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The furor over 'sock puppet' Amazon book reviews

September 04, 2012|by Carolyn Kellogg
  • Typing, anonymously.
Typing, anonymously. (Don Kelsen )

A best-selling British author has been caught red-handed slamming others' books on Amazon while praising his own under a number of pseudonyms. It was the assiduous work of Jeremy Duns, another writer, that laid out a case demonstrating that prize-winning mystery writer R.J. Ellory had been writing the "sock puppet" reviews on Amazon.

Ellory has admitted to using the sock puppetry -- pseudonymous handles to post positive Amazon reviews of his own books and one-star reviews of others'. "The recent reviews – both positive and negative – that have been posted on my Amazon accounts are my responsibility and my responsibility alone," he said in a statement. "I wholeheartedly regret the lapse of judgment that allowed personal opinions to be disseminated in this way and I would like to apologise to my readers and the writing community."

Those reviews have been taken down since Friday, when Duns began sharing his suspicions about Ellory via Twitter. Since then, a furor has erupted in England over sock puppet Amazon reviews. Duns has spoken to major newspapers about the practice and appeared on the BBC World Service.

Although the story broke over the Labor Day weekend, it spread quickly to the ranks of American crime writers and beyond. Dozens of authors signed a joint letter condemning the practice which ran in the Telegraph, including Duns, Mark Billingham, Lee Child, Karin Slaughter, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Laura Lippman and Jo Nesbo.

The letter reads, in part, "More and more books are bought, sold, and recommended online, and the health of this exciting ecosystem depends on free and honest conversation among readers. But some writers are misusing these channels in ways that are fraudulent and damaging to publishing at large....few in publishing believe [these cases] are unique. It is likely that other authors are pursuing these underhand tactics as well."

How is it possible to tell sock puppet reviews from actual ones? That's being put to the test in the case of reviews written by "Cormac Mac, "Noir Fan," "Crime Lover" and "Crime Queen." Writer Stuart Neville, one of the letter's signatories, believes those four handles are actually stand-ins for the writer Sam Millar. "I believe the author who has targeted me, along with Declan Hughes, Laura Wilson, and others, is Belfast crime writer Sam Millar," he writes on his blog. "It's possible I'm mistaken, but I feel the evidence is overwhelming."

Duns agrees with Neville's assessment, but Millar denies any wrongdoing. "As far as those fake names, I can say I have never written a review using them," he told the BBC.

Hundreds of authors have shared their support for the letter on the new No Sock Puppets Please website. Maybe that's because the practice, Duns says, is "absolutely rife." He tells the Guardian, "It's so tempting, it's so easy … and it's very very hard to prove it."

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