Blog Post

Wait a minute, are “sock puppets” really that bad for the book business?

The outing of best-selling authors Stephen Leather and RJ Ellory for their use of sock puppets to boost their own reviews on Amazon (s AMZN) has generated a storm of controversy, personal apologies — and even organized protests from writers who hate the idea that somebody would unfairly boost their own rankings.

Laura’s done a great overview of what happened, and how. But here’s another question: is the reaction — which, like many episodes of Twitter-fuelled outrage, has degenerated into a pile-on — overblown?

I had a chat last night with my friend Naomi Alderman, who’s a published author, and made the argument that the reaction we’ve seen is disproportionate to the crime committed.

Anonymity shouldn’t be a shield for anyone, she said, but the reality is that sock puppetry doesn’t really work. Rather than some big commercial conspiracy to fool the public into buying crappy books, it’s really just evidence of an author’s sad desire to be loved. And if you see sock puppetry as a pathetic activity, the mob reaction — pitchforks and all — actually ends up causing more damage than the initial offense ever could have done.

More to the point, though, she explained that there are all kinds of tricks and techniques used by the publishing industry to manipulate the metrics.

Bag of tricks

Offline, for example, some book store chain charge large publishers for the right to have their books listed as “staff picks” in store. Online, meanwhile, aside from sockpuppets, there are plenty of incidents where authors routinely buy hundreds of copies of their own book in order to bump up the Amazon chart placing before canceling the order.

And that’s just publishing.

Look at the world beyond books, and it’s everywhere: you have surreptitious (or sometimes bold) product placement on TV and in movies, bloggers getting paid by giant corporations to advance their interests; politicians (and others) buying fake Twitter followers to make themselves look more important; and no doubt there will be many cases of astroturfing during the U.S. elections.

Basically, there’s a whole world of people gaming the system — and sock puppets may in some way be the least terrible.

I have some sympathy with that view, but I disagreed with the idea that somebody who cynically tried to abuse the system and then got attacked by the mob should be given a pass. There may be bigger miscreants out there, but all these things seem pretty below the belt to me, so surely we should take a line against them all? It’s time consuming to ride on your moral high horse that much, but what other option do we have?

But, as we discussed it more, I realized that I’m pretty hardline.

To me, anybody who deliberately misrepresents themselves to somebody else for personal gain — whether that’s taking on a fake identity to boost your own ratings, secretly buying access or exposure, or fluffing up your own apparent popularity — is wrong. Sometimes it can even be illegal.

So who’s right? What other tricks should we be aware of as consumers? And where do you draw the line?

5 Responses to “Wait a minute, are “sock puppets” really that bad for the book business?”

  1. On freelance job sites like Freelancer, I routinely come across vendor requests for 1000 Facebook likes, Web Page Comments, 5 star Product reviews by online sellers, even forum reviews and comments to be done in a day from different accounts using different ISP. I may have missed the author-vendors, who knows, (The dark underbelly of freelancing). And, the requests are usually by American vendors – makes sense. Kind of a big turn off, since I went looking for honest work.
    The point I am trying to make is, if you pay a price, some desperate guy/girl will do the job for you. So , there will be authors who use sleaze ball tactics to get book sales, but they get caught eventually, unlike the others above who enjoy complete anonymity behind a profile name.
    As a reader and reviewer who came to Amazon, like an awed child dropped into to the biggest toy store, I have been fooled by such reviews…but, have learnt to sort the chaff from the grain. For a new/unknown author I check the detailed three stars reviews and the occasional 2 and 4 stars. They paint an accurate picture more often than not, especially verified purchasers and book reviewers.
    I love paperbacks but the production houses have made my favourite authors expensive and often beyond my reach, that I make do with ebooks by middle list and newbie authors for purchases.

  2. 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 Baldacci 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…

  3. Yeah…I’m sorry, just because everyone around you is speeding doesn’t get you out the ticket.

    I don’t care if it is a book, CD, or any other product, if you try to game the system and I find out about it, I will not support you in any way going forward.

  4. Donna Lynn Melton

    Well, my 2 cents, welcome to free inter-prize. The last time you walked down an isle at your favorite grocery store, those items that met you straight on, eye to eye are charged accordingly. Those pristine shelves have special pricing to be placed there. Bottom shelves that are easily grabbed by younger consumers are also higher priced. I think its a matter of personal honor. The stuff that character is made from and reputation is built. We will always have those who care about their own reputation and honor and those who don’t. Do we need more regulations in a world that already has more than enough? In a world that these regulations have been chiseling away at the very meaning of freedom and free inter-prize for way too long.

  5. Valentine North

    I read about one book every two days. When I visit a website to buy something, I already know what I want. If something catches my eyes, then reading the short description and a few paragraphs are usually enough to tell me if I want to read it or not.

    Sure, I look at what other people post, but honestly, I don’t take them seriously. What I like, others may hate, and the other way around.

    So, unless the sock puppets lie about the book contents, it doesn’t seem that important.

    However, the americans have a saying that applies very well to this scenario, any publicity is good publicity. It’s actually funny, but I don’t really care about the authors morals, only their books, if those two mentioned in the article wrote something in the genres I liked, then I might have bought a book or two, simply out of curiosity or just because they seemed interesting.

    Oh, don’t judge the contents by the wording, English is not my native language, and there are bound to be some serious mistakes.