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Jeremy Duns
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BLACK SITE > Getting Socked In The Jaw: On Marketing, Potemkin Reviews and a out of control vendetta.

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message 1: by Samuel , Director (last edited Oct 03, 2016 08:14PM) (new)

Samuel  | 4692 comments Mod
One of our newest group members (No. 390) is an Englishman by the name of Jeremy Duns. Mr Duns is a sometime journalist turned spy novelist who lives up in Sweden around the Åland Islands. He created the Paul Dark spy novels, a tragedy set in the Cold War focusing on the dysfunctional and deadly life of a reluctant traitorous SIS officer. The book are outstanding and if you need a break from Post 9/11 terrorist killing assassins, I recommend you check them out.

Anyway, as mentioned previously, Mr Duns does journalism when he's not doing fiction writing. One particular area of journalism he's done is that of Potemkin/sock puppet reviews. These are reviews generated by writers who use them to praise their own works and damn that of other authors.

Mr Duns strongly disapproves of this marketing practice and has waged a campaign to discourage it among his fellow thriller writers. Said campaign which started in 2012 has been quite successful, gained support, and managed to expose two writers who have engaged in such a strategy.

One of those authors however has not been happy with his use of this strategy being revealed for readers to see. That writer is Stephen Leather. For those who haven't heard of him, Mr Leather is a Goliath in the British thriller world. Multiple Sunday Times bestseller and creator of the long running Spider Shephard series, which is the closet a British writer has come to making an equivalent to Mitch Rapp.

So in a nutshell, in 2012, one of our group members shed light upon a dirty little secret and a marketing method that deserves to be squished like a common housefly. Four years later, Mr Leather has declared war on a fellow writer who works at the same publisher he does. Mr Duns elaborates in a lengthy post of his blog, providing detailed evidence and images of what appears to be an ongoing campaign since the start of the year (January 9th)

message 2: by Samuel , Director (last edited Oct 03, 2016 06:53PM) (new)

Samuel  | 4692 comments Mod
Samuel wrote: "One of our newest group members is an Englishman by the name of Jeremy Duns. Mr Duns is a sometime journalist turned spy novelist who lives up in Sweden around the Åland Islands. He created the Pau..."

Now, this thread is not an attack on Mr Leather books. I've read some of his work (BLACK OPS) and they're actually pretty good. Excellent research, crisp writing that flows to perfection and a good use of subtext and underlying themes which make for deeper narratives than say Chris Ryan's recent books. There's a pretty good reason why he's racked up an incalculable number of fans, quite a few who are in this group.

(However I'm still debating on whether to add them to the shelf and allow them to be discussed on this group, because while the later entries involve the British military and intellience services hunting down and killing terrorists, they still have a strong crime thriller element in them which has made me hold off on doing do)

However in this case, I'm separating the sinner from his good works. It seems despite being the King, Mr Leather has an obsession in hunting those who point out the imperfections in his success.

And it's wasn't even necessary for him to go to the lengths he has and conduct petty, ham fisted measures of the kind the East German Stasi and Russian Stalinist would have engaged in against their critics.

As Mr Duns points out in his blog post, it's pathetic how transparent the smear campaign being conducted against him and another writer who assisted with the original anti - sock puppet campaign is.

Such actions are disgraceful and ones that I pray do not become widespread in fiction writing and marketing.

message 3: by Samuel , Director (new)

Samuel  | 4692 comments Mod
British bookseller back in 2012 published a statement signed by some of the most famous contemporary UK thriller writers. In it, they explain exactly why the practice of sock puppetry causes damage to marketing in the long run:

Authors including Lee Child, Mark Billingham, Joanne Harris, Charlie Higson and Tony Parsons have signed up to a group statement condemning sock puppetry, the practice of writing reviews pseudonymously to praise one's own work and criticise that of others.

The Society of Authors has also joined in the condemnation, calling it "dishonest and misleading."

The outcry follows the unmasking of crime writer R J Ellory as among those producing so-called "sock puppet" reviews for his own novels and those of other crime writers.

The group statement from the authors states: "These days more and more books are bought, sold, and recommended on-line, and the health of this exciting new ecosystem depends entirely on free and honest conversation among readers. But some writers are misusing these new channels in ways that are fraudulent and damaging to publishing at large."

The authors warn that Ellory, Stephen Leather and John Locke have all made use of "sock-puppet" or paid for reviews. The authors state: "These are just three cases of abuse we know about. Few in publishing believe they are unique. It is likely that other authors are pursuing these underhand tactics as well. We the undersigned unreservedly condemn this behaviour, and commit never to use such tactics."

They end by calling on readers to contribute to online reviewing."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. No single author, however devious, can compete with the whole community. Will you use your voice to help us clean up this mess?"

The signatories are: Linwood Barclay, Tom Bale, Mark Billingham, Declan Burke, Ramsey Campbell, Tania Carver, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, N J Cooper, David Corbett, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Stella Duffy, Jeremy Duns, Mark Edwards, Chris Ewan, Helen FitzGerald, Meg Gardiner, Adèle Geras, Joanne Harris, Mo Hayder, David Hewson, Charlie Higson, Peter James, Graham Joyce, Laura Lippman, Stuart MacBride, Val McDermid, Roger McGough, Denise Mina, Steve Mosby, Stuart Neville, Jo Nesbo, Ayo Onatade, S J Parris, Tony Parsons, Sarah Pinborough, Ian Rankin, Shoo Rayner, John Rickards, Stav Sherez, Karin Slaughter, Andrew Taylor, Luca Veste, Louise Voss, Martyn Waites, Neil White and Laura Wilson.

Meanwhile SoA general secretary Nicola Solomon said: "We deplore the practice: not only because it is dishonest and misleading, but also because it is ultimately counter-productive: if buyers know they cannot trust some Amazon reviews, they won't trust any; so authors lose the opportunity to have new readers discover their books by bona fide word of mouth."

message 4: by Samuel , Director (last edited Oct 03, 2016 11:37PM) (new)

Samuel  | 4692 comments Mod
A CASE STUDY (cited from The Guardian Newspaper):

A Quiet Belief in Angels by RJ Ellory is, according to a review in the Guardian, "thriller writing of the very highest order". High praise indeed, but one Amazon reviewer, "Jelly Bean", goes further. RJ Ellory's story of a man who as a child was at the centre of a series of brutal killings of young girls is "one of the most moving books I've ever read", Ellory himself is "one of the most talented authors of today" and "his ability to craft the English language is breathtaking".

Too much? No, because Amazon reviewer "Nicodemus Jones" agrees: the book is a "modern masterpiece", and "whatever else it might do, it will touch your soul". A reader wondering whether or not to make a purchase might be convinced by this breathless praise: the only problem is, Jelly Bean and Nicodemus Jones are both the pseudonyms of Ellory himself, who was outed this week by fellow crime writer Jeremy Duns as the author of 12 glowingly positive writeups of his own books on Amazon, as well as two reviews critical of his fellow crime authors Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride. MacBride's novel Dark Blood is, according to Ellory's pseudonymous review, "another in the seemingly endless parade of same-old-same-old police procedurals that seem to abound in the UK".

On Monday, Ellory took responsibility for the reviews and apologised for his actions, both publicly to his fans and privately to Billingham and MacBride, but this has been a bad summer altogether for the credibility of authors and online book reviewing. It started when the bestselling thriller writer Stephen Leather admitted at the Harrogate crime festival to using various names online, and even having conversations with himself, to build buzz about his novels, sparking a huge debate among authors about the ethics of the practice known as "sock puppeting".

Leather was shown by Duns to have set up a fake Twitter account in the name of a fellow author who had criticised his books. Then came Ellory, following dishonourably in the footsteps of Orlando Figes, who two years ago was found to have been disparaging rivals and vaunting his own works on Amazon. Meanwhile, the Northern Irish crime writer Stuart Neville has accused the author Sam Millar of a series of vicious pseudonymous Amazon attacks on his work, since strongly denied by Millar.

"It's a very long, slippery slope," says the crime author (and Guardian reviewer) Laura Wilson, who believes she too has been the victim of Millar's attacks after she wrote a less-than-flattering review of his latest book in the Guardian. "For donkey's years you've had people like Private Eye pointing out that so-and-so puffed so-and-so's book because they're buddies," she says. "But this – and it's not just crime fiction which is affected – puts it into a new and rather horrible arena."

Wilson's situation is this. An Amazon reviewer, Cormac Mac, "Crime king", has written of her novel Stratton's War: "A lot of old cliches litter the book. She does what a lot of authors seem to be doing: write one book, then simply rewrite it with a different title." Millar's novel The Redemption Factory, meanwhile, gets the writeup: "Each page is a bloody treat for those who love their noir dirty, dark and bloody," while a host of other novels are also recommended by Cormac Mac, nearly always with a mention of "bestselling crime noir writer, Sam Millar".

Neville, in his lengthy accusation of Millar, also provides a screengrab of Cormac Mac's wish list, now taken down, which credits the list to "sam millar".

Millar has denied the allegations. His publisher in Ireland, O'Brien Press, is taking him at his word, but is also looking into the accusations itself. "It is a strong case and Stuart has put time into putting it together, and from his perspective it definitely looks as if Sam is the perpetrator," says managing director Ivan O'Brien "It looks very bad, but it's innocent until proven guilty and I have to believe him at the moment. We are just being very strong in our conviction that it's a very bad thing to do, and that nobody should do it."

As Duns, who spent a great deal of time investigating Leather and Ellory before coming forward with his accusations, admits, it's difficult to find definite proof. "Since this has happened, I have got a whole inbox of people saying: 'I've got a problem with this guy.' But it's very time-consuming to follow up – it's very hard to prove this stuff and I do have books to write. Christ knows what my editor thinks of all this."

But Duns believes the practice of posting fake reviews is "absolutely rife", and to that end has gathered a group of authors including Lee Child, Joanne Harris, Roger McGough, Tony Parsons and more than 50 others who have put their names to an open letter condemning sock puppeting and committing to never doing it. "But there's no easy fix," Duns acknowledges.

The trustworthiness of online reviews has also taken a beating this summer thanks to the rise of the paid-for write-up. In July, the chick-lit author Michele Gorman says she was stunned to be offered a positive review in exchange for $95 by a purportedly impartial website. Then the New York Times revealed the existence of a service enabling authors to pay for hundreds of reviews from "readers" – the hugely successful self-published crime author John Locke admitted using it.

"Lots of people are trying to make money by exploiting writers. They try to convince us that our best chance of success is to pay for favourable reviews," says Gorman, who turned down the offer and outed the site – The Chick Lit Girls – on her own blog (she was subsequently threatened with legal action for her revelations; the site has now disappeared). "But a writer's best chance of success is to write good books that lots of people honestly enjoy. Taking shortcuts by paying for fake reviews cheats readers. It cheats our own integrity. And it damages the reputation of the vast majority of book bloggers whose only payment is a free book in return for an honest review."

One suggestion from authors to combat these practices is for review sites such as Amazon to only allow accounts linked to Facebook pages, or to verified purchases, to post reviews ( did not return requests for comment about how it will tackle the issue). Another is to introduce a new code of practice for writers.

The Society of Authors says it will consider this if sock puppetry becomes more widespread. "It is in every respect wrong. It is misleading about the book it praises, it is worse than misleading about the works it disparages. And because the truth is increasingly likely to come to light, it is also entirely counter-productive," says deputy general secretary Kate Pool. "The Society of Authors has never had a code of practice – it does not make value judgments on its members of their work – and would prefer not to have to introduce one, but clearly if sock puppetry becomes established, it is something the management committee would have to consider."

With false online identities endemic across the internet, Pool puts their growing prevalence in the world of books down, partly, to the move towards authors being forced to become their own publicists, both because of the rise of self-publishing and because traditional publishers are putting pressure on their writers to engage in social media. "This has always been an uneasy balance," she says. "Some of the bad side effects have been sock puppetry, the new wariness of Waterstones about hosting author events, and attempts by some individuals to boost their books in Amazon rankings by methods – largely beyond my comprehension – that have little to do with the work's actual success or popularity. All of these seem to me to be the flailings of an industry in a state of major transition – from long-established traditional grooves into nobody is yet entirely sure quite what."

Stuart Neville: 'Any system can be gamed, but it shouldn't be as easy as it seems at present.'

And as many authors admit, there are grey areas here. Novelist Ceri Radford admits to tapping a friend for a review when her first novel, A Surrey State of Affairs, received a one-star writeup "from someone who complained bitterly that the plot of my comic novel was 'laughable'. I would have enjoyed the irony if I hadn't been a weeping jittery wreck at the time," she says. "When a friend started telling me how much she'd enjoyed the book, in such a detailed way I was confident she was being sincere, I couldn't resist asking her if she wouldn't mind sticking that on Amazon. Yes, I felt a little shifty, but I just couldn't bear that that one spiteful swipe was there at the top of my Amazon page, scaring people off something I'd put so much heart, soul and toil into."

I, meanwhile, will own up to reviewing my father-in-law's book Music and Mathematics: From Pythagoras to Fractals, back in 2006. I gave it five stars, and 14 out of 20 people found my urging that "I would heartily recommend this volume to anyone fascinated by the complex relationship between mathematics and music" helpful. I wrote it under my own name, and I stand by what I said – but still, it's the opening of the rabbit hole.

"It's hard to tell where the line lies," agrees Radford. "Sure, pretending to be someone you're not in order to describe your own work as a searing work of literary genius is wrong, as is buying up batches of five-star reviews, but is it dodgy to ask one friend? Or five? Or 10? What about asking your Twitter followers to post reviews? The internet has dissolved the distance between author and reader in a way that is still throwing up difficult questions."

Neville and Duns are clear that the practice of sock puppetry is something for the books industry as a whole to tackle. "Authors and publishers should behave ethically, and of course the vast majority of them do. I also feel companies such as Amazon should look at tightening up their own procedures and policies to minimise this kind of behaviour," says Neville. "Any system can be gamed if someone knows the right tricks to play, but it shouldn't be as easy as it seems at present."

"Ian Rankin said on Twitter that authors have taken a stand, and that publishers and agents could also start speaking out about it," agrees Duns. "The more people who condemn it publicly, the harder it gets."

The author signatories to Duns's open letter, who also include Rankin, Mark Billingham, Charlie Higson and Susan Hill, hope that readers can help too. "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 marginalised to the point of irrelevance," they write. "No single author, however devious, can compete with the whole community. Will you use your voice to help us clean up this mess?" Well, will you?

message 5: by Samuel , Director (last edited Oct 03, 2016 11:36PM) (new)

Samuel  | 4692 comments Mod
And a much less detailed blog post from the other author mentioned

And the more elaborated version.

message 6: by Samuel , Director (last edited Oct 03, 2016 07:23PM) (new)

Samuel  | 4692 comments Mod
And the primary reason why sockpuppeting isn't worth the trouble for writers to engage in and utilize as noted by this article:

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.

message 7: by Samuel , Director (last edited Oct 04, 2016 02:45PM) (new)

Samuel  | 4692 comments Mod
A good forbes article about the problem. Mr Brad Thor is quoted and made his stance about sock puppets clear. He doesn't like them one bit.
Article is in four parts. Click next page button when you hit the bottom of the first section

message 8: by Samuel , Director (new)

Samuel  | 4692 comments Mod
Samuel wrote: "A good forbes article about the problem. Mr Brad Thor is quoted and made his stance about sock puppets clear. He doesn't like them one bit.
Article is in four parts. Click next page button when yo..."

the other perspective.

message 9: by Samuel , Director (last edited Oct 04, 2016 07:34PM) (new)

Samuel  | 4692 comments Mod
Samuel wrote: "Samuel wrote: "A good forbes article about the problem. Mr Brad Thor is quoted and made his stance about sock puppets clear. He doesn't like them one bit.
Article is in four parts. Click next page..."

And a counter point to the counterpoint. Mr Eisler's argument is dismantled.

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