Pity the sockpuppeteers

Alright. It’s been a rather indecent amount of time since my last post, close to a month I think. A month in which, after the madness of launching Rites and the subsequent burst of reviews and publicity, I’ve sort of changed lane a bit to concentrate on other projects.

But when I go out to the pub and run into people I haven’t seen for a while, they still invariably ask me “How’s the book going?” or (more frequently if I’m honest) “How’s it selling?” So I’m forced to consider those questions quite frequently. It’s often a bit awkward because the fact is, funny as it sounds, that I don’t really know. The book is out in the ether, selling or not-selling, being talked about or not-being-talked-about. I get the odd google alert that somebody has said something about it somewhere on the internet, and if I pester my publisher reasonably determinedly they will tell me the sales figures as far as they can make them out from the mysterious web of distributors, retailers and sale-or-return, but it’s all very vague and in general it has just sort of gone off my radar.

My sister got pregnant with my gorgeous niece Amelie at about the same time I found out I was going to be published, and it’s often amused me to compare the two situations in my mind. Authorship is remarkably subject to the same sorts of tropes as pregnancy – the conception is fun, the birthing a horribly painful process but worth it, etc etc – only the other day someone asked me if that was my only book and I said without thinking, “Got a second on the way”. But here is one very distinct difference between the two roles. When you have a child, you’re a “mother” or a “father”. You have changed state in quite a primal and intrinsic way. Your primary function is different. Whereas the idea of being a “writer” just doesn’t seem as real and permanent and earned to me. I don’t really think about Rites that much any more. It doesn’t define me, when I’m no longer writing it.

This feels both depressing and liberating. On the one hand, considering the amount of blood, sweat and tears I put into it and the sacrifices I’ve made in other areas of my life to give it my all, it can feel sad that feels like such an ethereal entity at the moment. On the other hand, I find this very ghostliness quite exciting. I’ve been able recently to throw myself back into academia with renewed energy and without feeling it’s a chore after fiction. I’ve also started an new kind of creative project. I wrote a short screenplay for a friend, and got such a taste for it that I’ve now started a full length play. I’ve got a good feeling about it. More on that another time.

One story that’s been setting tongues wagging in the publishing world at the moment is the exposure – mainly by the crime writer Jeremy Duns – of the practice of ‘sockpuppeting’. I’ve been following this story with some amusement and quite a lot of cynicism of the Bears Shit In Woods ilk, but considering it in light of my own brief experience of the aftermath of publishing a book gave me a new perspective. For the uninitiated, “sockpuppeting” refers to the practice of posting positive reviews of your own books under a fake identity, usually on websites such as Amazon. The nastier breed of sockpuppeteers also trash their rivals’ books under these identities. Duns has generally caught the culprits out – most notably the crime writer R.J.Ellory – by noticing when they sign the wrong name on an account. Essentially what the whole thing shows is that lots of writers are vain, cynical scoundrels out to fool the public and scupper the public’s trust in online reviews.

Or does it? While I hereby politely invite anyone who loves me to shoot me in the head if they ever catch me crouched over my keyboard logging into my fortieth Amazon account and swearing Rites was “guaranteed to touch your soul” (really, R.J.Ellory? Really?)  I can also weirdly sort of understand why the sockpuppeteers do what they do. I can understand – though this is nothing more than a vague fluffy hypothesis – how it just might be not a cynical strategy designed to generate income, but instead a coping mechanism generated by a failure to dissociate in the way that I’ve found myself doing, once the hype dies down and life goes back to normal. If you don’t move on, if you continue to define yourself by the book which must in 99 cases out of 100 end up floundering around in the bargain bins, then how terrible must it feel? To receive “No new results” on your Google Alerts every day, to check Amazon again and again for five star reviews but see none, to search the shelves in Waterstones in vain? Impotent in every other sphere, how easy is it to create another Amazon profile? To write what you wish others would? Perhaps to set up a few different ones, create a few different voices, to start a bit of controversy? After all, nobody would ever know… or so you imagine, until Jeremy Duns comes along.

Pure hypothesis, of course, and probably a slightly sentimental view of a nasty practice. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing these writers are exposed – quite the opposite, especially if they trash their fellow scribblers while hiding behind a pseudonym. Just that I think there is something in the very lonely, isolated activity of creative writing*, and in the very little amount of interest that the world seems to take in one’s hard work, that might make this kind of behaviour tempting. I also think the importance of sockpuppeting shouldn’t be overstated, because the nature of anonymous reviews lends itself to skulduggery of one form or another, and anyone who places too much trust in them is a bit of a dolt. I’ve encountered some writers personally who have asked me to write them a positive Amazon review. Once, when somebody sent me an unsolicited glowing review of Rites, I suggested without thinking that they might want to put it on Amazon myself, then immediately felt so cheap and grotesque that I vowed I would never ever do so again. Is this practice so very different from sockpuppeting?

One thing’s clear to me anyway; the most reliable way to avoid ever falling into that deep dark long-drop bog of ignominy is to keep your eyes on the prize of the next thing. September’s an exciting month. I’m writing a new thesis chapter, making research trips to find out about name changing in the 1780s, gearing up for the launch of the Strange Bedfellows project, chipping away at the next novel, and getting this play written. In which, as I tweeted yesterday, the characters are just as odious (delightfully so, from the writer’s point of view) as those in Rites. Will do my best to up my blogging rate along the way.

*perhaps in academia too, anyone remember Orlando Figes? –


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