A Question of Ethics

Regarding the review of Bonnie Kozek’s Threshold, I had this email exchange with J.M. Reep that I’m printing here.

JMR: I’m wondering why Bonnie Kozek’s book was reviewed for SPR given the following facts:

1. Ms. Kozek is a contributor to the website.
2. Ms. Kozek is also a member of Backword Books, along with Henry Baum and Kristen Tsetsi, who are also contributors to SPR.
3. While there was a hyperlink to Backword Books at the end of the review, there was no mention in the review of Ms. Kozek’s status as a contributor at SPR, nor was there any mention in the review that Ms. Kozek and at least two other contributors at SPR are involved in a bookselling business separate to SPR.

Ms. Kozek received a very positive review, and although her review was penned by Steven Reynolds, who at least is not a participant of Backword Books, it seems inappropriate to have posted a review of Ms. Kozek’s book. How can a reader trust that the review is entirely fair and objective?

Am I wrong to wonder about the ethical correctness of posting Ms. Kozek’s review? If I am wrong, can you explain why?

HB: Because Steven Reynolds reviewed it and he’s totally impartial.  This has happened before (when there were fewer reviewers).  I got my dad to review Francis Hamit’s book because I thought it questionable to do it myself.  If Steven Reynolds was giving her a good review because she’s a writer for the site then that would be dubious, but he didn’t, his review is sincere – which I think is implied by how well-thought out the review is, but I suppose I could add a disclaimer.  Honestly, I don’t think it’s so unethical to not add a disclaimer.  Kozek’s a self-published writer so she should be able to have her book reviewed along with everybody else.  I’m sure there are instances where NY Times writers’ books are reviewed in the Times.  Why should SPR be any different?  I specifically didn’t review the book myself to avoid this conflict of interest, but because Steven Reynolds is independent I don’t see the problem.

JMR: Thank you for your reply.

Adding a disclaimer is a good solution. At the very least, it acknowledges your awareness a possible conflict of interest. One sees news and media organizations acknowledging potential conflicts of interest in their reporting all the time.

Perhaps, in the future, if you or any other SPR contributors have one of your own books in the queue for review, you might give that book to a neutral, non-SPR “guest reviewer” and then post that review. I think that would eliminate any conflict of interest.

There seems to be a lot of talk about ethics in self-publishing – whether it’s charging writers for reviews or charging for other services.  The mammoth comment thread on the Publetariat Vault post is evidence of this.  Other people’s thoughts are encouraged about the ethical dubiousness of reviewing SPR’s own writers.  I’m going to be releasing my own novel soon and, yes, I’m going to be using SPR as a platform (within bounds).  Personally, I’d like to see self-publishing become more of a community that’s supporting each other’s efforts with less suspicion about people’s motives – that’s certainly been the case with the criticism of both Indie Reader and the Publetariat Vault.

  • I agree about more of a community supporting each other’s efforts rather than a bunch of suspicion about each other’s motives. Why would many people even WANT to help self publishing authors, considering all the suspicion and cynicism that gets poured out on anyone who tries to help?

  • Steven Reynolds

    Suspicion is natural in a competitive environment, and I don’t think J. M. Reep asked unreasonable questions given the apparent relationships here.

    For the record: I’ve never met or spoken to Bonnie Kozek, nor even corresponded with her by e-mail. And it was only after I’d submitted my review that Henry mentioned to me that Kozek is involved in Backword Books (I hadn’t read Henry’s SPR post on the topic nor visited the BB site). I’m not paid by SPR, I don’t accept inducements of any kind from authors, and I have no aspiration to self-publish a book of my own and promote it here or elsewhere. My only motive in praising “Threshold” is that it’s a book I very much enjoyed, and I’d like others to enjoy it, too.

    I have no problem with disclaimers. I’d actually like to see more newspaper/magazine reviews use them in cases where they and the book’s publisher are affiliated through the same media conglomerate.

  • Yes, agreed. JM Reep asked very valid questions. I don’t think it’s a matter of our own personal beliefs or ethics. However, the reading public doesn’t know us personally. They don’t know who we are or what we stand for. They don’t know if our words are sincere or just rhetoric. The wandering reader is going to get certain unfavourable impressions when they see a site reviewing their own contributors’ books. To me, it’s just bad mojo, and the Pod People have always made an effort to not to get ourselves tangled up in that mess. That’s why you won’t see interviews with site operators like Smashwords, IndieReader, etc. Steven may be an independent contributor, but he is still listed as a contributor. People take notice of these little details. This is where a disclaimer might help — MIGHT.

    The no grief situation isn’t always ideal, but it what it is: The Peeps don’t sell ad space. We don’t endorse in any way shape or form. We offer attributed fact followed by our own opinion, and we use disclaimers. One of my books was reviewed on the site, and so was Chris’. Our books were reviewed before we became contributors to the site, and having a book reviewed well on the site was a key qualification for becoming a contributor. It’s not a problem; we just have to have our books reviewed elsewhere now. Chris and I knew that going in. Conflict of interest is a conflict of interest.

    The issue of ethics is never black and white. It’s the thousand shades of grey that’ll get you in hot water. It’s perception, and in the matter of ethics, perception carries more weight than fact.

    It’s wonderful to have our peers review our books. We respect their opinions, and the issue of ethics doesn’t really cross our minds because we assume our peers will be honest, but the public doesn’t see it that way. Certain things innately stick the public’s craw. Ethical or not, it’s the perception that counts. It’s unfortunate — an unfortunate fact.

  • Cheryl, I honestly think this is an overreaction – much like the Publetariat and Vault threads. People are overly suspicious in the world of self-publishing, perhaps because people have been ripped off. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t make it valid. I think Steven and I answered the criticism fine. And I think the NY Times comparison holds up – as I’ve said before, if self-publishing is going to be taken seriously it’s going to need to act more like professional media, and pointing fingers that this is ethically dubious, when it’s a very common practice in traditional media, divides a line between amateur and professional journalism. I don’t follow: you think it’s unethical to interview Mark Coker of Smashwords or Amy Edelman of Indie Reader because you might use those services? That might be taking it too far. I do think there’s a difference between SPR and Pod Peep in that SPR is more of a magazine format, rather than a straight blog format. I really think a disclaimer will solve the issue. I did a quick search and here’s Thomas Friedman being reviewed in the NY Times Book Review:


    It mentions he’s a “NY Times journalist” so SPR can do the same. But again, I think the suspicion is unwarranted and “the public” doesn’t care that much – JM Reep happens to be someone who’s been very critical of Indie Reader and the Publetariat Vault as well.

  • “I don’t follow: you think it’s unethical to interview Mark Coker of Smashwords or Amy Edelman of Indie Reader because you might use those services?”

    To answer your question, Henry: No. I don’t think it is unethical. However, it can be viewed as an endorsement. That perception is where the problem arises. Just like at my day job: I can’t accept a gift from a client, no matter how small and innocuous. Why? Becasue it’s all about how it MIGHT be perceived.

    I didn’t say anything was unethical in my post, like interviewing or book reviewing contributors’ books. I said it was bad mojo and that The Podpeople prefer not to get tangled up in that mess. I never said any of us thought it was unethical.

    I said public perception is everything, ethical or not, and The Podpeople prefer to err on the side of overcautious by taking the no-grief model. It may seem extreme, but you are right, we are not a “magazine.” I, personally, feel much better staying neutral until all the facts are in. By that, I mean cold hard statistics.

    Nowhere in my post did I say anything was unethical or that I personally thought anything was unethical. I don’t know where you got that impression. My words certainly did not state anything of the sort. Conflict of Interest with reference to my reviewing Emily or Chris’ books is not unethical; it’s just a conflict of interest.

    Of course, it all might be paranoia and over-reaction, but telling the public at large that they are paranoid and over-reactive isn’t going to garner a large fan-base, either. JM Reep is part of the reader-public, and whatever anyone else thinks of his opinion, the fact of the matter is: it counts. Just like yours and mine. People are overly suspicious. It’s self-preservation at work, and no amount of marketing spin will change it. It is unfortunate, the lack of instant trust, but people are entitled to their opinion and their personal perception. In order change people’s opinion, the facts have to change, and the only way the facts will change is when the statistics change.

    We have to change the statistics. Otherwise, our words of advocacy just get lost in the wind.

    Yes, you and Steven did just fine. I loved the review, as well. Nevertheless, because I am an Indie advocate, my opinion is looked at with scrutiny, so my opinion on whatever the issue needs to be perceived as unbiased.

  • Well, the title of the piece is “A Question of Ethics” (as was the title of the original email) which is why I mentioned the word unethical. Ethics, mojo, whatever – you think it’s a bad practice. Of course opinions are valid, but some of the suspicion is indeed over the top. On Writer Beware someone calls Amy Edelman of Indie Reader a “heinous cow” – that’s her opinion, but it’s a stupid one. Not saying your opinion is stupid at all – but just saying there’s been a extreme overreaction about these services and this suspicion about my motives for printing the review falls into that camp.

    And what’s the problem with endorsing Smashwords or Indie Reader on the site – I mean, that’s the purpose of the site, to call attention to new developments in self-publishing. I’ll have opinions about some of those services. And I still think the NY Times parallel holds up – this is something that’s common in journalism, why should it be any different here?

  • Ethics and bad mojo ain’t the same thing. Some things just unintentionally give off a bad vibe: that’s the mojo, and it’s no fault of yours.

    Unbiased reporting of the news and product endorsement are two entirely different things. Again, shaken or stirred, the perception can run the gamut — even to what we would consider “the extreme.” I don’t think name calling falls into what would legitimately be considered “opinion.” That is a different issue entirely, and an issue I refuse to discuss. People say things they don’t really mean when they are hot. That’s how libel suits start. However, I remember recently another Indie author calling a review blogger some pretty nasty names. Said author was “defended” as being volatile. In the legal world, we call that a liability. And really, I, personally, don’t think any discussion should digress like that. It’s not really productive.

    All I am saying Henry is that we walk a fine line, and no matter what stance we take, there will always be the possibility that our view will be opposed and in some cases downright challenged. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Neither should Ms. Edleman, Ms. Hamilton, or anyone else in the business. We should be prepared for it. It’s the risk we take when we slap on the journalist label, or the critic label, or the advocate label. People will always look for agenda behind the words. Best if they have no reason to believe there is one.

    Of course, this is all just my opinion. Sometimes what’s fair isn’t always right, and sometimes what’s right isn’t always fair.

    I think keeping the news column and the opinion columns separated will help, along with disclaimers. It’s journalism that makes sense, good legal sense.

    The Podpeople and SPR might be very different platforms, have different levels of enthusiasm and a different tone, but we are arguing for the same cause.

  • No doubt namecalling is different, I’m just pointing it out to show the extremes to which people have been criticizing certain services. The Publetariat Vault thread is instructive about just how suspicious some are of people’s motives – even of April Hamilton, who’s been a pretty tireless advocate for all things self-publishing.

    All I think I’ve done is put a book review on a website – a review I know was written with all sincerity and no agenda, so I felt no problem at all with posting it. But believe me, this issue is on my mind: I debated making it a Lead Story because I thought the review warranted it (and there haven’t been many book reviews as lead stories) but I wondered how this would be taken, given that I’m involved with Bonnie Kozek in another venture. So I’m aware of the fine line, but I don’t think posting the review at all is questionable by design if it fits certain criteria, and it’s not a case of a reviewer overselling a book, which would indeed be sleazy. But Steven Reynolds is a smart writer and I trust his perspective.

  • Agreed! We are all tireless advocates. I put quite a substantial amount of time into the Peeps Blog, with a full time day job, and I don’t make a nickle. The free books I do get, I give away on the site. But I love it, so I don’t complain. I could talk about Lit theory all day long.

    On the perception issue: as long as we do what we do, the issue of intent will always be on our minds. But we authors should be used to it by now, right? Even while we are writing our opus, that question nags at us. We know what we are saying, our intent is clear — to us. The story is honest and full of truth, and we are so happy with it. Then we go to press, and the real truism hits home. It’s uncomfortable knowing that the words we have put to paper will inevitably be perceived, by some, entirely different than how we perceived them.

    No wonder writers are nuts. 🙂 We, I am. I should only speak for myself.

    I must go now. Farrah has died. I grew up with that iconic feather-blonde do … so I must go now and mourn the loss of my youth. I think my brother might still have that poster.

    P.S. Steven is a very smart writer. His perspective is spot on. Bonnie’s book is on my TBR list because of his review. Plus, she wrote a novella it seems and a hard-boiled one at that. My kinda girl.

    P.S.S. I am still mad at you though, for poaching him for your site.

  • I will say this… all this constant bickering in my own community makes me not want to be a big vocal part of it. If people just get pooped on for their efforts. The fact of the matter is… Reep knows Henry, he’s commented on this blog for awhile. To act like Henry is somehow unethical is asinine…IMO.

    The same goes for much of what has gone against Amy and April. And I personally am sick of it. As I know several other people are.

    It’s not a matter of bringing up problems or issues. There is this fear of “censorship” expressed by some people as if folks like me and Henry want people to just smile and carry on and never disagree about anything. But as new as what we’re trying to do in the current climate we’re all trying to do it, when we constantly bicker and get to that level of hysteria over things that ultimately IMO are not *that* big a deal, we make ourselves look very stupid to everyone else in the mainstream

    And I’m sorry, but there is enough stigma and crap we all have to fight through without being viewed as hysterical, paranoid, suspicious, and petty. I don’t want my name tacked onto that crap.

    And they are watching. Because they are starting to make posts about this topic and link back to some of these brou ha has.

  • And *they* in this instance are people within mainstream publishing. I realize in hindsight writing that made me sound like a conspiracy theorist. THEY…. muiahahahahaha.

  • Zoe, do you have links to “them” linking to the debates? I’m curious.

    The internet is a fantastically weird place. You begin talking about something and it crops up other places as well. On Huffington Post there’s a similar discussion about this piece:


    It’s a repost from Vintage’s own blog with an editor trumping up his own author. He says, “Full disclosure…” but still, this is problematic. A commenter there says: “The books may be good, but this post is a thinly disguised press release. Wegman is David Peace’s editor at Vintage Books! Can we get some slightly less biased book recommendations, HuffPo?”

    If I had written the Kozek review, it would have been something like this, but I didn’t.

  • The Victoria Strauss Writer Beware post about IndieReader linked to the post of Reep’s that he took down and the debate that followed. Granted I make us all look like tards in that one too. The point is that people are paying attention now and all this infighting is gaining attention and making us look stupid.

    I know Henry. I don’t think what you did was unethical at all. What irks me is that a lot of suspicion isn’t from total strangers who have never spoken with us, but from people WITHIN our own community who actively engage with us.

    I could almost understand it if it was coming from a total stranger.

  • Randall Radic

    You know, anyone who writes and ask questions based on “ethical” concerns is usually operating from a distinct viewpoint — that of self-interest. Some people need to get over themselves, and find something better to do with their time. To even imply that a reviewer gave a biased reviiew is piffle. All reviews are biased, in one way or another. That’s the definition of a “review.” Everybody knows that and nobody cares, except for the nitpickers. Reviewers, in my opinion, are as honest and unbiased as they can be and still be human. The only way to ensure unbiased reviews is to engage the services of robots, who are programmed, of course, by humans, which means there’s probably some bias in there somewhere. Oopsy daisy!

    Henry is totally honest and SPR is providing a valuable outlet for self-publishers. Why cavil about nothing?

  • A few words in my defense, and then I’ll say nothing more.

    First, I don’t know why everyone is suddenly arguing about IndieReader and The Vault in this thread. As far as I’m concerned, my email to Henry was/is a completely separate issue unrelated to my opinions of those websites.

    Second, I’m never called Henry or Steven or Bonnie or anyone else unethical in my email. The purpose of my email was simply to point out a concern that I had when I read the review of Bonnie’s book. I like SPR; I think it is a very valuable website, and I’d like to see it be the best it can be. I’m sure Henry would also like the site to the be the best it can be. My email should be read simply as a friendly suggestion from someone who cares about the site. If my intention had been to stir up trouble, I could have posted a very differently worded comment following the review of Bonnie’s book. Instead, I decided that the best thing to do would be to contact the SPR editors by email, behind the scenes, and voice my concerns privately. I did. It was Henry’s suggestion to make the emails public — which I agreed to, but now, in retrospect, I wish I had asked Henry to keep the email exchange private.

    Finally (and this is for Zoe), ever since I left PubRen, you have directly and indirectly been leveling all sorts of accusations and attacks my way whenever our paths have crossed, and it’s really becoming tiresome. If you disagree with my opinions, fine. If you dislike my opinions, fine. If you dislike ME, fine. But I’ve been doing my best to ignore you, and I would really appreciate it if you would just ignore me, too.

    No more from me on this subject. Criticize, second-guess, and berate me if you must, but I will not reply.

  • JM, from my perspective as well as many others, you routinely call into question the ethics of others who do things differently than you personally would do them. As if you feel the need to police the indie community from harming themselves. Even on Victoria Strauss’ blog you said:

    “If IR ever launches, perhaps we can get answers to these concerns, but for now, everyone should be very skeptical of IR.”

    Oh really? Well I feel that that is quite paternalistic and high-handed. “Everyone” should be very skeptical of IR? What? On your say so? And it’s not the first or even the worst thing you’ve said in a public forum about something you didn’t like. You don’t get to decide for other people what they should or shouldn’t do.

    If you don’t want someone to disagree with something you say, then don’t say it. If you feel you have the freedom to post something about something, then you should be aware that I have the freedom to say something against it if I disagree. If you dont’ like that, keep it on your own blog and mod comments.

    If you post something I disagree with, I will reply. If you don’t like that, you don’t have to post. But speaking from the perspective of someone who you accused of being “unethical” and “unprofessional” for posting a parody on a blog I created, I feel I’m informed enough of the situation at hand. Everywhere I go, I see you pooping on something that is a part of trying to improve a community that *I* am a part of, not just you, and I don’t appreciate it. Other’s mileage may vary. Some may feel that way about things I say and that is fine. They are welcome to engage with me in debate if that is the case.

    And anything I’ve said against anything you’ve posted (and incidentally you aren’t the only one, it’s not like I’m talking directly to you in every instance whether you feel like I am or not), was not to incite you to reply. I dont’ care whether you reply or not. But if you post something on a public forum, be prepared to be called out on it if someone disagrees. I get called out when I say stuff others don’t like too. That’s life and the risk of posting things in public forums.

    Here with you for instance. But I’m not going to throw a fit about how you’re being “mean to me.” I said something with the full understanding that you or anyone else could reply to it.

  • JM, no need to get so upset – this thread isn’t aimed at you, it’s a good way to hash out some ideas about ethics and reviewing. Your email came directly on the heels of people’s suspicion about Publetariat, so the two things are very connected. It’s all about people’s intentions and if they can be trusted. I think SPR can be trusted, as can April. But JM, your email was called “A Question of Ethics” – it was implied that I was potentially being unethical by posting the review, without actually accusing me outright. I think the discussion’s been pretty useful.

  • Perhaps we should all take a lesson from RJ Keller:


    Even worse is the sudden surge of bickering amongst self-published writers. Obviously we’re all individuals, and independent minded ones at that, and obviously disagreements are going to come up. It’s the nature of the beast. And it goes without saying, although I’ll say it anyway, that we each have the right to air our opinions, and honest discussion is a good, healthy thing. But bickering back & forth with another indie writer, in full view of the public, isn’t just a waste of time, it makes you look bad. By reflection it makes every serious self-published writer look bad. It makes us look unprofessional. It just proves to the naysayers what they’ve been saying all along: that we’re a bunch of gullible, untalented wannabes. And that isn’t good for anybody.

  • Fair enough, Henry.

  • “Personally, I’d like to see self-publishing become more of a community that’s supporting each other’s efforts with less suspicion about people’s motives.”

    A fine sentiment, however, ultimately damaging to all concerned.

    As a reader, there is nothing worse than reading a glowing review, rushing off to buy the book and then finding that the reviewer was a little too complimentary and the book below par. And when the reviewer is a friend or colleague of the author, you can bet the review is going to be less than truthful if the book is poor.

    I think ethics are doubly important in the world of self-publishing. Self-pubbed authors are already behind the 8-ball in terms of reputation. There are good books out there, but also far too many poorly written, self-indulgent mistakes, and even more issues where the writer’s colleagues post a glowing but undeserved review.

    It’s got to stop. The books that make it to the top now are written by the authors with the loudest voice, or the most friends willing to pimp it, no matter what the quality.

    Oh, it happens with books in the bookstore as well, don’t get me wrong. But they don’t come with a tarnished reputation attached.

  • I agree with this, but I’d like to see some examples of what you’re talking about. A friend might not be able to fake a truly thoughtful review of a book. Take a look at the review of Threshold – Steven Reynolds isn’t a friend of Bonnie Kozek’s and that’s exactly what an authentic good review looks like. You say “the books that make it to the top now are written by the authors with the loudest voice.” Where are you talking about? Authonomy and places like that? Yeah, that’s an imperfect review system that’s more of a popularity contest, but some of the onus is on the bookbuyer to be able to gauge what’s an authentically good review or someone making a sales pitch.

  • Authonomy is a perfect example, but so is Amazon. For a case study, let’s look at Talismans of Puissance, a self-pubbed book.

    On Amazon, 11 glowing 5-star reviews. http://www.amazon.com/Talismans-Puissance-Justin-Hinks/dp/1403349096/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

    But read the two 1-star reviews. Then read what SFReader had to say: http://www.sfreader.com/read_review.asp?book=346

    The amazon revew is are a perfect example of an untrustworthy review, most of them filled with hyperbole, and most of them from posters who have only posted the one review – a sure sign of friends roped in to ‘help’.

    I’ve read online fiction with 5-star ratings that are appalling; badly crafted, rambling, plotless horrors. But if the author has enough friends, they can bump the story up in the ratings to get read by more people. Because that’s how most sites work; ratings = visibility.

    Quality is moot if you can’t get your work seen. And no, I haven’t self-pubbed, nor do I plan to, so no sour grapes. I respect those who produce quality self-pubbed work, but it’s a struggle to find them sometimes.

  • OK, the Amazon example is a good one, but when it comes to self-publishing people then start making egregious claims, like: all Amazon reviews are obviously meaningless. No, that’s just one example. It is a shame that Amazon reviews are getting diluted, but there’s not much you can do to counter people getting their friends to write reviews. Readers just should know that they’ve got to look at sources like SFReader to get a more objective sense of a book. In short, look at real review sources, not just a place where anybody can set up an account. SPR aims to be one of those.

  • Steve Reynolds

    Sham reviewing is pretty transparent, especially at Amazon: such reviews are poorly written, hyperbolic and empty. If I see a self-published book on Amazon with less than five reviews and they’re all these kind of semi-literate 5-star ones, then I tend to ignore them. It doesn’t mean the book is bad, it just means I don’t trust the commentary. As with any purchase, it’s a case of “buyer beware”.

    Trouble is, what can the wary buyer use as a guide other than “reviews”? Most self-published books are sold online, with little opportunity for the buyer to sample them. If I read a glowing review of a traditionally published book, I can wander down to my local bookstore and check it out for myself. I can’t do that with a self-published book. To remedy this, I’d love to see more self-published authors offer downloadable PDF extracts from their work – maybe the first chapter or three. If they sell via Amazon, they could look into enabling the “Click to LOOK INSIDE!” feature. I’m guessing Amazon charges for that, but it might be worth it – especially if you think the quality of your writing is a strong differentiator in a crowded market with wary readers.

  • “Trouble is, what can the wary buyer use as a guide other than “reviews”? Most self-published books are sold online, with little opportunity for the buyer to sample them.”

    I second what Steve said. And I agree with you Henry, that readers should look at reliable sources, but if you’re a reader, how do you find the review sites?

    Something like the ‘click to look inside’ feature would certainly attract me as a reader, because that’s what I would do in a bookshop. At least the first page of the first chapter should be available.

    Interesting discussion anyway 🙂

  • On Backword, we decided to put up Scribd embeds for all our books. These types of embeds (BookGlutton, Freado) are the future of self-publishing because they help offset the problem of not being able to pick up a book and take it for a test run. A really important development.

    BTW, click on “The Scourge of Good Amazon Reviews” above. I’ve turned this discussion into a post.