Monday, 3 September 2012

When Is A Sock Not A Sock? - Tamsyn Murray

Socks: Not just for feet?
Unless you've been living under a rock (or an impending deadline), you probably know about the latest scandal to hit the publishing world: sock puppets. Not the innocent, Sid the Snake variety but the name given to alter-egos used anonymously online, in this case by authors (and their friends and relations) to bump up the number of cracking reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. The use of sock puppets by writers has become big news recently and the process goes something like this:

1) Create a bogus account on the site of your choice, preferably using a name which people will not link back to you. I expect you will need to place at least one order on Amazon as you can't write reviews otherwise, but that's hardly a problem in these days of 99p ebooks, is it?

2) Write a five star review of your book using this account: 'This is a masterpiece, like Stephen King only better, everyone should read this book, it changed my life' etc. (You could write a four star review if you wanted, to try to alleviate suspicion, but why risk bringing down your average?)

3) Get your family and friends to do the same, using real or pretend accounts depending on whether they can be linked back to you.

4) Repeat for every book you have written.

5) Quote these glowing reviews on Twitter, Facebook, your blog and anywhere else you think people might conceivably see them.

6) Start to believe your own hype.

Now, I'm not advocating any of that but I can kind of see how an author might be fooled into sticking their hand up a sock's bottom and wiggling it around a bit in the name of creating a buzz. Times are tough, sales might be hard to come by and word of mouth has to be kick-started somehow. What's the harm in adding a fake review here or there? Your work is worth it, right?

Wrong. In adding even one bogus review, an author devalues the whole user review system. Readers won't be able to tell which reviews are genuine and which aren't, so will discount the whole lot. In fact, some readers are already doing that, which is a real shame because the majority of reviews are genuine and honest, if not always flattering. Speaking personally, I wouldn't feel the same if I knew a percentage of the comments about my books were a lie (whether I manufactured them myself or not) - I'd feel like a fraud. But obviously not all authors feel like that or sock puppet accounts wouldn't exist for that purpose, and businesses built on the idea wouldn't be making money.

Some authors don't stop at writing their own reviews, though. For the dedicated sock puppeteer, there are extra steps you can take to ensure your books are well regarded. These are:

7) Look up the novels of your contemporaries. Give them one star reviews.

8) Pursue online reviewers who have dared to disparage your books. Question their credentials to hold an opinion and, while you're at it, their intelligence. Locate their other reviews and do your best to discredit those. Show them who the superior human being is.

9) Join online forums and talk about other writers in an unflattering way.

I wish I was making this up - sadly, all of the above has actually been done. I'm not going to name and shame anyone here (and it's not anyone from children's publishing, as far as I know) but if you want to know more, you could look up @jeremyduns on Twitter and follow the story there. The CWA has issued a statement about it and I expect more professional writing associations will do the same. Because it's bad enough that people are faking reviews, but panning other writers? Authors know how much an awful review stings - why selfishly inflict that on someone else?

I can't quite believe I'm writing this but it seems some people have forgotten the rules where reviews are concerned. So here's a reminder:

1) Never respond to a negative review (this goes for friends and family members too. Just don't do it)
2) Don't make up your own (Duh)
3) Don't write awful reviews of your peers' novels (Double duh)

But I don't need to tell you that, right?

No sock puppets were harmed in the making of this blog post


JO said...

There is, thankfully, a wave of criticism of this practice. It won't, of course, stop it happening, but it might make one or two culprits think twice about whether do embark on a life of sock puppetry.

Gillian Philip said...

So right, Tamsyn - this whole scandal leaves me furious, because online reviews are one of the few places many authors can get exposure and reader reaction. This, as you say, devalues ALL online reviews. And I am happy to name and shame, because the most shocking name to come up is in many of the papers this morning - and not only does he have no need of online publicity, since he's been on the Richard & Judy Book Club list; he's also sold millions. It's RJ Ellory, and his behaviour is sickening.

Liz Kessler said...

Stunning. Shocking. Depressing. But the one saving grace is that it confirms what I've always thought - that at least children's authors are in general a lovely bunch and don't get involved in horrible, negative, competitive nonsense like this!

R F Long said...

Wow, clearly I was under a rock. Well, on holidays anyway. Wow!

Clearly and succinctly put. The negativity of it all just reeks.

Think I might go and find my rock again.

Penny Dolan said...

Timely post. The amazon review can be a good thing but not when it's used as disgracefully as this.

While I can understand wanting to praise your own books - a couple of dim reviews can really lower the star rating - I can't imagine taking time to write bad reviews of other people's books. (Have not done either of the above, I hasten to add.)

Too much drink taken too late at night perhaps? And as for a crime novelist not thinking he'd be found out someday? Doesn't say much for his plotting skills.

Tam said...

Jo - I hope so.

Gillian - The Telegraph 'apology' broke last night after I'd written this and I didn't have time to revise the post. Thanks for naming Mr Ellory!

Liz - yes, v grateful it's not in our manor...

Ruth - might join you under there :)

Penny - especially after the apology was issued last night. The negative reviews and sniping about other writers is the worst part. And it wasn't an isolated thing but repeated over a period of time so drink and late nights can't take all the blame.

adele said...

I agree with all this! And the apology is wonderful, isn't it? All should be well now and forgiven now should it? DOH!

Lynne Garner said...

Last year one of my picture books that was turned into an app had the most horrendous review. After a little delving I discovered the books the reviewer were saying were better than mine were his own. I made a complaint saying this was marketing but was told this was obviously his view and he was entitled to his views. Although tempted to do the same I kept my socks on my feet and that's where they'll stay.

Tam said...

Adele - the apology was vague at best, and didn't do anything to address the wrongs done to fellow authors. Too little, too late, I'm afraid!

Lynne - I bet you were tempted but, as you say, socks are for toesies (and, in the absence of gloves, hands)...

Helen Hollick said...

I've been on the receiving end of the smelly sock people. Easy to say things like 'don't worry about it', 'ignore them' etc - but harder to do because the nastiness bites.
The _good_ thing to it all - the lovely people who then show support.

Sadly there is nothing we can do about these people - except wait for their own novel to appear and then...... ignore it.

Tam said...

Helen - Yes, it does sting and it is horrible. Have you seen what's happening to Debi Gliori on Amazon over her forthcoming Tobermory Cat book? The forum comments are clearly all written by mad people and it's easy to laugh but at the same time it's awful. I have been so tempted to adda comment myself.

JaneGS said...

Karma will win in the end. It's amazing you have to remind people of this!

CharlotteC said...

I had honestly never heard of this until this weekend when I have heard one horrible story after another. It baffles me why someone would go to all bother to write something nasty? I run a writers group, and go to writers events so I'm use to my fair share of nuts. But the fact that they can do it 'secretly' is off putting.

Chrissy Grissom said...

As an avid reader, I routinely only take note of a professional review. Personal anedotal reviews of enjoyment for a book/author are a pleasure to read, but as someone wise once told me, "There is no accounting for taste(s);" in other words, an opinion is just that: an opinion. A reputable, professional reviewer influences me much more, and a recommendation by a friend to read a book because they believe I would enjoy the book. I, also, think that with the proliferation of the indie author that sock puppet practices may well increase proportionately as the indie movement in publications increases.

Tam said...

Jane - Maybe but it would be nice if was goes around came around more quickly sometimes!

Charlotte - It's an insecurity thing, I suppose?

Chrissy - Professional reviews are harder to come by than unicorns for most of us, sadly. You may have a point about indie authors - with more authors clamouring for attention, it's the ones who shout loudest who will be heard. As with traditional publishing, most writers won't cheat but some will.

Tam said...

*what goes around*