Back in 2012, best-selling British novelist Stephen Leather openly boasted on stage at the Harrogate crime festival that he used fake identities to promote his books online. The panel was recorded, but the nub of it was when Leather said this:
'As soon as my book is out, I’m on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I’ll go on to several forums, the well-known forums, and post there under my name and under various other names and various other characters. You build up this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself.'
I didn't think this was ethical, and asked Leather on Twitter how he justified deceiving people into buying his books on the say-so of comments they had believed were from genuine fans of his - rather than simply from himself in disguise. In response, Leather quickly blocked me and became personally insulting.
Others also felt his behaviour was unethical, especially the novelist Steve Mosby, who had been on the panel with Leather at Harrogate. Mosby and Leather are both published by Hachette, incidentally, so by criticizing Leather's behaviour Steve Mosby was also sticking his neck out and criticizing one of the most successful authors at his own publisher. I think he did it politely, but firmly. Leather, on the other hand, acted viciously towards him in return, and has done repeatedly since.
As Leather was refusing to clarify what precisely he had done, I started looking myself to see if I could find some of the online identities he'd boasted about (or 'sockpuppets' as they're often called).
Leather is one of the UK's bestselling authors - in 2011, he was the second most successful British author on Kindle worldwide after Lee Child and ahead of Ken Follett, Agatha Christie and Terry Pratchett. He has a hefty online presence, bolstered by the many websites he has set up:
- http://stephenleather.com - registered by Leather and his self-publishing company Three Elephants via GoDaddy.com on February 12 2000
- http://www.samleather.com (now defunct, perhaps because the name was confusing) - registered by Leather/Three Elephants via GoDaddy.com on May 11 2000
- http://www.stephen-leather.com - registered anonymously via FastDomain on January 8 2013
- http://stephenleatherbooks.com - registered anonymously via GoDaddy on January 11 2013
- http://www.authorstephenleather.com - register by Leather/Three Elephants via GoDaddy on January 24 2013
- http://stephenleatherauthor.com - registered by Leather/Three Elephants via GoDaddy on February 2 2013
- http://writerstephenleather.com - registered by Leather/Three Elephants via GoDaddy on February 2 2013
- http://stephenleather.blogspot.com - no information available for Blogspot registrations
- http://bestsellingauthorstephenleather.blogspot.com - ditto
- http://stephenleatherpublishingebooks.blogspot.com - ditto
Leather also has websites devoted to two protagonists from his books, Jack Nightingale and Dan 'Spider' Shepherd:
- http://www.jacknightingale.com - registered by Amit Khan at Mumbai Domain Hosting via GoDaddy on March 7 2009
- http://www.spidershepherd.com - registered anonymously via GoDaddy on January 11 2013
That last one is defunct in its original form, but will become important later on in this post so I'll explain it a bit now. The graphics have been lost, but you can get an idea of how the site originally looked in 2013 from this snapshot. Today, the site automatically redirects to the similarly named http://www.danspidershepherd.com. In the text of that more recent site, there's a line stating the site was 'designed by a fan of Stephen's work'. That might be true as far the design goes, but Leather set the site up himself under his own name and that of his company Three Elephants via GoDaddy on June 17 2013. The foot of the site also reads '© Copyright 2013 Stephen Leather - danspidershepherd.com. All Rights Reserved'.
To have so many websites seems confusing to me from a marketing perspective. On the other hand, having this many sites widens his online reach, in that if you Google him lots of these come up on the first few pages, which gives an impression of a writer everyone is talking about. Note, too, that most were set up after 2012. As a result of Harrogate and its aftermath Leather had a lot of bad press online, and so a plethora of sites might have helped draw attention away from them for anyone Googling his name. But note, please, the following:
- Stephen Leather has set up a lot of websites.
- All but one of those I found were registered using the company GoDaddy.com.
- Leather most often registered these sites using his name, but occasionally he withheld that information. Nevertheless, common sense tells us from the context, designs and content that he set up all of these sites.
- All the sites' domain names end '.com'. No '.nets' or 'co.uks' or the like for Leather.
- The sites have similar names, as you would of course expect, but look at how they are similar: authorstephenleather.com and stephenleatherauthor.com, for instance. He likes variations of domain names, and switching nouns to the front and back of the url. He only used a hyphen in one domain name. He doesn't use pronouns (eg 'thebestsellingauthorstephenleather' or 'theofficialstephenleather')
- He has set up a lot of websites that have very similar, though not precisely the same, content. It's an unusual strategy. Most authors I know of have just one website, or perhaps a site and a blog on the side. Leather has set up a dozen, and three blogs, and most of them are still accessible.
- But one site, spidershepherd.com, has an automatic redirect attached to it.
I looked at some of these sites back in 2012. I also saw he was active on social media, and pretty soon I came across a curious Twitter account called 'The Unknown Writer'. It claimed to be a 'wannabe writer' but, despite having 15,000 followers, almost never interacted with anyone else. Instead, it tweeted the occasional lame joke and constantly promoted Stephen Leather's books under the guise of being one of his fans. (By the way, just click on any of the screenshots in this article to expand them.)
Leather initially denied having any connection with this account, but eventually admitted he was running it. He changed the account's handle from @thirdparagraph to @firstparagraph, and continued insulting people who had criticized him. A recurring theme was that he was hugely successful, and that anyone criticizing him was a failure, and must be jealous.
The @firstparagraph account is still running. He still promotes his own work in it, but now has a theme of posting pictures of cute kittens. This means he can keep his 'official' account, @stephenleather - the one most of his readers and his publisher will know about and see - 'clean', while under his hilarious kitten guise he can throw out thinly veiled barbs at his critics without damaging his 'brand'.
Back to 2012, though. On looking deeper, I found an even more unusual sockpuppet Leather had set up. After a self-published writer Steve Roach had repeatedly criticized him for his promotional tactics on Amazon, Leather set up two Twitter accounts in Roach's name. This served two purposes: firstly, he could recommend his own books from behind the disguise, fooling people into thinking the recommendations he was making for his own books were from another writer; secondly, he could exact revenge on Mr Roach for having crossed swords with him by spamming everyone with how wonderful a writer he was while posing as Roach.
The story of how Leather used sockpuppets to promote himself, and how he cyber-bullied Steve Roach for over a year, was reported by Nick Cohen in The Observer. It even made the Danish press. The broader issue of his sockpuppeting was covered by The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Bookseller and several others. I also signed an open letter to The Telegraph with around 50 authors, in which we condemned the use of sockpuppetry and other unethical practices to deceive readers.
In August 2012, a website appeared, jerermyduns-watch.blogspot.com. This purported to have been set up by a human rights lawyer called 'Maria James', who had a Twitter account to go with it, but this was scarcely believable. After I pointed out to 'Maria' that she had spelled my name wrong in the url, they set up a similar site, which they've been adding to ever since, falsely accusing me of being a homophobe, a rape apologist and much more besides.
I don't believe Leather set up that website. But he was aware of it - he posted comments on it. And I think he could see that, despite it being filled with accusations that most sane people would never believe for a moment, it could nevertheless damage my reputation. It also takes minutes to set up such a blog, and there is no need to register a domain name - it is very difficult indeed to figure out who runs a Blogspot or Wordpress blog.
Some months after the 'Jeremy Duns Watch' website appeared, several other sites devoted to attacking me were created:
http://jeremydunsjournalist.blogspot.com (first post January 25 6 2013)
http://jeremydunsauthor.blogspot.com (first post May 5 2013)
https://authorjeremyduns.wordpress.com (first post May 5 2013)
https://jeremydunsjournalist.wordpress.com (first post May 6 2013)
The first of those claimed to have been set up by a 'Peter Williams', linking to an empty Google+ profile. I think a perusal of any of these sites show they are vindictive and filled with false accusations and misrepresentations (as well as using private photos without permission, including one taken by my daughter). They're rather more plausibly put together than 'Maria's, though. The idea behind them seems to be to simply sling as much mud my way as possible and hope that something sticks, and to make it so that if anyone Googles me - readers, potential readers, publishers, producers, etc - they might be influenced by the fact that apparently lots of people hate me and I am a Terrible Person Who Has Done Lots of Terrible Things.
The fact that the accusations are false and in most cases fairly obviously so doesn't matter much, as there is nothing I can do to take them down (I've tried); I can't comment on the sites; someone might well believe some of the accusations; and as whoever set them up is anonymous there are no negative repercussions for them. It's why sockpuppeting is so rampant. It's why Stephen Leather did it with Steve Roach, for instance.
This situation has frustrated me for a while, especially because it has become increasingly clear to me that Leather set up these websites. Notice the domain names, for example, and how they echo the form Leather has used for his own sites:
Like Leather's own sites, they also repeat material, and are all really about the same thing: again, the idea is to spread their presence when you Google. But most strikingly, they all have a preoccupation with my being a failure as a writer, and in particular with my book sales. This is also a major preoccupation of Stephen Leather, many of whose blogposts are about his enormous sales. For Leather, everything is about material success, and he thinks my not having sold as many books as he has will humiliate me, or even cause trouble for me. He did this with Steve Mosby, too, as you can see in one of the screenshots I've used above. On August 24 2012, Leather left a comment here under his own name defending himself. He wrote:
'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.'
Leaving aside for the moment that these figures were a) irrelevant and b) inaccurate (Nielsen doesn't capture everything, and my books also sell outside the UK), it's really quite remarkable that Leather had access to information like this at all. Publishers and literary agencies usually pay for access to Nielsen Bookscan's data, but it is very expensive. To have access to one's own figures is something very few authors can afford, or are willing to pay for. And to have access to the top 5,000 authors in the UK costs over £20,000 a year. Only very wealthy authors indeed would spend such a sum to get insights into how many books other writers are selling. But, according to his own comment, Stephen Leather is clearly in this exclusive group. Note, then, that among the false accusations presented here, the author of that website quotes and even presents screenshots of my sales from... Nielsen Bookscan.
Golly gosh, what a surprise.
On October 6 2014, someone registered two new websites with GoDaddy.com:
And then, just over five minutes later, at 9:09 and 34 seconds:
I am sure you will agree, more ingenious diversionary tactics than the latter touch have never before been seen in human experience.
As well as the five-minute delay between the first two sites being registered and the third, there is another difference between the sites. They have changed a few times and at the time of writing are devoid of content, but the ones devoted to me and Steve Mosby were very clearly attacking us. Here's what the site about me looked like when it launched:
Yes, it's pretty crap. Laughable, really. Nothing to support the claims, and a rather unflattering photo of me. Okay. But would you be pleased if a site with a similar name and content was set up about you anonymously to try to damage your career? Especially as it can be filled with who knows what, and read and perhaps believed by who knows who. Your parents, kids, friends, boss, and potential future employers.
The site is a shell now, for reasons that will become clear. The site attacking Steve had much more extensive content. After lying dormant for a year, in December 2015 it sprung to life:
Steve is in fact rather a handsome chap, one of the most pleasant people I've met and quite tall to boot. But the looming photo of him looking like a weirdo might put some readers off, of course, as well as annoy him, which I guess is also the idea with these nasty attack sites. This site consisted almost entirely of screenshots of every time Steve Mosby has tweeted or even retweeted a swear word since 2009, and ended with the following rant:
'SO THERE YOU GO. STEVE MOSBY LIKES TO USE THE MOST OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE POSSIBLE IN PUBLIC. HE ATTACKS SPORTS FIGURES, BUSINESSMEN AND POLITICIANS USING WORDS THAT REALLY HAVE NO PLACE BEING USED IN PUBLIC. IF STEVE MOSBY WANTS TO TALK LIKE THAT IN THE PRIVACY OF HIS OWN HOME, THAT WOULD BE FINE, BUT HE DOES IT IN PUBLIC WITH A TOTAL DISREGARD FOR OTHER PEOPLE'S SENSIBILITIES. HE DOESN'T CARE WHO HE OFFENDS. DOES HE DO IT TO SHOCK? MAYBE. DOES HE DO IT TO ATTACT ATTENTION TO HIMSELF SO THAT HE CAN SELL MORE BOOKS? POSSIBLY. BUT USING OBSCENE LANGUAGE IN PUBLIC SEEMS A STRANGE WAY OF TRYING TO BUILD A READERSHIP.'
Considering that the person who created the site called it 'fuckstevemosby.com', their outrage over Steve's swearing seems, well, just a tad disingenuous. The idea behind the site is clearly to try to put readers off reading Steve's books. It also claimed he is a 'blasphemer' because he had used phrases such as 'Jesus wept' on Twitter. Absurd - but also an attempt, I think, to try to turn away any of his potential readers who are religious. The parting shot that swearing on Twitter sometimes is a 'strange way of trying to build a readership' is an odd complaint to make. Unless the person making that complaint is also a writer, of course. A writer who has spent years trying to promote himself online to gain new readers. Someone with a grudge against Steve Mosby, and who is dishing out advice on how he can become more successful in his career, via a website devoted to attacking him.
Finally, the supposed serious concern the site has for Steve's swearing is undermined further in the footer, which reads 'Copyright 2013. I'm a very naughty boy!. All Rights Reserved.' This, of course, is a reference to Monty Python. It's supposed to irritate Steve, I suppose, but really just indicates a glee in exacting such a petty form of retaliation.
But what about fuckstephenleather.com, I hear you ask. Surely that would attack Leather in some way in an attempt to damage his reputation, too? Surprisingly, no. It contains nothing but this image:
To borrow another Monty Python line, this is of course an oh-so-hilarious 'nudge nudge wink wink' from the person who set up the account. The person who set up fuckstevemosby.com claims to be a 'very naughty boy', and here they are accusing Stephen Leather, devastatingly, of being - oh, look - a very naughty boy. It's really subtle stuff.
I think by now you'll have figured out that Stephen Leather set up the four blogs about me, as well as fuckjeremyduns.com, fuckstevemosby,com, and just because he thought it would be a brilliant diversion that would put people off the scent, fuckstephenleather.com. But I suspect you (and Mr Leather) are wondering if I can go beyond what common sense tells us all is the case and present something more solid. Well, I think I can, yes. After three years, Stephen Leather finally tripped up and left a trail leading right back to his door.
Steve Mosby has written about the website attacking him here, and alludes to it having been set up by Stephen Leather. But what makes him think that? Well, when he noticed these last three websites had gone up in 2014, he posted about it on his Facebook page, providing links to all three sites. And several of his Facebook friends replied and said there was something very odd about the site attacking me: instead of seeing the image Steve had posted, they were redirected... to Stephen Leather's site about his character Spider Shepherd. Steve Mosby immediately went on his phone and found this was true, so took a screenshot of it redirecting. Here is the screenshot:
A few hours later, the website was scrubbed, back to an advert for GoDaddy.com.
It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out what happened here. Stephen Leather set up the site fuckjeremyduns.com to smear me, but by mistake he included a redirect to another of his websites, spidershepherd.com, about his series character Dan 'Spider' Shepherd. He quickly realized the goof and so deleted the site he had planned to smear me with, meaning it reverted to the registration page. But Steve Mosby got that screenshot first, when it still redirected.
I think that, considering what I've outlined above, the chances of someone other than Stephen Leather setting up a website to attack me that redirects to one of Stephen Leather's websites, and with the evidence of that deleted shortly afterwards, is really infinitesimally small. But as if to confirm it still further, Stephen Leather then cited these attack websites himself, editing an old blog post from 2014 to do so:
This is classic 'arm's length' smearing. He set up the websites to smear me and Steve anonymously. Then he linked to them on his own website, giving them credence but not taking any of the flak for it that he would obviously have done had he set them up openly under his own name.
In 2012, I helped bring wider attention to Leather's sockpuppeting and cyber-bullying. Four years later, Stephen Leather is attacking me and a writer he even shares a publisher with... by sockpuppeting and cyber-bullying. I think his behaviour is not just grossly unprofessional but pathetic and really pretty despicable. I can only hope that either his publisher or someone else intervenes to try to persuade him to stop it.