Monday, September 03, 2012

Roger Ellory and His Sock Puppets

As scandals go, revelations that best-selling UK thriller writer R.J. “Roger” Ellory has been “faking his own glowing reviews” (to quote the subhead on a report in The Daily Telegraph) and simultaneously dissing rival wordsmiths online seems like fairly small stuff. He is, after all, only a single abuser of an online-reviewing system that, according to a recent article in The New York Times, has fetched some freelance writers a good deal of dough for their phony critiques and, in the process, brought under suspicion all reader reviews on the Web--whether their subjects are books, restaurants, movies, gardening equipment, cleaning services, or anything else. And he says that his faked or negative reviews are few in number compared to the totality of opinions he’s submitted online.

However, the 47-year-old Ellory has suddenly become the poster boy for the exploitation of a system that contains inadequate safeguards against chicanery of this sort. As The Daily Mail explains:
Novelist R.J. Ellory was forced to make a grovelling apology yesterday after it emerged he had been posting gushing praise of his own work--and attacking others’ novels--under an assumed name on Amazon.

The author, who won the crime novel of the year [award] in 2010, seems to have been using at least two fake identities to rave about his writing on the site.

Posting as ‘Jelly Bean’, he wrote that his novel
A Quiet Belief in Angels was ‘one of the most moving books I’ve ever read’.

He continued: ‘It is so beautifully written I felt as though it enabled me to be a part of that era even though that can never actually happen.

'I would highly recommend this book to anyone who really wants to experience a class read.’

He also appears to have been posting as ‘Nicodemus Jones’, who described the same novel as a ‘modern masterpiece’.
Discovery of Ellory’s misbehavior--what’s known in the business as “sock-puppetry,” or the use of an online identity for purposes of deception--was made by Jeremy Duns, a UK spy-fictionist now based in Sweden. Duns, you may recall, was also the person who last year revealed significant plagiarism by Q.R. Markham, author of the debut espionage thriller Assassin of Secrets (which was later removed from store shelves by its publisher). He told the Telegraph that, while he hadn’t been a victim of Ellory’s pseudonymous mischief, he sees sock-puppetry as “pathetic” and worth exposing:
“I have only met Ellory once and this is not a personal attack, but I feel very strongly that fellow authors shouldn’t write reviews about their own ‘magnificent genius’ and slate the work of other hard-working writers without clearly declaring who they are.

“It is not my job to police it, but I think it is important to highlight what is ‘below the belt’ behaviour, which I have no time for.”
The British media say that authors Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride were two prominent targets of Ellory’s online derision. After giving MacBride’s 2010 DS Logan McRae novel, Dark Blood, only one star on the Amazon UK site, Ellory allegedly wrote: “Unfortunately this is another in the seemingly endless parade of same-old-same-old Police procedurals that seem to abound in the UK.”

(Left) J. Kingston Pierce and Roger Ellory in San Francisco for Bouchercon 2010.

Now, let me say that Roger Ellory is a friend of mine, and I’ve long found him to be a talented, insightful author. He has always been very kind and generous to me, and I look forward to many long years of drinking and story-swapping together at crime-fiction conventions around the world. Even if all the charges made against him in the press are true, I shall not abandon him as a friend.

However, these allegations of serial sock-puppetry are certainly troubling. I claim no inside information as to his motives, but I can only guess that a combination of prankishness and arrogance lies behind Ellory’s deeds. It would have been manipulation of a lesser sort had he sought simply to pump up his own writing through bogus reviews; we all understand--even if we don’t approve--that people cheat the system of online reviewing if they can get away with it. When Ellory extended his abuse to knocking other writers, though, that took his acts to a higher and less excusable level.

After being confronted with questions about his transgressions, Ellory issued a statement saying, in part: “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.”

For some, it may be too late for mea culpas. Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black and other popular works, is said to have tweeted: “Once you’re found out reviewing yourself glowingly and dissing others your reputation will never ever recover.”

I’m not sure Hill is correct. As I said before, this small-scale, if deliberate attempt to fool readers and perhaps boost book sales seems like a fairly petty scandal. Significantly worse offenses have been overcome by people who were far more in the public eye than Ellory. Perhaps the best he could do is follow the example of another Brit: actor Hugh Grant. After being caught “in the act” with a Hollywood hooker back in 1995, Grant--who was famous at that time for dating gorgeous model-actress Elizabeth Hurley--proceeded to fess up at every opportunity to the idiocy of his actions. By admitting to his misdeeds, rather than trying to duck negative publicity, he retained the support of his fans and earned sympathy from others. Today, most filmgoers probably don’t even remember Grant’s embarrassing affair.

In all likelihood, Ellory’s readers will eventually forgive him his wrongdoings. Though whether other authors forget quite so easily is another question.

I am very sorry that my friend Roger has to go through the public shaming he’s brought upon himself. But I hope he digests the wrongness of his actions, and that the exposure of his abuse of online reviewing stops others from repeating those same errors. We ought to be able to trust that people who pen online reviews do so out of a wish to voice their honest opinions--not out of a nefarious, ethics-free desire to game a fault-ridden system.

READ MORE:‘I’m Sorry’: Award-winning Crime Novelist Admits Fake Five-star Reviews of His OWN Books,” by Natalie Evans (The Daily Mirror); “A Quiet Belief in Sockpuppets,” by Jedidiah Ayres (Hard-boiled Wonderland); “Women Writers at War Over Fake Book Reviews on Amazon,” by Nick Fagge (The Daily Mail); “Sock Puppetry: Not Just Fun and Games Anymore,” by Jeri Westerson (Getting Medieval); “Fake Reviews Are Just the Start in the Dodgy Art of Publishing Books,” by Terence Blacker (The Independent).


Guy Savage said...

I was so busy reading the main story, I didn't see the mention, so thanks for that.

I wanted to say that this Ellory fake review business is a shame. It just goes to show you how insecure and threatened humans can be--even when there's no real reason behind it. I don't know how many novels he sells, but I would think he has a decent following.
He's not the only one to do this, of course, just the latest. Very unfortunate for both him and the other writers perceived, I suppose, as rivals. I wonder if those authors targeted knew that there was a problem before it was exposed.

Odd really as I can't see someone thinking "oh now I won't buy Billingham and instead all my $$ goes to Ellory." It's not as though you can put another writer out of business by a few bad reviews (unlike a restaurant perhaps)although I suppose if you do enough bad reviews you may impact sales. It's an ugly world out there.

My question: When will someone write a crime novel in which fake reviews feature? Art mirroring life.

Pauline Rowson said...

Good article. I've been following it on twitter, it's resulted into some considerable media coverage for some authors! A result, eh?

Roger is joining me and my fellow crime writers Matt Hilton, Stephen Booth and Ann Cleeves at CSI Portsmouth (UK) on 3 November where crime fiction debates crime fact with forensic and police experts present including a focus on cyber crime. It should be interesting and no doubt entertaining.

Bernadette said...

Sadly I suspect you're right and there will be no material consequences for Mr Ellory other than having to 'digest the wrongness of his actions' because we seem to have entirely given up on expecting people to have a shred of integrity in their private or public lives these days. You seem to be OK with that but I'm not. My paltry but heartfelt response to this will be to ensure that no more of my hard earned cash goes into Mr Ellory's pockets (or the pockets of the other authors who have been proven to have indulged in similar behaviour) and to wish that more people, including book sellers, would do the same.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Bernadette, you can rest assured that I am far from "OK" with abuses of online reviewing. However, I fear it's part of modern capitalism that people should figure out ways to cheat a system with so many opportunities for abuse. For some people, getting ahead is all that matters in the end.

Roger Ellory is not the first or the worst abuser of this system. Until companies like Amazon discover a way to fend off phony critiques, these problems will persist. And likely grow in number.


Anonymous said...

What I like about this post is that you have stated Roger Ellory is a friend and you intend to stick by him no matter what you think of his actions.

That is what good friends do and I hope that people see you for the decent person you obviously are, and that you are not dragged in to this by standing by him.

Guy Savage said...

On another note: check out the reviews recently posted on Ellory's books. Not real reviews--but commentary piling on the event.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

At Amazon, you can usually detect such abuse by clicking on the name and seeing how many reviews the author has. If he only has two or three, you know some kind of agenda is at work.

Often it is not the author himself but a relative, business partner, or just a devoted fan. We should all be wary of anonymous reviews anyway.

I'm not sure what effect, if any, the self-agrandizing reviews have, but the final estimate of any author will be in his work.

The Passing Tramp said...

It's pretty easy to distinguish useless, puffery reviews on amazon. There's little detail, lots of fawning.

Stephanie said...

After reading an article on Mr. Ellory's transgressions I emailed him from his website chastising him for his actions and absence of integrity. He took the time to respond personally. I decided to research the man and came across this blog. He is in need of a friend to see him through this, although it does have to be a true one that can say 'Roger, you f%$ked up" and merely make it a statement of fact and not a castigation. His actions were not life threatening, however, they are indicative of the lack of integrity in today's society. He didn't get away with it - and now he is holding the results in his hands and it is going to be a long time before he reclaims the ground he has lost. Alas for him and the readers he will have alienated.