Branding breeds envy and anxiety among writers

Independent on Sunday, 9 August 2012

Emily Brontë wasn’t a brand, at least not in her own time. These days there is a Brontë brand, which decrees that there must be stage and movie versions of Wuthering Heights every few years. If she were alive today, Emily would be expected to turn up at signings and literary festivals where she would face all sorts of questions. Where did Heathcliff come from? Are you writing another novel? Even the most reclusive of authors cannot avoid the realisation that writers have become brands.

It’s one of the factors, I suspect, behind the revelation that a handful of authors have been resorting to “sock puppetry”: using made-up identities to post favourable comments about their work and to disparage rivals. A crime writer called R J Ellory seems to have been one of the worst offenders, using pseudonyms to gush about his novels on the Amazon website – he described one immodestly as a “modern masterpiece” – and to dismiss a competitor’s book as “same-old-same-old”. Ellory has apologised but another author, Stephen Leather, has admitted to creating conversations under different names on Facebook and Twitter to give the impression that his novels are a talking point.

There was widespread astonishment a couple of years ago when the historian Orlando Figes acknowledged he’d written anonymous reviews recommending his own books and criticising those of rivals on Amazon. “I am ashamed of my behaviour and don’t entirely understand why I acted as I did,” he said at the time. What’s all the more perplexing is that none of these men are struggling writers, trying to make an impression. I’m reminded of a remark by Gore Vidal, who once summed up the worst instincts of an author: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

Vidal always struck me as a singularly unpleasant man and I’m not sure how many writers would acknowledge (or indeed suffer from) this degree of insecurity and envy. But the modern practice of turning authors into brands, with all the hoop-la and inflated claims that accompany it, has pitted writers against each other in a way that verges on gladiatorial. I don’t know whether a best-selling American writer was embarrassed when her UK publisher described her as a “blockbuster crime brand”, but this kind of hard sell has nothing to do with good writing.

It’s a symptom of anxiety. A series of developments – e-books, piracy, and endless discounting – means that publishers no longer know how to sell books or make money. In desperation, they’ve responded by pushing authors as if they were baked beans.

There’s never been a time so hard as now for writers to make a living, and even best-selling authors worry about lukewarm customer reviews on Amazon. Success feels random, as much to do with good PR as anything else, and could evaporate overnight. That Brontë woman, whatever happened to her? Never wrote a sequel, did she? Pity, I gave her three stars on Amazon.

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