Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Of Publishers and Puppets

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At the UK’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in August, an already heated debate about ebooks caught fire with the admission by crime writer Stephen Leather that he employed sock puppetry in the online marketing of his own books. (Virtual) hands flew up in horror.

In case when I say “sock puppetry” you are picturing an actual, anthropomorphized sock on the end of your actual, animating arm, let me catch you up: sock puppetry refers to the practice of using a fake online persona to review one’s own work — favourably, of course. Leather’s admission of pseudonymously posting good reviews for some of his books on Amazon caused an outcry on Twitter. Mere days later, however, that response was dwarfed by the outing of bestselling crime writer RJ Ellory as a sock puppeteer of the most dastardly order. Under the pseudonyms of Jelly Bean and Nicodemus Jones, Ellory had written florid reviews of his own work, praising himself as the author of “modern masterpieces” while rubbishing the books of some of his peers.

Also in August, and on this side of the ocean, Random House of Canada launched Hazlitt, a brilliant, why-did-no-one-think-of-this-before online magazine that functions as a “glossy” (what is the paperless version of glossy anyway?) ad for Random House while allowing it, sneakily, to provide occasional employment and personal-brand recognition to writers whose book contracts, when they have them, might also one day reside in the company’s drawers. The magazine is sharp and engaging, covers topics including those that have nothing to do with the books coming from its parent publisher, and is one of the first examples (Canongate and Melville House are others, though in different formats) of a publisher figuring out how to make its website be something other than a catalogue for its wares and a showcase of the activity it’s actually in business to carry out: publish great writing.

And yet… (these aren’t the droids you’re looking for) catalogue it still is. Just as Harry magazine is a high-gloss, journalistic way of convincing you to buy a nice suit, Hazlitt is a form of brand journalism.

How do RJ Ellory’s unimaginative sock puppetry and Random House’s innovative online publishing wind up in the same column? Just as the territories of book and magazine publishers are cross pollinating, so too are the roles of writer, reader and reviewer. A recent Globe and Mail article about brand journalism noted that journalism and marketing are becoming, in certain contexts, one and the same. The online transgressions of Ellory and Leather demonstrate that marketing, brand journalism and reviewing are in certain contexts becoming one and the same thing too.

We buy in to something like Hazlitt because it gives us content — well researched, thoughtfully presented, (mostly) typo free! We buy into it also because we see it is using a short-turnaround medium to create and maintain a conversation about ideas within those long-lead-time, between-books periods of quiet that are an intrinsic part of the book writing and publishing process. It is employing writers in between books and occupying eyeballs in between longer reads. Ellory created a conversation too, though surely not one that can be taken as any kind of viable advert for his brand.

Amazon has no reason to police its massively open-to-abuse user-review system because allowing customers to dabble in a little online journalism keeps them on the site where they will then likely buy more stuff. Last week, JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy started racking up one star reviews on Amazon because “reviewers” (who at this point had not yet read the book) thought the price of the ebook too high (they defended Amazon and trashed the publishers in this too, but more on that another day). How does this qualify as a review?! And if this is what passes for an acceptable evaluation of a year-or-several’s work, no wonder the doers of that work are resorting to sock puppetry.

No doubt about it, Ellory was a naughty boy, but he was responding, in a way, to the demands of the publishing environment that authors become their own brand journalists, and to the turn-a-blind-eye-ness of the reviewing forum in which he was able to promote his work. He certainly got a lot of publicity out of it, and his new book is hitting stores this week with his name fresh on the tips of readers’ scandalized tongues: there’s no such thing as bad publicity, they say. Gone are the days when publishing was a gentleman’s profession where a deal was made on a man’s word and a handshake. Do-it-yourself promo has become ubiquitous. Perhaps the best we can do is to keep our eyes peeled and support the brand journalists who are doing it honestly and right.

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, and a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

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