Note: hat-tip to a brilliant reader who brought the below to my attention.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that authors, having written and published a book, desire laudatory reviews from other authors to grace the description and back cover and help convince a reader to buy the book. Now, it’s true that many blurb reviews of this type are a professional courtesy: the author providing the quote may not have read the book in question at all, but this is standard practice. The flip side is that if an author frequently recommends books that are absolute dogshit, he risks alienating his own fanbase, so authors don’t just hand these out to anyone who asks.
Needless to say, if you’re self-published, don’t know any other authors, and are a generally terrible writer and/or Not a Very Nice Person, it’s going to be really hard to get those recommendations, which we’ve detailed before at great length. So what are you going to do?
One unethical method (if you didn’t mind opening yourself up to legal risk, and had absolutely no shame) would be to create a fake author with the same name as a famous author – say, Stephen King – and then use that fake author to give yourself a recommendation.
Obviously, that’s not going to work, for really famous authors – Stephen King, JK Rowling, George RR Martin – these guys are generally trademarked, and trying to pull that shit will get you sued, and for good reason. Even if you really wrote a book and your name happens to be Stephen King, you’re not going to get published under that name, you’ll need to distinguish yourself by publishing as Stephen L. King or something along those lines.
But what if you didn’t target the super-famous authors, but a bit lower, maybe authors who don’t have the pockets and publishing companies who would want to pursue expensive litigation, and who might not even notice unless someone brought it to their attention, but if a casual reader saw the name and popped it into Google and Amazon, the first result would be a popular author and they’d go “Huh, sounds legit!” and maybe go and buy your book.
But no one would do something like that, right?
Which brings us back, once more, to our dear friend Robert Stanek. He published a series in 2014 called This Mortal Coil. And if you take a look at the Editorial Reviews section – which Stanek controls, since he’s self-published, he now has eight glowing reviews from eight…uh, authors?
Readers will note the hallmarks of fake Stanek reviews:
- sniping at Patrick Rothfuss
- name-dropping other, actually successful titles and authors
But let’s analyze. Start with Sandra Brown. When you plug her name into Amazon, you get Sandra Brown. I’ve never heard of her, but apparently she’s written 60 New York Times bestsellers. That’s pretty good! And she’s giving glowing reviews to Robert Stanek!
Although. There’s another Sandra Brown, whose page doesn’t have an author photo. Who has written four children’s Kindle ebooks. One of which, if you use the “Look Inside” feature, is literally just pictures of animals for every letter of the alphabet. The publisher is listed as My World Books, but if you check the product details, you can see it’s sold by Amazon Digital Services LLC. Meaning, this was self-published via Kindle Direct Publishing. Might be affiliated with a legit publishing company, might not be.
But if we click the publisher’s name on Amazon, we can see other books affiliated with that publishing company. And wouldn’t you know, there’s ALSO a book by Shannon Hale, who doesn’t have an author photo. Who was also on that list of “authors” giving Stanek glowing praise. Who has written five childrens’ Kindle ebooks. Including a low-quality book about baby animals that is literally just roughly photoshopped words over public domain images. If we plug the name “Shannon Hale” into Amazon, what do we get? You guessed! A NYT bestselling author!
Another author affiliated with this “company” is Margaret Brown. Who has written four children’s books, and who shares a name with Margaret Wise Brown…who wrote illustrated children’s books, and also who died in 1952.
I could go on, but let me just break it down in this handy little table:
|Actual Author||Fake Author||“publishing” company||Picture||Notes|
|Sandra Brown||Sandra Brown||My World Books||Nope!||four children’s picture books|
|Shannon Hale||Shannon Hale||Wonderful World Press||Nope!||five children’s picture books|
|n/a||Cathy Thompson||My World Books AND Wonderful World Press||Nope!||five children’s picture books|
|Margaret Wise Brown||Margaret Brown||Wonderful World Press||Nope!||four children’s picture books|
|Mary Pope Osborne||Mary Osborne||My World Books AND Wonderful World Press||Nope!||Four children’s picture books. Of note that one title is in the series “Your Reading Steps” which is also a book in a series written by “Jennifer Blake”, a noted Stanek associate.|
|Emily Asimov||n/a||Reagent Press (Stanek’s self-publishing company)||Nope!||Not a fake author per se, however, Emily Asimov is A) published by Reagent Press, B) almost certainly a pseudonym for Robert Stanek, and C) suspiciously shares a last name with Isaac Asimov…|
|Lisa Gardner||Lisa Gardner||Reagent Press (Stanek’s self-publishing company)||n/a||No books available currently at Amazon, but listed as one of Reagent Press’ authors:|
|n/a||David Eastman||My World Books||n/a||No author page, but credited as the author of a title from My World Books. Doesn’t appear to be impersonating a well-known author.|
Let’s recap. Stanek writes and publishes This Mortal Coil, and in his Editorial reviews, he includes praise from eight separate authors:
- Five of the eight share names with actual bestselling authors
- On Amazon, six of the eight pretend to be published through the same two companies that has no Google results, but according to OverDrive, (which captures information on books and publishing houses) all eight authors are actually published by Reagent Press – Stanek’s publishing company.
- Six of the eight have written inane children’s picture books
- Of the six that have author pages on Amazon, NONE have a photograph of themselves
Probably just a crazy coincidence?
Emily Asimov, who is published via Stanek’s Reagent Press (and is almost certainly a Stanek pseudonym) also has reviews from Margaret Brown and Mary Osborne listed. And from Shannon Hale and Lisa Gardner.
Probably just a coincidence?
Or consider Jennifer Blake, who wrote Baby Animals on Safari , is published by Reagent Press, shares a name with a bestselling author, and who also “wrote” the hilarious “A Tribute To William Robert Stanek, an American Author Who Should Be on Everyone’s Must Read List” – on Robert Stanek’s fucking blog.
In a way, though, it’s actually kinda brilliant. Why bother creating sockpuppet fan accounts when you can create sockpuppet authors. It works on multiple levels:
- You create a fake author who shares a name with a bestselling author and publish a few cheap, boring titles that take next to no effort to create, with some overlap in genre as the bestselling author. Then people not paying attention search for a popular author’s titles and accidentally buy yours
- You then use these same accounts to write glowing reviews of your own books to make people think that bestselling authors have recommended your titles, while maintaining plausible deniability in case anyone finds out so you can argue, “No wait, it was THIS completely unknown Sandra Brown who gave me that review, who also is self-published through my company and almost certainly doesn’t exist.”
I mean, “plausible deniability” is kind of a stretch, but you get what I mean.
Fun fact: Washington State, where Stanek lives, has a law against criminal impersonation if someone “assumes a false identity” with “intent to defraud”. It’s a class C felony which can land you up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines, and as we know from Robert Stanek, prison is where you get shanked.
Good luck, Robert! You might need it! And don’t bother deleting anything, I have copies of it all.