Sunday, August 26, 2012

Is the practice of paying for reviews of self-published books unethical?

The Business Day section of the Sunday New York Times, Aug. 26, has a long analytical piece by David Streitfeld, “The best reviews that money can buy.”  No, this is really not a good analogy to the New York Yankees of 1978. 

The article really gives a short history of self publishing, going back to subsidy and vanity publishing leading to the print-on-demand world of today.  Many “legitimate” media sources don’t review self-published books (I used to hear this all the time at writers’ conferences back in Minneapolis), but some entrepreneurs have indeed started services where authors can “buy” reviews.  The “businessman” that the article particularly focuses upon in Todd Rutherford in Tulsa OK.

The article traces how some e-book authors, who are likely to sell copies for very low prices, find that a volume of favorable consumer reviews has a big effect on sales. 

Now, according to the article, Amazon policy forbids paid reviews, and Google’s advertising program policies would prohibit advertisers who sell book reviews for authors. A comparison can be made with professional contractor review sites: Angie's List doesn't accept paid reviews. 

Is this practice unethical?  For one thing, FTC rules would require disclosure of paid reviews to consumers – unlikely to be very enforceable.  (It’s like requiring a blogger to disclose if he or she was paid for a blog review or got a free review copy of a book or film DVD.)  But paid review services don’t guarantee that the reviews are favorable, and sometimes they aren’t.   Savvy consumers are likely to realize than many reviews are paid or “arranged”; but it seems that to some point, the public hasn’t caught up with recognizing this practice yet.  In time, it certainly will, even with little or no government policy change or enforcement.
If you write a PhD dissertation, you, in a sense, “pay” (through tuition) to have professors “review” it.  The whole concept of education is based on paid review of samples of someone’s work. 

But I don’t engage in the practice of paying for reviews (my first book has just two), and neither have I hired on to write reviews for others.  The article discusses how, in difficult and changing times for the old fashioned trade publishing world, writers may find writing paid reviews to be a source of income.

I do reviews of films from sample DVD’s but there is no editorial influence on what I say. I do get a lot of emails with offers of free books to review and of people to interview.  Some people don’t realize I don’t have a staff or a whole media company with private jets to fly people around the world. Many of the books are about very specialized issues, and tend to play the “victim” card; although at one time, “don’t ask don’t tell” might have been seen as an overly narrow issue; I think I have showed that it was not.  I generally pick books that deal with important issues, whether they come from the mainstream trade publishing world (many do) or are self-published. 

Here is the Times link.
Near the end, the article talks about a newer effort, "Authors reviewing authors", Facebook link.

Next time, take user reviews with a grain of salt.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Total recall of Richard Condon's "Mile High": the "Secret History" of Prohibition

My quick trip to the Adirondacks, with the drive up Whiteface Mountain, with its bizarre drive-through turnaround tunnel, and then the walk-through tunnel to the elevator, reminded me of the infamous novel “Mile High” by Richard Condon, published by the Dial Press in 1969. 

I recall reading it while in the Army, perhaps on one of my bus trips “home” from Fort Eustis, shortly after publication. The paperback came out pretty quickly.

The title refers to a fortress in the Adirondacks, although only one of the “High Peaks” (Mt. Marcy, which I did climb in 1974) is over a mile above sea level.

The plot is an example of “secret history”.   The central character is perhaps Edward Courance West, son of Irish immigrant political boss Paddy. Edward conceives and executes a plan to have Prohibition passed so that he can personally make a fortune from it.  In sum, that's what the Mafia is all about. He became a godfather, and not the kind that kisses babies in political campaigns. 

I recall a convoluted climax to the three-part novel in a private castle high in the mountains. 

The author is perhaps better known for “The Manchurian Candidate”, which has become a movie twice.

The entries on Amazon range in price from $.01 to over $200.   

Update: June 14, 2013

I got a call as to whether audio books are available.  I looked on Amazon, and it looks like it's just paper and resold copies of the hardcover.  I don't think old novels get into the audio market unless they are very popular (this novel never got quite the traction of "The Manchurian Candidate", according to the caller).  I wonder if it could wind up on Kindle.  

Thursday, August 09, 2012

National Academy of Sciences issues major report on threat of solar storms

The National Academy of Sciences has published a report “Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, Workshop Report”. The publication (ISBN 0-309-12770-X) is available for free download as a PDF (registration as an NAS “member” is requested), or for hardcopy purchase for $35 (139 pages).  The NAS (for "National Academies Press") purchase link is here

The workshop appears to have occurred some time ago, in May 2008, and it was inspired somewhat by previous events, including some solar activity in the fall of 2003.

The book has eight chapters (based on workshop sessions), including an Introduction, and is heavily illustrated with colorful photos and diagrams.

The subject matter is how the western (especially US) power grid and satellite infrastructure could be affected by a large solar storm, with large coronal mass ejections across the Earth’s orbit. 

The basic premise of the NAS’s concern is that huge solar storms are LF/HC, “low frequency, high consequence” events.  There has developed a tendency in profit-driven business not to budget or allow for these possibilities (partly because of short-term pressure from equities markets).  Therefore, power companies, as well as Internet and telecommunications companies, may not have the necessary incentives to harden themselves against such events, with potentially catastrophic results for large areas of the general public.

The report suggests that there is at least a 7% chance of a major storm intercepting the Earth’s orbit in the next decade, with a heightened risk toward the end of 2012 and into 2013.  The report suggests that a really big storm could destroy more than 300 of the 2100 high voltage transformers in the US system, and that such transformers cannot be repaired, but must be replaced, a manufacturing process than can take a year or more.  (Maybe that begs the question of having a number of these in reserve now.  After Hurricane Isabel in 2003, power companies had difficulties getting smaller transformers here even after tree brush had been cleared.)  Much of this is summarized this morning at on this summary
NAS does provide some reverse projection of what a 1989 event (in Quebec), a 1921 event, or even the 1859 Carrington Event (which it chronicles in some detail) could do today, and the predictions are not pretty.

The NAS also says that, paradoxically, a grid could be more vulnerable to damage during periods of low or moderate use (as at night in spring or fall) than during heavy usage (summer heat waves).  That is like saying that some electronics do better when left on all the time.  NAS offers a number of charts that breaks down the risk according to even subtype, including geomagnetic disturbance and radio disruption.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NREC) has disputed the idea that so many transformers could be lost, but says a voltage collapse could happen.  NERC has a PDF press release from Feb. 29, 2012, “Loss of Reactive Power, Voltage Instability, Most Likely Outcome from GMD, NERC Report Finds”, link here

The report has some scare sub-headlines, like “a year without power?”  and also mentions the EMP  (electromagnetic pulse) threat from terrorists, which would be worse because that would fry all digital electronics, even those turned off.

The social aspects of this problem – including the lack of preparedness of people to live at a lower physical standard and with more physical "family" self-sufficiency and more contribution to social capital – is certainly worth more discussion.

Pictures (2 and 3), are actually from the National Science Foundation, located in the Ballston section of Arlington VA.  The NAS is a separate entity (often overlapping), still located in Washington DC.