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The author and the sockpuppet

Should we be surprised at fake Amazon reviews?

The Amazon sockpuppeting scandal
The Amazon sockpuppeting scandal shows an industry in crisis (Photograph: Getty Images)

Authors have always had an uneasy relationship with truth and untruth, leading many lightly joke that they ‘lie for a living’. Yet, humour aside, there is a fundamental distinction between fiction and lying. Fiction is the craft of creating surface fabrications which embody underlying, elucidating truths, whereas lying is the exact opposite, comprising of surface ‘truths’ that are in fact fabrications constructed with the intention of deceit. As Tennessee Williams wrote in his play The Glass Menagerie “I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

Despite the clear cut-distinction, as it’s the very job of an author to flirt with untruth, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that occasionally one steps over the divide and becomes a simple liar. Such is the case with the phenomenon of authorial "sockpuppeting". Alas, this does not, as I first imagined, involve the likes of Amis or Rushdie ventriloquising book readings through socks with googly eyes, but is the term used when an individual uses a false online identity for the purposes of deception. In the past few weeks no less than three authors, R J Ellory, Stephen Leather and John Locke (not the philosopher), have been called out for either paying for Amazon reviews of their novels, or writing them themselves. Even worse, Ellory, has admitted attacking his rivals with low ratings. Yet perhaps most telling is the fact these men aren’t publishing underdogs but authors lauded with prize nominations and huge book sales. If you need any more evidence about the insecurity of writers, it’s right there.

The controversy has sparked outrage, with a number of authors taking to social media to publically criticise sockpuppeting, assert their own (often unchallenged) innocence and even accuse rivals of besmirching reviews. The condemnation reached a head on Monday when a group statement was published in the Telegraph signed by 49 authors, including Lee Child, Mark Billingham, Joanne Harris, and Tony Parsons. “More and more books are bought, sold, and recommended online,” the letter reads, “and the health of this exciting ecosystem depends on free and honest conversation among readers. But some writers are misusing these channels in ways that are fraudulent and damaging to publishing at large. … We condemn this behaviour, and commit never to use such tactics.”

A nerve has evidently been touched. Of course, the controversy is an assault on the authenticity and authority of authors. A line has been crossed, of that there is no doubt, but the force of the reaction exposes an essential moral ambiguity that has lurked in the review system for a long time. For instance, it’s commonplace, even expected, for an author to recruit family members and friends to post glowing Amazon reviews. Though there are occasional murmurs of dissent at the practice, it has aroused no great public outcry.

Whilst sockpuppeting is in no way defensible and attacking rivals is reprehensible, my own reaction to the controversy was bemusement that anyone could honestly be shocked by the existence of fake Amazon reviews. Let’s be honest here, for all its aspirations to democracy and openness, the internet is country populated largely by trolls, cutesome felines and airbrushed women pouting for a click. Authors who sockpuppet Amazon reviews are morally corrupt, but consumers whoset too much store by them are foolish. In their group statement, the 49 authors call for “readers to take possession of the process.” “Honest and heartfelt reviews, good or bad, enthusiastic or disapproving, can drown out the phoney voices, and underhand tactics will be marginalised to the point of irrelevance. No single author, however devious, can compete with the whole community.” Despite their naivety about the power of a couple of cunningly designed spambots, the suggestion is an important one. It’s the responsibility of the contemporary citizen to take charge of the internet. Yet it’s also their responsibility to learn how to navigate independently between the different types of information outlets.

In a perfect world there would be no liars, but it’s a waste of breath to cry oneself hoarse over the fact. The sockpuppet scandal is interesting not for what it tells us about the immorality of a handful of individuals, but as another insight into the insecurities of an industry - publishing - that is undergoing an epochal upheaval.