Friday, September 28, 2012

Scandal-Less: Should Writers Follow a Code of Ethics?


In the aftermath of the John Locke scandal—and what else can you call it when the guy faked his book reviews and then sold countless writers a book on his sales techniques that didn’t mention his little “trick”—we have to ask an important question. What code of conduct do writers owe it to their readers and to their fellow writers to adopt? How should we behave in the marketplace?

You might think the answer would be obvious. But clearly it isn’t. John Locke proves that, of course. But he’s not alone. Consider this short list of well-known writers in recent years who have failed in ethics. Some of them have lost jobs and no longer make their living off their writing. Others have survived, but their reputation is tarnished.

Doris Kearns Goodwin
2002
Crime: A Pulitzer-prize winner and historian who plagiarized by failing to properly attribute the writing of three other authors in a book she wrote about the Kennedys
Punishment: PBS NewsHour dropped her as a participant on the show (and presumably she lost money over that)

Jayson Blair
2003
Crime: Plagiarized and fabricated numerous articles he wrote for The New York Times.
Punishment: He’s no longer a journalist. He’s now a life coach. Would you hire him?

James Frey
2005–2006
Crime: Published and marketed a “memoir” in which he faked, exaggerated, and played loose with major events in his supposedly true story
Punishment: Public humiliation on Oprah. Dropped by his literary agent. Did damage to his publisher’s career. Lost a seven-figure, two-book deal with Riverhead (an imprint of Penguin). His own career is still surrounded by controversy.

Jonah Lehrer
2012
Crime: Made up quotes from Bob Dylan to bolster his views on creativity in his book Imagine.
Punishment: Forced to resign from his prestigious position as a journalist at The New Yorker.

RJ Ellory
2012
Crime: Used pseudonyms and fake accounts to give his books 5-star Amazon reviews, while also trashing the books of other authors in his genre with 1-star reviews.
Punishment: Lost the respect of fellow writers who were attacked by his sock puppet identities. Being investigated by the Crime Writers Association to which he belongs.

This short list is evidence enough that something needs to change. And the best people to police the writers are the writers themselves. I’m saying we have to do this for ourselves. We have to take responsibility for the choices we make, and especially how our choices affect the people we come into contact with because we are writers.

Sure, it’s tempting to focus only on taking care of yourself. You want to make a living, and you’re feeling pressure to pay your bills. Maybe you’re obsessed with fame. And who doesn’t want to do things the quick and easy way?

But you can’t live that way. I know this sounds old-fashioned, but it isn’t right to take advantage of others for your own gain. You degrade yourself as a writer when you refuse to embrace honest business ethics. You degrade yourself because you stop being, first and foremost, a writer. Instead, you start becoming a con artist whom no one can trust.

Here’s the code of ethics I’d like to see every writer embrace for the sake of their own character, for their friends and family, business acquaintances, fellow writers—basically, everyone who relies on the writer in some way. We can hold ourselves and our fellow writers to this standard, being accountable to each other for offering the following commitments to the public at large:

  1. Don’t leave it up to readers and reviewers to “catch you if they can.” Write and sell your work ethically.
  2. Put honesty and integrity above the benefits you think you’ll get by lying. Deception may work for a little while, but it never works forever. At some point, you’ll pay a price for dishonesty. It’s not worth it.
  3. Vet your source material for accuracy and fairness. Don’t assume it’s true just because one person says so. Do the work it takes to write intelligently and with authority, which comes only from the depth of knowledge you have.
  4. Be committed to putting out the best work, the best marketing, the best of everything. You wouldn’t put up with shoddy maintenance on your car. Readers shouldn’t have to put up with shoddy or faked research.
  5. Don’t make up quotes and statistics to fit your argument. That’s babyish. Period. If you can’t prove your argument, then change your argument, not the facts. Be accurate.
  6. Do your best to avoid miscommunication and vague language that could easily be misconstrued. It’s impossible to be perfect in this area, but some people make no effort to be clear, and it produces unnecessary controversy.
  7. Give full disclosure for anything that can be considered an influence on your opinions, because those influences can introduce bias. Your readers have a right to know this.
  8. Be accurate in quoting sources, and give proper attribution whenever it’s due. People work hard to write, study, research, give speeches… You have no right to steal their work, no matter how pressured you feel to reach a deadline.
I think this kind of commitment to ourselves and to others can only improve our writing. I know this much: the only person who can protect your credibility is you. No one can do this for you. If you don't take charge of it by resisting unethical behavior, eventually you'll be hurt by it. And it's very hard to recover from that sort of public humiliation.

What do you think? What do you do to protect your own credibility? Have you ever compromised or felt forced to compromise your integrity for the sake of marketing success?

Next week: I expect to write a little more about honesty and how a lack of it damages more than just the writer's career. If you have any thoughts on that topic, share them below. I may incorporate your ideas!

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Blast from the Past

Well, it's been a crazy work week. I've got a series on writing with honesty planned, but haven't been able to prepare the posts yet, so in the meantime, I have some oldies but goodies to share today.

These are some of my favorite posts, as well as some of the most popular posts that have run on this blog so far. I know many of you are new readers here, and maybe you haven't seen these, so I hope you'll enjoy some of the different things featured here.

Great guest posts:

Rules and How to Break Them - a guest post by Scott Bury
Shoehorning God - a guest post by Scott Roche

Popular posts on improving our writing:
First or Third: Which Viewpoint Should You Use? - part of my series on choosing POV
To Pants or Not to Pants - part of my series on plotting your writing
Time Management for the Busy Writer - a look at how I make time for writing

Posts that tell you a little about me:
Why I'm the Chipper Muse - a short explanation of the name for this blog


Fun and entertaining looks at life:
Confessions of a Cyberchondriac - a funny look at how the Internet influences our thinking

A taste of my fiction:
Strange Vacation - I can't tell you what it's about. You'll just have to read it.

Now... For those of you who have been joining me here for a long time, you've probably read most or all of these posts when they initially went up. So rather than asking you to read old posts again (unless you want to, of course), I have a special request: Please share your ideas with me.

What I mean is: Let me know if there's anything you'd like me to talk about related to writing, because I'm always looking for new topics. And let me know if there's anything I've done in the past that you really liked and you want to see more of. If you love "Fun with Headlines," let me know. If you love the funny posts like the ones I've listed above or if you'd like to see more snippets of my fiction, I'll share more of that. If what you like the best are thoughts on the writing process and practical writing tips, I'm always glad to do offer that kind of information.

Bottom line is that I want to hear your thoughts and your feedback on the blog, whatever you'd like to share.

Have a great weekend, and stop by next week for the writing with honesty series!

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 7, 2012

When Scam Artists Call Themselves Writers

By now, if you're a writer, you have probably heard about the big John Locke/paid Amazon reviews scandal. If you haven't, I'll provide a link below so you can get the ugly details. But the gist of the story is this:

Sad Story of a Con Artist Writer

A self-published writer cares more about making money than anything else that should matter to a writer—like finding a legitimate audience, delivering a book that people are glad to have spent money on, and earning your street cred by honest work. So, he hires a fake review writing (aka false advertising) company to write something like a billion reviews of his book for Amazon, so it looks like a billion different people have read and loved it, rather than one sad guy who never read the book but is willing to lie to make money.

If you've got an e-reader,
I've got a deal for you...
Things go so swimmingly that said self-published author manages to sell a million copies of his crappy book in five months. (Or at least he claims he did.) So he writes a how-to book about how to sell a million copies of your book (crappy or not) in five months. He shares all the tricks he used to garner success. Except, of course, for the fact that he gamed the system and conned people left and right. Thus, he is able to con again, this time running his scam on tons of would-be writers who dream of making it big and would probably also buy the Brooklyn Bridge if you offered it to them for a small, bargain-basement price.

Eventually, though, this author is caught in the act, and he's raked through the news media coals. (Which is what he deserves.) The fake review writing company he hired is also caught in the act, and soon shuts its doors for good. (I hope.) The rest of us are left debating, as usual, what this means to those of us who actually care about writing good books and earning our followers legitimately.

What I Have to Say About All This Mess
Here's the culprit, John Locke

You can say what you want to about how unfair the book business is. You'd be right; it's patently unfair. Many writers never make a living off their writing. Good writers may make money for a while and then, all of a sudden, they fall off the success wagon and can't get back on. Great books don't get accepted by publishers because they don't fit a clear sales category, so no one knows how to sell it. (By the way, I think that's a legitimate concern, though it's also reasonable to say that people can't know they want a new kind of book unless you show it to them.)

You can say what you want about traditional publishers being evil gatekeepers who won't buy your work unless you're the keymaster (thanks, Ghostbusters, for the pop culture allusion). You can refer to authors who write for traditional publishers as fools, house slaves, or whatever else you want. You can refer to authors who self-publish as hacks and accuse them of weakening the whole book market with their lousy, unedited writing. You can say the whole system is a mess, and you'd be right. It is. I don't know what the whole answer is to the mess.

But the one thing I can say is that it is unethical and immoral to use the world of writing for your con games. Yes, I know it happens. Yes, it happens in all endeavors that involve money. Yes, buyer beware. But still... You don't get to call yourself a writer when what you really are is a scam artist. Not with me. I won't put up with that. It's one thing for all the writers out there to work their asses (butts, if you prefer) off to make a following for themselves. It's one thing to tweet, Facebook, blog, and otherwise brag and advertise your work. That may make you obnoxious sometimes, but it doesn't make you dishonest.

It's the dishonesty that's unacceptable. If you sell a million books by buying a lot of them for the reviewers you've hired, you haven't really sold a million books. You've created a false appearance of selling that much. If you sell books based on hundreds of phony reviews you've bought, and consumers buy your books on the basis of those phony reviews, you haven't sold books. You have stolen money from unsuspecting people. You are a thief. Call yourself a thief and write a how-to book titled, How I Conned Amazon and Millions of People into Buying My Crappy Book: And You Can Too!

Bottom Line

The bottom line is this: I know this kind of thing happens all the time. But I'm angry anyway. When some jackass (con artist or idiot, if you prefer) decides to pull a scam on readers, it hurts all the innocent people in the writing community, because it makes readers more suspicious and less willing to try the work of a stranger. It's hard enough to get your name out there and to sell your work, isn't it? John Locke and people like him have just made it a hundred times harder for all of us. To borrow from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, we ought to tar and feather the creeps and run them out of town on a rail.

Reference Material

To read more about what people were saying about John Locke before he got caught:
LA Times article questioning the value of Locke's achievements back in 2011
Novel Publicity's interview with John Locke, so you can read his personal blah-blah-blah

To read more about what people are saying now that Locke and his review company have been exposed:
Porter Anderson excoriates Locke, with lots of backup material
NY Times crucifies the jerk who ran the phony review business

To read someone else's ideas on writing a bestseller, because John Locke isn't the only person who has talked about this (I know you're surprised):
A review of Hit Lit by James Hall (I haven't read it, can't endorse it, but it's out there)

What do you think? If you have ideas for solutions to problems like this, I'd love to hear about it. This is one of the things that concerns me about the loss of book stores and the glut of self-published writing on Amazon. Consumers have to work so much harder to find good books. Will they eventually stop trying?

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.