A blog-cycle or two ago, the literati huffed and puffed with news that — alas! — in the online book marketplace, not everything is as simple as click-and-buy. First, there was a Times piece detailing how John Locke, self-published author of, among other things, How I sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months, paid a service to get his book reviewed. (And across the pond, a couple of writers were caught e-slagging their rivals under false names; more on them in a minute.) The article went on to echo the lament that this violated “the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author.” And then the tweeting masses cracked their knuckles and took up the cause.
Let's look at two very different methods of gaming the online review system, their wily practitioners, and the moral shallows between them.
I assume many book industry types regard all this Locke outrage as a little quaint and a lot naive. Citizen-consumers may as well have gotten really, really angry at big houses in the nineties and aughts for buying space on front-of-house tables at Borders and Barnes & Noble, or for pursuing blurbs from an established name to emblazon on full page ads in the Times Book Review. There is little difference, it seems, between jockeying for privileged position in a magazine layout and in striving after visibility in the Amazon morass. So we should investigate why it is that paying faux-reviewers to write about your book appears morally distinguishable from the more traditional pursuit of blurbs and displays.
For starters, does anyone read customer reviews, which lack any real evidence of who wrote them, at face value? I doubt it. People generally make assessments about the source of the information they're reading. (Some of the anger directed at Locke likely stems from rube's embarrassment.) On sites like Amazon or Yelp or wherever else the inquisitive netizen goes to get “a sense” of what “people think” about something, she bears in mind that there is a lot of business at stake — not only in the content of the reviews, but in the way the reviews impact a product's visibility. She recognizes and adjusts for that. Myself, outside of reviews of different models of Cuisinart ice-cream makers, I tend to ask actual people.
Friendship: it’s about more than jointly emptying six-packs.
Here's my larger point about Locke and people who employ services to boost their books' visibility: essentially, they're engaging in marketing. To sell, books have to be seen, and as physical shelves become less and less of the way books are displayed, you can expect people to do whatever they can to get their books in your eyeline. The black box that determines which products get screen placement has immense sway over how well they sell, and gaming it, while a little on the crass side, doesn’t seem morally objectionable. To me.
Of course, what I just described is a kind of cunning exercise that (please excuse my appreciation for shrewd, scrappy behavior) exhibits good business sense and seemingly harms no one. There is a shadow-side to 'nonnymuss reviews, one that would be despicable if it weren't so pathetic. It is exemplified by RJ Ellory (recently) and Orlando Figes (nuptially). Both of these fine British gentlemen have been caught out posting false reviews on Amazon, either trashing books by their rivals or praising their own work in glowing terms, or both.
The thing about these cases, besides actually being attempts to harm the reputations of rivals, is that they don’t exemplify shrewd marketing or savvy gamesmanship; they exemplify megalomania in its crumbling phase. The world just isn’t recognizing their greatness, so they're doing what they can to make it fall in line. Thing is, it’s hard to get a lever in place to move the world, and harder still if you’re a delusional liar whose sense of singular achievement is being constantly assaulted by the reality of other people selling books or disagreeing with your scholarship.
Damn reality, it hurts so.