Thursday, September 6, 2012

Life, Death and Sock Puppets

A few days ago, a New York Times article revealed a little known practice in the self publishing business. It appears that several authors, some of them very high profile, are paying companies to write great reviews for their books on Amazon and on other sites. Some writers go one step further and pay for people to write very bad reviews of books written by their competitors. These paid writers are referred to as sock puppets and they could have a major effect on the publishing industry.
What’s Wrong With Sock Puppets?
The problem sock puppets create is twofold; first because there are so many books available online, many people make their choice of what to read based on skimming the reviews a book gets. They work under the theory that if a lot of other people liked a book, they might like it too. That theory is fine if you tend to like mainstream work, but it completely falls apart if a book gets 75 great reviews all written by one person who was paid to write them.
The bigger issue might affect Amazon directly. I am under the impression that the algorithms that Amazon uses to recommend books to people take the average customer review into account. If there are three hundred books on salsa dancing available, the first books you’re going to see are going to be the ones with more good reviews. I don’t think most people don’t search every result for every book search they do. I’m sure many of them only skim one or two pages of results. If the sock puppet books fill up those pages, the writers who didn’t pay for good reviews will never be seen and never be purchased.
Loving to Hate Sock Puppets
The more I learned about sock puppets, the more ambivalent I became. I spend a lot of time reading and writing about corporate spies and espionage. I am very familiar with the concepts of deception, persuasion and subterfuge. I can accept the idea that paid messages can come in the form of ads, sponsored blogs, subliminal messaging and other forms of psychological warfare. I don’t think there is anything sacred about customer reviews whether they are for hotels, electronics or books. It feels like the inevitable struggle that occurs whenever someone learns how to manipulate a system for their own purposes.
But as a writer I still have questions and dilemmas created by sock puppets. Why should I spend months trying to get real reviews if someone can spend $500 to get 50 fake ones? How do I even know how many sales the sock puppets are going to get me? Are these authors devaluing their own efforts for 10 extra sales or 10,000? Even if I did decided to pay for sock puppets, what am I saying about my own work? The last question is the most important one for me. Does paying for reviews make me a pragmatic publisher who adapts to the market in ways that will maximize sales or does it make me an insecure writer who isn’t confident enough in his work to let it stand on its own?

The Best Stories You May Never Read
At this point, I think I'm just going to go back to writing and leave the sock puppets to their marketing masters. I am too vain about my craft and too unsure about the real benefits of manipulating the system. My refusal to use sock puppets might mean that I am creating the best stories that no one will ever see. But at the very least, I want to feel good about what I'm doing.
Have fun.

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