Monday, August 27, 2012


Yesterday a whole bunch of folks on the social medias were talking about this NYT article about paying for reviews.

There was a lot of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over this expose.

I wanted to try and find a way to remove this question from the realm of ethics and morality and place it more firmly in the realm of reality.  I asked the following question:

Devils advocate question for Snubnose Press authors (Keith Rawson, Eric Beetner, Nik Korpon, Les Edgerton, Patti Nase Abbott, R Thomas Brown, Noir Bar, Joe Clifford, Andrew Nette, and the others): If I (this is Brian) paid money for reviews and as a result your books were selling hundreds of thousands of copies would you care, and what would you do?

Non Snubnose authors please chime in too.

(I'm genuinely curious and not trying to be provocative.)

[Note: this is a direct quote. The authors that are named weren't singled out they were tagged.]

The conversation that followed was very interesting.  The immediate responses were how wrong the idea was.  Then a couple of hours later more authors really got into the meat of the question and it became more evident that the tone of the answers were changing.

At least one of the authors (and I've seen this sentiment expressed elsewhere) hoped this would finally encourage Amazon to change its algorithms.  You see what happens is that once a certain threshold is crossed and a book receives a certain amount of reviews then Amazon automatically increases its visibility which then causes more sales.

It's well established that for a few months there you could make your book free for five days on Amazon, build up free downloads, have your book rise in the rankings, and see a strong level of sales after the original price had been reinstated.  The success of the free period would have a greater impact on sales. 

Then something happened.  Amazon changed its algorithms and the gravy train was gone.  This was widely talked about in author circles. 

So the authors who once benefited from Amazon's algorithms now want them changed.

No no no Brian. Not the good algorithms. Just the bad one's. 

This reminds me of when Jonathan Franzen came out against e-books. The obvious question then became are his titles available as e-books and if so what does he do with his royalties?  They are of course available but Mr. Franzen didn't come out and say that he was so against e-books that he was donating all of his e-book royalties to charity (or whatever).  In other words he was posturing. 

But the system is filled with various types of gaming isn't it?

The end reader probably thinks that a book store is set up like a meritocracy and that the best books make it to the table tops and end caps.  They don't know anything about co-op dollars and how publisher pay money to put those books there in high traffic places that readers will see. 

Paying somebody to place a book before the public. 

Wait that reminds me of something.  Substitute the word "song" for "book" and you are describing payola.  Even though payola laws eventually made their way in to law something interesting happened, a music company can still engage in payola practices as long as they disclose it

Where do you think Dick Clark made his money? That's right, payola. I didn't see that in any of the obits. Entire fortunes and businesses have been built on dirty money and the years just make it all clean. How many people below a certain age know that the Kennedy fortune is based on bootlegging money?

Now, instead of payola, or co-op, dollars passing from one individual to another they pass from one corporation to another and they call it standard business practice. It's been formalized.  

The town will never be the same. After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland. And while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior's college money on the poker slots. In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it's like checkin' into an airport. And if you order room service, you're lucky if you get it by Thursday. Today, it's all gone. You get a whale show up with four million in a suitcase, and some twenty-five-year-old hotel school kid is gonna want his Social Security Number. After the Teamsters got knocked out of the box, the corporations tore down practically every one of the old casinos. And where did the money come from to rebuild the pyramids? Junk bonds. -- Ace Rothstein

No business is entirely clean. As Andrew Nette said in the Facebook thread, it's all a matter of degrees. 

At no point does an author turn down a deal because their agent knows the editor. Does the end reader realize that all of a books blurbs were written by authors who share an agent or a publisher? 

I think that this debate is more nuanced then it appears at first blush. It's also a debate that I truly find fascinating.


Thomas Pluck said...

You can wash the taste out with whatever you like, I'm with Les on the ethics of being paid directly for a good review. I don't think Kirkus is much different- $425 for a review, without guarantee. There's no such thing as bad publicity, right?

And it doesn't have to be cash. Numerous writers have explained why they don't do blurbs, and it's because the expectation is there. The hand sanitizer won't make you forget you were in a circle jerk.

I've been approached numerous times by strangers for reviews, because when I like something, I am enthusiastic. But I am not a book reviewer, and I don't review anything I don't want to read in the first place.

Wealth and success absolve you of all sins, in this country. If success matters that much to you, throw ethics aside. As one politician said recently, "Do what is legally required." In my book, that's the same as "get away with whatever you can."

It's not easy to comport yourself with integrity, and no one is pure as the driven snow. Barry Eisler wrote a good article regarding integrity in journalism, and he said if you can't look back and find your mistakes, you're in trouble, because you're believing your own bullshit. I tend to agree. I've been influenced by the desire for success in the past, but I've decided that I want to write good stories. I want as many people as possible to read them, but I'd rather be remembered as a stand-up guy who could be trust to do the right thing than "that guy who wrote some bestsellers." Let's face it, most of us will be forgotten. Most of our work, even that of the biggest writers, will gather dust on library shelves until they are pulped and recycled. Do you think James Patterson will be read after he dies? Jonathan Franzen? I'm not so sure.

Write well, keep writing, and people will find you. In ten years, you might be the overnight success you so want to be. I know instant gratification takes too long, but whether it's self-publishing or traditional, our Lotto millionaire culture has us thinking we just need to be discovered like a starlet in early Hollywood. Me? I'm gonna try to stay off the casting couch and put in the hard work.

Fred Zackel said...

Funny you mention the Mob / Vegas connection. Thirty years ago the Mob was making, oh, three, four million off their skimming. That's with 11 million visitors per year. Vegas is almost forty million visitors, and the private equity managers and the multi-globals run the joint. (One sports book out there is run by a subset of Cantor Fitzgerald.) Who needs a skim when you got Bain & the boys carving out tax-free profits? No more gangsters. Just banksters.

Josh Stallings said...

I'll stand by you Mr Pluck. With all the gaming we are ultimately left with what independent authors and publisher always had, readers telling other readers to read your book. Legend has it that Louis L'Amour started selling his book by taking them in the back of his station wagon and visiting truck stops across the country. The truckers felt he was their writer and promoted him where ever they traveled. True or not it guides me. The best marketing plan I know is to write a good book. Hope that some people connect with it and passes it on. We may not see the breakout runaway hits that money can buy, but we are published by people like Snubnose who won't drop us if we don't sell to an expected quota. I dream of the days when a pub house would stand by its authors because they believed in their talent.

I have mourned the death of the "mid-list" having been told by agents and publishers alike that the Moses books would have be easy sells ten years back. They liked the writing, just didn't feel they had break out potential.

Konrath put out an essay explaining that it was all about getting as many titles on Amazon as possible. I was told by family and friends if I wanted to make a living I had to publish every fart I made. Many write enough to pull this off. Me, I'm slow, it takes me some time and effort to write what I write. For good or bad, I want to know, and have readers know when they pick up a piece written by me it will contain my voice. So I'll continue to game the system by writing the best I know how and hoping readers dig it enough to pass it on.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Paying for co-op (i.e. table placement in a store) isn't fraud. Participating in Amazon's Select program and offering books for free isn't fraud (and personally I'm glad Amazon changed their algorithms to remove the incentive for this since I don't believe it's ultimately healthy for the industry). Paying for outright bogus reviews to fool Amazon into promoting your book is FRAUD.

Brian, I certainly hope you're simply fooling around with this blog post and playing some bizarre illogical devil's advocate, because any publisher who doesn't understand this shouldn't be in business. Seriously.

John McFetridge said...

Advertising has always had a problem with fraud - did all those doctors who endorsed cigarettes not really know how harmful they were?

Sandra Ruttan said...

It's an interesting topic. I've never paid for a review, and the idea bugs the crap out of me.

However... Why is it okay for companies to pay for people to endorse their products, even if they don't use them? We don't cry foul, fraud, etc? How is it different than paying some person to endorse a brand of shoe or line of clothing to pay someone to endorse your book?

How many times have people flipped out because characters on The Wire were looking at books by Lippman and Pelecanos? What if the actors can't stand crime fiction books and don't read them? Still okay?

My point is only that we have really weird, and inconsistent, ways of rationalizing things. I think that if any author found out that their publisher paid big money to have a character on some TV show hold their book in a scene, they'd be thrilled, and excited about the publicity.

Would it matter to the author if the actor holding the book actually liked it or just pretended to because that's what they were paid to do? Hell, if Amazon decides to run a commercial for Kindle and uses one of my book covers, I will do a cartwheel. I may break my neck trying, but still.

Before I was published, before I knew much about the publishing industry at all, I didn't know anything about co-op space. I thought consumer demand drove placement, not publisher dollars. Maybe it's naive, but anyone who claims there's no such thing as the blurb circle jerk is lying, and how's that any different than paying for a review? Nobody complains when agents are wooing editors with meals and schmoozing, and nobody complains if they know someone who knows someone who gets their book to the top of the review pile for the NY Times.

Like I said, we're funny, and inconsistent, about the moral lines regarding endorsement in the book industry. I may still not like it, but I have to admit it's not as black and white as some try to make it out to be.

Anonymous-9 said...

Well said Brian. Thanks for raising a many faceted issue.