Brian Lindenmuth, my editor at Snubnose, posed a question on Facebook yesterday (and now at his blog) that I thought was interesting:
Devils advocate question[…]: If I (this is Brian) paid money for reviews and as a result your books were selling hundreds of thousands of copies would you care, and what would you do?
First of all, I’d be dumbfounded — I just have a hard time envisioning moving those kind of numbers, given what I write. But looking at the question a bit more seriously, I said:
I wouldn’t feel good about it. I want folks to like my work without being tricked into it. Of course, it’s probably that attitude that kept me a virgin until a remarkably advanced age as well.
Put another way, I’ve spent my whole life making next to nothing off of my creative work. I’m used to not making anything, but I trust I’m being ignored in good faith, as it were. I guess I don’t need the sales badly enough to gain them via shenanigans. But I have room to say that; I’m tenured and lead a genteel middle-class existence. If it were the difference between feeding my kid or not, I’d probably sing a different tune.
In a way, I think this also ties to the question of blurbs and forms of mutual backscratching that are part of the weird confluences of art and commerce. I guess I’m an oddball, and as I said, I’m not scrambling to keep the lights on any more, but I find I keep returning to a scene in the book Starship Troopers.
At one point, Johnny Rico’s History and Moral Philosophy teacher offers him a first-place trophy or ribbon for a race at the recent field day. Rico rejects it, as he in fact came in third. The point was that he (Rico) could be proud of the third-place prize he had earned in a way he could not be of a first-place trophy he hadn’t. Of course, in an age of “Stolen Valor” laws, I may just be hopelessly out of date, but I think a hired five-star review would make me feel like I had accepted Mr. Rico’s first-place award.
I know a number of my readers are also writers. What’s your take on this?
The whole revolting business is part of the reason why I stopped giving blurbs years ago. And now, as blogging and social media become an increasing part of promotion, I’m inclined to give that up as well.
Lordy. We enter into publishing contracts in good faith that (1) the company/editor believes in our work and is proud to publish it, and (2) that the company believes the work will have value in the marketplace so that both the company/editor and author will profit from the publication. To tinker behind the contract devalues all relationships here: the editor/company, the author and the market all suffer. The short-term financial gain may be lucrative, but damn it (can I say that on your page?), my work is the result of much toil and long nights of soul-searching, and to strip the soul (which is my badge of truth and honesty) for dishonest lucre–I want no part of it. I’m no longer scrabbling to make ends meet, but I’d have responded this way even when I was. Unfortunately, social media is going to make this form of deception even harder to sniff out. I applaud Mr. Block for his refusal to participate.
I can’t imagine most publishers having the sort of cash it would take to sell “hundreds of thousands” of copies based on purchasing positive reviews, and I suspect that reviewers with that kind of influence don’t come cheap, in the few cases where their integrity is even for sale.
If a publisher has those kinds of resources, there are better ways to spend money on book promotion. Just off the top of my head: They could send free copies (or download codes for e-books) to bloggers, with no strings attached; buy actual advertising; or pay to send the author to participate in conferences for writers/fans of his genre.
The whole thing apparently got rolling thanks to this NYT article. Apparently (from what I gather from some other writers), the deal at one point was that a certain level of positive reviews led Amazon’s algorithms to push a book, thus boosting sales. That may no longer be operative, however.
Interesting–although the guy who took money to try to game the Amazon system can’t prove causation, and his rates strikes me as high. He offered 50 reviews for $999, but for that same money, a publisher can print and ship at least 125 books to sincere would-be reviewers (and earn unquantifiable good will).
It’s funny how the ethical line has moved. If it’s okay to buy fake, mass-produced reviews, then why isn’t it okay for authors to create their own sock puppets on e-commerce sites and social media services? Authors who approve of fake book reviews could at least stop pretending they’re keeping their hands clean by citing capitalism and prissily outsourcing the dirty work.