Lamb Chop Hates Your Book

I’m afraid I come from an earlier, more innocent time. When I was young a sock puppet was just that – a puppet made from a sock. Those of a similar vintage might remember Shari Lewis and her sock puppet Lamb Chop, who were very popular for a while on television in the Seventies. It was a perfectly simple and innocent thing.

Those days are long gone, sadly. Shari Lewis died in 1998. Lamb Chop was, after all, only a sock – even though he did testify before Congress – and even the word ‘sockpuppet’ has taken on darker associations.

Wikipedia defines the term as ‘an online identity used for the purposes of deception,’ which I think pretty much covers it, and it’s been much on the minds of online folk recently. It’s a term I’ve been familiar with since my days on LiveJournal. Back then it was used to denote a fake account – or numerous fake accounts – used by trolls to attack or otherwise piss off other users. Those were simpler times.

I think it was William Gibson who said that the Street finds its own use for technology, and so it has been for sockpuppetry. Those early trolls on LJ, monstrous though some of them were, didn’t appreciate the commercial possibilities of what they were doing.

My first awareness of what we might as well call Sockpuppetgate, if it wasn’t such a long word, was the story of Stephen Leather, a best-selling thriller writer, who admitted visiting forums using sockpuppet accounts and bigging up his work.

According to Jeremy Duns, another thriller writer and scourge of plagiarists and bad practice, Leather went further than that, using his sockpuppets to post positive reviews of his work on Amazon, and adversely reviewing his rivals.

The Stephen Leather thing is, as far as I know, still up in the air and I’ll leave it to braver people to comment on it, but Jeremy Duns recently outed another thriller writer who has also used sockpuppet accounts to post glowing reviews of his own work and to diss other writers.

To his credit, RJ Ellory – for it was he, and I have to confess I’d never heard of him – put his hands up and apologised for what, it turned out, was a career of sockpuppeting that had gone on for a decade.

Then the crime writer John Locke admitted to having bought reviews of his books, in a curious echo of those who buy followers on Twitter. Presumably there are positive-review mills out there, just as there are profile farms. As with profile farms, the simple fact that you can buy reviews suggests there is a lucrative market out there, which is worth thinking about.

There’s rather a good roundup of the history and current state of play of this thing here, and sobering reading it makes too.

Anyone who’s crossed paths with Amazon will know that positive reviews will drive up a book’s ranking on the website, making it a little more visible. Similarly, negative reviews will nudge a book’s average ranking down, making it a little less visible. This is why we get bombarded with tweets and Facebook messages to read a self-published author’s book and stick up a review on Amazon. So there is a definite commercial advantage to puffing your book under an assumed name, and heaping opprobrium on a competitor’s.

Amazon seems to have been slow to respond to all of this. It’s not really their fault that some people are venal and deceitful – although they have put in place, probably in all innocence, an environment in which sockpuppets can flourish and manipulate the rankings market – but clearly some means of verifying the identity of whoever posts reviews has to be put in place. And since a fairly chunky percentage of the internet, as I’ve pondered over before, seems to exist behind false names and identities, that might be tricky. Still, the whole thing reflects badly on the way things are set up on Amazon, and it would probably gain them some kudos if they could take this particular bull by the horns.

So far, this particular little storm seems to have been mostly confined to crime writers. That’s almost certainly because Jeremy Duns – and the man can’t do everything, he has books to write and a life of his own – has only looked at writers in his own genre. I can see no reason why this is not happening in science fiction, romance, or any other genre. Quite to what extent is anyone’s guess. The figures so far outed may be the exceptions, or there may be many more sockpuppets out there, duking it out to promote their particular author’s work.

Should we care? Well, yes, I think we should. Going onto an online forum as yourself and telling everyone your work’s the bee’s knees and then having a discussion about it is one thing. Going in as someone – several someones, even – else is different. Buying reviews from people who’ve never read your book is different. Deliberately giving negative reviews to other writers is different. This is not ‘promotion.’ Promotion takes place in the open air and everyone knows it’s going on. This is different. This is underhand and sneaky and, maybe I’m being naive, unprofessional.

And yes, some of you will tell me I am being naive. It’s not a nice world out there, Dave. It’s dog-eat-dog, Dave. We’ve all got to hustle to get ahead, Dave. Get with the programme or wind up as a body at the side of the road, Dave. Well, fuck that.

Writers are not honour-bound to be nice people. It’s not in the job description that you have to be a good person to write a cracking book. Most of them are, though. Most of them behave properly and treat their readers well, and the behaviour of the sockpuppeteers kind of casts a shadow on everyone else. I’m a writer too, though you’d never guess it, and it makes me feel a little grubby, an experience I normally rather enjoy.

There’s a kind of mission statement doing the rounds, signed by a number of writers – some of whom have been the victims of sockpuppets. It’s worth a look.

I’ve said this before, and no doubt I’ll say it again ad nauseam in future. All of this stuff is new. Amazon’s ranking system was set up by people who probably never in their darkest dreams suspected it would be manipulated like this. Sometimes we just can’t predict how the things we create will be used. Sometimes we’re probably better off not knowing.

It’s still a brave new world, the internet, and not everyone in it is real.

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6 thoughts on “Lamb Chop Hates Your Book

  1. I agree with you. It’s all totally wrong. And the point you raise about other genres is a valid one.

    I used to enjoy the (maybe naive) luxury of believing that we all played on a level field. But this business is as liable to corruption as any other field of endeavour, it would seem. And I dislike that intensely. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

    My one consolation is that the writers named so far have already been published and (I’m presuming here) have gone about it in the conventional way, i.e. to be picked and published in the first place. I imagine for their first work, there were no reviews or forum posts. But, yep, I only imagine!

    However, these days, there are lots of internet-writings and ebooks later becoming snapped up by conventional agents and publishers. Is that after a whole mixed-bag of reviews, counter-reviews, forum posts, etc. about the original e-work? Hmm. The whole thing stinks.

    As always, thought provoking stuff. Thanks.

    • It’s really only common sense that it happens in other genres, unless crime and thriller writers are somehow more prone to this kind of behaviour than anyone else. I’d be astounded if there weren’t science fiction writers and romance writers and so on doing something like it.

      As I said, I’d never heard of RJ Ellory, although he is apparently quite a big beast, but I’ve seen Leather’s books in the shops and he certainly pre-dates ebooks.

  2. One thought on Amazon, and I agree it’s certainly not foolproof, but the reviewers are rated on the number of reviews and the number of people who thought highly of the reviews. To me, although perhaps I have too much faith in the human brain, if there were enough people who liked your reviews, they must be real, since it would be hard to fake that many. But then there are those who have so many reviews that I know it’s impossible to have read that many books thoroughly in the time allotted. I can’t recall if, when you look up a reviewer, you can see how many books they gave 5 stars, 4 stars, etc. If the range is there, and distributed fairly well, then I think that helps with credence. Personally, even though I know they are vanity puffs, I tend to go with the authors I like that said they liked it, and with the professional reviewers.
    And I still like Lamb Chop – my youngest had a Lamb Chop small quilt I made her, and a big stuffed one.

    • It is possible to analyse reviews, I think; I believe Jeremy Duns did that when he was investigating Leather and Ellory. I haven’t ever actually looked at reviews on Amazon, so everything I know comes from articles connected to this business. But it looks as if it’s possible to weight them enough to either puff your own work up or do someone else’s down. It’s a bad do, it really is. And I was a huge fan of Lamb Chop. 😉

  3. Hhhh. I can’t tell you for sure as to which writers are doing this in science fiction, but I can tell you that the levels of desperation out there are getting pretty ugly. My first big plant show was at a convention where half of the dealers were selling their POD books, and the stunts were ridiculous even four years ago. I in particular remember one young lady who had about six or seven historical paranormal romances to her credit, all self-published, and she came out in a full costume of her lead protagonist. I was a good boy, and I didn’t cough “MarySue” too often, but I had worries about that costume. She was wearing this insane fluorescent green crinoline gown with corset, and while she may have hoped the corset would attract potential new readers to her table, it had the exact opposite effect. Not only was I worried that she’d put out an eye, but I prepared for the moment I heard a slow leak and turned her toward the door so the resultant explosion took out the hotel windows instead of the dealers’ room. Suffice to say, her outfit did help her sales: she sold exactly one more book than the other POD dealers combined.

    Since then, it’s only gotten worse. My local Barnes & Noble had a manager who set up a “Local Authors” section to sell books on commission: I say “had” because he was fired about a year ago, and the authors in that section invariably were science fiction and fantasy writers. The store has a remainder bin in the back, selling items for as much as 80 percent off, and those books are part of the pile, because the authors keep hoping that someone will buy them. I could laugh and figure that this was an anomaly, except I keep seeing the same thing at conventions and other venues. Hell, I’m seeing craft fairs with POD authors trying to sell their books at them. The only reason I can think that the paid review racket hasn’t gone further into science fiction is because there’s simply no money in it any more; at least mystery books have a good-sized market among mainstream readers, and they stand a better chance of getting noticed by Hollywood. Skiffy writers would rather spend the money normally utilized on this service to buy tickets to WorldCon, where they discover that the whole crowd consists of wannabes trying to get someone else to buy their books. And so it goes.

  4. The point you make about available cash is a good one – so far the thriller writers who have been outed doing this are pretty successful in their own right, and RJ Ellory, for all that I’d never heard of him before, is apparently quite a big beast, so they have money to buy reviews, where as you say a science fiction writer (apart from the very successful ones) might not.

    The thing about sockpuppeting is different, though. It doesn’t cost anything and, so far as I can see, it’s almost as much about trying to cut the legs off competitors as it is about pumping up your own reputation.

    I’d doubt that the big names go in for this kind of thing, but the smaller, more desperate ones might, and the thing is I can see science fiction writers understanding it better and being better at it than the writers in some other genres.

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