The Mail I Get: Suspenseful Ethics Edition

I got an email this morning from Suspense Magazine. It read:

Suspense Magazine has sent you a book recommendation!

Blood on His Hands by Mark P. Sadler

Suspense Magazine says, "Great book! Now available on Amazon Kindle."

Check it out!"

So I did.  The link sent me to Goodreads, and a four star, rave review for BLOOD ON HIS HANDS from Shannon Raab at Suspense Magazine. It read, in part:

A hunt for payback—predator vs. prey—is the underlying electrical current coursing through this colorful debut thriller by Mark Sadler. […]Not for the faint of heart, “Blood on his Hands” can make your stomach roll as well as a roller coaster while Sadler zigzags you on a frenzied chase across the country.

SM_December_Cover_FINAL_copy-426x555 That may be the strangest, most non-sensical blurb I've ever read, but that aside, what's really interesting about the review is that it's from the co-publisher of Suspense magazine, which also counts Sadler among their reviewers.

In other words, Suspense Magazine is praising and recommending a book by one of their own reviewers. So I asked Sadler about it:

Suspense Magazine is reviewing and recommending (via emails to its Goodreads followers) a book written by one of its own reviewers. Isn't that a huge conflict-of-interest? 

Sadler took offense, firing back:

They reviewed my book and then asked me to be a reviewer as they liked my style – you should check out the dates before you start throwing around accusations. Mark

So I replied that I wasn't making an accusation, but rather asking a question, one that I thought was valid. I went on to say:

Given that you are now reviewing for Suspense, it probably wasn't a wise idea for Suspense to send out an email recommending your book, regardless of whether it was reviewed prior to you becoming a reviewer for them.

I got an astonishing reply from Sadler that raised the ethical discussion to a whole new level. He wrote:

Again check your facts.. they liked the book so much they published it as an e-book and generally recommend all the books their reviewers write..we would not be great reviewers if our publication didn't like us.. and we are all doing it for free so I dont get your point..

I had to do a double-take when I saw that. Suspense Magazine is reviewing (and recommending) a book that they published that was written by one of their reviewers? And Sadler objected to my question about a possible conflict-of-interest? 

So I checked out Suspense's website and discovered that they are offering a new twist on self-publishing.

Suspense Magazine is excited to announce the opening of Suspense Publishing, a place where authors can get their book published for far less than traditional self-publishing houses. Suspense Publishing will bring the power of Suspense Magazine to its authors. We will help them market their book successfully, not by just giving you—the author—the tools to market your book, but we actually work for you to market your book.

[…]It is true that we will not publish your book in paper format, we are an EBook publisher. We are also a major magazine with a huge marketing presence.[…]Our publishing company takes the power of Suspense Magazine, an internationally read magazine, and puts your book in front of hundreds of thousands of people that read the genre that you are writing!

In other words, Suspense Magazine will use their publication to promote the work of their authors…including having their reviewers, who are apparently Suspense authors themselves, review Suspense books without acknowledging that they are also Suspense publications. Not surprisingly, the two most recent titles published by Suspense Publishing — Terri Armstrong's MORNING MENACE and Starr Reina's IN THE NAME OF REVENGE  – won praise from Suspense Magazine.  For MORNING MENACE, Suspense raved:

The intensity and inclusion of a character tangled in her own neurosis keeps the pages turning and the unexpected ending will surprise even the most adept amateur crime- solvers.

And for IN THE NAME OF REVENGE, Suspense proclaimed:

A new star has arrived in the writing world bringing readers a gripping tale peppered with unexpected bits of humor as the cast of characters and twisted turns unfold.

They claim aspiring authors who engage their services can "use the power and strength of Suspense Magazine to reach millions of readers." Really? Do they honestly believe Suspense reaches millions of readers? That would mean they are reaching more than Forbes (921,000 readers),  Newsweek's (1.6 million) or Vanity Fair (1.7 million).  I'd never heard of the magazine until I went to Bouchercon and met the publishers, John and Shannon Raab.

The Raabs seemed like nice, well-intentioned folks, who genuinely love the mystery, horror and suspense genres. But their magazine won't have much credibility in the marketplace, or in the publishing industry, if they don't follow the most basic ethical standards…and if they use their magazine as a promotional tool for the authors who pay them to package their ebooks.  

It's basic ethical conduct in journalism to try to avoid conflicts-of-interest and to disclose them when they are unavoidable. In this case, the conflicts are totally avoidable. Suspense Magazine needs to disclose when the books that they are reviewing are published by them and/or written by one of their reviewers. The magazine's readers need to know when the critics who are reviewing Suspense's books are also other Suspense authors. It means they have a bias. It's journalism 101, folks. Doing otherwise undermines the validity and objectivity, and certainly the professionalism, of the entire magazine.

My sense was that the Raabs want their magazine to be taken seriously in the field…and it won't be with such loose ethical standards. 

5 thoughts on “The Mail I Get: Suspenseful Ethics Edition”

  1. seems more like cluelessness rather than outright prostitution … like picking up a John (or Jill) at the bar and waiting until they have their clothes off before announcing the tariff.

  2. Publishers like this really annoy me. This is becoming more and more common. Everyone is out to make an unscrupulous buck, well maybe not everyone, but a lot of people. This is like the poetry sight that sells you anthologies of your poems or Publish America.

  3. I’ve met the Raabs and I liked them. I also really enjoy their magazine (at least the one issue that I’ve read). I wouldn’t compare them to PublishAmerica. I don’t think they are that predatory or dishonest.
    My guess is that they genuinely mean well, but unfortunately their enthusiasm is matched by their inexperience. They need to seriously educate themselves about journalism and publishing ethics…and then they might want to think twice about linking their magazine in any way with their self-publishing business.

  4. There’s always a learning curve. I hope the Raabs see this and take it as seriously as they would like the industry to take their magazine seriously and correct the gaff.
    I never heard of the magazine either, until today. I’m curious about it–but won’t be reading any of the books reviewed in it because of this.
    Dear Raabs,
    Having your own reviewers reviewing your own publications has as much validity in the pro market as asking a mother if she thinks her baby is adorable.
    Maybe the kid IS adorable, but moms tend to be biased.

  5. Nice piece of investigative journalism!
    This ethical argument–can a magazine promote its own ebooks, and review them as well–seems to be like what happens when stock analysts review (and praise) companies they own shares in. In principle, everybody should be able to say what they think about any book or any stock. But the kicker is, the author has to reveal their own interest to the reader at the end of the article/review. Otherwise, there is a conflict of interest: the reviewer is profiting by sales of the book or stock he or she owns–but disclosure is the way out of the dilemma, I argue.
    For instance, if I own Wal-Mart shares, and I write an article praising Wal-Mart management, because I think they are making a smart move, this is okay if I state at the end of the article that I own Wal-Mart shares. In this way, the reader is shown, clearly, that I may profit from sales of Wal-Mart stock in the marketplace. Owning Wal-Mart shares should not prohibit me from giving my honest opinion about the shares or the company.
    Similarly, Suspense Magazine can publish ebooks and promote them in the magazine, and print favorable reviews, as long as at the end of the promotions or reviews they reveal their interest in the ebook. That’s fair, it’s transparency, it’s fair-dealing with the reader. Full disclosure is what makes the difference.


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