Earlier this week, I was one of several people involved in drafting the open letter in the previous post, to which I also added my signature. Since then, the letter has been posted online (here), where others are welcome to add their signatures as well.

At the time of writing this, nearly 400 people have done so. Naturally, there has also been a degree of discussion and criticism of the letter from others, including (but not limited to) Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. This post is not addressed to either of those critics in particular, but I wanted to mention a few points of criticism and clarify where I stand. It should go without saying that the opinions below are mine, and do not represent any of the other signatories to the letter.

1. It’s a witch-hunt, specifically of the three writers named.

Well, not in my eyes, it’s not. As you can imagine, one of the lengthiest discussions had while drafting the letter was whether to mention the three writers by name. Arguments were made on both sides.

My view was that the focus of the letter should be on the behaviour itself rather than the individuals, but that there was no reason not to name them. For readers unfamiliar with what had taken place, it explained the context for writing the letter in the first place; for readers familiar with events, the names were known anyway. And all three writers were already in the news, frequently mentioned in the same major articles.

As long as the focus of the letter was on condemning the behaviour rather than the writers, I felt it was okay – and I think that was achieved. There is no baying mob. There is no moral panic. There are simply objections to specific types of behaviour. In a piece of advice that will be quoted again shortly, if you don’t like the letter, you don’t have to sign it. You can always write your own, or not, or whatever.

2. It’s badly worded. You should have said this or that instead of this and that.

The writers who signed the letter were happy with the wording, as were the people who signed it online afterwards. If you don’t like the letter, you don’t have to sign it. You can always write your own, or not, or whatever.

3. You don’t say what’s wrong with the activities / don’t differentiate between them in terms of badness / don’t invent and define morality from first principles in front of my eyes.

No, indeed. I suppose there was a general consensus that it was fairly obvious that these activities were wrong. Many people seem to agree. However, we can have a quick run through this.

Four behaviours were referred to:

a) Using sock puppet accounts to create buzz;

b) Leaving positive self-reviews under assumed names;

c) Leaving negative other-reviews under assumed names;

d) Paying others to purchase and review one’s own work.

Behaviours a) and b) are arguably illegal (the vendor posing as a consumer), but here is why I believe these things are wrong: they are attempts to deceive the reader of the review or comment to procure an advantage at their expense. In each case, there is a relevant piece of information obscured from the reader that would change the reader’s perception of the review or comment, and therefore its impact upon the reader.

Barry Eisler brings Kant into it, but only quotes the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, which feeds into the fairly obvious idea that this behaviour is wrong because if everyone behaved like this then the review system would collapse. But the second formulation (roughly “Treat others not merely as means, but as ends in themselves”) speaks more appropriately to intent. Readers were in those places to find information that would help them choose whether to buy a book. The writers in question disregarded the ends of the readers, treating them merely as means to further their own. And they directly intended to do so.

With each behaviour, there are individual wrinkles. So, does the letter differentiate between the four types? Well, it lists them separately. Does it condemn them all? Yes, it does. Does it argue that they are all equally wrong, or wrong in the same ways? No, it does not.

It’s worth pointing out again that other signatories may feel differently from me; they may explain their objections in other ways entirely. But you know what? They all signed the letter. And they don’t have to show you their working. If you don’t like the letter, you don’t have to sign it. You can always write your own, or not, or whatever.

4. Other activities are just as bad.

They may be. One example that keeps being raised is blurbing. My feeling is that this is very different, as the blurber generally receives no direct material advantage from the blurb, and is putting their name to their opinion. (In fact, they’re risking their name).

That’s a separate argument. The letter condemns the behaviours mentioned – it says nothing about other behaviours. From my point of view, the behaviours listed are all clearly wrong. They are definitely over the line. It may be that others are too, in certain circumstances, but that would require an argument from someone as to why. You can always write that letter instead, or not, or whatever, and it’s possible I’d sign that too.

5. Comments were deleted from the blog post.

Yes, they were. That website is set up with the intention of allowing people to sign it if they wish, not to debate its merits or self-promote in the thread below. If you don’t like the letter, you don’t have to sign it. You can always discuss and debate it on your own website, or not, or whatever.

6. Worse things happen at sea! It’s not that bad!

Indeed, they do. You can always write about the worse things that happen at sea, or not, or whatever

7. You’re sanctimonious, smug etc.

Possibly. But look. In the past month, I’ve been called ugly and told that I only have tattoos because of a lack of self-esteem. I’ve been accused of envy, had (inaccurate) sales figures posted in various places, and been told I have no future as a writer. I’ve been a thinly disguised character in a terribly written short story, where I’m described as looking like I’ve just come out of prison and being a ”wimp at heart”. People who have reviewed me in good faith have had their reviews voted down. I’ve had defamatory lies posted about me by a friend of Stephen Leather who publishes daddy-daughter incest porn. I’ve had people attempt to organise online campaigns targeting me for abuse. And so on.

In short, you’re going to have to try harder to upset me.

8. I have another point to make.

The floor is open. I’ve been a bit slack, last week or so, replying to stuff. I have a book to write – I really do! – but if you want to comment below then I’ll get back to you as quickly as I can.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 7th, 2012 at 5:00 pm and is filed under General, Jacob Drake, Jake Drake, Rant, Stephen Leather. 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.


25 Responses to “some thoughts on that letter on author behaviour”

  1. Suw Charman-Anderson Says:

    Fucking bravo!

  2. Luca Veste Says:

    Fucking superb. Better than any fisking.

    Or not, or whatever.


  3. Gordon Harries Says:

    All the yes.

  4. Benoit Lelievre Says:

    The more you’re under the spotlight, the more you’ll gather criticism. You got swept under the spotlight on day one due to actually making the panel with Stephen Leather and outing the issue spontaneously. I command you for sticking to your point and standing up for what you believe in. I think it’s important to distance yourself from such behavior and others be damned. You have all my respect.

  5. stevemosby Says:

    Konrath’s obsessed with fisking. It’s like he thinks knowing the term makes him look smart or impresses people. He also – and this shouldn’t be ignored – makes it very difficult for people to fisk him simply by posting rambling blogs the length of War and Peace. When an argument doesn’t flow, fisking isn’t a particularly useful technique to engage with it.

  6. Benoit Lelievre Says:

    I had to Google “fisking” but it’s a very wide-spread practice. I try not to do it unless I get attacked personally, because it can easily devolve into never-ending-deathmatches that have less and less to do with the initial problem, the further it goes on.

  7. Suw Charman-Anderson Says:

    There are times when fisking is appropriate, even necessary, but it’s not a great discursive device. Nor is going “Show me the damage! Show me the damage!” and then saying “That’s not damage!” when someone does.

    Though I’m surprised no one has stressed the simple fact that Amazon takes reviews into account when ranking books. True, I don’t have access to their algorithm, but I don’t need to because it’s fricken obvious either way you look at it:

    1. Actual star ratings play into ranking
    2. The ranking is based solely on sales which is affected by… reviews! (Because people actually are influenced by reviews on the whole, otherwise no one one bother providing a review facility.)

    But Konrath is so, so enamoured of his own high horse he can’t see that it’s a mule.

  8. stevemosby Says:

    Suw – definitely. And I think we can frown at Locke’s bought reviews but shouldn’t forget they were verified purchases, which doubled the effect. Reviews and sales! Pushing him into view and misleading readers to think he was popular and great.

    James Thompson has blogged about this today – http://www.jamesthompsonauthor.com/blog/?p=779 – and it interests me. I mentioned this in my first book, The Third Person, and I’ve joked about it since, but it’s true: invest money by buying your own books, you generate money down the line. That’s what the algorithms allow.

  9. andy millen Says:

    Well said Steve. Despite the fact I read fisking as fisting…which is a totally different pastime which may or may not be enjoyed by Joe….. Or whatever.

  10. David Hewson Says:

    Well said from here too. I worked on two papers with Robert Fisk (the source of fisking) by the way. He had a somewhat stronger grasp of the facts that Mr Konrath.

  11. Darin Says:

    Funny, I just read The Third Person last weekend and was struck by the very passage you mention.

  12. Sarah Higgins Says:

    Steve, your writing skill shines out – even in a blog!
    You only fight when there’s a moral need to do so. This does not make you a wimp; it makes you a real gentleman, not to be confused with cyber-snipers. In a room with these people, you would calmly argue your point whereas I’m not sure some of them would have the nerve to walk into a room with you.
    But ultimately, people are judging all of you on what you write. They don’t know me, but I’m a potential reader who will now never read their work and I can’t be the only person to feel this way.

  13. Robert Gregory Browne Says:

    I pretty much come down in the middle on all this. While I think it’s reprehensible to write your own reviews or trash other authors with one-star reviews or pay for reviewers, I also don’t really see the point of doing a public pledge against it. But then I tend to have an aversion to pledges in general.

    But one thing that bothers me is the condemnation of this practice:

    a) Using sock puppet accounts to create buzz;

    I’ve never done this, but I don’t really see it as being any different than the kinds of things publishers do on a regular basis. They pay booksellers to be sock puppets to create buzz. It’s called co-op. Here’s the Hot New Release, the booksellers tell us—without mentioning, of course, that the publisher paid them to say that. And the quality of the books in question never enters the equation.

    Patrons who walk into a big chain bookstore have no idea that this is going on and are, as a result, victim to a deception. Some people actually TRUST a bookseller to tell them the truth about the books they sell.

    Since I’ve been the benefit of such a deception (albeit a well-established and apparently accepted one), I can hardly condemn someone for using sock puppets to create buzz on an Internet forum. Especially when anything anyone says on the Internet is already fairly suspect.

    I’d also add there are other deceptive practices in publishing like ghost writing, men writing under female pen names and vice versa, etc.—common practices that are accepted by the industry, including authors, as just part of the business. Yet, again, the reading public is largely unaware that this happens.

    When BIG NAME AUTHOR releases a book, they assume it was actually written by him and not a series of hired hands. When a woman reads a book written by her favorite female romance writer, what would her reaction be if she found out it was actually written by a man?

    Would either of these affect sales? You bet they would. So the deceptions continue, without disclosure, to protect the bottom line.

    Some would argue that these things aren’t the same as sock puppetry. But really? Aren’t they all ultimately designed to promote and/or sell books without being open and honest with the readers?

    The answer is yes.

    So any pledge signed should also include an author’s refusal to engage in, or be the beneficiary of, these practices as well.

    That seems only fair.

  14. stevemosby Says:

    Robert –

    Cheers for this: I appreciate it. And I think you make some good points.

    To deal with the last part first: “So any pledge signed should also include an author’s refusal to engage in, or be the beneficiary of, these practices as well.”

    That’s totally fair enough, and I know where you’re coming from, but it was never really intended as a pledge in that all-encompassing sense. It’s a letter with signatories who agree with the contents. (The context was three high-profile cases, followed by a lot of people online going “Meh, they all do it.” Well, I don’t). It was never intended to be the be-all, end-all of author ethics. I’m happy to say I agree with the contents, but the letter was only ever going to be a jumping-off point for further discussion, and I think that’s good.

    With regard to the sock puppetry business: well, I appreciate there’s now obvious bad blood between me and Stephen Leather (see point 7 in my post above), but it’s worth looking at the transcript of what he said (see below). It’s not using pen names on forums, which many of us do; it’s not avoiding using your real name in case you get trolled. It’s using multiple pseudonymous accounts, and sometimes having a conversation between them, to advertise the books. My issue – and other signatories will have their own – is with the deception of readers looking at those comments, reviews, etc, and thinking they come from impartial people.

    With that in mind, I don’t have much of a problem with the 3 for 2 promotions you’ll see front of store in the UK. As a reader, it doesn’t seem like the bookshop is endorsing those books because they like them. I have much more of a problem with the “we recommend” tags, where there are handwritten notes saying “this book is great”, allegedly written by people who work at the shop. If those are paid for, I think that’s shit – because it’s pretending to present an impartial opinion when an interest isn’t being declared.

    Your other examples are really interesting. With the James Patterson example (to pick a name from the ether), I’m not sure readers are being misled: they’re buying a brand name, and they generally get exactly what they expect. Men writing as women: are readers being misled as to the quality of the book by an interested party? I’m not sure they are. But they’re interesting points, and food for thought, so thank you.

  15. Robert Gregory Browne Says:

    Thanks, Steve, for the thoughtful response. I just went and read the Stephen Leather transcript and while I agree that this is something I couldn’t see myself ever doing (although I have posted anonymously on forums, mostly political, to avoid persecution), I’m not sure it equates to the same type of harm as writing your own five-stars, or hiring someone else to write them, or, worst of all, writing fake one-stars to trash another author.

    I don’t know Leather, have never met him that I recall, and have never read any of his books (although I do own a couple). But it seems a bit disingenuous to lump him in with the others based on what I read in that transcript. It seems to me he has simply admitted to playing a bit of online theater to buzz his books. Not the course I would take, as I said, but not an unpardonable sin, either.

    Although it’s getting no press in the states, it has come to my attention that an editor at a major UK publishing house has admitted to writing glowing Amazon reviews for his writers under an assumed name, and I find that a much more egregious sin. So, obviously, this isn’t limited to authors. And I would hope that this editor doesn’t find himself getting a “pass” for this behavior, in the name of marketing and promotion.

    That said, this all comes down to a matter of personal choices and I have no problem with authors demonstrating their sense of integrity by signing the pledge. I know some of the authors who signed, admire them greatly, and can vouch for their integrity and fully understand why they’d want to sign it.

    But, like I said, I tend to have an aversion to pledges in general.

    Again, thank you for the thoughtful response.

  16. stevemosby Says:

    Robert –

    Yes, that’s fine – people will come to their own conclusions about how they feel about what.

    For me, the problem with an author giving himself a 5 star review under a pseudonym is that a reader might see that and think “this person says the book is good” without realising the person in question is the writer himself, and therefore the review is unreliable. The same objection would also apply to comments and discussions within forums, which is what Leather has (at least publicly) admitted to doing. He gave the answer in response to a question about how he marketed his books. That is how he markets them. In forums, just as with reviews, it means trying to con readers that there is a positive response to a book where there has not been. It is equally as illegal as pseudonymous reviews: the seller pretending to be a consumer in order to facilitate sales.

    I don’t know all the details of the publisher sock puppetry story. (It’s been reported in one Sunday newspaper over here, which is behind a pay wall, and I don’t subscribe). Based on what I’ve heard, I would condemn that too. This isn’t about authors versus publishers, or self versus traditional publishing. It’s about behaviour that cons readers.

  17. Robert Gregory Browne Says:

    I agree, in principle, especially with the first part. But without knowing exactly how Leather was using those forums, I can’t judge. And I’m not sure it’s my place to, anyway.

    For all I know, he simply said, “Hey, you should check out this Stephen Leather guy” and put a link to his books. Which I find fairly innocuous. I can’t make an assumption that it’s worse than that because I don’t know what forums he’s talking about.

    He said he would start arguments with himself and I have to assume this was to create drama and get attention and that the name Stephen Leather must have been raised at some point, but I hardly equate that to going onto a website like Amazon and posting a five-star review, a place that is specifically designed for reviewer input.

    I don’t know, maybe I have a higher tolerance for bullshit than a lot of people. I used to work in the film industry.

    At any rate, we obviously disagree about this and I won’t drag it on endlessly.

    Thanks for making your comment section available for a slightly dissenting point of view.

  18. stevemosby Says:

    Robert –

    No worries at all: thank you for engaging and being polite. And yes, I think we disagree (although not on much), but that’s fine. All the best.

  19. Alen Kapidzic Says:

    Brave and bold. Keep up with good fight!

  20. This ain’t no witch hunt | Pegasus Pulp Says:

    […] Steve Mosby, who was actually at that discussion with Stephen Leather at the Harrogate festival and who is also one of the people behind the No Sockpuppets website/open letter that so enraged Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath, responds to the various allegations in his blog. […]

  21. Authors in October – Part 1 « The Book Jotter Says:

    […] but Steve Mosby was not, but I recognised the name. Steve was one of the first people to sign the open letter regarding the recent ‘sock-puppets’ furore, where in particular RJ Ellory admitted writing good […]

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