By Tania Carver
OK. I wasn’t going to comment on the sock puppet issue because I’ve had plenty to say about it in the last week, through various outlets and none of it complimentary to the writers involved. Both Linda and I signed the letter too. And I was going to let it die down because it should. Or I was going to let other writers talk about it. But then I saw something on Facebook that no one else commented on and I couldn’t let it go. Because I think it may have repercussions for all of us.
The thought of writers inventing false names to big themselves up and give fake reviews isn’t, to my mind, the bad part. I can understand that in the wider context of PR and publicity. After all, how many of us have been complicit with our editors when they have approached other writers to blurb our books? How many of us have gone into a branch of Waterstones or Barnes and Noble and turned our books face out on the shelf? Little things, not necessarily morally right but not big enough or bad enough to hurt anyone. Incidentally, I in turn have been asked to blurb other writers’ books. And to be honest, if I’ve liked the book I’ve done it, if I haven’t I haven’t done it. I can’t speak for other writers but that’s what’s worked for me. If the book’s no good and it’s got my (or Tania’s) name on it, I can’t feel too happy about that. So thinking about what you have to do to get your book noticed in a crowded marketplace, assuming another identity to talk yourself up in forums and on Amazon, while being something I wouldn’t do, I can at least understand.
The four writers who have figured most prominently in this – Stephen Leather, John Locke, Roger Jon Ellory and Sam Millar – have only succeeded in making themselves look foolish by their actions. For instance, Ellory proclaiming himself a ‘magnificent genius’ just seems laughably pathetic, although that kind of Messianic self-delusion seems to be common amongst Scientologists. No, it’s the flipside of this that has, quite rightly, earned them anger. The attacks on other writers. It emerged that Stephen Leather had maliciously targeted another writer who didn’t like his books, even going so far as to set up a website in the other writer’s name with the sole intention of praising his own books. He also made nasty personal attacks against Jeremy Duns and Steve Mosby when they uncovered evidence of his behaviour. Ellory posted spiteful and vindictive reviews of Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride’s novels on Amazon. The review of Mark’s book – hastily taken down when the story broke – along with other things he has anonymously said against him on Amazon forums wasn’t just unpleasant but tipped over into slander and possibly libel. Sam Millar – although he still denies it despite what seems to be damning evidence that again hastily disappeared – targeted Stuart Neville and Laura Wilson in a similarly bilious manner.
Now, here’s my disclaimer. The writers targeted by spitefully bad reviews mentioned above are all good friends of mine. I’m just stating that in case people think I have some particular axe to grind. I don’t. I’ve seen what they’ve been going through as a result of this and it’s horrible. Getting bad reviews is awful enough but it’s so much worse coming anonymously from fellow writers.
And another disclaimer: I know how they feel. It’s happened to me.
Back in 2000 when my third book, Candleland, came out, I was subjected to a review in a prominent (at the time) magazine. It was a dreadful review. Awful. Almost incoherent in its rage against my book. At that time there were limited opportunities for new crime novels to find an audience and I’d just lost some valuable publicity. People judged the book by that review. People began to judge my other work in context to it as well. I was trying to make a bit of a name for myself and doing what I could to help the books take off and this was a setback. And then I found out something else. The author of the review was actually another writer. I checked this out, looking through all his (I’m assuming it was a he since he had a male name) other reviews. They were all equally scathing, all aimed at writers who had showed a bit of promise. Another writer told me he knew this person’s identity but he refused to tell me. I tried to find out but couldn’t. I figured it was someone I knew and even had a vague idea who it was but couldn’t prove it. I found it really difficult to go to CWA meetings and publishing events knowing that there was a very good chance that the person who had written that was sitting there, possibly even sitting with me, maybe accepting a drink from me. Pretending to be my friend. And then I started to think that maybe he was right. Maybe the book was awful. Maybe I didn’t deserve to think of myself as a writer. Maybe I should give up. And everyone else, all the other crime writers – was that what they all thought of me? Did they agree? Were they right?
Luckily there were other reviews, good ones – notably a great one in The Guardian – and things eventually began to pick up. This reviewer eventually disappeared. The person behind him decided he had had enough. And that was the end of that. But it really rankled. It hurt. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to make a career out of crime writing. I love being part of the crime fiction community, look forward to getting together when we can and am honoured and blessed to have made some truly wonderful friends in the community. So I remembered how much it hurt me when I saw what had been exposed this week. And I knew what my friends would be going through.
I’ve said some very angry things this last week sticking up for my friends. I’ve been challenged as to what gives me the right to talk like that, whether I’m so perfect I’ve never made mistakes or done things I regretted. And the answer is yes. Have I done things I regretted? Of course. Have I made mistakes. Definitely. Have I ever launched a deliberate, malicious attack on a fellow writer with the sole end of damaging their career and livelihood? Of course not. I would never dream of it, no matter what I thought of them or their work.
So when the dust started to settle over this affair I began to think that would be that. It was Amazon. Just Amazon. Yes, it screwed with their rating system and created false readings and recommendations. Did writers down and others up. Even before this happened I always mistrusted the reviews on Amazon. I can honestly say I’ve never bought a book because of an Amazon review. And besides, there are still professional critics and reviewers who provide impartial, accurate reviews with no axe to grind. The readers can still trust them.
This is the thing I saw on Amazon that no one has commented on. Larry Gandle, who reviews for Deadly Pleasures magazine and the Tampa Tribune, posted a message of support for Ellory but – and this is the kicker – ended by saying ‘As far as his negative reviews on other authors - he is entitled to his opinion and I agree with almost everything he has said about them.’
Now, I don’t know if I’m being naïve, but is that acceptable behaviour for a reviewer to exhibit? A reviewer who wants to be taken seriously? Fair enough, Ellory may be a friend of his and he wants to give his support. Fine, but it may make his readers regard Gandle’s future reviews with a cooler eye and be less persuaded by them. But it’s that last sentence I have a problem with. Obviously, we are all allowed our opinions but it strikes me that making such a statement is at least unprofessional and at worst potentially damaging to Gandle’s reputation. How can his reviews be trusted to be impartial if he’s making statements like that?
So what should we do? Should reviewers have to declare their interests before they write? Or is that a little prohibitive? If that’s the case then perhaps we can’t trust any reviews or reviewers and if so that’s a sad state of affairs.
Right. What do we do next? How do we move this on? We’ve all signed the letter condemning this practise. Fine. The Crime Writers Association have made a statement. But nothing has really changed. I’ve got an idea as regards Amazon. Despite the practice of creating sock puppet accounts being illegal in this country, they’re not going to take any action that will affect their sales. They’ll ride this one out. However I do think there’s a way forward and my proposal is this. Any author found making anonymous attacks and posting malicious reviews on the site should have the ratings system removed from both themselves and their books. The books can still be sold on the site but there would be no reviews. And they in turn would not be allowed to make any. This again may be open to abuse but it’s the best and fairest I can think of.
Does anyone else have a better idea? If so, let’s hear it.
By the way – and here’s a bit of shameless, sockpuppet-free plugging – the new Tania Carver novel, CHOKED, is out in the UK next week. You can order it through Amazon here. And the latest Tania to be released in the States, THE CREEPER, is out too. You can buy that here.