Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Opinion — On Writing, Reviewing, Promotion And Ethics

What prompted me to start thinking about ethics for authors is the intense attention paid to writers who write their own reviews anonymously, pay a firm to review them and even write negative reviews of those writers they perceive as competitors. Cliché alert:  Necessity is the mother of invention.  Once such companies as Amazon and Barnes & Noble become the central pipeline for the sale of books — and especially now with the swarms of e-books — how does one get noticed? Standard reviews from The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist can’t possibly provide the nearly complete guidance they once did.  They simply don’t have the resources to read, measure and report on every book that comes out. And if what I understand is true about on-line booksellers — that is that the number of reader reviews and the number of stars books are given are the major arbiters of the amount of attention a book receives — there is the tempting motive for hanky panky.

We writers are desperate to get noticed, most of us, anyway.  The temptation to do whatever is necessary has to be great. If my mother were alive, she would be the first to say my latest book was a sensation and if she were also computer literate, she would do so on all the Internet book sites as well as fill in every star available.  She might even ask her friends to do the same.  This is what people do.  How unethical is that?  The truth is:  I don’t know.  But all the discussion has me thinking about it.

At election time, I have similar questions.  What I’m about to say is related to the subject at hand.  Obama, when he ran in 2008, said that marriage should be between a man and a woman.  After the election, he said that his position was “evolving.” As time moved on and the polls began to show support for gay rights, he repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and took some other positive steps for equal rights for LGBT people.  More time passed and the needle showing support for gay marriage went above 50 percent.  The President said he now supported gay marriage.  I do believe in evolution, but this one?  Because he is a sensible politician he waited until the time was right.   To be fair, the policy weathervane that Romney has embarked upon in his career should have caused him terminal whiplash.  But the point I’m making is that the discussion of ethics is, like most things, a matter of degree.  If Obama said what he thought in 2008, would he have won? Are we okay with that? That’s really the question.  In the end, marketing is selling.  What do we want and what will we settle for?

Another, perhaps slightly oblique example: I was reading every book a certain writer wrote.  Great stuff.  Really.  He took me to places I could not go myself.  His work was colorful, insightful, and he created a main character about whom I cared and with whom I wanted to identify. However, the character became more and more a vigilante.  He seemed to have lost his ethical center.  This is fiction, so this isn’t wrong in a universal sense, of course.  The writer might have been after a greater truth and used the development of the character to do so.  But he lost me.  Others have avoided the moral dilemma by creating a strictly principled main character who happens to have a psychopath as a good buddy. The psychopath can do all the bad stuff that needs to be done, keeping the main character as high-minded as I might want him or her to be.  Some sleight-of-hand ethics here.  Does that make it better? For some.

The reason I bring this up is that writing, like most professions, does have ethical issues to consider.  Plagiarism for example. That's an easy one. But writers steal plots and characters. Some abscond with another writer’s style. Shakespeare was a notorious thief. I use a P.I.  Would I have even known to create a P.I. character if there weren’t all those writers before me?  Is that theft?  The truth is we tolerate a certain level of questionable behavior.  How far does that extend?  And now that the marketing burden falls more heavily on writers, how do we handle that?

Writers have had to engage in self-promotion for decades, perhaps centuries. The demand to do so may be quite a bit greater now. With book promotion in the hands of the authors more than ever, the ethical issues can be treacherous.  We have the ability to stuff the Amazon or B&N ballot box with fake reviews.  Based on what I understand to be the algorithms of Internet booksellers, the number of reviews and average numbers of stars may put a certain book in a special, highly promoted category.  If that boosts sales, then it hits the bestseller lists, which in turn boosts sales still further.  If the stats are actually based on falsified data, then it’s all wrong. It is not only inaccurate, but has also misled readers while increasing the writers’ royalty checks.  It is fraud.

But only a few short years ago, when nearly all people picked up books from store shelves or display tables, we looked at the book jacket to guide us. There was almost always the publisher’s blurb that extolled the virtues of the writer and the book.  There were also blurbs from established writers, some of which seem suspect.  “John Doe is the greatest mystery writer since Poe,” says Bill Smith.  On Bill Smith’s next book, “John Doe says, “Move over Hammett and Chandler, Bill Smith just moved to the top of the list.” And what about the quotes we extract from Publisher’s Weekly or The New York Times?”

The Times said of my debut mystery, “The pragmatic investigator makes a good first impression.”  The Times said a few other things as well; however we focused on the positive.  We didn’t lie.  The quote is exact, if not complete. Careful extraction of quotes can turn a mildly positive review into a rave.  Dishonest? Possibly.  Where do we draw the line?  Whose judgment do we accept?

Certainly there is something wrong with buying reviews and pawning them off as genuine.  Or stuffing the ballot box with self-praise under various alias.  It’s even worse when we start demeaning the work of other writers, thinking it might boost our own status. It’s kind of sleazy.  I can’t imagine that this is effective, even in the short run. But I think we had to expect — though we don’t have to accept — this kind of opportunism in the current wild-west publishing environment.  It is a result of the disarray we experience as readers, writers, publishers and reviewers while we try to adjust to the monumental changes we are experiencing.

Meanwhile, everyone, not just Amazon or B&N, needs to find a way that some sense can be made of how books are marketed to potential readers, how we can fairly guide the reader through the overwhelming volume of books available to them.  How can we help get the right books to the readers who would enjoy them?

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