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