Sunday, 2 September 2012

Naming Sock Puppet Names: Sam Millar

Update 5/9/2012: As I thought might happen, some of the reviews linked to below have started to be deleted from Amazon.co.uk.

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 Evidence

The easiest place to start is at the lists of reviews for each of those four IDs.
By browsing through each of those lists of reviews, a few patterns emerge:
  • 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 Signatures

One 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'Accuse

I 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).

Forums

As 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 Others

Using 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 Forward

I 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.

28 comments:

Ayo Onatade said...

I suppose that it is too much to hope that one will get a sensible response from Mr Millar? This is a sad state of affairs and it is utterly wrong that any author should be subjected to such malice. I do hope that as a result of this Amazon tightens up the way it allows reviews.

However, saying that I am not that sure this will be the case. I am truly aghast that this has happened and as someone who takes their book reviewing seriously I can only state that I do hope that something is done. There is a lot at stake for all concerned and those behaving this way should not be allowed to continue to do so.

bensix said...

Brilliant work, Mr Neville.

This is my favourite of "Cormac Mac"'s comments, wherein he questions the wisdom of one of Millar's pronouncements before enthusiastically affirming its sagacity...

Went straight out and bought Strong Justice after reading crime writer Sam Millar's review in New York Journal of Books. I am a big fan of Millar, so I usually listen to his advice, even though I though comparing it to No Country For Old Men, was perhaps a bit over the top. Millar was right. I was wrong.

Very wrong. Very, very wrong.

Matthew said...

It doesn't change the excellent (and surely undeniable) argument you've made but the first review by Cormac Mac of a Sam Millar book (the first link) is only 4* not 5%

It's the review of Redemption Factory, The by Sam Millar

Gordon Harries said...

This is disgusting behaviour that really degrades the public image of crime fiction that has always been known as one of the most generous around. Completely out of order.

Kathryn Cantrell said...

As a US new reader to the Irish crime fiction genre, I have to admit I found your books (and Declan Burke, Ken Bruen,, Adrian McKinty) from reviews on Amazon. I usually look at both good and bad reviews, and rarely believe five star reviews. So with all this evidence of deception and malice, I wonder how I got so lucky (because those books have not disappointed me), and I'm kind of at a loss what to do to continue to find good books that are not necessarily the ones pushed by New York publishing houses. Reading authors blogs and samples via my kindle and just being downright suspicious is my future, I guess. Caveat emptor.

Thank you for your efforts to publicize these issues. And looking forward to your next work.

Kathryn

Other Lisa said...

I can see we're going to have a good time on our B-Con panel, Stuart! ;)

This is incredibly sad. As you said, I've found the crime fiction community to be one of the nicest groups of people overall that you'd ever want to meet. It is utterly bizarre to me that an author would attack another this way.

Andrew Taylor said...

If this evidence stacks up - and I can't see why it doesn't - this is an appalling state of affairs, and an illustration of much wider problem. Thanks for such a good piece, Stuart.

Caitlin Sagan said...

An excellent piece of detective work, but you really shouldn't have had to do it.
It's a shock, but I fear the recent sockpuppeteering discoveries may be the tip of a sizeable iceberg. I do hope not.

blackwatertown said...

This is a very difficult one. I don't know either of you, though I've read you both.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that I start with a soft spot for anyone GB recommends - ie yourself.
I see Sam has not got his own blog up and running just yet over at his own site. Clearly serious claims you're making.
It'll be interesting to see how Sam responds.

Wendy said...

Sock puppetry is becoming an epidemic! (Or maybe we're just noticing more?)

Rachel Abbott said...

Well done for hunting down the evidence. I was asked to review a book for another author, and had to decline - not because the writing was bad, but because it just wasn't my sort of book and I struggled to finish it. I preferred not to review it rather than give it a potentially unwarranted poor review.

In under a day, I had received no less than 5 one star reviews, at least two of which mentioned this author's book and only one of which was a verified purchase!

And of course, if people can't be bothered to create their own sock puppets, there are sites where you can buy three reviews for a fiver!

James Thompson said...

I have been conducting a little investigation of my own and made some inquiries on Goodreads. Within a day or two I was given a scathing one star review that I believe was payback. I blogged about it. http://www.jamesthompsonauthor.com/blog/?p=771 and have also been in touch with Steve Mosby, who has written extensively about this and done a great deal of investigation. I think there is a simple way to expose all using sock puppet accounts and writing reviews for pay. Amazon can identify all suspicious reviewers by algorithm—those who almost exclusively give one and five star reviews—then feed their email addresses into an IP identifier like appverse http://www.appsverse.com/SignUp —which will trace the source of the reviewers. ALL engaging in fraudulent activities could be identified in a matter of days. I think GR and all similar sites should do the same, and that those proven to have engaged in fraud should have both their reviews and their works removed from all online bookselling and review sites.

We crime writers are an incestuous little community, and I know Sam Millar in an internet/email way, and I like him, and so this blog was hard for me to read. My only criticism of this blog is an indictment of NYJB because of accusations against one reviewer. I also review for NYJB and know that they hold themselves to the highest standards. They have over two hundred reviewers and can’t be held accountable for all of their actions. If I remember correctly, Sam Millar reviewed one of my books on NYJB. I didn’t ask him to do it. And I blurbed his book, ON THE BRINKS. It’s a powerful read, and in short, is how I came to know him. I know dozens of crime writers. My policy, if asked to blurb a book by an acquaintance, is to say that I’ll read the book. If I like it, I’ll blurb it. If not, I won’t. It would be pointless, as it wouldn’t make it to the jacket anyway. NYJB policy is that writers may not review each other’s books, meaning for instance, if Millar reviews my book, I am forbidden from reviewing his works forever more. This policy protects both writers and NYJB from accusations of nepotism.

But the truth will out and devil take the hindmost. I’m sure that authors engaging in fraud and online booksellers hope this will blow over and be forgotten, as some of the guilty are bestselling authors and much revenue will be lost. Books are a cornerstone of our civilization and as such, deserve to be treated with the respect and dignity that entails. As things stand, the star rating and customer rating systems are subverted and destroyed, and honest writers lose income because of attacks in the form of low star ratings and scurrilous reviews by envious or angry sock puppeters. They have a great effect on consumer choices. Let’s not let this go away. It hurts all of us.

Best, James Thompson

Stuart Neville said...

Thanks to everyone for your kind comments.

James - Your point about NYJB is well made. It's possibly unfair of me to question the whole website's credibility, and therefore its other contributors, but I feel this kind of behaviour taints everything it touches. It's up to whoever runs the NYJB site to keep their own house clean.

amsterdamassassin said...

I think you have a case here, although I'd like to point out that Amazon is not the publisher but the distributor of self-published novels.
Buying reviews and sock-puppetry ruins the validity of reviews, but the smart readers can easily learn how to distinguish between fake and genuine reviews.

Suw said...

amsterdamassassin, it's not enough to just say 'let people figure it out', because reviews play into Amazon's ranking algorithms and that means that fake reviews can have a significant impact on whether a book is seen in the various Top 100/Top 10 etc. lists that Amazon produces. That, in turn, affects sales, sometimes dramatically.

Amazon has to take steps to stamp this out, and I'm glad that more authors are now writing about their experiences. We need, as a community, to put pressure on Amazon to act, and continuing to write about it is an important part of that.

James Thompson said...

Hi Stuart, You're right, this taints everyone it touches and suddenly everyone is suspect. As I said, the frauds are easily identifiable. What is wrong with asking a vendor of merchandize marketed under false pretenses to take those products off their shelves? A petition from both readers and writers might provide some incentive.

James Thompson said...

Hi Stuart, You're right, this taints everyone it touches and suddenly everyone is suspect. As I said, the frauds are easily identifiable. What is wrong with asking a vendor of merchandize marketed under false pretenses to take those products off their shelves? A petition from both readers and writers might provide some incentive.

James Thompson said...

Hi Stuart, You're right, this taints everyone it touches and suddenly everyone is suspect. As I said, the frauds are easily identifiable. What is wrong with asking a vendor of merchandize marketed under false pretenses to take those products off their shelves? A petition from both readers and writers might provide some incentive.

James Thompson said...

Sorry for the repeat. Didn't mean to spam you - James

Keith said...

As a self-published author via Amazon, this activity is pretty scary. God knows it's hard enough to get reviews (from people you don't know), but the thought that something you write on a blog or a board might be held against you and used to fuel a negative review makes you want to take a couple of baby steps back from the Net ...

And the sad thing is, it's very tempting. It seems easy to set up a sockpuppet account and start reviewing away, and with Amazonian buyers seemingly acting like sheep who can read, depending on 5-star reviews for their fodder, and with the Amazon rating system reacting dynamically to one or two sales, it sometimes seems that a well-placed 'anonymous' review could earn you a few more bob.

And if we self-pubbers can't depend on you pros to keep the game clean, who do we turn to as referees?

Louise & Joel said...

I confess crime fiction, bar that Arthur Conan Doyle, is not really my bag and I've never heard of any of the protagonists in this sorry tale. However, I shall be buying at least one of your books in response to your blog, having been sold on your ability to tell this story excellently and with a good nose for detection. Fight the good fight and thank you for your candour and bravery.

James Thompson said...

Hello again Stuart. Contemplating the comments. Bear in mind, we're on the same side here. Your comment. "It's up to whoever runs the NYJB site to keep their own house clean." I'm unclear about the meaning of that. How can any organization monitor the outside and private activities of its members? Would you even want them to? As you stated, your own investigation was a couple years in the offing before reaching a conclusion. As to another comment stating that consumers should be able to discern the difference between legitimate and illegitimate reviews. Why should they? Most people just want to buy a good book, not try to discern the machinations of political intrigue before making a purchase. Sorry, but this caveat emptor argument is ridiculous. As Keith pointed out, this is particularly scary for self-published authors with no one to back them up. As an author with an imprint from a Big Six, I have the advantage of a legal department behind me. Most authors are defenseless, and it's just not fair. Once again, I ask readers and writers to get on this bandwagon and request that frauds be treated as such. It seems to me a reasonable request. Steve Mosby has suggested a letter/petition. I haven't read it, but I hope requesting censuring for fraudulent behavior. I am behind him. My email is: jamesthompsonauthor.gmail.com

If anyone wants to communicate with me about this, please, feel free. I believe that substantive proof is freely available to book sellers and all sites dealing with reviews and ratings via email logins. And again, I believe that asking these sites for substantiation versus speculation is only a reasonable request, and censuring the guilty a social responsibity. Is there some flaw in my thinking here? If so, please advise. If not, can we please join hands and do the right thing? Best to All, James Thompson

Stuart Neville said...

James - I think the open letter signed by a large number of authors will do a lot to shake the industry into examining its practices. And if organisations like the CWA and SOA make their positions clear, we may see some changes. Maybe that's too optimistic of me, but we'll see.

Keir said...

After the Figes scandal, I thought this practice would have died down and the perpetrators less likely to commit further transgressions. Clearly I was wrong. I Figes's case, speaking as an history teacher, it was especially unfortunate as I admired his work, but after spent my time (and students') going over it and looking out for examples of plagiarism and false attribution.
I am surprised that his latest book managed to get proper reviews; I was rather hoping he'd have been blacklisted and find it harder to publish books without recommendations from others in the field.

Sister Mary Murderous said...

On the Read Me Deadly mystery blog, my persona is Sister Mary Murderous, but on Amazon I am Maine Colonial and am the author of the comment you link to at the end of your J'Accuse paragraph above. I was more than suspicious about Cormac Mac, Noir Fan, Crime Lover and Crime Queen, based on the spam on Amazon discussion fora and on Millar's product pages. Somehow, I wasn't aware of the sock puppets' attacks on "rival" authors. I was disgusted by the self-reviews, but the attacks are far beyond disgusting.

I've clicked on the "report abuse" button on these sock puppet reviews, but Amazon's automated system doesn't do anything about that until it receives a certain number of reports. I would suggest that anyone who is convinced that these are sock puppet reviews also click on the "report abuse" button. Maybe enough clicks will be recorded to get rid of the reviews---and perhaps even get Amazon to block these accounts. This self-help solution is far from ideal, but it's something.

Stuart Neville said...

Pleased to meet you, Sister Mary. Your post on the Amazon forums helped give me the confidence to speak out, so thank you.

On reporting the reviews - While I understand what you're aiming for, at this exact moment, it might be counterproductive. Those reviews are evidence right now, and if they are removed due to user reporting, it doesn't help our immediate cause: to highlight that this is actually taking place.

Frank John said...

Lets buy some cotton and leather socks with good quality and perfect designs.
socks for kids | kids socks for sale

aliah said...

Sock puppets are easy to make and you add so many different feature to sock puppet.
puppets for sale
http://www.marionettes-puppets.com/