Category Archives: Business Ethics

The #HugoAwards are Supposed to be Fun, Damn It!

I know I haven’t said anything about this year’s Hugo Awards on the blog.  There are reasons.  Reason number one being that I have work to do and there are plenty of more fervent voices chiming in already.  Reason number two is that I know people involved to various degrees and do not wish to invite negativity towards them, myself, or my blog followers.

Today I have put my toes into the not-so-calm Hugo waters because Editor Edmund R. Schubert is withdrawing from consideration.  Full disclosure: he has been my editor in the past, and I hope he’ll be my editor in the future.  I am a regular reader of IGMS, and love the variety of voices, characters, and backgrounds found there.  I independently put Edmund R. Schubert on my nominating ballot (meaning I am not a slate voter and never will be, no matter whose slate it is), just as I have done every year I’ve participated in nominating (which, ok, is all of three years).

Edmund asked me (having no idea that I nominated him–if he’s reading this post it’ll be the first he’s heard of it!) and a few fellow IGMS authors if we’d be alright with him creating a Hugo-Sampler-that-Never-Was:  a special issue of IGMS stories that he believes exemplify what the magazine has to offer its readers.  It’s what would have been in the Hugo packet, if he’d felt comfortable remaining on the ballot.

I was ready to never say anything about the Hugos here.  But I love IGMS and the specific story of mine Edmund requested, and am greatly saddened by what has happened around the Hugos this year.  I think it’s important to note how this year’s slates have fostered nothing but ill feelings, and that many fine authors, editors, and venues are caught in the middle: either because they’ve become a “ping-pong ball” as Edmund describes below, or because they were bumped from the list due to questionable bloc voting.

Edmund has allowed me to reprint his withdrawal statement.   Please see below.



My name is Edmund R. Schubert, and I am announcing my withdrawal from the Hugo category of Best Editor (Short Form). My withdrawal comes with complications, but if you’ll bear with me, I’ll do my best to explain.

I am withdrawing because:

  1. I believe that while the Sad Puppies’ stated goal of bringing attention to under-recognized work may have been well-intentioned, their tactics were seriously flawed. While I find it challenging that some people won’t read IGMS because they disagree with the publisher’s perceived politics (which have nothing whatsoever to do with what goes into the magazine), I can’t in good conscience complain about the deck being stacked against me, and then feel good about being nominated for an award when the deck gets stacked in my favor. That would make me a hypocrite. The Sad Puppies slate looks too much to me like a stacked deck, and I can’t be part of that and still maintain my integrity.
  2. Vox Day/Theodore Beale/Rabid Puppies. Good grief. While I firmly believe that free speech is only truly free if everyone is allowed to speak their mind, I believe equally strongly that defending people’s right to free speech comes with responsibilities: in this case, the responsibility to call out unproductive, mean-spirited, inflammatory, and downright hateful speech. I believe that far too many of Vox’s words fall into those categories—and a stand has to be made against it.
  3. Ping pong. (Yes, really.) A ping pong ball only ever gets used by people who need something to hit as a way to score points, and I am through being treated like a political ping pong ball—by all sorts of people across the entire spectrum. Done.

Regrettably this situation is complicated by the fact that when I came to this decision, the WorldCon organizers told me the ballot was ‘frozen.’  This is a pity, because in addition to wanting ‘out’ of the ping pong match, I would very much have liked to see someone else who had earned it on their own (without the benefit of a slate) get on the ballot in my place. But the ballots had already been sent off to the printers. Unfortunately this may reduce my actions to a symbolic gesture, but I can’t let that prevent me from following my conscience.

So it seems that the best I can do at this stage is ask everyone with a Hugo ballot to pretend I’m not there. Ignore my name, because if they call my name at the award ceremony, I won’t accept the chrome rocketship. My name may be on that ballot, but it’s not there the way I’d have preferred.

I will not, however, advocate for an across-the-board No Award vote. That penalizes people who are innocent, for the sake of making a political point. Vox Day chose to put himself and his publishing company, Castalia House, in the crosshairs, which makes him fair game—but not everybody, not unilaterally. I can’t support that.

Here’s what I do want to do, though, to address where I think the Sad Puppies were off-target: I don’t think storming the gates of WorldCon was the right way to bring attention to worthy stories. Whether or not you take the Puppies at their word is beside the matter; it’s what they said they wanted, and I think bringing attention to under-represented work is an excellent idea.

So I want to expand the reading pool.

Of course, I always think more reading is a good thing. Reading is awesome. Reading—fiction, specifically—has been proven to make people more empathetic, and God knows we need as much empathy as we can possibly get these days. I also believe that when readers give new works by new authors an honest chance, they’ll find things they appreciate and enjoy.

In that spirit, I am taking the material that would have comprised my part of the Hugo Voters Packet and making it available to everyone, everywhere, for free, whether they have a WorldCon membership or not. Take it. Read it. Share it. It’s yours to do with as you will.

The only thing I ask is that whatever you do, do it honestly.

Don’t like some of these stories? That’s cool; at least I’ll know you don’t like them because you read them, not because you disagree with political ideologies that have nothing to do with the stories.

You do like them? Great; share them with a friend. Come and get some more.

But whatever you decide, decide it honestly, not to score a point.

And let me be clear about this:  While I strongly disagree with the way Sad Puppies went about it… when the Puppies say they feel shut out because of their politics, it’s hard for me to not empathize because I’ve seen IGMS’s authors chastised for selling their story to us, simply because of people’s perceptions about the publisher’s personal views. I’ve also seen people refuse to read any of the stories published in IGMS for the same reason.

With regard to that, I want to repeat something I’ve said previously: while Orson Scott Card and I disagree on several social and political subjects, we respect each other and don’t let it get in the way of IGMS’s true goal: supporting writers and artists of all backgrounds and preferences. The truth is that Card is neither devil nor saint; he’s just a man who wants to support writers and artists—and he doesn’t let anything stand in the way of that.

As editor of IGMS, I can, and have, and will continue to be—with the full support of publisher Orson Scott Card—open to publishing stories by and about gay authors and gay characters, stories by and about female authors and female characters, stories by authors and about characters of any and every racial, political, or religious affiliation—as long as I feel like those authors 1) have a story to tell, not a point to score, and 2) tell that story well. And you know what? Orson is happy to have me do so. Because the raison d’etre of IGMS is to support writers and artists. Period.

IGMS—Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show—is open to everyone. All the way. Always has been, always will be. All I ask, all I have ever asked, is that people’s minds operate in the same fashion.

Consider this the beginning then of the larger reading campaign that should have been. To kick it off, I offer you this sampling from IGMS, which represents the essence of how I see the magazine—a reflection of the kind of stories I want to fill IGMS with, that will help make it the kind of magazine I want IGMS to be—and that I believe it can be if readers and writers alike will give it a fair chance.

If you have reading suggestions of your own, I heartily encourage you help me build and distribute a list.

(Yes, I know, there are already plenty of reading lists out there. But you will never convince me that there is such a thing as too much reading. Never.)

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Of Profiles and Pitches

I open my email and find I have a new twitter follower. Cool. That’s a pretty rare event for me, seeing as I how I’m sitting at nobody status at the moment and I don’t go on following rampages looking for random hoards to follow me back.

I like to visit followers’ profiles to see if they’re fly-bys or people I’d actually like to network with. So, I go to this guy’s profile and read: “Can a man who throws his dates in a dungeon succeed romantically?”

And the first thing I think is, “Holy crap.” Followed by, “This guy probably thinks that’s a funny way to describe himself and has no idea how creepy it sounds.”

For the record, I know nothing about this individual. He seems nice enough, but his twitter profile gave me the wrong impression. I quickly got over that impression after I, you know, read past the first sentence in his profile, but it got me thinking — there are certain places you want to put things like loglines and summaries, and certain places you do not.

Yes, that is a logline for the humor novel he currently has out. In that context, it is funny. But I had no indication he was a writer until after the creepy first impression.

Profiles are bad places to put loglines, especially if you don’t preface them. When someone goes to an ‘about me’ page or a twitter profile, they expect to learn about the person, not be pitched a product. That expectation can color their impression of whatever they find there.

I was halfway to the block tab before I decided to go back and read the second sentence. I’ve gotten followed by random creepy people before (“Just looking for someone to spend hot, steamy, guilt-free nights with” — er, no thank you. Or ” #&$%ing bitches be hating.  You one of them?” — Take your chauvinism elsewhere), and wasn’t about to trade tweets with a guy who thinks joking about abusing the women he meets is funny.

When we promote our products we want to make sure we’re promoting what we think we’re promoting. We want to be sure that we’re reaching the right audience in the right way.

I might be his target audience.  I love humor novels.  But, if I’d done what I typically do when I get “that vibe” — run to block — I wouldn’t have even realized I’d passed over a writer’s profile.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with his approach, but it did make me do a double take. I’m not saying, “Don’t promote your book this way,” just, “Think about it for a while before you take this approach.” Make sure it’s getting you what you think it’s getting you.

Those of you with loglines that follow a more sinister vein might want to be extra cautious.

And, who knows, maybe his strategy did work. After all, I’m posting about it.

Ever run across a profile that made you do a double take? Tell me about it!


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Anybody Follow Football? An Ethics Post

Anybody follow football?

If you do, you’ve probably heard of the Saints’ ‘bounty’ scandal.  Hell, if you don’t follow football I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

This is a great example of ethics at work.  And of what is moral vs. ethical vs. legal. 

Most people would say it’s immoral to hit someone, though they’d most likely use the word “wrong” instead.  After all, that’s one of the first things children learn in our society and social groups: no hitting.  

But, like in boxing or hockey, hitting is a part of football.  It’s a requirement of the work.  Here we see the ethical overriding the moral. 

So, in some sports it is ethical to hit people.  But it is unethical to pay players for deliberately injuring other players.  The NFL is harping on safety right now, and this scandal could not have come at a more (in)opportune time.  This is not something that the business believes is right to promote, and the commissioner has taken steps to professionally reprimand those who were involved (whether involved through implementation or compliance.

The NFL is essentially a union, and as such they have contracts with the players and the teams that promote fairness (I hear the process and paper trails are all pretty complicated when it comes to these kinds of professional agreements).  These contracts would largely cover the ethical requirements of the industry.  For instance, it is well known that players are forbidden from taking/being paid extra money for touchdowns, or field goals, or complete passes, etc.

Granted, those are things required by the job (whereas injuring opponents is not), but so are tackles and hits.  If a player is accepting money for hits–regardless of their outcome–and it is stated in the team or player’s contract that this is unacceptable behavior by a member of the league, there could be legal as well as ethical ramifications.  

Depending on the content and legality of the contract, of course.

Actually, it is most likely these contracts that give the commissioner the power to censure the offending parties as he sees fit (even if they no longer belong to the particular team in which the breaches were committed).  If one of you lovely readers is well versed in this sort of thing, feel free to correct me or fill in the blanks.

It’s unfortunate that the best illustrations I can find are of ethical breaches rather than ethical compliance.   But what you shouldn’t do is often clearer than what you should do.   

So, what to take away from this?  Other than hitting people is wrong and getting paid for it is even more wrong?

Ethics are important.  Ethical agreements are important.  Ethical behavior is important.  To you, and all those you professionally interact with.  Ignoring ethics leads to all sorts of unpleasant problems for everyone involved (In this instance, not only do players, coaches, and staff suffer consequences, but so do fans).

Hope that added a bit to your understanding of last week’s post.  As always, questions, comments, and arguments are welcome!


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Moral, Ethical, Legal: What’s the difference?

Disclaimer: all examples that follow apply to the United States.  Different countries have different standards and legalities.

I recently realized that I started my series on business ethics in the wrong place.  It doesn’t help to throw a list of ethics violations at you before defining ethics in general.

Don’t close that internet window!  You might be thinking, Pft, I know what ethics are, thanks for nothing.  But hold the phone.

I thought most people knew, too.  Until in a long conversation related to these incidents, wherein several people used the words ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ as if they are perfect synonyms.  They’re not.

Just because something is immoral doesn’t mean it’s unethical.  And just because something is unethical doesn’t mean it’s illegal.  But, there are consequences to each.  Sometimes the consequences of an immoral action can be far worse than those of an illegal action.  Sometimes an unethical action can lead to professional ruin, but leave your personal life unscathed.

So, what makes something immoral, but not unethical?  What makes something illegal, but not necessarily immoral?  Why can you be arrested for some bad things and not others?

Essentially, what’s the difference between moral, ethical, and legal?

Spheres of influence.  I’ll break it down, then give some examples.  And there’s even a diagram.  Yes, a diagram.

Here we go.

Morality governs private, personal interactions.

Ethics governs professional interactions.

Law governs society as a whole, often dealing with interactions between total strangers.

There are things that fall under the governance of all three.  Let’s say someone kills his business partner.  Obviously that’s immoral, unethical, and illegal.  But, what if a married CEO has an affair with his next-door neighbor?  That qualifies as immoral (for most people.  We’ll get to that), but if the neighbor has nothing to do with him professionally, it’s not unethical.  And we all know it’s not illegal (as a general rule.  Some states have strange, antiquated, unenforceable laws.  But that’s beside the point).

Here’s a visual:

The lowest portion of the pyramid, in red, is morality.  More things tend to be covered by morality than either of the other two.  Just like more things tend to be unethical than illegal.  The gray center represents things that can be grouped under all headings.

I had a difficult time figuring out how to accurately represent the way these relate to one another.  I considered a Venn diagram, but the circles didn’t seem to overlap quite right.  Even this pyramid doesn’t apply universally–and that’s because morality, unlike the other two, is a largely personal and variant thing.  A diamond, or a smaller pyramid, might replace the rectangle for a lot of people.

Let’s go back to the adultery.  A fun subject for any writer, right?  Not so much fun in real life, depending on your morality.  For the majority of couples, fidelity is important–it’s something they’ve agreed upon.  But, some people agree to open marriages.  For them, finding extra partners is not immoral.

Morality governs personal interactions, and different social groups have differing moralities.  Groups tend to agree (consciously or subconsciously) on a set of rules for how they’ll behave around each other.

Similarly, the professional world has agreed on certain standards.  Business ethics are part of a subgroup that covers trade.  There are other types of professional interactions.  For example, those attending a parent-teacher conference are attending a professional meeting.  And their interactions are governed by ethics.  Both the parents and the teacher might have a tendency to use colorful (pardon the euphemism) language when they get upset.  But in a professional setting that language is typically inappropriate.  Especially when it comes to educators.

Things that are considered immoral have personal consequences.  Cheat on your spouse and you might get a divorce.  Similarly, things that are unethical have professional consequences.   If you cuss out your student’s parents… well.

Here’s an example from our field: plagiarism.  Plagiarism is not always copyright infringement, though copyright infringement is often plagiarism.  If you get someone to write your term paper for you, and you present it as your own work, you have not infringed on anyone’s rights.  But you have behaved unethically.  If you do this in school you can be expelled.  If you do this in a job you can be fired.  But no one will arrest you, or fine you.  It is unethical, but not illegal.

You’ll note that in my very especial diagram the gray portion does not include all of Law.  There are things that are illegal that someone might not consider immoral or unethical.

What?  Hu?  Why is there a law about it if no one thinks it’s wrong?

The speed limit is 65.  You’re doing 74.  You haven’t been drinking.  You’re on a straight-away and can see for miles.  Have you violated your morality?  I’m guessing, no.  Ethics?  Not unless driving is part of your profession.  Have you broken the law?  You betcha.

The speed limit is there in the interest of safety and fairness, whether we appreciate it or not.  As are many laws.

And I won’t waste your time listing the consequences to illegal actions.

Ok, hopefully I’ve cleared things up–by I may have muddied the waters.  I’m open to questions, comments, etc.

Later, all!


P.S.  Thanks for being patient with me over the last couple of weeks!

P.P. S.  Here’s a little something extra, assuming I haven’t confused you enough already.  Sometimes moral rules outweigh societal laws.  If you take your brother’s car for a joy ride and call him from the road to say you’ll bring it back the next day, he’ll probably be pissed.  But he probably won’t call the cops.   Say instead you take the car from a random guy who lives three blocks over.  Even if you call him and promise to bring it back the next day, I’m betting he’ll be on the phone with the authorities the second after he hangs up on you.  Crazy world, hu?

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“Writerly” Much? Don’t be this Guy

For today I have a nice little anecdote about what it means to be a writer versus wanting to be “writerly.”  I’ve been sitting on this story for about nine months because I couldn’t quite figure out in what context I should present it. 

Recently there was a thread on the Absolute Write forums that discussed the differences between loving writing and loving the idea of being a writer (I posted a summary of this incident in that thread).  This story is the perfect illustration of the differences, I think. 

I hope you find the story as amusing as I found the experience baffling. 

Sometimes I go to a coffee shop to write. When I’m there I’m working. One day I met another writer there–he went on and on and on and on about writing, made a big show of having his laptop out and his blank word file open and his nice little notebook at his side. I’d say we had a long conversation about writing, but really it was a lot of him gushing about how being writers put us on this “other intellectual level” and me politely nodding.

Of course, he changed his tune a little when I told him I write science fiction. That was so plebian of me.  Never mind that many scientists and engineers point to science fiction as their inspiration for entering the field.  Oh no, writing about the future was just so passé.  

After insulting my chosen genre for a little bit, we moved on to how I approach writing.  He really changed his tune when I told him I look at writing as a job, that I approach it in a business manner.

You know what he said after that?  “When people start being business minded they forget about families and grandchildren.”

Say what? 

He was of the opinion that people who are professionals are all selfish, greedy, and out to crush the little guy.  Talk about stereotyping.  And this comment came after a long speech about how being a writer made him more open minded.

I told him I wanted to sell a lot of books to reach a large audience.  He said, “But not too many books, right?  Like, you don’t want Oprah to endorse your book or anything?”

I fail to see how someone recommending a book and promoting literacy is a bad thing.

Then he went on and on about sustainability.  Publishers (not just the Big Six–I’m not even sure he knows there’s a Big Six) were all evil corporations who didn’t care about trees.  That’s why he was going to publish his own books by hand, because he cared about the paper and they didn’t (he was still using mass-produced paper, mind you).  I was completely confused as to how his use of paper was better than theirs, but he insisted it was.  Then he mentioned how he was proud of our library for installing solar panels.

Yeah, those solar panels are great.  And guess what?  My husband’s business help put them there.  If there weren’t people around who were business-minded there wouldn’t be things like solar panels.

He completely failed to see how there wouldn’t even be a coffee shop for him to sit pontificating in if someone somewhere wasn’t being “business minded.”  How the business part of sustainable business practices was just as important as the rest. 

I asked him if he’d submitted anything.  He said no.  I asked him what he’d written.  He said a (note the singular) book of poems.  How long had it taken him?  “Years,” he proudly proclaimed.

And those are just some of the highlights.  This conversation was weird, believe me.

Eventually I had to stop him (after he asked me if I was worried Duotrope might steal my copyright I just couldn’t take it anymore) and politely informed him that I only had another hour and I really had to get my word count in. He grudgingly left me alone, and when I left the shop he had a game open next to his blank page.

In the two hours I was there I wrote 2,000 words. He wrote zero.

True story.

I’m biased, but which of us do you think enjoys writing and which enjoys the idea of being writerly?

Writers write.  Writers who want to be read research the industry and copyright law.  They understand professionalism.  Real writers are essentially the opposite of this man.

And I’m still trying to decided if this guy was crazier than the dentist who told me there was a government conspiracy to hide a twelfth planet in our solar system with intelligent life on it (yeah, I know, if you count poor Pluto we’re still missing ten and eleven–not sure what happened to those).  But that’s another story.

Truth is stranger than fiction.


P.S.  He also wanted to move out of the country and into a big city because he heard it was a “green city.”  Hu?  A green city is an oxymoron, man.  I’m all for practices that protect our environment, and I assure you moving into a big industrial center is not one of them.


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A Business Ethics Tie In: Reviews, Anyone?

If you frequent very many writing related websites or forums, you’ll know there’s been a bit of hubbub recently over reviews.  Mainly over writers and agents and publishers either responding to reviews inappropriately, or writing posts on how a reviewer should review, or stating how reviewers should feel responsible (read: guilty) for any direct impact their review might have on an author’s sales.

This behavior is not new.  People behave badly when they feel they’ve been slighted.  I’m sure we’ve all failed to censor ourselves–especially on the internet–at some point or another when a stranger pushed our buttons.  No, it’s not ok, but nor is it something worthy of a black mark if it happens on rare occasion.  As long as it’s happening away from your very public professional life.  Because, when it comes to business, people expect professionalism, and they should get it.

I’m not here to rail against any one individual in the publishing industry who I believe has behaved inappropriately.  That’s why you won’t find any links in this post.  I’m here to talk about it more generally.

Some of the recent problems could have been easily avoided if the individuals had some sort of background in business ethics.  One repeated sentiment is that bad reviews hurt sales, so reviewers who give “negative” reviews should feel responsible for taking money out of an author’s pocket.

Hold on.  If money is making it into an author’s pocket it has to come from somewhere.  It has to come out of someone else’s pocket.  It’s someone else’s hard-earned money before it’s the authors.

And that person–consumer, reader, fan–has every right to hear other’s honest opinions on the book, then to choose to buy the book or not based on the information they have.

Asking a reviewer to slant their review in the author’s favor (out of guilt) is asking them to lie.  As an editor, asking an author to favorably review other books put out by your publishing house just because is asking them to lie (note this is different than getting reviews and blurbs in-house in general).  Asking people who like your book to drown out a bad review with a bunch of new, good reviews, is asking them to hide the truth–which is as bad as a lie.  All of these requests are the same as flat out asking someone to be a shill (Edit: see my previous business ethics post if you need a definition for shill).

Really, what the above sort of statement about “hurting sales” indicates is that the author believes they are more important than their customers.  That it is ok to trick someone into spending money on a product they might not want, because it is more important that the author not lose a sale.

I saw this sort of behavior referred to as “tacky” on a forum.  It’s not just tacky, it’s unethical.

The next thing I have a problem with is what some of them consider a “negative” review.  Everything from a three-star no-comment Amazon review, to a two column newspaper spread with a “tone,” to a flat out manifesto against the author seems to count.   Not all negativity is created equal, and some of what’s lumped in with the clearly negative only seems to count because it can’t be classified as glowing.

And it’s these middle-of-the-road, very fair, well thought out, but not glowing reviews that I’m seeing most often attacked.  Perhaps because the author is more inclined to feel that this sort of review is a discussion (whereas a review that’s clearly bad-bad-bad can just be written off with “that person is angry at the world”).  A review is not a discussion.  It is a statement of opinion, and the good ones provide rational support for their opinion.  This does not mean an author can argue against their opinion.  It’s an opinion–subjective–and not something that’s bound to change because the author (or publisher, or agent) says it should.  Like with critiques, the only appropriate response is thank you (if you give one at all, reviews require no comment).

If whining about a fair review and asking people to lie so the author won’t lose money isn’t enough, or seems baffling, the next point might explain a lot.

We all know that a lot of writers (I could go bigger and even claim artists in general) have delicate egos.  Egos that can be hugely inflated, which means they whither at the slightest pin-prick.  Some people just can’t handle the idea that a random individual didn’t like their work.  That someone found fault with their baby (yes, I have an issue with people referring to their work as babies.  But that’s another discussion).  After all, the work was good enough to get published, which means it must be golden.

If the work is golden, why is it getting bad reviews?  Ah, of course, there has to be an explanation outside of the text.  Not just outside, but totally unrelated to the text.

So then, what do these poorly-behaving industry professionals blame?  Not fault in the work.

Who do they blame?  Not unsatisfied customers, oh no.

They blame unpublished writers and people who personally hold a grudge against the author/editor/publishing house/agent.

Now, I’m not going to say jealousy and bad blood have never birthed unfavorable reviews.  They have.  But that type of reviewer is easier to spot than a shill.  Has there been a sudden influx of one stars on a three-to-four star book, perhaps with really strange comments that clearly indicate the reviewer hasn’t even seen the text?  Well, there you go: anti-shill aboard.  Yes, anti-shills are just as unethical as regular shills.  And some people might say they’re worse, because they’re mean.  (And yes, there is a more technical term for when rival businesses are involved in bad-mouthing competitors, I’ll try to cover that later.)

Just like a regular shill, you should avoid becoming an anti-shill at all costs.  When you review a book the only ethical thing to review is the contents of the book.  Not an author’s politics.  Not an editor’s feelings towards your work (favorable or otherwise).  Nothing but what’s between the covers (the covers themselves are also fair game).

Anyone who reads on a regular basis is bound to come across a book they don’t like.  I think I usually read (or don’t finish reading) one a year I think is worthy of throwing in the waste bin (though I don’t.  I mean, it’s a book).  But for every one I dislike that much, there are at least ten I like to some degree.

Since I’m an unpublished writer, shouldn’t that mean that I dislike all those published books because I’m so darn jealous?  And that every time I review a book it should be full of subtle slights, and harsh digs, and subliminal messages about how great I am, and– ok, I can’t even go on.  The idea that all negative reviews are generated by jealous hopefuls or by grudge wielding crazies is so out there I can’t even imagine how someone argues rationally for it.

Writers love to read.  Which means they like many things they read.  Which means they want the writers they like to read to keep producing books.  Which means they want them to sell books.  Which means they want people to know how good the books are so they’ll buy them.

That I’ve seen, writers give very balanced reviews.  Because they understand what it’s like to hand over your work to the world and watch it be torn apart.  They understand the author is a person and not just some nameless, faceless book-producing machine.

As for the idea that all other bad reviews are produced by grudge holders: what does that say about the person who believes they’re being attacked?  Do you really have that many people out there who dislike you that much?  What kind of person must one be to produce a slue of enemies that know exactly where to attack: in the reviews!  (Again, this is not to say this doesn’t legitimately happen.  John Scalzi certainly gets his share of attack reviews.  So does N.K. Jemisin.  As do people like Victoria Strauss and A. C. Crispin: Their exceptional work tracking down scam artists and people who take advantage of authors has made them quite a few enemies.)

So, in conclusion, I believe a lpt of this reviewing of the review comes from two places: a lack of business know-how and understanding of ethics, and from personal insecurities.  Understand how your behavior affects your career.  Let your work speak for itself.  If it’s good, it will generate a positive review to balance out that negative one all on its own.  If it doesn’t, be confident in your ability to learn and improve, don’t snap at those who reveal true flaws.

Reviews are mostly for readers, by readers.  And readers have no obligation to the author to spin their statements, or even go easy when they really believe in what they’re saying.  Their only obligation is to be honest.

A review might not be a discussion, but a blog post is.  What’s your take on all the recent commotion?



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The Business Ethics of Writing and Publishing: Shilling

There are all sorts of articles available on how to publish (traditional and self), on why or why not to go a certain route, how to present yourself, how to produce a good product, how to get the attention of agents, publishers, reviewers, readers, etc.

But you know what I’ve never seen?  An article about writing and business ethics.

Now, I can’t cover every aspect of business ethics with this blog, let alone this post.   There are dozens of fields of study related to the subject, and students majoring in business can expect to spend hundreds of hours learning about ethics before they graduate.  I can’t provide anything that comprehensive.

But, every so often I’d like to do a post on one aspect of business ethics.  And I’d like to start with deceptive business practices we can all easily avoid, especially if we’re self publishing.  Some of them might be obviously unethical, and others not so much.

Why is it important to avoid deceptive practices?  For two main reasons.  One: taking care to avoid these things will establish trust between you and your readers.  Two: it protects your business.  Some of the things I intend to bring up aren’t only unethical, they’re illegal.  Any action that could put you or your work in danger is a bad business practice.

Today I’d like to introduce you to a deceptive practice known as shilling.

Shilling, quite simply, is the practice of planting someone in the “audience” who agrees with or approves of the product and the seller.  The shill is presented to the rest of the audience as being one of them–someone totally unrelated to the business.

How does this apply to writing?  Where can we see this?  Easy, in product reviews.  When you go to buy a book on Amazon (or a plethora of other online retailers) you can read reviews from other customers before you buy.  A shill is someone whom the author knows who pretends to be an unrelated consumer.

These people typically leave five-star ratings and praise the work, sometimes without citing specifics (because they often haven’t even read it).  They say things like “This is the best book I’ve ever read!  You must buy this now!  I was hooked from page one!  The party never stopped!” etc.  Low quality shills won’t say anything even remotely negative.

Low quality shills are easy to spot for those reasons; their reviews don’t sound like real reviews.  They’re even easier to pick out on self-published works, because self published works tend to have a small distribution, and therefore fewer reviewers.  High quality shills are a different matter: they understand the consumer and exactly what people look for in a genuinely good review.  High quality or low quality, it’s all unethical. 

Avoiding shilling should be easy.  Occasionally you might have a relative who wants to log in and sing your praise without reading what you’ve written–dissuade them.  Make them at least read the book.  You can’t control what they say about it, but you can prevent them from posting something outright dishonest.

Sometimes people like to give out free copies of their books to acquaintances in exchange for reviews.  This is perfectly ethical as long as you do not stipulate what kind of review they must give you.  Also, to avoid looking like you have a bunch of shills in place if they all happen to really like the work, stagger your freebees.  Because shills can also be spotted by when they review.  They often appear right after a book is published, or right after a score of bad reviews have gone up (although, in the later instance sometimes they’re sock-puppets instead of shills.  See below).  If you give away a lot of review-exchange copies right away, you might get a lot of glowing reviews posted around the same date.  That will look odd, and someone might think you’re shilling.

Why is shilling bad?  Other than for the clearly unethical reasons (it’s lying, even if the shill has read the book and posts a review that contradicts their true feelings.  Legally you can’t lie to customers in order to get them to buy your product.  More in this vein at a later date.), it’s bad because you can actually scare off customers with an over-the-top review.  If people know there’s a shill about they will question the quality of the product.  Why does this product need a fake review?  What’s wrong with it?

Shilling has an ugly cousin–and the vernacular is sock-puppet.  If you’ve ever spent much time on the Writer Beware blog (link under Resources and Helpful Links) you’ve probably encountered a lot of these in the comments section.  These are worse that shills because they are the sellers (or, on Writer Beware, the accused scammers) themselves pretending to be someone else.  If you can’t defend your work under your own name, or feel you have to make up reviews for yourself, that’s a red flag.  Why do you feel the work can’t speak for itself?

Trust your writing.  Trust your product.  And trust your readers.

What do you think?  Is shilling all that horrible, or are fake reviews harmless?  Got any other suggestions for how to spot a shill?


(ETA: On a personal writing note, I’ve got a story up at Baen’s Bar that earned an  HM in the WotF contest.  If you’re a member and you’d like to read it and leave a crit that would be much appreciated!)


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