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.)