A debate has raged in recent years within the auctorial echo chamber, pitting advocates of “traditional publishing” against the insurgent forces of “independent publishing.” Traditionalists – whom I’ll define as authors electing to cast their lot with one of the Big Six publishing conglomerates, under an advance-against-royalties compensation model – have decried the diluvial onslaught of self-published, print-on-demand, and e-book-original content flooding the marketplace, overwhelming the filters through which literature has historically passed on its long and wending journey to your neighborhood bookstore. Independents, conversely, delight in the democratization of publishing occasioned – dare we say kindled? – by the advent of the e-reader, and regard as both anachronistic and paternalistic the notion of ceding 80% or more of their book’s sale proceeds to a New York publishing house.
I am a neutral in this debate. Although traditionally-published myself, I have great sympathy with the argument that much worthy literature goes unrecognized by the jaundiced eye of Big Publishing. Indeed, the anecdotal evidence – Harper Lee, for example, being rejected by ten publishers before finding a home for To Kill a Mockingbird – compels no other conclusion. Nor do I take issue with those who begrudge Big Publishing its outsized, pride-of-lions’ share.
In debating the Traditional-versus-Independent question, one must inevitably address the subject of literary criticism. Traditionalists argue that the brave new landscape envisioned by the Independents – a landscape mounded with 300,000 new self-published titles in 2011 – more closely resembles a swamp, in which the reader is left to slog the digital morass without compass or sextant, as likely to download a cottonmouth as, say, a roseate spoonbill. To this the Independents have heretofore rejoined that the democratization of publishing extends even to literary criticism, such that a constellation of Amazon five-stars is the astral equivalent of one meteoric review in the Times Review of Books.
I say “heretofore” because, as even the most ardent Independent must acknowledge, the face of populist literary criticism has recently changed, and not for the better. On August 26, the New York Times’ David Streitfeld introduced readers to Todd Rutherford, a man whose web-based sham-porium GettingBookReviews.com admits to having commissioned over 4,500 on-line book reviews during 2010-11, all from a boiler room cadre of freelance “critics” recruited on Craigslist and paid $15 for each five-star review they belched forth on behalf of GBR’s author-customers, at rates ranging from $99 for one to $999 for fifty. Moreover, this bombshell landed in the midst of shocking admissions by several bestselling authors, including John Locke, Stephen Leather, and R.J. Ellory, to having either paid for reviews (Locke) or having written reviews of their own (Leather and Ellory) using on-line pseudonyms – a practice known as “sock-puppetry.”
Ellory’s admission – the latest in the series, but probably not the last – is particularly disturbing. For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Ellory is a popular British author of U.S.-based thrillers whose nine novels have, according to his official website, been translated into 25 languages and short-listed for numerous literary awards, including the CWA Steel Dagger and the Barry. His are certainly not the sort of books one imagines requiring false praise to find an audience. What is more troubling are the allegations that Ellory not only lauded his own writing, but publicly denigrated that of his perceived rivals, posting scathing, one-star reviews under a rogues’ gallery of false names.
The charges against Ellory hit a little too close to this writer’s home because, although I’ve never met the gentleman, we have corresponded. My second novel Hard Twisted will be published in November, both in the U.S. (by Bloomsbury USA) and in the UK (by Bloomsbury Circus.) Through the efforts of my UK publicist, we received a sensational blurb from Ellory that Bloomsbury was considering for the jacket of the UK edition. While I have no doubt as to the blurb’s sincerity, both from its content and from my subsequent correspondence with Ellory, and while I remain grateful for having received it, its promotional value has been irreparably compromised by the sock-puppetry scandal. And there, in microcosm, is the heart of the issue.
I’m an author, not a psychiatrist or a public scold. I don’t know what might have motivated Ellory, or Leather, or any of their fellow travelers, and I’m not going to presume to judge them until all the facts are known. What I do know is that public confidence in the kind of populist literary criticism touted by the Independents – fostered by sites like Amazon.com, and relied upon by those who use them – has been shaken, perhaps to its very foundation. And it’s on this damaged foundation that the towering “independent publishing” edifice now uneasily rests.