Take the book I am currently reading: The Gods of Gotham by Lindsay Faye. At its Amazon UK page, The Gods of Gotham has 41 reader reviews, and an average rating of 4 stars (about right, judging by the 150 pages I have read so far). There's more than enough there to persuade an uncertain reader to take the plunge.
Access to reviews at the point of purchase is a fantastic resource for readers, who through blogs and online communities and Twitter have never before had such a wealth of information to help them make informed choices.
Now imagine that you discovered the 5 Star Amazon review that persuaded you to buy a particular book was written by the author under a false name? Or a close friend or associate of the author? Or that the author had paid for the review?
You'd be angry, and rightly so - you have essentially become the victim of fraudulent behaviour. Somebody has misrepresented opinions in order to part you with your cash. At best it is highly unethical behaviour, at worst, I'm not sure, Im not a lawyer.
I'm sorry to say that such behaviour, appears to fairly widespread, with authors paying for reviews - as outlined in this Bookseller blog - or indluging in "sock-puppetry", which in this context is the practice of authors using false accounts to acclaim their own books and slam other authors.
As I write this, an absolute storm is raging in the crime fiction community about the alleged activities of one author - RJ Ellory, a favourite of this blog over the years - who was accused last night of having apparently engaged in this appalling behaviour.
The author Jeremy Duns, who has campaigned relentlessy online recently against such activity, accused Ellory in tweets captured here. Other writers accused of similar include Stephen Leather and Matt Lynn. Following his tweets there was a two-hour long Twitter discussion of the issue that included crime fiction luminaries Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben and Val McDermid. That discussion continued this morning and while I have been sitting here writing this The Crime Writers Association has tweeted that it will be making a statement on the issue and drawing up a code of conduct.
UPDATE: On Sunday evening, Ellory issued a statement, reported by the Telegraph online, blaming a "lapse of judgment" and apologising to his "readers and the writing community".
Even as he did so, yet another writer was accused of the same practice by Stuart Neville.
The CWA, on Saturday, issued a statement condemning a practice it described as, "unfair to authors and also to the readers who are so supportive of the crime genre".
It seems highly unlikely that this whole depressing episode ends here, and I suspect we'll see others brought to book by similarly excellent detective work to that conducted by Duns.
My position on this is simple: authors posting fake reviews of their own work are cheating and betraying their readers and demeaning their profession; authors slamming their peers through the same system, whether for some sort of commercial advantage, petty jealousy or something else, is utterly despicable. I look forward to seeing the CWA's response.
I am both shocked and deeply saddened by these extraordinary activities.
Regrettably, it seems all but impossible for the practice to be stopped in any way other than the sort of industry-policing that Duns has so admirably led. (For more on this visit his excellent blog, The Debrief and the Left Room, the blog Steve Mosby, who has also written extensively on the subject). The strength of the Amazon reviewing system - the openness that allows all-comers to participate - is also its weakness. It is wide open to abuse and offers a perfect platform of anonymity and reach for those wishing to sock-puppet. It is very very difficult to see that changing.
That brings me to the main purpose of this post - aside from commenting and exposing this activity - how to reassure readers that what they read on Material Witness is genuine.
This blog is in seventh year now and never during that time I have felt the need to publish an editorial policy or review or submission guidelines. When I started, this sort of blog was relatively rare and the status and influence of bloggers in the crime fiction community was all but marginal. I believe Material Witness remains largely marginal - I don't blog as much as I'd like to - but overall the influence and scope of blogging is immeasurably greater than it was in 2006 when I started. The role of bloggers and their relationship with writers and publishers has become the subject of a great deal of debate, most of which, I confess, I have ignored.
But I recognise that my ostrich approach to these issues needs revising in the light of the sock-puppetry scandal and other ongoing debates, and that the integrity of my work likely does not speak for itself. I have therefore decided that I will publish an editorial policy for Material Witness to give its readers confidence in the reviews published here and publishers more information about what I do and why. I need to think it through thoroughly, and that will take some time.
In the meantime let me says this: I write for my own amusement and to help readers find new authors and vice versa. I am not paid to review the books, and the opinions expressed here are genuine.
I love writing Material Witness. I enjoy playing a small (marginal) role in the crime fiction community, which has enabled me to meet a lot of great people and find a lot of great books. May that long continue.