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Declarations of Interest and why you should

So this email has been going round on Twitter shared by @lotte_le:

interest

Let’s have a refresher course on basic ethics, shall we? As follows:

DECLARE YOUR INTEREST.

That was quick, eh? See you next week!

 

Okay, we have space for a bit more.

Declaring interest is a bedrock principle of functional communities. If you are a councillor who awards the contract for rubbish collection services, you must declare that your brother-in-law runs the bidding garbage truck company. If you are asked to be in charge of an inquiry, you need to say that one of the accused is a family friend. If you run a website that reviews cosmetics, you should mention that you run your own cosmetics company under a different name.

It may be that your brother-in-law’s company is the best by miles, or that you would apply the law no matter what it cost your personal life, or that you scrupulously avoided ever plugging your own product on your site. Conflicts of interests happen all the time; we all live in small worlds. If I review an m/m romance, it’s quite likely that I will have interacted with the author on social media, and as a freelance editor it’s not outside the realms of possibility I have or will have worked with them.

But the only way to deal with interests is transparency. You put your interest out there, and let people take a good hard look at your behaviour and your opinions in the light of what they know.

And if you don’t declare interests, people have the right to draw their own conclusions as to what motivated your decisions, which may well be worse than the reality. You might get your brother-in-law the contract because you really think his is the best company, but the voting public is entitled to assume you’re taking a backhander because you hid your interest. Your family friend might be innocent, but who will believe it when the inquiry stinks of cover-up? What value do your genuine negative lipstick reviews have when people decide you were trashing your rivals?

There are laws about this stuff. The Federal Trade Commission in the US requires that you disclose any ‘material connection’ such as payment or free product accepted in return for a review, because your review is endorsing the product. If I might decide to buy a book on the basis of your five-star rave, I have a right to know if you actually spent money on it or not. I definitely have the right to know if you were morally blackmailed into leaving it by big sad kitten eyes and pleas of ‘but bad reviews hurt authors!’

The free book business is a tricky one. The whole point of the ARC (advance reading copy) is that the author gives the reviewer something (a free book), and in return gets a benefit (a review). You might well feel this teeters on the edge of dodgy by its very nature. Let’s be honest, it kind of does.

I have been contacted by readers who have offered to leave five-star reviews if I give them a free copy. Blog tour companies have been known to ask the bloggers to suppress 1 or 2* reviews. Goodreads is full of books that have been five-star-spammed by hardcore fans in return for freebies. And, as we see here, there are authors who feel that the act of giving a free book entitles them not just to a review but to a good review. (There are also, needless to say, vast numbers of authors who would never dream of policing reviewers, and reviewers who are scrupulous in declaring interests. There is nothing wrong with the ARC system except when it’s abused. But it’s basically an honour system, and any honour system is open to abuse by the dishonourable.)

This hurts everyone in every direction. It bumps the unethical author up the rankings, it disappoints the reader suckered into buying overpraised books; it damages the authors who don’t game the system; it devalues the honest reviews that people slave over. It undermines the reading community. It stops the system working. 

A declaration of interest does not “discredit a review” as the email says. It does the opposite, by demonstrating that you have considered basic ethical principles. Hiding that interest discredits the reviewer, the author, the book, and the whole damn system. No author should ever ask for that, and no reviewer should ever feel obliged to agree.

A quick checklist for the ethically challenged:

  • It is fine to offer an ARC in return for a review.
  • It is never okay to ask for only a positive review.
  • It is never, ever okay to ask for a negative review to be suppressed.
  • It is never, ever, ever okay to ask a reviewer not to declare her interest. You are asking her to be dishonest and possibly to break the law.
  • If you are prepared to violate your personal integrity and the law, you should probably set your price higher than a free e-book. Have some self-respect.

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.