Writers Writing About Ethics, Without Any

Sorry, can’t use you.

Writer Joe Konrath has written one of those blog posts about ethics that makes me want to defenestrate myself, a post that expounds on rationalizations as a substitute for ethical analysis because he is incapable of the latter, arriving at fatuous and misleading conclusions. Naturally his post was picked up and expounded upon by another blogger, Ben Galley, who has even launched an ethics-challenged website called Ethiks to promote similar ethics rot.

Both writers are holding forth about recent scandals in the publishing world, involving so-called “sock puppetry,” where a writer anonymously praises his own books on-line or trashes the work of competitors, and writers paying for positive reviews. Both are also laboring under juvenile ethical delusions, and obnoxiously so, among them:  that “everybody does it” is a valid excuse for cheating, that the fact that a critic of unethical behavior might engage in such behavior himself under certain conditions invalidates the ethical criticism, and that unethical people insisting that unethical conduct isn’t puts such conduct in a “grey area.” None of these is true; none of these is remotely true.

The ethically-clueless tenor of both posts can be gleaned from this section, by Galley:

“Ethics in life are a grey area. No less in the book industry. To borrow JA’s analogy, the claim of “I would never kill” goes out of the window pretty quickly when protecting your family against a murderous intruder. The line of ethics is never a straight one, often zig-zagging through a charcoal no-man’s land of right and wrong. The question is this: Where does the line lie for you? It’s nothing less than personal. Some people simply shrug at the thought of sock-puppetry. Others go a shade of red and grit their teeth. Sadly, we can write all the codes and edicts we like, the point is that not everyone will a) agree, nor b) abide.”

Let me see: wrong, wrong, irrelevant, wrong, not necessarily, no it isn’t, NO, it REALLY ISN’T, and so what?

Most ethical questions are not gray at all: these definitely aren’t. They are clear as clear can be. “Sock puppetry” is dishonest and unfair. An author paying for positive reviews, and a critic accepting payment from an author to review his work, is blatantly dishonest and a conflict of interest. There is no “gray” about it; they are just wrong. Anyone who draws the “line” anywhere else is wrong too. It doesn’t matter whether everyone agrees: those who don’t agree are unethical. So are those who can’t “abide.” Their unethical conduct doesn’t alter right and wrong.

Konrath’s piece wastes our time with a long argument claiming that unless one is as pure as the driven snow, not only can’t you call unethical conduct what it is,  the fact that you can’t calls into question whether the unethical conduct is really unethical at all. Here’s his “quiz,” which Konrath presents triumphantly as if it is a real brain-buster, when anyone with a modicum of honesty, decency and common sense should be able to score 100% without straining a neuron.

Here it is, with my answers in bold:

1. Would you accept a glowing blurb from Stephen King (or insert your author of choice) even if he only read 3/4 of your book?

  • No.

How about only half of your book?

  • No.

Just the first chapter?

  • No.

What if he didn’t read it at all?

  • Of course not.

2. Would you give someone a free book to review it?

  • Sure.

What if instead of a book, you gave them the cash to buy the book with?

  • No.

Would you hire a publicist to send out books you paid for to reviewers?

  • Sure.

2. Is it ethical to have your book reviewed in a periodical that you write articles for? One that you buy ads in?

  • a) Yes.
  • b) No.

3. If your mother wrote a book and wanted you to honestly review it on Amazon, would you?

  • Not anonymously, no.

Would you give Mom one star if it were bad?

  • I wouldn’t publish the review.

If Mom asked you specifically for a five star review, would you do it?

  • No.

4. Would you ever review or blurb a book you haven’t read?

  • Never.

What if it was for someone you were friends with?

  • No. I wouldn’t review a friend’s book.

What if it was a family member?

  • NO!

What if you were paid $5000 for it? How about $50,000?

  • Absolutely not.

5. If your book was getting one star reviews from a fellow writer, would you give their book one star in retaliation?

  • No. What’s the matter with you?

If that competitor used sock puppets to trash your book, and Amazon didn’t remove the phony reviews, would you ask for reviews from family and friends to counter the damage?

  • No.

Would you post phony five star reviews of your book to counter the damage?

  • No.

Would you use sock puppets to trash your competitor’s books in retaliation?

  • No. Are you kidding?

6. If spending $5000 on paid reviews guaranteed you’d sell 2 million ebooks, would you do it?

  • No! Paid reviews are a fraud on the purchaser,

7.Would it matter if you publicly disclosed it or not?

  • No.

What if the reviews were honest reactions from people who read the whole book?

  • And they were paid? No.

What if they were written by spambots who automatically gave you five stars? Is there a difference?

  • No, and no.

Would you pay $1000 to guarantee a front page review of your book in a major periodical? How about $500? Or $50? What if it also guaranteed a place on the periodical’s Bestseller list? Does that make it more or less appealing?

  • No, unless it was designated as an ad.

8. Would you ever review a book for money?

  • From the author?  No.

9. Would you ever take a job as a reviewer for Kirkus and PW (two periodicals who charge authors for reviews)?

  • Sure. The writer isn’t paying me, and I am under no obligation to him. Do you really not see the difference?

Would you review books on Amazon for $50 per book?  What if you swore to yourself you’d be impartial?

  • Paid by who? Not by the authors, no.

Would you do so without disclosing the review was paid for? Would you do it and not read the book?

  • No, no, no.

10. Would you ever trade reviews with your fellow authors?

  • No!

Would you ever ask friends for reviews? Family? Fans? Strangers?

  • No. No. Fans? Sure. Strangers? Why not?

10. Would you ever promote your books on forums, blogs, or social networks?

  • Disclosing my name and interest? Sure, if that were permitted on the forums, blogs, or social networks.

If you were being trashed on forums, blogs, or social networks, would you defend yourself?

  • Sure.

And if defending yourself just brought more vitriol, would you consider defending yourself anonymously?

  • Never.

How about under a fake identity? Would you ever use a sock puppet to defend yourself from mob behavior?

  • Nope.

Would you use a sock puppet to praise your own work? Denounce the work of others?

  • Nope.

11. Would you ever give a one star review to a book you haven’t read?

  • No. It’s impossible to review a book you haven’t read, silly!

12. Would you give a one star review to a book because you disapprove of something the author did?

  • No.

13. Would you ever trash someone on the Internet?

  • I do so regularly…people like you!

14. What’s the minimum a person must have done in order to deserve your trashing them? Must they have done something specifically to you or someone you care about? Or simply something you don’t agree with?

  • Behave unethically or promote unethical values, when my  analyzing such conduct promotes a better understanding of ethical conduct and values.

Would you do this anonymously?

  • Nope.

Is there a difference between criticizing someone on the Internet, and criticizing their books on the Internet? If so, why is one okay and the other not?

  • Neither is okay, as in ethical, if it is anonymous or involves biases and conflicts of interest.

And finally…
15. Would you ever sign a petition denouncing authors for buying reviews without closely examining the issue, and in the same breath begging readers to give you reviews?

  • No. So what?

Konrath closes his self-exposure as an Ethics Dunce by writing, “But I think I’ve shown in this blog post how slippery ethics can be, and I’m not going to jump on the hate wagon to denounce others.” Ugh. All you have shown, Joe, is that ethics is slippery for you, and for all people in the grip of rationalizations for unethical conduct.

If all writers really reason like Joe and Ben, no wonder the writing world is seeing ethics scandals.

It just isn’t that hard, guys.




Graphic: Playsational

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

19 thoughts on “Writers Writing About Ethics, Without Any

  1. Wow, what a stupid quiz. I can’t believe someone went through all of that trouble trying to illustrate a “moral dilemna” where there isn’t one.

    “Would you ever steal from someone?”
    “What if they were reeeeeaaaaly mean to you?”
    “What if they stole from you first? Then wouldn’t you want to go steal from them back? Admit it- you would! Ethics are so totally hazy!”

  2. A great post, but I’m wondering how you deal with question 9; that does seem more like a gray area to me. If the author is paying your employer (here, a periodical), which then pays you, doesn’t that raise a similar conflict? It seems like you’ve just used a middleman to accomplish the same thing as the author paying you directly.

    Just as the directly-paid reviewer may hesitate to bite the hand that feeds him or her, an employer will likely have the same concern, and may put pressure on its reviewers to be positive. This can be overt or subtle: maybe you find yourself getting fewer assignments after writing a negative review. One can choose to have integrity and not respond to any such pressure, but the same is true when the author pays you directly.

    I think the only way to avoid any ethical concerns is not to receive anything of value from the author at all — directly or indirectly. For authors, I believe this means not paying publications to write reviews.

    • I don’t see any conflict at all, unless the the employer applies some kind of unethical pressure. How its that different from the Washington Post’s pundits criticizing companies that take out ads in the paper, or a TV’s station’s news team doing critical stories about a political candidate who runs ads on the station? Conflict of interest requires an obligation to two parties with opposing, zero-sum interests, or situations where independent judgment is impossible because of self-interest. A reviewer has no obligation at all to a party that gives money to his employer. If the employer allows that individual to try to dictate policy or content, then the employer has a conflict, as well as an appearance of impropriety. Not the reviewer.

      #9 is not a tough question. It just seemed tough because the others were infantile.

      • I think taking out an ad in media is very different; the truly analogous situation would be if a candidate paid the network or newspaper specifically to run a news story about the candidate — would we be worried about biased coverage then? With a pay-to-review arrangement, the author knows she will get NO coverage in that publication if she doesn’t pay. I doubt we’d be comfortable if news media had a similar practice in its non-advertising space.

        I agree that the employer would have to exert some kind of pressure on a reviewer, but I think in an institution this can happen unconsciously — just as an individual may be unaware of the unconscious influence on decision-making that comes from self-interest, and may believe he’s being impartial. That’s one big reason clear rules are important, in my view — we do not always realize what’s influencing our decisions. This can be just as true for complex institutions as for complex individuals.

        • Well sure, but that’s not question #9. Author pays publication to review his book, but publication doesn’t make any demands of the reviewer, and prints whatever he writes. The reviewer’s integrity isn’t compromised at all. The publication’s is—that’s the publication’s ethical breach.

  3. I’d answer question 3 differently. If my mother asked for a review of her book, I’d give it, disclosing the relationship, and whether 1 or 5 stars would be immaterial.

    Yes, if her own daughter gave her one star, that might hurt sales, but the important thing is that the review was specifically requested, and honest, and any source of possible bias disclosed so 3rd parties can come to an informed conclusion as to its worth..

    That’s about as much ethical grey area as I can see.

  4. I don’t see Nigel’s issue with #9. The author pays to get the book reviewed. He/she is buying a “review” only. If they are allowed to buy a “good review”, there is a problem. If the reviewing publication prints the review, regardless of the number of stars, that is all fine. If the publication only prints, say, 3 and above and spikes the other lesser reviews, that is the publications ethical failure…. unless they tell the reviewer that only the 3+ are printed, and paid. If the reviewer then ups the scores to get paid it becomes a purchased good review.

    Question 7 (sub. d) has a strange similarity to a joke about the rich guy at a cocktail party who offers the pretty girl $10K to sleep with him and she agrees, so he asks if she will take $25. He response is “What do you think I am” and he replies that that has already been established, this is negotiation on actual price.
    The amount paid does not change the base issue.

    • You could make the same argument — the author is buying a “review” only, not necessarily a good one — when the author hires an individual reviewer rather than an organization to review the book. But because the organization (and perhaps the individual reviewer who works for the organization) is making money off the arrangement, how can they be impartial?

      With respect to Jack’s comment about the publication’s ethical breach — I agree in principle that the publication could be unethical even if the individual reviewer they employ does nothing wrong. But wasn’t the point of the discussion whether it’s ethical for the author to pay for a review? If the author knows there’s some chance that the review she receives will be influenced by the fact that she’s paying for it, can the author ethically pay a publication to review her book?

      If it’s unethical to pay an individual to review your book, I still don’t see how it can be so easy to get around this by simply hiring a collection of individuals to do the same thing.

      • If it’s unethical to pay an individual to review your book, I still don’t see how it can be so easy to get around this by simply hiring a collection of individuals to do the same thing.

        It doesn’t get around it. It’s still unethical for the author and for the company. The only disagreement here is if it’s unethical for the company employee’s reviewer.

        I’m actually with you Nigel. In general, I see the reviewer as unethical, even if the company exercises no editorial control over him.

        • How is the reviewer unethical, if he has no constraints on what he writes? The New York Review of Books takes ads from all major publishers—are you saying all their reviews are unethical? How?

          • I don’t think that ads from publishers in reviewing papers and periodicals is problematic. I find that very different from direct payment for a review.

            In the case of a reviewer, they know they are only reviewing the book because their bosses were paid for him to review it. I see two ethical issues with it. The first is that they are tacitly approving of their employer’s policy of taking money for reviews. That’s unethical. Second, while they are a step further removed, they are the one actually fulfilling the unethical quid pro quo. They are part of the unethical process.

    • Buying a review is a problem in any case, as the money inherently causes a conflict of interest. Nigel is claiming that the conflict of interest inherently moves from the paid company to the employee.

  5. While I respect your right to free speech and opinion, I think your facts are a little askew. My website is called Shelf Help, not Ethiks, and its role is a self-help website for people who want to write and self-publish, not as you have branded it: ”launched an ethics-challenged website called Ethiks to promote similar ethics rot.”. Ethiks was a single blog on the subject of ethics, and a rare opinion piece. Quote me as much as you like, I make no apologies for what I write, but please ensure I am represented accurately. Thank you.

    • Sorry, Ben, I was initially referred to your site as a “new ethics blog”. See, to me, that’s a good thing. Whether it is one or not, that doesn’t excuse writing ignorantly about a topic important to everyone, even writers. Your headings make its true title incomprehensible, not that this has any relevance to the post at all. I’m glad I got your name right.

  6. I had a funny thought about #9. In the past, I have suggested that the FDA drug approval process could be greatly improved by moving to a model similar to this. Currently, drug companies pay a research group directly to do a drug trial for them. In some cases, this has resulted in ‘misinterpreted’ and overinterpreted data on the effectiveness of drugs and a lax attitude about side effects (eg statins). If the drug companies just had to pay the FDA a fee and the FDA then sent the drug out to an approved research group to do the trial, we would get better data.

    It is funny because my idea for a more impartial and effective review process for drugs is being questioned for being biased and unethical for books!

    • It’s a different market. Vanishingly few free, independent drug trials are done do to the costs involved. Free, independent book reviews are plentiful. What is a best case scenario for drugs is a step down for books.

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