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Ross A Hall
freelance UX designer and consultant

Are Sock Puppets an unethical way to sell your indie book?

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Are Sock Puppets an unethical way to sell your indie book?

Something I’ve noticed happening with increasing regularity is the “Sock Puppet” account on social media. This is a fake account that’s designed to create the impression someone other than the author has stumbled across an ebook or product and liked it enough to share with the communities they “participate” in. It’s a short-cut to social proof and a technique increasingly desperate indie authors seem to fall into.

My first encounter with a sock puppet was a couple of years ago when I gave an unfavourable critique of an author’s banner and it’s rather amateurish use of Photoshop. The only response came from someone who claimed to be “a fan” who leapt into their defence with a perhaps overly long explanation of why my observations were incorrect.

I was intrigued enough to review the user’s profile, at which point I found post after post proclaiming how wonderful this author’s work was and cross-posting into community after community. A few other posts were splattered around the place, but this looked like a one-person marketing department.

Creating a sock puppet is as simple as setting up a new profile on your social network of choice. You can add as much or as little detail as you choose, but the most common approach is to use a female profile photo culled from the web and a one or two word description that sets out how they’re a huge fan of your chosen genre.

After the profile is set up the fake posts can begin.

The least sophisticated puppets will simply spam various communities and groups with “I read this book and it was awesome” type posts that are copied and pasted left, right and centre. Sophistication increases as individual posts are created to target different communities differently, while the most advanced puppeteers will sometimes engage in discussions and comment on posts.

Puppeteering has a couple of perceived benefits. First it gets the message out without the author coming across as a self-promoting spammer. A lot of communities block this type of activity, so it’s a nice way of getting round the rules. Second, someone else saying “this author’s work is great” creates a degree of social proof that makes it more likely someone will click the link. The more people who click the more likely you are to make a sale.

There are downsides. Smart moderators are switched on to this behaviour and will block puppets when they come across them. Smarter ones might even reach out to the author involved (or just block them too). Either way, credibility is lost along with access to a community who could be a source of sales.

Using puppets on review sites can also lead to bans. Amazon has a policy of deleting them and taking action against both puppet and seller. I’ve heard of Amazon KDP accounts being closed after fake reviews and puppets were found, with the author unable to open a new account. Rare, perhaps, but with technology becoming better at spotting the fakes I think it reasonable to expect this to happen more.

From an ethical perspective sock puppets are just bad. If your work isn’t generating genuine reviews and traction I’d suggest taking a look at how you’re marketing and what you’re producing. Maybe you’ve not found an audience yet, or maybe your work just isn’t good enough. Perhaps your social media use is a bit too much shouting “look at me” and not enough engaging with the community.

Creating a fake profile to dupe people into buying your book isn’t a good idea. You might get a short-term hit with a couple of sales, but you’re risking your reputation, access to potential markets and even having your account closed. Better to invest time in improving your marketing and writing than trying to deceive people.

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