Margot Huysman looks into allegations of sockpuppetry by novelists — and gets more than she bargained for.
Remember Orlando Figes and the controversy he sparked back in 2010 after the internet discovered that fake accounts had given his books glowing reviews on Amazon? Well, it seems the literary classes are yet to learn their lesson. This afternoon, The Kernel caught up with Jeremy Duns, the author of spy novels published by Simon & Schuster in the UK, a vocal critic of plagiarism and campaigner against the practice above, which is known as “sockpuppeting”.
Why do some authors think they can get away with sockpuppeting? Sure, you could probably have got away with it five years ago. But the public is so much more tech savvy now. They can see right through bullshit – and discover it, too. IP addresses are easily traceable and, granted you have basic computing knowledge, you can pretty much find out who wrote a review and how many accounts are linked back to the same location.
The fakery often does not stop at Amazon book reviews. Accounts sometimes are created to modify Wikipedia entries – either the author’s, in order to make it more effusive, or other authors’, to slam their work. Forums find themselves submerged with threads raving about certain books, while others are inundated in insults about competitors. But all of these methods are being exposed with ever-increasing regularity.
Several prominent journalists have been busted for malpractice, most notably fabulist and Pauline Quirke lookalike Johann Hari, whose plagiarism and libellous sockpuppeting was exposed by journalist Brian Whelan. Hari is yet to apologise for his crimes. Is that why some less well-known writers think they can still get away with it?
“I have been the victim of other authors sockpuppeting to denigrate my writing and give me bad reviews,” Duns explained. “I find it despicable and won’t stand for it.”
The plot unravels
It turns out that Mr Duns has just exposed another offender. Here’s a word of warning, before we continue: if ever you thought the tech scene was bitchy, wait until you get a load of the vicious world of publishing.
Stephen Leather is a British thriller writer who is published by Hodder & Stoughton. A relatively high-profile author, Leather’s popularity is especially marked in online sales. On top of his book deal, he also self-publishes many short stories via Amazon.
Leather may be popular with his readers, but the man is known in literary circles as brash and unpleasant. He also provokes ire from other writers thanks to his controversial view of digital piracy: he embraces it, considering it good marketing for him. He also sells his self-published short stories at a very low price, prompting accusations of market devaluation. Other authors say he is making it harder for them to sustain higher prices.
Leather found himself in the middle of two controversies this year after attending a crime writing festival in Harrogate. Mr Duns was not present at the event, but he told us: “You didn’t have to attend to hear what had happened. In a packed and increasingly tense panel discussion, someone shouted out to Leather that he was a ‘tosser’. That was a really big thing. Everyone at the festival was talking about ‘tosser-gate‘.”
“The second controversy arose when Leather admitted, on stage, to creating online fake identities to promote, talk about, and praise his own books. He even admitted to arranging discussions between these different personas to make the whole thing look a little more genuine.”
These dark echoes of Johann Hari’s antics on Wikipedia may prove to have serious consequences for Leather, if true, since such behaviour is not only unethical, it might also be illegal. As an author, you are not allowed to pose as a consumer in order to sell your work.
‘He made me a monster!’
Having been told all this, Duns decided to approach Leather directly about the alleged admission. Getting to the bottom of the story was an arduous task: Leather refused to comment on Twitter, blocking him and then unblocking him, before blocking him a second time.
Duns’s spider senses were tingling. It doesn’t take long to uncover secrets on an open platform such as Twitter; a bit of common sense and five minutes to spare, and it’s easy to spot odd accounts and suspicious tweets. That’s what Duns attempted to do.
“I quickly found an account, @firstparagraph,” says Duns, “Which supposedly is run by an unknown, middle-aged writer. After looking at it for about five minutes, I could tell it was an ineptly transparent sockpuppet account set up by Leather. The tweets were all praising Leather’s books and his writing, describing him as the best author ever.
“Additionally, considering this person is supposed to be an unknown author, the Twitter account boasts about 15,000 followers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out: the number of followers has been gamed. Something The Kernel is familiar with, as I understand it.”
He continues: “Then, I found another account: @WriterRoach.” @WriterRoach caught Duns’ attention because it too plugged Stephen Leather at every possible occasion. At first, Duns thought it might be another sockpuppet account – especially since the account had tweeted about Filthy Shades of Grey, a Fifty Shades parody, in the exact same way Leather did on his account.
Looking into it, Jeremy found that @WriterRoach was associated with Steve Roach, a writer with virtually no sales, who had a blog and a few e-books to his name. On his blog, Roach revealed that he had got into a spat with Leather online but that it was all over now.
Duns dug deeper. His investigations led to a telephone number for Roach. Duns called Roach and both men had a long conversation, talking about what exactly had happened. “It turns out Steve Roach does exist and is absolutely not Stephen Leather,” Duns reports. “Where it gets complicated is that Roach is scared of Leather and will do nothing to upset him – online or offline.”
What had happened to make Roach so “scared” of Leather? According to Roach, he had been a witness in 2010 to Leather’s dirty tricks on Amazon forums: namely, the threads Leather spammed to get his name to the top of listings. Roach spoke out, condemning Leather for the practice.
Leather did not appreciate the wave of criticism that followed. He took to the internet to make Roach’s life hell, slamming Roach’s writing and sparking conversations and threads on forums all over the internet. Leather even went to the length of writing a short story with a lead villain named after Roach.
‘Johann Hari meets Nick Griffin’
It doesn’t stop at bullying other authors. Jeremy Duns now claims that Stephen Leather has a penchant for racist slurs and has made unsettling comments against Alzheimer’s and AIDS patients. The alleged racist comments have been Storifyed. They make for deeply unpleasant reading.
Sadly, the furore currently swirling around Leather is not a one-off. Although not all are as openly vicious, it would seem many authors don’t find fault with the creation of fake profiles to perfidiously promote their work. Matt Lynn, for example, is another author known to have indulged in the dark arts of online guerilla marketing.
What’s more disturbing: that these writers think it is morally permissible to hoodwink readers, or that they think they can get away with it?