PG doesn’t usually post anonymous commentary, but he decided to do so because this post raises concerns that lie at the intersection of social media and indie authors.
The commentary also involves pen names which, of course, have a long history in the book business and are generally considered benign business practices by most authors.
The commentary involves a topic that first sprang up about 15 minutes after the first online communities did – whether participants should be able to use fake names. As regular visitors to TPV will clearly recognize, PG has no problems with comments from anonymous or pseudonymous sources.
Finally, PG visits and quotes from Dear Author for the useful and interesting business/legal material that appears there. He’s never read a DA review.
PG will be interested in the response TPV visitors have to this author’s concerns:
So…yesterday, Jane Litte announced on her blog (Dear Author) that she has been writing new adult romance under the pseudonym Jen Frederick. I’m not going to rehash it all, but here is the link if you’d like to read the reasons behind her decision in her own words.
First off, I want to make it clear that I harbor no ill will toward Jane. I think she’s whip-smart, and a fabulous businesswoman. I also congratulate her on her amazing success as an author. In the past, I have agreed with a lot of what she says about reviews and reviewers rights, and have lauded her efforts to take a stand against author and publisher misconduct. I also know how influential she is in the industry. Which is why I spent pretty much my whole day writing and deleting this and, ultimately decided to post anonymously. Because I KNOW I would lose friendly author acquaintances over this. I KNOW I would get emails and tweets and people coming at me because I didn’t just jump on the kumbaya bandwagon and high five her about her announcement. But when I thought back through the Ellora’s Cave/Dear Author situation, I kept coming back to the hashtag…
And guess what? I’m not chilled with this. I respect Jane. I don’t think her intention was to hurt anyone with her choice not to disclose her author name. I also don’t think she used her unique position to intentionally benefit herself as an author or reviewer, or to benefit her publisher. What I do think is that there are other, much more complex issues at play here that the reading (and reviewing) public might not be aware of. I’m going to lay them out for you now, as I see them.
I want to clarify something here (because I know it will come up). I am not a bitter author who is reveling in the potential GOTCHA! moment for Jane due to a bad review on her blog or some personal beef. Full disclosure: I have been reviewed by Dear Author more than once and have received reviews ranging between a C+ and a B-. I was happy that she reviewed me, thought the reviews were even-handed, and I believe I re-tweeted and squeed when I was notified that I’d been reviewed. I’ve never been lambasted by Jane or anyone else on her review blog (that I know of, at any rate) and I have no ax to grind with her on a personal level.
I’m writing this specifically because I don’t want to.
I’m writing this specifically for all the people I know who feel the way I do and are too afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation.
Here are the two main things I’m #notchilled about:
Firstly, reviews are sacrosanct. Reviewers are sacrosanct. We are told on a daily basis, as authors, that we are not allowed to respond to reviews publicly, whether a review is gushing, fabulous and insightful and we want to thank the reviewer, or the review is cruel, misinformed, or downright threatening and we want to defend ourselves. I agree with this (although, there are times I admit I don’t like it so much, lol, because I’m human) and have spent the last five years as a professional author adhering to this tenet (although, I admit, before I knew better, when my first book released, I did cry on Twitter once and solicit virtual hugs the first time I got a “This author should go die in a fire” type review that laid me low for a week before I grew thicker skin. I did not comment on said review, or send in troops to defend me. I just…cried). Now that I know better, I make sure that, if I vent at all about anything industry or book related, I vent to trusted friends and colleagues and in loops with other authors. In those private loops (and yes, I’m aware nothing online is ever truly private) likeminded authors speak more freely. Because you have to understand, we don’t have an after work softball team, or a water cooler, or a birthday cake for Sally on Tuesday where we get to bitch about old Mr. Jennings and how he’s really busting our hump at work that day.
We just have each other and those loops. Most of us never see another author face to face more than once or twice in a given year, if that.
In those loops, we talk industry and strategy and marketing and pricing and trends and hard sales numbers. We talk about the writing process and how hard it can be sometimes, and acknowledge that the muse doesn’t necessarily pepper our dreams with glittery ideas for bestsellers and that it’s a freaking GRIND sometimes, or how we just HATE our current manuscript and are terrified our readers will hate it too, and what a struggle it’s been, and yes, some authors talk reviews. It’s the place that we get to speak freely and treat our business like exactly that. A for profit business. A place where we don’t have to wear our public hat that, by necessity, requires us to stifle ourselves to some degree or risk ostracizing our readership. A place where we take our bra off and stretch for a minute with other braless writer-types. Not that I’m pretending to be someone else on open social media, but there are definitely things I say to authors in “private” that would pull back the curtain, so to speak, in a way that would make me uncomfortable in public, not unlike a school teacher talking politics on Facebook or something.
Imagine my surprise, then, to realize that Jane is on more than one of these loops with me as Jen Frederick. I find myself…not okay with that. Not because I’m ashamed by anything I’ve said, but because I even have to sit here and worry about it. And I’m feeling even sicker for the authors who thought they were in a place that was safe to share certain things and did so who would NOT have done so had they known Jane was present. Do I believe Jane would or has intentionally retaliated against these authors if they said something negatively about her site, her books, her writing partner, or the EC case or any myriad of things? No. But that doesn’t change the fact that it feels like a violation. And the thing that readers of this post need to realize is that JANE KNOWS THAT. There is no way that a right-minded person would be privy to the posts and information she was privy to who would not realize that they were eavesdropping on a conversation that they weren’t supposed to hear. That they were peeking through someone’s window who wasn’t aware they were watching. Yes, it’s the internet. Yes, maybe we should’ve closed the bedroom door more tightly. Yes, maybe would shouldn’t have left our curtains open. But morally, there is no question in that situation, a right-thinking person knows they should look away. Especially a person as smart as Jane.
And as much as I believe the intention was to “wear two hats” and not let one influence the other, or let what she may have read poison the well, I just don’t think brains are like hats. Jane’s a lawyer, so I’ll use a (fictional) law analogy. I always see these legal shows on TV where one of the lawyers says something KNOWING it’s going to be objected to, or coaches a witness into a response that reveals something inadmissible. The judge slaps their wrist and has it stricken from the record, and advises the jury to “disregard it”. Why would a lawyer do something like that when they know it’s going to get stricken and the jury is supposed to disregard it? BECAUSE THAT’S NOT HOW LIFE WORKS. The same way cases get moved from one place to another because one area has been tainted by media coverage. They can advise the person not to pay attention to that. Not to consider any of that information when making a decision, but that’s just not doable. You can try, but once it’s heard, you can’t unhear it. Just like Jane can’t UNSEE if someone posted they thought her blog was cruel, or that they didn’t support her legal fees gofundme because they disagreed with her, or that they think her publisher’s contract is crappy or herr agent is unethical etc. (Not that these things were discussed, necessarily, but they might have, as they SHOULD be, if that’s what the authors in that loop feel like discussing). Because that’s where we get to do that without censure. That’s where we get to learn and teach and help and support one another without judgment.
I recall one specific conversation on an Indie author loop about the EC/DA case where authors expressed varying points of view. Jane was (according to various members) part of this loop. Would people have spoken so freely if they knew she was there? The answer is unequivocally no. And I’m extremely uncomfortable with that. Like Old Mr. Jennings who was busting my hump was also hiding next to me at the water cooler in a fake mustache and glasses this whole time, listening it.
That’s not okay for me and I feel like I lost something today. Something that I’m already mourning because it’s something that, in this solitary profession, I needed very badly. And it makes me really sad.
The second issue I have is the lack of disclosure on a professional level. Whether Jane promoted her own books, her writing partner’s books, or her publisher’s books, or did or did not review her publisher’s books during the time between the signing of her contract and today, it doesn’t matter. Everything comes into question now, regardless, because what she didn’t do merits as much scrutiny as what she did do and even the potential for impropriety cracks it all open. Everything becomes something to reconsider from a different lens. From choosing to write an exposé on one publisher’s misconduct while wondering if she would do the same, as aggressively or as objectively, to her own, to the DABWAHA nominees, to positive reviews for pub sisters whose Berkeley books she might not have reviewed but who ALSO write for other publishers whose books she did review, to opinions on other authors that would be one thing coming from an impartial point of view become very different animal coming from an author who writes in the same genre she runs a majorly influential review blog about. There are soooo many potential and complex ways that lines could have been crossed here, it would take hours to explore them all, but I do think they shouldn’t be ignored.
Again, do I think that she intentionally took advantage? I don’t think so. And loads of people are going to chime in and say, “Jane would never do that.” Which is all well and good, but guess what? I don’t know Jane. And I daresay most of you don’t either, even if you thought you did yesterday. The way I see it, she’s no different than a judge who recuses himself in a case because he knows the defendant or plays golf with the father of the plaintiff. Does that judge have it in him to not abuse his position and still make an unbiased decision? Maybe he does. But it doesn’t matter. That’s NOT how it works because even the possibility of it would later call everything that happened in that case into question. Jane’s a lawyer. She knows this and she did it anyway.
And it makes me feel…squitchy. Catfished. Sock-puppeted. Hoodwinked, to be honest. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I did what I do. I wrote about it. I’m sorry it’s not the popular thing to say, but it needed to be said.
I’m not angry, and I don’t wish Jane ill will. I hope she comes out the other side of this happy and successful, both as a person and as an author. But seeing a person who has built a career on commenting on the quality of romance novels and behaving as a watchdog…a person who has publicly wagged a journalistic finger at every wrong-doing, real or perceived, from every publisher and author in the industry (and would go back for seconds or thirds when an apology came off like not a good enough apology or when she felt that a person hadn’t been humbled enough), watching this pass by with only stunned whispers behind closed doors because authors are afraid they’ll find themselves at the bottom of a bloody dog-pile? That sticks in my craw. She is in a position of power, whether she wants to be or not. Whether she uses that power or not. And we feel silenced because of that power.
But someone needs to wag a finger here.
Someone needs to do what Jane would have done if this hadn’t been about Jane.
Someone needs to stand up and say that what she did was wrong.
So I’m saying it.
You wrong, Jane. You wrong.