It’s odd that the recent firestorm about paid reviews and unscrupulous self-publishers has actually rekindled my love of self-publishing. Ever since Amanda Hocking, the vibe around self-publishing has been money, money, money. On the one hand, I was grateful for this because it put self-publishing on the map: money talks. On the other hand: this is the worst determination of value and pretty much what’s wrong with the world, and publishing in general. The reason that I fled traditional publishing (after having a series of agents and traditional contracts) was because of the overemphasis on marketing and past sales. Publishing was all about a numbers game.
My support for self-publishing has been about self-expression – every writer should have a chance to express themselves in print or ebook, no matter how flawed those books may sometimes be. The slippery slope of the traditional publishing industry suggests that many, many interesting and/or adventurous books are not getting published. That’s a loss to the culture at large. This is self-publishing’s value – intellectual freedom, not the freedom to be independently wealthy. Of course, it’d be great to have the latter, but the former is more important.
And so it’s somewhat vindicating to see the greed impulse in self-publishing sort of fall apart. It’s also eye-opening about all the successes that have happened. Frankly, it’s always been kind of mysterious why one book totally takes off and another one does not. This has been chalked up to the ephemeral “word of mouth,” but in some cases that word of mouth was fake. On many books with 100+ reviews, you’ll inevitably see, “This book is terrible. All those 5-star reviews must be family…” I always chalked it up to bitter reviewers, but it turns out some of them were right. I’d look at a book with a terrible cover, terrible synopsis and think, This is what people want to read? It was pretty depressing. It turns out readers really didn’t want to read those books.
I’ve had my differences with JA Konrath for a long time. In the past, he crapped all over self-publishers because they didn’t have the approval of a publishing “professional.” Then he became a self-publishing convert, because evidently $ speaks louder than a publisher’s approval. It irked me that he would continually trump up his income. This can be useful to see how self-publishing is progressing and “legacy” publishing is archaic, but his impulse was to highlight all the money-makers to prove his point, rather than people who are writing good books, but might not be selling a lot. Those people don’t fit into JA Konrath’s narrative, even though they’re the writers who might need the attention more.
I’ll admit some of this is jealousy – I mean, who isn’t jealous of someone who’s making a lot of money off of writing? It’s every writer’s dream, no matter how much they prize art over commerce. But still, it created an environment of money obsession, so it was no wonder that a lot of writers took this to heart and decided to become successful by any means necessary. And it turns out many of those successful writers were built on sand.
Konrath reveals his bias by defending authors leaving 5 or 1-star reviews. He began his post with this, but deleted it: Buying reviews isn’t wrong. Using sock puppets isn’t wrong. Leaving fake one star reviews isn’t wrong. The basic gist of the post is:
You either believe in freedom of speech, and allow people to say things within a system where freedom is allowed, or you try to police the system, which is impossible and also very wrong.
This argument makes little sense. The ACLU defends the KKK’s right to say what it likes – while the First Amendment also protects everyone else from condemning the KKK. Writing fake reviews is wrong – nobody is saying that there should no longer be 1-star reviews, but that authors should stop lying. He’s trying to defend the indefensible. He continues,
Show me one star reviews harm authors. Hint: Amazon allows one star reviews.
Of course 1-star reviews harm authors. How can they not? His point seems to be that because there are 1-star reviews and people still buy books, then 1-star reviews never hurt a book’s sales. This doesn’t really even need refuting.
The weirdness of this argument is some vindication that the anything-goes mentality was wrong from the outset. Self-publishing is really just beginning, and it’s in flux, so these issues will eventually be worked out. But it’s a problem when self-publishing’s biggest advocate says things like (paraphrasing) “Fake reviews are OK and everyone else should feel worse for criticizing it.” The subtext is: all’s fair if you can get ahead.
I don’t want to make this all about Konrath – because he’s also been a good advocate for self-publishing and helped put it on the map – and I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to make money on their writing (I do). I just never liked that this became the main argument for self-publishing. In the long run, these recent stories might be good for publishing, even if it’s shown that some reviews are fraudulent. It could potentially be a disaster because people will stop taking all reviews seriously, or start distrusting self-published books. But that’s probably not going to happen – self-publishing is too integral to the overall publishing climate, and readers will learn to be more discerning. What will happen is that writers will not be able to game the system so easily. Which is good news, really: this unscrupulous practice was eventually outed. The system works.
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About Henry Baum
Author of The American Book of the Dead, which won Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival and the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction. Largehearted Boy says it's "reminiscent of Philip K. Dick and Haruki Murakami, a book that boldly explores the future and defies genre." Also the author of North of Sunset, winner of the Hollywood Book Festival Grand Prize, and The Golden Calf - first published by Soft Skull Press, with editions in the U.K. (Rebel Inc.) and France (Hachette Littératures). Henry was a finalist along with Alan Moore and Dr Brooke Magnanti for his novel " God's Wife" at for Best Writer at The Erotic Awards London UK in 2013. He lives with his wife Cate Baum in Los Angeles. He is the founder of SPR. Visit henrybaum.com for more information.