Wednesday 12 September 2012

My Last Word on Sock Puppets

It’s a little over a week since I wrote that blog post about the sock puppet using author who had abused me and others on Amazon while giving himself glowing reviews.  I had expected my little chapter of the story to be buried under the RJ Ellory scandal, but instead it caused quite a ripple.  I spent most of last Monday fielding calls and emails from journalists.  It was incredibly stressful.  If that’s what it feels like to get caught up in a very minor press scandal, I’d hate to be part of a major one.

I really didn’t intend to cause such a fuss.  Because I’d been part of the movement for author ethics, and party to the drafting of the open letter that was published last week, I felt it was disingenuous of me to keep my experience a secret any longer.  While good people like Jeremy Duns and Steve Mosby were putting their own reputations on the line, I couldn’t continue to tiptoe around the issue.  It was time to speak out.

It wasn’t an easy decision.  I didn’t casually point the finger.  It took more than two years to come to the point where I felt I had to tell the truth.  Knowing what I know now, would I do it again?  I’m honestly not sure.

What, if anything, did I learn from all this?

Primarily, I learned that the crime writing community is as supportive and friendly as I’ve always found it to be.  There are some exceptions to this, as became clear over recent weeks, but these rogue authors only emphasise how generally decent most writers are.  I am deeply grateful for all the messages of support I’ve received, both publicly and privately.  It would have been a much harder week without them.

Others, however, have made me angry.  In particular, the blog posts by JA Konrath in which he dismisses the issue of author ethics, saying: “Leaving fake one star reviews isn’t wrong.”  Such a statement beggars belief, and it’s an insult to those of us who stuck our heads above the parapet.  He calls the signatories to the open letter a “mob”, that the swell of support for the letter was a “moral panic”.  Without that so-called “mob”, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to speak out.

Shame on you, Mr Konrath.

RJ Ellory had the decency to admit to his actions, and apologise.  He didn’t equivocate.  He didn’t hide behind denials in the face of overwhelming evidence.  He didn’t pop up in the comment threads of other articles around the Internet, lying about what he’d already said publicly.  Roger is the only named author in this scandal to come out of it with a shred of dignity.  Some might argue that he only confessed and apologised because he’d been caught, and while I understand that point of view, I feel it misses the point.  Roger Ellory was man enough to put his hands up; in contrast, others have shown themselves to be spineless.

Right now, I want to put all this behind me.  I have no interest in feuds; I bear no ill will towards anyone involved.  I’m not going to pursue it any further.  This will be my last comment on the matter unless something remarkable comes to light in the coming days and weeks.

In conclusion, I’ll allow my friend (and excellent writer) Gerard Brennan to sum it all up:

Tuesday 4 September 2012

An Update, and a Statement from Laura Wilson

The Guardian has published a piece by Alison Flood on the recent controversies surrounding author ethics, and my last blog post features prominently. In the article, the managing director of O'Brien Press, Ivan O'Brien, said:
"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 ... It looks very bad."
Mr O'Brien goes on to argue that in light of Mr Millar's denial, they must take him on his word.

Also in the article, Laura Wilson has gone on record backing up my allegations. Laura has also been in touch with me, and provided the following statement:
"I reached the conclusion that the writer who posted negative reviews of my books on Amazon under the names 'Cormac Mac' and 'Noir Fan' was Sam Millar by following the same 'trail' of lists of reviews, wish lists and signatures as did Stuart Neville. I did this entirely independently of Mr Neville who had not, at that point, been on the receiving end of malicious sock-puppetry from the same source. I am aware that Mr Millar has denied being the author of these reviews, but I feel that the evidence (some of which has now been removed from Amazon) is pretty conclusive."
Speaking of removing evidence, at the time of writing, some of the reviews linked to in my previous post have been removed from

Sunday 2 September 2012

Naming Sock Puppet Names: Sam Millar

Update 5/9/2012: As I thought might happen, some of the reviews linked to below have started to be deleted from

The issue of author ethics has been occupying many minds recently, not least of all mine. After Leathergate, the revelations about John Locke's buying of reviews, and the most recent allegations against RJ Ellory, I've been agonising over my own position in this. As I've detailed before, I have been attacked by another author using 'sock puppet' accounts on and I've had a good idea all along who was behind it, but until now I've preferred to keep that information to myself. But given all that's happened in just a few weeks, I feel keeping quiet is no longer an option. So here goes:

I believe the author who has targeted me, along with Declan Hughes, Laura Wilson, and others, is Belfast crime writer Sam Millar. It's possible I'm mistaken, but I feel the evidence is overwhelming.

Millar has been using the screen names Cormac Mac, Noir Fan, Crime Lover and Crime Queen. I also suspect he has been using the screen names BookFan and Feelthepain, but less actively. He also uses other aliases on various websites, but for the purposes of this post, I'll concentrate on the four main names I've listed.

Before listing the following links, I should point out that all of these have been saved as HTML and screengrabs in case they are deleted in the coming days. I also have saved files going back two years. All of these are stored at a secure location.

The Evidence

The easiest place to start is at the lists of reviews for each of those four IDs.
By browsing through each of those lists of reviews, a few patterns emerge:
  • All of Sam Millar's books receive five-star reviews.
  • Many of the reviews for other authors' books contain references to Millar, sometimes with links to his own book, often claiming to have heard him review the book on BBC radio (see note).
  • Some of the five star reviews are for self-published works, the authors of which have placed reciprocal five star reviews for Millar's books when he self-published his own backlist titles to Kindle.
  • The most frequent tag used by all of these accounts is "Sam Millar".
  • Some books (including my own) have been given malicious negative reviews.

Wish Lists and Signatures

One of the give-aways for sock puppet accounts on Amazon is the Wish List page. In fact, that was how the infamous Orlando Figes case was discovered. Two of the accounts listed show people with surname Millar as the account holder: click to see Crime Lover's Wish List or Noir Fan's Wish List.

(Update 3/9/2012: The Wish List attached to the Crime Queen account also shows a user with the surname Millar.)

Until fairly recently, the Cormac Mac account also had a Wish List attached, showing the account holder's real name. That has now been deleted, but fortunately I saved the page some time ago. Here is a screengrab. The name listed is Sam Millar (click the image to enlarge).

Another strong piece of evidence appears on Cormac Mac has commented on a five-star review from a reader, thanking them, and has signed the comment: Sam Millar.


I am not the first to have been suspicious of these accounts. Here are three examples of Amazon users raising questions:

The comments on this review of one of Millar's books question the use of sock puppet accounts after Crime Lover attacks a user over a negative review.

Another Amazon user directly challenges Sam Millar on his Amazon author forum. Millar has not responded as yet.

Yet another Amazon user challenges Millar over the use of sock puppet accounts on the forums (see note below about forum abuse).


As well as providing Millar with five-star reviews, and mentioning his works in reviews of books by other authors, the four accounts have been very active on the forums. This link is a simple search of the forums for the phrase "sam millar". It returns 265 results. Scrolling through the results, you'll find the vast majority of them are from the four listed accounts, all recommending Millar's books, and sometimes even talking to each other about them.

It is also worth noting that some, if not all, of these accounts have been banned from the equivalent forums at; all forum posts have been deleted by Amazon admin for spamming, in other words, the same behaviour as has been exhibited at

Attacking Others

Using sock puppet accounts to promote the work of an author is of course unethical, but it is less serious than using such accounts to attack other authors. When I first raised this issue over two years ago, the four listed accounts had between them posted seven one- and two-star reviews of my debut novel on and Since that time, some have been deleted, and some have been modified. There are now four reviews between the UK and US Amazon sites.

Three of these are one star reviews, visible here, and here.

Strangely, the fourth review is particularly vitriolic, calls me "Another wanna-be tough guy who wouldn't know the first thing about being tough", yet still rates the book with five stars.

I have not, however, suffered the worst of these attacks. There are currently many more one- and two-star reviews online for the books of British crime novelist Laura Wilson. Here are seven negative reviews placed by the suspicious accounts at An Empty Death, Stratton's War, The Lover, A Little Death, another for An Empty Death, and here are three for An Innocent Spy. There are more at  In each case, those reviews have had an impact on the relevant book's overall star rating.

It is significant that all of these reviews were posted in the months following Laura Wilson's less than spectacular review of one Sam Millar's novels appeared in The Guardian.

In a similar vein, a string of one-star reviews appeared for the books of American writer Tom Piccirilli after Tom stated that he didn't care for one of Millar's novels on a message board. Here is just one example.

Like my own debut novel, some books appear have been attacked by the four suspect accounts for political reasons. For example, All the Dead Voices by Irish novelist Declan Hughes received two one-star and one three-star review. Voices from the Grave by Ed Moloney was attacked in a similar way here and here; in these reviews, Moloney's integrity as a journalist is attacked, and by association, the research work done by Anthony McIntyre. Moloney's book is also attacked at

Finally, and most bizarrely of all, books by veteran broadcaster Terry Wogan are hit with one-star reviews.  Here is one example, and another, and yet another.

Looking Forward

I reported these sock puppet accounts to Amazon two years ago, but as others have found when reporting malicious activity, no action was taken. I hope one of the results of the recent controversy surrounding fake Amazon reviews will be a tightening up of policy. I also believe the publisher of an author's works cannot divorce themselves of that author's behaviour, because it also reflects negatively on them.

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.

I believe Sam Millar has posted malicious reviews of my novel because it clashes with his personal politics. If Mr Millar wanted to voice his disapproval in an honest way, under his own name, I would have absolutely no problem with that. My book touches on some raw topics, and I fully understand that not everyone will like it.

Negative reviews are never pleasant to receive, but when they're genuine, one has to take them on the chin.  Malicious reviews, though, carry the sting of knowing someone is that mean-spirited, and is directing their bitterness at me. The crime fiction community is a friendly, open and welcoming one, with very little rivalry, so the kind of sniping that has come to light in recent weeks is a real disappointment.  But I am continuously grateful for the support of my fellow writers, many of whom knew about these attacks.  I must also express my gratitude to Jeremy Duns, whose dogged pursuit of ethics in writing has to be applauded.

Note about other authors named: I did not consult the other authors named in this blog post before writing it. Although I have discussed the issue with some of them over the last two years, the decision to write this post was mine alone.

Note about BBC radio: Many of the five-star reviews mentioned above claim that Millar has reviewed these books on BBC radio. I have never heard Sam Millar review a book on radio, and I'd be very curious if anyone at the arts desk at BBC Radio Ulster has ever had him review books on air.