The growing sock puppet scandal shows that the dark arts of e-book merchandising really are dark. Author Jeremy Duns has been exposing, via twitter, the activities of authors who have been posting comments on their own books under different online guises, and also in some cases being mean to rival authors' works. The revelations came to light after thriller writer Stephen Leather admitted to using pen names in online forums in the now infamous discussion at the Harrogate Crime Writers Festival (available via Front Row here).
Leather told the audience, he would post comments about his latest books "under my name and various other names". Leather was unapologetic, and has been since, despite many critical reactions that have been posted online about the activity. Once outed one author RJ Ellory said he "wholeheartedly regret[ed] the lapse of judgement that allowed personal opinions to be disseminated in this way".
The publishing industry has been strangely mute about the growing furore, with the condemnation coming from fellow writers and writers organisations, such as the CWA and SoA. Writing in the Independent Terence Blacker gives one reason why, offering no evidence, he says that "for some time now, the industry has been more than a touch shady in the way it conducts its daily business."
Nick Harkaway on FutureBook, put it slightly more delicately, arguing that publishers and reviewers were in it together, with writers occasionally writing favourable reviews for their friends, and hostile review for rivals: "Publishing and writing were clubby". In this world, scandals would come and go. When historian Orlando Figes was discovered using an anonymous online identity to rubbish a rival's work, the world briefly looked on, shoulders were shrugged, and everyone carried on as before.
This feels different. Partly it is down to Duns' indefatigable investigating, in the face of some hostility. Partly, it is a reaction to the Amazon reviews system, which is chronically bad at policing itself: an unregulated recommendation engine that the parent simply refuses to acknowledge has a problem at its core. Partly, it is the sense of writers choosing to regulate themselves, so as not to be tarred by the same brush.
Mostly though it is down to sales. A sale based on a fake review is a sale a legitimate writer who has not self-reviewed will not get. And this matters. There are many writers who (self-published or not) are trying to live by their writing, if they are unable to do so because of dishonest reviews then it makes that job harder, and increases the likelihood of readers being put off books and reading. Furthermore, as this Nosy Crow blog says, if we cannot trust the reviews, who can we trust (booksellers, of course, but that is a different blog).
Blacker may be right about the 'shady' skills of some, but that was during a different time, when the review was just one factor that influenced a reader's purchase. With the rise of Amazon, and its Kindle platform, there is now an obvious and direct link to sales that was not true before. What might have been shady in the past, is now much darker.
Correction: The original version of this blog suggested that Stephen Leather had posted anonymous reviews of his books online and admitted to such activity at Harrogate, as part of a range of accusations that have been made against some authors engaged in 'sock puppetry'. What he actually said at Harrogate was that he'd used pen names in online forums to talk about his books in order to create a marketing buzz about the work. I changed the intro to reflect this, and apologise to Stephen for any confusion caused.
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