It’s almost a week since the Sock Puppet letter signed by a bunch of authors went public. In that time more than four hundred people have added their names in support of the principles outlined there. But as is usually the way with the internet the detail has become somewhat blurred, and a number of rather bizarre myths have appeared.
The letter was designed as a one-off statement of position, a way people could say, ‘I think this is wrong and promise not to do it.’ I think it did that pretty well and don’t wish to add anything to its original content. But, as a former journalist, I do suffer from a nagging desire to correct errors of fact. So let me just set down here what I think about some of the current misconceptions doing the rounds.
You named and shamed people and that’s wrong.
It would have been if that was our aim — though I doubt anyone would have signed a letter in those circumstances. We ‘named and shamed’ no one. All three authors mentioned in the letter had publicly admitted what they were doing before we issued the statement. That was why we were writing the letter, OK?
Stephen Leather kicked off this whole thing by admitting he used sock puppets at Harrogate in July. Here is Steve Mosby writing about it on July 23.
John Locke confirmed to the New York Times he’d bought book reviews on August 25.
RJ Ellory issued a statement confirming his use of fake IDs to laud his own books and damn those of others on September 3rd, before the statement was published. While there was a huge amount of publicity about Ellory at the time it was agreed by all those putting the letter together that we would name no one who hadn’t publicly confirmed they’d been party to the practices we believed wrong. His name was added to the body of the letter only after he’d issued his own statement a few hours before its release. Had he not done so, he wouldn’t have been mentioned.
The names were in there because they provided the context for the letter. Without them people would, quite rightly, have been asking… ‘So are they talking about Locke, Leather and Ellory? And if they are… why don’t they say so?’
You’re a mob.
Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘mob’: ‘a large crowd of people, especially one that is disorderly and intent on causing trouble or violence’. Had we set about trying to police review sites, outing the many other users of sock puppetry out there, we would have been a mob. We haven’t. We made a statement, allowed people to sign it if they wanted, and then returned to our business — which is writing.
The letter was a statement of principle, not a declaration of open season on anyone who’s been bending the rules. It’s for bodies like the Society of Authors and the Crime Writers Association to deal with issues such as codes of practice. We were simply saying what we felt was wrong and what we undertook not to do.
I don’t know of anyone who believes a sock-puppeting author deserves to lose their contract. I don’t know anyone who’d say, ‘Don’t read their books.’ We just want these awful practices to stop, or at least diminish. That doesn’t make us a mob.
You formulated the letter in private without opening up the process to public discussion.
This is true. If you’d been a part of the process I think you’d understand why. I outlined how this was organised here. It’s very difficult getting a text written and agreed across fifteen or so people scattered around the planet, in different time zones, using different communications methods. I can’t begin to imagine how a consensus could possibly be reached through an open forum. Just look at the length of contributions and comments threads on some of the sites where this is live. How do you pull an agreed statement out of that?
And there’s also the question of confidentiality. No organisation formulates policy in public. People need to know they can speak frankly and openly within the private group. If there’d been some kind of public forum trying to gain that consensus we’d still be at it, and falling to pieces.
You stifled discussion and debate on nosockpuppets.wordpress.com.
No we didn’t. Nosockpuppets is a site with one purpose: it’s there for people to add their name to the letter if they want. It was put together in a matter of hours and was never designed or intended as a comment and discussion system. We had no moderation system in place. There’s only a single post, now with more than four hundred signatures on it. It’s a very unsuitable place for a discussion.
This canard arose when Barry Eisler, who initially signed the letter then asked for his name to be removed, inserted a Youtube video linking a clip from the movie of 1984 into the comments thread. I saw this and removed it on the grounds that it was in the wrong place. We wouldn’t dream of stifling discussion of the letter — how could we? — but a thread for signatures wasn’t the place for a Youtube video. For the sake of transparency I told Barry what I was doing, said I was doing it openly on Twitter, and linked there to the video Barry wanted posted.
There are plenty of places having active discussions about this subject. I fail to see how allowing comments (and videos) in the midst of all those signatures would somehow have added to the debate. Most people would have missed them. A lot more saw Barry’s point when he made it on his own blog. Barry graciously apologised to me later ‘for the hassles’ which was unnecessary. This was just a misunderstanding and we’ve since amended the wording on Sockpuppets to make clear it’s just a single page to sign something, not somewhere to start a debate.
You talk about ‘fraud’ and you can’t have fraud unless you prove someone has been damaged.
This is one of many misinterpretations coming out of the ramblings of Joe Konrath who says (among lots of other things), ‘Fraud involves damages. No one was damaged here.’ I’m not sure people who were one-starred (something Amazon’s algorithms will notice) would agree with that. But it’s irrelevant anyway since the letter doesn’t use the word ‘fraud’. It says… ‘some writers are misusing these new channels in ways that are fraudulent and damaging to publishing at large’.
Fraud’s a noun which can, if you wish it, be defined legally (though it is frequently used in a broader sense too). Fraudulent’s an adjective and definitely more general. Again… from the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘obtained, done by, or involving deception’. Buying reviews that don’t reveal their origins and pretending to be someone else in order to game the system surely fall under this definition.
People are fully entitled to disagree with any aspect of the letter they like. But criticism should be based on facts, not errors or misinterpretations of the original. Unfortunately the web seems tailor-made for Chinese whispers. Simple concepts suddenly become complex and incomprehensible.
Behind the original statement lay a fundamental conviction which most people understand and many appear to support: it’s not a good idea to deceive readers. I hope that doesn’t get lost in the occasional sound and fury out there.