It’s not an unreasonable question.
The past few weeks have seen a lot of posts, here and elsewhere, around the behaviour of Stephen Leather, all of which have touched at least peripherally on the subject of the ethics of marketing techniques, especially given the constantly changing digital environment. These techniques (some, but not all, of which can be attributed to Leather; all of which can be attributed to various authors across the board) include:
1. Using sock puppet accounts to talk up one’s own book;
2. Giving positive reviews to one’s own book under a sock puppet account;
3. Giving negative reviews to a “competing” author’s book under a sock puppet account;
4. Spreading lies about “competing” authors online;
5. Bullying and harrassing other authors;
6. Shilling – ie talking up the book of a friend without disclosing a personal interest;
7. Astroturfing – ie the overall cumulative effect of the above. Artificial buzz.
8. Attacking reviewers for negative but honest reviews, and/or encouraging their readers to do so.
To which, we can also add this: paying (substantial amounts of money) for reviews. The successful ebook writer John Locke is named in that article. To quote:
“Mr. Locke is unwilling to say that paying for reviews made a big difference. “Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful,” he said.”
Well, that may be true. But ordering 300 reviews will have set him back $6000. At the 0.99 he charges, for which he would receive around 0.30, those reviews would need to have generated him 20,000 book sales just to break even. That is not an insignificant number. You assume it was worth it, but prospective self-publishers may wish to consider their disposable income first – and also have a good, long look at themselves in the mirror.
And I’m sure there are countless other activities as well.
Why does any of this matter? Well, a lot of this behaviour is technically illegal (a vendor pretending to be a consumer, etc), but all of it is dodgy and what I, at least, would consider to be unethical behaviour for an author to be involved in or encouraging. The online review system (along with other online feedback systems) is imperfect, but it exists, and people use it. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be worth authors gaming it in these underhand ways, often at great expense. So these are acts of deception that betray both the reader and other writers. They are acts of selfishness. They are attempts to grab as much of the “open ground” of self-publishing for themselves as possible, by whatever means possible.
It’s possible you don’t care. Well, if so, move on. But if you feel strongly about these issues, what can you do? Here are some quick, initial thoughts. They’re mostly obvious. Please feel free to add other ideas in the comments.
The oddest thing about the Leather business is that, really, I’ve just been reacting to stuff and posting on topics that have arisen. I never had any endgame in mind; I wasn’t trying to achieve anything. When Leather accuses me of being jealous (sic) of his sales, or wanting to harm them, that’s absolutely not the case. I couldn’t give two fucks if he sells a million books in the next day, or none ever again. It has no impact on me. More to the point, a lot of writers over the years have been vile individuals; the books stand alone, their merits independent (for the most part) from the character of the writers.
That said, numerous people have contacted me, either publicly or privately, to say they won’t be buying Leather’s books again. That’s fine. Voting with your feet is a time-honoured tradition. One obvious way you can react to an author behaving in ways you disapprove of is to not support them anymore. That aside, you could also let them know what you think, or engage them in conversation around issues that concern you. And do you know what? The forums and channels these writers are hijacking to promote themselves, however imperfect they are, they belong to you. They are meant for you. Your voice matters more than theirs, so you should use it. And at the absolute least, you can be aware enough of these authors to treat future “buzz” around their books with whatever scepticism you conclude it deserves.
There have been a few suggestions that organisations such as the CWA could introduce a charter of some kind – listing behaviour they expect their members to refrain from, and so on. I have some sympathy with this as a symbolic gesture, but I don’t think it would make much difference for a number of reasons. I doubt someone like Stephen Leather or John Locke cares very much about being a member. I also doubt – with the greatest respect for the organisations in question – that the reading public would pay much attention either. It wouldn’t be awful for it to happen anyway though.
It’s far more likely that wayward authors would take notice of publishers condemning these activities, but there are numerous problems with this as well. For one thing, obviously a proportion of this activity is by authors who are self-published, so it wouldn’t matter. For another, I expect most publishers would condemn this sort of behaviour anyway. Because, in my experience, most people who work in publishing are nice and decent and working in publishing in the first place because they love books.
The issue here is that publishing is a business, but the people who work in it are individuals. Those individuals have their opinions, but it’s often difficult politically to voice them. I think it’s a truism that most editors will have writers they like and want to publish but, for various reasons, it can’t happen, while also having authors they dislike intensely but are stuck with. But at the end of the day, it’s a business – it has to be, and it should be. That’s not to say they should turn a blind eye.
It’s much the same as readers, I think, with some additional caveats. Obviously, regardless of your profile, you can use whatever social media platforms you have to express your opinion. You can refuse to blurb or share a platform with people who engage in this kind of behaviour. You can put forward your point of view; you can let readers know what’s going on. If you think someone’s attacking you, say so.
So. That’s just some initial thoughts and ideas. Feel free to chip in below the line with others…