WHEN the novelist Quintin Jardine conjures up a new crime, it is normally a gruesome whodunnit, written to challenge the sleuthing abilities of Bob Skinner, his fictional Edinburgh detective.
But it is a real life literary scandal that has led the best-selling Scottish writer to propose a law change that would criminalise authors who pose as bogus reviewers and take to the internet to rubbish their rivals’ work.
Jardine, one of Scotland’s most popular crime writers, says authors who go online to slate the books of other novelists should face legal penalties under consumer protection legislation.
“I think undermining other writers is unforgiveable,” said Jardine. “What I believe is that if we are going to tackle it, we need to impose some sort of legal restriction on what can and cannot be done.”
The best-selling author, who lives in East Lothian, was reacting to confessions by two well-known crime novelists, who have caused controversy with their online activities.
Earlier this month, the award-winning novelist RJ Ellory was forced to apologise after it emerged that he had been posting glowing reviews of his own work under two assumed names. At the same time, he was using a fake identity on the Amazon bookselling website to attack other books – including a novel by another Scottish writer, Stuart MacBride.
The practice has become known as “sock-puppetry”, a term derived from simple hand puppets made from a sock and used to describe people who create false identities on the internet.
Last week, 50 well-known authors including crimewriters MacBride, Ian Rankin and Denise Mina condemned the practice, calling on honest reviewers to “drown out the phoney voices” to marginalise their underhand tactics.
Ellory’s online reviewing habits came to light shortly after the thriller writer Stephen Leather admitted that he used pseudonyms to speak about his books online to “create a buzz”.
At the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in July he said he went on to internet forums and created so-called sock puppet accounts to build up a network of fictional characters to talk about his own work.
In contrast to the praise lavished on his own works, Ellory was less effusive when dealing with Dark Blood by MacBride.
“This is the second of this author’s books I have read, and to tell you the truth, I can’t be bothered anymore,” Ellory wrote using a false name.
Jardine suggested the practice could amount to fraud. Some authors believe it may be possible to take offenders to court by tightening consumer protection regulations, which deal with people who falsely represent themselves as consumers.
“I think it (changing the law) is the only way to deal with it,” Jardine said. “The way I see it is that it is potentially deception for financial gain and, as far as I know, that might be called fraud by a court. The whole thing is distasteful and embarrassing for the guys who do it and I am sure they are not the only ones.
“This whole thing is a great big health warning for internet book reviews. They are so easy to fake and until Amazon, or any online retailer, offers people a review facility with meaningful quality control, they are not going to be worth anything.
If there was the legal means of stopping them, why not?”
According to the Law Society of Scotland, it is currently legal for people to write under assumed names. A writer using a fake identity would only be breaking the law if they were intentionally inducing another person into a contract under that false name. And experts in online law felt that Jardine’s call for sock-puppetry to be dealt with by legislation was a step too far.
James McLean, a Balfour Manson solicitor who sits on the Law Society’s Intellectual Property Law committee, said: “However reprehensible, I think it would be overkill, and a better approach would be to publicise such activity rather than to make it criminal.”
That view was shared by Denise Mina, the Glasgow-born crime writer, who said: “How would you police it? What we need is ethical self-promotion – behave yourself and don’t be snide. If you hate somebody’s book, put your name on your review. People should be embarrassed about this.”
Lin Anderson, the chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, said: “This (sock puppetry) surprised me, because crime writers are normally very supportive of each other. Someone once told me that it was romantic novelists who are not so nice to each other. I don’t think there is any excuse for dissing other writers,”
Even MacBride, a direct victim of sock puppetry, was willing to forgive. “I’d like to stress is that RJ Ellory has apologised for his actions, and I’ve accepted that apology, so I really think it’s time to stop putting the boot in,” MacBride said.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Amazon, the online book seller whose website hosted some of the offending remarks, said: “We use a variety of mechanisms to prevent abuse of our review system, including algorithmic approaches and the ability for customers to flag reviews that they regard as abusive for consideration by our team.”