x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Sock puppetry, posting favourable reviews of one's own work online, is a foolish pursuit

Several authors have been caught out posting reviews of their own work on websites such as Amazon - and some even pay others to do it for them

Earlier this year this newspaper ran a review of Orlando Figes's Just Send Me Word. The book recounts the story of Lev Mishchenko and Svetlana Ivanova, a couple for whom the course of true love conquered the twin (and considerable) challenges of the Second World War and, for Lev, several post-war years in the icy discomfort of the Gulag. Matthew Price, a regular contributor to The Review, concluded that Just Send Me Word was both "unforgettable" and "a work of sadness tinged with triumph".

Figes is one of the foremost historians of his generation - he has written several best-selling, award-winning books on Russia - and when he writes, the world tends to take notice. Or at least it did until a couple of years ago when Figes became mired in a scandal that briefly threatened to overtake his reputation.

In 2010, the author was caught posting boosterish reviews of his own works on Amazon, while indulging in a spot of low-level trash-talking of published works by two of his contemporaries. Figes initially denied any wrongdoing before admitting he had made "some foolish errors" and issued a public apology for his actions. He later agreed to stop writing unattributed reviews online.

Now it appears that Figes was not alone. The novelist RJ Ellory - whose latest book A Dark and Broken Heart was described by one Amazon reviewer as "unputdownable" and by another as "chilling and thrilling" - has confessed to using online aliases and a "lapse of judgement" in giving his own books high-star ratings.

This would probably explain why the more recent reviews of the book, posted after Ellory was outed as a fake reviewer, are a little more bile-laden. One described the author as "disgraceful", another said "he does not deserve your cash or mine". There are worse than that on the book's Amazon page: one entry is written entirely in capital letters, that trademark gesture of the unhinged emailer.

The dark art of fake reviews, fair or foul, has been dubbed colloquially as "sock puppetry", which is about as benign a name as you could care to attribute to a practice that is often nasty and always deceitful.

What's interesting here is that many authors (and this practice is judged to stretch beyond the two cited examples) are sufficiently vexed about the persuasive powers of online reviews to spend their time posting glowing assessments of their own work.

The New York Times has also recently reported on the commoditised practice of reviewing the works of self-published authors - the going rate for such reviews was estimated at $1,000 (Dh3,750) for 50 short but warm endorsements - a branch of the industry which, until recently, had largely been written off as "vanity publishing", but whose flames have been fanned by several writers making the leap from unknown to multi-millionaire.

In essence, this is paid-for marketing in its crudest form. While name publishers undertake sophisticated campaigns to launch books, no-name authors use contracted reviewers to ramp up interest in their unknown titles.

Ellory, who is a best-selling author, has certainly done that. His case will probably help him shift a few more units to those whose curiosity gets the better of them. Using the sock puppet alias Nicodemus Jones, Ellory once described one of his own works, A Quiet Belief in Angels, as a "modern masterpiece". Now, how could that title possibly live up to such a lofty billing?

How much any author is, in the end, assisted by such online chatter is harder to fathom, but those who indulge in such fakery obviously believe it matters.

For many readers, a personal recommendation delivered by a friend or a balanced review in a newspaper or journal still trumps an anonymous digital footnote that screams "I loved this book". Long may that continue to be the case.