PR: What Not to Do: Calling the Reviewer Unethical

I don’t know why this past week or two has been full of bad examples, but this one in particular got my back up for just being so much from a Bizarro-ish opposite-land. (Of course, I could be overreacting. Please feel free to tell me so in the comments.)

Regular readers of the site know that I am boycotting Bluewater comics because of their near-criminal exploitation of creators. I recently got an email from a relatively new comic writer asking me to take a look at two of his comics. I said ok, but when I opened the PDFs he sent, I saw that they were Bluewater titles.

(I also saw that they were bad. The art was nearly unreadable in spots, and of a quality level that I wouldn’t have published it. The stories took too long to get to their premises, and the dialogue was flat and pedestrian.)

I wrote back a short note saying “I’m sorry, you didn’t say these were Bluewater titles, which I don’t cover, so I won’t be reviewing them.” In return, I got an angry email telling me that refusing to cover books from any given company was “unethical” and unfair and made me “close-minded” for not giving the comics a chance regardless of their publisher.

Personally, I thought a boycott was the definition of an ethical act, making a decision based on the policies of the company. (Also, if these books were any good, I would likely have chosen to mention them anyway. That they weren’t simply made the boycott easier.) I’ve chosen to not support a company that steals from talent, so I refuse to give them any promotional support or coverage in my venue.

According to this writer, though, he has nothing to do with the company’s “questionable practices”. He’s just written titles for them. I don’t agree that that absolves him of any association. I think “I just work for them” (or, with a freelancer, “I just get paid by them” — although that’s questionable in this case, which is the whole point) is this generation’s “I was just following orders.” When your name appears under their brand, there’s a connection.

The note ended, “No worries, you will not be receiving my books for review from Bluewater or any other companies I work for. Have fun reviewing comics you deem worthy.” Isn’t that the definition of reviewing? Writing about works deserving of more attention? That’s the purpose of this website, anyway, and why I chose the name I did.

Reviewers are not whores. We do not have to write about anyone who pays us with a review copy. We are supposed to make decisions and judgments based on what’s worth talking about. In the current market, there are many more titles out there than any site can cover. While it can be temporarily amusing to tear down a bad comic, I don’t think it benefits anyone in the long run, since it’s rare that a creator, nursing hurt feelings, takes the criticism in a helpful fashion, and I’m not writing for that purpose anyway. I’d rather spend the time telling people why a little-known book is good.

My decision was confirmed by this NY Times article asking whether negative publicity helps a product. A recent marketing study had these conclusions:

A crucial factor … is how familiar a brand or product or other entity was before the negative publicity. … [T]hey found that negative reviews of a new book by an “established” author hurt sales. “For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect,” increasing sales by 45 percent over their expected sales trajectory, they write. Evidently this boils down to increased awareness: the mere act of introducing something to a broader public — even by saying that it stinks — increases the chances that more members of that public will want it anyway.

Maybe that’s why this writer was working so hard to guilt me into mentioning his book on my website. Regardless of what I said about it, it would be a bonus to him for getting the equivalent of free ad space. Which is why I’m not going to play along.

17 Responses to “PR: What Not to Do: Calling the Reviewer Unethical”

  1. Kevin Moore Says:

    Being petulant doesn’t do the writer any good, either.

    One quibble: negative reviews do not necessarily mean a new author’s book is “bad” or not worth reading. In most cases, it probably does. But critics have been known to bet on the wrong horse. Readers make up their own minds, too, using the review and some knowledge of the critic’s disposition. In some cases, there might be some camp value, “so bad it’s good.”

    That said, 45% is a lot of camp! ;-)

  2. Kevin Moore Says:

    Oops, re-reading the above, I should clarify: your correspondent was being petulant, not you. Hope that was clear.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Thanks for clarifying. I wasn’t sure at all about posting this, so I was expecting someone to say I was overreacting. (Why I did post: I was so confused at someone calling a boycott unethical that I wanted to gather other opinions.)

    And yes, that’s an excellent point, that I don’t expect my readers to agree with my opinions all the time. But I also think that there’s a difference between “I didn’t care for this” (such as the art in the Broadcast, which others have praised) and “this is bad” (i.e. it doesn’t meet minimal expectations of craft competence). I do enjoy “so bad it’s good” works, but not everything falls in that category.

    I was considering adding a statement about how it’s not possible to argue a reviewer who’s passed on covering your book into reconsidering. The only (rare) circumstance I can think of is if the reviewer is rejecting it based on a factual mistake, but I’ve never seen that happen in practice.

  4. Mark L. Miller Says:

    I believe I am the “relatively new” reviewer mentioned above, though I don’t think having written my own work professionally and as an Editor for Ain’t It Cool’s AICN COMICS for the last ten years makes me a n00b. As much as my email correspondence was not meant to put a bee in your bonnet, Johanna, I do appreciate the posting of your thoughts. Honestly, I received your contact info from a friend when looking for reviewers to send my work to. I’ve never been to the site myself, too busy on my own.
    I’m not sure how to read your story though because at first you told me you saw it was Bluewater and then stopped reading, then you go on and criticize what you did read.
    My point of our email correspondence was that there are a lot of talented people working as writers and artists at Bluewater. Folks that are new to the industry and eager to hear feedback, positive or negative. Your mean spirited emails and the slanted comments above about a few comics that you either read a few pages of or didn’t read at all were less than critical and spoke more as coming from someone with a grudge.
    Comparing my words to “I was only following orders.” is very offensive. Though I am not a representative of Bluewater, I will defend them by stating that your arguments against the company are quite flawed. If the accusation that they steal from creators is your litmus test as to what company is deemed “worthy”, you should stop covering Marvel, DC, IDW, Dark Horse, and just about every company in the biz who all at one time or another have been accused of the same thing.
    Like the comic or not, that is not my point here. There have been plenty of books I’ve been sent at Ain’t It Cool News that have been flawed in one way or another. In my reviews of those books, I offer constructive criticism. At AICN COMICS, we try to push the medium forward by doing this, hoping that the comic writer or artist in the review will one day be a superstar in the industry. If one of my reviewers took your closed-minded stance against a specific company then wrote numerous articles bashing and accusing that company, I would definitely have to question whether or not he is in the right place.
    Though I’m sure accusations will fly that I am just being defensive about my own comics not deemed worthy by “the” Johanna Draper Carlson, I’m not. I’m just saying that her terse, one sentence criticism about a few pages of a book she didn’t read sent in an email that states she won’t cover it because of some kind of grudge against a specific company may be ok to her. But to me it’s just not nice, and there’s enough mean-spirited and closed-minded people in the industry. It’s disappointing that a reviewer takes a stance like this.
    The books that inspired this article are NANNY & HANK and THE DEATHSPORT GAMES. Both have been well reviewed elsewhere, and I encourage the readers here to seek them out, actually read them, and pass your own judgment on them.
    It is doubtful that this post will be left on this site, but if it is, might I offer a suggestion? Changing your site’s name from Comics Worth Reading to Comics Worth Judging might be a more appropo name for this site.
    Mark L. Miller
    Ambush Bug @ AICN COMICS
    Editor, Ain’t It Cool

  5. David Says:

    Boycotts are like guns; they are neither inherently ethical or unethical. Rather, they express an opinion.

    Your boycott may be a principled stand, and laudable for that, but principled is not the same as ethical. If I boycotted Costco because I thought that they paid their employees too much, that would be principled, but of debatable ethics, no?

  6. Johanna Says:

    Mark, since you’ve outed yourself to get the comic mentions here you wanted, some corrections:

    1. I said “relatively new comic writer”, not reviewer — you mentioned you’d been reviewing a long time, and I believed you, but you’ve only got a few credits as a comic writer, most for Bluewater.

    2. I didn’t say I stopped reading your comic when I saw the publisher; I told you I wouldn’t cover it for that reason. I read both of your comics through before determining what to do about them, and made my decision accordingly. Much of your resulting attack, that I didn’t read the books, is simply mistaken.

    3. There may be talented people working at Bluewater, but I have yet to see a competent comic from them. Either all the talent are working on books I haven’t read (very possible), or there’s something about Bluewater that keeps their talent from making it to the page.

    4. Note that there’s a difference between feedback and getting a public review. I’ve had correspondence before with young creators who, when told I wouldn’t be covering their book, asked to know more about why, and I’ve given them feedback that way. I would have done the same for you, if you hadn’t started calling names. But your comment reinforces my opinion you don’t want feedback, you want column inches.

    5. Ah, the “what Bluewater does is standard practice” argument. No, it’s not. Bluewater has taken unethical behavior to a whole new level. They’re not the only publisher on my “ban list” for similar reasons, although boiling down my stance for getting “future superstars” the pay they deserve for their work to a “grudge” is new.

    I know creators work hard and have plenty of tasks to take care of, but I always tell people looking for coverage to make sure they know something about the site they’re approaching. If you’ve never visited a site but you ask them to write about your comic — in other words, if you don’t do your research — this is the kinds of thing that happens.

    And if you encourage your reviewers to make decisions based on whether or not creators with bruised egos will think they’re “nice” or not… well, we have very different perspectives on what should be expected of reviewers. Similarly, I’m unclear on how a critic writes about something without “judging” it. Your policies seem unworkable to me.

  7. Charles Knight Says:

    “If the accusation that they steal from creators is your litmus test as to what company is deemed “worthy”, you should stop covering Marvel, DC, IDW, Dark Horse, and just about every company in the biz who all at one time or another have been accused of the same thing.”

    Do those companies offer to pay the princely sum of ‘two comic books’ for a cover? I agree with Johanna, I wouldn’t give Bluewater one red cent.

  8. Jerome Maida Says:

    Let me say first off that as someone who has reviewed comics for years now in the Philadelphia News, I agree you have a right to boycott whichever comics you please. My column is weekly and there are only so many comics I get to review a year, so I have my own ground rules. For me, I need to have a hard copy in my hands. Most companies have no problem with this, but it is a reason why, with a shrinking comics budget, I have only reviewed one BOOM! title. To me, not sending a copy when I request it and guarantee coverage if they do is reason to enough to take them out of the equation. there are too many other quality comics out there.
    So if you have a “No Bluewater” policy and feel it is for ethical reasons, then that is absolutely your right.
    However, as someone who wrote the “Al Franken” comic and is now in charge of the “Political Power” line, I would just like to say I think you are wrong.
    One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the people who say they are “boycotting” Bluewater seem unable to stop talking about them. Unless you are privy to information that I am not, I feel it is unwarranted.
    I DO give you credit for saying that despite your policy, if you felt the books were any good, you would have reviewed them. Some might say that your obvious bias against them makes you thinking they published a decent book unlikely, I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you had an open mind.
    However, I just ask, for all your harsh criticisms of Bluewater, I must ask as a journalist and someone who now works with Darren Davis: have you ever even reached out to Darren Davis and asked for an interview to address these issues you have with Bluewater. That would seem to be the fair – hell, the “Lois lane”-type thing to do. He says you have yet to do this.
    Also, is it just a coincidence that you work for Publishers Weekly
    and they have the exact same issues with Bluewater? Did you know that Darren reached out toHeidi a couple of times to clear the air
    and she never returned the calls or emails? It seems like you guys want to
    make a villain out of someone and Bluewater is an easy target because all
    the press they get.
    if you or anyone would like to talk to Darren,myself or anyone at Bluewater that would be extremely welcome.
    Because for all the stories about how Bluewater screws people, no one notices when the actual artists and writers themselves pop up on message boards, like the talented cover artist that did her first work for us on our upcoming “Hillary Clinton” comic and said she was paid just fine.
    I also got a veteran Marvel/DC artist to do a cover. He wasn’t hapy with the original terms. I suggested a fair counteroffer to Darren and we got a deal done .
    He’s happy now, too and stands to do quite well on the back end if the comic sells like we think it will.
    If you actually would like to talk to either one of them we can set something up. If you just want to cling to your pre-existing beliefs that’s fine as well.
    at least the offer has been made in case you wanted to practice some good journalism.
    Take care and have a good day.

  9. Barney Says:

    Love the wordy replies defending the indefensible. Oh noes Johanna won’t review books from your company. What a meanie she is.

    I think this post on Mark Evanier’s blog might help you:

  10. Charles Knight Says:

    Mark Evanier has it right – chumps indeed.

  11. Johanna Says:

    Great link, Barney, thanks.

    Weird how Bluewater is paying (I don’t want to assume) publishing multiple reviewers who are becoming writers. I have additional objections to people taking that particular career path, although it’s one commonly aspired to.

    Jerome, since I declared my boycott at the beginning of this year, and not counting this post, I’ve talked about Bluewater three times. Once was during my writeup of the FCBD comics, one of which was theirs; once was in response to their NY Times article, which I had a minor connection with; and once was last week, noting that their recent odd release patterns suggest business troubles. I don’t think that’s being “unable to stop talking about them.”

    I can’t comment on what Publishers Weekly does or doesn’t do — I’m not familiar with their coverage or lack of it on this subject. Although suggesting that we agree Bluewater’s deals are unethical is some kind of conspiracy is stupid. Heidi and I have been watching this business for a long time, and that’s likely the reason we came to independently agree on this.

    Personally, I have no interest in talking to the owner, since running an interview with him would just provide more coverage. See original post you’re responding to for why I think that’s a bad idea. Too many people think “fair” means a requirement to present both sides on an issue, even when there’s clearly one one sensible choice. I’ve seen the evidence and made up my mind, and that’s why I’ve taken this stand. Listening to people who write for them attempt to justify their policies out of self-interest hasn’t convinced me I was wrong.

    If Bluewater wants my coverage, here’s how to get it: change the contracts for everyone. Make a statement you’ve done so, provide the evidence, and give me the names and contact information of all the current artists who are now working under the revised deals so I can confirm that’s happened. Otherwise, no dice. Using newbies to avoid people knowing how bad the deals are, that’s just more of the same.

  12. Jerome Maida Says:

    Sorry about my post being wordy. I just like to be fair. If I am involved in something people believe to be unfair, I try to rectify it. And “what a meanie” she is”? Cane we elevate the discussion here?

    I thank you for a professional response. I do believe in fairness and am striving for that in the books over which I have control. The problem is no one that is convinced Bluewater is screwing people seems to want any evidence to the contrary that they aren’t. If you do have data or facts to back up what you say or if you know someone personally who got screwed by a contract, let me know. I cannot attempt to fix a problem if no one presents it to me. If you don’t want to give Bluewater more publicity, I welcome you or anyone else to e-mail me personally at I will tell you if you are interested about the revised deals. I am someone who tries to be fair to everyone and again, the few people I have dealt with personally were very happy with what I was able to work out for them. So far, it is a small sample. But I am going to continue to do so. I love this industry and want everyone to be successful and treated fairly. In that, we can agree.

  13. Barney Says:

    Jerome, I think what I said was perfectly acceptable given what we are discussing. I really don’t see how any amount of ‘evidence’ is going to change any thinking here. It’s not the evidence that is in question but the interpretation of what it means. I doubt it will do any good but I’ll try.

    Let me explain by using using the words of Bluewater president Darren G. Davis as found here:

    “…our business model is such that artists, writers, and colorists are paid if and when a property (single issue or trade paperback) becomes profitable.”

    This is a slimy unethical business practice. Bluewater is, according to this, getting a lot of work for free. Getting paid for work is based on the nebulous criteria of a project being profitable. You don’t see this in other industries because if you don’t pay someone you don’t get work. However amateurs and people just starting may just be hungry enough to get into print that they will get duped by unethical offers like this. Please, read the link I posted above to the post on Mark Evanier’s blog. He’s a professional who has worked in the comic book industry and in tv and animation for decades. Here’s another one of his posts (it’s linked in the first one above but it’s worth putting the link here as well)

    Just to be clear on this, just because you get people to work for free doesn’t make it ethical to do so. Just calling something a business model does not mean it’s ethical either.

  14. Jerome Maida Says:

    All I can say is that the two cover artists I got to work under the first two books under my control did get paid an amount up front and I negotiated it for it to be EVEN MORE LUCRATIVE on the back end. I even told the one artist, I am negotiating this because I don’t want you to feel screwed if the book sells a lot. he should WANT it to sell a lot. This is what I am doing. I want to be proud of what I am doing and for everyone to prosper if we’re successful. This is how I am approaching the books I am in charge of. That’s all.

  15. Jerome Maida Says:

    I do thank you for speaking to me in a reasonable manner, which is a lot more than other posters I’ve encountered do.

  16. Andrew Foley Says:


    Out of curiosity, are Bluewater’s writers and interior artists/letterers/colourists/editors paid a page rate up front? A flat sum? Anything at all prior to publication and/or profitability?

    Do creators working for back end money get regular updates of how many copies of their work have been sold, and of BW expenses that need to be covered before royalties kick in?

    Do creators retain ownership and/or control of their intellectual property, or does BW attach itself to the multimedia rights of all properties it publishes? If so, what’s the company’s cut? Is there a reversion clause, or is BW attached in perpetuity?

    The answers, or lack of same, that BW’s provided to questions like the ones above to date, are, I think, what many of the company’s critics are responding to.

    And answering them may not lessen the criticism, if the answers paint a picture of creators desperate to acquire a publishing credit having their work and creations exploited by a company that gets finished work and/or intellectual property prior to publication while declining to offer creators much, if anything, up front.

    For a variety of reasons, I’d like the answers to not paint such a picture. But I can’t honestly say I’m optimistic that such an thing will occur.

  17. Keith Bowden Says:

    By taking a personal stand against a publisher’s unfair practices (and substandard quality), you are in fact establishing and maintaining your ethics. Breaking those ethics would be, oh, doing a friend a favor by bending your self-imposed rule or taking money to write a glowing review.

    So, take this person’s flame for what it is: sour grapes and attempt to boost his own sales.

    Bravo, Johanna! Stick to your guns!




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