Friday, October 19, 2012

A Line in the Sand

by Peg Brantley

If you draw a line in the sand—over which you affirm you will not cross—where do you redraw it when a wave washes it away? Or when a jogger comes along and tramples it? Do you draw it in the same place or move it somewhere out of the way?

Integrity only means something when you stand strong. It's mist in the wind if you adjust your values because they become inconvenient. Keeping your integrity might mean you have to lose a few quick sales, or build your career a little slower than you'd like.

Here's what I've seen with many authors recently—traditional or indie:

A lot has been made lately about phony or paid reviews. Most of us were righteously indignant, and deservedly so. Some people unfortunately, simply wish they'd thought of it first. But that's only one piece of the game.

What about biographies? Is your biography dead-on, or have you played with reality a bit? I've heard it referred to as "permissive puffery" which to me is just another way of moving that line in the sand. Did you really make your living as a journalist or is the truth that your local hometown paper published two letters you wrote to the editor? Or that you were a star for your school newspaper?

How about calling yourself an award winning author because you came in second place in some obscure writing contest? (I have a framed certificate on my wall. Does that count?) I remember when I won that award, a friend told me I could now refer to myself as an award winning author. I think she meant it tongue-in-cheek, but it did make me wonder.

Then there's calling yourself a bestselling author because your book hit the top 100 of a free list, narrowed down by three or four categories? Are you serious? The NYT's Bestseller list has a few ethical issues of its own—don't compound it by adding yours.

Or review trading—explicit or implied. This was kind of a new one for me. No one actually came out and said "I'll give you a great review if you give me a great review", but the timing of their review and suddenly receiving their book made it hard not to hear those words. And when I wasn't crazy about their book? I sort of felt like I should somehow move to have their review taken down. It felt fake and sleazy.

To be perfectly honest, I asked a few readers who had given my first book a positive review to take a look at The Missings early in order to give it a nice bump at its launch. But I also spread that request out to others who may or may not have ever read my first book. One of my first 5-star reviews is from such a reader. Dishonest? Unethical? Lacking in integrity? I don't think those were any different than publishers sending out ARCs to try and get that same bump.

Writers, what about you? Have you seen things that made you shake your head? Were you ever tempted?

Readers, especially readers… have you begun to see through some of this stuff? Does it make you doubt everything?

Peg Brantley was never a journalist or a screenwriter or a sought after speaker. Although Amazon might say she has some bestselling books, she's still trying to reach that mark. Yes, she did receive second place in a writing contest once and even an honorable mention in another… but award winning? Net yet. RED TIDE rose as high as number two one time when she happened to look at the list. That was a kick. It didn't last.


  1. A great subject! I hadn't thought about author biographies, but I have seen abuse of the word bestselling. I didn't start using it until one of my books hit the top 100 on the whole Amazon list.

    At first I worried you were talking about me. I really have worked as a journalist, you can find my byline for the Register Guard. And I honestly won both a Neal and the Grand Neal, which in trade magazine publishing is a BFD. And just recently, I earned the silver in the Readers Favorite Awards, another big one.

    On the other hand, I haven't performed standup comedy in quite a while, so I recently changed my bio to say that I enjoy it, rather than perform it. I know I'll get on stage again, but who knows when?

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  2. I probably err on the side of too little puffery. Call me a victim of my upbringing. My mother's favorite Bible verse was "Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall." My grandmother (her mom) liked to say, "If you don't toot your own horn, no one else will." What was I supposed to do, torn between these two women?

    So even though I wrote pieces (and was paid) for an equine magazine, and write a weekly column, I don't call myself a journalist. Hell, it's taken me years to call myself an author, as opposed to a writer. Maybe I could use a couple of lessons in "Why, Yes, I am a Wonderful Author and You Should Read My Books."

    I do sometimes trade reviews, with a BIG caveat: if I don't like the book, I discuss it with the author and we agree whether I'll post a review or not. I've told the other author that if they don't like my book, I won't keep them from posting a review (how could I?) but I'd just like a head's up first. I think it's the only ethical way to handle review swapping.

  3. This is a timely and thought-provoking post, Peg. When I got the Magnolia Award (for service to SEMWA), someone said I could call myself an award-winning author, but that was misleading so I always specifify that it's an award for service. I put in that I'm certified in equine sports massage, even though I don't work in the field, because it's an interesting (and true) tidbit, and mention my Tae Kwan Do red belt for the same reason.

    I run into trouble sometimes with outdated bios that say I'm a member of x organization, and then I see it and think, "Oh no! I guess I'd better renew my membership to that!"

    The review/blurb issue is hard for me. It's a tough line between fairness to the reader and helping the writer. It's such a struggle for new or little-known writers to get reviews, and while I don't want to mislead readers, I also don't want to make it harder for a writer. I always try to find something positive about a book. If I can find a tactful way to address what I didn't like, I will, but usually I just include and excerpt so the reader can get a sense of the writing. (I often use these with books I love too.)

  4. You raise some great points, Peg, as do the commenters above. I like Gayle's approach to trading reviews. I think if we all just trade with very good to excellent writers, and everybody is expected to say what they really think, it's a great way of networking and getting a few reviews.

    I hesitate to review a book I consider not ready yet (as in needed more editing and revisions) as I don't want to slam an aspiring author, but I also don't want my own judgment, skills, and qualifications as an editor and discerning reader questioned if I praise a book that really doesn't merit it, just because the writer is a Facebook friend or whatever.
    In a case like that, I'd just decline to review it.

  5. I'm going to have to be the "downer" on this one and note that agents and publishers have been lying about the biographies of their authors for decades.

    Similarly, I know many authors whose agents went and sought out reviews and more bogus reviews in order to drum up buzz about the books they were representing.

    Indie's are, unfortunately, mimicking what the mainstream publishing industry has been doing since the beginning of time.

    So I'm unclear about this article: Are you suggesting that indie authors turn away from the mainstream/standard publishing protocol because it's been unethical all along? And if it's unethical, but effective and legal, what standards should we hold the indie author to (who makes pennies) while allowing Penguin to continue their shenanigans?

  6. Peg, sometimes it seems like there's a sliding scale on everything in life, but if you've hit the Top 100 overall paid list at Amazon, you are absolutely being accurate when you use "bestselling author" in your bio, or anywhere else.

    I was fortunate to hit Amazon's Top 25 overall paid list with one of my books, and you're darn right I use that fact. I say exactly that, too, "Amazon's Top 25 overall paid list," or words to that effect, so no one thinks I'm claiming something I'm not, one way or the other. It may not be the NY Times list, but it's something to be proud of, you know?

    As far as author bios go, I think everyone, readers as well as other authors, should take them with a grain of salt. Who isn't going to portray himself in the best possible light? That said, I specify what awards (or in my case, award) I've won, rather than just saying "award-winning."

    But other stuff, like performing satndup comedy, is good forever, in my book. I don't care if you did it thirty years ago, that's bio material all the way...

  7. L.J., part of the standards you set have to do with your personal ethics. I agree with Allan though… just the idea of doing standup comedy is terrifying to me. You can at least admit to possessing that bit of bravery at one time.

    Anonymous, I'm not singling out indie authors here at all. This "slippage" definitely is from both trad and indie authors/publishers. I've probably only begun noticing it because I've only recently been on their side of the table.

    Reviews remain tricky for me. I guess because I used to be a reviewer (and truly didn't like that at all). If I can't be honest, or receive an honest review, then I'm not interested.

  8. I'm good on the bio front - mostly because there's not a lot to put in it yet. =)

    A friend of mine recently released a new self-pubbed book and contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in reviewing it for her. I did - but I've read six (7?) books from this person and liked them all, so I felt pretty comfortable saying I'd do a review.

    But trading with someone I didn't know? I don't know. I think it would feel weird. I think I'd offer to read it, and if my review was anything other than (mostly) positive, discuss with them first.

  9. Once I was approached by an author asking me to nominate her book for a prestigious mystery writing award. I really didn't know her, except through FB. It felt kind of sleazy to me because the award is an award nominated by readers. But at the same time, I felt sorry for her. She seemed desperate. I think we can all identify with that desperation from time to time. We all believe in our books and want to get them noticed. But ultimately these tactics will come back to haunt you.

  10. Wonderful post, Peg. I recently had to persuade a friend to use "best-selling author" in her bio. Her agent had told her to based on being at the top of a newspaper best-seller list. No, it wasn't the Times, but it was a wide-circulation newspaper and seemed like a legit thing to me.

    Sometimes it's just that--a judgement call. I think the important thing is that we writers, indie or traditional, take our bios and our promos seriously.

    And by the way, LJ, if you ever go on stage again to do stand-up, I'll fly wherever it is to see you!

  11. I agree with Mary - I don't think I'd agree to an exchange of reviews with someone whose book(s) I haven't read, unless I'd heard really good things about them from others. What if I hated it and I'd already agreed?

    And I see Mollie's point, too. I wouldn't feel right nominating anyone for an award unless I read and loved the book.

  12. I've received a couple of emails and want to add a some thoughts…

    Those of us who really try to be honest, but also shy away from tooting our own horns, probably think we're guilty of stretching the truth. I sort of don't think so.

    And… there are prestigious awards out there where even coming away with an honorable mention is worth mentioning! I was talking about very obscure writing contests where the total entries were probably closer to two than two thousand.


  13. I do my best to keep it between the lines. I didn't put "bestselling author" before my name until I was one. Didn't put #1 before that until I got there, either. As for my Journalism background: oy...have I got the scars to prove that one. I've never paid for a review, and I never will.

    I do all this for my readers because they deserve honesty as much as they deserve the best work I can give them. I also do it for myself because anything other than genuine would feel like a shallow victory.

  14. "anything other than genuine would feel like a shallow victory."

    Well said, Drew! That's the bottom line, isn't it!

  15. Man, you really drew out all the confessions on this one! I didn't even know about some of these practices, but I'll tell you, for an industry that tries to eliminate adjectives and adverbs, they sure are applying a lot of them. Coming from one who isn't "bestselling" nor "award winning," yet reads, it really does kinda turn me off to a book if I see that on one. I personally don't care whether or not one won anything nor is a "best seller," for all THAT theoretically means. I want a cool, good story that makes me forget about grammar, editing, and the mechanics of writing, not to mention daily life, and take me somewhere else. I understand the marketing, the promotion, and there's absolutely nothing wrong in portraying yourself in your best light. THAT, however, does NOT mean lying and stretching the truth. It could mean you don't talk about a job you held but hated, don't want to be associated with, or weren't good at. I can mean things you've DONE. Just because you've done it does not mean you're STILL doing it. But it is a part of you and who you are. Everyone one knows right and wrong. It's not that hard.

  16. You're right, Frank. It's all about the story. But writers can be desperate for readers to get to their story, and in desperation make some decisions that, in my opinion, end up costing them more than they bargained for.

    I do think readers are probably becoming a little jaded regarding the hype.

  17. Something new… have any of you been hearing about the categorization schemes? Listing a fiction in a non-fiction category in the hope it might stand out?

    As someone said in a completely separate discussion, I'm considering looking into trans-species surgery.

  18. I've seen that, and it made me scratch my head. At first I thought maybe they were mistakes--then I got it. Seems a bit underhanded to me,


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