R.J. Ellory is a British author of crime thrillers. He’s written ten novels that have sold a combined million copies, which qualifies as a major success. He’s won any number of awards, large and small, in his genre.
He also created multiple fake accounts so he could give his own books five-star reviews on Amazon.com. That, of course, would constitute a major lapse of ethical judgment. The fact that he also went on to give other crime writers one-star reviews on the same site is absolutely unforgivable.
I have a background in business journalism, and I’ve learned a lot about publishing over the last year and a half. One of my biggest takeaways is this:
Authors don’t have “rivals.”
General Motors has rivals. Microsoft has rivals. NBC has rivals. They each have products that they bring to market that rival products made by other companies. People only need one or two cars at any given time. They only need one operating system or word processing program per computer (mostly). They can generally watch only one show at a time, and even with DVR and streaming, only have enough time to consume a handful of shows regularly.
So does that mean authors are in direct competition with each other for readers? Is my debut novel next year going to tank if it comes out the same week as Jonathan Frazen‘s next book? John Scalzi is going to release digital “episodes” of his next novel over the course of months, then put out a combined print version. How many writers does that man want to sabotage?!
As my agent Sara Megibow likes to point out over on Twitter, publishing success is a very big pie. And the more success that’s generated, the more pie is made. Take a look at the Harry Potter phenomenon for the past 15 years or so. Did the fact that Harry Potter was a worldwide hit somehow keep other books from selling at all? Of course not. In fact, J.K. Rowling brought millions more readers into the mix, and when they were done with her series, they looked for other books. Her success helped the entire industry.
So what was Ellory thinking when he slammed other writers’ work? I have no idea. Personally, I want authors in my genre to succeed, and succeed wildly. More people reading fantasy and science fiction means there are more people casting about for something new in the genre, and that means more people might opt to give my book (coming May 7!) a try. And in turn, if people judge my book on its merits and find it worth their time and money, I hope they’d then look into other authors in my genre. Thus, the virtuous loop continues.
Yes, the average consumer has only so much money for book purchases, and it’s tempting to fall into the trap of believing that buying one author’s book is one less royalty for someone else. But the barrier to entry for book purchases has fallen considerably thanks to e-books, and again, it’s not like a fan of sci-fi is going to be sated after reading just one book. I also recognize it can be easy for debut and even mid-list authors to get lost in the shuffle, but that just means we as writers need to put in the hard work to write good books and promote them — ethically! — as best we can.
So long as there’s a system of rating, at Amazon or elsewhere, there will be people inclined to rate a book as low as possible. In some cases, people will have read and genuinely disliked the book in question to the point where they believe it to be a one-star work. Others — likely the majority of one-star reviewers — are simply jerks who like to mess with authors’ livelihoods and readers’ purchases because they can. And a few, like Mr. Ellory, intend genuine harm with bogus reviews against so-called rivals.
We cannot, sadly, create a system that is jerk-free because, in the end, there will always be jerks. My message is this: don’t be that jerk.
If you review books, review them honestly. If you’re a writer, celebrate other writers’ successes and give them their props. If you do both, all I can say is that you really need to be fair and understanding in your reviews. Personally, I’m more than happy to give a shout-out to books I like. If I don’t like it, I’ll probably keep that opinion to myself unless asked directly.
Also, writers, don’t let one-star reviews bother you. There was the brouhaha about the Goodreads bullies, where some authors who received one-star reviews from a few jerks (and some honest reviewers as well) responded by becoming jerks in their own right. Rise above, people. Turn the other cheek, walk away, don’t engage it. Focus your energies on the work, not on engaging in debates or retaliation.
OK, so Hemingway and Faulkner didn’t like each other, and Mario Vargas Llosa once punched Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the face. They may have been rivals in a personal sense. But they all managed to sell a few books. You can too, and you don’t need to punch anyone or diss them online. The authors I’ve interacted with thus far are uniformly welcoming and supportive, and I’m grateful for it. I try to return the favor whenever I can. It’s a big, growing pie, and we can all have some.
Dang. Now I want pie.