Columns > Published on September 24th, 2012

The Strange and Unpleasant World of the Sock Puppet

A few years ago, I read a book I didn’t like. The book was called Shoot the Damn Dog and it was by a journalist called Sally Brampton. The book describes Ms Brampton’s struggles with depression.

Now depression is a subject I know something about, not personally, but because I have a sufferer in my close family. I also have a degree in Psychology and a PhD in Cognitive Science, which ideally equips me to 1) detect bullshit and 2) voice my opinions loudly. So I did both of these things and posted a review of the book on Amazon, one which I would normally file under the heading ‘Scathing’.

Writers: we should state our principles and stick to them. We should keep our profession about writing, not selling, because that’s what we’re good at and that’s what we love.

I received comments on my review, some positive, some not so positive. As for the latter, well my motto is ‘if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out,’ so I have no objection to people objecting to my objections, if you catch my drift. But one comment stood out as having a particularly personal slant. Here’s a sample: ‘Your fantasy appears to be that you are a literary critic, but you are faced with the reality that you are a psychologist. Does that make you depressed? Or does it simply make you snarky and smug?’ There was more. I was malicious. I was clichéd. I lacked the guts to write a book myself. And so on. The comment was signed ‘Sarah’.

I didn’t pay much attention, not after the second glass of wine anyway. I’m entitled to my opinion and so is everyone else. Strange, though, I thought that ‘Sarah’ should take my review so much to heart. You’d almost think she had written the book.

What I didn’t realize is that I had just been coshed by a sock puppet. ‘Sarah’ commented again on my review, except this time she signed herself ‘Sally’. I emailed Sally Brampton and asked her to explain. She admitted that both she and her daughter had left unflattering comments on my review. Neither had used their own names. Both had chosen to use ‘sock puppets’ to voice their objections.

This is minor stuff, you would think. But it isn’t. If attacking a reviewer under a false name seems a little spineless, then how would you describe bigging up your work by creating sock puppet accounts and lavishing 5 star reviews on your own books? What would you call someone who used those same accounts to give 1 star reviews to their rivals?

It wouldn’t be a nice name, would it?

This what some authors do. This is what some authors have been doing for years.

The extent of sock puppeting on Amazon and other sites started to come to light when best-selling thriller writer Stephen Leather openly admitted at a conference that he uses fake personas to sell his books. Leather seemed to think this was an acceptable way to behave.

Spy-writer Jeremy Duns doesn’t agree. He started to look into Leather’s activities and those of some other writers. Over the course of a long and interesting phone call, he explained to me what he had found. It makes for a story which I would have found hard to believe if it weren’t for the screen shots and links. Cyber-bulling. Lying. Cheating. Racism. Aliens are probably also involved. Having found what he had found, Duns tweeted  and blogged his evidence.

Then the shit hit the fan.

The result was a confession from writer RJ Ellory that he used two sockpuppet accounts to give himself 5 star reviews on Amazon and also to leave 1 star reviews on books written by rival authors. Another author, Sam Millar, appears to have done exactly the same thing but on an even wider scale. Though the evidence against him seems convincing (even his publisher failed to spring to his defense), Millar denies the allegations.

And as for Stephen Leather, he hasn’t contributed much to the discussion since the conference (apart from calling Jeremy Duns fat and ugly). I tried to speak to him about Duns’ allegation that he uses sock puppets to leave racist comments on Yahoo message boards, but so far, he hasn’t got back to me.

From this sorry position, let’s fast forward to the wider debate.

In the aftermath of Ellory’s confession, fifty authors have signed an open letter, deploring this type of behavior and making a commitment to never participate in it themselves. You’d think this would be a good thing. Some writers don’t. JA Konrath, staunch supporter of self-pubbing, thinks this is a witch hunt. He thinks the commitments in the letter are sanctimonious. He says he never uses sock puppets himself, but he thinks naming and shaming goes too far.

The sense you get from Konrath's diatribe, is that the signatories to that letter are using this opportunity to cover themselves in righteousness. Moral indignation of the I-would-never-do-such-a-thing variety is annoying, but only if the line crossed is a minor one. Konrath seems to be saying: hey, sockpuppeting is no big deal. Stop megaphoning how pure and clean you are and get back to your keyboards.

Fair enough. Except Konrath is wrong and here is why:

Apart from the fact that posting fake reviews is illegal and therefore a big deal, however you look at it, the question of how we as writers respond to this situation really matters. The movement of publishing into the electronic age has opened up many opportunities for writers to go it alone. The downside is that gradually the focus of the writing profession is changing from telling stories to selling books. It may not matter very much to Konrath how the world sees him, so long as he is shifting units, but to others of us it does. To put it another way, I don’t want to tell people I’m a writer and have them edge away, plainly thinking oh crap. Now she’s going to start hawking her snake oil.

The way some authors behave, the world would be justified in believing that about us, and in one respect Konrath is right. Naming and shaming only goes so far. The authors singled out by Duns and others are just the tip of the iceberg. Quietly, other authors who have played this game are deleting reviews and killing off their alter-egos*. Once the dust has settled, they will start again. Paid review sites like the one John Locke used to spring board his writing career will tout for trade. We’ll be back at square one, no wiser about whether what we’re reading is a real opinion or manufactured hype.

There are some fixes. Some simple, some not so much.

Amazon: there are spin offs to the Amazon review system which can be highly entertaining and I will myself admit to being a serial offender here, but Amazon needs to treat its customers better than it currently does. A fix for spotting fake reviews now exists. More will soon be available. Amazon should use them. It should also tighten up its current rules for submitting reviews: purchase non-optional, a limit on new accounts and so on.

The publishing industry: the burden of selling books has, inexorably, shifted from the publisher to the author. Glib expectations that writers can act as their own marketing teams – set up blogs, garner huge Twitter followings, dazzle the world with their Facebook repartee – have created a situation where people who wanted to make a living by writing feel they are personally responsible for the units they shift. Publishers need to make more than token efforts in the direction of marketing the authors they sign and if they encourage authors to self-promote in addition to in-house campaigns, they should offer help and advice on how it should be done and done well.

And finally. Writers: we should state our principles and stick to them. We should keep our profession about writing, not selling, because that’s what we’re good at and that’s what we love. We should not allow ourselves to get sucked into the idea that selling books is easy, that social medias are our own personal little store fronts, that spamming and scamming are victimless crimes. If we feel the temptation to try a little internet trickery of our own we should remember one thing:

A sock puppet is just a douchebag with someone’s hand up it.

*Although not all that quickly. In our phone call, Duns also mentioned an author called Matt Lynn to me, so I went to check out the reviews of one of his books on the UK Amazon site.

You’ll see that he has eight 5 star reviews for Ice Force: Death Force: Book 4. I clicked on the reviewer profiles for the first four and found that three of them have reviewed exactly the same items on the site. What are the odds? I also took some screen shots, just in case these reviewers decide to stop acting like they’re all actually the same person.

Image via Wired

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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