Marionettes for momentum

By Ilana Fox on September 6th, 2012

Much has been written about sock-puppets recently – that is, authors creating fake users to favourably review their own books, and to write bitchy reviews of their rivals’ efforts. I’ve watched the conversations on Twitter about Stephen Leather, first reported on here at The Kernel, and I’ve read the articles about authors paying for mass reviews.

Perhaps I myself have unknowingly fallen victim to other authors writing bad reviews about my books, for reasons best known to themselves. It’s only natural to wonder, I suppose. When you’ve worked in the online community and user-generated content industry for a while, you become canny to real and fake comments and reviews.

Needless to say, I’ve never seen fit to employ sock-puppeting strategies myself. But I have watched people do it, for newspapers, rather than for books, and I understand why they do: it’s a basic rule of building a community.

For authors, Amazon is one place your community of readers can be easily seen. It makes sense for some authors to manipulate these areas in order to boost sales.

Building momentum

When I worked for a certain British national newspaper, we provided user reviews in the entertainment listing pages. These ran every day, so we needed real reviews of theatre, film, dance and gig every day. My team was in charge of harvesting reviews from the website and passing them to the newspaper, but the problem we faced was that some of the reviews were not up to standard: they were often badly written, incomplete, or just not good enough.

And so the blurred lines of sock-puppetry began: we would ask colleagues and friends to write reviews on the website (only of things they’d been to and seen – the reviews were never fictional). We would use those reviews. We used real reviews, and we used real names, but we asked people to write them; we had to.

Because when you’re building a community, you need something to start with, to build momentum. It’s one of the first rules of community-building: seed it, then feed it.

It’s the same with books on Amazon, where customer reviews are often seen as make or break. It’s not uncommon for an author to send emails to their friends and family to ask for honest reviews. I’ve not done this for my latest novel: the Amazon customer reviews have flooded in from friends who reviewed it without me asking them to, and from strangers who have bought my book

But if I didn’t have any reviews at all, then yes: I would ask for some. And I’m not ashamed of that.

Is asking friends for reviews any different to an author paying a company to provide reviews for them? Aside from the fact that it’s cheaper, I’m not sure. After all, if I were to ask friends to review my books on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d expect the reviews to be favourable. If you can’t rely on a friend to pretend they loved your book in public (even if they haven’t read it, or didn’t think much of it), who can you rely on?

It’s the book reviewing equivalent of asking if your ass looks big in an expensive pair of jeans. You expect your friends to sing your praises, because they love you. Is this sock-puppetry? I don’t think so. Is it untruthful? Or is it a simple back-scratching exercise so predominant in business? The line is blurred.

To me, the charge of sock-puppetry refers to authors who create fake personas to review their own books favourably. I could create a fake user on Amazon, I could buy a couple of books with my new email address and new name, and I could start reviewing my own books and those of others. It’s not hard to do.

But if I wrote an honest review of a friend’s book under my new fake name, would this be dishonest? If I wrote an honest review of a book I didn’t like, would that be dishonest? The only dishonest point of my review would be the name I used. Yet when people working for brands launch online communities, such corner-cutting is commonplace.

Fake it to make it

Real users interact with fake users created by community managers – only they’re not parting with money for a book, they’re parting with their emotions during conversation. It’s not right, but it happens, and it’s a generally accepted method of kick-starting a community.

It’s accepted practice for some social sites to pay bloggers – so-called “influencers” – to be members on their site to get it off the ground, and in some cases the blogger doesn’t even participate: someone within the company does their work for them. It’s the same as a celebrity lending their name to a brand and pretending to be a “creative director”. It’s an accepted, pervasive marketing myth in the business world.

But we exist today in a world in which Amazon and supermarkets dominate the publishing industry’s distribution chains and sales opportunities. If you’re not a voracious reader and you’re looking for something you’re likely to enjoy, both outlets provide readers with an easy way to make an informed purchase.

In the supermarket, you’re provided with carefully selected mass-market books. On Amazon, while the breadth of books is obviously wider, the customer is key: people search through the bestseller charts, and make a purchase decision based on customer reviews. This is not dissimilar to the hundreds of retail sites that offer review functionality on their products.

The difference between online retailers of, say, consumer electronics, and Amazon is that authors are more emotionally attached to their creations, and that the reviews left on books – novels, especially – are especially subjective. My books are my babies: I spend over a year on each of them, and put so much time, and energy and love into each them that I’m disappointed when people don’t like them.

When a person leaves a negative review on one of my books, it feels like a knife wound. Retailers don’t get the same feeling when a customer says the sizing on a pair of jeans is wrong, or when the delivery company sends the item a day late.

We all want the best reviews possible, and if manipulation of the community can aid with that, well … it’s not forgivable, but it might be seen as understandable. There’s a line in Mad Men in which Don Draper says: “If you don’t like the conversation, change it,” and community managers do this skillfully all the time. Authors, it appears, seem to be doing it too – only much more clumsily.

So what, as authors, can we do? I’ve only responded to one bad review of my books – a review in which the writer accused me of personally viewing overweight people with contempt – but I did so as myself. I didn’t ask friends to post favourable reviews to try to cancel it out, and I didn’t create a wealth of new users to do it myself, either.

I could have done either, or both. The way I see it is that authors have always relied on reviews to help sell their books, and it’s only recently, with the increase in expectation that authors also need to be their own marketers, that we now truly see the importance – and the impact on sales – that word-of-mouth style reviews have.

But we need to learn suck it up, to allow our readers to have their say, and, if the reviews are truly terrible, then we need to write better books. For there’s another rule of community management we could all learn from: listen to what the customer says, and feed back to the company (in this case, ourselves) accordingly.

Ilana Fox’s latest novel, All That Glitters, is published by Orion, priced £6.99.