The issue of author ethics has been occupying many minds recently, not least of all mine. After Leathergate, the revelations about John Locke's buying of reviews, and the most recent allegations against RJ Ellory, I've been agonising over my own position in this. As I've detailed before, I have been attacked by another author using 'sock puppet' accounts on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. I've had a good idea all along who was behind it, but until now I've preferred to keep that information to myself. But given all that's happened in just a few weeks, I feel keeping quiet is no longer an option. So here goes:
I believe the author who has targeted me, along with Declan Hughes, Laura Wilson, and others, is Belfast crime writer Sam Millar. It's possible I'm mistaken, but I feel the evidence is overwhelming.
Millar has been using the screen names Cormac Mac, Noir Fan, Crime Lover and Crime Queen. I also suspect he has been using the screen names BookFan and Feelthepain, but less actively. He also uses other aliases on various websites, but for the purposes of this post, I'll concentrate on the four main names I've listed.
Before listing the following links, I should point out that all of these have been saved as HTML and screengrabs in case they are deleted in the coming days. I also have saved files going back two years. All of these are stored at a secure location.
The EvidenceThe easiest place to start is at the lists of reviews for each of those four IDs.
- Cormac Mac: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
- Noir Fan: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
- Crime Lover: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
- Crime Queen: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
- All of Sam Millar's books receive five-star reviews.
- Many of the reviews for other authors' books contain references to Millar, sometimes with links to his own book, often claiming to have heard him review the book on BBC radio (see note).
- Some of the five star reviews are for self-published works, the authors of which have placed reciprocal five star reviews for Millar's books when he self-published his own backlist titles to Kindle.
- The most frequent tag used by all of these accounts is "Sam Millar".
- Some books (including my own) have been given malicious negative reviews.
Wish Lists and SignaturesOne of the give-aways for sock puppet accounts on Amazon is the Wish List page. In fact, that was how the infamous Orlando Figes case was discovered. Two of the accounts listed show people with surname Millar as the account holder: click to see Crime Lover's Wish List or Noir Fan's Wish List.
(Update 3/9/2012: The Wish List attached to the Crime Queen account also shows a user with the surname Millar.)
Until fairly recently, the Cormac Mac account also had a Wish List attached, showing the account holder's real name. That has now been deleted, but fortunately I saved the page some time ago. Here is a screengrab. The name listed is Sam Millar (click the image to enlarge).
Another strong piece of evidence appears on Amazon.fr. Cormac Mac has commented on a five-star review from a reader, thanking them, and has signed the comment: Sam Millar.
J'AccuseI am not the first to have been suspicious of these accounts. Here are three examples of Amazon users raising questions:
The comments on this review of one of Millar's books question the use of sock puppet accounts after Crime Lover attacks a user over a negative review.
Another Amazon user directly challenges Sam Millar on his Amazon author forum. Millar has not responded as yet.
Yet another Amazon user challenges Millar over the use of sock puppet accounts on the Amazon.com forums (see note below about forum abuse).
ForumsAs well as providing Millar with five-star reviews, and mentioning his works in reviews of books by other authors, the four accounts have been very active on the Amazon.co.uk forums. This link is a simple search of the forums for the phrase "sam millar". It returns 265 results. Scrolling through the results, you'll find the vast majority of them are from the four listed accounts, all recommending Millar's books, and sometimes even talking to each other about them.
It is also worth noting that some, if not all, of these accounts have been banned from the equivalent forums at Amazon.com; all forum posts have been deleted by Amazon admin for spamming, in other words, the same behaviour as has been exhibited at Amazon.co.uk.
Attacking OthersUsing sock puppet accounts to promote the work of an author is of course unethical, but it is less serious than using such accounts to attack other authors. When I first raised this issue over two years ago, the four listed accounts had between them posted seven one- and two-star reviews of my debut novel on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Since that time, some have been deleted, and some have been modified. There are now four reviews between the UK and US Amazon sites.
Three of these are one star reviews, visible here, and here.
Strangely, the fourth review is particularly vitriolic, calls me "Another wanna-be tough guy who wouldn't know the first thing about being tough", yet still rates the book with five stars.
I have not, however, suffered the worst of these attacks. There are currently many more one- and two-star reviews online for the books of British crime novelist Laura Wilson. Here are seven negative reviews placed by the suspicious accounts at Amazon.co.uk: An Empty Death, Stratton's War, The Lover, A Little Death, another for An Empty Death, and here are three for An Innocent Spy. There are more at Amazon.com. In each case, those reviews have had an impact on the relevant book's overall star rating.
It is significant that all of these reviews were posted in the months following Laura Wilson's less than spectacular review of one Sam Millar's novels appeared in The Guardian.
In a similar vein, a string of one-star reviews appeared for the books of American writer Tom Piccirilli after Tom stated that he didn't care for one of Millar's novels on a message board. Here is just one example.
Like my own debut novel, some books appear have been attacked by the four suspect accounts for political reasons. For example, All the Dead Voices by Irish novelist Declan Hughes received two one-star and one three-star review. Voices from the Grave by Ed Moloney was attacked in a similar way here and here; in these reviews, Moloney's integrity as a journalist is attacked, and by association, the research work done by Anthony McIntyre. Moloney's book is also attacked at Amazon.com.
Finally, and most bizarrely of all, books by veteran broadcaster Terry Wogan are hit with one-star reviews. Here is one example, and another, and yet another.
Looking ForwardI reported these sock puppet accounts to Amazon two years ago, but as others have found when reporting malicious activity, no action was taken. I hope one of the results of the recent controversy surrounding fake Amazon reviews will be a tightening up of policy. I also believe the publisher of an author's works cannot divorce themselves of that author's behaviour, because it also reflects negatively on them.
There is also the issue of credibility in other areas. For example, Sam Millar is a frequent reviewer on the New York Journal of Books website. If he uses sock puppet accounts to review his own work, and that of others, this must call in to question the validity of his contributions to that website, and as a result, the credibility of the website as a whole. Even the positive reviews Millar has written for my second novel, and one Laura Wilson book, have to be viewed with suspicion.
I believe Sam Millar has posted malicious reviews of my novel because it clashes with his personal politics. If Mr Millar wanted to voice his disapproval in an honest way, under his own name, I would have absolutely no problem with that. My book touches on some raw topics, and I fully understand that not everyone will like it.
Negative reviews are never pleasant to receive, but when they're genuine, one has to take them on the chin. Malicious reviews, though, carry the sting of knowing someone is that mean-spirited, and is directing their bitterness at me. The crime fiction community is a friendly, open and welcoming one, with very little rivalry, so the kind of sniping that has come to light in recent weeks is a real disappointment. But I am continuously grateful for the support of my fellow writers, many of whom knew about these attacks. I must also express my gratitude to Jeremy Duns, whose dogged pursuit of ethics in writing has to be applauded.
Note about other authors named: I did not consult the other authors named in this blog post before writing it. Although I have discussed the issue with some of them over the last two years, the decision to write this post was mine alone.
Note about BBC radio: Many of the five-star reviews mentioned above claim that Millar has reviewed these books on BBC radio. I have never heard Sam Millar review a book on radio, and I'd be very curious if anyone at the arts desk at BBC Radio Ulster has ever had him review books on air.