I’ve been under something of an internet rock the past week (school holidays for Aidan, etc.) and even I’ve not missed the recent additions to the titular caper. I’d assume if you know the book world you’re up to speed, but to assume makes an ass, famously, of both of us. So, in summary, and from memory so forgive any omissions and some patchy linkage:
- Big sales, big e-penis writer Stephen Leather made a passing admission at this year’s Harrogate festival (link is a BBC R4 taping of the panel in question; 26 mins in comes the exchange in question) that he uses a bunch of fake identities (that’s ‘sock puppets’ in digital computerspeak like the kids use) to promote his own work and create ‘buzz’, spending ages having conversations with himself in different guises.
- Writer and digger of details Jeremy Duns then uncovered the apparently public - though little known in the world outside the Amazon forums - information that Leather had spent ages bullying another writer online who’d dared criticise his blatant and seemingly well-known tendency to do this. Leather responded to criticism of his Harrogate remarks and post-Harrogate revelations by being a dick to those concerned.
- Somewhere in the mix it also emerged that Leather had a sort of fan network who were prone to giving him good reviews and generally bigging up his work online in return for the occasional pat on the head. One of these - a writer of a massive amount of daddy-daughter incest erotica, no less - then started a rather poor attempt on Facebook to spread the story that Duns and Steve Mosby had been bad-mouthing Leather unfairly on Smashwords (patently untrue; Smashwords’ few reviews for Leather’s stories were glowingly positive). Whether he did this off his own back or not is irrelevant really; it speaks to the weird cult-like following that the most peculiar of writers can gather.
- Around then, the NYT ran an article profiling the work of a man who ran a very successful business selling 4- and 5-star reviews on Amazon, often in bulk. One of his customers had been big sales, undetermined e-penis writer John Locke. Locke had the cough decency cough apparently to ask him to instruct reviewers that they didn’t need to give positive reviews, but that they should be truthful. Oh, and to make sure they bought the books they were reviewing if they could, because a ‘verified purchase’ label looks that much more reliable.
- Word also started to get around of writers deliberately giving rivals poor reviews while praising their own stuff. Duns had previously revealed that big guns ‘n terrorists writer Matt Lynn had a habit of doing this, even going so far as to stiff his own former ghost writers when they launched their own stuff. “Not as good as Matt Lynn”, indeed.
- Jeremy Duns was suspended repeatedly from Twitter. Both he and Steve Mosby started getting down votes on good reviews of their books. Both also featured in Leather’s horribly bad “Inspector Zhang Goes To Harrogate” short story, alongside himself as a best-selling and massively-penised (I assume) thriller writer. The story was pulled from Amazon (by them or by Leather, though I suspect the latter because Amazon so far have shown no inclination to do anything about people gaming their review system) shortly after a one-star review drew a bucket of “OMG YOU DON’T KNOW SHIT LEATHER IS THE BEST EVAH” responses. UPDATE: Yes, by Leather. Apparently a single 1* review is "trolling". How very fucking pathetic. Now he’ll relist it anew, minus its old reviews.
- Duns subsequently demonstrated that bazillion-selling writer RJ Ellory has rather brazenly been not only reviewing his own books under the Amazon username ‘Nicodemus Jones’ and probably others, but one-starring others by rival authors - Mark Billingham, Stuart MacBride, et al.. Ellory at least used to sign his Amazon forum posts under the NJ name “Roger”, but mysteriously didn’t decide to do so with his reviews on the actual “buy this/don’t buy this” part of the site.
- The CWA became the first professional body to take a stance on the issue, which even if a bit late is certainly welcome.
- Other online book reviewers, feeling sullied by all the suspicion over reviews, have been thinking about stopping, not wanting to be thought of as shills for wankers.
I’m missing some of the other stuff out, but they’re the main features of the bizarre saga.
So, Amazon’s review system is massively open to abuse. This isn’t new - it’s marginally less open now than it used to be in the days of ‘A Customer’ reviews; at least now you have to tie an account to a credit card, even if there seems to be no limit to the numbers you can tie to each one. It’s also always been prone to (genuine) lousy reviews, particularly for products, most especially computer games, that are months from actual release and are only listed for pre-order. This is because people are idiots.
Amazon could go some way to filling the holes by at least requiring purchase of the product being reviewed, but as we’ve seen with John Locke, that still won’t necessarily mean squat. And do purchases still count, and the reviews remain live, if an item - like an ebook - is returned under their 7 day limit, I wonder?
I very much doubt they will, but I’ll happily eat my words if they find some way to do it. It’s small potatoes, relatively, for them. Ebay (mostly) nailed this early on, but I think Amazon would find it harder to change after such a long time of ignoring it. And yes, their lenience has given rise to great spoof reviews on things like prints of Paul Ross sitting at a table.
It also won’t do anything to stop writers slating one another’s work on places like Goodreads, which I’ve always found at the best of times a poorly-emulsified mix of a tea-and-cake-fuelled book club for lovely people and a nest of pit vipers with anger management issues. (I don’t have an account there, and my experience could be way off.)
Many people have pointed out that the whole online review business is shitty anyway, with people prone to one-starring something because the postman delivers it late or they’ve got a headache, or five-starring any old shit because they love the creator(s) and want to make sweaty sexytimes with them. YouTube used to have star ratings on its videos until its people realised most viewers either LOVED or HATED everything and very little in between. They did away with the stars and switched to the simple thumbs up/thumbs down system we know today. Amazon moved towards this not so long ago when it added “likes” to items. A “likes” system that is even more open to abuse (since it’s anonymous), and just as abused, as the review system.
Some people say faking reviews/buying reviews is no different to advertising and what’s the big deal? These people are fucking idiots. If they’d said it’s no different to companies trying to get their press releases nigh-unchanged into newspapers so they appear to be something other than the adverts they are, they’d be partially right. Adverts are - with few, equally shitty exceptions - clearly adverts made by the people who make the product. Fake reviews are apparently written by genuine customers like you who think “OMG this thing is soooo good everyone should have it NOW”.
Look at it this way: you can say to your neighbours, “Hey, I’ve made this thing. I took out an ad in the local paper/on Facebook/somewhere and maybe it’ll sell a few, huh?” without looking like a total jerk - your hideous social skills aside. You can’t say, “Hey, I paid some people to give my thing fake good reviews on Amazon and make people think it’s awesome and I’m great. How trustworthy am I?” and look good. Not unless your neighbours are politicians.
Others wonder if it’s the same as writing a thing and then asking family and friends if they wouldn’t mind - if they like it - popping a few words up on Amazon. And yes, at root largely it is. But unless you have a vast family, it’s on a whole different scale. If you ask them to do it under false names so no one will realise you’re related, well now you’re getting warmer.
Others wonder if there’s any point bothering with it since it’s so obvious the system’s shit anyway. On the one hand, it is. On the other hand, why bother getting out of bed? Jesus. Why bother commenting to say you can’t be bothered, come to that? Weirdo.
A few apparently want to fight fire with fire and rampantly review the shit out of offenders. These people, as Chuck Wendig points out, are wrong.
And there’s the ‘identity’ thing. Most of us, online, are accustomed to being known by usernames or handles rather than, necessarily, our real ones. And that’s cool (I am, as you may have noticed, various iterations of ‘Nameless Horror’ and ‘dangerousape’ (where NH is taken already) all over the place, and I’ve got two ‘proper’ names to use as well). If Ellory was writing as Nicodemus Jones in the Amazon forums and in his reviews, that’s great - so long as he was making it clear that he was the author of the books being reviewed (which you wouldn’t do unless you were MAD, but whatever). It’d be fine to give bad reviews to other people under his handle if (a) they were actually genuine and not attempts to spike sales and (b) he used that handle only on Amazon, no others, no extras. (It’s the extras - for those who don’t know - which are sock puppets.)
Similarly, if you review books - or movies, or games, or prints of Paul Ross - online, it doesn’t matter whether you use your real name or your chosen handle, so long as (a) and (b) hold good, you’re doing just fine. Apparently honest reviews are in short supply, so get cracking.
I write occasional reviews here. Only, usually, for stuff I’ve liked because I have to work with these people and you don’t, generally, shit where you sleep, no? Also, generally, as most rejection letters say - this is a subjective industry and what one person hates, another will like. So stuff I’ve not liked in the media I have to earn a crust at, I don’t talk about so much unless the creator is stratospherically successful and I am but a gnat beneath them. I’m just fine with that. I’m very easy to reach if someone takes issue with it, and that’s cool with me.
- If you paid for phoney customer reviews to make yourself look good or others look bad, you’re a dick.
- If you wrote glowing reviews of your own stuff, or set out to shaft people you perceived as your rivals, you’re a dick.
- If you treat a filtering system supposedly designed to allow regular folk to make informed decisions about their purchasing choices as your own personal willy-waving zone, you’re a dick.
- If you don’t think acting like a basic, decent, honest human being matters because it’s all just business, innit, you’re a dick.
- If you don’t think acting like a basic, decent, honest human being matters because it’s all online and not real, innit, you’re a dick.
I am sure the CWA and the SOA and other groups will create codes of conduct and all the rest to ensure that their members keep their baser instincts in check. The people who do the dickish things above will completely ignore them. Because they’re dicks.
UPDATE: Add Sam Millar to the list of bell ends.
BONUS: Ellory has ‘apologised’.
"The recent reviews – both positive and negative – that have been posted on my amazon accounts are my responsibility and my responsibility alone," he said.
"I wholeheartedly regret the lapse of judgment that allowed personal opinions to be disseminated in this way and I would like to apologise to my readers and the writing community."
Firstly, kudos for at least not trying to claim “my account was hacked” and accepting that, yes, he really did do it.
Secondly, this wasn’t just one “lapse of judgement” and what the living piss does allowing “personal opinions to be disseminated in this way” mean when many of those “personal opinions” were of how great your own books are? That’s a very weaselly way of alluding to what you’ve done. Jeez.