The advantage of bright lines

So, Joe Konrath has a post on the paid-reviews scandal that displays, in my opinion, a pretty unhelpful approach, which is to say that it's a slippery slope and that everyone is imperfect. Both things are completely true, and they are also precisely why people do things like draw up ethical codes--if we were all saints, codes, taboos, and laws would be unnecessary.

The notion that those who are (very publicly) trying to state what is and is not OK must be a pack of hypocritical, glory-seeking, witch-hunting assholes is something that in my opinion can very quickly turn into "taking someone else's inventory." That's a term popular in Alcoholics Anonymous-type organizations, because people who are massively fucking up their lives do it a lot. You know, "Well, OK, maybe I did get drunk again, and maybe I stole your car and drove it through your living room window and killed your dog, again, but you're fat!"--that sort of thing.

For example, Konrath points out that The New York Times, which reported the story, has a pretty questionable ethical relationship to publishing. I agree--this is a paper that has repeatedly printed fantastical misinformation about the industry--but that's completely irrelevant to whether or not the paid-reviews story was accurate or important. Certainly The New York Times is on the lookout for negative news about self-publishing; this time, they actually found something significant, instead of having to make something up again. This is why this particular story is having an impact that their fright pieces did not.

I'm sure there are people who will use this sudden interest in ethical reviewing cynically and others who will be unfairly dinged. But things are so scammy when it comes to reviews right now that I think there is real value to making overt public statements regarding what kind of behavior is unacceptable. If you are new to publishing and have never really grappled with these issues before, you look around, and you see that Kirkus Reviews wants to you pay them $450 for a review and Publishers' Weekly wants $150. After that, if someone asks you for "A 'fair' donation" in exchange for effectively letting you into a cooperative, it sounds really reasonable and not at all shady. If there's no blowback on all this (and there should be, especially on places like Kirkus and PW), if no one takes the time to point out how this sort of thing damages all writers and no one notes that it's really pretty easy to name-and-shame people who do this (and there are people who feel so strongly about this that they will indeed name-and-shame), paid reviews will become the norm. Coughing up $20,000 for fake reviews will become no different than coughing up a similar amount on advertising--hell, yeah, it's pricey, but if you're lucky enough to be able to afford it, why wouldn't you?