10/31/2012 10:25 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

To Chase a Crooked Shadow: Questioning the Ethics of Paid Book Reviews

Flickr: University of the Fraser Valley

The Bard went into raptures when he saw "books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything." Today he would be in pain to read books by crooks, sermons by demons and evil in everything. He would be particularly appalled by the raging controversy over paid book reviews. In his days, and in our times as well, the only viral we knew was fever. Now everything goes viral, and so has the controversy about fake online book reviews.

Before we get down to analyzing the fake review scam, let us acquaint ourselves with the main players in this sordid drama. In the Indian context it would be called selling of the soul of Saraswati (goddess of knowledge and learning) for a red carpet welcome in the glittering mansion of Lakshmi (Saraswati's estranged sister and the much revered goddess of wealth).

Meet Mr. Todd Rutherford. According to a write-up in the New York Times he was a 30-plus years old marketing executive in a company which assisted self-published writers. He wasn't making much headway getting good reviews for his clients. He hit upon the idea of generating his own reviews. So, in 2010 he launched Amazon played ball in promoting the new business model because 20 percent of its e-books are self-published.

Now meet John Locke. His nine novels were basically suspense thrillers. In 2011 he became the first self-published author to sell a million e-books on Amazon. He then wrote How I Sold One Million E-Books in Five Months. It made him more rich. What he did not reveal in the book was his association with Rutherford. After failing to get five-star reviews on his own he commissioned Rutherford to generate reviews for his novels.

The online audience noticed the murky goings-on and complained. But the bubble was yet to burst. The credit for that should go Ashly Lorenzana. She followed the online trend and published a book. One agency quoted $425 for getting reviews. She then approached and their fee of $99 made her take the risk.

Lorenzana kicked up dirt when the reviews took too long to appear. Rutherford refunded her money, but it was a tad too late to control the damage. Google suspended his advertising because it did not allow ads for favorable reviews. Amazon pulled out some, not all, of the paid positive reviews.

The controversy has understandably generated a debate on the ethics of paid book reviews. A major drawback of the internet is that it allows everyone a say. As a result it is difficult to have a truly informed debate. Sometimes an issue generates so much heat that the world wide web begins to resemble a silent Tower of Babel (we should be grateful for this small mercy).

Before taking a position on the question of paid reviews we should take a more holistic view of factors which touch almost all facets of our lives. We should understand the nature of money. For centuries oriental societies, including India, did not care too much for money because of their strong spiritual grounding. Traders and invaders corrupted these societies by arousing in them the greed for money. The situation in the global village has become critical.

What is happening in the publishing world is unfortunate. But, before we step forward to hurl the first stone at the sinners we should identify that section of the media which is free from the taint of encouraging and introducing corrupting elements in their business models. In the early years the print media was the primary source of information. In that era the editor decided editorial policy and the management had to conduct its business within the limit sets by him. The editor was beyond the reach of politicians and businessmen. Today the management has given itself the authority to frame a policy which generates more revenue at the expense of news. Some newspapers now sell advertorial space to fill their coffers. If paid news is legitimate why kick up so much dirt over paid reviews?

And finally look at the conduct of the electronic media. Are the television news channels following the basic principles of fair and unbiased journalism? Or are they promoting their own agendas by presenting distorted images of events? Do they have their eyes on the news or their TRP ratings?

Let us also read Janet's incisive comments on the controversy. In a letter to she pointed out that it...

"... has been almost three years now since the (US) Federal Trade Commission (FTC) finalized its revised guidelines for online product endorsements. Before the Internet, advertisements and product endorsements were more easily distinguishable from independent, critical reviews of products. However, online commercial venues like Amazon have complicated that distinction..."

In spite of the FTC guidelines the merrymakers are making merry and moneymakers are making money. Let us stop kidding ourselves and admit that the online demon is difficult to contain.