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?
How about only half of your book?
Just the first chapter?
What if he didn’t read it at all?
- Of course not.
2. Would you give someone a free book to review it?
What if instead of a book, you gave them the cash to buy the book with?
Would you hire a publicist to send out books you paid for to reviewers?
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?
4. Would you ever review or blurb a book you haven’t read?
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?
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?
Would you post phony five star reviews of your book to counter the damage?
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?
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?
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?
And if defending yourself just brought more vitriol, would you consider defending yourself anonymously?
How about under a fake identity? Would you ever use a sock puppet to defend yourself from mob behavior?
Would you use a sock puppet to praise your own work? Denounce the work of others?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.