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Where Do You Draw The Line?

My recent post about author-editor Nicole Steinhaus drew a LOT of attention. Just 36 hours after launch, it became the most-visited post on my blog, of all time.

I want to thank those of you who offered your support. Save a few remarks from Nicole and her Twitter followers (who likely didn't have all the facts), not a single person chided me for my post. In fact, the supportive comments you see are but a fraction of the ones I got. Many members of the writing community were not in a position to comment publicly, and I understand.

Not only do I lean toward self-publishing, I already have a career. Writing is not my bread and butter, so I'm freer than most to speak up about stuff like this and risk the political hit. 

In the words of Carol Kilgore's character Maxie Lamar, "I'm just old and no longer afraid to say what I believe."  :)

What I want to put up for discussion today is publishing industry ethics in general. I hope more of you will feel comfortable joining in, since we're not singling out any one person or publisher.

I once heard the word integrity defined as: Doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. I don't remember who said it, but it's better than any dictionary definition you'll find.

Unfortunately, I see our society slipping further and further away from this concept. For some, it seems that anything goes; the end justifies the means. And not nearly as many people watching seem to care.

How does that affect writers?

I think we can all agree that publishing is a subjective business. Sure, your manuscript is judged on measurable things like grammar and basic skill level. But ultimately, whether it is accepted or rejected boils down to how the agent feels about it and whether they think it will be popular in the current, ever-changing market.

I mean, let's face it. An author can query the exact same manuscript to 20 different agents/publishers, get 19 rejections, and then get 1 full request from someone who just LOVES it. 

Why? The query didn't change. What made the difference?

Beauty (and marketability) is in the eye of the beholder.

Considering that writers already have subjectivity and a constantly shifting market working against them, do we really want to pile poor ethics on top of that?

What if your copy- or content editor is also an author?
What effect does that have on the work they do for you?

Probably none, you say. 
Probably, you're right. ...Probably.

What if they write the same genre?  If you're in competition with each other, will they do their best when editing your work?

Are you sure?

Let's change that scenario to acquisitions editor or agent--the person deciding if your work will even be accepted or not. What if THEY write the same genre? And what if your story is good enough and similar enough to theirs to be serious competition?

Will that affect how they feel when decidng the fate of your manuscript?

I believe most people in professional positions like these behave with reasonable integrity, but you have to agree the temptation is there.

So. Where should we draw the line?

Should copy- and content editors be allowed to also be authors? 

What about agents and acquisitions editors--those who have the authority to reject an author's work?

Should there be restrictions on overlap of genre and category, or not?

What constitutes an ethical breach in the publishing industry? 

And what should the consequences of such an act be?


  1. I DO see your concern. HOWEVER, as both an editor and a former Acquisitions Editor, as well as someone who is now repped by an author, and friends with another agent who writes under a pretty famous pen name most people don't even know about, I have to say that the lines have been blurred a long time, and anyone who doesn't think so is fooling themselves.

    Ethics? Integrity? Standards? Again, I have to say, you do you and I'll do me. If you get further than me in your writing career, more power to you. If you don't, I guess that's just the way the publishing cookie crumbles.

    If I promote my work, whether as myself or as a pen name, who cares? Read the work, or don't, but judge me by my writing skills, not my claims.

    Read Nicole's book and judge her by her work. Or don't. Read Cora Carmack's book and judge her by her writing ability. Or don't. Read Kendall Grey's erotica and judge her by her insane ability to hook a reader. OR DON'T. It really doesn't matter either way.

    Less time question "The Industry" and more time honing our craft is really the bottom line here.

    Write what makes you proud of you. Promote in a way that makes you proud of you. At the end of the day, WORRY ABOUT YOU.

    1. "If I promote my work, whether as myself or as a pen name, who cares?"

      If you're promoting your work AS your pen name, fine.
      But, if you're promoting work done BY your pen name posing as another person, that is, in my opinion, unethical.

      My other post was not knocking these authors' talent. I SAID they had talent. Their SALES numbers say they have talent. What I was disgusted with was Nicole's tactics of promoting her book as if she and her pen name were two separate people.

    2. I feel as though you're missing my larger point. People will ALWAYS find something to complain about or "call out." So and so sold out because they wrote a smutty e-book to make money. So and so bragged about how much she spent on self-publishing. So and so alienated her fans. So and so alienated reviewers. So and so is an agent and an author in the field she reps. So and so blah blah blah.

      When will we stop focusing on the negative and start being the supportive community we're supposed to be?

      Frankly, Nicole's actions IN NO WAY affect me.

    3. I'm not a disgruntled, can't-get-published author, and I don't make a habit of 'calling people out.' I'm just putting this up for discussion. I doubt anything will change.

    4. I wasn't trying to call you names, so I hope you don't think that.

    5. No. I'm okay with people expressing their opinions, and I have a pretty thick skin. I just wanted people to be clear where I stood.

      I enjoyed the book 'Losing It,' and I haven't ever even queried. ;)

    6. Just because the business is "tough" doesn't mean we should turn a blind eye to things we think aren't ethical in the name of being a "supportive community".

      There are plenty of writers/authors doing it 'right' (from an ethical standpoint) that can be supported.

      Ignoring something that seems dishonest, for 'the sake of the community, -isn't- doing the community any favors in the long run.

    7. Amen. Well said!
      That's exactly what I was thinking.

      The other aspect of this is how the unethical behavior of an employee affects the reputation of their employer. If I sign with an agent or publisher, I want to feel confident the professionals I'm working with are honest and ethical. If they turn a blind eye to stuff like this, what does that say about them?

    8. I don't disagree,HOWEVER, I feel that each person's view of ethics will vary. I feel that each person's path will vary. Again, I have to say "You do you, and I'll do me."

      Attacking Nicole for not telling you she wrote the book she was promoting is just wasted breath and energy.

      Focus on honing your craft and get to where your dreams will lead you. Worry about yourself.

      (And when I say YOU, I mean writers as a whole. I do not want anyone to come out of this thinking I am personally attacking them.)

  2. "What if your copy- or content editor is also an author?
    What effect does that have the work they do for you?

    Probably none, you say.
    Probably, you're right. ...Probably.

    What if they write the same genre? If you're in competition with each other, will they do their best when editing your work?

    Are you sure?

    Should copy- and content editors be allowed to also be authors?"

    This is hurtful. Way hurtful. And cut-throat. You have a job, you said so yourself. Should you not be allowed to write? Sure, some people have a difficult time making distinctions between their passions and their careers. Some are lucky enough to have one in the same. Some people's passions don't pay enough, but you can't tell a writer to stop writing. You can't tell them to stop selling their books and wanting to publish them. If someone said to you, STOP WRITING, how would you feel?

    Your assumption of competition is unfair, and really speaks of how lowly you regard your fellow human beings. Just because some people are competitive and sneaky, that does not mean all people are competitive and sneaky, or that authors should live in competitive fear of what pen name their agent, editor, or acquisitions editor operates.

    I worked as an acquisitions editor, an editor, and am a published author. I LOVE falling in love with books in my same genre. I love editing and HELPING other authors who write in my same genre. Because of my passion, my love, I'm able to help them more. I know the market, understand the readers, and can guide authors because of our similarities.

    As for what Nicole did? I think she's out there like the rest of us, trying to promote her books. If she'd said, Hey, go buy my book STRIPPED, everyone would have immediately known and then what would be the point of the pen name? She's an author, she should be proud, she should promote her work, she should do whatever it takes. Was it unethical? NO, not unless she hates her book and doesn't truly believe anyone should buy it. Which I doubt is true. She has an advantage that others might not. But she also has people who flock to her and try to be her friend purely on the fact that she's an editor for Entangled. Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE, is trying to sell something; she just has one more way than a few others do. That's not wrong. It's not deceitful.

    Is it wrong for author's friends to help promote if that friend has not read their book? I'm sure that happens, whether the friend will admit that or not. Does that make it wrong for them to spread the news? No.

    How many actors are also directors, producers, screenwriters, etc? How many directors have children who are actors and star in their films? Does that make it wrong?

    Do viewers care?

    Do readers care?

    Products matter. She's not out there casting stones at people, saying their work sucks and you should buy her book. She's promoting herself the best way she knows how, just how people who are ONLY authors do.

    Don't create an us vs. them where there doesn't need to be one.

    1. "She's not out there casting stones at people, saying their work sucks and you should buy her book."

      Neither am I. I was calling into question her professionalism - her ethics - not the quality of her book.

      As for today's post, it isn't personal. I'm not naming anyone, just posing these questions as food for thought.

      I've been on this earth for 40+ years, and I know from experience that there are people who are honest and ethical and people who aren't. I'm simply saying both exist, and thus the possibility of unethical behavior affecting an author's success exists.

    2. I didn't say you were casting stones. But the questions you pose ARE hurtful, especially to those of us who dedicate hours and hours of low-paying HARD work to the writing world.

      Let's play Devil's advocate: What if this discussion led to some sort of "Rule" that if you work in the writing world, you are not allowed to write?

      Do you really want that on your head? All those amazing editors GONE, because they chose their passion over their career? All those amazing writers GONE because they can't afford their passion over their career?

      Think about what you're really suggesting, then ask yourself: Is this questionable question about professionalism really worth it?

      (PS. If she'd NOT been an editor and logged into Twitter as an alter-ego pen name and made comments about her other pen name's book, would you still take issue? Is this ONLY because she works as an editor? Because if that's the case, is it not shitty when writers become her "friend" purely in hopes she'll pick their book? Are they NOT being deceitful?)

    3. First, let me point out this part of my post in case anyone missed it: I believe most people in professional positions like these behave with reasonable integrity, ...

      "What if this discussion led to some sort of "Rule" that if you work in the writing world, you are not allowed to write? Do you really want that on your head?"

      If that happened, which I doubt, I would feel bad for those it affected, BUT avoiding conflict of interest is a reality of many other professions. If it did become the rule, then those who do both would have to make a choice just like people in other professions make every day.

      Regarding the thing with Nicole, my main issue was her deceit of pretending her alter ego was someone else. If she'd merely re-teeted 'Brooklyn's' tweets, it would have been a gray area and I would have shrugged, shaken my head, and left it alone.

      As far as her editor status, that only made it worse, because it made me question the ethics of someone in the position to handle other author's manuscripts. I didn't call her out ONLY because she is an editor.

    4. That should have been 're-tweeted.' Sorry for that unfortunate typo. *blush*

    5. "If that happened, which I doubt, I would feel bad for those it affected, BUT avoiding conflict of interest is a reality of many other professions. If it did become the rule, then those who do both would have to make a choice just like people in other professions make every day."

      I'm very sad that you feel that way, as passion makes people great at many things, and you should know better than to tell a writer to turn off their creativity. To say MAKE A CHOICE: editor or writer? Trust me, people can be both, and a world where they can't is not a world I want to live in. Where's the ethics in that? Hey, YOU can't do what YOU LOVE because I'm AFRAID you'll hurt ME because of it. Do you hear the selfishness in that statement?

      While I can understand your pose of an ethical issue with Nicole, I think you made a bigger deal out of it than what it is, and on that note, I'm going to have to agree to disagree with you on both blog posts.

      I'm smart enough to know changing people's perceptions is NOT my passion. I really hope a day comes when you're able to walk both lines and you can see why being both an editor and author are amazing things, and I really hope you see how hurtful saying OH WELL to their non-existence really is.

      Until then....

  3. I personally have never been a fan of sock puppet methods, mostly because of agenda. And I'm referencing sock puppets, not aliases or pen names.

    When promoting a commodity--whether it be writing or food or computer parts--and deliberately portraying that commodity as external to the promoter, it is the act of knowingly and willfully deceiving the consumer. In my book, that is unethical. I don't like being purposefully misled to believe something based on implied truth.

    Purposefully misleading statement: I loved this book by this author and I think you will too.

    Truth: I wrote this book under a pen name and I think you will enjoy reading it.

    Implied Truth: I read this book, discovered it was great, and I wanted to pass that discovery along.

    With regards to the pen name and the comment about coming out forthright with the fact being pointless, I would disagree. Different people use pen names for different reasons, but my impression was that people usually used them to either hide the fact that they had written the book for personal reasons, to separate out life roles (editor vs author), or for dipping into other genres or topics. I don't believe I've come across an instance where a pen name was created for the sake of self promotion through a different name.

    Those are just my thoughts on the matter. I'll be the first to admit I subscribe to an old fashioned set of morals.

    With regards to drawing a line, I'm not one to police anyone else and hold them to a set of boundaries. Culture dictates action and trying to enforce rules without an underlying and agreed upon foundation will only encourage those to fight against or find a way around the rules. Restrictions based solely on mandates will foster resentment.

    Perhaps I'm pessimistic about society.

    1. Wow. You basically nailed my thoughts exactly. YES YES YES!

  4. Can I bring up a point that I think ties into these points?
    For me, I don't care if my editor or agent or whatever is a writer.
    What I care about is if thy use that position of power in a poor way. What I mean by that:
    Let's say you have an agent or editor that you LOVE. You look up to them and all their recommendations. And so if this agent or editor start promoting someone's work, that indicates to you that this work must be good, right? I mean, if THE AGENT or THE EDITOR thinks this book is awesome, it probably is. We take their advice pretty often. We look to them for their suggested reads etc.
    And that is fine.
    The problem, though, is when they are using that to promote themselves in a dishonest way. If the agent wants I promote his or her own book and we all know I is her or his own book, fine. No problem.
    But what about when we don't know? If we think they are talkin about someone else's amazing awesome book but really they are secretly promoting their own work?
    I don't care if they self-promote. Most people do. But ido think it becomes an ethical problem when the promoting is dishonest, especially in those roles where they are looked up to.

  5. And btw, my above post is a generality. I'm talking about a general concept.

  6. I think everything can be boiled down to this quote--minus the last bit.

    1. Actually, if everyone WERE Spiderman, the world would be a lot cooler. ;)

    2. Both of you are spot on. :)

  7. Great post. And it does raise the questions. Thanks-made me think!


    1. That's all I'm trying to do with this one. I mean no disrespect to ethical editor/agent/authors.

  8. Oh Melissa I'm so behind, I need to catch up!

  9. Melissa-- sounds like you brought up some intense, thought-worthy ideas here and in your last post (I need to catch up-- travelling has put me behind a little). It's good to stir the pot and make us all think, sometimes. :)

  10. Anyone who wants to should be an author, even if they are involved in other parts of the industry. The only caveat should be something that applies to every part of life: you can't be dishonest, like, say, hyping your pen name's books while acting like you're not involved. If people can't see the line themselves, then others have to remind them.

  11. Did I miss something? Cause people are acting like you killed some authors' puppies when in fact all I saw was you stating the facts: these are some things that happened and then asking us what we thought. And expressed your own opinion which, apparently, YOU are not allowed to have but everyone else is allowed to have THEIRS. Very bizarre. As I said before, some things are simply in bad taste. But people are going to do what they're going to do. What I would have a problem with would be if one of these people who are gatekeepers and secretly authors were in direct competition with something I had submitted and put me in the slush pile based on that competition rather than the merit--or lack thereof--of my work.

    1. "Did I miss something? Cause people are acting like you killed some authors' puppies..."

      LOL, no doubt! :P

      Some of these folks would never make it in the healthcare industry. *shakes head* They'd fall over in a dead faint the moment they were fitted with the corporate compliance straightjacket.

    2. Hi Lisa,

      I can't help but assume that Krystal Wade and I are the people you are referring to, because we're the only writers who disagreed with Melissa openly.

      "And expressed your own opinion which, apparently, YOU are not allowed to have but everyone else is allowed to have THEIRS. Very bizarre."

      Seriously? I'm pretty sure we were ALL having our own opinions on this. Melissa has hers. I have mine. Krystal has hers. I have argued my point with respect and dignity. I wrote a response in a blog post of my own, and you know what? I didn't link to Melissa's post. I didn't call Melissa out for having opinions that did not agree with my own. I did not publicly call attention to her in ANY way.

      My ENTIRE point--which was somehow missed even though I feel I've been very clear--was that you do you, and I'll do me. I won't bash you, publicly shame you, or throw you under the bus if your methods or path vary from my own. I won't call you out by name. I won't disrespect you in that way because that is not WHO I AM.

      I tried to argue my point with respect to you and your opinions, Melissa. I expect the same respect. LOL'ing about me or others who share my opposing opinion sheds light on your character, not mine.

      And just for a fun fyi, I don't have any desire to be in the healthcare industry. Whether or not I would survive in an industry I have no business being in is completely irrelevant. But, really, that's neither here nor there.

    3. I was LOLing at her choice of description (kill puppies), and a bit about how vehement the responses were when I'd only posed a few questions for discussion.

      My comments about healthcare were because I can't believe you see no need for ANY kind of ethics regulations in the publishing industry.

      Would you like the everyone-govern-themselves concept when it comes to restaurant cleanliness and fire code? What about how manufacturers are preparing the foods you buy? Do you want your doctor prescribing medications because he thinks it's the best med/brand for you, or because he's in bed with a particular drug manufacturer?

      Industries need a certain amount of regulation and oversight to deter unethical behavior. It's just how things are, because not everyone will 'do' what's right.

      And I don't care if you link my post or not, but because you didn't, people reading yours can't click over and see the other side of the disagreement. *shrugs* I posted screen shots and links in Tuesday's post because I wanted my blog visitors to see for themselves and form their own opinions.

    4. I think you could have done a very good job of allowing people to form their own opinions without calling Nicole out by name, while still creating a blog post that shed light on something you strongly believed in. However, the post became a personal attack on HER. I've since seen you calling out a well known publishing house on Twitter, and can't for the life of me see why you are doing this, if not to seek attention. I'm not trying to insult you, but I honestly can't think of any other reasons. Especially coming from someone who by all measures isn't even a part of the industry. Again, not trying to be insulting, but you aren't traditionally published, and claimed to have never queried.

      I left Nicole's name and your name out of my blog because I had no desire to call you out by name or give the blog post attacking a fellow writer any more attention. I would have so much more respect for your opinion had you chosen not to attack another author publicly. That is a tact issue, and obviously something you missed while busy with your ethics attack.

      I know we won't agree on this, and that's okay. But please don't claim to want your readers to "form their own opinion." Your completely one-sided blog post argues that for the untruth it is.

  12. Your discussion is deep and touches subjects I've never worried about. Don't know if I should. I think integrity is important in any stage of life not just writing business, though. Leave you tons of dragon hugs!

    1. Thanks for the hugs, Al. I can definitely use them.

      If I could find that dragon cave, I'd give you some right back. :)

  13. I actually did tweet to Nicole when she said someone was bashing her on their blog. I had not at that point seen the post or had any idea what it was about. I think all of this is a difficult topic. Both how people feel about what she did, but also talking about it in general. On one hand, people don't want to put someone else down, but on the other how do you talk about ethics in the business without bringing these things up? It's tough. I have no answers.

  14. Several years ago I learned that not everyone has the same moral or ethical standards that I do. To some, mine are wicked and evil. Others say my standards are impossible to attain. So I think I fall solidly in the middle.

    About the time I learned this lesson, I learned the hard way that I have zero influence over anyone else's standards. My life has been much easier since. Some things that bother me, don't bother others. And some things that don't bother me do bother others. So I just do my thing and try to treat others the way I'd want to be treated. And hope that some people do the same.

    Also, thanks for sharing Maxie's line. I'd forgotten she said that. She was a wise old bird. I wish I was :)

    1. Agreed. Usually, I just shake my head and go on about my business. For some reason, this rubbed me the wrong way enough I had to say something.

      I liked that line by Maxie so much, I highlighted it in my Kindle. ;)


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