Normally, I take Joe Konrath with a large grain of salt. He’s opinionated, wildly so, and it’s always interesting to read over-the-top opinions. By and large I’d say I agree with his points about publishing, though I agree less often with the words he chooses. But mostly, I agree with his take on what’s going on the publishing business these days. But I disagree a lot with his Enough Already Post.
In this post, Konrath says he sees nothing wrong with authors sock puppeting reviews of their own books or posting, under an account meant to disguise the author’s identity, negative reviews for competing books.
Every one of those millions of reviewers who trashed a book deliberately did it to harm that book’s sales. That’s the whole point of a one star review
Actually, no. I don’t think Konrath is right on this one. People write 1-star reviews in order to tell other people that they did not like that book. They are expressing an opinion about the book they read. It’s the expression of opinion that’s the whole point of a review, 1-star or 5. To suggest that all 1-star reviews are motivated by malice (“did it to harm that book’s sales”) is ridiculous. It is not malicious to say you did not like a book when, in fact, you did not like that book.
He moves on to muddy his point about 1-star reviews being written for the purpose of deliberate harm with an acknowledgment that people are allowed to express their opinions. Indeed, we are.
In a society that permits people to express their opinion about things, the subjects of those opinions can and do take a beating. When a company puts a product into the stream of commerce, in such a society, consumers of that product are allowed to say what they think, and what they say and think is not always nice. The reviews are not always well-written. Sometimes they’re mean. Sometimes the words are incoherent and sometimes it’s plain the opinion is not well-founded in logic or accuracy. Some reviews are written by people who are not our best and brightest. But the reviews are still the genuine words of someone who experienced the product.
Here’s an example:
I stopped buying Sanford Uniball pens when the pens started breaking long before they ran out of ink. I used to buy them by the box. They were my favorite writing pens. The change in quality made me stop buying them. I have, quite literally, bought dozens of boxes of these pens. I used them, too. And now I don’t because the quality became shoddy. Now I buy Bic pens. They are not shoddy. They are miracle pens that make my writing even better. My star assessment: 1-star.
There is nothing unethical about my posting my opinion of the Sanford Uniball pen. This was, in fact, my true and actual experience of the product. I no longer buy these pens. (I don’t buy Bic pens, though.)
But what if you then found out that, in fact, I am an employee of Bic? Does not my failure to disclose that change how you read that review? Don’t you, as a reader, now wonder if those words are true?
Most of us understand quite well the difference between a reader posting a negative review of a book she did not like and an author who posts a negative review of a competing book under a fake account for the sole purpose harming that book.
The first case is freedom of expression: a real reader expressing her opinion about a book she read. The second case is, pure and simple, deceit and fraud. The author is pretending to be a reader with no skin in the game. The author is using words intended to harm the product he is “reviewing.” By disguising his identity, and therefore his conflict of interest, he is attempting to dupe other readers.
There is nothing right about that. Nothing.
We all know why Mr. Ellory didn’t use his real name in posting those reviews of competing books: if he had, his “review” would have been instantly identifiable as biased. If he had posted those reviews as himself, his reviews would have been read in the proper context and readers could have made an informed decision about how much weight to give to those words. But he didn’t.
1-star reviews by readers who didn’t like a book they read are not unethical. It doesn’t matter if the review is badly written. A reader is entitled to express her opinion about the book.
1-star reviews by authors who disguise their identity so that readers of his words are unaware of the bias are deceitful and unethical.
Let’s not get over that at all.