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?