A Tale of Two Sock Puppets

Both John Locke and RJ Ellory have been outed recently for using fake reviews for personal gain. In Locke’s case, he paid multiple review services to buy positive reviews of his books. In Ellory’s case, he created fake accounts to create the fake reviews himself. Both acts are unethical. Both acts seek to deliberately manipulate the customer review systems for personal gain at the expense of others.

What has saddened me about these incidents are not the incidents themselves. I’ve been writing about this sort of stuff for years now. I’ve been on the receiving end of sock puppets leaving negative reviews on my books and attacking me in forums. The bad behavior comes from all corners of the publishing industry and I’ve talked about this stuff before. What has saddened me has been the difference in response by the respective communities.

In Ellory’s case, The Crime Writers Association has come out and openly condemned Ellory’s actions and stated it intends to launch an investigation into the practice. Dozens of traditionally published authors have publicly come out against the practice and launched an awareness campaign to discourage the practice. Ellory’s peers have pressured him into apologizing publicly for his actions. In short, Ellory’s peers are seeing to it that there are repercussions for his actions and working to restore some level of trust to the reviews process.

Compare this to the attitude of the indie community. While a handful of voices have openly condemned Locke, the majority have taken to one of the three positions:

1. It doesn’t impact me so I don’t care.
2. Customers should just be smarter and pay attention to what they buy.
3. Stop the witch hunt against Locke. You are all just jealous because he is successful.

The very idea that it is “unreasonable” to hold Locke accountable for his actions and that any attempt to “wield the pitchforks” against him should be stopped is bizarre to me. The man paid for over 300 fake reviews, and then sold a “How-to” book on being a successful indie that misrepresented how he became successful. There is no ambiguity here. This isn’t a mere matter of personal preference. I’m embarrassed by the positions some indies have taken on this subject compared to how the traditionally published authors have responded to Ellory.

Konrath’s response in particular, while predictable for those that read his blog, is still strange to try to understand. His argument is that since everyone is guilty of something, nobody has a right to complain about anything. Of course, his list of “guilty” actions includes a bunch of stuff that is not remotely unethical by any definition. (“I will never allow anyone to send out copies of my books to be reviewed, because if they were doing that they must know me, and if they know me it is impossible to get an unbiased review.”)

Because apparently if your publisher ever sent out a copy of a book for review to a journalist or blogger, you are the same as someone who buys 300 fake reviews and therefore should keep your mouth shut. He claims it is satire (and you are a “pinhead” if you can’t see his satire). But if I might borrow a bit of hyperbole from Konrath’s logic, essentially what he is saying is that if you ever took a dollar out of your spouse’s wallet without telling him, you have no right to condemn a criminal that breaks into your neighbor’s house. Because he didn’t rob you and you are also a thief so you shouldn’t get involved.

That isn’t satire. This is a failure to accept reality.

And ultimately this is what the indie community is missing that the traditional authors “get.” Customers have been robbed. Let’s not pretend all of those reviews don’t mean anything, because they do. How many popular book blogs won’t even allow you to buy advertising on their sites unless you have a minimum number of reviews? Look at how the number of positive reviews impacts certain popularity lists on retail sites. All of those fake reviews increase the visibility of the book and put it in front of customers, who DO respond to all of those stars by purchasing. Pretending customers should just “get smarter” is insulting to customers.

And you were robbed, too. As an indie author who has done everything right and played by the rules, you were robbed by Locke as well. His actions, and the actions of others like him, makes your job harder. Because the less value customers place in reviews, the harder it becomes to get them to take a chance on you. Word of mouth only matters if people trust it. If customers begin to suspect that all of your reviews are fake, or that all of your facebook fans and twitter followers are fake, or that any praise they hear about your book was bought and paid for, how are you going to get them to trust you? Aren’t you fighting a big enough battle to get exposure for your book? Do you really need to sit silently by while a small number of unscrupulous people drag you through the mud with them?