It’s funny, but when you start writing about author ethics the book world provides you with concrete examples with startling regularity. Today’s post is about this revelation on the hugely popular romance fiction blog Dear Author, by one of the blog’s founders. The quick summary is that the writer, Jane Litte, is involved in a lawsuit that necessitates all kinds of disclosures, and is pre-empting one of those disclosures by revealing to her readers that she has for some time been publishing fiction under another name. The reason she gives for not using her blog name (Jane Litte is, apparently, also a pseudonym) is that she didn’t want to use her considerable influence as a blogger to boost her sales as a novelist.
I was one of the first wave of commenters who congratulated Jane on her success as a fiction writer and thought she was perfectly capable of being a fiction writer and reviewing/blogging with integrity—and I still think that. I didn’t really think about the pseudonym angle, as pseudonyms/pen names are rife in the book world for all kinds of reasons:
- the author’s real name is just plain fugly
- the author’s real name just doesn’t fit their genre (e.g. your name is Happy Flower and you write dark, sadistic thrillers)
- the author writes erotica (I’m not sure exactly what percentage of erotica authors use pen names, but it’s high)
- the author doesn’t want family/co-workers/church friends to know that s/he writes (for reasons ranging from shyness/embarrassment (see erotica, above) to a stalker ex to preserving a professional image in his/her real-life job)
- the author had a previous career using his/her real name, but sales figures weren’t great. It’s not uncommon in the traditional publishing world for authors to start afresh under a pen name so that a potential publisher won’t find those damning sales figures, since a publisher’s more likely to take on a new author than an author with a poor sales record.
- also from traditional publishing, the author writes more books per year than their publisher will accept (that seems pretty weird from a self-publisher’s viewpoint, but that’s the way it is). So the author uses three or four names to sell more books.
- the author just fancies using a pen name. It’s a bit like stepping into a fantasy life where you can shed your past and be the person you always wanted to be.
Going back to Jane Litte, I realized a couple of days and several time zones later that the congratulatory comments had stopped and things were getting fraught. I’m not a romance aficionada and only visit Dear Author for its excellent articles on general issues such as book pricing and, yes, author ethics, so I may not know every nuance of this story—also, I’m neither trying to defend or condemn Jane Litte or even draw attention to her particular issue. She’s simply provided an example for me to talk about the provision in the Ethical Author Code that says:
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.
And let’s not forget, in this context, that the guiding principle of the Code is:
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…
My original draft contained a lot more specifics about the use of aliases, but like the rest of the Code the final version was broadly written as a kind of baseline standard that the vast majority of authors could agree on. As with pretty much all of the Code, there’s an extensive gray area around the words themselves, and writers being writers they can, and will, debate those gray areas over time.
As far as I can see (and yes, I wrote the Code but these aren’t MY rules—they’re distilled from many sources) the first sentence in the clause about aliases is pretty clear. We all know about the use of sock puppet accounts to place strategically positive or negative reviews around book sites, and I think it’s hard to defend the use of any kind of alias as a weapon to claw your way to the top, knocking others down as you go.
In my opinion, the banana-peel-strewn slippery surface of aliases lies in how you use them (the second sentence.) The reason why I’ve never used an alias (and practically never comment anonymously) is that I can’t get my head round being more than one person. I tried opening a second Twitter account so my regular followers didn’t have to put up with a flood of tweets every time I participated in a chat, but that lasted five minutes. I constantly forget to use my Facebook author page, because to me my author-persona and real-life persona are so intimately fused I can’t separate them out. It’s taken me years to consistently use one email account to sign up to merchant sites (to reduce spam) but I still screw that up all the time.
So I guess Jane Litte’s way smarter than I am, because she successfully used her author name and her blog name separately for over two years. And here’s where the main objection that’s being raised seems to lie: using her author name, she joined private author loops that would not have accepted her under her blog name.
Moreover, as a blogger Litte has always (quite rightly) insisted on full disclosure of any circumstances that might influence a reviewer’s opinion. Literature is one of those areas where there are few boundaries between roles, and many of us wear several hats. I’m an author, a publisher (in that I self publish), a blogger, a reader and a reviewer, and even my reviewer role can be split into reviews that I write for the Historical Novel Society (which are polite) and reviews that I write for myself (which can be snarky). The ethical questions around being an author who reviews weigh heavily on my mind, the more so the closer I get to my own specific niches, as the beginning of this review shows. And—full disclosure—such questions are becoming ever more ponderous as I take the initial steps toward becoming a book blogger in a carefully defined niche which intersects with what I’m writing (more about that very soon). Much has been made of the undeniable fact that Litte, while insisting on disclosure as an ethical principle, did not herself disclose—and the possible damage that this might cause to her own image is even spreading to another major romance blog whose founder knew of the pen name situation but didn’t disclose it out of loyalty to Litte.
Ay chihuahua. My sympathies are all over the place in this case—I feel for the readers, for Litte herself, and for the other bloggers. I kind of resent the book world atmosphere that makes writers feel it’s necessary to use pseudonyms in the first place, and cry out inside against the irony that the boundary between reading and writing is utterly porous—I started out my online life in the book world as a reader before the hankering to write settled upon me. Reading is what makes a good writer a good writer, and writing down your thoughts about what you read—i.e. reviewing—makes you a better writer so I think every writer who wants to review should be able to do so. Having to start reviews with a disclosure is a pain, too, because you know such revelations can be offputting to readers and negate the impact of your carefully considered words. Being human, I’m statistically bound to forget to disclose something at some time or the other, leaving myself open to even greater ridicule than usual because of my authorship of the Ethical Author Code. And I kind of hope I die before I become a Celebrity Author and people start digging for the juicy bits of my personal life.
But I offer this latest kerfuffle up as an example of just how slippery pseudonyms are. Given that I’m currently working on registration for a writer’s conference, I can also testify that pen names are hellishly confusing from a practical standpoint. Personally, if I ever adopt a pen name I will do so kicking and screaming, and only under (as yet unforeseen) circumstances of dire necessity. And maybe I’ll call myself Happy Flower and write dark sadistic thrillers just for the irony of it.