Randall Wood

Sock Puppets, and a disappointment.

A few days ago I posted a new page on my website, one I thought I would never have to produce. The subject is still burning online and I’m getting several private emails regarding it, so I felt I would vent a little here and explain why I did it. The title of the page is Policies and Legal Matters. It was my initial intention to post it in the footing, somewhere out of site yet present if needed. But in light of the traffic I’m receiving I decided to post it in the main menu without comments open. (Comments are open here)

This past week there was a major scandal in the publishing world. Several authors, most of them popular names, were accused of abusing the reviews process in order to promote their own works, posting reviews under anonymous names and/or purchasing favorable reviews from a service, thereby skewing the process by which books are rated. Worse yet, they falsified reviews of rival author’s works, giving them negative critiques in an attempt to advance their own works.  The practice is known as sock-puppetry, and although the act was widely suspected and surprised no one, the names involved and the scale by which it was happening caused an uproar in both the trade and self-publishing community.

As a result, several authors signed onto a pledge produced by an organization known as No Sock Puppets Here Please (“NSPHP”). The pledge was quickly produced and only a few paragraphs in length, but the premise was simple; that the authors who signed on would vow not to participate in that form of behavior. It then went on to call on the readers and reviewers of the world to “Drown out the phony voices” Several big name authors signed on and the ball quickly got rolling.

Then something happened that disappointed me.

An author I respect, someone who has some influence in the self-publishing community, chose to sign with some conditions attached. While he condemned the practice in principal, and agreed that the people who performed such acts were deplorable, he picked a few words out of the pledge and focused on them. He had his reasons and he argued them well. It was entirely his choice whether to sign on or not and he did. But I had a problem with his overall view.

This author is also a lawyer. Therefore he wears two hats. As I read his statement I couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t the author I was listening to, but rather the lawyer. He made an argument to the scale of each offence and explained why one was more heinous than the other. I read it twice before I had to disagree. He referred to the practice as deception; I would call it something else.

The practice of sock puppetry is Fraud. No matter what scale it is performed on, it is fraud plain and simple. Furthermore, it is fraud with intent. The authors who chose to perform these acts perpetrated a fraud on the people. The victims of this fraud are the entire reading population, and every author putting pen to paper. I usually shy away from absolutes, but this was not a hard conclusion to come to. If one recognizes that fraud occured first and then wishes to classify the severity of each different offence, I have no choice but to call that a weak argument. Scale should not matter. Neither should the means by which they carried it out. Whether the act was committed with the intent to reap personal gain or to directly or indirectly cause harm, it started first with fraud.

The author was cautious as he feared the lynch-mob mentality. Making a decision as to how he wanted to express his views was not something he wished to rush into and I think everyone can respect that. He ended up doing two things. One of them I applauded; he chose to write his own code of conduct in regard to what was happening. I sincerely hope to see it someday. The other disappointed me; he chose to remove his name from the list. It was entirely his right to do so, but his name carried considerable weight, and I feel it did more harm than good in helping to resolve this issue.

Will there ever be a solution to the sock-puppet issue? I don’t see one anytime soon. I think as long as the means are in existence to do so it will continue to happen. Perhaps not in so public a forum, but it will happen. What we can do is draw attention to it when it does happen. If we fail to do so we encourage the practice to continue, and that is to the detriment of us all.

As for myself, I chose to publish my own policies on the issues of Blurbs, Reviews, and FanFiction on my website for all to see. It lets everyone know where I stand and also serves to keep me in line should I ever be tempted. I think getting it out front from the start is the best path to follow.

I would hope we can all learn from this, chalk it up as a learning experience, and just get back to writing.



2 thoughts on “Sock Puppets, and a disappointment.”

  1. I’m actually okay with that author removing his name. I think he felt he signed in haste without considering what his signature on that particular statement would mean. I think he was caught up temporarily in feeling “This is BAD.” And it is, and every author has to decide for him- or herself on a personal code of conduct, but the NSPHP statement felt a bit like a witch-hunt to me, focusing on and shaming three authors, only one of whom seems to have deliberately planned to harm others. I think the author you’re talking about took another look, did some hard thinking about why he signed in the first place, and made the decision that was right for him, and ultimately–who knows–for everyone.

    But hey, that’s just what I think. 🙂 Thanks for a thoughtful article, Randall.

  2. I’m okay with his decision too Bridget, I’m just disappointed as I thought he was arguing his case based on what I feel is a technicality. He still has my respect as an author and a member of the self-publishing community. I’m not going to let one disagreement on an issue change that.

    I can’t bring myself to label the petition as a witch-hunt. I know that some out there will take it to the extreme on the internet and there’s no stopping that. But I don’t see the act of simply signing your name to a pledge as the equivalent to joining a mob. The authors that were mentioned were mentioned as examples of what was happening. IE: they were already outed. I didn’t read it as “lets lynch these three”, I read it as “lets vow to not do what these three did”.

    For what its worth I wrote my policy page before I knew of the petition. Now I’m bound by it. I think that’s a good thing. In the end, the petition is really a paper tiger. There’s no way to enforce what they are asking authors to abide by so I don’t see what all the fuss is in regard to it. Publishing your own code-of-conduct puts you in a binding position. I just thought it was the right thing to do.

    Thanks for the visit, your input is always welcome!

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