Friday, September 7, 2012

Put a Sock in It

The last proper post I put up here - and apologies for vanishing like that but life, that fickle jade, intervened - was this one on the antics of Stephen Leather. A healthy debate followed, in which Mr Leather appeared, I'm glad to say, to give his side of the story. His response was addressed by Steve Mosby and Jeremy Duns, who were at the forefront of exposing Leather's behaviour, so allowing readers to judge the merits or otherwise of Leather's explanation. I remain firmly wedded to the belief that his online behaviour was appalling. Nothing I have read or seen since has altered that view.

Elsewhere, notably here, I've seen the argument made that giving yourself five-star reviews under assumed names or paying people to give you a good review isn't that serious an offence, and it's not a crime. Well, actually, in the UK it is. Go here for a good response to the previous link, and you will see  that it actually is an offence for a business to pose as one of its customers.

Both those blogs deal with this open letter, to which I've been happy to add my name. We can nitpick over the wording and phrasing all day if we like - and Barry Eisler has - but the truth is that this sort of behaviour is rife, it is wrong - and saying that doesn't make you some kind of sanctimonious prig - and the time was ripe for a group of authors of all sales and sizes to condemn it in some way and promise not to indulge in it themselves. As I said in my Rogue Author post, there's a swaggering Wild West feel to some corners of self-publishing industry at the moment, where a group of Wild Bill Bigcocks swagger around bragging incessantly about sales, about money, and sticking it to the legacy-published man. Believe me, I'm no slavish devotee of traditional publishing, but trying to argue that deception and fraud are in some way acceptable, or not that bad really, is ludicrous.

I also don't believe traditional publishing is clean and pure. The blurb system is one area where I agree with Eisler; it means well, but it has become corrupted. I have blurbed and been blurbed and I still don't really like it. Yes, authors are allowed to like other authors' books, but many of them - and I know this from experience - do it as a way to curry or pay back a favour, rather than out of genuine enthusiasm for the work. It's also difficult to avoid the impression you're log-rolling even when you're not. I've given one of Leighton's books a good review on Amazon because I thought it was great, and because they're not published in the UK I want people over here to discover them, but I doubt anyone will believe me.

I also understand how difficult it is for self-published authors to make their voice heard above the din, and why some might be attempted to amplify their voice by making up or paying for reviews. They must look at traditionally published authors and envy the promotional heft of their in-house publicity department (really, they shouldn't: most in-house publicity departments are staffed by overworked freelance fashion journalists who couldn't sell a five-star review to Roger Ellory.) The trick, I think, is to write a really good book, the best one you possibly can, push it through viable, legal online means if you want, and hope people like it, review it, and tell other people about it. Not try and game the system.

The No Sock Puppet letter came in response to further allegations of which I'm sure you're all aware: first John Locke revealed that he had paid people to review his books, then the indefatigable Jeremy Duns, acting on a tip-off, uncovered the scandal of RJ Ellory puffing his own works under a pseudonym, and worse, rubbishing those of other bestselling authors. Ellory has subsequently apologised, but it led to lots of people to wonder why someone so successful as Ellory felt the need to skulk around giving himself a good review and slagging off Mark Billingham and Stuart McBride's efforts.

A writer's ego can be a pretty dark place. I've also, through my journalism and non-fiction, encountered and occasionally worked with some famous people, enough to realise that for some, success and celebrity are no cures for insecurity. In fact, in many cases they make it worse. Some people feel their success has not been recognised, or they crave respect from their peers and critics more than shedloads of cash or the fact their work gives people lots of pleasure. Grudges can develop, particularly with those deemed to be as or more successful than they are. I once knew an seemingly affable children's entertainer who achieved moderate success with a dog at his side. The dog proved to be more of celeb than he did; the last time I saw the entertainer, he was kicking lumps of out the poor bewildered beast for the mildest misdemeanour, to the point where someone had to intervene and report him.

There's going to be a lot of hogwash written and said about the sockpuppet scandal. In amongst it all, people will forget the simple fact that knocking other writers anonymously or pseudonymously, and for no other reason than spite and envy, is morally wrong, and that deceiving readers by writing fake reviews, and creating fake identities to discuss your book online, undermines the whole system of online reviewing and discussion and is wrong too, no matter whichever you want to spin it and however angry you might be at traditional publishing. We're all trying to make a living and trying to entertain our readers: making up reviews good or bad, or buying good ones, and conning those very same readers makes that more difficult for all of us. You can't level the playing field by scorching the turf. Some of us, self-published and traditionally published, need readers to be able to rely on reviews as an honest way of judging whether to buy our work, or they become mere puff. Abusing and undermining that system is selfish and self-serving.

In other words: It's possible to promote your work and look after number one without acting like a dick.


Dan - Friday


  1. It seems as if the dicks are taking charge for a while, and not just with books, but travel, restaurants, nail salons, you name it. But you can't fool all the people all the time. Soon all public reviews will be suspect; many people already treat them as such. Eventually, I imagine, reliable services will emerge. Wouldn't it be great if we could all be part of inventing or participating in such a thing? In the meantime, this is like white water rafting. Hold tight and try not to scream!

  2. Proud of you, Dan. Keep beating the drum, as it's the only viable shot at getting those with the power to protect the system to act.

  3. Money works because most people accept most of the time the mass delusion that a piece of paper with the Queen's head has any value. Mess with the currency and the readiness to believe the fiction breaks down.

    It's the same with online reviews. When enough people start to question their authenticity and accuracy, people will stop using them to aid their buying decisions. So, if for no other reason, it's a bad move because it provides benefit to the few who deceive at the expense of the vast majority, and for a short time only.

    Yes, Sockpuppetry is illegal. In the UK it is an 'unfair practice' under Consumer Protection Regulations 2008 (Schedule 1, para 22). It is enforceable by Trading Standards and the Office of Fair Trading. Penalties on conviction include a fine and/or up to two years in gaol. It would be good to see OFT etc bring a few test cases, pour discouragement les autres.

    Above all, it is a shitty way to treat your readers. That's the most offensive part of the practice of Sockpuppetry.

  4. This is very discouraging for people who post reviews on Amazon simply because they like the book.

    Is there any point in an amateur posting reviews when every signature is now suspect? Is Amazon willing or in the process of coming up with a better system? Do reviews enrich Amazon's bottom line?

  5. Open forums (for review) are always open to abuse of the assumed rules that go with them. Sockpupperty is an example, people learn to filter out comments that pander to derogatory conclusion instead of offering real opinion, with experience.