Caveat Scriptor: Stephen Leather

If you’ve been into this controversy on the social networks then the following post will interest you. If you’re new to the case it will just seem like a ‘Someone is wrong on the internet!’ thing. It’s a complex story and a disturbing one, but I think it matters, for reasons that’ll hopefully become clear.

Back in July, I went up to the Harrogate crime festival. I wrote down some observations on one particular panel, which was about ebooks.

What really got people talking – I’m sure I remember an audible gasp in the room – was this open and proud admission by bestselling novelist Stephen Leather:

I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans…

Well, I think that everyone … well, are the readers aware of it? No … But they’re not buying it because of the sockpuppet. What you’re trying to do is create a buzz. And it’s very hard, one person, surrounded by a hundred thousand other writers, to create a buzz. I mean, that’s one of the things that publishers do. They create a buzz. One person on their own, difficult to create a buzz. If you’ve got ten friends, and they’ve got friends, and you can get them all as one creating a buzz, then hopefully you’ll be all right.

There is a recording of this panel.

There’s a debate here over whether the use of fake identities to sell books is an ethical thing for someone in Leather’s position to be doing. Novelist Jeremy Duns thought it wasn’t, and investigated Leather’s practices. During that investigation, a lot more has come to light, and as Jeremy says the argument isn’t really about ebook pricing any more. I followed the developments, and kept adding updates to my Harrogate post, to the point where it has become unwieldy and cumbersome to read.

Some of the stuff that’s come out of this is frankly unsettling. The bullyingThe evil jokesThe casual racism. The incest pron angle that I am at a loss even to describe.

None of this would be known, had Stephen Leather not boasted of his fraudulent sales techniques at Harrogate.

Now, finally, Leather has responded to Jeremy’s findings.

It is all a big witchhunt:

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.

He ‘stands by’ what he said at Harrogate, and doesn’t explore the moral and potentially legal dilemma in promoting your own fiction through false identities.

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.

Leather did at one stage threaten to sue both Jeremy Duns and another crime writer, Steve Mosby, who was on the panel with Leather and challenged his sockpuppetry. Apparently, this is now not going to happen:

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.

Translation: ‘I have been advised that a libel action would cost a lot of money and, in the unlikely event of it getting to court, would make me look like a complete idiot’

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.

I’m assuming this is self published writer Steve Roach, his faithful Smithers, who Leather harassed online for months after Roach criticised his promotional techniques on an Amazon talkboard. Incredibly, Roach remains loyal to Leather despite being subject to Leather’s petty malice and bullying.

Then, more self-pity:

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.

Finally, the whole thing degenerates into a pissing contest about sales.

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.

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.

This childish one-upmanship is the only real card in Leather’s hand. He’s still a sordid bully – albeit a rich, and successful, sordid bully. As Steve has said: ‘when all you have intellectually is a hammer: everything looks like a nail.’

I think that is the only response we are going to get from Leather on this. And it’s an evasive, misleading and self-pitying non-response, that does not address the serious issues that have come to light.

What an arsehole. Even Johann Hari offered a mea culpa of sorts.

Stephen Leather is Jeffrey Archer with a broadband connection. And a lot of nasty ideas.

Update: Jeremy Duns has been suspended from Twitter. He has responded to Leather on his blog.

Another update: More from Jeremy Duns, who is still suspended from Twitter.

Apparently, there have been ‘automated complaints’ about the account.

I don’t know the site inside out, but I think, in theory, it is possible to have someone suspended by bombarding Twitter HQ with vexatious complaints.

Something similar happened to Nick Cohen.

This is all just speculation, of course. We don’t know why the account’s been suspended.

A mystery worthy of Inspector Zhang.

More: I don’t have much more time to spend on all this but if you are reading the books pages you will have noticed that sockpuppetry and literary fraudulence in general has hit mainstream coverage in a big way. Please consider signing this statement against sockpuppetry and fake reviews.

The unpleasant, and disturbing man, Stephen Leather. (Image: Observer)

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4 Responses to “Caveat Scriptor: Stephen Leather”

  1. Scott Pack Says:

    Stephen Leather was once interviewed on Open Book. It was a piece about reading in prisons. Leather’s books were the most widely read in Britain’s prisons at the time, might still be for all I know. He was asked something about whether or not he put real people in his novels and gleefully replied that he once used an ex-girlfriend as a character. He had her raped, put in the boot of a car and driven over a cliff.

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    Fucking hell! I thought nothing about this guy could surprise me now. I suspect there’s loads more, we don’t know about.

  3. Ramsey Campbell Says:

    Now why on earth hasn’t the leathery chap said that Nick Cohen – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/05/nick-cohen-cheating-authors-journalists?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038 – “claims to be a journalist”?

  4. Colin Says:

    It seems our intellectual professions – from authors to journalists – are in a pretty sad state. I’m thinking of the hackings and the Leveson inquiry for journalists, and now this Leather chap and his cohorts. 😦 I want to be a writer some day, but not like that.

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