Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Stephen Leather and the sock puppet blues

There’s been something of a commotion in that murky space where writing and commerce meet on the web. The thriller writer Stephen Leather has admitted to creating various online identities with which to praise his own titles and disparage those of his writers and RJ Ellory has been caught out doing the same; meanwhile, John Locke bought 300 reviews to raise the profile of his self-published titles. This is nothing new of course; the novelist John Rechy was caught out as far back as 2004. Before these misdeeds are dismissed as a problem solely for the cut-throat market in genre fiction, let’s not forget that the (previously?) respected historian Orlando Figes was busted on much the same charges a couple of years ago; and as Christopher Howse points out, Walter Scott and Walt Whitman also transgressed, albeit not on Amazon. Much of the more recent nefarious activity has been exposed thanks to the sterling efforts of the author Jeremy Duns, and he’s among the signatories to a letter in the Telegraph deploring such activities and vowing never to transgress in a similar manner.

Now let’s put this in context, which is not to acquit Leather and Ellory and co of any apparent wrongdoing. There are too many books and far too many authors and not nearly enough readers. This has always been the case. In the last few years, technology has made it even easier for wannabe authors to get product into the public domain, but they usually have to do so without the professional advice and support of conventional publishers. At the same time, those who do have professionals behind them find that the level of back-up is being reduced; a publishers will attend to editing, printing and distribution but the burden of raising a work’s profile increasingly falls on the author. And someone who knows how to write a readable thriller or cook book or erotic blockbuster may also have the savvy for self-marketing and social media, but it doesn’t necessarily follow.

And this is where things start to get a bit grey. Ian Hocking has mused with his customary sagacity about the dilemmas encountered by self-published writers. I’ve always had a bit of corporate heft behind my own modest efforts, but I’ve still had to do quite a bit of donkey work. I haven’t taken to bestowing five stars upon my own books, but I have made efforts to raise my own profile on Amazon and elsewhere. If I send free copies to friends, on the understanding that they’ll write an online review at some point, is that a bad thing? When posting such reviews, should they make clear that they know me? (Some do; some don’t.) Am I entitled to get annoyed with the ones who don’t keep up their end of the bargain. Or do I just assume that they’ve posted negative reviews under a pseudonym and haven’t told me? What about the Amazon Vine system, or LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers, by which free copies are sent out to people who request them? Is that more or less needy than sending a review copy to The Guardian or the New York Times? What about the mutual back-scratching that Private Eye always identifies with its round-up of the books of the year. Is that better or worse than what RJ Ellory has done. Are there rules? Conventions? Should there be a law?

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the writers who signed the Telegraph letter, but I’d hazard a guess that Ian Rankin, Lee Child and Joanne Harris don’t feel compelled to check into Amazon every 20 minutes to check incremental shifts in their sales ranks, or whether “A reader from Norwich” has given their latest opus three or four stars. And again, I don’t condone what the likes of Stephen Leather have done. But I’ll admit to a twinge of sympathy for someone who pushes the ethical envelope a little too far in an effort to rescue his or her life’s work from oblivion.

Of course, the problem isn’t confined to authors and similar fey ponces. Review sites for restaurants and hotels become all but useless when they’re taken over by PR hacks. And despite all the  complaints about Wikipedia being a platform for know-nothings, I get far more annoyed when a page has clearly been tidied up by someone rather too close to the subject. I’ve said before that Andrew Keen got things wrong in his silly book, but as social media becomes ever more important, I start to see that the reality is the exact reverse of what he describes. Pretty soon, it’ll be just another Cult of the Professional. And they’re the ones who really should know better.

PS: Alison Flood in The Guardian covers much the same ground, but some of the comments are interesting. Not sure if the pro-Leather one is sock-puppetry or sarcastic or sincere or what.

PPS: More on the historical perspective.


Dr Ian Hocking said...

Interesting post, Tim. It's certainly a grey area. I guess it's the change from a wee bit of 'spin' to out and out lies that get various knickers twisted. I wouldn't like to draw a dividing line, but it seems to me that Figes's comments, and the behaviour of Leather, both cross it.

GreatSheElephant said...

It seemed to me that the Guardian piece viewed asking a friend to write a review as morally equivalent to writing one oneself under a false name. I'm not sure about that providing that there is no pressure applied on the friend. I deliberately haven't asked any of my friends to review my book on Amazon not through any moral qualms but just because I'm too scared about what they'd say. That said. none of them have voluntarily reviewed it either so I'm still all bent out of shape about it.

Indigo Roth said...

Hey Tim, this was a bit of an eye opener, especially for someone on the road to publication. I would have said that Mr. Leather had "made it", but maybe he has in a smaller way than, say, J. K. Rowling. But I'd hope that sales less than JKR or Dan Brown doesn't make us all crazy. With me? We'll see. Roth

Anonymous said...

There's a sock puppet row ongoing in N Ireland too - Stuart Neville (The Twelve/Ghosts of Belfast) v Sam Millar (The Darkness of Bones) - allegedly phoney reviews, sniping, claims of anti-Irish caricaturing. It's all kicking off in the previously happy supportive world of northern irish noir.
Mummy and Daddy are fighting.
make them stop.
Link here -
I'd add one to Sam's thoughts but he hasn't posted on it yet as far as I know (though he has denied it all to the BBC).

Tim F said...

I think that's about right, Ian. Plugging your own stuff is a bit tacky, and embarrassing if you're caught out, but there's a big leap between that and actually trying to sabotage other writers.

The thing is GSE, how do you know none of your friends has reviewed your work?

Leather's definitely successful, Indigo, if only in terms of numbers shifted. I think that's why his activities have come in for special condemnation. He comes over as a bully more than anything.

Bloody hell, BWT, that looks nasty. I wonder whether Leathergate will have a deterrent effect.

Stephen Leather said...

I've never bullied anyone Tim, You don't want to believe everything you read. And I never ever used a fake account to do down another writer. Your opening comments are typical of the nonsense that gets repeated as fact. Generally I just ignore it. But you need to know that when you accuse me of disparaging other writers anonymously you are repeating a lie. Anyway, sticks and stones and all that. Good lukj with your writing.