I didn't make the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival a fortnight ago, which is a real shame because it's a good festival and I hate reading stories of carousing and crapulence without having been part, and my Twitter timeline was filled with dazed, liver-crushed authors detailing what a great time they had. My timeline was also filled with discussion of what appeared to be the most controversial panel of the weekend; unsurprisingly, the subject was ebooks, and it featured a bookseller, Patrick Jaffe, a representative of the Publisher's Association and agent, Ursula Mackenzie, and two authors: one was Steve Mosby, an author I know and whom I like, and Stephen Leather, who has had great success in the ebook market self-publishing his own work (he's also a very successful, traditionally-published author.)
I wasn't at the panel, but the instant reaction, and in the days that followed, suggested that Leather had upset the audience and some of the panel members with his trenchant views. Not being there means I find it difficult to judge the relative arguments, but Leather's initial crimes appeared to be advocating selling ebooks cheaply, being blase about piracy and suggesting money could be saved by outsourcing the role of editor to groups of readers. Someone in the audience called him a 'tosser.'
My first reaction was that Leather had been stitched up a bit. I know the Harrogate crowd and they're great, but I don't see many fans of self-publishing among them. He was always on a sticky wicket. Yes, I thought, he had been gauche and provocative but he probably felt defensive and people often lash out when they feel under threat. The audience reaction smacked of a resistance to change and people protecting their own interests. Think what you want of ebooks and self-publishing but the industry has changed, and to deny that fact is to be blind. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The hounding of Leather that ensued had the whiff of pitchforks and torches about it.
However, from what I've read subsequently, I now believe my first impression was wrong. First of all, Steve Mosby blogged about the panel and mentioned something no one else had in the immediate coverage that followed: Leather admitted using 'sockpuppets' to promote his work online. In other words, he invents online personas to give his work a push.
This is troubling enough. But then an extremely tenacious author named Jeremy Duns went to work, investigating the extent of Leather's use of sockpuppets. He discovered that far from 'just' using these personas to promote his books, he also uses them to bully and intimidate other writers and offer bad reviews of their work. The scope of Duns investigative work, and of Leather's atrocious behaviour, is too complex to detail here. Rather I'd recommend you read these posts on the subject of both Leather and sockpuppetry by Mosby, David Hewson, Stuart Neville and this compilation of Tweets by Duns.
If all that wasn't enough, Duns went on to uncover some more disquieting online behaviour by Leather, including some vile views on race. In return, Duns has been left feeling vulnerable and worried. Leather has threatened him with libel - on what basis I don't know. I'm a journalist, and from my point of view, Duns has an abundance of evidence - and more than a few authors and readers, some with ebook axes to grind, have attacked his sleuthing, accusing him of doing it to further his own career - I'm not sure how antagonising a powerful and successful author like Leather would do that, but there you go - or basically shrugging their shoulders and saying 'Who cares?'
Well, we should all care, whatever the side of the publishing fence we sit on (for what it's worth, I'm firmly on the fence, having been burned badly by traditional publishing, but unsure that ebooks are the panacea some claim them to be or want them to be.) Leather's behaviour diminishes the whole trade and bolsters the argument of those who believe that self-publishing has become some kind of swaggering Wild West world where he who shouts loudest sells the most and then brags about it afterwards, and the sole thing that matters is selling vast quantities of books, regardless of who you trample over on the way, the laws you might break, or the quality of the work. In fact the idea of writing a good book, as opposed to a successful one, seems to be the furthest from their minds. I won't be in any way surprised if someone turns up beneath this blog to tell me that in the time it took me to write this they wrote a short story that they sold for 50p and it earned them enough to buy a GODDAMN PORSCHE!
But the point is this: while I sit on the fence, or choose not to get involved, in the increasingly ridiculous ebooks v trad publishing debate, I will become involved when it comes to how writers behave. Leather's disgraceful antics diminish the whole profession; Duns tireless and selfless probing (JA Konrath really could have written three of his books and a bought an Ipad for everyone in his home state with the proceeds in the time Duns has taken to look into the extent of Leather's sockpuppeting) do it a credit. I think we have a duty to denounce Leather's dirty tricks and make them known. I hope you agree.
Dan - Friday.
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