Wednesday, October 17, 2012

If paid reviews are 'bad', what's good?

The resilient meme re John Locke's now-infamous purchased Amazon reviews has stirred a big pot of author resentment. But is there another way?

It's not only mass outrage (feigned or real) over whether Locke crossed some moral line at work here, but a combination of resentment over his resultant financial success (now widely derided as 'unearned') and the disingenuousness inherent in his How I Sold a Million Books e-book. The e-book contended that a writer needed to believe in people's goodness, and that folks now placed within reach by Twitter et al were eager to get behind a fledgling author. Locke said they would rise up like an army for an author they believed in, with reviews and other shows of online support. When Locke was confronted with the truth, he ironically allowed that it would have been too difficult to align sufficient public backing to launch his books without the paid reviews.

In some online writers' forums, the (presumably) moral outrage against paid reviews extends even to well-established review mills such as Kirkus. Kirkus does offer 'free' reviews, but also charges for expedited service. Some critics contend that such payment taints the review. These critics never address the question of whether 'free' review publications such as the New York Review of Books, which is financially dependent on a regular stream of paid ads by big publishers, are not by that same measure nothing more than paid publicists. (Kirkus addresses the issue head-on here.)

Similarly, Stephen Leather (who has visited this blog, with kind words) and RJ Ellory have been outed for various types of online sock puppetry. The conclusion of many has been that no online information has any credulity. Yet even that knowledge does nothing to address the issue.

In defense of Locke, Leather et al, it was also revealed in the past year that Reddit started out with tons of fake ('sock puppet') accounts. It was freely admitted by Reddit's founders that, in order to build a genuine online community it was necessary to first construct a fake one. This completely supports Locke's contention re building his own audience.

Indeed, it is well-known that nobody wants to eat at an empty restaurant and nobody wants to watch a play in an empty theatre. Restaurants, therefore, do what they must (including providing free meals to friends and family members) to present the appearance of a thriving clientele, while theaters routinely paper the house. The same principles apply to online participation in any forum, and they apply to books as well (or perhaps – especially).

For that matter, most reviewers simply need compensation for the time spent both reading and writing their reviews. This does not necessarily corrupt them, any more than the average fireman would pursue his self-interest by starting fires. There is also the question of supply and demand. Right now, there is a tremendous demand for online book reviews because there is a surge of books. At some point, market forces (i.e., money) has to enter in, not so much to insure a 'good' review but rather to insure any review at all. Because of the overwhelming demand for reviews, a paid reviewer today is in quite a good position to preserve his integrity by saying what he truly feels, secure in the knowledge that another potential client is always waiting. (It is common for too-busy reviewers, pressed for time, to turn down review requests these days. I have yet to encounter one who was worried they would run out of new books.)

What are we to make of the time-honored practice of authors writing book blurbs for other authors? Surely this is far more clearly a case of one hand washing the other than a paid Kirkus review. What author would write a glowing review or blurb for another author who had been less than kind to him?

Money neither purchases not erodes integrity – one either has it or one doesn't. Either reviewers and authors strive for that 'one true thing', or they give themselves over to dissolution, or they fall in that vast area in-between. There is no method of compensation that guarantees honesty. Only the inner convictions of those involved can do that, if it can be done at all.

Still, one can appreciate the efforts that some have undertaken to balance the unavoidable marketplace competition for reviews & attention with a desire to be (or at least appear) unspoiled. So, how's this: "For every book review, I will loan $25 to a @kiva entrepreneur. 60 loans, with your help!"

I hereby award this author (Jason Womack) 5 stars for going the extra mile.