Monday, September 17, 2012

The dark art of Sock Puppetry

The Sunday Telegraph asked me to write a short opinion piece about the art of "sock puppeting", where authors use fake online personas to write reviews of their own work.
Here's the link to the published piece:

Here's what I originally wrote for them:

I HAVE never been a sock puppet. I have never even played with them. The closest I came was when I used to put socks on my ears, to distract my infant son while trying to wrestle him into his clothes. Hey, you find yourself doing some weird stuff when you’ve only had an average of two hours’ sleep a night for a week.

But I can understand only too well why some authors become sock puppets. I am an author and have felt the dark temptation myself.

For those mystified why there appears to be a column in the paper devoted to obscure childhood playtime, the UK has been transfixed this week with tales of “sock puppetry”, the delightful phrase to describe how authors invent fake online personas and then use them to post glowing reviews about themselves and, in some cases, use them to attack rival authors.

I can understand the need for the former – but I have to say the latter absolutely disgusts me.

British crime writer R.J. Ellory was outed for using online sock puppets he called Jelly Bean and Nicodemus Jones (that should have been a giveaway right there – nobody but a fiction writer could marry such pretension with such ordinariness) to praise his latest book and bag his rivals.

Fellow crime writer Jeremy Duns outed Ellory and threw the literary establishment into a tizz, with further revelations of dodgy reviews on Amazon and questions being asked about the whole newspaper review system as well. The accusations are that reviewers are unfailingly nice to their friends – but scathing to those they dislike, regardless of the quality of the book.

Ellory has apologised publicly, as well as privately to the authors he attacked using Jelly Bean and Nicodemus. He deserves credit for owning up and not trying to cover up his deeds. Although, as a crime writer, perhaps he understands better than most that cover-ups always end with you looking even guiltier than before.

Using a fake name to attack another author is revolting. The point Ellory – and many others – are missing is that authors might think of each other as rivals but that is foolishness. Readers don’t just pick one author and leave it at that. They have many favourites. Authors put out one book a year, if that. It is arrogant beyond belief to think readers will not pick up another book in all that time.

But to post glowing reviews of your own book, to see something online that praises your work … well, that is a sock puppet of a completely different colour.

When I received the phone call from HarperCollins, telling me they were going to publish my first book, it was one of the best days of my life and the culmination of a dream. But reality soon sets in – you are but one of thousands of books on a shelf. How do you make yourself stand out from the rest? How can you get people talking about your book?

The temptation to don the sock puppet hat and help your book along is strong. Any author who says they never considered it, in their darker and weaker moments, is in denial.

Your book is not just a piece of paper, stapled together, it is part of you. You have invested a huge amount into it and it is your child, as much a part of your creation as your real children. To see it ignored is painful, to see it abused is excruciating.  If I am at a bookstore and someone wants to read a chapter before deciding whether to purchase, it is torture. They might as well ask me to drop my pants and expose everything to them.

So yes, the temptation to help your book out is strong. But then you remember what you teach your real children, and you resist.

And, after all, how much help do reviews provide? The runaway bestseller is 50 Shades Of Grey – a book universally panned in reviews as smutty drivel.

Duncan Lay is Masthead Chief of The Sunday Telegraph and author of The Dragon Sword Histories and now Bridge Of Swords, which has been getting rave reviews, none of which he wrote. Honest!

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