Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sock Puppets and Ethics

It's funny how things collide sometimes. Lately I've been giving a good bit of thought not just to writing, but to the business of being a writer. I've realized (get ready to point and laugh at someone with too much education and too little common sense) that if I want my books to be really successful, I probably ought to dust off all those marketing and business principles I learned as an MBA and, you know, use them.

In this scenario, I am totally the cardiologist who smokes and eats cheeseburgers. Sometimes you forget to apply your professional knowledge to your own life.

So I started making notes for mission and vision statements, business model, and core values. Along with core values I began thinking about my own personal code of ethics when it comes to my writing, and asking myself questions. Will I ever plagiarize someone else's work or intentionally ride someone's coattails? Hell, no. Will I be okay with writing characters who drink heavily and to make jokes about promiscuity or infidelity -- even though those very things have harmed people I know and love, and will definitely turn some people off to my books? You betcha. Life is not always simple or comfortable, and I don't write it that way -- even in my lighthearted, happy-ending romances. That might alienate some people, and I respect their feelings, but it won't change the way I write.

"Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."

Oh, wait. I am selling something. But I digress...

It turns out that there are some ethics and values questions I either hadn't considered or hadn't bothered to quantify as I worked around this new publishing and marketing world by pure moxie and intuition. There are also scores of stylistic and etiquette choices, about which some writers seem to feel so passionate that they almost sound like ethical issues when discussed in the blogosphere. Is it okay to follow another writer on Twitter in hopes that they will follow you back? Can or should people review other authors' work in hopes of receiving a reciprocal review? What about trading blurbs? Are Direct Messages on Twitter inherently creepy?

And, in the midst of my personal musings, the news broke that several prominent authors have "massaged" their public image by paying for positive reviews. These include self-published icon John Locke, who admitted in this NY Times article that he paid for many of his early amazon reviews.

I've read Locke's book on successful self-publishing and do find it interesting that while he was happy to highlight his once-monthly blog and Twitter-friendship strategies, he neglected to mention his "purchasing the first 300 reviews" strategy. As someone who paid to read about his methods, I find the omission annoying and maybe unethical (at least by my personal standards) but not criminal. To his credit, he's not hiding from the actions now that they're public, nor is he apologizing for what I would guess he sees as the fair purchase of advertising. It also seems that he told the now-defunct reviewing company he didn't care if the reviews were positive or negative, he just wanted numbers. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I am pretty sure that no one cares how I feel about that.

In addition to purchasing reviews, positive or otherwise, authors have been outed this week for creating 'sock puppet' identities so that they could praise their own works (eh - more pathetic than egregious). The worst offenders, however, are those who use sock puppets to trash rival authors. This, in my opinion, is particularly disgusting. Unforgivable, actually.

In response to the hubbub, some writers have banded together on this no-sock-puppet statement. I 'liked' it on principle, but I'm not sure it's the right tone or level of thoroughness to address the whole issue. A  cohesive, comprehensive code of writing ethics to which authors could commit and self-certify would be more appropriate. Please don't tell anyone I said that, though, because saying the world needs something is the step before someone appoints you as head of a committee. And, truly, I think said committee should be headed by author Barry Eisler, who posted the most coherent response to all of this here.

For fans, friends and fellow writers, and for the imaginary "record" to which all blogs like this one are permanently and indelibly inscribed, here's my take on all of it:

None of my reviews, on amazon, goodreads or anywhere else have been bought. I have never and will never pay anyone with money, chocolate, or free dog-sitting to review my books. I just don't roll that way. In the few cases in which I have provided free reviewers' copies (a common industry practice) to bloggers/reviewers, I've encouraged those people to disclose this in their review, and most of them have.

Like many first-time authors, I found the blank review section a little daunting when I first published The Marriage Pact, and so I encouraged friends and family who'd read the book to provide an honest review of it. Six of them did. Half were 5-star, half were 4-star, and all were (as far as I know), thoroughly honest. In fact, a couple of my English-major friends were harder on me than the first several non-friend readers who reviewed it.

Full disclosure: As I was trying to drum up more attention for The Marriage Pact, I posted a contest on my Facebook page encouraging people to review it for a chance to receive the sequel free. I was aware that this would self-select toward positive reviews, since people who hated the book wouldn't be on my Facebook page and probably wouldn't be interested in reading the sequel, but I was having a hard time thinking of other ways to encourage people to write reviews. I asked fans to be honest, and since many of the reviews included both positive and critical evaluations, I have to assume they were at least somewhat true to that request.

Following those positive reviews and on the heels of my first free promotion, I also received a rash of negative reviews -- people who were really distracted by the book's problems (of which there certainly were a few), readers for whom it wasn't a good fit, or for whom the subject matter was inherently offensive. It was painful at first, as I've blogged about, but it was also a great learning experience and helped me become a better writer. Honestly, while I'm certainly glad to be more positive than negative on my first work, I wouldn't trade the bulk of those negative reviews for an MFA in Creative Writing. They were seriously that valuable.

By the way, I've noticed that the reviews ebb and flow in little waves. People tend to review things when either they have strong feelings one way or the other, or they think the previous reviewers have been wrong. With TMP, my experience was that some people would read and post glowing but short reviews on how much they liked it; and then a few would come and crucify not only the book itself but all the other readers who gave it 4 or 5 stars. It's a matter of taste both ways, I think.

One big thing that impacts amazon's review system, IMHO, is that you can't leave a simple rating. You HAVE to write a review of at least 20 words in order to rate something, which discourages lazy people like me from rating things -- either because we don't want to take the time, or don't want to be scrutinized and lambasted by other reviewers for whatever we might say. The reality is that goodreads probably has a more accurate rating system, tending more predictably toward a normal, natural bell curve. The basic principles of statistics would say that most books ought to be 3-star books. Most books are average by definition. But that's not how it looks on amazon - because of the review structure and people's attitude about writing reviews.

With Regrets Only, I've been fortunate enough to have only 4 and 5 star reviews, 25 so far, and only 3 of those reviews are from people I know personally. I've been unsure with Regrets whether to hold my breath and wait for the other shoe to fall, or worry that people will think I paid for reviews since they're all positive. Maybe I should pay someone to write a mediocre review for credibility....

In the end, I've decided against fretting over it. Instead, I'll be focusing on my own ethics: working hard to provide my readers with something worth buying and doing so in a way that allows me to sleep soundly at night. I'm happy to subscribe to a thoughtfully created code of ethics within the writing community, or to establish my own and display it proudly. But other than that I don't have much room for righteous (writeous?) indignation in my life right now.

Other people's successes -- however they're achieved -- are not my failures, nor the other way around. I view relationships with other writers as a chance to learn and gain support, not to be artificially propped up or cut down. Healthy competition is great, but frankly I'd rather compete against myself than anyone else. For one thing, I'm always available to respond to my own smack talk. Plus, no socks of any kind are required.


Cynthia Landrum said...

Happy to see that on The Marriage Pact my review is still top rated and 40/40 found it helpful. Yahoo! 100% :)

I still haven't read Regrets Only, so I'll have to go do that soon, so that my review can have a fighting chance at success. Nobody reads the reviews on the tenth pages of reviews...

I love your thinking through the ethics of self-publishing. In becoming a minister, one of the things I did was write my own code of ethics--no plagiarism, no sleeping with congregants, no embezzling... ;)

But I don't get why riding the coat-tails is such a huge no-no. We all get boosts and helps throughout life in different ways; is having some connection to someone which helps you get notice such a bad thing?

M.J. Pullen said...

You know, I should have mentioned that the most helpful review was from one of my dear friends! It really was excellent.

As for riding coattails, I think by that I mean not intentionally publishing something designed specifically to capitalize on someone else's success. Like "51 Shades of Grey." :)

I also want to make a commitment to myself not to flounder around chasing popular trends or writing on topics that don't really interest me - like vampires or werewolves. Those are fine subjects for novels, but not really in my wheelhouse. That's more of a core value than an ethical issue, but all part of the conversation with myself...

Cynthia Landrum said...

Ah, yes, well I'm certainly sure (and glad) you'll never write crap like 50 Shades! :)

So I went and read and reviewed Regrets Only. It was really good. I really meant it when I said (in the review) that I couldn't put it down. You kept me up until 4 in the morning. If I missed something or got a detail wrong, that's why--extreme exhaustion!

I'm personally more into reading about vampires and werewolves :) than event planners, but you made me care about her.

M.J. Pullen said...

Wow, you sure did put a review! That was 1/3 of a novel in itself! :)

Thank you so much for your candor and amazing feedback. They are truly appreciated, my friend. You help me grow as a writer and a person every time we interact, and I mean that. Have a great week!

Cynthia Landrum said...

You're welcome! I won't put anything in a review that I can't stand by, so it's all honest. :)

Anonymous said...

Really good Princess Bride quote there!