Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sock Puppets, Private Armies and Paying for Reviews

When I think of the term "sock puppets," this is comes to mind. I didn't even watch a lot of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, I don't think, since its heyday was WELL before my time. I think my mom and aunt had lingering fondness for it, so I knew about the show through them. More, it stuck with me because something about it profoundly disturbed me.

I mean, it's weird, isn't it? A person puts a sock on their hand, makes a pretend mouth move, and talks to it. And makes it talk back. I don't care if the sock is decorated in a cute way or is as elaborate as a ventriloquist's dummy. The basic premise is the same: a person attempts to create the illusion of two or more voices talking but, no matter how cleverly done, it's still only one person, talking to themselves. It's almost a little insane.

So it amuses me that "sock puppets" is the term commonly being applied these days to authors who assume alternate identities to talk about their own books. Here's a notable new incident. Or who lever other people into talking about their books - either through reciprocation, the "army" mentality or by paying for reviews.

I'm rarely a black and white girl, but I'm coming down on this one as just plain wrong.

More, I find the practice profoundly disturbing. And a little insane.

The thing is, as writers we have control over what we write. It's a solitary, insular process. Once the book goes out into the world, the book is in the hands of the readers. And the readers get to think whatever they want to about it. The writer is no longer in control of that and this is how it should be. That's how art and communication work. Action and reaction.

A writer does not get to control how readers react. Much as they might like to.

To me, it's a violation of the purpose of the story. If I tell you a story, I don't get to grab you by the shoulders and demand that you cry on cue. If my story didn't communicate what I wanted it to, this is my freaking problem, not the reader's.

So to me, it doesn't matter what form of sock-puppeting an author uses - it's all an attempt to circumvent the cold, hard truth that how our work is received depends entirely on the work itself.

No, don't tell me about luck, or who gets more publicity dollars, or how x, y or z is not fair, or how some books don't deserve the attention they get. None of that matters. Only how readers receive the work matters.

Now, I do rate and review friends' books from time to time. And this is my grey area. I keep this clear for myself by a) openly acknowledging that I have warm, fuzzy feelings for this person to begin with, b) only saying what is absolutely true about my reaction to the book, and c) only reviewing those books I feel like I can genuinely praise. I know this is the "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" school, which many reviewers say is wrong. But I'm not a reviewer. I'm a writer and a reader. I get to gush a little when I love a friend's book.


And I do think this is a big HOWEVER.

I never ask my friends to review my books. And I don't reference those reviews when they, out of the goodness of their hearts (and hopefully some gushiness of their own sometimes) do write up something.

I should caveat that blurbs don't count. Those little one line bits where one author praises another, that get stuck on book covers? Those are a realm unto themselves, and everyone should understand that those are largely friendly and professional courtesy. They're not reviews. Every author I know who's asked to do a blurb struggles to make it true, but it not an biased review of any sort and should never be represented as such. So, if you ask your friends to blurb your book? Don't put it as a review on Amazon. Please. Put it on your website or whatever, but be honest about the provenance.


If you pay someone to review the book? You've tainted how they receive it.

If you're part of a team, where you all agree to review each other's books as part of pimping them? You are a compromised reader.

Even if you're doing a bit of reciprocation - I'll review yours if you review mine - it's a biased review.

If you're donning a secret identity to discuss your own books? Then you're only talking to yourself.

And that's just crazy.


  1. I agree with you - ultimately the book is in the hands of the Readers and their opinions are the ones that count! Well said...

  2. I won't review books I beta for. It looks bad because people will assume I am biased plus there are books I beta that just plain suck. I tell them, nicely, but sometimes the don't listen and publish anyway and I don't want to come out publicly and crush their feelings because I like them personally.

    1. that's always such a difficult spot to be in, Sharon. but what can you do?

  3. " Once the book goes out into the world, the book is in the hands of the readers. And the readers get to think whatever they want to about it."

    Yes. This. Readers aren't stupid. They'll notice reviewers who give five stars for crap work ... which then backfires on all future authors for whom that sock-puppet reviews.

    1. boy, do they notice, KAK! I think some interwebz users think people don't track that stuff because they don't - and they are wrong, wrong, wrong!

  4. Hey now. I talk to myself all the time. And I'm not insane. (Well, not totally.)

    For the most part, I only review books I genuinely like. Just because a book didn't blow my skirt up doesn't mean the next person won't love it - and I don't want my bad review to discourage anyone. But yeah, reviewing your own books under a fake name is just wrong. Paying someone to give you a good review = also wrong. Hell, any review that's dishonest is wrong.

    1. lol. I should revise to say, a certain kind of talking to yourself!

  5. I just can't figure out where these people find the time to do all this stuff. I mean, I can barely hack out enough hours in the day to write and keep up on the minimum of promotion for my own books.

    Where do they get the time to create sockpuppet accounts and read/trash/compliment each other?


    1. One wonders, Sheryl! I'm pretty careful with my time - doing stuff like this just wouldn't make the cut, even were I the least bit inclined...

  6. Ack, great post. Yes, the friend reviews are such a difficult gray area for me. too. This whole issue is just...uh!!!

  7. Follow-up article:
    I know everybody's moved on, but...