sock puppets are, to me, similar.  Minuscule-to-nonexistant harm, extremely diffused at best, to individual authors, but, in light of revelations and suspicions about such behavior, caustic to the system itself.  And if the system suffers, everyone is to some degree harmed.

(I can't help adding just for proportion that I don't think the average online customer is some sort of naif who accepts the veracity of all online reviews with the unquestioning trust of a child believing in Santa Claus.  We're not talking about the first pollutants in a previously pure system, but rather of additional impurities in something already widely understood to contain a fair bit of turbidity.  This isn't grounds for cynicism or complacency, but again, worth mentioning, I think, to suggest some sense of perspective regarding the degree of likely harm.)

Because I think intent matters, I also have to add my sense that review-buying and self-praising-sock-puppet-deploying authors aren't trying to hurt anyone else.  They're only trying to help themselves.  Yes, at least arguably, there is a likelihood of harm regardless of intent, but in criminal law intent matters, and for me it matters here, too.

This is part of why the use of sock puppets to trash other authors is, for me, another story.  I find it disgusting and not just regrettable, but reprehensible.  In addition to its inherent, direct likelihood of harm to the authors against whom it's directed, it is intended to cause harm.  Harm, not just personal advantage, is its purpose.  Plus it's just so gutless.  Even as a novelist I have trouble getting my head around the notion of someone doing this shit and not realizing there is something seriously wrong in his or her psyche.  We all have unworthy urges, but if you actually do things losers do, doesn't that make you a loser?  Then why are you doing them?

So yes, I find all three practices addressed in NSPHP to be worthy of censure, but not in equal measure.  And I would have liked NSPHP to somehow account for the differences as well as the similarities.  Lumping them all together felt to me a bit like posting a message simultaneously condemning, I don't know, embezzlement and murder.  Yes, they're both bad, but I wouldn't want to suggest they're roughly equivalent, either.  Doing so makes embezzlement sound worse and murder, better. 

Speaking of similarities, my first reaction to these revelations was to find them abhorrent -- even the review purchasing, which upon reflection I consider to be the least of the three.  I've never done any of these things; I reassured myself.  Never even been tempted; never would.  Yea me.

But I didn't stop there.  I asked myself, "Well, okay, you haven't done those things… but have you ever done anything like them?"

And the honest answer was… "Well, for the first book (and maybe the second -- it's been a while), I gave out free copies to friends and family and said, 'Hey, if you like it and you feel inclined, don't be shy about posting an Amazon review...'"

Did I ask for a specific kind of review, or a minimum number of stars?  No.  Did I boost my chances by threatening to impose punishments or withhold favors if proper reviews were not forthcoming?  Of course not.  But come on, I knew these people were kindly inclined and motivated to help me.  They weren't obligated, there was no quid pro quo, but wasn't I at least to some extent trying to game the system?

And then I thought about blurbs, a system I believe is irredeemably corrupt.  Now, I give fewer blurbs than most, and, I suspect, more judiciously than many, but still, I'm hardly without sin when it comes to giving and receiving blurbs.

I thought hard about all this, and it wasn't easy for me to logically distinguish the widespread if not universal practices of review trading and blurb trading among authors, on the one hand, from the practice of buying reviews and self-praising sock puppets, on the other (the use of sock puppets to attack third parties, by contrast, was an easy call -- again, harm is the primary purpose and effect).  In the end, I think I did come to some sound conclusions about how these practices differ, but the reflection it took to get there left me feeling not comfortable or relieved, but rather humbled -- like someone who, in recognizing that he himself is not without sin, ought to be cautious about enthusiastically throwing that first stone.

I mentioned the Kantian Categorical Imperative above:  if all authors did it, all authors would suffer, and by this measure, it can't be right to do.  So I asked myself:  with the Categorical Imperative in mind, are blurb and review trading, and other forms of log-rolling and back-scratching, defensible where purchasing reviews and self-praising sock puppets are not?

I couldn't find a distinction.  Well then, I asked, what about deception?  Deception is at the heart of review-buying and sock puppeteering.  And that's what makes those practices bad.  Absent the deception, the review wouldn't work -- or would at least work a lot less well.

True enough, I thought, but it's not like authors include disclaimers on their blurbs:  By the way, Author X is a buddy of mine, and I'm doing this for her not just as a favor, but in hopes that she'll do me a solid in return. And remember, too, gentle reader, that all blurbs help the giver, not just the recipient, because the giver's name gets thousands of ad impressions when it appears for free on someone else's book.

Look, I know you can distinguish these examples, but I also think you'll find the distinctions are often a matter of degree rather than of kind.  It's like asking when "honest graft" becomes real graft, or what the actual difference is.  Maybe more a matter of social acceptance than of real ethical or logical differences.

Still, in the end, I concluded review buying and sock puppeteering were qualitatively worse than publishing "honest graft."  Here's why.

First, a paid-for review is practically a guaranteed review, and while yes, theoretically the review might be honest and thoughtful, in reality in a paid-for system most reviews will be anything but.  It's an explicit cash exchange -- money for services.  This strikes me as worse than implicit barter.  Still, I think you could argue that implicit barter, because it's more subtle, is also more insidious, widespread, and corrupting.

But I think there's another difference between review and blurb trading, on the one hand, and review buying and sock puppeteering, on the other, a difference that has to do with definitional clarity.  Defining what constitutes a bartered-for review or blurb is difficult.  Identifying a straight cash exchange or a fake Amazon account, on the other hand, is pretty easy.  Easier to define means easier to self-regulate and to police.  Now, the definitional difficulty means that bartered-for reviews and blurbs are always going to be part of publishing.  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.

A fifth and final reservation about NSPHP.

Many of the posts on the recent revelations of deceptive practices in publishing felt to me like versions of "Shocked, shocked!"  Others struck me as embarrassingly self-important and sanctimonious:  yes, deception is ugly, and yes, the integrity of pretty much any system is important, but come on, people, we're not talking about whitewashing torture, or concealing safety problems in nuclear reactors, or a ginned-up controversy to persuade people that climate change isn't real.  We write stories.  We sell them online.  Yes, it matters and yes, we need to ensure insofar as possible that it's done with integrity, but it isn't life-or-death.  Perspective.

The emotions I sensed in play in many of the online condemnations I read made me uncomfortable.  Anytime I feel anger, umbrage, dudgeon, outrage, etc -- any emotion that inherently involves a sense of personal superiority -- I distrust the emotion and try to rigorously question whether the sense of personal superiority isn't at least in part what's driving the ostensibly underlying emotion.  Most people would argue that to the extent they feel self-righteous, it's because they feel angry.  In my experience, though, it's frequently the opposite:  they feel angry so they can feel self-righteous.  Multiply this dynamic a bit and you quickly get a mob.

Now, I wouldn't call NSPHP mob behavior, but I wouldn't describe it as maximally well conceived or executed, or a model of dispassion, either.  There are a lot of problems in this document, problems that could have been avoided by the application of just a little more care and consideration.  There are times it comes across, unnecessarily, as the author's answer to the Purity Ring.  So I can't help but wonder… why the rush?  Was this an emergency that permitted no time for that care and consideration?  Of course not.  So then what caused a group of demonstrably smart people -- every one of them a professional writer -- to produce a document as problematic as this one, a document that names bad actors when it should focus on bad actions; that equates pernicious deception with the truly noxious variety; that muddies its own purported purity with a strange and jargon-laden plea to readers?  And the answer, I think, is that they were in too much of a hurry to condemn, and probably because (i) condemnation feels good; and (ii) if there's a hurry, the whole thing must be Very Important.  Exactly the kinds of emotional drivers I've learned to distrust (but which, I hope needless to say, I recognize in part because I struggle with them myself).

This is just my sense -- just my opinion -- and I could be wrong about all of it.  But it leaves me feeling uneasy.  I would have much preferred something shorter, simpler, and less redolent of those untrustworthy emotions.  Maybe:

We're concerned about recent revelations of authors buying -- and creating false accounts ("sock puppets") to post -- online customer reviews.  Although publishing is hardly a perfect industry, and although these specific practices differ in various respects, we believe buying, and using sock puppets to post, online reviews are particularly deceptive practices that degrade the integrity of the online customer review system.  Because we want to protect both the actual and perceived integrity of that system to ensure that it remains useful and trustworthy for authors and readers alike, we're posting here to condemn these practices, and to invite others similarly concerned to add their names to ours.

That's more or less what I would have written, but the NSPHP folks did theirs first and I respect that.  Given that NSPHP is already out there, is garnering signatures, and is backed by some major names in fiction, I don't think it would be productive at this point to try to improve it, or to try to replace it with something better.  Which left me with a fairly simple choice:  do I do more good by signing, or by steering clear?  The document invites people to "put your name behind these sentiments," but it's precisely the sentiments I distrust.  And so this simple choice wasn't an easy one -- which is too bad, because it could have been.

So I signed, but not "unreservedly," and I'll be watching this thing with a wary eye because of the kinds of emotions I sense are partly at work behind it.  And whether or not others agree with my call or anything else I've written here, I do hope all authors will honestly consider the more mundane and more widespread types of corruption endemic to publishing, and what they might personally do to improve those practices given their demonstrated concern about the integrity of the overall system.  All this will require cool heads, a distrust of insidiously self-pleasuring emotions, and the humility fostered by reflection upon the meaning of Matthew 7:3.


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.


Lucy Fishwife said...

Or you could just buy books in an actual Real Life bookshop, thus bypassing the need to rely on what some possibly fictitious reviewer has to say. And getting an opinion from somebody whose job it is to give an honest review of the book you're considering. Just a thought.

Christinekling said...

Barry, Thank you very much for presenting this reasoned and less emotional look at all this recent "Shocked, shocked" reaction to the Sock Puppet Scandal. The issue of integrity of reviews and blurbs is far more complex than NSPHP recognizes, and I wish that authors would examine the entire system and come up with a code of ethics for more than just sock puppetry. I wrote to one of the organizers of NSPHP about my concerns that pointing fingers at paid-for reviews when professional writers often blurb books without reading them struck me as hypocritical, and the answer I got was that discussing the blurb system had become tedious and besides, no one takes notice of blurbs. "It's a bit of a silly game." To say I found that response disappointing is an understatement. I was so pleased to see you bring this up in your blog, and as I hadn't read the previous post you did on MJ's blog, I was thrilled to see you had been beating this drum for a while.

In her response to you, MJ stated that publishing in general is full of lies and corruption. In the old days of brick and mortar stores, publishers acted on an author's behalf through coop money to get a book on the table at the front of the store. They paid lots of money to get discoverability. Was that ethical behavior for authors to allow their publishers to push them to the front of the line? Today, some self-published authors are doing the same thing via paid-for reviews and while I don't condone it, at least I understand it. It has made me examine the entire system of online book sales and like you, all this talk has made me look at my own behavior.

When I self-published my collection of short stories, I paid a company to distribute that book to reviewers. There was no guarantee of positive reviews, and the reviewers were required to mention in their reviews that they received the book free for review. It was a little like the poor man's Amazon Vine. Is the Amazon Vine program legitimate because traditional publishers use it? Is this similar to what John Locke did? Now that I examine it, I think it's too close for comfort. I won't do it again.

Rather than rush out with this letter, I would like to see a thoughtful discussion of how publishing has changed, and how we can navigate our way to improve this system that has been corrupt since long before the arrival of online book sales.

ssas said...

This all blew up while I was away at Worldcon (there were rumblings last week but it seemed to go haywire over the weekend). I feel like I have maybe a unique perspective since I'm getting to see it all in hindsight, plus I'm friends with some of the writers involved.

First, none of it surprised me. In business, dishonesty often pays.

It has occurred to me to completely do away with all reviews on purchasing sites. I do think if the writers who signed were truly serious about bucking Amazon's system (which I find the heart of the problem and some clever writers game well) they'd opt out of receiving reviews. Not that I've ever noticed an option to do so, but my publishers put up my books, not me.

I never read reviews or pay the least attention, except my own, of course:) It's anecdotal, but most readers I've talked with say the same. All reviews really do is to raise your rankings. The ranking system is something else I'd like to see abolished as well.

Ideally, we'd sell our books with back flap copy and the free sample. If that doesn't sell it, then the person doesn't want it.

I'd rather see a really well-designed search engine on Amazon and other purchasing sites with parameters chosen by the reader: genre, publisher, similar items to previous purchases, release dates, etc. There is a vague search engine on Amazon, but I've never found it to be of use.

As for the statement; I couldn't sign because Wordpress has long not liked me. Generally I thought the statement was well meant.

tomdurk said...

My all time favorite Sock Puppet is Mary Rosh, a "former student" John Lott inventented when Lott was challenged for making up data in his anti-gun control zealotry. According to "Rosh", Lott was the bestest and smartest prof she ever had, and he would never lie or misrepresent data because he was so brilliant. "She" repeatedly defended him until someone noticed her IP address was John Lott's IP address.

Unknown said...


That's an incredibly insightful take on the matter, and I'm grateful for that. I did sign the letter, and I think despite its flaws it makes a statement that needs to be heard, as imperfect as it is.

Maybe you aren't outraged or surprised, just disgusted. Given your argument, I have to admit I think in many ways you're right. But I'm outraged. I just find this so punkish and small and yes, it gums up a system that may not be perfect but with every revelation like this readers' faith in getting anything in print that even sniffs of honesty takes another hit.

Am I over-reacting? Maybe. But friends of mine were viciously attacked in print by cowards. If it happened to you, I'd jump -- and I mean jump -- to your defense, and I think you'd do the same.

That said, your remarks about the alluring nexus between anger and self-righteousness aren't lost on me.

Hope you're well.
David Corbett

James Thompson said...

Hi Barry, I also thought the document was problematic, but signed it because it's a beginning, and also because I'm certain that fraudulent authors and online bookseller' greatest hope is that the issue will just fade away, like most scandals, with time as people grow bored with it. I think the document at least provides some momentum.

Your thoughts on casting the first stone are admirable, but I think the issue is best understood in simple terms. Asking your mom to review your book, as opposed to buying 5 stars by lots of fifty, is the equivalent of stealing a nickel as opposed to 10,000 bucks.

And also, those fake stars blow the algorythms out in the rating system and I think the ramifications are greater than you give them credit for. And I believe that we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg, that the online rating system is subverted and destroyed. I've explained elsewhere that sites can use email addresses to trace IP addresses and the extent of abuse and the identification of abusers could be ascertained in a matter of days. If they wanted to.

And trashing other authors' books because they're viewed as competition or whatever pathetic reason is an attempt to cut their sales, eat into their income. That's theft. Stealing. Last I heard, a crime.

And this is also about books. Books are of tremendous importance to our culture, and this whole scandal has been a way of spitting on them. You maybe be right, that some crimes are more serious than others, but I would like to see the lot of them censured in the most severe way suitable for their infractions. Best, James Thompson

Eric Christopherson said...

I wonder if what Locke did should be deserving of less condemnation than Ellory. Every time Locke used bought reviews to help jump on an Amazon top 100 list he bumped off another author who had earned that spot the old fashioned way, and as long as Locke stayed on that list he blocked other authors who had a right to be on the list.

So how do you equate a crap load of acts of unintentional harm to a handful of acts of intentional harm? Is the latter really worse?

Paul William Tenny said...

" And the answer, I think, is that they were in too much of a hurry to condemn, and probably because (i) condemnation feels good;..."

I'd go with this either/instead: too many people give away free copies in exchange for reviews, and knowing that other people simply pay for it instead of giving away something of value, well, the similarities hit just a little too close to home for them. And on top of that, it's far more effective than what they are doing.

They did it the "right way", which doesn't work very well. Or not as well. The hacks did it the "wrong way", and it works great for them. Or at least it did for some people.

Now, add the these four things together:

* A little bit of jealously (because it clearly works well for some)

* A little bit of guilt (because the similarity to the giveaway model outweighs the difference)

* A little bit of self-righteousness (everyone always thinks they are the good guy)

* The pack mentality

If there's such a thing as a teachable moment, that's a good recipe for its repellant.

Broken Yogi said...

I think the real issue is honesty and secrecy here. The way to deal with that is, as an author, to insist that anyone who reviews your book anywhere disclose their relationship to you, if any.

If your Mom write a glowing review, she has to state at the end, "I am the author's mother." If you pay someone to review your book, they have to disclose, "Review paid for by author." If they have a professional relationship, that too must be disclosed. "I am the author's dentist".

This would go a very long way towards resolving all these ethical issues. Much more than just signing a petition condemning these things, which only elevates the signer, it doesn't change the overall practices one bit.

Sarah Wynde said...

This was a really thoughtful and well-reasoned post -- thank you for writing it.

I wouldn't be comfortable signing the NSPHP letter because it unreservedly condemns paying for reviews without qualification. So who's going to be the first to tell Kirkus Reviews that their business model is unethical? Interesting, the dictionary definition of unethical (which I did actually look up!) is "not conforming to approved standards of social or professional behavior," which makes me think the self-publishing community needs to take a closer look at the standards of the traditional-publishing community before making up their rules. Paying for a review where the reader hasn't read the book shouldn't be an approved practice, but paying for a fair assessment in a written form that can be shared with others doesn't belong with sock-puppetry in the "to be condemned" list. IMO, I suppose.

Anyway, I appreciated what you wrote today. I think John Locke probably deserves all the vitriol being thrown his way, but mostly because his book about selling a million books on Amazon didn't include the fact that he'd paid for reviews. But the reaction in general feels uncomfortably strong to me, and I'm glad to read some calmer words. (I'm self-published, but also spent a decade in traditional book publishing and five years as the reviews editor of a technical magazine, so I've got some background in the traditional business side.)

Anonymous said...

Good points, Barry. My mother reviews on Amazon quite often, as she is an avid reader. And she reviewed one of my earlier books. She disclosed that she was my mother, even though it wouldn't be readily apparent, as we don't share the same last name. I was glad she did. I couldn't abide the thought that someone thought it was less than honest somehow, especially since she writes other reviews. (Of course, the review was so glowing, I doubt anyone could have mistaken it as having been written by anyone else!)

But I think most readers can see through the 5 star glowing mother's reviews (or self-made reviews as recent news has indicated). What is less apparent to readers to recognize (and more appalling in my mind), is when someone writes a low review of someone else's work to somehow boost their own standing.

1001 Secrets of Successful Writers said...

Writers and publishers have been paying for reviews for decades. It's a well known practice. Do people really think that giving a free copy away to a reviewer is not a bribe? Sorry, it is. I wonder how many writers on that list have had free copies of their books sent to reviewers or had their publisher pay for reviews. Most of those writers have had books reviewed by Kirkus - a pay for review site. They should look at themselves before they throw stones at others.

The Amazon review system is basically a bulletin board where anyone can post anything - so people do. And are readers so foolish that they need someone else to tell them what to read? I hope not.

Regarding the negative reviewing of other people's work, I agree, it's not on. It's disdaining and unnecessary. Having said that, it's happened to me like it has happened to a lot of people. In summary: Man up, everyone. It's a tough world.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for making your views on the matter clear. I think they're fairly well reasoned too. I hope other writers read your post and think it through for themselves.

I disagreed with you on that other blog because it seemed to me you were browbeating some poor guy who was looking at his only means of discovery disappear down a poisoned well. Now that you're making your case, I salute you (regardless of whether I agree with it all!).


W. H. Dean

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the thoughts, everyone. David, it's an honor and a comfort to know you have my back, and I feel the same about you.

WH, it's always good to know someone with whom disagreement on some things doesn't mean disagreement on all things.

For everyone: one thing that gets lost when the hysteria rises is this: that someone disagrees with your means doesn't mean he disagrees with your objectives. An extreme (but tragically real) example was, "You don't want to invade Iraq? Then you don't care if Saddam Hussein gets a nuclear weapon!"

Uh, no... I care a great deal, I just think an invasion is a bad means to that end.

Anyway, after more thought and increasing discomfort, I've asked NSPHP to remove my name from their signatures list. My reasoning in the update to my blog post.

Michael McKenzie said...

There is such a compulsion to never admit a mistake in the digital age where everything we say or write, every view we adopt is recorded, catalogued and archived.

Well done Barry for being prepared to admit making a mistake and being on the side of reasoned debate and not lazy bloody-minded and un-nuanced 'clicktivism'.

Anonymous said...

I think readers should just use common sense, and if they have any doubt about an e-book, download a free sample and buy the book based on a sample of the writing, instead of somebody else's opinion.

Brian said...

It's highly unlikely that the ten or so employees working in a Barnes and Noble will be able to provide me with an honest review on the 25,000+ titles they stock in the store. Even in a smaller, independent bookstore it's unreasonable to expect them to have read all their titles. They can only help so much.

On Amazon I can get a review of nearly any book, even obscure works. They have a customer base from all over the world, so somebody's bound to have read and reviewed the book I want to buy. Sure, there might be sock puppet reviews, but the benefit outweighs the risk.

I don't see bookstore employees as the silver bullet here. Upholding the integrity of the review system (no sockpuppeting) is a better solution. There's nothing wrong with the review system in and of itself, it's the gaming of the system that causes the problem.

Besides, it's not necessarily a good idea to buy books based solely on reviews anyway. Read the sample and see for yourself. If the sample doesn't catch you then it really doesn't matter how many five star reviews the book has, faked or not.

ryan field said...

I had all the reservations you wrote about in this post before I signed my name. I still have them. I didn't even know people were leaving comments other than their names until I read your post. But I'm leaving my name up there because this is the first time I've seen this issue discussed openly this way.

This review problem isn't just in publishing. It's in all walks of life from people who own restaurants to doctors. It's an Internet problem that is only going to increase if it isn't addressed.

Louis Shalako said...

I've been slagged by the one-star reviews, and I was added to a 'secret' group that exchanged reviews. I left the group because it frankly smelled like a set-up! But I don't want to review books anyway. It's a moral minefield, and what are my qualifications? When I get a good review, at least I know I earned it. Am I jealous of people spending $425 for a review? Yeah--kind of. But publishers have had a cozy relationship with reviewers for many years, and I don't think there's much to be done about that.

Anonymous said...

"I think I'd rather condemn with some explanation, self-reflection, and nuance."

Awesome. This analysis is wonderfully perceptive and helpful. Thank you. I'm just going to pretend you got there first and imagine myself as having signed your pledge. It's perfect.

Becca Mills

jry said...

As a reader and someone who has spent over 30 years working in libraries I thought the nsphp authors sounded a bit whiny no substance to the letter just crying how wrong this is and how bad 3 authors were for doing it. In disclosure I like the books of both Locke and Leather and have no intention of dropping them - luckily with all the choices out there I can move the authors who have signed on to the nsphp to the bottom of my look at list (even though I read a lot, I generally like midlisters rather than so called best sellers so the more well known signers have been on the yeah, good authors, I'll get around to them someday - ok one exception and he wasn't that great (and who the Hades came up with a name that boils down to a crappy acronym?)

Perhaps if they had come up with some substance on what could be done about their complaints instead of mostly focusing on a few names in the how dare they vein I might not think of them as prigs. I DO get angry, in fact I get down right furious at 1 star reviews that are obviously hatchet jobs written with a personal agenda in mind and I sometimes buy books because of the one star review especially after I look at "all my reviews" and see they have only done 1 or only done reviews on 1 author (checking out particularly visious 1 star reviews has actually been my hobby for several months). BUT I have a brain, I can read between the lines of a review and am quite capable of making a decision on how realistic the review sounds myself. I rarely look at 5 stars for anything other than additional plot info.

Ron Scheer said...

You've given one heck of a lot of thought to this. My hat's off to you. As for signing petitions and declarations and such, I generally don't do it because I don't much trust them either.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I agree with your post. I had my reasons for not signing.

One big one is that I was once accused of having fake reviews. This somehow meant I deserved fake reviews that were 1 star reviews all to be piled upon my book in the space of 2 weeks by the accusers and all their friends.

Afterward, I "verified" every review I had. I linked to every 5 star review that was from someone who hadn't reviewed before, and for the 95% that I knew came from book bloggers I had requested reviews from, I linked their amazon review and their blog review along with their twitter/facebook accounts for verification of identity.

I should not have felt that I needed to prove my reviews were real. But I did. That didn't make those fake negative reviews go away nor did it make my accusers stop accusing me, despite my providing evidence of my innocence.

The reason they thought my reviews were fake? It wasn't because they read the book and decided it was crap. It was because they didn't like a comment I made on a social media network sharing my opinion on something.

All of this needs to end. The solution isn't people claiming they won't post fake reviews. It's about what they do and what they don't do, and whether they accuse others of the things they themselves are guilty of. A real fix would be for websites to increase their verification methods to prevent/decrease the possibility of sock puppet accounts.

As for the book buyers out there... you never needed to count on online reviews to decide to buy a book. There are so many other ways to find books to read and if you use those methods you might find books you love that the reviews for weren't great. For example there is one book I would give 10stars to if I could: it's my favorite book ever! It's amazing! It sets the bar for all other books I read. The average rating on that book on Amazon is only 3 stars.

Reviews mean nothing in terms of how much *you* will enjoy a book.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your post. I had my reasons for not signing.

One big one is that I was once accused of having fake reviews. This somehow meant I deserved fake reviews that were 1 star reviews all to be piled upon my book in the space of 2 weeks by the accusers and all their friends.

Afterward, I "verified" every review I had. I linked to every 5 star review that was from someone who hadn't reviewed before, and for the 95% that I knew came from book bloggers I had requested reviews from, I linked their amazon review and their blog review along with their twitter/facebook accounts for verification of identity.

I should not have felt that I needed to prove my reviews were real. But I did. That didn't make those fake negative reviews go away nor did it make my accusers stop accusing me, despite my providing evidence of my innocence.

The reason they thought my reviews were fake? It wasn't because they read the book and decided it was crap. It was because they didn't like a comment I made on a social media network sharing my opinion on something.

All of this needs to end. The solution isn't people claiming they won't post fake reviews. It's about what they do and what they don't do, and whether they accuse others of the things they themselves are guilty of. A real fix would be for websites to increase their verification methods to prevent/decrease the possibility of sock puppet accounts.

As for the book buyers out there... you never needed to count on online reviews to decide to buy a book. There are so many other ways to find books to read and if you use those methods you might find books you love that the reviews for weren't great. For example there is one book I would give 10stars to if I could: it's my favorite book ever! It's amazing! It sets the bar for all other books I read. The average rating on that book on Amazon is only 3 stars.

Reviews mean nothing in terms of how much *you* will enjoy a book.

Unknown said...


Good points, all. An old phrase comes to mind: "methinks, she doth protest too much."

Too much.

Too much vitriol. Too much sanctimony. Too much moral panic. Too much finger-pointing and tongue-clucking. Too much mob rule, and that way lies madness and the tyranny of the masses.

Was there any rational discussion of the issues? No. Definition of what exactly constituted "illegal or immoral" behavior? Again, no.

Blind accusations and hysteria always make me uncomfortable, whether it's 17th century witch-hunters, 20th century commie-baiters, or 21st century "Patriots."

The thing that makes me shake my head is that the NSPHP expressly discouraged any discussion, shamed authors publicly, and then begged for reviews.

Wow. I thought we (authors), of all people, were more rational than that. I hoped with our history of showing moral panic and mob mentality for the disgraceful behavior it is, that we were more level-headed and more adult than that.

Shows how wrong I can be. Ever wonder if fascism can happen here?


I don't share the guilt of the accused, but nor do I share the facade of moral outrage of their accusers.

Ask yourselves this: would you accept a 5-star review from (insert your favorite author) if you knew he or she only read 1/2 of your book? The first chapter? Would you consider giving your friend a 5-star rating for a similar return? How about a 1-star in retaliation? Would you help out a friend with a slightly jacked-up review, hoping for some good karma?

Shame on us all.