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Looking Back on Theakston’s: The Strange Case of Stephen Leather

February 23, 2013

sock-puppetMy wife and I attended Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate last year. We had a wonderful time and blogged about it here, here and here. One panel discussion we decided to skip was ‘Wanted for Murder: The Ebook’ partly because I’m sick of hearing that print is dead, but by skipping the session, I missed some comments by thriller writer Stephen Leather that would snowball into a scandal that has rocked the publishing world. Regarding publicising his own books on social media Leather said:

As soon as my book is out I’m on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I’ll go on to several forums, the well-known forums, and post there under my name and under various other names and various other characters. You build up this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself

What’s most surprising is the brazen way Leather boasted about this. The odd thing about Theakston’s was that the subject the panels were supposed to be discussing was often not interesting enough to sustain the session, so writers drifted off onto other subjects. Perhaps Leather made the admission as he was stuck for something to say and thought it wouldn’t amount to a big deal. He was wrong. Leather’s comments were picked up on by, amongst others, spy writer Jeremy Duns. Duns has made something of a name for himself exposing internet frauds. It was Duns who unmasked RJ Ellory as having written fake reviews praising his own novels online. Ellory made an ass of himself but at least he had the good grace to apologise, unlike Stephen Leather. Through dogged research Duns began to identify the ‘sock puppet’ accounts on Facebook, Amazon and Twitter that Leather set up to plug his own work and engage in cyberbullying. By the way, take a look at Leather’s author website. Skim through the pages and you’ll see photos of him with George W Bush, Tony Blair, Chuck Norris, Michael Schumacher etc. They’re obvious parodies, and all harmless fun you might say, but I can’t help thinking they tell us something about Leather’s delusions of grandeur. Nick Cohen, who had a hand in exposing Johann Hari’s articles as full of fabrications, wrote about Leather in his column for the Observer. Cohen’s argument is that American writers who engage in this sort of fraud and plagiarism find they can never get published again, whereas in Britain their careers go on relatively unhindered as with Leather and Hari. Leather reported Cohen to the Press Complaint’s Commission, not for saying that Leather had set up sock puppet accounts, he had already admitted to that, but for Cohen’s write up of Duns findings regarding the cyberbullying of Steve Roach:

When he wanted to fake an identity, Leather picked on Steve Roach, a minor writer who had made disobliging remarks about one of his books. Leather created Twitter “sockpuppet” accounts in the names of @Writerroach and @TheSteveRoach. Roach described on an Amazon forum how one account had “16,000 followers all reading ‘my’ tweets about how much ‘I’ loved SL’s books”. He was nervous. He told Duns in a taped conversation that Leather was “very powerful” and not a man to be crossed. Roach emailed Leather and begged to be left alone. Pleased that his cyber bullying campaign had worked, Leather graciously gave Roach control of the @Writerroach account he had created, to Roach’s “great relief”.

The PCC adjudication was in Cohen’s favour. As Cohen says there is a difference between promoting your own work, which is legitimate, and deceit, which is not. I use this blog to promote my own work quite regularly, whether people choose to buy my books or not is up to them, but I’m not out to deceive anyone. Incidentally, I have come across a rather intriguing authorship question in my research pertaining to James Ellroy. But I don’t regard anything in that example to be fraudulent or malicious, rather it is just a common creative technique employed by novelists. Judge for yourself. Anyway, Duns has reason to believe that there may be many other authors engaged in internet fraud:

I have also heard from authors about private web forums and Facebook groups where authors, some of them extremely successful, hang out, and that they trade positive reviews and also post negative reviews to sabotage authors who they dislike or whose success they feel threatens theirs. I guess we’re looking at the tip of the iceberg here.

I think we owe a great deal to Cohen and Duns for their exhaustive efforts to expose these frauds and not back down when they receive an onslaught of abuse for doing so. If you are a writer and don’t believe this issue is important then I suggest you read these words of Duns:

Please don’t say this is all a car crash, or getting silly now, or it takes two to tango, or aren’t we equally to blame for talking about this while these frauds just carry on merrily deceiving people. Especially if you are more famous than Leather. Get off the pot. Speak out: share, retweet, blog.

Take a stand.

I take it Stephen Leather will not be invited to speak at Harrogate again this year, as Val McDermid is chairing the programming committee this time and as she is one of the signatories of a letter to the Telegraph condemning fake reviews I doubt he will be, but it would be nice if Jeremy Duns was, perhaps in a panel titled ‘Wanted for Fraud: Unmasking the authors who write fake reviews of their own work online’. Now that would be worth going to see.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. tartaglia permalink
    February 24, 2013 7:55 pm

    Hear! Hear! Excellent article. Practical self-promo doesn’t *have* to degenerate into *fraudulant* self promotion. If the US is rigorous about *keeping it real*, why not decent standards for UK readers?

    • February 24, 2013 10:26 pm

      Thanks! At least as these fraudulent reviews have come to the light the momentum for better standards has started.


  2. March 7, 2013 6:59 pm

    Fantasy novelist Lev Grossman did exactly the same thing on years ago for his first novel which he admits was a poor effort and did not sell well. In order to combat all the negative reviews he invented multiple fictional usernames and wrote glowing five star reviews. He wrote about his shameful “promotion” of the book for Salon back in 1999. This phoney self-promotion is a tiresome and very old game by novice and veteran writers alike. As social media continues to be the easiest and cheapest PR platform for any creative person the methods of duping the public will continue to get more and more devious. I knew of Ellory as well, but not that Duns had unmasked him. Duns may have some literary detective skills, but he was famously duped by the infamous plagiarist Quentin Rowan.

    • March 7, 2013 8:36 pm

      Another well known literary hoax on this side of the pond, although not related to genre fiction, is AN Wilson who was duped by a hoax love letter written by Bevis Hillier and published in his biography of Sir John Betjeman. The problem with internet hoaxes is, as you say, they are so easy to do. Oddly enough, many of these authors are very successful and well established so it makes you wonder why they bother. Perhaps they just can’t take any form of criticism.

  3. April 23, 2013 8:27 am

    SL tweeted about one of my books when it was free, but I didn’t know that until after it received its first Amazon review. I’d like to think he did it to help another writer reach an audience, but the reaction of the first reviewer “merlin57” was so hostile that I investigated.

    Googling “merlin57” revealed something interesting – especially when SL’s name was added to my search parameters. There was hit after hit.

    I believe “merlin57” has been deleted from Amazon now – but the damage to my book was already done.

    • April 23, 2013 8:56 am

      John, thanks for writing in. It seems SL enjoys the cloak of anonymity the internet provides. However, writers expressing experiences like yours with SL keep appearing.

      Best wishes,

  4. May 18, 2013 9:25 am

    I think the fact that Val McDermid didn’t invite me back to to Harrogate has more to do with the fact that she Tweeted that I was ‘an ignorant prick’ and less to do with the petition she signed. I was a bit hurt because I’ve always been a fan, but hey ho.

    I can’t let John Moralee’s comment pass as it is as hurtful as Val’s. I’m more than happy to put my hands up to messing around on Twitter and using pen names on forums, like thousands of other people, but I have never used a pen name on Amazon or any other site to attack another writer’s books. I have never used the pen name Merlin57. Just because John googled Merlin57 and my name and got hits means nothing and he is out of order suggesting that I had something to do with a negative review. It’s a ridiculous allegation on so many levels. Attacking other writers wouldn’t help my sales in any way and selling books and winning new readers is all that matters to me. Yes, I did help John by promoting his book when it was free, I do that a lot, but only if I think the book was worth promoting. I don’t know why John would possibly think I would promote a book and then post a negative review. It makes no sense, but the one think I have learned over the past year is that when it comes to writers struggling to make a living, logic goes out of the window.

    • May 18, 2013 3:49 pm

      Famous Writer,

      Thanks for the clarification and best wishes with your writing. More time writing and less twittering is good advice to all us scribes.



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