Hit ’em where it hurts

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.

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20 Responses to Hit ’em where it hurts

  1. Sarah says:

    Interesting! I’m slightly removed from this as, like you were a couple of weeks ago, I am mid house move (although I am moving countries) and I’m only keeping a watching eye on things. I haven’t had time to articulate what I think but in summary:
    1. I think RJE is an excellent writer and to have jeopardised his reputation for some snidey comments seems absolutely potty.
    2. I think the chorus of condemnation is justified.
    3. I do think a code of ethics would allow the debate about other issues, for example writers blurbing others books that they haven’t read.
    4. It’s made me think about transparency on my blog. I already state whether I get a book free from a publisher. I may start to say what happens to the books when I’ve finished with them (they go to friends/charity).
    That’s a quick summary of where I’m at but ordinary life is intervening….

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    • So annoying when real life gets in the way eh Sarah? But I can totally understand – and I only had to move across the city not to another country! Hope all goes well and settles down soon

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts…I don’t really think it is a bad idea to have a code of conduct…I just don’t think it is a terribly useful way to deal with people who engage in scumbag behaviour.

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  3. Jon Page says:

    Seriously considered posting my own one star reviews of their books on Amazon with “sock puppet” as the review but that would be stooping to their level. I just won’t stock their books in my bookshop and if I’m asked for their books I’ll explain that I’m not stocking their books for ethical reasons, explain why and point them in the direction of other authors

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    • And you should be applauded by properly behaving humans everywhere for that Jon.

      I’ll try to write a review that prompts at least one Sydneysider to buy a book in your store to make up for the one that I bought in Adelaide thanks to your review of Zane Lovitt’s Midnight Promise 🙂

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  4. Kathy D. says:

    Good ideas for a code of ethics for authors. This is treacherous behavior, to sink so low as to criticize other authors and their books, but do it hiding behind a pseudonym! If they’re going to do that, then they should use their own names and do it honestly, not in a sneaky manner.
    More and more people — and corporations which are polluting, causing global warming, to name one other example– are just apologizing for bad behavior and moving on.
    Yesterday, I was surprised when the German company that produced and sold thalidomyde, which they even admit caused birth defects in thousands of babies, apologized 50 years after the deed was done. I mean how does a company apologize for harming thousands of children and adults and 50 years later at that? And then just keeps on manufacturing drugs and selling them, without missing a beat? Isn’t anyone accountable any more? Excuse the rant but it’s getting wild out there.

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  5. Bernadette – I’m appalled too at what’s come out lately and what makes me even more so is that there are likely others who’ve done the same thing. I could go on and on about that but you’ve said it so well already: there is a way that people are supposed to behave even if it’s not formalised into a code of conduct. The whole thing makes me ashamed on behalf of other authors who do conduct themselves ethically even if they don’t sell gazillions of books. I certainly intend to “vote with my wallet.” I think that’s the very least I can do.

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  6. Maxine says:

    The trouble about refusing to stock the books is that for sure Amazon won’t refuse to stock them (or probably Waterstone’s which is in effect the UK’s only bookselling chain now).

    Bad behaviour on the internet will happen whatever codes of conduct people draw up or whatever ethical statements are introduced. I have seen it time and time again, the two-faced-ness of people is breathtaking (I talk about experience from work so cannot go into details). Some people will just get cleverer about buying in fake reviewers (like those fake spam comments that are paid-for in the hope that some naive people will click on the link), or about disguising their identities, or finding other ways to cheat. It is called evolution – such strategies may backfire or be short-lived, but they will always happen.

    I have also seen lots of exhortations for Amazon/web hosts to do things about these practices, but that’s an arms race. Every time you introduce a check/balance, someone works out a way round it in order to cheat. That’s life.

    Just be careful on the internet – “nobody knows you’re a dog” in the famous cartoon. There are people on the internet whom one knows, either in real life or via their blogs or online discussion contributions. As a user of the internet, it’s better simply to limit one’s trust to those people whose reputation you know, than to trust all the lies, cheats, hype and crap that makes up most of it (including self-justified Twitter witch hunts where people rant stupid, shallow “solutions” which have no practical basis at all).

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    • I so agree that this kind of thing is never going to go away – it’ll get smarter but there will always be cheats and liars. Just glad I don’t have to rely on Amazon reviews for my book recommendations.

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  7. Maxine says:

    PS and if I had not already decided not to buy any books by these gentlemen, I would certainly decline to buy any from here on in.

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  8. kimbofo says:

    I’ve not read any books by said authors — and I definitely won’t be reading them at all now.

    It seems to me that in current society there is an absence of real consequences for all kinds of immoral behaviour — look at the banking industry for starters, then there’s the politician (in UK) and the expenses scandal, swiftly followed by all the dodgy shenanigans at News International. People don’t seem to be punished in any way that truly hurts — in some cases, they are actually rewarded for bad behaviour. The word “integrity” seems to be missing from so many people’s vocabulary. A sad, sorry state of affairs.

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    • How true Kim – I was thinking of the global financial crisis too – the people who caused all the damage are largely unscathed while the poor slobs at the end of the chain are the ones who lost houses and so on.

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  9. Marg says:

    The list of authors to avoid just gets longer and longer and longer! I’m afraid I am going to have to start an excel list instead of relying on my memory! One of the interesting things too is that it covers a lot of genres these days – last week it was chick lit!

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  10. seantheblogonaut says:

    I am confused as to why they thought the reviews would actually do any good? From what I am hearing they(reviews) just don’t make that much difference compared to other factors so why bother risking the reputation? Then again maybe there’s no such ting as bad publicity.

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    • I’m not sure Sean but a lot of authors do think that having a preponderance of good reviews on Amazon in particular is worth having – I suspect dedicated readers/book bloggers don’t put much store in that source but the occasional reader probably does.

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  11. Kathy D. says:

    Why don’t readers just write terrible reviews of aforesaid (and other) crime fiction authors’ books at Amazon? And expose their bad behavior, too? This kind of thing can work both ways.

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