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KJ magpie200

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.

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

________________________

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!

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.

The ego has landed: Musing on reviews

This week I learned that The Magpie Lord would be coming out in print. I am not a print snob – it’s a real book if people read it – but there is still something entirely delicious about the idea of putting a copy of my book on my shelves, and knowing that in years to come, the kids will pick it up and scream, “Ew! Mum, you wrote sex! That’s disgusting!”

Anyway, along with checking my print galleys, I’m required to put together a selection of review quotes. I’ll be honest, putting a bunch of nice reviews together into a single document is a whacking great ego boost, of the kind that causes you to wonder if it would really be that bad to get them printed up on, like, a mug, or maybe a T-shirt. But as I went on, it began to feel rather odd.

People have read this book and thought about it and applied serious consideration. People have embraced the characters, burrowed into their backstories, got in touch with me to ask about them. People have recommended it to their friends, sometimes with amazing enthusiasm, or even bought it for them. (! !!! Just … !)

Not to say that everyone loved it. Some people wanted to convey that there were very few spelling mistakes and the file was well formatted. Some people wrote really thoughtful reviews that analysed exactly why it didn’t work for them. Some people put a surprising amount of energy into explaining why they hated it.

I sat there, bewildered that so many people I’ve never met have found the time in their life to discuss my book. To tell the world, “here is a good book, read it”. Or “a bad book, avoid it”. Or “a book with no spelling errors, react accordingly”. I thought: That is one hell of a lot of work that people have put in on my book.

And then I realised that I was completely wrong to think that.

People have written about The Magpie Lord. Not “my book”. It stopped being “my book” when it was published, ie made available to the public. Once the book is out there, the interaction is reader/book, not reader/author. Robert Jackson Bennett wrote interestingly on this.

I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not – and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.

… I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.

There has been a lot of discussion, since the recent Goodreads kerfuffles, of negative reviews. What’s appropriate for reviewers to say, and how should writers respond? How much should you engage with reviews? Is that good social media behaviour, or unpleasant heavy breathing down the reader’s neck?

Well, it seems to me, if a review is part of an interaction between the book and the reader, then for the author to force her way in to that is like joining in someone else’s conversation on the tube. (I’m a Londoner. Having strangers speak to me on public transport is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.) Anyone who’s read a published book, is entitled to comment on it as they choose (within the confines of the law) – positive, negative, overwhelming joy, seething hatred, total indifference. And unless they actively invite me in to their conversation with the book by bringing it to my attention/talking directly to me, I think I should keep out of it. Much as I want to leave grateful comments on every positive review or send round black-clad chocolate delivery ninjas to everyone who said something nice; tempting as it might be to respond to someone who said something that wasn’t. I think I just have to put it out there, let people get on with it, and concentrate on writing the next one.

What do you think? Should authors interact with reviews or keep a distance?