We crime-writers are an amiable bunch, possibly because our nastiness is all used up in our fiction. Unlike romantic novelists rumoured to be backstabbers or the literati notoriously up themselves we like each other, are mutually supportive and rejoice when one of our number hits the professional jackpot.
Hence we were shocked when we discovered that among us are practitioners of dishonourable sockpuppetry the use of false on-line identities. Now it’s possible to adopt a false identity for decent reasons, like fun or the protection of one’s privacy. But it is indecent to pretend to be independent while talking up the puppeteer or doing down the opposition. A famous practitioner was the historian Orlando Figes, who in Amazon reviews praised his own work as “fascinating” and “humbling”, while dismissing that of rivals as “awful”, “pretentious” and “dull”. He salvaged his career by pleading mental problems.
The columnist Johann Hari’s contribution to such villainous conduct was to doctor the Wikipedia entries of journalists for whom he felt enmity by adding words like “homophobic” and “a drunk”. He donned the sackcloth, gave up his column and retired to take a course in journalist ethics.
And now the crime-world has been rocked by Stephen Leather. At the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, on a panel chaired by Mark Lawson (who played part of it on Front Row), Leather cheerily explained that among the weapons he used to bump up his sales were sockpuppets whom he employed on internet forums to create a buzz. “You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself… Or I have friends who are sockpuppets, who might be real, but they might pick a fight with me.” What most upset the audience was his explanation that “everyone does it.”
Leather seems oblivious to the obvious fact that doing this debases the internet currency. Who would trust Wikipedia, or Amazon reviews or forum debates if they believe writers are bent on deception? And there are some worse than Leather. Stuart Neville, who writes brilliant thrillers, knows the identity of a sockpuppeteer who gives his own books five-star reviews, and mentions himself in the innumerable good reviews he gives others. Worse, he’s used his false identities to give repeated negative reviews to Neville and others.
There’s an excellent account of the whole sorry mess on the blog of respected crime writer, Steve Mosby, who like most of us, is acutely aware of the difference between right and wrong. He also discusses worrying new developments like the agencies that will sell a writer job-lots of reviews. It’s no surprise that he’s now being accused on the net for being envious of Leather’s sales.
Publishers are distressed by such new dodgy practices, but then did they not sell the pass when they agreed to pay shops to position their books favourably or call them “Staff picks”?