On Cheating

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today is a “need to vent” post. Indulge me.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, my Dodgers, who have not won a World Series since 1988, were cheated out of the 2017 series by the Houston Astros. It was a seven-game series, mind you, so any small advantage engendered large-scale results.

That’s what happened when the Astros mechanized a sign-stealing system. The whole art of pitching is about mixing it up to fool batters. But if a batter knows when a pitcher is going to bring the heat, he can prepare to swing early. If a change or breaking ball is coming, he can sit on the pitch. This is an incredible advantage for the hitter.

Now, there’s always been a “gentleman’s agreement” about stealing signs with your eyes. If a runner on second is able to figure out the pitch, and pats his knee so the batter knows what’s coming, that’s acceptable. Catchers know this, and adjust accordingly.

What the Astros did was different. They used a combination of high-tech and low-tech. They had a camera in centerfield trained on the Dodgers catchers, connected to a monitor just off the Astros dugout. A player in the dugout would read the catcher’s signs, then relay the information to Astros batters by—get this—banging on a trash can lid. A sort of garbage Morse code!

It worked. As the Astros celebrated their victory, Dodgers fans sulked, for that 2017 team was the best we’ve had in a generation.

But after an investigation by Major League Baseball, the Astros scheme was brought to light. As a result, the team has been fined the maximum, $5 million, and will forfeit its next two first- and second-round draft picks. The manager and general manager were both suspended, then immediately fired by the team.

The only remaining question is whether the Astros should be stripped of their title. You can guess what the vote would be in Los Angeles.

(And as if we didn’t need more salt in the wound, the same thing may have happened to the 2018 Dodgers in the World Series against the Red Sox! That is currently under investigation.)

Cheating, of course, has always been with us, from test answers jotted on the sweaty palm of a nervous student, to stuffing ballot boxes with the votes of dead people. (A 2012 report by the Pew Center found that more than 1.8 million dead people were registered to vote, and not one of them was named Casper.)

Which brings me to writers. There are temptations out there to “cheat” or “game the system” in various ways, and for various purposes. Here’s one example, reported by the gimlet-eyed David Gaughran:

One particular guy — who I won’t name — … presents himself as a million-selling author, and an expert, when he’s neither. I dug into his background and found a cute little cheat had propelled him to what looked like chart success, when really there was a skeevy little formula behind this appearance of a fanbase.

Back when this was possible, he would drop the price of his books to $0.01 on Google Play, and then self-report the lower price to Amazon, whose bots would dutifully match that price, despite this being against the TOS. It was like having a free book in the paid charts, and at that price it attracted a lot of downloads, of course. The book would then rise up the popularity list also and start getting recommended to Amazon customers, at which point he’d raise the price to $2.99 and drop the price of his next book.

This heavily touted “success” of his — where he’s waving around sales numbers rather than quoting income — was then parlayed into a thousand-dollar mastermind course a couple of years ago, which he proceeded to sell to hundreds of fiction writers, without disclosing this wheeze, or that all his books were non-fiction: public domain prayers he had simply repackaged.

He’s not even a writer! Now he’s an expert talking about “The Amazon Algorithm.” What a world.

Among real writers, those who truly care about their craft, I’m convinced the overwhelming majority are on the up-and-up. And there are many who are particularly skilled at understanding algorithms, meta-data, CPC versus CPM, and so on. It is right and proper to optimize these things.

What isn’t right are obvious sins like plagiarism, paid-for reviews, and sock-puppetry to leave bad reviews of another writer’s books.

I don’t have any grand lesson here, except to say—echoing the doctor responding to the patient who complained that it “hurts when I do this”—don’t do that! We have enough “integrity deficit disorder” going on in our culture. Leave us not add to it.

Oh, and one other thing: Belated congratulations to the 2017 World Champion Dodgers!

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41 thoughts on “On Cheating

  1. I despise cheaters and liars in any endeavor. Apparently they don’t have the intelligence to realize they’ve won nothing, earned nothing, completely lack any integrity, and don’t have enough personal pride to care. But life is short. I mark people and organizations I can’t trust off my list and go on about my life. I don’t feel too bad, however, about not wasting 3+ hours watching a bunch of millionaires play what is essentially a child’s game.

    When other writers occasionally ask me about algorithms, tracking sales, etc. I generally say, “Wait. Aren’t you a writer?” When they say they are, I tell them, “Then go back to your desk and write.” Practice and persistence pay off, and everything else falls short. And it helps being able to look at yourself in the mirror each morning.

  2. There’s a similar thing going on in music with “artists” (or others) having songs listed in another genre because of a word or two or maybe a beat or single instrument and getting all manner of streaming plays from across the board. This is especially the case in country music where pop and rap artists have hit the top of Billboard’s charts – Old Town Road and Meant To Be are two recent examples of respectable songs in their respective genres aren’t truly country and that have kept traditional country writers and performers from receiving the recognition due them (not that I’m in that category — yet),

    Of course I don let that keep me from “playing the game “ ‘cause sometimes you get lucky and throw a strike they never saw coming…

  3. Synchronicity moment. Had lunch with my son last week, and he and one of the cooks were discussing the entire Dodgers debacle.
    I get miffed when an author hits the #1 spot in a small genre category for a few hours or even a day or two due to an ad and proceeds to promote him/herself as a “#1 Best-Selling Author.”

    • Yeah, like that guy who uploaded a “book” that was just a photo of his foot, picked some obscure categories, sold like three of them in a day (two to himself) and became #1 in that category. Voila! #1 Bestselling Author.

      I have no problem if someone hits #1 or makes the list in a certain category, so long as they list that category in their line, as in, #1 Amazon Bestselling Podiatry Author. Otherwise, nix.

  4. The sign-stealing scandal left me speechless. I never even considered a professional sports team cheating (yeah, yeah, deflated footballs, blah, blah, blah 😉 ). Maybe that’s naive, but I look at athletes applying their craft in a similar way to writers. Writers who pen one novel and expect to hit the big-time are fooling themselves. Same goes for football players. The stars on the field are the players who continue to work hard, even during the off-season.

    Could the Astros have won without knowing what pitches were coming? I guess we’ll never know, and that’s a shame. Their record will always wear the stain of “cheater.” The Red Sox fired their coach, btw, so it’s not looking good for them, either.

    • If the Astros had won that series 4-1, it’s be different. But seven games? I’m certain the Dodgers would have won one more game but for the cheating.

      We in L.A. who stayed Rams fans might have something to say about a certain coach and certain videotaping before the 2002 Super Bowl, but feeling charitable I won’t mention it. 😉

  5. I have the same suspicion of people who buy into those super expensive anthologies to game the USA Today bestseller list (the last one that can still be gamed). Once they make the list, they unpublish the anthology and the authors publish those books individually. One time I bought one to support an author in the anthology. The books were mostly steaming piles of garbage, all copied off whatever was hot at the time. But all those authors are now “best-sellers”. I asked that author later if she had seen any sell-through from that anthology. She said no. But who made all the money? The organizer of this whole scam. Yeah, I am suspicious.

    • And, of course, the NYT list can be gamed, if one has the dough. A company or two out there has a system for buying in key stores for an author who can pony up 400 grand or so.

  6. I guess another take-away is this, for us shiny new authors: buyer beware. Check out the teacher to make sure he’s the real deal before you buy a course.

    Thanks for the heads up, JSB.

    And I echo your congrats to the Dodgers…I’d heard there was a beating cheating heart in the Astros, but hadn’t heard the details of what they did. The scurvies!

    • Deb, there are those calling not only for vacating the title, but for the Astros player to turn in their World Series rings, and if they don’t, they don’t get to play!

      • There’s the big question: should each and every player who suited up for the Astros in ’17 pay the price? What about the rookie who was called up in September and never suited up for the World Series? What about the players who might’ve known about the cheating but played hard nonetheless and did the best they could without benefit of the cheating? Surely there were some modern-day Shoeless Joes on that team. Jackson hit .375 in the 1919 Series and no evidence ever emerged that he colluded with the cheaters on that White Sox team, and of course he (and the rest) were found not guilty at trial, yet this career .356 hitter is still denied the Hall of Fame.

        • The Shoeless Joe case is a real tragedy in baseball history. I’m convinced he was innocent.

          The other big cheating scandal, of course, comes out of the steroid era. I’m sorry, but those who juiced up should not be in the Hall of Fame.

          Which leaves the conundrum of Pete Rose. He was one of my favorite players…he did bet on baseball games, but never against his own team (so no motive to throw the game). I say he should go in. If “character” was a criterion, there’d be many who are in who shouldn’t be!

  7. I’m a cynic, & never surprised about such things. We’ve had people gaming the college entry system who don’t appreciate that millions of working poor can’t afford to go to ANY college or university because tuition has been artificially raised sky high. There’s no bigger cheat than withholding education from those who want to learn (I’m not talking free, but reasonable).

    Speaking of less than savory ideas, I wanted to ask TKZers their thoughts on this: a recent piece of advice I heard is to put the copyright info at the BACK of an e-book, instead of the front matter. Maybe I’m just too old school, but doesn’t that seem to ENCOURAGE disrespect for copyright by relegating copyright to the back of the book like it’s the last thing you thought of? Yes, you can say the copyright is still specified but it just seems to invite stealing (which I know is already a problem).

    What are your thoughts?

    • Well, BK, as a fellow cynic, those who “disrespect” a copyright won’t care at all where it’s placed. I favor the traditional, front-matter approach. The argument for putting it in the back of an ebook is that your “Look Inside” preview gets an extra page. Big deal. I don’t think any browser cares that they get one less preview page, especially if you grab them with your opening page…which all who read TKZ regularly know how to do!

      • Yes, I realize sleazy people are going to steal no matter where you place the copyright, but to me it just seems like the author disrespecting themselves. I hope it never comes to the point that I am given no choice about where to place the copyright info.

    • That advice is probably not about just the copyright page. Some self-pubbed authors believe that the more front matter there is, the less likely a reader using the “look inside” feature will continue to flip forward to reach the content so they won’t buy the book. I’ve seen everything from pages of dedications to lots of info on the author and other books so I can see the point of that advice. Some authors have also started to have their book “open” at the first page of text, and you have to scroll backwards to see the cover, title page, etc.

      As far a copyright is concerned, the placement of the copyright notice makes no difference in your copyright’s validity. Personally, if I were concerned about avoiding too much front matter, I’d put the copyright notice below the title page info.

  8. The indie publishing world is loaded with popular “gurus” who are NOT writers but internet marketers or, worse, the gag-worthy moniker of “author-preneurs.” I won’t name names, but a lot of these people are on the amount Rushmore of Kindle publishing. They never talk about craft, just how to engineer ads and find hot genres like “reverse harem,” whatever the hell that.

    That’s one of the reasons I come here: to hear from real writers. I think you and Dean Wesley Smith are probably the two top indie voices who actually discuss craft and not following absurd short-term tactics.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Philip. Don’t hate me if I sometimes use “authorpreneur” in the context of the indie who must understand certain business practices. But if someone is just a “preneur” pretending to be a true “author,” I’m with you!

  9. Personally I don’t believe there should be such a thing as professional sports, but that’s my vent and I shall keep it to myself.

    I question whether it’s going to turn out after the investigations that all the teams are doing it, I hope not.

    I wonder if there is any professional arena where the rules have kept up with technology. Can’t you just picture the conversation –
    “We should put a camera out there.”
    “Isn’t that cheating?”
    “There’s no rule against it.”

    But talk about not keeping up with the times -a 5 million dollar fine!!! Isn’t a fine supposed to be incentive not to cheat again? 5 million dollars, even a mediocre player makes that. How about something significant. 50 million dollars and the franchise is suspended for a year? And since all the players HAD TO KNOW they can’t play for anyone else during that year. I mean if this cheating is such a big deal shouldn’t the punishment be? They need to rethink that maximum.

    Okay when I read this posting I didn’t care until you got into how authors cheat the system, but now thinking about the baseball thing I am just PISSED OFF.

    Something tells me I am going to be fuming about this for hours. Now I have something different to talk to my plants about while working in my garden.

    • Plants will mellow you out, Michelle. At least that’s what my wife tells me. She loves her garden.

      I know…$5 million is the proverbial drop in the bucket for a big franchise…but I believe that is the maximum under current rules. Worse for them is losing those draft picks.

  10. Okay, here’s a doozy of a publishing system cheat. In 2000, Microsoft announced the Frankfurt eBook Awards to honor those brave pioneers in a digital industry that was totally shunned by Big Publishing but fueled by small publishers, ebook publishers, and authors. Innovation in quality writing and storytelling were emphasized. The digital books had to have been published either digital first or digital/publisher at the same time.

    What happened was the people chosen to run the awards were from Big Publishing, and they told the judges not to read all those sad little ebooks from all those nobodies not anointed by NY. Some judges admitted this afterwards. The winner in the fiction category was a writer who had been writing the same books for years so no innovation there. His book also had never gone digital on the market. Instead, his publisher has put up his book on a page within their website right before he was nominated and long after it was published in paper, and the book couldn’t be bought in a digital version.

    Big Publishing then used much of the money for the award on a lavish party for themselves.

    So, that’s how Big Publishing scammed Bill Gates for over $100,000, and why there was only one Frankfurt eBook Award.

    • That really is a doozy, Marilynn. An so believable.

      I was talking to an editor of a NY house one time, in the very early days of the Kindle revolution, and he casually mentioned he was going to leave a big old sock puppet positive review for one of his author’s books. When I cocked my head he said, “Oh, everybody does it.”

  11. I had heard of the Astros sign scandal but didn’t know what it meant until you explained it here. Like you, I’m livid. Sadly, I’m not surprised by it.

    There’s so much cheating that goes on in professional sports, you wonder if anybody gets to the podium legitimately anymore. People like Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones not only have deprived honest champions of their medals, they have turned many of us into cynics.

    Unlike sports, though, publishing is not a zero-sum game. There can be lots of winners, so it’s frustrating to see people using questionable tactics to get their books out there. Especially books that aren’t any good to begin with!

    • Yes, frustrating, Kay. Sometimes (not often enough) there’s rough justice. Some KDP accounts have been cancelled when an offender is caught. But he/she can pop up again under a new name. Ack.

  12. Since Amazon has a similar mechanism (offer your Kindle book free five days per quarter or something like that), it seems like an awful lot of work to throw mud on your own reputation.

    Me, I figure there are a lot of cheaters out there, but few of them can write their way out of a wet paper bag (or is “a wet paperback” the mot juste here?), and cheaters usually don’t have legs, anyway: they’re not focused on their craft, so their next book isn’t going to be better than the last one. Soon they’ll be in the rear-view mirror. To heck with ’em.

    • In the main, Robert, you’re right, esp. when it comes to fiction. Though some seem to get by with crappy books in a certain genre, the ones who truly last and do well financially prove, book by book, that they have the goods.

  13. The most disturbing thing about the Astros cheating is that a lot of people knew about it, they all certainly knew it was wrong (or at least questionable) and yet nobody did anything about it. Did Hinch, the manager, know? If a player came to him confidentially to blow the whistle, what did he do about it? Did he go to his players and say, “We’re knocking this off as of today”? Did he go to his boss, the GM, and say that he’s heard this is going on and he’s cracking down on it? Did he ask the GM for help? At some point there has to be accountability. Instead, it went on for an entire season and Astros fans were treated to the World Series title they’d been waiting 65 years to celebrate. Those fans, and the other teams and fans in the American League and the Dodgers, were the ones who were cheated.

    • Another one who was cheated, David, is the great Clayton Kershaw. His struggles in October are well known, but he was poised to finally put that to bed in ’17 and ’18. The cheating keeps a black mark on his resume, which is extremely unfair to the greatest pitcher of his generation.

    • Sad, but true, John. There is still some Integrity left in professional golf, where players call fouls on themselves. Most of the time, that is. Tere was a recent incident where a golfer ground his club in a bunker and it was caught on TV. He didn’t call it on himself. Oops.

  14. I agree with you one hundred percent. Digital self-publishing has given us writers a world of opportunity, and, alas, scammers a new place to cheat, swindle, and also sell actual writers a bill of goods.

    To quote “Throw Momma From The Train”: “Writers write!”
    They don’t cheat.

    Have a great Sunday and may your Dodgers see justice in the end.

  15. My husband coached for years and we saw cheating start with little league. It’s sad because it ruins and taints the experience for everyone. Living in Alabama, there’s the constant battle between Alabama and Auburn fans. I tend to stay neutral, but most don’t.

    For those who are true fans, I can see why both sides are upset. Really there are no winners when cheating is involved.

    I have a question, (completely off subject). But when can someone call themselves an author? Is there a vast difference between being a writer and an author?

    Thanks!

    • Personally, Cindy, I told myself I was a writer the moment I decided to go for it. I got a coffee mug with WRITER on it and looked at it every day. However, I never felt comfortable telling other people I was a writer until I started making a living that way.

      I have no quarrel with the term author, but I always felt like writer is more descriptive of a hard-working pro, which is what I wanted to be.

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