No one in the book business could have been surprised by the recent exposé in the business section of the New York Times about the fraudulent practice of hiring pretend "reviewers" to post dozens or hundreds of glowing critical notices on book sites about your self-published novel or self-help book. It turns out there are companies that make a ludicrous profit by mass-producing book reviews – selling them at $20 to $100 a pop – and posting them on Amazon for you. The Times quotes a self-published author who has spent $20,000 for fake reviews – and others also consider such a budget line as a normal and expected part of producing a book.
What defines a fake review though? Between the author who encourages all her acquaintances, through a cajoling e-mail campaign, to post as many five-star reviews online as they can, and an author who pays for the same postering, what's the ethical difference? And why would we disapprove of the latter if the former is widely encouraged by all the respectable players in the industry – agents, publicists and business-savvy authors themselves?
After all, we are so frequently told, this is the new role of the author: The author in the age of the digital network and the e-book must be her own marketing machine, a mini-corporation, a brand, as the hateful jargon goes. And the lines, we are reminded at every publishing conference and on every mystery writer's blog, the lines between the social and the corporate must be collapsed, have already collapsed: A network of friends must be exploited and expanded as a marketing base; the typical fan of your work wants not just to know your work but to know you, to be your friend, and so every effort must be made to foster the illusion that he is your friend.
This means including your fans in the groups of friends to whom you regularly communicate and including promotional messages in your personal ones.
It is true that marketing specialists at big publishers tell authors to cultivate an online personality as an extension of their work (an idea that is abhorrent to many fiction writers, who want their fictional creations to stand on their own, untainted by the political views or sexual relations of their authors).
And it is logical that trying to create as much publicity for yourself as you possibly can using all the means of the Internet will naturally end in a certain amount of ... not fraud, exactly; let's call it illusion. The illusion of "friends." The illusion that all the hoopla around a name is naturally occurring. The illusion that a work of art is merely an expression of an author's personality or life story. The illusion that art is a business that sells a product just like any other.
If we persist in fostering these illusions, we foster a mounting self-hatred, for we are forgetting what drew us to art-making in the first place. And we let ourselves get drawn into these embarrassing and ethically dubious self-promotional schemes.
Reconsider, please, one last time before accepting it as truth, the dogma that a writer's value is tied up in her personality as reflected in her digital traces, in her daily expression of moods and views. Think for a minute about what it is we want when we enter a purely fictitious world – do we really want, like perfect postmodernists, to be aware of the falseness of the narrative, to be aware of the author's presence? Do we really not want to believe in purely made-up stories any more? When we watch Breaking Bad, aren't we much more interested in the crazy lives of Walt and Jesse and Skyler than in the life of writer Vince Gilligan? I'm sure he's a witty guy and might make an entertaining blogger, but I really doubt his daily experiences would be nearly as interesting to anyone as his creations' experiences are. In a sense, we pay him so handsomely to not be him.
Publishers, writers, reconsider, please, the role of writer as corporation, as multitasking, market-generating, brand-creating ringmaster, as impresario, as mountebank. Let us just make up stories.