I love writing. Publishing… not so much sometimes. There are a few things that go on in the field of so-called marketing and promotion that make my skin crawl. Nasty, shameful things, pursued by a handful of people, but sometimes with great success. Commercial success anyway, because they’re the kind of nonsense people primarily obsessed with creative success wouldn’t contemplate for one second.
If you want to know what I’m talking about take a look at some posts by a couple of brave and talented writers Jeremy Duns and Steve Mosby. They stem from the astonishing admission by the writer Stephen Leather at Harrogate that he used sock puppet accounts — fake identities — to promote, to great financial rewards, his work.
Stephen Leather has his own account of that event on his blog here. Though for some odd reason that seemingly-reasonable post (which makes some sound points about publishing) fails to include any mention of sock puppets. Why? Perhaps because there’s a much larger story to be told.
Steve revealed the sock puppet nonsense (to those of us who weren’t at Harrogate) in a very measured blog post here. Jeremy then set about some serious and dedicated sleuthing. Most of the results you will find on Twitter and I heartily recommend you follow both these chaps, @jeremyduns and @stevemosby. A measure of Jeremy’s discoveries can be seen in a second post by Steve here.
But only a fraction because there’s so much out there it frankly beggars belief. You have to wonder how Stephen Leather finds the time to do this stuff. To adopt different identities and roam the wilds of Amazon (where he seems to be well known and in some quarters deeply loathed). To pursue both his own promotion and the denigration of anyone who dares to criticise his work. Who, for example, would really think it worthwhile setting up a fake Twitter account in the name of one of his critics? And then track down another critic complaining elsewhere about an electric kettle on Amazon and get on his case there?
Yes, you did read that right. And here it is…
If you want to know a bit about the dark side of modern publishing I’d advise spending a little time perusing some of the facts Jeremy and Steve have turned up. But do please remember this: Stephen Leather is not alone. You can find other examples cited by Jeremy too, including one fairly well-known author who used a sock puppet to slag off the work of a rival (which is about as low as anyone in this business can stoop, at least as far as I can imagine).
Leather coughed up to his behaviour at Harrogate, supposedly after a bit of prompting from the organiser. Few others would be so frank. One of the down sides of the internet is that it is frequently open to abuse, usually anonymously or under the guise of a false identity. And if something can be abused pretty soon some dodgy Del Boy will come along and abuse it.
They will doubtless argue, as Stephen Leather does, that ‘marketing is marketing’. This isn’t. It’s a blatant attempt to rig book sales through fraudulent behaviour, posting five star reviews of your own books under a fake identity, damning the work of others or encouraging strangers who’ve never read your book to vote for it in one of those awards idiotic enough to use the web, not independent judges, to decide on ‘winners’. Stephen Leather has coughed to only the first and I don’t accuse him of the others. But they do happen, perhaps rather more often than any of us knows.
If someone in the financial world tried such stunts they’d end up in jail. In publishing they can wind up on festival platforms looking very pleased with themselves indeed.
Amazingly some people seem frightened to come forward and condemn these practices. I have no idea why. What — or who — is there to fear? Stephen Leather has threatened Jeremy Duns with libel. But given that pretty much everything Jeremy has uncovered comes, in one way or another, from something Leather himself has either said or posted it’s hard to see that as anything more than bluster.
But really Stephen Leather is a symptom of this malady, not the disease itself. There’s a stink in some quarters of publishing and I do think it’s time those of us, the vast majority of writers, who hate it distance ourselves from this rotten pong.
Here is my position.
- I have never used sock puppets and never will.
- It’s nice if you want to review my books on Amazon, and even nicer if you do so favourably. But that’s your choice entirely; I won’t beg you to do it.
- I will never allow my name to go forward for any so-called prize which is ‘awarded’ on the basis of nothing more than web votes. On the one occasion I was rash enough to allow this I went out of my way simply to publicise the fact that awards list was up there and leave it to readers to decide the rest. Maybe that’s naive. I well remember getting a round robin message on Facebook from another author on the shortlist pleading for a vote (whether I’d read the book or not).
On that last point I’d simply say this. If you want to know how an awards system should be run take a look at the way ITW handles its annual Thrillerfest prizes. I was on the board of ITW for five years. The system, set up by James Rollins at the very beginning, was scrupulous in its integrity. No one outside Jim and his judges knew who’d been nominated. No one outside those involved knew the eventual winners until they were announced. And all board members of ITW were barred from being considered for any prize whatsoever (which is why the very honourable Joseph Finder immediately withdrew his recent nomination after joining the ITW board, choosing the hard volunteer work of running this important organisation over the chance of a big prize).
Britain’s got a lot to learn from America when it comes to honesty and generosity in publishing, but that’s another story.
I don’t have any lofty ideas about my own position. I’m a commercial author, not someone jockeying for a Booker nomination. I do this for a living and I like sales as much as anyone. But I won’t cheat to get them and I will not knowingly share a platform with those who do.
Writing of all kinds tends to come down to an attempt to find some truths through the use of your individual imagination. I can’t begin to think how that’s possible if your work is wreathed in layer upon layer of dismal, self-serving lies.