Attack of the Sock Puppets

6 Sep

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I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised — but I was — when I read about the small business a man in Oklahoma named Todd Jason Rutherford set up a couple years ago. He paid strangers he found on Craigslist $15 to write book reviews for which self-published authors in turn paid him between $20 and $100, and soon had websites like Amazon flooded with reams of positive feedback on thousands of vanity-pressed books.

Some of his reviewers spent not much more than fifteen minutes perusing the tomes they then showered with online compliments, doing as many as 70 reviews a week. Mr. Rutherford was doing so well that, according to the New York Times, “he had plans for a multi-million dollar review business.” Then, he apparently angered one self-published author of sad diary entries who started complaining — also online. Business fell off, Google suspended his advertising account and Amazon removed some of his reviews.

The story made me wonder about not only about the until recently latent need so many average people have to see their work published, to seek “validation,” as one of Rutherford’s customers put it (the one who complained, actually), but also, apparently, to have their electronic output fulsomely praised. Is it human nature — or in the writer’s nature — to seek adulation?

Admittedly, I have over the years heard all kinds of people in all kinds of places mention how much they wished they too could write and publish a book. But I always assumed that probably the hard work, determination and craft this required tended to persuade them that “validation” might be just as forthcoming from other things, like doing their job well, raising a family that loved them, being a good friend, and so on.

Internet publishing, however, has proven just how wrong I was. According to a data firm called Bowker, there were 51,237 self-published books in 2006. Last year, there were more than 300,000 — in both print and digital form — and by 2015, that number will double.

What’s more, the notion of popular creativity that informs what I might call the ‘good’ side of self-publishing has also been left somewhat tattered by reality. Crankiness, rather than creativity, is what drives most of its output, for another interesting factoid in the NYT article had it that an overwhelming number of self-published books are “trying to prove creationism.” Others are grinding axes of various sorts. And many more, bizarrely, are written to make money.

Thus, telling your friends and family you have actually written a book is not enough. That’s where Mr. Rutherford came in, providing, as he commented in a Publisher’s Weekly blog post on the practice, “affordable book promotion assistance for the masses.”

Now the Guardian has highlighted another kind of review fraud they’re referring to as “sock puppetry.” Along with reviews that are really just advertising, traditionally published writers are adding to the confusion by writing glowing descriptions of their own work under false names.  And they’re not exactly mincing words either. The Guardian quoted one crime-writer whose puppets described his work as a “masterpiece,” and himself as “one of the most talented authors of today,” whose “ability to craft the English language is breathtaking.” Wow. Even Shakespeare, were he alive and able to wrap his head around the entire digital publishing phenomenon, might blush.

Worse, some are taking to the online review pages to slam the competition, kicking verbal sand in the faces of authors crowding the top spots of their genre.

So, what to make of this? Well, if writing is one’s passion and/or livelihood, there’s no doubt that a good review is nice to see. A bad one can be emotionally devastating and being ignored potentially even more so. As a writer myself, I understand this.

At the same time, the whole notion of publishing companies acting as so-called gatekeepers to personal expression is falling apart. Any self-published author might point out that, for example, no one published John Kennedy Toole during his lifetime, or more than a handful of Emily Dickenson’s poems, or Jane Austen’s novels until just six years before her death. They might also add that traditional book publishing is a shrinking and much-mergered business, and that book reviewing is also often a question of who you — or your publisher  — knows, and is itself finding less paper space than ever.

That’s really the point of the online review, as Amazon has recognized. Since most people are purchasing their books — whether digital or printed — online, reviews on the same page can help readers make their choice.

Or as Kate Pool, deputy general manager of The Society of Authors told the Guardian, “All of these seem to me to be the flailings of an industry in a state of major transition – from long-established traditional grooves into nobody is yet entirely sure quite what.”

So while I might council authors, self-published or not, to get a grip, that’s probably not going to happen. It would be nice if literary expression could be taken more as art than commerce, and people with emotional issues could seek other ways to find a purpose in life other than sharing their probably pretty ubiquitous sufferings.

But we live in a world where competition is the art and that much sought-after “validation” is hard to define, let alone find. An alienating world where opinions don’t seem to count unless they are written, however badly, and published — to glowing fake reviews.

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