Sunday, September 16, 2012

Indies and ethics.

I'm writing this way ahead of time, so things have probably cooled down by now.  But earlier this month, there was a kerfuffle in the indie world over some popular authors who had done some pretty unethical things to promote their books. 

One guy, RJ Ellory, was caught writing glowing, five-star reviews for his books and posting them on Amazon under an assumed name.  Not only that, but he would use the same assumed name or names -- oh, let's call these alternate identities "sockpuppets" for short, since everyone else is -- to leave scathing, one-star reviews for books that he considered to be his competition.

Ellory is not the only guy engaging in this kind of stupidity.  A historian named Orlando Figes was caught doing the same sort of thing in 2010.  A well-known UK thriller writer named Stephen Leather has admitted to doing it, too -- and says he doesn't see a problem with it, if it builds buzz for his books.

Perhaps my favorite story, though, is that of John Locke, whose name has been held high as one of the few indies to sell millions of books.  He even wrote a book entitled, How I Sold One Million E-Books in Five Months.  Turns out he paid big money to a shady guy whose business it was to round up people to write glowing reviews of many Amazon products, including e-books.  I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I would guess Locke left this part of the formula for his success out of his how-to book.

In response to these bits of news, a group of authors (full disclosure: the group includes Graham Joyce, and I'm a big fan of his work) posted a petition online and encouraged others to sign it.  The petition says, in part, "We the undersigned unreservedly condemn this behaviour, and commit never to use such tactics."  I signed it.  I even put a link to it on my Facebook page.

Then, Joe Konrath -- whose blog I typically enjoy, particularly when he's bashing the traditional publishing business -- wrote a series of posts critical of the No Sockpuppets Here petition.  At first glance, Konrath seemed to be complaining that other authors were piling on, either out of some misplaced sense of judgmental superiority or out of jealousy that they hadn't sold as many books as the guys who had been outed.  But then later, Konrath admitted that he was personally acquainted with Locke and Leather, and in fact had discussed collaborating on a project with Leather.  So then it appeared he was sticking up for his buddies.

Well, okay.  I'd stick up for my friends, too, I guess, to a point.  But I have to tell you that I don't see anything wrong with having a personal code of ethics and sticking to it.  And I also don't see anything wrong with calling out someone who behaves egregiously.

Konrath is right that these guys didn't commit any crimes, and maybe he's right that no other authors were hurt by their actions (although you've gotta wonder about the effects of those fake one-star reviews).  But for gods' sake, please tell me this isn't our only yardstick for ethical indie behavior.

And in a world where indie authors' marketing options are limited, trashing the credibility of Amazon's star review system with sockpuppet reviews hurts all of us.
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