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…

This entry was posted on Sunday, August 26th, 2012 at 8:04 pm and is filed under General, Rant, Stephen Leather, Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


113 Responses to “what to do?”

  1. Suw Charman-Anderson Says:

    Thanks for posting the link, Steve! 😀

  2. Valerie_uk Says:

    Responding to Suw’s excellent comments… from a consumer’s point of view, I don’t want to sit back and watch the demise of user reviews either. I still find them useful, even taking into account the sharp practices that I now know are carried out by some. I don’t want to go back to the days before they were so readily available, and I don’t see any easy-to-access alternative to them at the present time.

    I’m perfectly capable of reading each review and judging it by its own merit. I long suspected that some of the 1* that appear at the tail end of a lot of positive reviews were a bit of skulduggery to undermine the product, without ever imagining that they might actually be bought and paid for by a competitor. However, I still believe that a a well written, comprehensive review can still be a useful tool in finding out more about something before you buy it, but that you just have to weigh them all up as a whole, rather than just taking them all at face value.

    I’m hardly taken aback by the ‘revelation’ that friends and family occasionally chip in to comment. I always suspected this, but agree with Suw that the scale of this is unlikely to be too enormous, and in all likelihood, most of these reflect the review writer’s opinion to some degree, even if it is likely to be rather biased.

    And even the mutual back-scratching by authors… well if done on a large scale, it could be a bit worrying, but I agree again with Suw that it pales in comparison (in my opinion of course) compared to the damage done by sock puppetry and buying and selling of reviews in large numbers.

    I’m still convinced that many reviews are genuine… and that you can usually tell just by reading them. And I have made a personal commitment to do my bit in future, by following through with reviews myself from now on, for what it’s worth.

  3. Ayo Onatade Says:

    Not only am I a reviewer and blogger but I am also a reader. I have to say that I agree with a lot of the comments that have been stated already. Putting my reviewer hat on I am bloody annoyed with what is currently going on. There are some of us that take our reviewing seriously. I do it because I love the genre and I do not expect or wish to be paid for it. I would be horrified if someone offered me money to write a review. I also think that it is wrong as I feel that the onus would then be on you to write a positive review whether or not the book is good. I want to be able to write a review whether good or bad without the feeling that someone is looking over my shoulder to make sure that I am writing a positive review.

    It has taken me a long time to build up my reputation and I don’t want it tarnished by the few people who are currently giving reviewers a bad name. Those authors that involve themselves in sock puppetry are dishonest and are not being fair on their fellow authors who do not involve themselves in this despicable behaviour. Furthermore, may be they should not be writing at all if they are unwilling to allow their work to stand on its own merits. As to those authors that encourage their “fans” to post 1* reviews about other authors books that is just as bad and it is not acceptable. They should not be encouraging such bad behaviour.

    Rather sadly, I am not sure that this is going to change. It is not worth Amazon’s while to do so. An open letter from The Society of Authors is a start, but it is also about author ethics. I can count on one hand the number of reviews I have posted to Amazon. I don’t as a matter of course. If a review of mine has gone on to Amazon then it has been posted on to the website where I generally do my reviews first.

    Trying to find a solution is going to be difficult but surely the status quo can not continue.

  4. Valerie_uk Says:

    Can I ask why it is deemed not to be in Amazon’s interest to address the issue (as mentioned by Ayo and others in this blog)? I guess what I’m asking is what is meant by that assertion. Is it not in their interests because it’s not a worthwhile exercise for them (ie the cost in time/resources)… or that they in some way have an actual vested interest in the business of paying for reviews… or for any other reason?

    It would be good to get some kind of clarity regarding that issue.

  5. Ayo Onatade Says:

    Valerie – Amazon could not careless. It is not a worthwhile exercise for them. As far as they are concerned they are there to provide a service and that is to sell books etc. IMHO they do not care about ethics. As long as it does not affect what they sell then they are not going to do much about it. They are too big a company to be bothered with what they undoubtedly see is a trivial matter. They see it as people being entitled to voice their own opinion/ creativity without be censured. Very sad indeed. But what do you expect from such a company?

  6. Charlie Says:

    I’m finding this whole issue of ‘sock puppetry’ fascinating on so many levels (I’m also interested in how much traction its getting in the press today, now that Jeremy Duns has ‘outed’ RJ Ellory).

    The reason for my fascination is that I’m a long standing reviewer on Amazon and have managed, somehow, to get into the ‘top 100 reviewers’ on that website (mostly due to a well received review of The Times for the Kindle). As a regular visitor to the Amazon reader reviews I’ve always wondered how much gaming of the system there was, either by publishers or authors looking to ‘big-up’ or denigrate particular works. I’ve always known that it went on, with too many examples of debut novels suddenly getting dozens of five star reviews from people who have never reviewed before or since for it to be coincidental. I just wasn’t sure how extensive it was. Thanks for providing revealing a bit more of the extent of this practise and the sorts of people who will perpetrate it.

    I’d also like to make a couple of points. Apologies if they’ve been made before and for going on a bit. The first is regarding the comments that Amazon (and other on-line stores) don’t care about reviews. Believe me when I say that they do; otherwise why would they run the Amazon Vine Programme.

    For those not aware of Vine, it is a programme run by Amazon that seeks to increase the number of reader/user reviews on the site. Members of the Programme are invited to join (you can’t apply). Once you’re a member you receive two e-mails per month from Amazon. On those e-mails are listed products that you can select to review. The products are then sent to you, entirely free of charge. There is no overall limit to the number or products you can request, but you have to have submitted reviews to Amazon for a certain proportion of previously received products before asking for new ones.

    The programme is run, separately, in both the UK and US. Reviews posted under its auspices are highlighted in green on the site. As a long standing member of the programme I have reviewed 83 products to-date, most of which are books but also include some electronics and software. Many of the books I receive via Vine are pre-publication marketing copies issued by publishers to drum up interest in a new novel and/or author (so publishers are trying to game the system too). I’ve never had a review rejected by the programme; even very negative ones.

    If Amazon weren’t interested in reviews they wouldn’t bother running this sort of programme. Considering that everything is sent via first class mail or courier free of charge it costs them money to administer. Of course their interest is, understandably, to try and drive sales, so unless the ‘sock puppet’ issue begins to do that they’re unlikely to intervene.

    My second point is also Amazon-centric, but relates to positive and negative review ratings. As I’m sure everyone knows, it is possible on Amazon to rate a review as helpful or unhelpful. To my mind, gaming of this system is as bad as sock puppet reviews, is far easier to achieve and can have as much of an impact on how books are viewed by potential buyers.

    Amazon’s system highlights reviews based on how well received they are by visitor to the site. Whether the reviews are positive or negative, the ones that visitors found most ‘helpful’ get highlighted at the bottom of a product page, whilst reviews not rated as helpful or not rated at all tend to get bumped to a sidebar.

    It takes only one click to ‘rate’ a review. Admittedly you have to be logged into Amazon to do it, so you can only rate a review once, but for anyone running sock puppets or a network of helpers it wouldn’t be too difficult to rate a review multiple times and it would be quicker to do that than submit your own review(s). Its also a great way to big-up either a positive or a negative review (depending on whether you want to support or denigrate a book) or suppress a review you don’t agree with.

    This has happened to me a couple of times, with negative reviews I have written suddenly receiving, usually within a very short time frame, dozens of
    negative ratings. The result is my review gets pushed down into the depths of the review listings. Simultaneously more positive reviews get dozens of ‘helpful’ ratings, boosting them into the highlighted reviews section and making the book in question look better.

    Now personally I couldn’t care less if my review is buried way down the list. Hell, most of my reviews never get rated at all or only once or twice. However, I do resent people deliberately manipulating the system this way to try and suppress opinion, since it goes against the purpose of open forums and reader reviews.

  7. Valerie_uk Says:

    I found this article which covers the same points quite well, even though obviously from the US.


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