It doesn’t just seem as if every time we turn around there is another example of authors and industry types sock-puppeting to manipulate the review system and advance their careers. It is the case. This week the discussion had centered around a number of UK-based crime writers, and it’s instructive to watch the difference in how it plays out.
First, the indefatigable Jeremy Duns has outed two different authors over the last couple of months, despite repeated insults, threats, and suspensions of his Twitter account. Jane has a recap at Dear Author this morning, with many of the relevant links. David Hewson has a hilarious screencap of Leather (in sock puppet mode) slating one of his critics for a 1-star review of a tea kettle. Yes, a tea kettle.
Sean Cregan has written a terrific summary post, starting with the Leather mess and continuing through to the most recent revelations about Ellroy. Cregan suggests that limiting Amazon reviews to verified purchasers only would cut down on this kind of behavior. I agree in part, but I think it would only help for higher-priced books. If the book is priced at $0.99 or even $2.99, you can give yourself a dozen or more 5-star reviews for the price of a nice dinner out. But I agree with Creagan that Goodreads will remain a problem:
It also won’t do anything to stop writers slating one another’s work on places like Goodreads, which I’ve always found at the best of times a poorly-emulsified mix of a tea-and-cake-fuelled book club for lovely people and a nest of pit vipers with anger management issues. (I don’t have an account there, and my experience could be way off.)
No, Mr. Cregan, your experience is spot-on. Here’s just one thread on sock-puppet behavior there.
Next up: If Leather and Ellory weren’t enough, Stuart Neville adds another name to the list: Sam Millar, who spent lots of time and effort rubbishing other authors’ work via sock puppet accounts. He also gave some 5-star reviews, presumably just to mix it up. Neville makes an excellent point about the additional ramifications of this type of behavior:
There is also the issue of credibility in other areas. For example, Sam Millar is a frequent reviewer on the New York Journal of Books website. If he uses sock puppet accounts to review his own work, and that of others, this must call in to question the validity of his contributions to that website, and as a result, the credibility of the website as a whole. Even the positive reviews Millar has written for my second novel, and one Laura Wilson book, have to be viewed with suspicion.
Moving on, via @MikeCane, I discovered that authors aren’t the only ones engaging in sock puppetry (you’re shocked, shocked to hear this, aren’t you?). Mediabistro reports on a fake account at Author Solutions (AS was recently acquired by Penguin). “Jared Silverstone,” complete with hipster-ish avatar from a stock photo site, described himself as
an “Awesome Publishing Consultant at Author Solutions” in his bio on various social media sites, but his photograph can also be found as “Nerdy Mustache Guy Portrait” from iStock Photo. You can visit his Google+ page, his Facebook page and his Twitter page.
All those links except Nerdy Mustache Guy are now broken, I believe, and the twelve articles “he” wrote at Author Solutions are gone. Author Solution regrets the error, but no one there says much more than that.
But wait, there’s more! Also via @MikeCane, there is a long, utterly fascinating, and free-to-read article in The New Yorker about Kip Litton, a Michigan dentist who compiled an enviable record of sub-3-hour marathon races. Unfortunately, these results appear to have been fake. After obsessively diligent sleuthing by other runners, Litton’s Rosie-Ruiz techniques were revealed and he was disqualified from many races. The Wyoming marathon was his most astonishing achievement, in so many ways:
West Wyoming was Litton’s pièce de résistance, and even his most indignant accusers had to concede their perverse admiration. In this race, the key to winning was ingeniously uncomplicated: Make the whole thing up! For his fabricated marathon, Litton had assembled not only a Web site but also a list of finishers and their times (plus name, age, gender, and home town), and created a phantom race director, who responded to e-mail queries.
You have to read the whole thing. I can’t help but think that the machinations needed to fake that many marathon finishes were more demanding than the preparation it takes to run one fairly.
And finally, no links post on fraudulent behavior would be complete without reference to Lance Armstrong. I know that there are many, many good people who respect and admire Armstrong. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, a close friend who has met and raised money with Armstrong gave me It’s Not About the Bike. I thanked her and put it on my bookshelf unread. I admire his tenacity and determination in coming back from cancer, but I find almost everything else about his behavior repellent.
Outside Magazine’s phenomenal investigative reporters have once again produced must-read pieces on Armstrong, notably in articles about the forthcoming book by Tyler Hamilton and the relationship between Livestrong the foundation and Armstrong the brand. They stress that Armstrong’s behavior is a far cry from Greg Mortensen’s misuse of his foundation (which was also thoroughly documented by Outside), but the way the person and the work are intertwined rings a bell:
In a sense, Livestrong and Lance are like conjoined twins, each depending on the other for survival. Separating them—or even figuring out where one ends and the other begins—is no small task. The foundation is a major reason why sponsors are attracted to Armstrong; as his agent Bill Stapleton put it in 2001, his survivor story “broadened and deepened the brand … and then everybody wanted him.” But the reverse is also true: Without Lance, Livestrong would be just another cancer charity scrapping for funds.
Armstrong’s decision to stop fighting the USADA charges and the upcoming release of Hamilton’s book (in which the charges are corroborated by nine of their fellow riders) are the strongest challenges to his assertions of innocence so far. While he still has many supporters (just visit the comments section of any article about Armstrong), the recent developments may prove to be the most damaging. The Dallas Morning News reported yesterday that Armstrong’s public measures of likeability, endorsement value, and trustworthiness have plummeted:
Now he’s ranked 2,192 (out of 2,500 celebrities tracked by the Dallas agency) on par with Michael Bolton [in appeal].
As for endorsement value, he once was in there with Brad Pitt, slipped to Steven Spielberg, and now is neck-n-neck with foul-mouthed singer Nicky Minaj. People trust him about as much as they do Paula Abdul.
Lance Armstrong and Livestrong have done as much to universalize the spend-money-to-give-money-and-wear-something-to-show-that-you-did approach to charity giving as any other single organization, even more than the think-pink breast cancer crusade. So it’s not surprising that personality, branding, and charity are so intertwined here.
But the downstream effects of all these types of fraud are that observers and non-fraudulent participants wonder if they can trust anyone or anything. If we live in a world where gaming the system is so widespread, being trusting starts to feel indistinguishable from being a dupe. It’s not. But right now it sure does feel that way.