Recently, bestselling crime author RJ Ellory admitted to using fake names on Amazon to praise his own books and pillory the works of his competitors. He has been widely criticized by his fellow authors and by the press, though it remains to be seen whether it will impact his sales numbers. Ellory is not the only person to have admitted to 'sock puppeting', as the practice is known. Nor are authors that only ones that are guilty of this peculiarly internet-era ethical lapse. Readers will doubtless know that corporations use this practice frequently as well.
Both scenarios are bad, yes, but with respect to authors, the practice somehow feels worse. People expect this from 'evil' and underhanded corporations as part of their marketing efforts. Perhaps that doesn't make it any better on some level, but it is hard to argue with the pragmatic notion that expectations make a difference. To further this point, not only are ethical expectations low for corporations, but tend, rightly or wrongly, to be higher for authors.
Because of this expectation, one that Ellory and his ilk are no doubt aware of, there is an odd, almost inexplicable air of desperation related to Ellory's actions; he is a bestselling author and probably would be even without his indiscretions. He didn't really need to risk his reputation to do this, he didn't need to trample on the expectations of his readers to put food on his table.
Perhaps this situation gnaws at me because there are well-established outlets for authors to criticize each other, like book reviews, meaning that Ellory's actions were (unless he has some sort of mental condition which would lead him to do something like this, a notion I bring up only to point out that it isn't outside the realm of possibility) motivated purely by commercial interest. While authors under contract have some obligation to get books sold, this nonetheless should come second to their obligation to write books with integrity.
On second thought, we can scupper that line of reasoning. I suppose that even commercial interest isn't my main criticism. If Ellory had taken to Amazon using his own name to criticize his competition, even if he were motivated purely by the competitive flames licking at his heels, I would have far less of an issue. It would be like the book reviews noted above, just in new-age format. In fact, it is possible that this post would read a lot more like 'internet-savvy author savages his contemporaries on the web to the delight of readers' in that scenario. 'What an interesting chap!' I might write. Yes, it is clearly the lack of honesty, indeed the willful deception, which bothers me here.
Perhaps such criticism is based on a romanticized notion of what the modern author should be, shaped by my admiration for some of the greats of the past. I have similarly spent a lot of time expressing disappointment in the media based on what may well be an overly romanticized version of that profession's history. Maybe I am being naive in both cases, ignorantly blinding myself to the realities of the modern journalism and writing. Maybe my views of their pasts are too idyllic, and put too much emphasis on the illustrious beacons and not enough on the down and dirty realities.
However, even if I am being naive, even if I am holding out professions on a mythical pedestal which doesn't really exist, I am sure some of our readers feel the same. If that is true, than such viewpoints, while romantic, do mean something. Here's hoping that our views, romanticized or not, carry the day.