23 Jan 2017
“Cheatonomics” describes techniques that you should find 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.
In the book “Freakonomics,” authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt described a unique study of morality involving honor and bagels. Paul F. left his well-paying job as an economist to sell bagels to office workers in Washington. Every work day, he would drive to a number of companies in the D.C. area and place special trays containing still-warm bagels and doughnuts, along with a slotted wooden box to collect the money. Then he’d come around before lunch and pick them up.
After awhile, he discovered that he had set up an ideal experiment to track the honesty of his customers. By recording how many bagels and doughnuts were paid for at each site, and how they were displayed, the types of customers, and the weather, he could tell how honest people are, and under what conditions would they be tempted to steal.
After delivering 1,375,103 bagels and 648,341 doughnuts, he determined that he was paid for 89% of them. Depending on your attitude toward the human race, this is either heartening (89% of these people were honest!), or depressing (11% of white-collar workers who aren’t starving, and who could afford bagels still stole).
He found that the percentage of thefts could be tied to several factors. Thefts were higher at telecom companies, for example. Companies with tight security were not anymore honest than other companies. Executives were most inclined to steal. Holidays were terrible times for honesty, while a stint of great weather would increase payments.
It can also demonstrate how quickly a system can collapse. There were times when more than 20% of a company’s workers were helping themselves to his products. Even when the majority of people were honest, they can’t subsidize a business if 1 out of every 5 customers stole from it, even if each person took “only” one piece.
These people wouldn’t think of themselves as thieves or evil people. They may tell themselves that they weren’t doing any harm. They certainly didn’t think that they would force Paul F. out of business, and that no one would get any bagels anymore.
The same could be said about the people who publish books. Most of us are scrupulously honest, some are thoroughly immoral, and some try to profit by working the system in ways that some people would find objectionable.
For example, what would you think of an author who:
* Inflates his sales figures during negotiations for the movie rights?
* Leaves insulting reviews of other author’s books under a false name?
* Pays someone under the table to promote his book in the guise of commentary?
* Reviews his book under another name?
* Pays someone to post 300 reviews of his books?
* Publishes titles under a penname similar to a famous author’s name?
* Contributes a novella to a 99-cent box-set, and when it appears on the extended lists calls herself “a New York Times and USA today Bestselling author”?
Each of them were done by at least one author, some of them reputable and popular.
Does knowing who did each of these things change your opinion of the ethical nature of their acts? Would you think less of William Faulkner, whose publisher paid popular radio personality Alexander Wolcott to boost Sanctuary? Or that Anthony Burgess was clever for reviewing his own book in the newspaper he worked for? His boss was less forgiving; he sacked Burgess when he found out.
So between the tactics that are right and proper and wrong and improper is a band that is, shall we say, ethically negotiable. Sometimes, it’s a matter of context. If paying someone to flood Amazon with 300 reviews is wrong, like John Locke admitted to The New York Times, is it equally wrong to pay Kirkus for a review? What about BlueInk Reviews, which promises an honest review, but lets you suppress it if you don’t like it?
It’s a tricky question to parse.
Here are the things I’ve seen and heard in the pursuit of sales. Note: I’m not endorsing any of these tactics. In fact, it will become apparent that using these tactics will backfire on you, sometimes harshly.
In the end, you’re better off focusing on writing better books.
1. Near-Familiar Pennames
Finally, let’s learn a lesson on how not to choose a penname.
A few years back, Steven King published a horror story on Amazon that became very popular very quickly.
They were right: Steven King was not the Stephen King they thought they paid good money to read.
They quickly made their thoughts known.
It’s a good thing for him that he wasn’t living in a Stephen King world. Curses there tend to take a more literal and fatal turn.
2. Lying about yourself
In 2003, James Frey published A Million Little Pieces, a memoir about his decade-long addictions that ended in a violent fight with police officers and an 87-day jail sentence. His book on his fall and rise was a monster hit, and Frey appeared before Oprah’s book club audience.
More than a year later, Frey reappeared on Oprah, but with a different story. It turned out his memoir was a fake, from beginning to end. He wasn’t a recovering addict, and his arrest record was limited to a quiet arrest by two officers (who later said he was cooperative) that saw him in jail on minor offenses. His total time in stir before posting bond: five hours.Since then, Frey has continued to write, so in a way he can thank his spurious memoir for his career. But most likely nothing he will do will be more memorable than his failed con. When he dies, his obituaries will begin with “Author of a fake memoir…”
There have been other frauds perpetuated in publishing. Clifford Irving made millions selling a fake biography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, until Hughes gave a telephone interview exposing him. The author of The Education of Little Tree, about a Cherokee boy, was not Native American but a white segregationist who in his past wrote speeches for George Wallace. Recently, an edition of Best American Poetry that was restricted to white women and non-whites contained a poem by “Yi-Fen Chou,” a fake name chose by its white male creator.
Not all liars get punished. Political strategist Dick Morris lied to everyone that he was not “Anonymous,” the author of Primary Colors, the notorious roman a clef about Bill and Hillary Clinton, until there was so much evidence that he was that he finally admitted it. It didn’t seem to harm his career any; but, then, he was in politics, where lying is practically a reflex.
3. Buying supporters
Cats fluff their fur to make themselves appear larger to rivals and enemies. In their own way, so do celebrities. The bigger the entourage, the more followers on social media, the larger the profit reported in the media, the bigger they look.
Authors have used the same tactic. Clive Cussler was sued over claims he inflated his sales during negotiations for the film rights to his novel Sahara.
Politicians have enlisted their supporters and hired companies to buy copies of their books. The New York Times tries to guard its list of the bookstores it polls to keep it from being manipulated by bulk purchases, but time and again someone succeeds in influencing the list.
Indie authors face the same temptation. Identify yourself as an author on Twitter, and you’ll receive tweets offering to boost your perceived popularity. Want a 1,000 followers? 10,000? Here they are! Want positive reviews on Amazon? We deliver! PayPal, please.
Visit a forum for authors, and you’ll eventually be solicited by other authors to trade reviews or buy books on the day of publication, with an offer to do the same for you (or, in the case of book purchases, to be reimbursed via PayPal).
There are several risks with this tactic. Who is offering to sell you followers? How reputable are they? If you send money and they don’t follow through (ha!), who can you complain to?
Even if you get those followers, there’s no guarantee they’ll keep following. Twitter has occasionally swept down on its customers and deleted fake accounts. Some celebrities woke up to discover half their followers had vanished. Even President Obama was not spared: Twitter found 19.5 million of his 37 million followers were fakes.
And what happens if word gets around? This becomes a double-edged sword. If you become a name author as a result of deceit, you become best known for that. Just ask John Locke, who told The New York Times that he purchased fake reviews. But if no one knows who you are, didn’t you just waste your money?
Building your career on a Potemkin village still leaves you with nothing.
Next week: Cheatonomics continues, with sock puppets, buying potted books and fake awards!