Books, Reviews, and Sock Puppets
/by Fiona Smith/
Back in the dark ages when you had to buy a book from an actual bookstore, it was relatively easy to decide what to buy. You could read newspaper book reviews and top ten charts, or seek out those little handwritten staff recommendations in Waterstones. Or even judge a book by its, eh, cover. Back then it was easy to know who to trust. The newspaper reviewer had credentials and therefore could be considered an expert; the same could probably have been said for bookshop staff, and although we are told not to judge a book by its cover – we generally do, after all we’re just trusting our own instincts.
Nowadays with fewer bookstores and lots of ways to buy ebooks, things have gotten more complex. Now when selecting a book, we have the added weight of reader reviews. In fact, buying a book online has become a bit like buying a washing machine. We go to Amazon, we are greeted with an image of the product, a blurb from the manufacturer, and a host of user reviews. However there’s a problem, because buying a book isn’t like buying a washing machine. A book is subjective. Reviewing a book is not as simple as giving a technical rundown of its faults. Enjoying a book often depends on the reader. And let’s face it when we take on board a review from a newspaper, or from a friend we are privy to their details. We are swayed by the literary background of the person giving us the review – in short we judge them by their cover. For example, if my friend suggests I should read Fifty Shades of Gray, I’ll remember she thinks Twilight is the greatest literary triumph of our time, and I’ll most likely decide against this recommendation. However, if I see a Philip K Dick book review on ShortbreadStories from someone who has read a lot of Sci-fi books, I’ll most likely purchase it.
Reviews of books depend on the reviewer, and how much do we really know about the person leaving an online comment. A Quiet Belief in Angels by RJ Ellory is, according to an Amazon reviewer, Jelly Bean, “one of the most moving books I’ve ever read”…”[Ellory is] one of the most talented authors of today” and “his ability to craft the English language is breathtaking”. High praise indeed. Another reviewer Nicodemus Jones agrees, and states the book is a “modern masterpiece”, and “whatever else it might do, it will touch your soul”. Could these reviewers be genuine fans of the book? Perhaps. Could they be friends or relatives of the author? Maybe. Or could it be the author himself? Unfortunately, yes. “Jelly Bean” and “Nicodemus Jones” are both the pseudonyms of RJ Ellory.
RJ Ellory is the latest in a number of authors who succumbed to the pressure of online reviews, and in doing so wrote his own glowing recommendations – now being called “sock puppetting”. However is there really any harm in using pseudonyms in order to self-promote?
Let’s be honest, the publishing world is hard. For every fairytale story of a blog being miraculously discovered and turned into a book, there’s another 10,000 writers out there who are scribbling away with little hope of ever being found. And even if you happen to be lucky enough to get your book in to print, it’s not happily-ever-after. Instead, it’s years of self-promotion, book tours, blogs, going into bookstores and pulling every copy of your novel an inch out from the shelf (true story – I know an author who does this regularly just to stand out from the crowd). In short, it’s hard work. So perhaps we can forgive RJ Ellory and the other authors like him for fabricating a few glowing reviews.
However RJ Ellory didn’t stop there. He also used the pseudonyms to slate other books by his peers online.
Writing is a funny old business. The process of writing is a solitary act. It begins with just one person sitting in a room and dreaming. Then after that dream is realised, there’s a great deal of rejection. Rejection from magazines, from publishers, from online writing sites, and if you’re lucky this rejection is followed by criticism, lots and lots of it. This process should make us supportive of our peers, not competitive. ShortbreadStories is a brilliant example of a community of writers who come together in the spirit of writing and who leave their professional jealousy at the log-in. If only RJ Ellory had spent a few years learning from some of our Shortbreaders.
So to recap:
- Judging a book by its cover may be more helpful than reading online recommendations.
- If you are an author considering writing fraudulent reviews why not visit ShortbreadStories instead.
- If you’d like to know the mysterious identity of the author who visits bookstores to ‘inch his way in front of the competition’ visit the Argyle Branch of Waterstones in Glasgow.