The Next Step for Dishonest Writers: A Legal Career?

The internet has been ablaze with tales of dishonest writers who are paying for fake reviews, authoring reviews of their own work, or writing negative reviews of competitors’ books.  Should we be surprised?  I think we’ve all come across a book for which there are incongruous five or one star reviews, usually by a reviewer who has never rated any other book or only rates books by a single author.  The extent to which these fake reviews stem from authors should not be a surprise either, at least not according to research on the connection between creativity and dishonesty.

In a study published earlier this year, researchers from Harvard and Duke explored the “dark side of creativity,” finding that “a creative personality and an activated creative mindset promote individuals’ ability to justify their unethical actions.  In turn, this increased ability to justify potential unethical actions promotes dishonesty.”  While this study did not focus on authors, there is no doubt that writers tend to be a creative bunch and those trying to make a living off of their writing have a major incentive to lie, cheat, and steal.  The publishing world is highly competitive, and the more positive reviews a book receives, the more likely it is to sell.  Thus, to some authors, the costs of dishonesty seem remote (“who’s going to find out?”) and easily justified (“everybody’s doing it!”), while the benefits appear weighty (“I need to make a living!”).

This selfishness ultimately cheats consumers and may harm the publishing industry, especially when authors resort to bashing their competitors’ work, as British author R.J. Ellory has admitted doing.

To deter authors from using their creativity to cheat, Amazon, publishing houses, and the public must change the cost-benefit analysis.  Amazon should better police its reviews, possibly by only counting verified purchase reviews in determining the average rating and whether or not its algorithms recommend a book, and the public should not let authors who cheat off the hook so easily.  Dishonest behavior should reflect negatively on an author’s reputation: publishing houses should not reward such behavior with contracts and the public should not buy that author’s books.

Anecdotal evidence suggests authors shooed out of publishing as a result of ethical scandals are drawn to the legal profession.  Remember Stephen Glass, the journalist at the New Republic who was found to have fabricated facts?  Well, he received his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center and is currently awaiting admission to the California bar, which (understandably) has given him a hard time on the “character and fitness” criteria for admission.  Then there’s Kaavya Viswanathan, who was an undergraduate at Harvard when I was at the law school there.  She’s the one who received a sizeable book deal as a teenager, perhaps when she did not have the requisite maturity to understand the seriousness of plagiarism, and was caught having copied passages from other books (she claimed it was unintentional).  She also went on to attend Georgetown’s law school, and at one point had a summer internship at one of the more prominent law firms in DC.

I believe that it is entirely possible for fabricators and plagiarists to reform themselves.  At some point, everyone deserves a second chance.  Nevertheless, I don’t think the addition of people with such a history to the bar does much to improve the public perception of lawyers.  A Gallup poll revealed that only 19% of respondents rated the honesty of lawyers highly or very highly, below even bankers, the people responsible for the Wall Street collapse.  Maybe the public is right; maybe fabricators and plagiarists fit right in. 

If you’d like to see what other bloggers are saying about the recent ethical scandals, see Life, Love, Literature and Dan Harris


  1. I don’t understand the people who feel it’s okay to pay for reviews but then condemn literary agents for charging a reading fee. The two, in my opinion are very similar. If paying an agent a reading fee is a red flag that the agent is shady, shouldn’t paying for a review be considered shady as well? I have lost respect for some of my writer friends who admit to paying, or receiving payment, for reviews. They see no problem with it as long as the book was read and accurately reviewed. So why the exchange of money? Let your talent stand on its merit. If your book is actually good, people will acknowledge it. In my opinion, paying for a review (whether the intent is good or not) is wrong. Like Jae, *waves to Jae*, the thought of paying for a review never even crossed my mind. Call me naive, but I thought actual readers were supposed to give reviews based on their opinion.

    The credibility of the system is obviously broken, but how can we fix it? I don’t know. It’s like the lawless frontier. I don’t think a clear solution is anywhere close. I hope I’m wrong.

    Great post, and something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

    1. Exactly–it’s a broken system. Part of the motivation behind paying for reviews probably comes from the fact that organic, genuine reviews are few and far between. Unless a reviewer has a vested interest (payment in the form of money or freebies from a publishing house), there is little reason for a consumer to rate a book they bought. I’m making more of an effort to review all or at least most of the books I buy on Amazon, but until this past summer, I only reviewed items for which I’d had a strong reaction. If I felt a book was mediocre or even good but not fabulous, I didn’t feel it was worth my time to review it. So, Amazon and other book-selling services should provide incentives that will encourage consumers to write genuine reviews.

  2. What an enlightening study, especially since it came from Harvard and Duke, such well respected universities. I find it interesting that reviews would be fabricated. You would think paying off reviewers would be more common than making them up. Being creative as a factor did not surprise me though. Like you said there is a lot of justification in this area, but also, deadlines and lack of sleep cause a percentage of it. When under pressure, it seems so much more likely to lift a few sentences, than miss a deadline.

    I get surprised what counts as copying though. Many times like in graphic art, the image can be so changed, you still have elements that get it into trouble. Remember the Hope poster for Obama when he was running. The artist, Shepard Fairey took an AP news photographer’s image and turned it into art, much different and far more colorful. I was surprised that made a huge uproar. It was not like the expression or pose of Obama was that unique, nor was it like the photo image was art.

    1. Yeah, I remember the “Hope”/Shepard Fairey fiasco. Personally, I believe it fit under fair use–it started as a photograph, but at some point, what Fairey did with that image made it something different. I believe the civil case settled without publicly addressing the copyright issues. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. It’s entirely true, but there’s an immediate warning signing. If the reviews are polarized, 5 and 1 (I’m thinking of Amazon here, where most spam reviews occur), then you can be 90% sure they’re not genuine reviews. The 5 stars are sometimes honest, though (speaking for several of my friends who are indie published authors), ie. friends and family who genuinely love their friend/family’s work. So the top 5 or so is likely honest, but biased. The bottom 5 or so (in a model where they are all five and 1 star reviews) are normally rivals with similar-themed/topic books who feel threatened (i.e. a Tarot book from a rival tarot writer, a expose or biographer who is competing on a trending topic in the news to be the first, etc). So, those are entirely dishonest and unethical.
    What I look for is a balance of 2-4 stars. And at least 15 reviews to make me feel it’s the “real deal” even for an indie.

    1. True–there are warning signs, with the polarized 5 star/1 star being one of them. I’m also suspicious of any reviewer who has never reviewed any other book and reviewers who received freebies from publishing houses. The end result is a mixture of disingenuous reviews, ranging from biased but honest reviews (like friends of the author and people getting freebies) to downright fake reviews (paid for by the author or written by the author). Honestly, I think consumers are better off finding blogs and websites they trust for reviews. I develop my reading list almost entirely from blogs.

  4. I just don’t understand this at all. I also don’t understand authors that rate their book 5 stars to bump up their scores. It’s impossible to be subjective about one’s own work.
    I think if people are deceitful they will be deceitful–I don’t think it has to do with being an author.

    1. I don’t get it either. I would rather know my success or failure is legitimate and not something I fabricated. If an author isn’t confident enough about their work to be honest, maybe they should take a hard look at their writing and not what other people think of it.

      I try to hold fast to an adage my mom drilled into my head: what is your integrity worth? Certainly more than a lame fake review to promote false success.

      1. I wish all authors were as honest as you two are. It seems that part of what the creative mind does is come up with creative justifications for dishonest behavior (for example, thinking that the fake review merely highlights the author’s “true genius,” which others will see if they can be persuaded by the fake reviews to buy the book!). If Amazon, publishing houses, and the public made the costs of writing fake reviews heavier, it would be harder for authors to come up with creative justifications for the dishonest behavior.

  5. Very disturbing to realize how dishonest we are. A troubling post, but one everyone needs to understand. Thank you for this valuable insight and perspective. I desperately want to believe that the public in general does not believe fabricators and plagiarists fit right in!

    1. Thanks for the comment! I was kind of surprised when I came across the study on creativity and dishonesty, but it makes sense. Creative people are creative with excuses, too!

    1. Thanks! Let’s hope Amazon and other services change their policies to deter this type of dishonesty. It’s probably better for these writers to stay in the publishing industry than to try their hand at the practice of law!

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