Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for May: (5/4) Linda Norlander, (5/11) Connie Berry, (5/18) Mary Keliikoa, (5/22) Annette Dashofy, and (5/25) Rosalie Spielman.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sock Puppets, Fake Controversies, Pretend Reviews, and Using Readers as Editors

Once again, I’m using Writers Who Kill to help me think my way through a wild situation in publishing. I doubt if anyone reading this attended the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate since it’s in the UK. (I would dearly love a chance to attend it one of these days!) This whole mess of worms (or snakes) came out at that conference and has been widening on the internet. That’s the reason I know about it. I follow several great British thriller writers on Twitter. And they’ve only risen in my estimation because they’ve taken on this mess and tried to get one of their peers to stop doing these bad behaviors and others to stop ignoring and allowing him. Not surprisingly, Jeremy Duns, who exposed Quentin Rowe’s plagiarism and other instances where authors have stolen the work of other writers and passed it off as their own, has led the charge on this, along with another fine British writer, Steve Mosby, who was a member of the controversial panel.

Stephen Leather is one of the UK’s top-selling writers. Sitting on a panel about e-publishing during Theakston, he publicly stated that he has many sock puppet (i.e., fake and disguised) email and Twitter accounts that he uses to give great reviews to his books on Amazon and Goodreads and rotten reviews to those he deems competition or whose authors he simply dislikes. He bragged about using the accounts to attack himself and other accounts to defend himself on Amazon, Goodreads, and Kindle discussion boards in order to create fake controversies that will get readers to buy his books out of curiosity. When another author panelist said he couldn’t put out work as fast as Leather does because of the need for quality writing and editing, Leather remarked that he doesn’t worry about that—he uses his readers as editors. If enough of them notify him about a problem, he apparently fixes it sometime in the future. Here’s the link to an initial account of the panel by another panelist.

A number of authors have taken issue with these behaviors, led by Duns and writers from the UK. The use of sock puppet accounts alone (on an apparently large scale) damages the effectiveness of Amazon and Goodreads reviews. If one major-trade-published and self-published bestselling author does this, it leads one to wonder how many others are also doing it, perhaps on a smaller scale—since Leather’s scale of this activity is vast. How can any review be trusted? How can any discussion on any book discussion board be taken seriously? And apparently, Leather also uses these fake accounts to cyber-bully (much less successful) authors he dislikes for some reason.

Then there’s the matter of putting out work you know is not ready for publication with the expectation that the readers who buy it (thinking this has been professionally written and edited) are responsible for editing it. This is something that’s actually fairly common with some self-published writers, though without the shameless openness about it. (Please, self-pubbed readers, take note of the qualifiers in that sentence!) What does this do to the whole market for books, especially e-books? It seems to me that it causes the most harm to those self-published writers who have been professional and paid (with money or time) to have their books edited in order to give their readers the best possible experiences. It’s not going to cause readers to avoid trade-published books where that’s not a major issue, but it may well cause them to avoid self-pubbed books after having been burned too often. And that’s not fair to the many self-published writers who invest in putting out a professional-quality book.

I guess what bothers me is that there’s a fundamental dishonesty about all of these behaviors—tricking readers with false reviews and fake controversies, as well as tricking them into thinking they’re paying good money for a professionally written and edited book. I also think it contributes to the reason so many sales and review outlets still won’t accept self-pubbed books. If you do, you open yourself to a flood of books that include a fair number of these kinds with little or no way to tell one from the other without taking a great deal of time and trouble. The easiest way is to simply say “no self-published books.”

What do you think, readers? Is this, as Stephen Leather says, a tempest in a teapot, or are these serious issues with consequences for the industry, or at least the self-published part of the industry?

(NOTE: I use “self-published” rather than “independently published” because I come out of literary publishing—my husband still works in that field—where an independent publisher has long been a small press that does not publish the work of the publisher.)


E. B. Davis said...

I'm not shocked. Con men have always been around. From what you've described, Mr. Leather creates real-world controversy to promote his fiction. He'd be a terrific guest for Ricki Lake, but then--it's no longer on the air--maybe for a reason.

What I think you find unsettling is his deceit and manipulation of the very people, his readers, who buy his books. We can only hope they tire of his deceptive tactics and stop buying his books.

If he spent his time on craft, he would have no need of yellow promotion. Why buy a beta book when there are so many other talented writers to choose from?

Linda Rodriguez said...

Elaine, you've nailed it perfectly. It's the con aspect and the lack of respect for the very readers who have made him successful that I find so troubling.

I admire Jeremy and Steve for taking him on. They've nothing to gain by it and a great deal to lose. But they believe he violates that writer-reader contract.

I guess it's like the GR bullies affair I posted a while back. I think it causes harm for all writers when some do these kinds of things.

Leah said...

The easiest way is to simply say “no self-published books.”

It is rarely a good idea to write off an entire group because of a few bad apples.

Leather is certainly a cretin, but there are hundreds of thousands of self-published authors who aren't. Some of them are even as successful as Leather.

I'm disheartened that some are couching these problems in terms of the means of publishing. Are Leather's sins unique to self-publishing in some way? No; traditionally published authors can do and have done the same things he's accused of doing (sock puppeting, harassing reviewers, etc.). See the recent Goodreads/YA author drama.

I don't believe it's productive to frame this as a self-publishing problem. It's a problem with authors behaving badly, period.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Leah, I was not prescribing the "no self-published authors" rule. I was simply noting that it exists and that this kind of behavior feeds into and supports that mindset.

As I did point out, it's hardly fair to the many self-published authors who behave professionally and who invest their efforts, time, and money in offering the public well-written, well-edited, professionally produced books.

Warren Bull said...

I agree with all three comments and Linda was clearly limiting her remarks to SOME authors who are behaving badly. I also read the initial blogs and the behavior described hurts the credibility of all authors.

There is no "Angie's List" for books. All the major review sites are open to easy manipulation. Amazon is slow to remove books that have been totally plagiarized and the original author has to seek remedies by himself/herself.

One of the purposes of WWK is to offer reviews and interviews without a hidden agenda. LInda does that too her her various blogs. Thanks to WWK members who have done that for me. I know of others who do the same.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Thanks, Warren. I understand where Leah's coming from, though. You're right. This behavior hurts ALL authors, but it hurts self-published authors first and worst. It's not fair, but it's reality. I have a lot of friends who are self-published and who have worked hard to make their books as good and professional as possible because they respect their readers. I hate to see anything that tosses more tinder on that fire.

Also, I wanted to bring this up because I only learned about it because I follow these British writers. I know lots of folks aren't on Twitter or wouldn't necessarily follow these authors--though you should because they're both awesome writers, as well as guys who have a sense of community and integrity.

As Leah pointed out, Leather is just maybe the most egregious right now about doing this. Jeremy and Steve make an excellent point, though, when they say if a writer of his stature does it and is so openly contemptuous, may it not lead less-experienced and less-knowledgeable writers to follow suit, thinking it's okay?

Gloria Alden said...

What upsets me the most is the total dishonesty in his actions and not for a moment does he seem to regret his actions. I know over the years there have been writers, many well-known ones, in fact, who have been snarky about other writers, but this seems to be a new low.

I hope that self-publishing doesn't go back to the much maligned days of vanity presses when it's a welcome venue for many of us now that many presses are going out of business making it harder and harder to be accepted.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Gloria, this is why I think it's important for us to talk about this. I'm traditionally published, as are Jeremy and Steve in the UK, but any trad-pubbed (is that really a word?)author knows that s/he could be dropped at any time down the road. Most of us have been watching the self-publishing revolution, have friends self-publishing, and always have it in the back of our minds that we may need in the future to go down that trail others are blazing.

We all have a vested interest in seeing that self-publishing is able to retain and increase the respect it's been gaining. As Leah pointed out, traditional authors have engaged in some of these behaviors, just not to this extent. And I remind you, Leather is both traditionally published with a big publisher in the UK, as well as self-pubbed.

I have no answers, but I wanted our readership, which includes a lot of Guppies, to know about this controversy going on in the publishing world. All of us are most successful when we're aware of what's going on.

And I'm grateful to Jeremy Duns and Steve Mosby for taking this on. Jeremy was the guy who blew the whistle on Quentin Rowe's plagiarism and has fought many rewardless battles to try to right other cases of plagiarism, none of which affected him and which brought him some nasty hits. I appreciate someone who takes his larger success and ability to draw attention to some problem and uses it for the good of the whole community.

Linda Rodriguez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Jackson said...


Thanks for this post. I've waited to leave my reply until I had some time to think carefully about the issues you raise.

Con men and women have and will always be with us, so this latest controversy surrounding e-publishing does not surprise nor anger me. Self-publishing is just the current target for get-rich(er) schemes.

In the Autobiography of Daniel Drew (a cheating financier in the mid 1800s) he chortles about how he learned to water his stock (cattle) before selling them at market. Later he went on to water corporate stock by selling fictitious shares in legitimate companies.

At his peak, he was a director of the Erie Railroad and worth many millions (back when a million was real money.) However, as he had done to others, others did to him and bankrupted him. He ended life living on the charity of his son.

I relate this because liars and cheaters have always been with us. Daniel Drew caused many people to lose money.

Mark Twain self-published Huckleberry Finn. (Oh yes, and his sales rocketed when the work was banned in by a library in Massachusetts.) My great-great-great grandfather James Caleb Jackson self-published. (He was a physician and inventor of the first "ready to eat" breakfast cereal, Granula.)

I don't know Twain's reason, and I suspect my ancestor's was because he was a control freak and very opinionated (but that's just a guess.)

Despite many quality self-published books, most through time have been less than stellar. The only thing that has changed in today's market is the reach of self-promotion.

I don't think the antics of Mr. Leather detract a whit from a quality self-publication. Assuming all the accusations are true, he is blatant in his abuse, as was Daniel Drew in his day. He's made his choice on how to live his life. Each of us has to make our own choices based on our moral code.

Mr. Leather probably lives by the philosophy that any publicity is good publicity. From a dollars and cents standpoint, he may well be right. However, I doubt that those who read his books because of his notoriety were likely to read my books regardless of how well I wrote them and what reviewers may say about them. He is not a competitor to me; we are after different markets.

Furthermore, he is not making self-publishing any less respectable; hundreds of thousands of poorly written, poorly edited, poorly produced books did that job years and years ago, long before the current flood.

Anyone who chooses to self-publish and does not already have an established audience, does so knowing they have chosen to climb a steep hill to success.

Those who plagiarize must be outed. Those who employ deceptive tactics should be outed when discovered in the same way urban myths are exposed.

However, I'm afraid when I compare the sins Mr. Leather is accused of to the scope of other crimes -- like those financial antics that nearly took down the world's economy -- his pale in comparison.

Perhaps I'm old and jaded. I certainly hope those who engage in the type of practices described get a comeuppance in the end, as did Daniel Drew. However, to be honest, I don't spend much time worrying about their antics and I don't think it affects my writing.

~ Jim

E. B. Davis said...

I don't think that this issue has anything to do with self-pubbed and trad-pubbed (LOL!). Any overzealous author could degenerate to these behaviors. I think the guy as a loose screw and must not have a life. He's pitiable. We can't condone his behavior especially since he's already a well-read author. What is his point? Other than he has a loose screw.

Thanks for bringing this problem to our attention, Linda. I wasn't aware of it. But then, I don't have time to do social media promotion. I'm writing, blogging, interviewing and researching. Perhaps he should go back to the beginning and take a clue from a newbie.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Nice breath of fresh air, Jim!

And of course, it's true that this is nothing compared to the financial scams that brought down our economy and bankrupted millions of families. That is, though, kind of like saying why worry about someone stealing a TV or raping someone when the financiers have stolen and raped the whole country. All true, according to scale, but people have been hurt by the individual theft or rape also.

He has used these sock puppet accounts to attack other writers who displeased him in some way (ones who didn't have his success), and I do find that repulsive. I agree that there's not much anyone can do about it, except to let people know, so they'll be aware.

As you noted, self-publishing has a long illustrious history in literature and a long tarnished history in literature, and they run side by side. I guess when folks self-publish they choose which side to join.