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Summary:

UK thriller author Stephen Leather’s admission that he created fake accounts to review his own books has led to a storm of controversy over bad author behavior and “sock puppet” reviews. Here’s what’s happened so far and how bad author behavior might be fixed.

“Sock puppet” accounts, in the context of online book reviews, are fake forum, customer review or Twitter accounts that an author creates to promote his or her book under a different name.

Debate has been brewing in the UK since July, when crime and thriller authors from around the world gathered at the popular annual Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. A panel on ebooks featured two British thriller authors, Steve Mosby and Stephen Leather. During the panel, Leather revealed that he uses “sock puppet” accounts. Fellow panelist Mosby transcribed the exchange on his blog (and the recording is available here):

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.

[Mosby]: So you use sock puppet accounts, basically?

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

[Mosby]: 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 sock puppet. 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 10 friends, and they’ve got friends, and you can get them all as one creating a buzz, then hopefully you’ll be all right.

Jeremy Duns, a British author of spy novels and a journalist who now lives in Sweden, began investigating Leather and turned up two of his “sock puppet” accounts, one of which belonged to a real self-published author named Steve Roach. “Roach had been very annoyed at what Leather was doing in the Amazon forums,” Duns told me. “He called him out quite aggressively. Leather reacted very furiously and waged a campaign against Roach for about a year online.”

Roach told Duns that Leather posted one-star reviews of his books to Goodreads and wrote a short story featuring “a sleazy villain” after Roach. Leather also created a Twitter account, @WriterRoach, in Steve Roach’s name. He used it to promote his own books and to make digs at Roach.

‘You’ve outsmarted me’

“Steve Roach sent an email to Stephen Leather saying, can you please stop? You’ve outsmarted me,” Duns says. “Leather was very gracious in his acceptance that he had beaten this guy. He said, I actually have two Twitter accounts in your name. I’m going to delete one of them and give the other one to you.”

Duns taped his phone conversation with Roach, but Roach now says he was tricked and wasn’t told he was being taped.

When I got in touch with Leather, he called Duns a “troll” and sent me a PDF of a letter written by Roach which begins, “With regard to the confrontations that I had with Stephen Leather while we were promoting our books on the Amazon forums, I do not look back on it as cyberbullying, more a straightforward confrontation in which I eventually conceded defeat (because Leather was better at it than I was).”

Leather also confirmed to me that he had created fake accounts to review his own books. “Yes, I said that. It was recorded so I can’t really deny it,” he wrote to me in an email. “But I never really got a chance to explain what I meant and there was an element of mis-speaking, but yes I said it. I didn’t do it much, and only over a couple of months. The reason was that writers were coming in for a lot of flak when they posted under their own names and I was being trolled unmercifully. So it was easier to talk to other posters using a pen name, which is something that the majority of forum users do.

‘I should have just kept my mouth shut’

“I didn’t attack people, generally it was just a way of talking to readers.  I haven’t done it for well over a year.  I also tweeted under different names, and again most people on Twitter use pen names. I don’t do that any more, either. Basically at Harrogate I was asked how a new writer could get themselves known and I was trying to explain how to get a word-of-mouth buzz going. . . . Obviously with hindsight I should have just kept my mouth shut.”

Leather’s print publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, had no comment.

More recently, the New York Times reported that thriller author John Locke — the first self-published author to sell over a million books on Kindle — paid several thousand dollars for 300 reviews through a now-defunct site called GettingBookReviews.com. Locke had attributed his success to low prices (all his books are $0.99) and fan outreach.  “Reviews are the smallest part of being successful,” Locke told the NYT’s David Streitfeld. “But it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience.”

Over the weekend, Jeremy Duns exposed British thriller author RJ Ellory for promoting his own books under fake accounts and slamming books by rivals (Ellory has since apologized), while crime writer Stuart Neville has begun “naming sock puppet names” on his blog.

The retailer response

In response to my query on how it has handled “sock puppet” reviews, Amazon sent me a link to its review guidelines with no other comment.

Barnes & Noble did not respond to my request for comment.

Kobo did not directly answer my question about reader reviews. “We’re in the process of formalizing our online/social media guidelines,” Rene d’Entremont, the company’s media relations manager, told me. But those guidelines apply to Kobo employees, not to users. “For online book reviews, we collaborate with Goodreads.com, a company that shares the same core values of transparency and using social to encourage conversations among readers,” d’Entremont said.

Social reading site Goodreads also has review guidelines that prohibit “commercial reviews.” Members can also flag suspect reviews. “Our approach to reviews is very different from other sites,” CEO Otis Chandler told me. When users click on a book, the first reviews they see are by their friends, then from people they’ve chosen to follow, and finally from the broader community. The Goodreads algorithm prioritizes community reviews by number of ‘likes,’ the popularity of the reviewer and how recent the review is. “One of the most consistent pieces of feedback I hear from members is that they find reviews on Goodreads more real and trustworthy — ‘you can tell they are by real readers’ — than reviews on other sites,” Chandler says.

A code of ethics for writers

So far, 56 authors — including Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly and Lee Child — have signed this statement vowing they’ll never create “sock puppet” reviews. “But the only lasting solution is for readers to take possession of the process,” they write. “The Internet belongs to us all. Your honest and heartfelt reviews, good or bad, enthusiastic or disapproving,­ can drown out the phoney voices, and the underhanded tactics will be marginalized to the point of irrelevance.”

The UK-based Crime Writers’ Association posted a statement on “sock puppets” on its website and says it’s “keen to find a course that helps preserve the integrity of crime writing, and the traditional supportiveness of the genre.”

So far, the “sock puppets” controversy has centered around crime and thriller authors, and the issue has received the most attention in that community. But these practices aren’t limited to one genre of books, and fake reviews remain a widespread problem not just for books but for other products online, with University of Illinois professor Bing Liu estimating that a third of online reviews are fake.

  1. Good luck! I used to write reviews for Amazon.com, till I realized you can’t be forthright and honest with your opinions. I remember calling one book ‘depressing’ and downright silly and all of a sudden I was attacked for not knowing ‘stream of consciousness’. Then anonymous, one-time reviews about ‘stream of consciousness’ and faulknerian all of a sudden followed. It smells gimmick-y!

    I guess for many authors (and publishers) these amateur reviews do make-or-break your book. But it’s damn right dishonest.

  2. “The well-known and outspoken self-published author J.A. Konrath posted “the writer’s code of ethics” on his blog; expect to see other authors follow suit. ”

    I guess you didn’t read the entire Konrath post, because his ‘Writer’s Code’ post was satire, not to be taken seriously.

    As to the ‘No Sockpuppet Statement’, underwritten by 56 authors: It reminds me of McCarthyism, when everyone in Hollywood hastened to give anti-communist statement in order to avoid being caught in the Witch Hunt. I don’t think Sock Puppetry is ethical behaviour, but I think it’s more important to advice people to make up their own mind instead of relying on reviews that can and will be manipulated.

    People who buy stuff solely on the recommendations of strangers are like people who buy a car without a test drive – most e-book retailers have an option to download a free sample, so if you don’t want to be duped into buying crap, download the free sample and make up your own mind.

    1. Saying “I am not a communist” in the historical climate of red scare is hardly the same as saying “I will be an honest writer and not deceive fans with a bunch of fake reviews”. Try again with the simile. It’s totally appropriate for authors to distance themselves from manipulative marketing.

      1. Maybe, if you reply to me, you should use a name, instead of writer.

        The McCarthyism Witch Hunt had nothing to do with the real ‘threat’ of global communism, and people who didn’t agree with McCarthy were labeled communist. If writers run scared of being accused of sock puppetry rally together to defend themselves against unspoken allegations, the comparison is valid.

  3. Stephen Leather Thursday, September 6, 2012

    “Leather also confirmed to me that he had created fake accounts to review his own books. ” Are you stupid or deliberately lying? I did not say that and have copies our emails to show exactly what I said. I said that I spoke on forums using pen names. That is all I said. You need to correct that now. There is no excuse for shoddy journalism like that.

  4. stephen leather Thursday, September 6, 2012

    “Duns turned up one-star reviews of Roach’s books, which he says Leather wrote, and a short story by Leather in which he named “a sleazy villain” after Roach. ”

    This is a lie. I did not name a sleazy villain after Steve Roach. Either produce that story now or issue a correction.

    And produce any one star reviews of Roach’s work or remove that allegation. I never reviewed Steve’s books, though at one point I gave some of his books one star ratings (not reviews) on Goodreads and always under my own name.

    I have now copied this article and if corrections aren’t made immediately I am going to take this further. I will also use my blog to explain to the world what an appalling ‘journalist’ you are.

    Stephen Leather

    Stephen Leather

  5. Stephen Leather Thursday, September 6, 2012

    “The well-known and outspoken self-published author J.A. Konrath posted “the writer’s code of ethics” on his blog; expect to see other authors follow suit. ”

    OMG. You really are stupid, aren’t you? Have you read Joe’s blog.?He was being ironic, you idiot. He was making the point that there was no point in such codes. I have sent Joe a screenshot of your comments, I’m sure it will amuse you. I think you need to do some serious rewriting before the world realises just how full of holes your piece is.

    If this piece is till in this form tomorrow I’ll take it up with your bosses.

    Stephen Leather

    1. Stephen, one question remains unanswered. Have you ever posted under the name Big Nick Palmer?

      1. Ah, the magic question, at which cyberbully and arch-troll Stephen Leather is guaranteed to vanish in a puff of smoke…

  6. I don’t believe you are Stephen Leather.

  7. Let’s talk about sock puppets. I have a whole basket full of sock puppets to amuse my two-year old. She likes the crocodile best. He’s mean and he bites her, but that always makes her giggle. But then, she knows the crocodile is really me.

  8. I’d never heard of Stephen Leather before this happened, but he certainly doesn’t disappoint. Bit of nitpicking around the margins of the piece and some unpleasant threats but none of the central allegations disputed.

    Duns also linked Leather convincingly to some rather vile and racist posts on other sites incidentally.

  9. The relationship between Leather and the unfortunate Roach is rather more complex than it appears. At one point Roach actually wrote and Kindle published a book entitled Levverzat Wat (Leather’s A Twat – geddit?)

    The ‘book’ has been withdrawn but you can still see a fragment of the reviews here.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/RP99ZC6E0PWAY/ref=cm_aya_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B006AZEQRM#wasThisHelpful

    In response to a one star review complaining it’s just a ‘a one sided view (rant) Of a pathetic augment’ Roach writes in his own name…

    ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, Karen.

    It is indeed a stupid book, but a necessary one. This ‘pathetic’ argument is actually an attempt by one of the UK’s top authors to wreck my own writing career. I’m sorry that you feel it’s inappropriate for me to stick up for myself.

    If you take the time to actually read the book, you’ll see that it’s actually an accurate reflection of events, and one in which I freely admit my own shortcomings. On a wider note, it is a study of an issue that is relevant to all indie authors, not just myself. A good portion of the book looks at the issue via the bigger picture. If you read and understand the book, you will actually see that I am trying to do ALL indie writers a favour.

    Again, I’m sorry if this book has upset you, but there are legitimate reasons for its existence.

    If you do not want to buy any further work by an author you’ve previously enjoyed, I can’t affect that decision. I do quite clearly state that this book should not be considered a part of my canon. It was a last ditch attempt to get SL off my back, and if he agrees to leave me alone, the book will immediately be withdrawn from further distribution.’

    Any way you look at it this is an extraordinary way for an author to interact with his readers, though given SL’s comments here perhaps you won’t find it too surprising.

  10. Meh! Its all about censorship, control and ultimately spending money so meh to reviews!

  11. Looking at thrillers on Amazon today I have noticed that a writer called Michael Roberts has been tagging books by Lee Child, Stephen Leather, David Baldacici etc with titles of his own books and series. He is clearly using 6 or 7 Amazon ‘accounts’ to do this, hoping to drive browsers to his own books. Also a little dirty, methinks…

  12. All these fake reviews of real books have the unintended side effect of besmirching those of us who write real reviews of fake books. http://dailybrass.blogspot.com/2012/06/fake-book-review-supreme-bean.html

  13. “Your honest and heartfelt reviews … can drown out the phoney voices” is not a realistic answer to the problem. Amazon, B&N, Goodreads are posting reviews they are presenting as ‘reader reviews’ without doing even a cursory examination.

    They are all happy to rake in the dollars from the purchases we make based on reviews, real or phony, then why not hold them responsible for the authenticity of those reviews?

    Peace, Seeley

  14. Great Baby Stuff Monday, September 10, 2012

    Everyone does this! Its not new news here, when he came out with the advice to do that, and described how he did it. Thats the advice all are given because it works, and its been done since the internet began. I don’t see why he’s suddenly being attacked for doing something every author does, and shame on those authors who pretend they haven’t or who are signing that list to make it seem like they haven’t been involved in any sort of trying to boost their reviews or create a buzz about their books.

  15. I think the sock puppeting reviews is despicable, especially attacking other writers. Was Roach and Leather the same person? If you have to gain readers this way, then you’re not a very good writer. Do you see King or Rowland acting in this way? No, you don’t. Let your work speak for itself and real word of mouth will happen.

    To say that a reader “shouldn’t rely on reviews anyway” is a bad excuse for bad behavior. If reviews don’t matter or shouldn’t matter then why do it? Why make fake reviews then? When I see new, unknown author and there book description sounds good, I look at the reviews to determine if I want to spend the money. It’s a mixed a bag. I’ve come across some really horrible books that were reviewed as 5 stars. However, all the fake reviews is what really turns me off from taking the risk again.

    These fake reviews have harmed the indie writer. Just when “indie” writers were pulling out of the “vanity” stigma of self-publishing, stuff like this pushes them write back in. That’s what it is, right? Vanity publishing – vanity reviews. And Ellory’s actions have harmed the unknown, new writer.

    It’s about honesty. If you don’t think it’s a big deal, well then I have to wonder about your ethics and moral code. The best writers are the ones who bleed honesty. The best fictions, the ones that last, that stand the test of time, are the ones where truth creates a connection. The truth of who we are as human beings. If you have to resort to these tactics, then you do not understand the purpose of fiction nor are you a writer in the truest sense.

  16. I think the sock puppeting reviews is despicable, especially attacking other writers. If you have to gain readers this way, then you’re not a very good writer. Do you see King or Rowland acting in this way? No, you don’t. Let your work speak for itself and real word of mouth will happen.

    To say that a reader “shouldn’t rely on reviews anyway” is a bad excuse for bad behavior. If reviews don’t matter or shouldn’t matter then why do it? Why make fake reviews then? When I see new, unknown author and their book description sounds good, I look at the reviews to determine if I want to spend the money. It’s a mixed a bag. I’ve come across some really horrible books that were reviewed as 5 stars. However, all the fake reviews is what really turns me off from taking the risk again.

    These fake reviews have harmed the indie writer. Just when “indie” writers were pulling out of the “vanity” stigma of self-publishing, stuff like this pushes them write back in. That’s what it is, right? Vanity publishing – vanity reviews. And Ellory’s actions have harmed the unknown, new writer.

    It’s about honesty. If you don’t think it’s a big deal, well then I have to wonder about your ethics and moral code. The best writers are the ones who bleed honesty. The best fictions, the ones that last, that stand the test of time, are the ones where truth creates a connection. The truth of who we are as human beings. If you have to resort to these tactics, then you do not understand the purpose of fiction nor are you a writer in the truest sense.

  17. Tried to edit but double posted. :/ oops

  18. stephen leather is a blatant racist..just read his books and his perceptions of africans..i started reading a book yesterday and through it out after a few pages..never read that racist again..

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