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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
  • @TerenceBlacker

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.