Archive for August, 2012

what to do?

Posted by on August 26th, 2012

It’s not an unreasonable question.

The past few weeks have seen a lot of posts, here and elsewhere, around the behaviour of Stephen Leather, all of which have touched at least peripherally on the subject of the ethics of marketing techniques, especially given the constantly changing digital environment. These techniques (some, but not all, of which can be attributed to Leather; all of which can be attributed to various authors across the board) include:

1. Using sock puppet accounts to talk up one’s own book;
2. Giving positive reviews to one’s own book under a sock puppet account;
3. Giving negative reviews to a “competing” author’s book under a sock puppet account;
4. Spreading lies about “competing” authors online;
5. Bullying and harrassing other authors;
6. Shilling – ie talking up the book of a friend without disclosing a personal interest;
7. Astroturfing – ie the overall cumulative effect of the above. Artificial buzz.
8. Attacking reviewers for negative but honest reviews, and/or encouraging their readers to do so.

To which, we can also add this: paying (substantial amounts of money) for reviews. The successful ebook writer John Locke is named in that article. To quote:

“Mr. Locke is unwilling to say that paying for reviews made a big difference. “Reviews are the smallest piece of being successful,” he said.”

Well, that may be true. But ordering 300 reviews will have set him back $6000. At the 0.99 he charges, for which he would receive around 0.30, those reviews would need to have generated him 20,000 book sales just to break even. That is not an insignificant number. You assume it was worth it, but prospective self-publishers may wish to consider their disposable income first – and also have a good, long look at themselves in the mirror.

And I’m sure there are countless other activities as well.

Why  does any of this matter? Well, a lot of this behaviour is technically illegal (a vendor pretending to be a consumer, etc), but all of it is dodgy and what I, at least, would consider to be unethical behaviour for an author to be involved in or encouraging. The online review system (along with other online feedback systems) is imperfect, but it exists, and people use it. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be worth authors gaming it in these underhand ways, often at great expense. So these are acts of deception that betray both the reader and other writers. They are acts of selfishness. They are attempts to grab as much of the “open ground” of self-publishing for themselves as possible, by whatever means possible.

It’s possible you don’t care. Well, if so, move on. But if you feel strongly about these issues, what can you do? Here are some quick, initial thoughts. They’re mostly obvious. Please feel free to add other ideas in the comments.

1. Readers

The oddest thing about the Leather business is that, really, I’ve just been reacting to stuff and posting on topics that have arisen. I never had any endgame in mind; I wasn’t trying to achieve anything. When Leather accuses me of being jealous (sic) of his sales, or wanting to harm them, that’s absolutely not the case. I couldn’t give two fucks if he sells a million books in the next day, or none ever again. It has no impact on me. More to the point, a lot of writers over the years have been vile individuals; the books stand alone, their merits independent (for the most part) from the character of the writers.

That said, numerous people have contacted me, either publicly or privately, to say they won’t be buying Leather’s books again. That’s fine. Voting with your feet is a time-honoured tradition. One obvious way you can react to an author behaving in ways you disapprove of is to not support them anymore. That aside, you could also let them know what you think, or engage them in conversation around issues that concern you. And do you know what? The forums and channels these writers are hijacking to promote themselves, however imperfect they are, they belong to you. They are meant for you. Your voice matters more than theirs, so you should use it. And at the absolute least, you can be aware enough of these authors to treat future “buzz” around their books with whatever scepticism you conclude it deserves.

2. Organisations

There have been a few suggestions that organisations such as the CWA could introduce a charter of some kind – listing behaviour they expect their members to refrain from, and so on. I have some sympathy with this as a symbolic gesture, but I don’t think it would make much difference for a number of reasons. I doubt someone like Stephen Leather or John Locke cares very much about being a member. I also doubt – with the greatest respect for the organisations in question – that the reading public would pay much attention either. It wouldn’t be awful for it to happen anyway though.

3. Publishers

It’s far more likely that wayward authors would take notice of publishers condemning these activities, but there are numerous problems with this as well. For one thing, obviously a proportion of this activity is by authors who are self-published, so it wouldn’t matter. For another, I expect most publishers would condemn this sort of behaviour anyway. Because, in my experience, most people who work in publishing are nice and decent and working in publishing in the first place because they love books.

The issue here is that publishing is a business, but the people who work in it are individuals. Those individuals have their opinions, but it’s often difficult politically to voice them. I think it’s a truism that most editors will have writers they like and want to publish but, for various reasons, it can’t happen, while also having authors they dislike intensely but are stuck with. But at the end of the day, it’s a business – it has to be, and it should be. That’s not to say they should turn a blind eye.

4. Writers

It’s much the same as readers, I think, with some additional caveats. Obviously, regardless of your profile, you can use whatever social media platforms you have to express your opinion. You can refuse to blurb or share a platform with people who engage in this kind of behaviour. You can put forward your point of view; you can let readers know what’s going on. If you think someone’s attacking you, say so.

So. That’s just some initial thoughts and ideas. Feel free to chip in below the line with others…

Just a quick note

Posted by on August 17th, 2012

My attention was drawn to a post on Facebook today, which reads as follows:

“So, it looks like a guy named Steve Mosby is so insecure about his own book sales that he is deliberately and covertly going to Smashwords and using troll tactics to squash the sales of fellow Brit author Stephen Leather. Let Mosby know your views on his dirty tactics by visiting his page at: https://www.facebook.com/theleftroom?ref=ts

There’s a screenshot of it here.

Given it’s likely this rubbish will crop up again at some point, let’s make a few things clear.

1.
The accusation above is utter bullshit. Unlike some people, I don’t even bother giving myself good reviews covertly, never mind bad reviews to others. If I was going to do the latter, I’d do so under my own name, and I would likely do so here. I think I’ve made it pretty clear that my objections to Leather centre on his marketing techniques and – in terms of some of the comments he’s made subsequent to Harrogate – his personality. I have no opinion on his writing. I went onto Smashwords today, for what may be the first time ever, curious to see what was behind this accusation. I see that Leather has a small handful of reviews (four and five star), so presumably very few people there have an opinion on his writing either. Since Mr Drake (above) doesn’t clarify what on earth he’s fucking talking about, it is both difficult and unnecessary to respond in greater depth.

2.
Frankly, I  couldn’t care less if Leather’s the bestselling writer in the history of the world. This keeps coming up: people – including Leather himself – suggesting that the motive of his critics must be jealousy of his sales. (Although they mean envy). Firstly, this is what happens when all you have intellectually is a hammer: everything looks like a nail. If all you care about is sales, then you assume that’s all anyone else cares about as well. Secondly – and this is nobody’s business but my own – I do okay, actually. If you don’t know me, you’ll just have to take my word for this: insecure, I am not.

3.
Unless you send a friend request, I’m afraid you can’t let me know your views on my “dirty tactics” by visiting my Facebook page. It’s set to private. However, it’s possible you might find your way here. If so, the comment thread below this post is open, so feel free to present your fascinating opinions on my “dirty tactics” there. Please be aware that without corroborating evidence (of which there is none, because the above statement is a lie), you will be soundly and viciously mocked. At a bare minimum.

**UPDATE – 19 August 2012**

Okay, I sent a message on Facebook to Jake Drake, explaining that his post was defamatory and untrue, and inviting him to reply either by return of message or in the comments below to attempt to justify and provide evidence for his accusations. Needless to say, I didn’t receive a reply. My understanding is that, instead of doing so, he posted my message on his Facebook page, along with a similar message from Jeremy Duns.

Since then, it has emerged that Jake also writes erotica under the pseudonym “Whiskey McNaughton”. His favourite subgenre of erotica is “family relationships, if you know what I mean”, which – yes – is exactly what you imagine it to be. His Amazon page is here, but basically he writes explicit pornography about men having sex with their own daughters.

(It goes without saying that you should exercise caution clicking on these links. All are technically SFW – Amazon, Goodreads, etc – but if incest is a trigger for you then please, please be careful).

Many of Whiskey’s stories have a five-star review from the same reviewer. Of one of his stories, this reviewer writes:

“This author seems to like stories involving older men and younger women barely old enough to enjoy sexually. I think Whiskey either fantasizes a lot on this topic or he gets a lot of side action from girls he knows. I hope it’s the latter and wish I was one of them, though i might be just a bit too old for him. Love this story.”

All of which is – fairly obviously – stick-your-fingers-down-your-fucking-throat stuff. I would hesitate to suggest that’s Jake himself there, but he certainly does review the Whiskey McNaughton books under his own name, for example “Night Swims With Daddy”, which you can see here.

Now, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about the acceptability or otherwise of this kind of horrendous fucking shite, but that’s for another day. For now, let’s just note that, under his McNaughton twitter identity, Drake posts that he’s just finished editing one of Stephen Leather’s stories for him. So there’s the connection. That’s likely the only relevant evidence you’re ever going to see in connection with the original accusation.

You may recall, from Jeremy Duns’s original investigation, that the writer Steve Roach advised against crossing Stephen Leather because of his “powerful friends”. And now we begin to meet them.

Leather (3)

Posted by on August 4th, 2012

With reference to the previous two posts, it’s probably worth pointing out that the notorious panel in question is now available to buy and download online. It costs £3, and you can acquire it here.

Here are some initial thoughts about it on listening again.

1.
If you weren’t there – and given the way the online coverage has reported the whole thing – you’ll probably find it sounds quite tame and restrained. If you’ve read some of the articles, you’ll probably be expecting to hear something close to people storming the stage with pitchforks. Well, you won’t hear that. Although the recording doesn’t entirely capture the crowd’s reaction or the overall atmosphere, you’ll mostly hear the event for what it was: a fascinating, slightly fragmented and occasionally heated discussion about ebooks.

2.
While I don’t want to get into point-scoring or pettiness, I think it’s worth taking another look at Stephen Leather’s blogpost about the event. He may have changed it by now, but here is one thing he initially said, which has been reproduced carelessly elsewhere:

“So I explain to Ursula – and the audience – that I can write a short story in five days and am happy to sell that at the Amazon minimum of 72p which generates me an income of 25p. At this point Ursula – who runs one of the biggest publishing houses in the UK –  asked me “so you’re happy to work for 5p a day, are you?”  The audience laughed and clapped, and I was frankly gob-smacked.  I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t seen the fallacy in her comment. She was assuming that I spent five days writing a story and then sold one copy. She can’t possibly have believed that, could she?  Of course I don’t work for 5p a day.  My Inspector Zhang stories sell about five or six hundred copies a month. Each. So one story sells 6,000 copies a year. So over the next ten years it could sell 60,000 copies which means I’d get £15,000, which is £3,000 a day and that’s probably more than she gets paid.

It was all very strange and I wasn’t sure what to do. Part of me wanted to go all Jeremy Kyle and leap across the stage and shake some sense into her but I just smiled and listened to the audience applaud her. I did find it all very worrying.”

Right, but if you listen to the recording, you’ll hear that it was Mark Lawson who made the 5p comment, and very obviously as a quick throwaway joke.  So that vividly described little memory is entirely fabricated. Because people aren’t that stupid.

3.
Here is a quick transcript of the sockpuppetry admission:

SL: I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans…

Me: So you use sockpuppet accounts basically?

SL: I think everyone does. Everyone does. Or I have friends who are sockpuppets, who might be real, but they might pick a fight with me.

Me: Are your readers aware of this, or…?

SL:  Well, I think that everyone … well, are the readers aware of it? No … But they’re not buying it because of the sockpuppet. What you’re trying to do is create a buzz. And it’s very hard, one person, surrounded by a hundred thousand other writers, to create a buzz. I mean, that’s one of the things that publishers do. They create a buzz. One person on their own, difficult to create a buzz. If you’ve got ten friends, and they’ve got friends, and you can get them all as one creating a buzz, then hopefully you’ll be all right.

Stephen has since claimed that I misunderstood him, and that sockpuppet was my phrase not his, so I think it would be enormously useful for him to expand. Since it’s against UK law for a vendor to pretend to be a consumer, it also seems like he should want to do that. The English language is a flexible thing, after all, so it’s theoretically possible he could twist the above statements into some acceptable if as yet unfathomable contortion.

If not, then perhaps – assuming such a thing is logistically possible – he could supply a list of the forums and accounts he’s used, and the kinds of things he’s said. And maybe say sorry for it?

If that’s too difficult, here are a few easier questions. We can limit the scope to start with. Maybe Stephen would be prepared to state publicly that he has definitely never promoted his books in the way he describes above on, say, Amazon?  If he hasn’t done so, then given what he’s admitted above, why did he not do so on Amazon?

And if he can’t bring himself to say anything at all, why not?