In which I consider sock puppetry and the pitfalls of online promotion

Firstly, dear reader, an apology. It is, I can’t help but notice, Tuesday. I did promise you that I would deliver you a weekly musing every Monday. I have failed. I prostrate myself before you and implore your forgiveness. Am I forgiven? Jolly good. Let’s all move on.

So, there’s has been a small furore (a furorette?) of late about writerly types massaging and faking their online reviews. Proper successful writers, most notably (but not uniquely) RJ Ellory, have been caught hiding behind anonymous online usernames in order to  big up their own books and slag off rivals in Amazon reviews and online forums.  It also turns out that John Locke’s “How I Sold 1 Million E-books in 5 Months” failed to detail his technique of paying for positive reviews. Ooops. Now clearly neither of those things are really on. But what is on when it comes to online promo? Where, ladies and gents, is the line?

If I hop over to twitter right now, 5 out of the first 15 tweets in my feed are people providing me with links to where I can buy their book, download their book or read a review of their book. And that’s a much lower percentage than it would be at other times of the day. Now clearly a bit of tweeting of links to stuff is fine. If people follow you on twitter I think it’s fair to assume they might be interested in other stuff you’ve written or produced. I’m a guilty party, as I always tweet and facebook the link to this blog when there’s a new post. I think, equally clearly, those people who use social media like twitter for nothing but direct promo are annoying and should expect to be unfollowed pretty quickly. Constant promo is deeply tiresome and makes all the lovely interesting people on twitter disappear off the bottom of your feed before you’ve had chance to see what they’re up to. Having said that, even aggressive and excessive direct twitter promotion is an irritant rather than an act of fraud.

But what about tweeting a link to the amazon page for your book and asking people to post a review? If someone tweets a writer to tell them they’ve enjoyed a book, is it ok to ask them to repeat that view on amazon? What if the reader doesn’t contact the writer directly, but the writer seeks them out and asks for a positive review? What if a reader writes a positive blog review, entirely of their own free will and volition? A review on a tiny personal blog isn’t going to do much to help a writer’s sales – what’s wrong with copying and pasting those positive comments into an amazon review? You’d simply be repeating a reader’s genuine thoughts, albeit under an amazon profile not of their creating.

An underlying issue here is one of markets. For new writers starting out, particularly for independent self-published writers, amazon is the key selling place. Getting books into real world book stores is hard, and there are less and less of them to choose from. Waterstones, WHSmiths and the supermarkets dominate real world book sales and, limited by shelf space, carry a vastly smaller range of titles than online sellers, and in the UK, at present, one online seller dominates them all. The drive to promote your book on amazon, to post good reviews, to boost your search position feels close to irresistible.

In addition to that, one of the big messages that new and aspiring writers hear from every turn at present, is that you must have an online presence. You must promote yourself and your wares. In this bookselling context it’s easy to see how the anonymity of online communications can tempt people to do things they’d never consider in a real world conversation. It’s tricky when talking to someone face to face about your book to nip out of the room, pop back in with a different hat on and pretend to be an enraptured reader of the tome. It’s also quite awkward to stand in front of someone and repeat the phrase “Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book” at 3 minute intervals, but online, people don’t always recognise that they’re doing just that and it’s, frankly, a bit creepy-weird.

So maybe that’s the rule – if it would be creepy weird in person, it’s probably creepy weird online. And, unless you’re trying to sell some sort of gothic fantasy horror, creepy weird is probably not the image you’re trying to create. So what do you think? Have you seen any examples of online promo that made you feel a tad discomforted? Do you pay any heed to amazon reviews and blog comments on books? Do you have any other thoughts on any subject at all? Please share…