Let’s NOT Get Over It

 

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.

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10 Responses to “Let’s NOT Get Over It”

  1. Robin says:

    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.

    THIS.

    The intention of these “reviews” is to deceive readers, because the only way they can appear to be legitimate is if the identity of the “reviewer” is hidden. Or, in the case of purchased reviews, if the circumstances under which the review was produced (money in exchange for a positive review) are unknown to the reader. So it’s not like someone underestimates the presence of a COI – the “review” is presented in such a way as to disguise its origins. Very different thing, objectively speaking.

    • Exactly. I’m appalled that Konrath either does not see why that’s wrong, or, alternatively, appalled that he does and sees nothing unethical about it.

      From that post, alas, it seems fairly clear it’s the latter.

  2. Pinto Jones says:

    ‘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.’

    People tell other people it was one star in order so they don’t buy it. You’ve basically agreed with him. Although you’ve but a few words into what he said then quoted as fact.

    • Pinto: I disagree with Konrath’s statement that ALL 1-star reviews are written with malice. That’s just not true. Konrath has conflated effect with intent. A reader who writes a negative review does not intend to harm a book. The reader intends to share her opinion. The effect of that review may indeed be that other readers do not buy that book. Oddly enough, it happens to be true that a negative review sells books. (I would point you toward Dear Author who wrote a post about this very effect.) Konrath did not, I would point out, claim that all 1-star reviews are written by people who are not disclosing their financial interest in the success of a competing book.

      But even if it were true that all 1-star reviews are malicious in intent, that doesn’t make it OK for an author to hide his identity when posting negative reviews about competing books. It’s deceitful and malicious.

      I strongly disagree with Konrath’s statement that such actions by an author are fine. They’re not.

  3. Pinto Jones says:

    Did he say the words ALL are written with MALICE?

    • Yes, he did:

      ::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.::

      Note the words “Every one…”

      I don’t think it’s possible to interpret “every one of those” as anything but equivalent to “all.”

  4. T.K. Marnell says:

    I don’t believe most people think that their negative reviews have any power to harm a book’s sales. A two-paragraph rant on bad grammar is a tiny bitter drop in a very big ocean of stars. I’ve left negative reviews myself, and I know I wasn’t thinking, “I must stop other people from giving this author money!” I was thinking, “Gawd! The heroine was such a useless brat!” I was writing them mostly to let off steam, not to destroy careers. I know nobody pays attention to what I have to say, anyway.

    If you take a hard look at Konrath’s reasoning, it boils down to two questionable principles: (1) It’s okay to do unethical things because millions of others do unethical things, and (2) it’s okay to do unethical things because you can do unethical things. “If it was wrong, it wouldn’t be allowed.”

    Um, yeah. It’s technically an American citizen’s right to stand outside the funeral of a serviceman with a sign that says, “God Hates Fags!” screaming obscenities at the mourners and hoping someone throws a punch so you can sue them. Nothing illegal about it. So since it’s perfectly “allowed,” it can’t be wrong. We shouldn’t be outraged when someone does it, right?

  5. T.K: I agree with your take on this. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Teresa says:

    I know I’m coming late to the game here and this will probably not even be read, but one thing struck me about Mr. Konrath’s stance. Reading isn’t a finite resource. It’s not like I only can buy two books, his or another one and if the other one has bad reviews I’ll buy his. In fact, I buy and read lots of books. I’m always looking for more. So his negative reviews of someone else’s book don’t equate directly to higher sales of his. Those reviews are only to hurt that particular writer. I think it’s important to ask why he would possibly think that’s acceptable.

    • Teresa:

      I agree with you. From what I’ve heard about the authors who were found to be doing this, they targeted authors and books they believed were their competitors. Presumably, they believed there was some increased chance of a reader buying their book instead. But you are absolutely right in that there is no guarantee of that. Such deceptive reviews are, in fact, designed to hurt that author. Konrath’s argument that all negative reviews are intended to harm the author is, in my opinion, an attempt to convince us cases like these are no different. As if motives don’t matter.

      Thanks for stopping by.