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 Pets.com'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 Pets.com'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~~

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