"Any first time author can be made to look "fabulous" -- it's all about how an agent, author and publisher present the author. Every author has a background and a story, which can be told to the book- sellers and public in a boring way or a way that is spectacular."

  Barbara Zitwer

"If an author is a terrific writer and has a voice or perspective or style that's not been seen before, there is a far greater chance it will have a place in the literary market. Though it's true that it can be tough to get a first book published, agents and editors are always looking for the next voice or story."

  Elise Capron

"Whatever you're doing in this business, whether you're an agent, editor, or writer, it's crucially important to keep on top of what's happening in the industry. Agents and editors are much more likely to take writers seriously if they can name other writers in their genre whose work they admire ..."

  W. Gottlieb

"The truth is that most publishing professionals needn't read further than that ... Judging a book in five sentences might sound like an outrageous idea. But it's really not."

  Noah Lukeman


Beware of Frauds and Grinders - How to Wisely Filter What You Read
Has axe grinding mutated into a new art form on the Internet?

The Internet reputation-protection business has grown quickly to a quarter billion dollar industry and shows no signs of stopping. Why? Because it is ridiculously easy to use a blog or forum to falsely smear an organization or an individual, and to accomplish the feat in only minutes, or less, and with near impunity. Anyone, whether an unprincipled business competitor or a disgruntled employee or a mentally ill person with a grudge, can effectively harm you, at will, and at anytime. Further, the Digital Communications Act makes it impossible to hold a social-media-website owner legally responsible for content regardless of how libelous or outrageous it might be. This is a protection that even magazine and newspaper owners do not have.

Let's say the New York Times published a false story that you were seen assaulting a Baptist minister on the street in Manhattan. The ownership of the NYT would naturally be responsible for that false allegation because they consented to publish it. By this standard of responsibility, speech is not willfully unshackled to do as much harm as possible (e.g., you can't yell FIRE in a theater!). But the DCA does away with sensible safeguards that force responsibility. The exact same allegation of assault could be made repeatedly by any blog or forum user and yet the owner cannot be held responsible for allowing the content, even if the owner knows full well the allegations are false. Indeed, courtesy of the DCA, the owner can even signal agreement with the allegation and still not be held responsible. Celebrities have easier recourse against tabloids than the average person does against a blog or forum owner. Unbelievable, but true.

Since the DCA, this situation has allowed motivated individuals to act anonymously on receptive forums and blogs. If you keep your ear to the Net wall, you'll hear scores of horror stories. And yet, we must keep in mind there is truth being stated on many forums, mixed or side by side with false allegations and misleading or wrong-headed statements. Regardless, this is precisely why Wikipedia, for example, won't accept blogs or forum websites as referenced sources of reliable information, and why Yahoo and Bing search won't highly rank them (though Google does).

So how do you cull the truth from falsehood and misleading commentary, or simply from irresponsible conjecture? Below are some sensible questions to ask yourself when it comes to discerning the degree of reality on forums and blogs, especially when it appears unbalanced or critical commentary dominates the conversation.

  • Is the forum or blog commenter disparaging an individual, product, or organization while simultaneously pitching you their preferred alternative? This is classic sleazy salesmanship. Watch for this closely. Well, this won't work for you, Francis, so why not try our brand instead?

  • Does it appear the forum user making the allegations is presenting a complete picture, or only a part of it? Do your research. If you determine that only enough of the truth was delivered to create a false impression, you have a real manipulator at work. Again, classic sleazy salesmanship. Of course, it might well be a mistake, sure, but look for a pattern. It will happen more than once, or else it will be obvious given the ease of learning the facts that conveniently have been left out by the forum user.

  • Does the forum or blog owner benefit monetarily from controversy? Is the forum or blog making money from advertising using banners and/or rows of Google adwords? If so, you have a clear conflict of interest. In other words, it isn't in the interest of the website owner to quell conflict fueled by hypercritical or even libelous content if that conflict results in more viewers coming to the website, i.e., the more traffic, the more click-throughs on the ads, and the more dollars the owner makes. It's a trick that has been going on ever since Google created their text ads for websites. Certain forums and blogs are notorious for generating revenue in this manner, and if you are the website owner, protected by the DCA, you're home free!

  • Who else benefits from the negativity? Following up on above, check carefully around the website inhabited or being pitched by the negative poster(s). If the speculation or commentary is focused on casting serious doubt about the quality of a local private college, for example, and your research on the website turns up links to classes connected to a rival college, and perhaps even the presence of admin types or marketers (using the forum) who work for that rival college, you pretty much have your answer.

  • Are dissenters negatively labeled, dissed, or treated to a trashing? If the latter, this is a clear sign that either the forum posters have an agenda, or are too immature to consider other viewpoints, or perhaps both.

  • Have you taken the time to closely examine the backgrounds of those making the negative allegations or statements? Are they directly involved with the organization that is the target of their criticism? Did they work there? Use the product? Attend the class? In other words, does their background or commentary in any way reflect direct experience or at least first hand knowledge of the subject in question, or are they repeating hearsay, or simply "speculating" for effect?

  • Are the commenters in question even qualified to judge in the first place? What are their credentials? If you were an arts magazine editor, would you hire a freelance comic book writer to pen a theatrical critique of the latest Macbeth, or would you hire a professional and trusted theatrical reviewer to write the piece? Assume your reputation depended on it.

  • Are you able to verify the truth of allegations being made? If a forum user states that XYZ car dealer hires salespeople who can't speak English, that is pretty easy to check. If you go to the car dealership and everyone speaks English, you know at bare minimum that the forum user was either lying, grossly exaggerating, or simply repeating hearsay and therefore unreliable.

  • Is the negative commenter being clearly objective, or do you detect the muffled screech of the axe grinding away in the background? If the commentary produces a feel of being overly biased and/or tainted by negative emotion, the blade is most likely full of edge.

  • Is the commenter anonymous or is their identity clearly established? If anonymous or disguised, you have to ask yourself who they really are, and why the disguise? Would you trust someone who called you from nowhere on the phone and warned you not to purchase a property you were considering, and then refused to reveal their identity? Of course not. You would immediately be suspicious, and yet, this is biz as usual online.

  • Do the comments, taken as a whole, sound rather extreme, illogical, or improbable? For example, if a forum board for local childcare seekers contains a section that hotly criticizes a reputable and established service by claiming the employees of that service are "paid to look the other way while children are beaten daily by street bums" then you have to question not only the validity of that claim, and the motivation behind it, but the sanity of the forum user making the claim.

  • Do the negative posters make liberal use of ad hominem remarks? Do they insult the opposition or dissenters openly? Are the majority of these types of insults coming from an anonymous poster?

  • Does the majority of the forum apparently assent to what appears to be inflammatory, insulting, or immature behavior? Then you know you are wading in a culture wherein the inmates have taken over the asylum. You also know this type of behavior isn't new and has been going on a long time, or at least long enough to drive away responsible and ethical users.

  • Do the negative forum posters suggest or recommend punitive action against the objects of their wrath, especially when it appears alternative explanations or mistakes might be possible, or even likely? For example, if a negative poster (from the rival college?) states that Professor Bottoms didn't obtain his doctorate at Dartmouth a decade previously, as he claims, but instead faked his degree, you must ask yourself, does the accuser stand on completely solid ground? Is it likely that after a decade no one else would notice but this forum poster who suddenly "figured it out" with nothing but an hour of Google research?

The bottom line: use common sense. Do your research. If it looks right, go with it. If you smell the smoke, the tongues are most likely wagging fast enough to cause a hotbed of untrustworthy friction, and for their own purposes.


Comments or questions? Write to Michael Neff.

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