Sockpuppet paranoia

4 September 2012

A shit review of one of my books popped up the other day, and while I wasn’t chuffed about it and a few seamanlike expletives were let fall, not least because this was one of those reviews that appears under a soubriquet and not the reviewer’s own name, it didn’t occur to me to start sticking pins in a wax effigy.

Call it sockpuppet paranoia if you will, but I did immediately check through that reviewer’s other reviews to convince myself that this was a genuine shit review, as opposed to a malicious one.

Anyway, I’m satisfied that whatever her/his real name may be, s/he is a genuine reviewer, albeit a fairly hard-to-please character, quite possibly the sort of grouchy old sod I’d probably get on well with if we were to meet. I can’t complain too hard. This person actually bought the book and put a few pennies in my pocket in the process. S/he has every right to an opinion and to voice it freely. It’s simply the anonymous part of it that smacks of bad manners and it’s that anonymity that has made the whole of this sockpuppetgate mess possible.

Maybe I’m flattering myself in thinking that as an obscure writer one of my peers might take the trouble to give me not many unflattering stars, but it’s something we’re all wide open to.
New life was breathed into Sockpuppetgate after a respected and generally well-liked crime author was caught puffing his own books and dishing out scathing reviews of his rivals’ work on Amazon. I’m not going into names here. It’s all over the newspapers if you want to find out who they are.

What sticks out like a sore thumb is that many of these sockpuppet reviews appear to be fairly transparent and easily tracked down once you know where to look. Maybe the sockpuppeteers never imagined that anyone would be tenacious enough to read the small print?

Crimewriters create criminal masterminds and give our sleuths endless grief tracking down the perpetrators of our imagined crimes, yet when it comes to a little genuine skullduggery, gaping holes and stupid, clumsy mistakes in confusing which persona belonged to which accounts were what allowed the dots to be painstakingly joined. You would honestly have thought that crimewriters of all people would be able to do this kind of stuff better.

The bizarre aspects of all this are that review systems on Amazon and elsewhere are wide open to abuse, as demonstrated by the way one brand-new author was able to buy a stack of gushing reviews to propel him into megasales and others have been dishing out glowing reviews of their own work using contrived and apparently fairly transparent fake identities. Why would anybody have thought that this wouldn’t happen? Puffing your own work is one thing, but the even less palatable side to this is that it appears some of those concerned have rubbished books by their peers, and in extreme instances pursued those who have given them poor reviews.

It’s not as if this is new. An academic writer was caught on the hop several years ago doing just this, did his best to wriggle out of it, was found out and had to make an apology to the writer whose work he had slated under an assumed name.

What has taken us by surprise is that crime writers are a friendly, affable crowd who tend not to take themselves too seriously. The bar at a hotel where a crimewriting convention is taking place can be a joyous and raucous place. These people are a bunch of fun. That’s one reason why the sockpuppeting admission in public by a highly successful one of our number has been something of a kick in the goolies.

This was followed by a bunch of further revelations by Jeremy Duns, Steve Mosby and others, showing that crimewriters aren’t immune to petty, small-minded nastiness any more than the rest of the human race is. I suppose it would have been naive to imagine that it could have been any other way, although it seems clear enough that sockpuppeting is by no means limited to the crime genre.

As a relatively new writer who doesn’t attract a great many reviews and with a blog that hardly anyone reads, it does smart a bit to get a snooty five-line, two-star review posted by someone who’s having a bad day. This isn’t so much because I’m concerned about the opinions of someone who can’t get on with Sjöwall & Wahlöo either, as Amazon delivered my new rhino hide (4 stars) last week, but because it has a direct impact on how many people are likely to buy the book. But, hell, that’s all part of the rough-and-tumble.

...and now I’ve spent a precious hour blogging about sockpuppeting when I should have been working on my next book. The deadline has already passed and my gracious editor has given me a brief extension to get the draft of the book finished. So why the hell have a I spent an hour on this?

What I’d really like to know is how the hell these dedicated sockpuppeteers find the hours to lurk on Amazon and elsewhere doing all this stuff, and still crank out novels and short stories, sign books for their fans, write blogs, attend conventions and all the rest of it.

Answers on a postcard, please.

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