Trying (and failing) to understand ‘sock puppets’

During the last week, I’ve spent a lot of time reading articles and tweets about ‘sock puppets’ and trying to get my head around it. For those of you who don’t know, a ‘sock puppet’ is a writer, who uses a pseudonym to give his or her own work positive online reviews. The practice came to light quite spectacularly when it was revealed that well-known writer RJ Ellory had been caught out giving his own books 5-star reviews (even describing one work as ‘a masterpiece’ no less) but also giving one-star reviews to some of his competitors. Author Stephen Leather also admits to having a series of characters that ‘review’ his books online to create a buzz around them.

I’ve turned this issue over and over in my head and cannot work out what possesses them to do it. The statement put out by RJ Ellory  didn’t try to explain why someone with his talent – and who presumably already has a lot of five-star reviews – would stoop so low as to do that. Not only reviewing his own work, but using it as a forum to criticise his competitors. You would think that a prolific writer would have better things to do with his time than writing anonymous reviews of his own books.

As an unpublished writer, it saddens me to think that the writing community could turn on itself in this way. Yes, it’s a marketplace and there is great competition between writers in all genres, but readers don’t tend to stick to one particular author. Just because a reader picks up the book of a rival doesn’t mean they’ll never come back to you. My own personal list of favourite authors grows by the week, and I’m always ready to pick up a debut novel and check out new authors. Am I envious of them for securing a publishing contract when I have not yet? Of course I am, but I appreciate the hard work and effort they’ve put in and applaud them for succeeding. It also gives me hope that perhaps it could be my turn next!

I have on occasions been asked by a publishing house’s publicity department to act as a reviewer of a debut novel and in return for a free copy of the book to post a review on Amazon or Waterstones. This I have done – using my own name of course – because I want to help and encourage other writers. I see nothing wrong with encouraging people who have read and enjoyed your book to post a review, but posting the reviews yourself seems a little bit sad, doesn’t it?

I’m sure the writers given poor reviews by RJ Ellory’s ‘sock puppet’ couldn’t care less what he thinks but I wonder what this does to the review process. Will anyone ever trust an online review again? Will Amazon, Waterstones et al have to introduce a more regulated process, making sure the person reviewing has actually read the book? I have to admit I rarely use reviews when I’m a choosing book. My system is: do I know the author? If not, does the blurb on the back grab me? On the strength of these two questions, I can usually judge whether a book is for me or not.

In the past we were always urged not to judge a book by its cover. Maybe the updated phrase should be: don’t judge a book by its online review!

What did you think of the whole ‘sock puppet’ incident? Has it been blown out of proportion? Has it affected your view of online reviews? How do you choose what you’re going to read next? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

2 thoughts on “Trying (and failing) to understand ‘sock puppets’

Add yours

  1. I’ve learned to ignore online reviews – there’s always people giving it 1 star right next to someone else giving it 5. I just decide whether or not the blurb sounds appealing, and if I have to resort to reading reviews to decide if I want to read it or not then maybe the blurb didn’t interest me enough.
    I feel kinda bad for the authors caught doing this; they obviously wanted more people reading their stuff and now that they’ve done this, it might do the opposite.
    I think the online world of self-promotion, followers, likes and reviews is driving a few people batty. Great post!

  2. I think it’s atrocious behavior, but I can’t say I’m surprised that authors do it. A study published earlier this year connected creativity with dishonest behavior (I explained this more in a post last week), and authors have a high incentive to lie, cheat, and steal in such a highly competitive field. It’s Art, and we like to think it’s a community-oriented form, but deep down it’s about profits. Reviews, whether good or bad, go a long way toward “making” or “breaking” an author. I believe that book-selling and reviewing services like Amazon, publishing houses, and the public need to do more to change the cost-benefit analysis authors go through when they decide to “sock puppet.” As for how I develop my reading list, I read blogs from reviewers I’ve grown to trust, where I can see that they don’t have a vested interest in the reviews they write.

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