Ethics: Write and Wrong

A creativity coaching client of mine bought me an interesting ethics question. I asked if I could tap into my super-smart  readers/commentors for help, and got the green light.

Brilliant idea. Except I didn't have the idea first. As far as I know, here is the first place to use this idea: http://www.files.chem.vt.edu

Background: You are asked to review a book on your blog and on amazon. The author is someone you have known for several years, largely through websites and occasional emails,  but is not a friend. You feel you owe her (for a favor received) and agree. After reading the book, you realize that there are large parts of the book that seem to be more about marketing the author’s services than dealing strictly with the book topic.

Question: Do you review the book or decline, because you don’t agree with all that marketing?

Options discussed:
Praise what works in the book, ignore the rest. You aren’t a professional critic, you are just offering some help here for a favor received. (Will this damage your reputation?)

Give your opinion, exactly as you believe it. After all, a review is just that, not a promise of blog love. (Will this damage your relationship?)

Write the author, and say you can’t review the book, blame it on your schedule. (Are you OK with this story as a social lie?)

Write the author, and say you can’t review the book because you don’t agree with it, but assure her that her opinion is just different than yours. (Will this damage your relationhsip?)

Leave a comment:
What would you advise? You don’t have to choose any of the above, it’s just a way to give you some ideas about topics that have been discussed. The only request is to suggest only the course of action you would be willing to take yourself.

Quinn McDonald teaches ethics and loves listening to ideas about right and wrong. She believes there is very little black and white, and a whole lot of gray in real life.

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30 thoughts on “Ethics: Write and Wrong

  1. So, I’m way behind on my blog reading and just now getting to this, but it’s an interesting question, so I’ll give my opinion anyway. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I think honesty is the best policy. I would contact the person that asked you to review the book, and explain that if you review it you will give your honest opinion, including your feeling that it includes too much marketing. Ask her (him?) if she or he would still like you to write the review. If they say yes, go ahead and write an honest review. If they say no, no more dilemma.

  2. The author has a relationship with the reviewer and if the reviewer is transparent in all their other communications then wouldn’t the author should be expecting her to demonstrate the same honesty and objectivity when writing the review? There is no reason why we can’t find tactful ways to give a negative critque – especially when we are responding in writing. ” . . . . . which I personally didn’t find helpful/useful although some/many will.” Start with what was useful, then what wasn’t, finish with useful again.

    • While I love the idea, a lot of people I know (she said tactfully) just want a good book review. Friendship is often at stake. My client is in a position of not being a professional book reviewer (the rules change,then.)

  3. Here’s an example of what I’d do:
    “This book contains well-organized recipes, presented in a clear, visually appealing style. The writing is direct and to the point. Each recipe includes a summary of ingredients and an estimate of required time, which is a very helpful addition. Overall this is a very appealing book. This reviewer has not, however, actually tried any of the included recipes due to a personal aversion to roasting kittens.”

  4. Good conversation, Quinn. First of all, I am a procrastinator (trying to recover) and would have to think about what I was going to say for a day or two. I am a person who “calls them as I see them”, both in person and in writing, so if the person wanting the review didn’t know that about me, they would be in for a surprise. I would mention the positives first, but would include any other thoughts that seemed worth mentioning.

  5. My answer would be closest to Amy´s (totally loved the discreet “I, personally, did not find it useful”). but doing it at the last possible minute like Krystyna. 😀
    PS: wonder why your client felt so strongly against the sales pitch.

  6. As I see it there’s just one way to do this: Your way! The person who asked this favour probably know you are a strait forward person and expect nothing else. Good luck in your choise.

  7. Honesty is always the best policy, so they say. But you can be honest and still be thoughtful and nice. I guess my question is: does this person want you to be truly honest, or is she looking for a pat on the back?

    I think it is similar to asking for a class evaluation from students after the class is completed. Most people write nice and happy responses, especially if they are your friends. But what most teachers want is for people to truly tell them if something wasn’t working right or if they were errors or glitches to be fixed. At least that is what I want. Yes, sometimes your feelings get hurt, but most of us truly want to know the truth. That is what helps us to grow.

  8. I would write to the author first, tell her that I enjoyed the book but that I was uncomfortable with all the marketing material. If I wrote the review I would mention that material as a negative in the review, but would put the good points first. Ask her if she still wanted me to write the review.

  9. “Speak the truth, and speak it ever, cost it what it will.” I learned this at age 9 at a boarding school. I have tried to live my life this way, and sometimes have lost ‘friends’, but you have to feel good to YOURSELF

  10. My approach would be to write the review honestly, positives and negatives, emphasizing that it is my opinion and readers should decide for themselves. I would send it to the author prior to posting, just as a courtesy. If the relationship is strained from the encounter, it will either heal or dissapate. Either way, my personal integrity has not been violated.

  11. I would praise the good parts and then briefly remark how the marketing aspects struck me. I might follow that up with a query, “Is that what you intended to do? Has anyone else commented on that aspect or is it just me?”

  12. I’d write an honest review. I’d mention the parts I truly like first, and explain why. I don’t think I’d go into detail with the parts I didn’t like, but would certainly mention if it didn’t appeal to me or if I, personally, did not find it useful. Having not read the book or even knowing what it is, it’s hard to say, but I would probably mention that the book relied upon many personal marketing examples from the author’s experience (or something–so hard to say in the abstract). I do think this is fair. Some people may be looking for exactly that.

    I would not give the author the review to see ahead of time. That seems like a good idea in theory, but that was the first thing I learned at the college newspaper–do not let the subject of your article review it ahead of time. It’s just opening up a can or worms. Check facts, yes. Verify information. Do not allow them to review your review. It’s an endless circle.

    • If you work on a newspaper, you never release anything that is going to run. In this case, the reviewer is releasing the material on a blog, and I think a lot depends on the contents of the blog and the arrangements between the author and the reviewer. You make a really smart point though–some people might be just fine with all the marketing.

  13. I agree with Caatje and Caroline. It is possible to give an honest review without trashing the book. If it was me, I would say upfront that I would be giving my honest thoughts about the book and give the author the choice of having me read and review the book or not.

  14. Quinn – here’s what I HOPE I’d do!

    Contact the author and suggest a conversation (face to face if possible). In the conversation, explain my reservations about undertaking the review. Let the author choose whether she’d (he?) prefer a review that leaves my integrity intact ( needn’t be too exposing of the books flaws but would reflect my truth) or would prefer to offer the opportunity to someone who might offer more wholehearted enthusiasm for the book.

    What I would probably ACTUALLY do is leave it until the deadline, bang off something anodyne and do no one any favours – its a great question and I admire you for stopping to reflect.

    • I love your honesty. It’s so true, what we hope we would do is not always how it turns out. As a newspaper person (well, a long time ago) I never showed any piece to anyone, but I think showing it to the author and letting her decide has value only if the reviewer isn’t running a review site. If the majority of her work is reviews, then she needs to call ’em as she sees ’em.

  15. First of all I would have warned the person up front (before reading the book) that my review was going to be an honest one. I don’t see the point of reviews unless they are honest. I suppose it’s already too late for that though (duh).
    I would tell the person who wrote the book that my review would not be an all positive one and maybe even send her the text so she would be prepared. An honest review is priceless to people who don’t know a book, because then they can determine if the lesser points of the book are the kinds of things that disturb them. Not everybody cares if there’s a lot of marketing in a book as long as the rest is interesting enough, but it’s better to be warned up front about it to prevent disappointment. If all reviewers are raving about a book without telling the lesser points the readers will feel cheated and angry.
    It’s also important to realise that a review of a book is not a review of the person who wrote it (although I totally can understand that it would feel that way for both people concerned). We can’t always like everything that a person we like does and they are bound to get the same critique from others as well if a ‘friend’ notices it. An author that is realistic enough to understand that not everybody will rave about everything in her book will win more sympathy from me that one who only wants to hear the good stuff in order to promote her book.
    I have had this experience with an artist that I really admire and I reviewed her book on amazon saying how I loved the artwork but felt it was seriously lacking in content (I did explain why I felt that way). The artist didn’t know me and didn’t ask me to write a review, but she actually did give an open and honest response to my review which I thought was wonderful. No, we didn’t agree, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s okay to not agree about these things and that it makes for more interesting reviews if you can tell the whole truth.
    There’s no need to diss a book (unless it’s absolute drivel of course), but there’s no need to praise one to kingdom come either if the book just doesn’t live up to your expectations.
    My god, what a longwinded way to just say: be honest! 😉

  16. Be honest; you can review it mentioning the parts you do like, and then discussing the parts that you find thought provoking and challenging. Provided you can apply the for and against arguments fairly, which I think you can, it should be a successful review.
    People who read it will appreciate your honesty. I think most of us hate those fawning, “but I love it, its soooooo cool” sort of reviews that tell you nothing about the book at all. I always read the negative reviews on Amazon because they tell me far more about a book than the positives do, and I still buy some of them. But I have bought books based on their positive reviews and they have been big mistakes!
    If the person who asked you to review the book appreciates you, she/he will already be expecting that you will not agree with everything 100%, and will value an honest appraisal instead of the usual “you must read this book cos its great” garbage. Thats probably why you were asked, because the author already knows you will NOT write garbage.

    • Good thinking, although I think the person asked to review the book was expected to add a review of cachet for the book. I agree that fawning over books is not the best way to build credibility on the reviewer’s part.

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