Good Day, and an Ethical Question


So, today was a not bad day: I sold the “Ten Least Successful Christmas Specials” piece — twice! — and then, just before I went to pick up Athena, the Fed Ex guy showed up with my author copy of Old Man’s War, which you can see Krissy grooving to in the picture above (she got to the part with the sex, I’d guess). As I’ve noted elsewhere, the fact that one of these is in my possession means that very soon other copies will be in the possession of Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Borders, Powell’s and your small independent local bookstore which you really ought to support, damn you.

On the flip side, I’m still going bald. So altogether, the day is a wash, I suppose.

Incidentally, help me with an ethical question. Two people who have read Old Man’s War have already gone and left reader reviews on Amazon, which I appreciate greatly (no less so because they are positive reviews). I’d like to get a few more in there in advance of the actual release of the book, and so have given some thought to handing over a small number of electronic copies of the book to readers on the condition that if they like the book, they post a review of it on Amazon (and perhaps If they don’t like the book, I wouldn’t tell them to go out of their way to post a review, but if they wanted to, then that would be part of the risk I’d take. I wouldn’t want people to post positive reviews if they didn’t like the book — I’d want the reviews to be actually useful to people thinking of picking up the book.

The question: Is it ethical to make a “books for reviews” deal like this — even if I note that they should only post a positive review if they actually like the book? Clearly, doling out advance copies is what publishers do all the time to paid reviewers and established magazines/newspapers/Web sites. Would this be just another iteration of that? Or does the equation change because the people getting the books aren’t “pro”? Note additionally that the “sample” of readers would be from my own personal pool of readers (as I’d be making the offer on the Whatever), so there is likely to be at least some inclination in my favor.

I have my own thoughts on the matter, but I’d like to hear some of yours. I haven’t made a decision to do this yet; at the moment it’s just a thought. I’m actually inclining slightly against doing it, but as I said, I’m looking for some thoughtful opinion from all y’all about it.

26 Comments on “Good Day, and an Ethical Question”

  1. I personally (and bear in mind, I don’t have an ulterior motive for saying this, like, oh, getting to read it before it hits the stores, no way, no sir *wink wink*) think it’s along the same lines as what the publisher is doing, another iteration of advance copies. The inclination being in your favour is a little more certain, but by no means guaranteed. After all, you know very little about most of our reading tastes, I bet, except that we are most likely reader’s readers with a wide ranging taste in genres but an especial soft spot for SF/F.

    Could you ask your publisher? If anything, I wouldn’t be worried about the ethics of getting reviews from the average reader, so much as whether or not your publisher (Tor?) would worry about the electronic copies somehow running amok. (I assume you would filter your advance readers carefully, but your trust and your publisher’s trust are two different things.) Does it violate any kind of electronic rights agreement?

  2. I think it’s iffy. Yes, it’s similar to the way professional reviewers get their copies, but if these aren’t professional reviewers then there is a slight scent of payola only because getting the book early is in itself a bit of a gift for most people.

    What if you requested that these reviewers state in the text how they came about their copy, in the interest of full disclosure? I think that would satisfy the ethical issue, though it might look a little squirelly to John Q. Amazon User.

    I should point out that I’m one of the people who posted a review already, and I did specifically omit the segments from my blog where I talked about us knowing each other because I thought it might look as though you were enlisting the help of your friends to promote it, which was absolutely not the case. (Though I did make an effort at disclosure: the original review had a header “repostedfrom” so that people could see the full context. Amazon edited that part out, though, I assume as a result of an anti-spam policy.)

    Wouldn’t it be more fun, though, to sit back and let the glowing reviews pour in, viewing each one as a lovingly wrapped Christmas surprise?


    p.s. Did you know that your comments template doesn’t convert line breaks (at least in Safari)? I thought it did before…

  3. Probably no harm would come from it. But it seems possible that it could somehow damage your integrity.

    How much is your integrity worth to you?

  4. I don’t think there’s an ethical problem at all. You are asking people to review the book on Amazon and you are sending them advance copies. (well, e-copies) You are not dictating what kind of review they can post, and have no control over it. So why is that different than a pr person sending out copies to people she/he hopes will give it good copy?

    Besides, you don’t want uniformly good reviews on Amazon. One mixed one or negative one tells me the reviews aren’t stacked with friends and family.

  5. “If in doubt, don’t” sounds like a good starting point on this. I don’t think it’s a horrible crime, but my worry would be that it would be perceived as astroturfing, and that could give you a bit of a negative reputation with some folks.

    This post does remind me that I need to request that my local library acquire a copy, though!

  6. I would say that you should hand out those electronic review copies with the only stipulation being that you ask the recipient to post a review. Period. Don’t encourage them to post positive reviews—that could be seen as astroturfing.

    And, besides, why else would you be handing out review copies?

    I’m still thinking about reviewing “Old Man’s War” professionally. I do feel a certain conflict of interest, in that you write one of my three favorite blogs (other than my own). And I’ve already decided how to counterblance that: by stating publicly that my affection for you, personally, is counterblanced by schadenfreude because your blog is way more popular than mine and you have a popular novel in print and are acclaimed by all the Cool Kids. As for me, not only am I not allowed to sit at the Cool Kids’ table at lunch, but the only people who will even talk to me at lunch are the cafeteria ladies….

  7. I’ve been having any number of “discussions” regarding ethics lately. Mostly relating to advertising and web logs and taking money for both of the above.

    Anyhow… I’d say that it’s normal to EXPECT glowing reviews, but realistically you’re not going to get them 100% of the time.

    I think that it’d be best and not at all ethically ambiguous to just put the book in the hands of a handful of people and let the chips fall – why take the chance of deceiving yourself by handing it only over to people who are pretty much guaranteed to tell you what you want to hear? No artist or writer is helped by just hearing that they can do no wrong.

    If it’s a matter of boosting sales, that sort of press release distribution and book review thing is often handled by agents and publishers, I would imagine.

    I’d say make the first couple chapters available to people to read, and if they feel they want to do a proper review, they can approach you for the rest of the book? Heck, if you can make the first three chapters openly available, that might work out well too… I think Baen has experimented with that sort of thing previously.

  8. Oh, and if you’re looking for a reviewer, my wife is a voracious sci-fi reader. We’re not fans – I only recently found a link to you for the Ayn Rand christmas special.

    I’d have no trouble reviewing it and doing up a proper piece for amazon, chapters, etc, and put a copy in my web log as well. Good or bad.

  9. My recent experiences with the organized fandom of another writer leads me to say DON’T. Some advance copies of her latest book were leaked, excerpts were posted on various fan sites, and fan-written glowing reviews were posted at Amazon — right alongside the harsh reviews of non-fans who also read the leaks and judged the book as a whole from the excerpts.

    This is not an exact parallel to your proposal, but it still leaves me feeling squicked. While it’s just a faint appearance of impropriety, the possible taint isn’t worth whatever small gains you could make from early positive or mixed reviews.

  10. Ironically, I was considering writing & asking you how I could obtain an electronic copy (I’ll probably buy it on paper, but would prefer it electronically).

    So, given that I’m willing to pay for it, I’m happy to get one for free in exchange for providing my feedback. My only two conditions would be: 1) if I promise to review it, I’m going to review it no matter what I think of it, and 2) I’d mention our arrangement in the review.

    As to the ethical issue, I say testimonials are as old as retail itself, so there’s no issue unless you’re trying to hide something.

  11. I’d say there’s nothing wrong with sending out review copies to non-professionals. Proof by contradiction. Assume the contrary — that it’s OK for the publisher but not OK for you — and you end up with some kind of magic credentials for the ‘famous’ reviewers chosen by the publisher. That seems, well, undemocratic. In fact, you’re on firmer ethical ground because the publisher can choose whether to print reviews, while it’s out of your control on Amazon.

    However, I would wonder if this is tactically the best way to go. A hypothetical Scalzi-basher (say it ain’t so!) could post more reviews decrying your astroturf campaign. And frankly, you’ve probably got several loyal readers who will read this and decide to review you anyway when they buy their copies.

    Huh. Nice one.

  12. I’m out of my league offering any professional advice here.

    However, if you’ll accept some personal advice…
    I’m guessing that the overall effect of a couple more reviews on Amazon are only going to have a marginal effect on the overall sales of your book. The single most important element to having your book sell well is how well you wrote it. Taking that into consideration, is it worth the aggravation to wheedle a couple more suckers to buy your book? I recommend that you sit back, and let the kudos and the cash roll in.

    Ignore the flying monkeys coming out my butt. They’re purely for ironic effect.

  13. The only time I’ve received a copy of something in advance for publicity purposes (which was from your fine fiction publisher, actually) [*], it was with the express statement that I didn’t have to do a damn thing with it.

    And because I was insanely busy, I never did get around to writing it up, which is too bad. (It was the first of Thomas Harlan’s alternate-history fantasy series “Oath of Empire,” now complete. I quite liked the first but haven’t read the rest, and I believe it may have ended weirdly.)

    [*] Rather than because of please-may-I puppy-dog eyes. At least one of those I’ve written up around the release date.

    If people are making please-may-I puppy-dog eyes at you *coughs*, I think you should feel free to send them an advance copy. But I would suggest avoiding even the question of impropriety.

  14. I was interested in reading your book after reading the synopsis, and usually take reader reviews with a grain of salt. If the purpose of getting more reviews up there is to interest more people in buying the book… well… I think the book sells itself.

    Not that I wouldn’t mind reading it ahead of time, myself! :)

    Would it be an ethical issue to have electronic copies floating around? Should they happen to get out to more people?

  15. My gut says “no” – for all of the reasons that Mitch Wagner, Rook, and Kate Nepveu have already put forth.

    My guess is you will net a fine crop of Amazon reviews without resorting to such tactics, and they will be shinier and prettier for having been unsolicited in any way.

  16. Jill Smith says:

    “My gut says ‘no’….”

    Yeah, this is all confirming what the sensible areas of my brain have already told me — just wanted to make sure I’m looking at all the angles. I’m going to pass on the “e-copies for reviews” thing. Thanks to everyone who answered.

  17. No, that doesn’t sound exactly ethical due to the fact that you are purposely skewing the results. Folks that visit Amazon don’t know that you 1) hand picked readers predisposed to your writing and 2) told folks that didn’t like it to lay low.

    That said, I’d like to post a review, as I enjoyed the book very much, but I read it a year ago. If only my memory could serve me well.

  18. I read the book back when it was either free or available for a nominal fee electronically, so I think I’ll post a review. I don’t even need a copy. What do you want me to say? :)

    Also, it looks like Krissy is not at the s*x parts, but is instead looking closely to see who, exactly, is mentioned in the dedication. I trust she was not disappointed?

  19. Jill Smith:

    My gut says “no” – for all of the reasons that Mitch Wagner, Rook, and Kate Nepveu have already put forth.

    For the record, I advised John to distribute the e-texts, but not ask recipients to post positive reviews. Just ask them to post reviews.

    But the reaction of other people writing in this thread certainly causes me to reconsider my advice.

    My experience is that a journalist receives review copies in two ways:

    – Either they get a stream of unsolicited copies of books from publishers, because they’re on a review list. I get about a half-dozen or a dozen books that way every year. You will be shocked to hear what I do with them: I throw them out.

    – Or the journalist requests a review copy, from the company publicity department. If you’re Gregory Feeley, who writes for the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, National Review, and other outlets, then the publicity department has probably heard of you and just whisks you a copy on request. If you’re Mitch Wagner, you have to prove your credentials.

    What John is talking about is something I’ve never heard of before—although I bet it goes on all the time. I mean, people lobby pretty ferociously for Nebula and Hugo awards, I’m sure this angle has not been ignored.

  20. Hi John,

    I gladly review Old Man’s War for my book review weblog (, and post the review (if you so choose) onto Amazon as well. I won’t post a negative review onto the Amazon site but I reserve the right to sound off on your tome as I please on my lonely corner of the Internet.

    Fire me off a copy if you would like but be warned I’ll probably be reviewing it it in any case based on what I know about it, but I doubt I’ll be picking up a copy until January or February.



  21. Is there anything in your agreement with Tor that says you can/can’t distribute copies of the manuscript outside of their purview? Do they technically own rights to the text now? If’n so, are there legal questions there?

  22. Tor does own electronic rights, so technically they could keep me from distributing it if they wanted, but I don’t imagine that they would complain about me letting a small number of people read the manuscript in electronic form with an eye for helping to generate publicity.

    This point is moot in this particular case, as I’ve decided against doing it, but if someone sent me an e-mail and said something like “Hey, I want to review the book but can’t get my hands on a copy,” I don’t see why I wouldn’t send them an electronic copy, so long as I fel they were a legitimate reviewer.

  23. Wafting the smell of advanced e-copies around your blog is rather like waving slabs o’ meat in front of a pack of hungry dogs. Do you still have all of your fingers?

    Just in case you change your mind, I humbly and vaguely gesture in the direction of my English degree (albeit an Associates) with Highest Honors. You know, just in case…

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