When The Competition Turns Nasty

Reading & Writing

Any branch of the arts attracts bottom-feeders, and publishing is no exception; there are people who carve out plates from art books and sell them, or who steal to order from reference libraries, or who churn out vanity volumes for deluded McGonagalls.

To this list could be added Todd Rutherford, who ran a company that would write a rave review of your book no matter how awful it was and stick it online for a price. The more you pay, the more he’d tell people it’s great. Mr Rutherford was a book pimp, and there’s a New York Times article about him here but for God’s sake don’t click on his site, which is now some kind of scamming advert.

As the NY Times rightly points out, ‘Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people’. But what Mr Rutherford did was undermine the whole structure of honest reviewing by shovelling fake reviews all over the internet for cash. Amazon reviews are now regarded with growing suspicion.

When I review for national publications, I have to whittle down the books for review from the twenty or so I’m sent each month to just two or three, so I try to cover books that have merit and originality. Press reviewers must maintain integrity (my FT and Indie reviews are rigorously checked) but as traditional journalism makes make way for the half-truths of online chatter, the line gets blurred.

Now the crime writer RJ Ellory has been caught not only writing good reviews of his own books online under pseudonyms but also writing nasty ones of his rivals, including friends of mine like Mark Billingham and Laura Wilson. Ellory is a good writer, which makes it all the more disappointing that he did such a dumb thing. He had no reason to feel threatened.

Publishing is going through major upheavals, with many terrific, intelligent novelists being abandoned while trash gets promoted, so it’s no wonder writers feel concerned about their careers. This summer the ‘erotic women’s fiction’ bandwagon has sent publishers into a tailspin. Before that it was Dan Brown and celerity memoirs. People are free to choose what they like; they chose JK Rowling over the superior Philip Pullman, while the best magical saga of them all, Susanna Clarke’s dazzling ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, remained a minority choice – and that’s fine. They chose to a number of factors, their own reading levels and perhaps informed opinion.

If you’re going to choose your reading by recommendation, it’s hard to know who to trust. Luckily there are some genuinely brilliant book websites (particularly some astonishingly erudite sites in the US) where honest, passionate reviewers speak the truth about good and bad books.

If there’s a moral, it’s that Mr Rutherford and RJ Ellory were both rooted out. But I’m confused; RJ Ellory hasn’t slagged off my novels in fake reviews – does that mean they’re no good?

8 comments on “When The Competition Turns Nasty”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    After reading this, I was going to flag it to your attention, but forgot.
    This seems a part with the business of paying those commercial services for book-cover blurbs, paying for “word amiths” to write flyleaf summaries, and now that you can self publish to pay for just about everything, except for a legion of book-buying readers.
    Of course, the motion picture business – for example – has always wined and dined reviewers, radio and TV people; even had their publicity people cook up a wholecloth soup of quotes. (Bucky of the Beaver Springs Daily: “Most entertain film I’ve seen since I built the dam!!”) Not that this is considered in good taste by the rest of the film industry.
    Why did he do it? For the cash, I’d quess. Second question: How well do his books sell?
    I know you really like Susan Clake’s book, and she spent ten years working on it, but I thought while good it was about three years-worth too long. But that’s just me. Cheers.

  2. Steve says:

    No offense to Admin or other reviewers who have actual integrity, but I rarely read reviews. If I do at all, it’s after the fact – mainly to see if they agree with my take on the work in question. I’ve seen horrible reviews of works I’ve really enjoyed, and wonderful reviews of works that would (in my opinion) make good bin liners.

  3. J. Folgard says:

    I generally read reviews from websites that I enjoy, be they dedicaced to ‘genre’ fiction or geared towards ‘the mainstream’ (if there are such valid distinctions anymore!). And, more often than not, I look for books recommended by writers whose work I enjoy, the ones they talk about on their interviews, websites, Twitter feeds or whatever. Sometimes, when I skim through Amazon reviews, some of them appear to be so outrageously negative they actually encourage me to give the book a try. Cheers!

  4. John Howard says:

    Wow, at last, someone else who has read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I was beginning to feel very lonely. I have to say that whilst I do read reviews on the web to get a feel for a book, I still use my tried and trusted method, also used in a bookshop, of reading the précis of the particular book i’m considering. If I like it I generally go for it. It can be a bad method. It’s how I found admins’ books.

  5. Brian says:

    I find review pages becoming harder to find but when I do I usually only read reviews of non-fiction; mostly history and auto/biography. Fiction reviews I only read if I am pretty sure I won’t be reading the book or, like Steve, after the event. Even then it is only when I need to check online what others made of the book. For example I really enjoyed Rupert Thomson’s The Insult. Couldn’t put it down but when I finished reading it I found myself asking “ What the Hell was that all about?!” Online I found that many others had also enjoyed it but had a sense of bafflement.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I read movie and concert reviews until I have an idea as to what the reviewer likes an how that matches with my taste. That way I have a better idea as to whether I’ll like something they praise. With books that’s a little more difficult because the reviewer is often someone asked to review that particular book only, so you have to know something about the reviewer in advance. A friend sends me the New York Times reviews and others he thinks I’d be interested in. Why read all there are when you have your own clipping service? Author interviews are a good source and CBC radio has pretty good ones. I don’t think I’d pay attention to on-line reviews unless I knew the reviewer. I just finished David Gibbins’ “The Mask of Troy” and wrote it up on Goodreads. I looked at the other reviews and found the book rated all the way from 1 to 5 (the top rating). I had to read a lot of comments before I found out that people were looking for quite a range of different types of books when they read it. Everything needs analysis.

  7. andrea yang says:

    I use GoodReads but only bother reading reviews by people I actually know in the real world and respect.

  8. glasgow1975 says:

    Oh I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell 🙂 Perfect for my coffee breaks in the call centre I was working at then 😉

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