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?