Terence Blacker: Fake reviews are just the start in the dodgy art of publishing books

It is old-fashioned greed that propels an established author to deceive


It is a little known and largely unpublicised fact that the majority of professional writers are really quite kind. They are not the scruffy eccentrics or crazed egotists that one reads about in fiction and in the Sunday newspapers. Professionally, most of them walk a thin, fraying tightrope every day, something which keeps arrogance and bullying in check.

Even the lowest hack or scribbler tends to be given the benefit of the doubt by his or her peers. As Ford Madox Ford put it in 1932, "I would rather see the worst popular writer roll in gold than a fraudulent pill maker or a Wall Street bear."

Then there are the exceptions. Recently, we have been reminded that those who write books for a living can be as ruthless, duplicitous and downright nasty as any banker, politician or journalist.

Stephen Leather, a successful writer of thrillers, boasted to a panel at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, and to listeners to Radio 4's Front Row which was recording the discussion, that his fiction was not restricted to the page but was part of his self-marketing. "As soon as my book is out, I'm on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I'll go on to forums and post them under my name and various other names."

Asked about the use of so-called "sock puppets" to praise his own work, Leather said that everyone in his business did it. Rather confirming the point, another established crime writer, RJ Ellory, was outed over the weekend as an author who invents online personae to enthuse about his own novels while trashing those of his rivals.

What a genuinely loathsome couple they make, Leather and Ellory, and what shame they have brought to the previously respectable genre of thriller-writing – until now, one thought that only poets behaved this badly. The New York Times has recently revealed that self-published authors buy fake online reviews in huge quantities, but at least those poor saps have the excuse of desperation. It is old-fashioned greed which propels an established author to use fake identities to deceive readers and harm rivals.

Publishers have thrown up their hands in horror, but this kind of dodgy behaviour has not emerged out of a void. The anonymity of the internet has something to do with it, as does the belief, pioneered by Jeffrey Archer, that the ability to self-promote is the most important talent an author can possess.

A wider responsibility lies within the culture inhabited by publishers, literary agents and authors. For some time now, the industry has been more than a touch shady in the way it conducts its daily business. Agents are less than honest when selling their wares. Well-known authors cheerfully provide glowing quotes for the work of a new author who just happens to be published by the same editor: the warm words provide a double-whammy of benefit for the quote-giver, doing pals a favour while spreading one's own name around.

Behaviour which is just slightly whiffy is so ubiquitous that a kind of institutionalised dishonesty is part of the books business. When I was in publishing in the 1980s, we put covers on the books of the writer of spy novels, Charles McCarry, that bore a striking resemblance to those by John Le Carré. It was not exactly fraud or passing off, but it was close. Go into any bookshop and you will see the same game being played by publishers of books presented to look identical to the covers of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

It is a time of upheaval in publishing. Perhaps, when the shrieks of disapproval about fake online reviews have died down, the industry might reflect upon its own general conduct.

Hit songs never just come out of the blue

Just as Paul McCartney always claimed that the tune for Yesterday came to him, fully formed, in a dream, so David is quoted as saying of his songs that "the ones that come out of the blue are probably the best ones."

This deceptively simple formula was apparently responsible for Do You Know the Way to San Jose?, a song which brilliantly combines emotion and lyrical economy. As soon as he had heard the melody by Burt Bacharach, "the words just fell out in a matter of seconds."

They are dangerous, these reflections, because they encourage the illusion that to create something memorable one has simply to wait for inspiration to strike, for the words or tune to slip into the brain like a coin into a juke-box.

The truth is that David worked for years to earn those moments when the words just "fell out". It also helped that he was blessed with a musical collaborator to whom he was almost eerily attuned.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Deputy Editor: i’s Review of the Year

Andrew Webster
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all