I attended the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate last week. If you were there, or keeping an eye on events via Twitter et al, then the controversy surrounding a panel discussion on E-books won't have passed you by. If it did, these links will give you a few different points of view on the matter:
We Love This Book's summary: http://www.welovethisbook.com/news/mark-billingham-goes-hell-leather
Stephen Leather's side of things: http://publishingebooks.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/appearing-at-harrogate-plot-thickens.html
Panelist Steve Mosby had this to say: http://www.theleftroom.co.uk/?p=1716
And finally, a very thorough round up of events: http://itsacrimeuk.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/theakstons-crime-writing-festival-2012-wanted-for-murder-the-ebook-topcrime2012/
In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I know some of the players personally. I should also say I'm neutral on E-books and self-publishing, and I may address those topics (along with others raised here) in later blog posts. Anyway...
Given that this particular panel was titled 'Wanted for Murder: The E-Book', I think it's fair to say that a heated debate was expected, and Stephen Leather rightly points out that he was encouraged to make his arguments in strong terms. I've read quite a few posts scattered around the internet, mostly from people who weren't there, seeming to give the impression that Stephen Leather faced a hostile audience, and panel, from the outset. That simply wasn't the case. In fact, the general mood in the earlier part of the discussion was surprisingly cordial, and there seemed to be a genuine interest in sharing different points of view on various aspects of the E-book revolution.
I've had a few brief conversations with Stephen Leather online, but I only met him in person for the first time after his panel. He came across as a genuine and friendly bloke, and I look forward to meeting him again in the future. But I have to say, and I do so without bearing any ill will towards Stephen, that during the course of the debate he gave the impression of being arrogant, perhaps a little smug, and at times even belligerent towards the other members of the panel. That insults were shouted from the audience is to be regretted, but to say that Stephen didn't earn the crowd's hostility through his own efforts would be a lie.
Quite a few of Stephen's more controversial comments have already been widely discussed online: the crowd-sourcing of copy editing and proof reading; that pirates, whom many authors regard as stealing the bread from their tables, are doing his marketing for him; and a comment regarding his own publisher that was, to say the least, ill-judged. But one particular admission got under my skin, and for very personal reasons.
Towards the end of the discussion, Stephen Leather spoke about using fake Amazon accounts to manufacture discussions about his own books in order to give the impression of a buzz around them. To my surprise, this wasn't seized upon by other panel members, other than Steve Mosby, who asked Stephen Leather to repeat that he used what are known as "sockpuppet" accounts. This did receive closer scrutiny, however, in the various conversations that were had around Harrogate throughout the rest of the weekend.
Let me explain why this bothers me so much: I know of another crime novelist, whom I shall not name, who uses sockpuppet accounts in a similar way. This author uses them to mention his own books in various Amazon message boards, but going further than Mr Leather, he constantly references his own books whilst posting dozens upon dozens of five-star reviews for other books in the same genre. He also gives himself multiple five-star reviews.
How serious a crime is that? Hardly a prison matter, of course, but the fact that it happens devalues the Amazon review system. It also betrays the trust of current and potential readers. Some might regard it as a harmless way to game the system; I regard it as simply dishonest.
Even worse, and why this bothers me most especially, this same author has used these sockpuppet accounts to post repeated one-star reviews for my debut novel, as well as for authors such as Laura Wilson, Declan Hughes, Tom Piccirilli, and Ed Moloney. I blogged about the issue some time ago while it was still ongoing. Many of the negative reviews of my book have since been removed, and it appears his fake accounts have been banned from the Amazon forums, which at least shows someone takes it seriously.
Now, Stephen Leather has done nothing as bad as that. To my knowledge, his sockpuppet activities have been limited to those message board discussions that he's admitted to. But it's starting down the same path as my own Amazon stalker. At best, Stephen's abuse of Amazon accounts is disingenuous. At worst, it's flat-out lying to his own readers. Most of all, I think it was the rather self-satisfied way in which Stephen made the admission that got to me; he spoke as if this was a cheeky-chappy dodge, but I know how malicious a purpose such deception can serve.
I've generally gone by the policy of not getting involved in contentious online debates. I feel it rarely advances any worthwhile cause, and I always stick to the rule of not posting anything online that I wouldn't be prepared to say to somebody's face. And I'd be prepared to say any of this to Stephen, preferably over a pint, and I think he'd be able to take it and make his own case in return.