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My Book is My Baby! (Now pass me the wet wipes.)

We’ve all come across this metaphor. It’s a cry of ownership, a plea for kindness, a go-to excuse for displays of hurt feelings and bad behaviour at negative reviews. “My book is my baby! I love it! What you say about my book hurts me!”

This metaphor is of course very easy to mock. Thus: I don’t put my baby up for sale on Amazon; I don’t think a poorly baby can be made better by cutting 20% of its length; it is not good practice to put a misbehaving baby in a drawer and forget about it for six months. Et cetera. You can entertain yourself with this on Twitter for hours. But there is a serious reason why this is a bad metaphor, which is worth looking at in depth.

Consider what the ‘book as baby’ metaphor conveys: you create a thing, you love it, and you feel deeply protective of it. The metaphor holds up fine for the first two points with a book. You conceived the idea of a book, gestated it at some cost to yourself, brought it into the world with hard work; hopefully you’re pretty proud of the end result.

The problem is point three, the protectiveness.

The thing about a human baby is that it is incredibly, frighteningly helpless. You can’t even pick them up at first without cradling their oversized heads in case their necks snap. Drop it, shake it, hit it, and it could die right there. Babies survive only because they have adult defenders. We are wired to protect them: most people feel an incredible repulsion at the idea of harming any baby, and when you actually bond with one, you will put its existence above your own and, yes, defend it to the hilt from the least insult. Because if you are cruel about my baby, there is an outside chance you might be cruel to my baby, and before I let that happen I will rip off your arm and beat you to death with the wet end. That’s parental protectiveness at work, and it’s necessary because babies are so very easy to hurt.

Whereas, to state the glaringly, gibberingly obvious: You can’t hurt books.

A book isn’t a human baby, it’s a crocodile. It crawls out of the shell fully formed, mobile, independent, and ready to bite things. You should give it a helpful nudge towards the water with marketing, sure. But a protection response is as unnecessary and stupid as if you picked up a baby crocodile and tried to give it a nurturing cuddle, or maybe breastfeed. (Don’t do that.) A bad review may feel like someone throwing mud at your baby, which is just one step away from throwing rocks, PARENTAL MURDER DEATH KILL RESPONSE TRIGGERED. But actually they’re throwing mud at a crocodile ambling by. And the crocodile doesn’t give a toss.

Someone may give your book one star. They may quote it unfairly or make inaccurate assessments. They may do a review on Goodreads with animated gifs to indicate how much they don’t like it. But the book continues to exist, undented by that dislike. The book will not carry the review with it as a bleeding wound, it will not have its final chapter leeched away by the power of negative criticism. A hypersensitive parent of a baby may perceive an insult as a threat, and react accordingly. But an insult to a book isn’t a threat, and carries no risk of harm. It’s just a bad review.

You know who can kill your baby crocodile? You, the author. You can create a crappy three-legged crocodile in the first place. You can kill your crocodile before it leaves the egg by refusing to take editorial advice that might change the way your baby looks. (It looks like a goddamn crocodile. Get over it.) And you can destroy it when it’s out by screaming, “DON’T YOU DARE HURT MY PRECIOUS BABY YOU BITCH I WILL CUT YOU,” at the first person to chuck a handful of mud, until you’ve attracted a full-on stone-throwing retaliatory mob. (Because if you don’t like your book being attacked, well, reviewers don’t much like their reviews being attacked either, and still less a personal assault.)

You cannot and should not try to curate every reader’s response to your book. It’s published, you launched it, now it’s going to have to cope for itself out there in the swamp. Maybe it will thrive, maybe it won’t, but that’s its problem because it is not your baby, and your responsibility for nurturing ended at the point you hit ‘publish’. Go forth, little crocodile! Fly! (Or whatever, I’m not a naturalist.)Hogarth Croc

And this is why I never want to see ‘My books are my babies’ again. Because it’s a fundamentally inaccurate metaphor that conveys exactly the wrong message about what the author’s relationship to a published work should be.

Just let it go, lay some more eggs, and hope at least one of them grows.

lake placid

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KJ Charles is a freelance editor and metaphorical crocodile farmer. Her most recent release is Jackdaw, published by Samhain. Think of England  won Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll.

This post is not an endorsement of Lake Placid, from which the above still is taken. Nothing is an endorsement of Lake Placid.

Flying crocodile by MCA Hogarth, gloriously!

Why I Am Not An Ethical Author

The idea of an Ethical Author badge is floating round the internet again. Full write up here but the basic principle is that authors agree to abide by pledges as follows:

The Ethical Author Code

Guiding principle: Putting the reader first

When I market my books, I put my readers first. This means that I don’t engage in any practices that have the effect of misleading the readers/buyers of my books. I behave professionally online and offline when it comes to my writing life.

Courtesy

I behave with courtesy and respect toward readers, other authors, reviewers and industry professionals such as agents and publishers. If I find myself in disagreement, I focus on issues rather than airing grievances or complaints in the press or online, or engaging in personal attacks of any kind.

Aliases

I do not hide behind an alias to boost my own sales or damage the sales or reputation of another person. If I adopt a pen name for legitimate reasons, I use it consistently and carefully.

Reviewing and rating books

I do not review or rate my own or another author’s books in any way that misleads or deceives the reader. I am transparent about my relationships with other authors when reviewing their books.

I am transparent about any reciprocal reviewing arrangements, and avoid any practices that result in the reader being deceived.

Reacting to reviews

I do not react to any book review by harassing the reviewer, getting a third party to harass the reviewer, or making any form of intrusive contact with the reviewer. If I’ve been the subject of a personal attack in a review, I respond in a way that is consistent with professional behavior.

Book promotions

I do not promote my books by making false statements about, for example, their position on bestseller lists, or consent to anyone else promoting them for me in a misleading manner.

Plagiarism

I know that plagiarism is a serious matter, and I don’t intentionally try to pass off another writer’s words as my own.

Financial ethics

In my business dealings as an author, I make every effort to be accurate and prompt with payments and financial calculations. If I make a financial error, I remedy it as soon as it’s brought to my notice.

Responsibility

I take responsibility for how my books are sold and marketed. If I realize anyone is acting against the spirit or letter of this Code on my behalf, I will refer them to this Code and ask them to modify their behavior.

The principles laid out here seem very sensible. They seem very reasonable. They seem like a pretty basic 101 of being a grown-up who sells books.

I’m not signing this, any more than I’m signing a Motherhood Pledge.

Retaliation

I will not throttle, defenestrate or club my child over the head with a brick, even when provoked.

I don’t have to sign that. Nobody should have to sign that. It ought to be a given, and if it’s not, I doubt a badge will help.

Let us say you are the kind of person whose response to a bad review is to stalk the reviewer online, lie to get her home address, drive to her house. We’ll call you, off the top of my head, ‘Kathleen’. Does anyone really believe that Kathleen, who was happy to lie and stalk, would hesitate at breaking an internet pledge? Or that Kathleen, who wrote a self-congratulatory article in a national newspaper about the whole thing, would have the insight to see that she could not in conscience sign an Ethical Author pledge in the first place?

And it’s not just lack of insight. Does anyone believe that someone who is prepared to copy-paste someone else’s work, go through and change names, plonk a probably stolen cover image on it and sell it as their own would hesitate to claim an Ethical Author badge to which they aren’t entitled?

You probably remember the old Westerns, where the good guy had a white hat and the bad guy had a black hat. It frequently struck me, as a child, that the bad guy’s first act should have been to rob a hat shop, steal a white one, put it on, walk up to the actual good guy as he got off the train, and shoot him. This would have saved me a lot of time on Saturday afternoons. This badge idea is effectively giving away white hats, without any checking, registration, enforcement of standards or sanction for failure to meet them, and hoping only the good guys put them on.

Let’s not bother with practical questions like: how do you define ‘professional behaviour’, when professional author John Grisham is out there defending his paedophile friend because old white men shouldn’t have to go to prison, or Daniel Handler makes racist ‘jokes’ about black authors at a book award ceremony, or Anne Rice encourages her fans to go after negative reviewers, or when publishers put white people on the cover of books about black people so they sell more, or when Hachette and Amazon engage in a months-long spat that massively damages author income, or when…oh, I can’t be bothered, it’s too depressing.

Let’s not question how the list of things an ethical author should do apparently doesn’t include anything about what you write in your books. (‘I may write racist misogyny but I don’t plagiarise it and I pay my editor, so I’m ethical!’)

Let’s certainly not go into what actually constitutes ethical professional behaviour when you have to address polite fans nicely saying bigoted things, or people emailing you to say that they pirated your book and want to complain about a typo, or people who link you to one-star reviews they left you, or people who totally didn’t get your book and say something that is just so unfair

I feel mean having a go at something so patently well intentioned but we all know about the road to hell. And it is a road to hell here, because ethics are not lip service, a badge for your sidebar, but something you live in your acts. You have to think about them, apply them, act on them. If you want to spell them out to readers, do it in your own words. Put in the effort.

And of course you can put on a badge too, nothing wrong with that, if you’re absolutely sure that this whole thing won’t fall off a cliff because it’s totally unregulated. Go for it. But no amount of ethical badges will make Kathleen Hale et al into ethical authors. Behaving ethically is what does that. And your best means of persuading readers, bloggers and everyone else that you are a decent person is still simply to behave like one.

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KJ Charles is not one of Nature’s joiners. Since you ask, my reviews policy is here and the reasons why I have one at greater length here. The rest you can deduce for yourself by following me on Twitter @kj_charles.

Review policies, or How To Not Become A Stalking Author

It hasn’t been an impressive time for the author community in the last few days. Kathleen Hale got a full page article in the Guardian (trigger warning for stalking, general warning for repellent disingenuousness and dishonesty) which allowed her to massively extend her stalking campaign against a reviewer. Another author one-upped Hale by travelling the length of Britain to hit a reviewer over the head with a wine bottle, leaving her needing stitches and pressing charges. What next? The British government selling arms to writing groups on the sly?

This behaviour, coming on top of far too many incidents of online and other harassment, has led to a lot of angry pushback, including a number of blogs holding review blackouts to make the point that authors need reviewers. I see reviewers saying things like, “I’m going to stop reviewing, it’s not worth the stress,” or “I’m only going to read books from dead authors because at least they won’t come round my house.” (On the evidence of this week, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Some people will clearly resent that one star from beyond the grave.)

Of course, most authors aren’t like this. Most of us don’t respond aggressively to reviewers in words, let alone call them at work and turn up at their house and write malevolent articles in national newspapers about them and physically assault them. Most don’t, but because of the way fear and intimidation work, a number of reviewers are scared that the next time they one-star a book, the author will be one of those few who do. So the question going round reviewers is, very simply, how do I tell?

cathy p

Various solutions have been mooted. The #AuthorYes hashtag has been used to name authors who have a track record of not being aggressively unpleasant at people. Suggestions have been put up of kitemarks or websites to identify ‘safe’ authors, and just as quickly shot down as impractical. Some authors have their review policy (‘I promise not to stalk you!’) stated on their website (as I do), but a lot of people have pointed out that that means nothing. It’s behaving well that counts, not claiming that you don’t behave badly. Words are empty.

And this is true, but I’d like to give a reason why a public review policy works for me.

My page says that I don’t read Goodreads or Amazon reviews and that I will never respond to them, either directly with abuse/stalking/wine bottles over the head (that bit’s implied), or with encouraging my fans to go after reviewers.

You may say: Yeah, whatever, you could be lying. And I could. This is the internet; people lie. I could be poring over every word posted about my books on Goodreads. I could be making obsessive lists of people who say mean things and drawing angry penises on them. I could not be a cat-owning freelance editor at all. Maybe I’m an international hitman who writes gay romance while I’m waiting to shoot controversial politicians, and the cat is a catfish. You’ll never know.

But the point isn’t whether I can make you believe I don’t hale out over reviews. (This is a new verb which I hope to see adopted.) The point is, my posted reviews policy keeps me on track.

I know reading Goodreads /Amazon reviews is a bad idea. I used to read them, and discovered what a bad idea it is first hand. I have done a flowchart on what a bad idea it is. But I’m still tempted because I’m a human. When I go to Amazon and see on the thumbnail that the number of reviews has jumped and the star rating has changed, my finger twitches over the mouse. But I have a posted review policy and if I click, I’m a liar.

And say I am a liar. Say I fall off the wagon and read my Goodreads reviews (declaration: this has happened) and there’s something really stupid and wrong there that any reasonable person would understand I just had to take issue with…

Well, I’m already a liar to myself by reading the review. But if I respond, I brand myself publically as a liar—as someone who has just done something she said she would not do. If I so much as subtweet a grumble about a bad review, someone will recognise it and know I’m a liar. If I link to it on my Facebook page with a hurt comment about ‘why are people so mean?’ in the hope that my fans will give the reviewer a hard time, I will be waving my hypocrisy and dishonesty like a banner. If I leave a snide or angry comment on a review, I will deserve extra condemnation because I said I wouldn’t do that. I’ve given myself a Toxx clause, to make myself stay the hell away.

This is not to say that reading reviews is a bad act. Read them by all means if they don’t act like Dr Jekyll’s potion, turning you into Author Hyde. But obsessing over reviews is where all this appalling absurdity seems to start.

So I have a public stated review policy, not because I expect anyone to take my word for it, but because it raises the stakes for me when I’m tempted to read reviews, let alone respond. It’s the reminder of your weight stuck to the fridge door, the green sash of the Victorian teetotaller, the Note To Self that says: Right now I am thinking clearly how I should behave, and I am taking this opportunity to control the behaviour of my future self, who may be less reasonable.

Obviously I hope that I’d never behave like Hale even if I read every word of every one-star review. Frankly, I’d hope that nobody would. But even normally reasonable people can get obsessed if they feel they’ve been wronged (eg by someone giving their masterpiece a mere three stars on Goodreads), and the internet fosters obsession. We all know how quickly upset can turn to anger and retaliation, how fast responses can escalate, how very easy it is to fall down the rabbit hole.

I’ve nailed my review policy across the mouth of the rabbit hole. To reassure reviewers, sure, but primarily to keep myself out.

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FlightOfMagpies300Flight of Magpies is out on 28 October, and the blog reviews (which I am allowed to read, so there) are looking nice.

Don’t forget to check out Queer Romance Month, and just a reminder of my somewhat fantastic news, if you missed it…

Ten Ways for Authors to Fail on Social Media

There’s been a lot of social-media career immolation going on this week. It may be the full moon. People making idiots of themselves is not a particularly edifying sight, so I’m not linking specific cases, but here are my basic principles of How Not To Do It for authors.

1) Interact online if you’re no fun to interact with.

Everyone tells you to be out there. Have a Goodreads or Facebook group, chat on Twitter, have a community, let them get to know you. But what if they don’t like you? I’ve had the experience of disliking an author’s online personality so much that it’s seeped into how I regard their books. I’ve chosen not to pick up books that would have otherwise been autobuys.

Obviously, authors have been unlikeable throughout history. This is why we have to sit alone in small rooms with our imaginary friends. But in previous years, it was reserved for their long-suffering loved ones and their editor. Now fans can get a share too.

This is a tricky one to judge, since most people don’t set out to be jerks. And I’m certainly not suggesting anyone should be silent, or a doormat. There are things we all need to stand up for, and stuff that shouldn’t be let go. Some people make their, uh, bracing interactive style a positive part of their brand (i.e. forceful without being a jerk). But if you’re getting into thin-skinned sulks, insulting your own fans, or picking fights with potential readers, you’re probably better off backing off.

2) Be vile.

Right. If you, the author, post a hilarious video/meme or an amusing blog post or whatever, and the response is, ‘wow, that is really racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic’, the correct approach is as follows:

  • Look again at what you posted.
  • Consider why the objection has been raised and if it is valid. If you can’t see what the problem is, ask, and listen to the answer with an open mind. You might learn something.
  • If you have caused real offence, even if you had no intention of doing so, apologise, and try to learn from the experience. If you think saying it was worth the offence caused, or that you’ve been misinterpreted, try explaining why and listening to the responses. Again, you may learn something.

If you stick your fingers in your ears, make disingenuous excuses, dismiss the complaint without considering it, mock the complainant or encourage your fans/followers/family to attack them, be aware that you might as well put ‘YES I AM A RACIST’ or whatever at the top of your website, because that’s what’s going to spread about you, and it will spread like herpes and be as hard to get rid of. It might even be accurate.

We are all crass or clumsy sometimes, and nobody likes to be called out. But empathy is a basic writer skill. Don’t reserve it for your own hurt feelings; summon it up for the people who were insulted or distressed by what you said and brought it to your attention in the hope that you’d listen to them. Or, as Chuck Wendig so wisely puts it, Don’t be a dick.

Obviously, not all offence is equal. You can offend a lot of men simply by being female on the internet, for example. And any kind of political discussion may upset someone: that’s politics. But I’m not talking about arguing gun control. I’m talking about things that mock, belittle or insult minority or vulnerable groups – the rape joke, the thoughtless use of ‘retard’ or ‘gay’ as a synonym for ‘stupid’ or ‘rubbish’, the cartoons and videos and memes that casually, lightly, cruelly sneer at women, or racial groups, or whatever aspect of people’s identities.

Because if an author lacks the empathetic skills to understand why, say, ‘retard’ is a horrible word to use for ‘stupid’, and the linguistic ability to find an alternative, or the heart to care why they should – well, it doesn’t say much for them as a human being, but it’s a crashing indictment of them as a writer.

3) Bore.

ThinkOfEngland72web

LOOK A BOOK I WROTE A BOOK BUY IT BUY IT BUY IT NOOOOOOOW

Take Twitter. Most people don’t follow 5,000 accounts on Twitter, and if they do, they’re probably not that interested in you anyway. Most people follow a few hundred accounts, so their Twitter streams are not fast-flowing torrents. Therefore if you do automated tweets, multiple daily book plugs, retweeting FFs, repeating your jokes in case someone missed them etc, you might once hit the attention of the person who follows 5,000, but you will definitely annoy the crap out of the far more valuable person who follows just 200, of whom one is you.

Apply this principle to your preferred social media outlet and its own ways to be annoying (flooding Facebook with book spam, or…whatever it is people do on Tumblr, I don’t know, it scares me). The point is, don’t go after new fans without considering people who are already interested enough to follow you. That’s how mortgage companies behave, and nobody likes them.

4) Forget who you’re talking to.

I think of this as three circles of people.

Fans. Fans like extracts, early looks at covers and blurbs, writing updates and hearing about your massive yet fragile ego work. Love and cherish fans, because they deserve it. Consider setting up a group/place where you can interact with them directly, share goodies and give them things they’ll value, in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your general social media presence.

The wider potential readership. People who might be interested in reading your books, but don’t care about cover reveals, new blurbs and so on. Or people who don’t read your books and probably never will but who like your social media and will share posts, retweet, etc. Swamping these people with marketing will not convert them into fans. If you blog/tweet/pin/exist in an interesting or amusing way, that may convert into sales, directly because you’re interesting, or via retweets and links and signal boosts that make other people aware of you. Or it may not, of course, but promising a cover reveal later this week!!! four times a day definitely won’t. ‘Too much promo’ is a really common reader complaint, and there’s just no need for it, when the internet offers all kinds of ways to talk to different groups of people with the stuff they want to hear.

People who will never read your books or share your content. Not everyone is a potential reader, tragic though that may seem, and promo-ing to these people is a waste of time. Focus on the people you want to talk to and don’t fret about meaningless numbers. I pick up rugby accounts whenever I tweet about my team; they slough off like sunburnt skin when I get back to queer romance; I’d be an idiot to focus on retaining rugby followers at the expense of, you know, readers.

5) Argue with reviews. Complain about reviews. Start fights about reviews. Bribe people to pull reviews.

(I added that last bit to the header because I have just read an author’s blog in which she makes it clear she’ll refund the cost of the book to dissatisfied readers as long as they don’t leave bad reviews. I, uh. No. No, no, no.)

Reviews: Just leave it. I don’t care if the review is the most baseless, nastiest thing you’ve ever seen. I don’t care if it gives one star based on the blurb, your hairstyle, or the fact that they misread The Magpie Lord as The Moggie Lord and were disappointed because it wasn’t about cats. JUST LEAVE IT. You know that famous incident, where an author argued with a bad review and everyone on the internet sided with the author and then the reviewer changed her mind and rated it five stars? No, you don’t, because it never happened. Grit your teeth and walk away. (Or use my handy flowchart!)

Passionate, committed, interactive readers are as important to authors as keyboards and caffeine. That doesn’t change just because one of them is passionately and interactively committed to hating your book.

6) Do lists of ten things if you only have five things to say.

Um.

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KJ Charles is the world’s least convincing social media guru and you probably shouldn’t listen to her. She is on Twitter, answers book questions on Goodreads, and has a Facebook presence for chat, author page for book news and group for fans/people who want goodies–join up! There’s also books, which you can buy, and free stories, which you don’t have to.

Back Away from the Review: why authors should stay out of it

Another day, another Goodreads meltdown. In the latest ‘oh dear’ moment, an author and her friends (or possibly alternate personalities) is/are going nuts on anyone rating her book less than an enthusiastic 4+ stars. This includes attacking someone for leaving a DNF review (without star rating) and someone else for saying ‘I’m not reading this because the blurb is terrible’* (again without a star rating).

* As annoying as it may be for authors to have someone say ‘I’m not reading this because X’ where X is a factor unrelated to the book itself… the blurb in question is terrible. It’s one ADJECTIVE IN CAPITALS away from achieving sentient life and eating your soul. As a blurbwriter of many years’ experience, I want to give the person who wrote this blurb an hour’s remedial intensive coaching, and a slap. I’m not reading this book because the blurb is terrible. Please click here for how to write a good blurb. But I digress.

I’m not linking to the book because publicity, and also because getting into internet slap fights is right up there on my to-do list next to flossing with barbed wire and listening to the Collected Speeches of Michael Gove at 33rpm. However, I am blogging on this sorry business because it’s a good opportunity to remind myself, and other authors, of a few salient facts about reviews.

Negative reviews aren’t always a bad thing.

I disagree violently with certain reviewers (in my head, obviously), therefore anything they slag gets extra interest from me. I’m much more likely to believe in a book with 30 5* ratings if it has a bunch of 2* or 3* ratings to suggest that the reviews aren’t all by sock puppets. And a review that feels like a murderous knife attack to the author may well read as a mild ‘meh’ to anyone not personally involved.

You don’t have to read reviews, and you probably shouldn’t.

This is not to say I don’t appreciate reviews – I do. Any success I’ve had as an author is down to the enthusiasm and energy of people, mostly on Goodreads, reading and sharing and discussing books. It’s incredibly valuable to any author. I love people who give their time to books.

But, as I have blogged elsewhere, reviews of my books are none of my business. The review is a conversation between the reader and the book. It is not the author’s place to stick her nose in, unless specifically invited. Reviews are for readers, not authors. They are not for you.

Don’t expect yourself to be thick-skinned.

Authors are people. Our books are personal and precious to us. We get upset by negative reviews, especially when they’re spiteful, inaccurate or point-scoring. It is not much fun to have your work made the object of a comedy slating or hate screed. (Or even of mild and justified criticism, to be perfectly honest.) But the solution is not to go in all guns blazing and tell that reviewer why they were completely wrong about your book. It is not to read the reviews in the first place because – all together, now – they are not for you.

Remember that book you didn’t like? 

Some people didn’t like your book. Live with it.

 

If you want to bask in all the lovely comments, or learn something from the critical ones, or profit from the fact that people are talking about your book at all, you have to accept there will be negative responses too. If you can’t take the negatives (and there is no shame in that, you’re only human), you need to stay away from the whole thing.

But you can’t pick and choose, and you really can’t tell readers what they ought to think and say about your book. It doesn’t work that way.