Why writers are mugging each other

Today marks the end of a peculiar, but increasingly popular, annual event: national novel-writing month is almost over. Heads down, fingers pounding away at their keyboards, would-be writers here and in America will be racing for the finishing line, having almost completed a novel of some kind or other in 30 days. The words of one of the scheme’s champions may be echoing in their bleary, sleep-deprived brain. At the start of the month, they were a plumber/estate agent/mum/resting actor; now they are a novelist.

It is a peculiarly unkind lie. Someone who has spilt 50,000 written words during the month of November is only a novelist in the sense that someone strolling the London Marathon in a Mr Blobby suit is an athlete. Writing a story – any story, however dull and clumsily written – is an achievement, like losing weight or ending an unhappy relationship, but means nothing beyond itself.

It is a testament to the self-promotional efforts of the burgeoning creative writing industry that the difference between writing and typing still has to be made. The novel-in-a-month contenders will have learnt one useful lesson of 21st-century publishing – that productivity tends to be rated more highly than quality – but soon many will be exposed to another. In the modern world of publishing, marketing is everything.

For a true picture of the way the books business works, they should turn not to the fawning books-of-the-year compilations, but to the revelation or, rather, confirmation, that the Amazon reviewing system is prey to personal back-biting and organised rigging.

The combination of Amazon’s vast power in the market and the opportunity it offers for readers to play amateur critic could only lead to dodginess of one kind and another. It has been known for some time that authors plug their own work, and encourage their friends to help it along, too. Earlier in the year, the established historian Orlando Figes was discovered to have used a pseudonym to trash the work of his rivals.

Now two established authors, Polly Samson and Rosie Alison, have found themselves on what seems to be a concerted campaign of abuse on the Amazon website. Both have written critically well-received works of fiction, and both are married to high-profile husbands – enough to unleash the jealousy and bitterness which are the ever-present companions of the not-yet-published or the published-but-unsuccessful. An online mugging, in the form of nasty, negative reviews, has been taking place on Amazon.

Predictably, the books industry has become involved in the readers’ review scam. Publishing has never been as morally scrupulous as it likes to pretend – a culture of casual dishonesty has been part of the industry for decades – and the temptation to manipulate online reviewing was never going to be resisted for long. There are now companies which specialise in “reputation management”. Hired by publishers, they set up fake accounts and pepper the online bookshops with “readers’ reports” which gush with manufactured enthusiasm. According to the founder of one, the starting price for managing reputations is £5,000, and many publishers are happily playing the game. Authors join in, too, advertising on the internet for hired “reviewers”. The going rate, for those interested in making easy money, is £160 for 50 “reviews”. Here is the ultimate triumph of the market.

Jeffrey Archer once advised young authors that it was selling their product which would require most of their energy and creativity. His cynical advice, mocked at the time, is now an article of publishing faith. Creative writing courses pay less attention to words on the page than to the pitch, the sell-in. The aim is not to write a great book but to get a great publishing deal.

As they finish their instant fictions, the November novelists should decide if they are writing for themselves, to convey a truth or feeling, tell a story, develop an idea. If that is the case, they should forget the speed-writing, and prepare for a tough creative life. If, on the other hand, they want to write for the market, they should simply hold their noses and jump.

Independent, Tuesday, 30 November 2010