30 Jan 2017
Author Cheatonomics describes techniques that are or should be found offensive or unethical. Adopting these tactics can damage your reputation and sales if you’re caught. The author does not endorse or recommend anything in this chapter. This is included for educational and entertainment purposes only.
Last week in Author Cheatonomics, we looked at three ways authors skirt ethical boundaries to sell themselves and their books, such as lying about yourself and your sales (Clive Cussler), buying supporters and positive reviews (John Locke), and choosing pennames similar to popular authors (“Steven King”). This week, we’ll look at attacking authors and promoting yourself under the guise of another name, buying works to sell under your name, and buying awards of dubious authority.
4. Sock Puppetry / Anonymous Attacks
The creation of an alternative or anonymous identity used to stir up interest in yourself has been a long literary tradition. As a young newspaper reporter, Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley published a poem he claimed came from Edgar Allen Poe. To spice up interest in it, he sent anonymous letters to a rival newspaper claiming that the poem was a fake, to which he would be forced to respond publicly. (When the poem reappeared in larger circulation newspapers, his scam was discovered and he was fired.)
Today, the prevalence of online review sites such as Amazon and Goodreads makes it tempting to influence response to your books, either by praising it or attacking your critics. English journalist Johann Hari had to apologize a few years ago for rewriting Wikipedia articles to attack writers from rival newspapers. R.J. Ellroy, in the guise of “Jelly Bean,” praised himself as “one of the most talented authors of today” and “his ability to craft the English language is breathtaking”. Thriller author Stephen Leather bragged at a writing festival that he would post praise for his newly released book, to the point where he would have conversations with himself online. Leather also created Twitter accounts to attack his rivals and promote himself.
It doesn’t help that Amazon encourages sock puppetry by allowing you to sign up for as many accounts as you want, a practice that leads to Kindle Unlimited scams that hurt authors.
5. Private Label Books
In the retail world, “private label” means products that are manufactured by one company that another company sells under their label. Grocery stores often sell a line of products that were actually manufactured by another company, often those that have their own brands on the same shelf. Giant Foods brands its products under the Giant label, while Kroger has several lines such as Big K, Home Sense, and Heritage Farms.
The private label idea has reappeared in the publishing world. Some are on the up-and-up, such as companies who produce books on a particular subject for a single client. The day after the 2016 presidential election, Newsweek offered on the stands its “Madame President” issue celebrating Hillary Clinton’s victory. The magazine was hastily withdrawn after Trump was elected, but not before Newsweek political editor admitted that it had been produced by an outside company and that Newsweek’s writers and editors had not worked on it. In fact, nobody at Newsweek had even read the issue!
At least Newsweek knew it was getting a unique product tailored to its needs. It’s possible to also buy books that you can slap your name on and attempt to sell as if you were an expert on the subject. One particular website offered a package deal: 14 books on entrepreneurship, real estate investing, online freelancing and winning business tactics.
There are many problems with this scam. The books are terrible: too short, too thin on details, and most likely cut-and-pasted from online sources. Second, you don’t have an exclusive right to the material. Who knows how many people bought and published “Develop Your Financial IQ” or “The E-Entrepreneur Success Mindset”?
Worse, Amazon is onto this game. Several times in the past few years, it has swooped down and cleared dubious ebooks from its systems. During one such crackdown in 2011, an Amazon spokeswoman told The New York Times, “We have worked steadily to build processes to detect and remove undifferentiated or barely differentiated versions of e-books.”
Then there’s Ian Moreno, who a few years back combined the best of the private label and sock puppetry by buying other people’s stories, publishing them under his name, and praising his reviews using sock puppets. He has since vanished from the Amazon site.
For blazing new paths in cheatonomics, he deserves something, which brings us to …
6. Spurious Awards
During an online interview recently, an indie author was prompted to talk about the numerous award nominations his novel received. He bragged that it was shortlisted in two categories at a book review site and submitted to three major awards in its genre.
Sounds impressive, right? Until you look closer.
Let’s get the easy one out of the way: “submitting” your book for an award means nothing. A book can be submitted for the Nebula given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in the same way that you can submit your entry in Publisher Clearing House sweepstakes, by mailing it in.
At least the SFWA has a clear nominating process. I’ve seen authors claim they’re books were considered for a Pulitzer Prize, which does not have any nominating process at all. Journalists Betty Liu and Jonah Goldberg used the phrase “Pulitzer-Prize Nominated” to promote their books, but what they really did was submit an entry to be considered for nomination (which the Pulitzer jury announces). As Bill Dedman of msnbc.com, who broke the story, described it, “To call that submission a Pulitzer ‘nomination’ is like saying that Adam Sandler is an Oscar nominee if Columbia Pictures enters That’s My Boy in the Academy Awards. … It’s just a way of slipping ‘Academy Awards’ into a bio. The Pulitzers also don’t work that way.”
But what if the book really was on a prize’s shortlist? Then you get into the world of spurious awards.
Here’s how it’s done. Chanticleer Book Reviews holds a writing contest every year. It awards prizes in 15 categories divided by genre such as global thriller, thriller/suspense, mystery and mayhem, paranormal, early historical, and romance fiction.
Sounds fair, right? Mysteries should compete with mysteries, romances with romances, etc. But Chanticleer also subdivides each category into between five and seven subcategories. So in the Cygnus Award for the best science-fiction writing, you can pay $55 to enter your book into these categories: speculative fiction, hard science fiction, apocalyptic/dystopian, space opera, alternative history and soft-sci-fi/young adult.
From this pool, Chanticleer picks winners in each of the subcategories as well as the overall winner. They also announce the finalist list (28 listed in 2016) and the Short List (18). You almost need a computer to keep track of the number of possible awards begin given out.
Since few readers, if any, recognize the Chanticleer name, you’re essentially paying them for the right to claim an award for your book.
This practice is not limited to book review sites. Book festivals also offer writers a chance to “compete” for awards. An older, more established festival such as the Los Angles Times Festival of Books has a high reputation and an award might actually carry real clout. Then there’s the Los Angeles Book Festival that seems to exist more to collect fees from publicity-hungry authors and sell “author services.” The company that runs it has a franchise of book festivals, giving you the chance to win awards from Great Northwest, Great Southeast, Florida, Paris and London festivals. Names that sound impressive, but in practice really aren’t.