Lately, authors have been caught sockpuppeting, the cute term for the ugly practice of faking favorable reviews, on Amazon to inflate ratings of their own work. It's a clearly unethical practice, but to make things worse, the authors who've been caught doing it aren't very good at making their phony reviewers seem real.
The storm began when Jeremy Duns tweeted his suspicions that the Amazon accounts "Nicodemus Jones" and "Jelly Bean" were both controlled by R J Ellory (reviews by these accounts have since been deleted). Major news outlets picked up the story, Ellory apologized for his sockpuppetry, and authors have banded together to denounce the practice. This isn't the first time sockpuppetry has been exposed, and evidence suggests that more writers might be guilty.
But let's put aside the ethics of sockpuppetry for a second and look at the latest offenses from a literary standpoint. It's still embarrassing. Making people up is what these writers get paid to do, yet they still aren't very good at bringing their fake reviewers to life. These fake reviewers are incredibly two-dimensional, obviously concocted only to skew Amazon's aggregated ratings. They make the same points over and over. No real reviewer, however clueless, would offer such a narrow range of opinions.
"Nicodemus Jones" called Ellory's A Quiet Belief in Angels a "modern masterpiece." Ellory's sockpuppet urges readers, "Just buy it, read it, and make up your own mind. Whatever else it might do, it will touch your soul." This reads like one-sheet publicity material. PR flacks talk about books like this—readers don't. Similarly, in his one-star hatchet job of Stuart MacBride's Dark Blood "Jelly Bean" writes:
I think this is a shame. So many good authors given so little advertising and promotion, and here we have another tiresome same-old, same-old from someone who could do so much better ... I think the British/Scottish crime fiction market is long overdue for a major shift in direction.
The review, pockmarked with buzzwords like advertising, promotion and markets, doesn't read like the impassioned rant of someone who just finished a book they absolutely hated. Wouldn't such a reader bring up specific problems with the writing itself instead of talking about publishing industry hype cycles?
Even worse is the case of "Cormac Mac 'Crime king,'" an Amazon account that author Stuart Neville makes a pretty strong case for being Irish crime writer Sam Millar (we should note that Millar denies Neville's allegations, and that Neville is accusing Millar of sockpuppeting his own books with one-star reviews). Whoever he is, Cormac Mac is one of the most stilted Amazon reviewers out there. "Bought this after hearing crime writer Sam Millar giving it an excellent review," he writes about one book. "Read this after hearing that crime writer Sam Millar had recommended it," he says under another. "Irish crime king, Sam Millar, said he loved it. It must be sick!" he writes in yet another review. Imagine such a person, who only reads books based on the suggestion of a moderately successful crime writer. Now imagine three others. The accounts "Noir Fan," "Crime Lover," and "Crime Queen" all write variations on that same theme in each of their reviews. Since this morning, their drooling five-star reviews of Millar's books have been deleted.
Here's a tip: if you've decided ethics don't matter to you anymore, at least make your sockpuppets interesting. If you're going to create fake personas in order to aggrandize your own work and sabotage others, at least have some fun with the charade! Don't be like Ellory or Millar, creating dull, lifeless mouthpieces who write like desperate robots. Be more like Walt Whitman, one of history's most unrepentant self-promoters. He anonymously submitted glowing reviews of his own poetry collection Leaves of Grass to newspapers across New York, but at least his masturbatory self-reviews were fun to read:
An American bard at last! One of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking, and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded, his posture strong and erect, his voice bringing hope and prophecy to the generous races of young and old. We shall cease shamming and be what we really are. We shall start an athletic and defiant literature. We realize now how it is, and what was most lacking. The interior American republic shall also be declared free and independent.
Take inspiration from Whitman, sockpuppeteers! If you're going to pervert the system, at least do it with style.