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Posted by Tom, September 4, 2012

On Sock-puppeting

Philip Reeve today posted this picture of a “sock puppet” on Twitter, ostensibly reviewing his own thoroughly excellent Mortal Engines.

Many of you will already have read the recent news of authors who have been caught “sock-puppeting” (that is, posting reviews of their own books under pseudonyms and, in some cases, negative reviews of other authors’ books). If you haven’t heard about this, the writer Jeremy Duns, moonlighting as a sort of Hercule Poirot figure, has caught some rascals at it, notably the crime writers Stephen Leather (who had alluded to taking part in some of this activity at last month’s Harrogate Crime Festival) and RJ Ellory. You can read fuller accounts of Duns’ investigation here and here.

Although the story has generated a great deal of coverage, publishers have been been pretty quiet about it so far (particularly those who publish the authors in question). And as of yet, there hasn’t been any report of this activity leaking into the world of children’s publishing (which isn’t to say it hasn’t gone on, of course). But we think it’s important that publishers don’t remain silent on the issue, which is sort of the reason for this blog post.

The first and most obvious thing to say about sock-puppeting is that it’s clearly wrong: it’s dishonest, a bit sleazy, and often (as in the cases of one author anonymously trashing the work of another) quite cruel. Some people have countered that what Ellory and Leather have done is no different or worse to the authors who provide blurbs for each other’s books when perhaps they didn’t read them first, but I don’t think this is the case: in those instances, they are a reviewing a book under their own name, and that provides a lot of valuable context that readers are deprived of when the same person leaves an anonymous review on Amazon and gives the impression that they have no stake in a book’s success when they actually wrote it.

And the other thing that ought to be said is that sock-puppeting is a totally counter-productive exercise. Doing it (and getting caught, which as this episode goes to show is far from impossible) simply means that the system of reviewing and recommending books on Amazon or Good Reads becomes fatally undermined – if readers can’t trust reviews, they’re worthless – and then nobody benefits.

What this means to us as a publisher is that genuine reviews are all the more valuable: honest recommendations, blogs and word-of-mouth are some of the most important means of widening the audience for our books and apps, and if the integrity of the practice is to remain intact, sincere reviews are more necessary now than ever – so if you like (or dislike) a book, write about it!

I think there’s a significant difference between what Ellory and Leather have done and, for instance, asking your friends to review your book on Amazon (or your app on iTunes), or leaving a negative review openly – the question is, where should the line be drawn? And what can be done to prevent dishonesty? What do you think? Has this story changed your opinions of reviews? What would you do to fix the problem?