Friday, August 3, 2012

Rogue Author

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 MosbyDavid HewsonStuart 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.


  1. Excellent post Dan - clear, succinct and heartfelt. And yes - I agree!!

    1. Ditto everything Cath said. Excellent piece, Dan!

  2. Excellent and insightful piece - I had no idea self publishing was so ruthless. Thanks for bringing it to our attention...

  3. Thanks, Dan. If someone does write that 50p short story, I'm sure I won't read it, but I read this! The one thing I'm sure of is that I'm hopelessly outclassed in the self-promo department.

  4. I'm a reader who enjoys books published in whatever format-I appreicate ebooks as they introduce me to authors who are not able to be published in any other format. I would like to think a successful author would find little reason to 'slag' a fellow wordsmith, really quite discouraging. I won't be purchasing any more of Mr Leather's books & will pass on word about his behaviour.

  5. Some authors have for years written glowing reviews of their own books on Amazon and on other online venues, but this is truly disgusting. Thanks to you Dan, and to Jeremy Duns, for letting us know about this.

  6. Leather sounds like one of those criminals who show up in real life and in crime stories, the kind that is begging to get caught. He ADMITTED to a group hostile to his position that he uses sockpuppets? I wish I could get Duns over here to talk to the MWA/NY writers about this. But some here (and everywhere, I imagine) will take all this as a lesson in how to cheat the public. Too bad it is so much harder to learn to write a really good book.

  7. Life is not fair, not everyone gets what they deserve. But more often than not, the reward for living your life well is a life well-lived, and the punishment for being a possum turd is that you have to spend your entire life with yourself, smelling and tasting the fruits of your bowels.

    Here's a toast to the lives, here-abouts, well-lived!

    1. I know we're supposed to be talking about serious things here, but I have to just interject for a moment to say that "possum turd" is now my new favorite pejorative.

  8. I just read your comment, Everett and burst out laughing. Maybe I should not even leave one now. LOL

    But I do want to comment on the 'quantity vs quality' issue. I am always aghast when I read a blog or a comment from a writer who has gone indie and is bypassing a professional edit of their work. I am an editor, but I still hire someone to edit my books that I self-publish. And all this shouting about how we need to buy their books just irritates the one nerve I still have left.

  9. I agree completely - and I'm astonished that there hasn't been more widespread condemnation of Leather's atrocious political views. Jeremy Duns deserves a lot of praise for bringing this to light.

    On the question of self-publishing, you make an excellent point that all the focus is on sales and success, and almost none on the quality of the writing. If this truly is the publishing model of the future then you're going to see a lot more writers like Leather & Konrath, but you sure as hell won't be seeing a new Thomas Harris or a John le Carre.

  10. Thanks everyone.

    Maria - self-promotion is an important factor in self-publishing, but the most important thing is to write. I can't believe Leather finds time to write books given his presence on the Internet.

    Anonymouses - thanks - I would hope this coming to light would backfire on Leather, at least until we get a decent explanation and apology.

    Cheers Stan - yes, they have, but deliberately doing down other authors takes it a whole step further. Maybe Amazon needs to look at a way of verifying people before they review, maybe purchase proof, to ensure they have actually read the book they are reviewing?

    Annamaria - yes , he did. Unbelievable, though credit to Steve Mosby for teasing it out of him.

    Everett - I'll drink to that!

    Maryann, any writer worth his salt knows their books need proper editing. I can see some merits in the idea of crowdsourcing, though it seems a hellish idea to me. Rather find a pro and get them to do a professional job, regardless of how you publish.

    Tom, Jeremy deserves lots of praise (he has already done alot of work 'outing' serial plagiarists). And I agree re the quality. There is room for Leather and JA - if Leather were to clean up his act - but we need to make sure the good stuff isn't drowned out in the cacophony. Not everyone likes to self-promote. Some of us, you know, like to write and the idea you need to be some sort of shonky second-hand car salesman to succeed is loathsome.

  11. I write reviews of books and post them on Amazon and on my blog. I started writing reviews of books I enjoyed When I learned that traditional publishing houses don't expend significant effort or money in bringing authors to the attention of readers unless those authors are James Patterson or Mary Higgins Clark (neither of whom I have read).

    Having a limited budget, limited space, and somewhat limited time for reading, I need someway to vet new authors. My solution is the public library. I discovered all the Murder Is Everywhere writers browsing the stacks. I like to read the books in a series in order and, with these writers, the first book was enough to convince me that all their books would be worth buying.

    I appreciate that new self-published authors aren't going to be in the library. I don't have any suggestions to get around this problem that is financially fair to the authors. But would it be feasible for authors looking for readership to create a genre specific website to which they would post a first chapter? Is there a means by which they could have the chapter notarized so that no one else could claim it?

    I have read and reviewed all the books by the Murder Is Everywhere group and enough other authors to have over 600 posts on the blog* since the summer of 2010. Some reviews have been contributed by other reviewers, some posts are opinion (mine). Each of these authors can be found in most library systems or on Amazon.

    Stephen Leather has done every writer who is trying to break into the main stream a grave injustice.



  12. My sense (perhaps it's more of a hope) is that there may be a backlash against hastily put up, unedited works by writers who didn't understand the vast task they were taking on well enough to allow themselves an apprenticeship. I think that a great story and great writing are rare on both sides of the fence, but that when we see them, we value them.

    I also think we're going to go a little deaf from all the shouting. And then a quiet proffering, just a placing into someone's hands, face-to-face, not virtually, of a story that speaks more loudly than the selling of it does, will become the truest commodity of all.

    Told you it might be more of a hope.

  13. Dan, I commend you for exposing the darker side of what too many like to think of as an intellectual pursuit "above it all."

    As long as people see money in a market there will be opportunists. And they couldn't give a damn what one thinks about their morals as long as they profit. That is a bottom line reality confronting every aspect of our economies.

    The only way abusers of the sort described in your piece and the comments will even care what one thinks of their behavior is if someone takes the wood to them. For example, the Leather-man you described has likely admitted to libel, commercial disparagement, and statutory violations of commercial laws in several jurisdictions, but who will bring the actions?

    That only happens when the wrong person is crossed and the risk of that happening is so small that rewards in the minds of predatory schemers far outweigh any potential downside.

    These are precisely the sorts of situations where either government prosecutions or institutional actions (hello Amazon, B&N, and Authors Guild, are you listening?) offer the only practical means for addressing the pandemic abuses within our profession that threaten to undermine the literary tradition worldwide.

  14. I don't know Stephen Leather, but I know Jeremy Duns, virtually, at least, because he's a member of the TWENTY-ONE WRITERS group (more about them later) and he strikes me as a serious, conscientious, and honest guy, and a good writer. I have friends who are friends with Leather (he's in Bangkok a lot) and I think it would be interesting to hear an attempt at his defense.

  15. I'm spreading this as far as my online presence will reach. It sickens me.

  16. This is disturbing for all of us writers who are just entering the ebook world and wondering if it's worth it. I put up on Kindle five books whose copyrights were returned to me by traditional publishers, and now I'm thinking less enthusiastically about putting up an original work. Perhaps Leather is the exception that proves the rule about writers, at least in crime fiction, being people who help and support each other.

  17. The issue you raise is more important than either of the specific men. It's the story - as pointed out by a member of MWA/NY - of suspense and mystery writers...surely in our imaginations we see injustice and justice done in wildly different ways? How can the industry protect itself against dishonest and unethical folks? In The Four Hour Workweek, the young author showed how he managed to slip through loopholes to win contests (a tango contest in Argentina) with no extensive expertise (a few months of training, losing or gaining weight to change category, something like that), and of how to become an expert virtually overnight. Self-publishing can do that. His point is that you can establish expertise virtually overnight in almost anything. A lot of what he said made sense, and I highly recommend it. But a lot of what is assumed is an ethos that simply doesn't seem to exist in a significant way. Apparently it's War: Everything is Fair. I disagree and hope that this issue goes viral. If we don't keep raising the question, it will die just like the idealism of the 60s turned into mainstream materialism and the ideas are now buried under iPods and such.

  18. This is an excellent, if disturbing, post. The behaviour of Leather threatens all decent, hard working self-published authors. In my opinion it also tarnishes the whole of the publishing industry, self-published or traditionally published. This kind of behaviour is not only illegal and immoral but it is very hurtful to those authors who may have been his victims. I personally applaud you for bringing this to light and am extremely grateful to Duns hard work in investigating Leather. Thank you.

  19. Maybe I'm dense, but I fail to see how Leather's behavior threatens me as a self-published author. His behavior reprehensible, yes. Would I want to be classified with him? No. But I assume most readers are smart. Will they think I "sockpuppet" just because he does? I don't think so.

    So where does the threat exist? How am I going to be harmed by his actions?

    I am not condoning his behavior, and if he were to attack me personally I would accept that he had caused me harm. Certainly he has caused some authors harm. But all of us? I don't see it.

    1. Kate, it's because everything he is allegedly doing casts doubt on the veracity of the information we get about these books. Already the attitude about self-publishing is that there is a lot junk out there that's just set free into the wild without proper editing, etc.

      And then we, as readers, have to wade through the swamp of self-published books to find the good ones. How do you know what's good? Is a good book one that has all 4 and 5 stars? Are those starred reviews from my 12 family members? Or from "fake" Internet identities? Does it mean it's a crappy book and the reviews lie? Maybe. Maybe not. How do you know?

      Is a good book one that sells a bunch of copies? We know there are poorly written books that sell a gazillion copies, so that's not a good indicator either.

      Someone who flagrantly uses this method to promote his/her book hurts other authors because he shines a light on how broken the system is of evaluating books. He further breaches a trust that was already tenuous.

      On the other hand, maybe authors like this are actually doing us a favor to show us where the system is broken so someone can figure out how to fix it.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. Gee, I would have liked to have heard what Mr. Leather himself had to say. I see where he has removed his own post. That's a shame. One thing I like about Tim Hallinan, he seems to be a fair minded person. And Stephen deserves to have his side told. Who better than Stephen Leather himself?

  22. The problem is that I have been advised to say nothing.

    But it is just so darn unfair that blogs like this have repeated allegations as fact without making any effort to check whether they are true or not. Ditto all those who pile in to comment on the allegations. It really is a mob mentality and is unfortunately not uncommon on the internet these days.

    I've been ignoring most of what has been going on because it's impossible to win against a mob.

    But some things you should know. Pretty much all the allegations that Duns is making are untrue. I stand by what I said at Harrogate but he has twisted and lied and stretched the truth in a way that has stunned me.

    At one point he made a defamatory statement about me on Twitter and I tweeted back that he had crossed over into libel. He then began tweeting that I was suing him. That is an absolute lie. I never said that and I have no plans to sue him. If nothing else he has so little in the way of assets that a libel action would be pyrrhic at best. Since then I have just ignored him.

    He then tweeted that he was afraid that I would send someone from Ireland to hurt him. That is a total fiction. But both these lies have been repeated as if they were fact.

    What I said at Harrogate was then twisted to say that I had opened fake Amazon accounts to criticise the work of other writers. That has been repeated many times and is not true.

    Duns phoned a friend of mine and spent almost an hour getting him to try to criticise me. He taped the call but still ended up twisting what was said. I have a full four-page statement from that friend about the way Duns behaved. I also have a letter from him saying that in no way does he regard me as having bullied him.

    (end of part one)

  23. (part two)

    Over the past three weeks Duns has posted hundreds of malicious and abusive tweets about me. He has appealed to his friends to join in and several have. Some of his friends have been on to Facebook trying to befriend me and my contacts as a way of getting access to my Facebook account.

    Duns took screenshots of my Facebook page and tweeted them. He tweeted personal details of my address. He has made countless unsubstantiated allegations and offensive comments to the point that I have to avoid Twitter most of the time, a great pity as that was my favoured way of talking to fans.

    Duns claims to be a journalist. I have worked for some of the best papers on Fleet Street and I don't know any other journalists who would act in this way.

    He also claims to be a writer. According to Neilsen, Duns has sold a grand total of 3,278 books in the UK. That's over his whole writing "career". According to Neilsen, his latest book, The Moscow Option, has sold 162 copies. I think you need look no further than that for an explanation of the jealousy that is driving Duns. I sell more copies in one week than he has sold in his life.

    A writer by the name of Steve Mosby has been heaping abuse on me too, He is fond of calling me a bully (based mainly on the allegations that Duns has made). Again I would dispute that. I have had robust discussions with readers and writers online but without exception it has been a two-way street. If anyone has been a bully it's Duns and Mosby. Mosby alone has blogged on me FOUR times and has sent more than a hundred tweets slagging me off. Duns sends dozens of abusive tweets about me every day, including sme that are very personally offensive. But it is the posting of my personal details on Twitter that worries me most.

    In one tweet Mosby says that he hope she is hurting my sales, a very strange thing to say as we are both published by the Hachette group. Well he hasn't hurt my sales. Not at all. And my book False Friends was Number 4 in the Sunday Times hardback bestseller list at the height of his abuse. Mosby is as unsuccessful an author as Duns. According to Neillsen, he has lifetime sales of fewer than 7,000 books for his titles. With that level of sales neither Duns nor Mosby has a future as a writer. That more than anything is what I think has been driving them over the past three weeks.

    Anyway, that's my last word on the matter. I have been advised that it's never a good idea to wrestle with a pig. You end up getting covered in mud and the pig enjoys it. :-) I would be grateful in future if you and the visitors to your blog would refrain from commenting on untrue and unsubstantiated allegations.

  24. To me, it’s very simple. I'd just like to know, are you or are you not the Stephen Leather aka Joe King on Yahoo Finance who said:

    It must be nice to have a country to go back to. Sadly I was born here and like millions of others have nowhere else to go. So yes, please leave asap so that our own citizens have a better chance of finding a job!

    and this:

    Yeah, the way Gold Muppet acts does tend to show that he isn't British born. That's the big problem with immigrants, they think they understand the culture here but they don't. GM needs to learn some manners. Good old-fashioned British manners!

    and this:

    I'm not sure that we can deport scroungers if they are British born. But if we got rid of all the immigrants then the scroungers could be made to take the jobs that the immigrants currently do. So no more scroungers. Problem solved. Result!

    and this, on the touchy subject of personal abuse:

    Why so angry Declan? Why so abusive? I don't get it. Surely I'm allowed an opinion, aren't I? Why heap abuse on me? I haven't been abusive to you, have I? I have just given an opinion, which surely is the point of a public forum? I hope a moderator reads your last posting because quite frankly it's totally out of order. Though of course I would defend your right to have an opinion and I wouldn't ever abuse you because I disagree with you. I guess that shows the difference between us, doesn't it?

    And are you the Stephen Leather who made this comment in an Amazon discussion about a book on Alzheimer’s:

    A doctor once told me that the symptoms of Alzheimer's and Aids were very similar. If your loved one starts to display the symptoms, the best thing to do is to take them into the middle of a forest and leave them there. If they find their way out, don't sleep with them.

    Then, when reminded of it in another discussion, said:

    Ha ha! I'd forgotten all about that Alzheimer's joke!

    And in another Amazon discussion:

    Hey Nick, what gives you the right to call me by by surname? You can't, Nick. You can't. (Best said in a sarf London accent - I'm sure you'll get my drift).

    (I don’t think the other people in the discussion did get the drift - that “can’t” in a south London accent sounds like the C-word.)

    Did you write those comments or not?

  25. There is little worth responding to in Mr Leather's pointless posts, although Jeremy Duns has done so at length on his blog, and I'd encourage anyone interested to read his reply there.

    For my part, I would say that blogposts highlighting shoddy behaviour are not bullying. There have actually only been three. The fourth was about a writer named Jake Drake, who was spreading malicious lies about me online. He is a friend of Leather's, which I presume is a coincidence.

    As for me wishing Leather sold fewer books, he is referring to this: I invite people to look at the context and make up their own minds.

  26. I don't have any weigh-in on this exact matter, however, my thoughts on the idea in general of faking reviews and using sock puppets is this...

    We have a whole lot of authors in the ring. We're all competing for attention. It's a capitalist world. We should be creative and spirited in the way we market our books and ourselves. Advertising is not a level playing field -- some of us have more money than others. Some of us are smarter and more creative. Some of us have teams behind us to help. It's not "fair" but that's life. You work with what you have to work with.

    However, what's not cool is lying and deception. Much of advertising dances on the line of truth and deception. But there IS a line. It might shimmer and shift, but outright concoctions that involve inventing people who don't exist is disgusting and reprehensible.

    I feel comfortable lumping it in with shoplifting or cheating on your spouse or doping to get into the Olympics. I don't know what Stephen Leather did or didn't do or said. But I know that a person who does what I described above (and they are out there somewhere) is a weak and cowardly shortcut-taker who doesn't want to do the hard work to achieve success.

    Honest competition is honorable and challenging and cheaters sully the game.

  27. I've replied to Mr Leather's evasive and self-serving rant here:

  28. Check out this article in the New York Times:
    It's enlightening.
    I had no idea how pervasive false reviews have become.

  29. SALON checks in on the subject of paid reviews:
    There are some interesting comments after the main article.