Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Interview: Founder David Thompson

David Thompson is an avid supporter of the joys and powers of the written word. When he was only 17, he self-published a series of books called Power Learning designed to help students develop and maintain good study habits. The Power Learning series is currently out of print, but Thompson plans to republish it next year. In the meantime, Thompson’s been developing a new web site that will surely please book readers and the authors who engage them. The site is called ReedAlong, and it’s slated to go live in just a few days.

As you all know, Gazalapalooza loves books, readers and authors. So does Thompson; when he’s not working fervently on ReedAlong he likes reading work by authors including Alexandre Dumas, RenĂ© Girard, George R.R. Martin and Jane Yolen. Clearly, his commitment to the ReedAlong project comes from his experiences as both a reader, and an author.

Recently, Thompson took a quick break from his busy schedule preparing for ReedAlong’s launch to do an interview with Gazalapalooza about his new site, and to share how ReedAlong will boost interaction between readers and their some of their favorite authors. Thompson’s appropriately excited about ReedAlong, and after checking out his interview below you’ll see why.

Gazala:    What is ReedAlong?

Thompson:    ReedAlong is a website where people can read books together. It’s a place where you can discover new books or get a fresh look at your favorites by reading along with the author and other people from all over the world and have daily or weekly chapter discussions.

Gazala:    How did you come up with the idea for ReedAlong?

Thompson:    I got the idea for ReedAlong a few months ago. I was sitting at home reading Neil Gaiman's  American Gods and thought it would be really cool if I could read along with other people and discuss the book chapter by chapter. I love reading but it’s kind of a solitary act. Which is good but it has its bad points, as well. When you read along with others you discover new things even about books you’ve already read. Someone else always has a different point of view that you never thought of. I made a few phone calls and sent a few emails around. I even asked a few authors and it turned out they were really excited to be a part of what I was doing, and things just kind of snowballed from there.

Gazala:    How will ReedAlong work?

Thompson:    Every week, you’ll see a new "Read Along" for a book posted on the site. We like to give people about a week to get the book if they don’t have it yet. We include links to Amazon so you can purchase the book online and have the book delivered in a few days. The author will set the pace, what days each new discussion will be posted and how many chapters will be discussed. With each discussion, you can ask the author questions or leave your own comments about the current chapters. We’ll also keep a history of all the discussions for those who are joining late and for reference. Once you join a Read Along, you’ll always see new updates for that Read Along in your news feed so you won’t miss a thing.

Gazala:    How will the authors featured on ReedAlong be selected?

Thompson:    We contact a lot of authors ourselves. Mostly authors we admire or authors that people in the community want to see on the site. We typically don’t go after the big name authors. We like to see new authors with only a few books under their belts. Diamonds in the rough, so to speak, that we think other people should see. We’re very open to recommendations as well.

Gazala:    Will ReedAlong focus on any particular genre? Why, or why not?

Thompson:    Not really. I’m a big sci-fi and fantasy fan and historically they’ve had the lion’s share of the online communities, likely because those fans have always been more tech savvy. Although, that’s changed since sites like Facebook and Twitter have taken the concept of online communities mainstream. At this point, I’m not going to pigeonhole the site. It’s still very young so we’re going to try a diverse set of genres and focus on where we see the most potential.

Gazala:    How do you hope the ReedAlong community will evolve after its start?

Thompson:    I’d like to see anyone be able to post their own read along. Not just the author. This enables us to cater to a diverse set of tastes and makes the site evolve and grow from the ground up instead of from the top down. Eventually, I’d like to see hundreds of different Read Alongs going on simultaneously.

Gazala:    Who are some authors ReedAlong has lined up for its launch?

Thompson:    We have a great lineup of authors. There are two that I’ll give special mention to: Rex Jameson, author of the Primal Patterns series of novels and the Perspectives series of novelettes. He was the first author we booked and we’re doing a special promotion with his newest book that’s exclusive to all our members. Another one I’d like to mention is a bright young author named Oliver Dahl. At 13 years old he’s written a book that’s just a delight to read, The Dreamers: A Story of Sam Kullen. We’re going to see a lot of good things coming from him, I’m sure.

Gazala:    When will ReedAlong go live?

Thompson:    We expect to officially go live on October 6th.

Gazala:    How should authors and readers interested in ReedAlong find out more about it?

Thompson:    Visit our site at and sign up for our newsletter. We’ll be sending out updates and special offers in the time leading up to our launch.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Unsocking The Puppets

The sock puppetry scandal tarnishing online product reviews is gaining momentum. Consider a paper just issued by Gartner, Inc., a prestigious publicly traded information technology research and advisory company. Gartner predicts that come 2014 somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of all online social media product and service reviews will be bogus, planted surreptitiously by enterprises hawking their own stuff under the false cloaks of authentically enthused independent consumers. Sock puppetry is becoming sufficiently widespread to attract decidedly unfavorable attention from the Federal Trade Commission; so much so that the FTC is reportedly preparing to aim its litigious ire at a couple of Fortune 500 companies to expose and punish them for their online review scams.

As discussed in a post published on Gazalapalooza a few days ago, the modern book industry is far from immune from this sad charade. A few days after that post, contributor David Vinjamuri, who teaches branding and social media at New York University, wrote an insightful article about sock puppet book reviews on Amazon and its Internet brethren. Vinjamuri’s article deserves exploration by authors and readers alike. It attracted many thoughtful comments, including from renowned British author Stephen Leather, who found himself (perhaps unjustifiably) called out in Vinjamuri’s piece for sock pupetting.

I was one of the folks who commented on Vinjamuri’s piece. That comment, and Vinjamuri’s ruminative reply to it, comprise the rest of this Gazalapalooza post. Rampant sock pupetting is a serious topic with poisonous implications for otherwise invaluable online word-of-mouth reviews and discourse about whether given books are worth reading. It affects every one of us who rely on (what we assume are) the bona fide opinions of our social networking peers regarding the precious time and money we invest in books.

The recording industry and book publishing business models are close cousins. Many reasons Tower Records’ shops and Borders’ stores are extinct overlap. So it’s no surprise to find ample precedent in the record industry for the sock puppetry trend in online book reviews. A similar practice went unchecked for years in American radio. It’s an illegal practice popularly termed “Payola.”

In the 1950s radio stations were exposed for placing into heavy on-air rotation primarily songs which they had been paid to play. The reason was plain — the more the song aired, the higher it rose on hit lists, and the more sales it garnered. The few record companies and promoters who failed or refused to engage in the graft saw their records receive scant airplay, if any. This was particularly so with new labels and artists.

Payola is sock puppetry’s clear antecedent. To get radio’s stamp of approval (i.e, positive review via heavy airplay) for your song, you paid. If you didn’t pay, the clear implication to the marketplace was your song wasn’t good enough to be on the air (i.e., bad review via scarce airplay), and few would ever discover or buy it.

The payola scandal rocked radio to its core. It caused considerable damage to the reputation of Alan Freed (who was at the time arguably America’s premier disc jockey), and threatened Dick Clark’s career sufficiently to induce him to sell his record company interests and assist government authorities in uncovering the racket.

The result was federal legislation, still on the books today, requiring radio stations to announce on-air that any song played for compensation is sponsored airtime. Such songs may not be included in a radio station’s regular airplay for purposes of tabulating rotation for hit song compilations.

The distance between payola and sock puppetry is slight. Deceptive positive book reviews are driven by quest for financial remuneration, whether via clandestinely paid reviewers or by an author praising his own work pseudonymously to boost sales. Likewise, deceptive negative book reviews are driven at least in part to quash rival authors’ sales in favor one’s own.

Accordingly, both legal precedent and mechanism presently exist for outlawing sock puppetry, which is nothing but an Internet-based bastardization of payola. It’s true, given the easy guise and ubiquity of Internet anonymity and without a broadcast license under FCC control to discourage bad behavior, enforcement could prove more problematic on Amazon than in radio. Nonetheless, requiring full disclosure under penalty of law of reviewers’ identities and compensation, is a tried-and-true step in the right direction. It won’t completely eradicate the problem, just as it hasn’t done in radio. But the payola remedy can stigmatize sock puppeteers’ and their enablers’ reputations, and expose them to legal consequence for fraudulent practices. That’s a start.

I’m extremely impressed with your argument and I agree. I think that in one of my earlier responses to Mr. Leather’s comments I actually mentioned “pay to play,” referring to the payola scandal. The sense is that because this has gone on so long and is so pervasive that it is an accepted business practice. In every article written about this issue and in many of the comments by those accused of this behavior you hear that refrain “everyone does it.” The unstated assumption is that the system will never change. But just like a chemical system which remains stable to a certain temperature and then undergoes rapid, destabilizing change I believe that this system of wanton, anonymous self-promotion and systematic gaming will have to come to an end. You can make a reasonable argument that it has been profitable for Amazon up until now to ignore or at least try to minimize these issues. But as individual authors realize that they’ve been wronged and more and more cases of this behavior come to light, the tipping point will be reached and the system will change quickly and profoundly. I only hope that the next iteration leaves room for undiscovered writers to be found.

"This seems to be the American way of life, which is a wonderful way of life. 
It is primarily built on romance. I'll do for you. What will you do for me?"
~~WILD Disc Jockey Stan Richard~~

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sock It To You

The world is full of famous sock puppets. Shari Lewis introduced us to Lamb Chop. Ed the Sock was so huge in Canada that he had his own late night talk show. Mick Foley is a professional wrestler who's never far from his biggest fan, Mr. Socko. And who can forget the savage throw-down between's canine Spokespuppet and his sock puppet nemesis, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog? The turmoil between those two hosiery-based hounds resulted in a nasty trademark lawsuit that was ultimately resolved only by's bankruptcy. That Triumph celebrated his victory by committing unspeakable acts on his humiliated adversary in a public restroom remains a blight on the entire sock puppet community still spoken about solely in whispers behind closed doors.

Unquestionably, these sock puppets are gifted entertainers. Yet not one of them can truthfully assert to be the author of ten novels that have collectively sold over a million copies while sweeping up esteemed literary awards. Only one sock puppet can make that claim. Over the past decade or so this sock puppet has gone by several names, including Jelly Bean, and Nicodemous Jones. Readers may know him better though by his real name, R.J. Ellory.

In Internet terms, a "sockpuppet" is someone who invents one or more fictitious online identities for purposes of posting laudatory reviews of his work, or disparaging competitors' efforts. Ellory's significant achievements in this regard came to light a few days ago, when one of his fellow British authors discovered Ellory's shady behavior and outed him. Ellory now admits to pseudonymously ladling his own books with five-star Amazon reviews and praising them with glowing terms such as "modern masterpiece," while simultaneously cowering behind fake names to belittle the writing of his colleagues, including Jeremy Duns, Mark Billingham, and Stuart MacBride.

Ellory has struck a nerve. A group of 49 British authors recently signed a letter to the English newspaper The Daily Telegraph, castigating Ellory for his "abuse." Several renown American authors, including Anne Rice, Michael Connelly, and Karin Slaughter, have publicly joined their British literary brethren in chastising Ellory. All of this outrage has lead to Ellory's issuing an apology for his "lapse of judgment," on the heels of which his literary agent proclaimed that Ellory "has no further comment."

In the wake of Ellory's confession, The Crime Writers Association, a British literary organization to which Ellory belongs and is a former board member, felt sufficiently disturbed to issue a statement labeling Ellory's actions "unfair" to authors and readers alike. The CWA also announced that while it doesn't know how pervasive sockpupetting is, the association "...will be taking steps to set up a membership code of ethics, and considering if other steps may be necessary from us as an authors' organisation."

Besides perhaps a tinge of sociopathy, what explains Ellory's sockpuppetry? After all, this is an author whose career has won acclaim from his professional peers, and has pleased readers round the world to the tune of a million books sold. Countless authors would give their eyeteeth for the literary success Ellory enjoys. Now, I don't know the man and likely never will, but if I had to guess I'd say his misguided behavior sprouts at least in part from a gnawing sense of panic at the way the "traditional" model of book publishing is splintering more and more with each passing day. The book publishing industry a decade ago when Ellory's first book was published was a very different, and simpler, thing than it is today. The ranks of brick-and-mortar bookstores dwindle ceaselessly, along with opportunities for authors to appear at them for promotional events. The entire industry is moving inexorably onto the same Internet that permitted Ellory to secretly pump his own books while dumping on his purported rivals', and that has empowered untold thousands of new authors to publish their own books without negotiating traditional publishing's narrow, outmoded gateways. Accordingly, the competition for readers' notice has reached unprecedented levels of cacophony with no signs of slowing down. With all the new books and the free books daily and increasingly overflowing the virtual shelves of Amazon and its ilk, how does an author stand out and draw attention to his work? This question alarms all but the most perennially bestselling authors currently breathing.

Ellory's answer was donning electronic masks behind which he glorified his writing, and mocked the work of authors not named R.J. Ellory. Given the plethora of veils easily available via the Internet, only the foolish could possibly believe Ellory is the only author (or agent, or publisher, or public relations firm) directly or indirectly guilty of sockpuppeting.

It's one thing for an author to recognize and pursue legitimately invaluable word-of-mouth Internet buzz about his books. There's nothing wrong with that, and there's no substitute for it in today's democratized book publishing world. It's altogether another to "ellorize" an author's own work, or the hard work of other authors stupidly considered competitors for readers' time, affections and lucre. The latter is worthy of nothing but wretched infamy, and Ellory deserves all of it we can pile onto him.

For readers contemplating Amazon reviews while looking for their next great reads, sadly there's one overriding takeaway from Ellory's deceit -- caveat emptor.

"Whose leg did you hump to keep this job?"
~~Triumph the Insult Comic Dog~~