The “sock puppet” scandal: How to stop fake book reviews online

“Sock puppet” accounts, in the context of online book reviews, are fake forum, customer review or Twitter accounts that an author creates to promote his or her book under a different name.

Debate has been brewing in the UK since July, when crime and thriller authors from around the world gathered at the popular annual Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. A panel on ebooks featured two British thriller authors, Steve Mosby and Stephen Leather. During the panel, Leather revealed that he uses “sock puppet” accounts. Fellow panelist Mosby transcribed the exchange on his blog (and the recording is available here):

SL: I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans.

[Mosby]: So you use sock puppet accounts, basically?

SL: I think everyone does. Everyone does. Or I have friends who are sock puppets, who might be real, but they might pick a fight with me.

[Mosby]: Are your readers aware of this, or…?

SL:  Well, I think that everyone … well, are the readers aware of it? No … But they’re not buying it because of the sock puppet. What you’re trying to do is create a buzz. And it’s very hard, one person, surrounded by a hundred thousand other writers, to create a buzz. I mean, that’s one of the things that publishers do. They create a buzz. One person on their own, difficult to create a buzz. If you’ve got 10 friends, and they’ve got friends, and you can get them all as one creating a buzz, then hopefully you’ll be all right.

Jeremy Duns, a British author of spy novels and a journalist who now lives in Sweden, began investigating Leather and turned up two of his “sock puppet” accounts, one of which belonged to a real self-published author named Steve Roach. “Roach had been very annoyed at what Leather was doing in the Amazon forums,” Duns told me. “He called him out quite aggressively. Leather reacted very furiously and waged a campaign against Roach for about a year online.”

Roach told Duns that Leather posted one-star reviews of his books to Goodreads and wrote a short story featuring “a sleazy villain” after Roach. Leather also created a Twitter account, @WriterRoach, in Steve Roach’s name. He used it to promote his own books and to make digs at Roach.

‘You’ve outsmarted me’

“Steve Roach sent an email to Stephen Leather saying, can you please stop? You’ve outsmarted me,” Duns says. “Leather was very gracious in his acceptance that he had beaten this guy. He said, I actually have two Twitter accounts in your name. I’m going to delete one of them and give the other one to you.”

Duns taped his phone conversation with Roach, but Roach now says he was tricked and wasn’t told he was being taped.

When I got in touch with Leather, he called Duns a “troll” and sent me a PDF of a letter written by Roach which begins, “With regard to the confrontations that I had with Stephen Leather while we were promoting our books on the Amazon forums, I do not look back on it as cyberbullying, more a straightforward confrontation in which I eventually conceded defeat (because Leather was better at it than I was).”

Leather also confirmed to me that he had created fake accounts to review his own books. “Yes, I said that. It was recorded so I can’t really deny it,” he wrote to me in an email. “But I never really got a chance to explain what I meant and there was an element of mis-speaking, but yes I said it. I didn’t do it much, and only over a couple of months. The reason was that writers were coming in for a lot of flak when they posted under their own names and I was being trolled unmercifully. So it was easier to talk to other posters using a pen name, which is something that the majority of forum users do.

‘I should have just kept my mouth shut’

“I didn’t attack people, generally it was just a way of talking to readers.  I haven’t done it for well over a year.  I also tweeted under different names, and again most people on Twitter use pen names. I don’t do that any more, either. Basically at Harrogate I was asked how a new writer could get themselves known and I was trying to explain how to get a word-of-mouth buzz going. . . . Obviously with hindsight I should have just kept my mouth shut.”

Leather’s print publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, had no comment.

More recently, the New York Times (s NYT) reported that thriller author John Locke — the first self-published author to sell over a million books on Kindle — paid several thousand dollars for 300 reviews through a now-defunct site called Locke had attributed his success to low prices (all his books are $0.99) and fan outreach.  “Reviews are the smallest part of being successful,” Locke told the NYT’s David Streitfeld. “But it’s a lot easier to buy them than cultivating an audience.”

Over the weekend, Jeremy Duns exposed British thriller author RJ Ellory for promoting his own books under fake accounts and slamming books by rivals (Ellory has since apologized), while crime writer Stuart Neville has begun “naming sock puppet names” on his blog.

The retailer response

In response to my query on how it has handled “sock puppet” reviews, Amazon sent me a link to its review guidelines with no other comment.

Barnes & Noble (s BKS) did not respond to my request for comment.

Kobo did not directly answer my question about reader reviews. “We’re in the process of formalizing our online/social media guidelines,” Rene d’Entremont, the company’s media relations manager, told me. But those guidelines apply to Kobo employees, not to users. “For online book reviews, we collaborate with, a company that shares the same core values of transparency and using social to encourage conversations among readers,” d’Entremont said.

Social reading site Goodreads also has review guidelines that prohibit “commercial reviews.” Members can also flag suspect reviews. “Our approach to reviews is very different from other sites,” CEO Otis Chandler told me. When users click on a book, the first reviews they see are by their friends, then from people they’ve chosen to follow, and finally from the broader community. The Goodreads algorithm prioritizes community reviews by number of ‘likes,’ the popularity of the reviewer and how recent the review is. “One of the most consistent pieces of feedback I hear from members is that they find reviews on Goodreads more real and trustworthy — ‘you can tell they are by real readers’ — than reviews on other sites,” Chandler says.

A code of ethics for writers

So far, 56 authors — including Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly and Lee Child — have signed this statement vowing they’ll never create “sock puppet” reviews. “But the only lasting solution is for readers to take possession of the process,” they write. “The Internet belongs to us all. Your honest and heartfelt reviews, good or bad, enthusiastic or disapproving,­ can drown out the phoney voices, and the underhanded tactics will be marginalized to the point of irrelevance.”

The UK-based Crime Writers’ Association posted a statement on “sock puppets” on its website and says it’s “keen to find a course that helps preserve the integrity of crime writing, and the traditional supportiveness of the genre.”

So far, the “sock puppets” controversy has centered around crime and thriller authors, and the issue has received the most attention in that community. But these practices aren’t limited to one genre of books, and fake reviews remain a widespread problem not just for books but for other products online, with University of Illinois professor Bing Liu estimating that a third of online reviews are fake.