The internet and mainstream media are both ablaze at present with discussion about authors – some unknown, some best selling – who have been discovered engaging in the morally bankrupt practice of using fake identities to both positively review their own books (bad enough) and negatively comment on the works of other authors (a thousand times worse). I’m not going into details here but you can read a Telegraph (UK) article or this blog post or this one to learn that among the admitted culprits are Stephen Leather, R.J. Ellory and others.
Among the many legitimately outraged responses have been loads of calls for an author’s code of conduct. To which I say, why bother?
There is after all already a sort of unwritten code of conduct for being a human being isn’t there? And doesn’t it contain sentiments along the lines of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ and ‘don’t be a lying a-hole?’ People who would repeatedly stoop to criticising the works of fellow authors under assumed names have already jettisoned morality and common decency from their behavioural arsenal. Why would they be any more likely to follow an author’s code of conduct? The problem, as I see it, is not an absence of rules for proper behaviour but rather the absence of real consequences when those rules are ignored.
Because I’ll bet Ellory, Leather and all the rest gambled that even if they were discovered they could release a couple of platitudes disguised as genuine sentiment and all would be forgiven. And who can blame them for thinking that? If my limited watching of Oprah and Dr Phil is any indication in this day and age you can get away with almost anything as long as you cry when you are found out. And if you cry in public all the better.
But what if it wasn’t worth the risk for authors to engage in such practices? What if the cost was more than a fake apology or a few public tears? What if there were real and material consequences?
Jon Page is the proprietor of a Sydney bookshop and President of the Australian Bookseller’s Association. During a twitter conversation today regarding this subject he said that his shop would not be stocking the books of two authors proven to have engaged in this puerile behaviour. How wonderful I thought. And then…what if he wasn’t alone? What if all booksellers agreed that they would not sell books by an author who was proven to have engaged in this behaviour? And what if they told customers why the books weren’t being stocked? Could we go further? Could readers and book bloggers agree not to discuss an author’s books in any forum if he or she was proven to have engaged in the truly despicable practice of anonymously criticising the work of other authors? Could such degenerates be blacklisted from being reviewed in mainstream media and consideration from all relevant awards categories? For ever?
I realise I may be taking things a little far here but I believe this kind of behaviour will continue unless it becomes too risky. Someone with no moral backbone might be prepared to risk a little bit of transient shame but would they be prepared to risk a complete dearth of sales?
Those of us who read, buy, sell, publish and love books must all play our part in letting it be known that there are real consequences far greater than having to release a weasel-worded apology (as Ellory did) for being a bottom-feeding douchebag.