Terrible Editors and Why You Shouldn’t

I read this blog post and it made me go full Steaming Professional Fury.

The editor who was assigned to work on my manuscript was one of the unkindest people I have ever come across. For some reason, my story brought out the absolute worst in this lady. I don’t know what struck her core but something sure did. She did not like one thing about what she was reading. She hated the heroine, the hero, the premise of the book, and even the villain was too villainous for her. Yep. She said that. […] Nasty comments abounded which made me hate my own work that I’d been so happy to submit and have accepted by the publisher. […] A couple of examples: “You must not have worked very hard on this book as I’ve read one of your other books and it was better.”; “You must not like your characters.”; “I want to cold-cock your heroine.” (AND this was not meant in a sexual way); “I want to tell her to go screw herself.” and, after highlighting most of a chapter: “Rewrite this as it’s nonsensical.” No guidance, nothing – just rewrite it. And one comment was just, “You’re kidding.”

I tweeted (extensively; I was cross) about this and had a horrifyingly large response from people saying they’d had similar experiences. Consequently, I rageblog.

As I have discussed before, there are small presses who apparently feel that editing is not a skilled job. They pay $50 a MS for an edit, or give editors a small royalty on the book rather than an upfront fee, and since obviously professionals can’t work for that, they use amateurs who will do it ‘for love’. As far as I can tell, this means keen readers and reviewers.

Now, as I have often said, I support the right of reviewers to write whatever they like about a book, however vicious and snarky. You know who doesn’t have that right, not even a little bit? Editors.

The editor’s job is to make the MS better in partnership with the author. The editor is the author’s ally. She may hate the author’s guts (welcome to the club); she may hate the book (in which she needs either to suck it up or to ask to be reassigned). She may not, ever, take out her feelings on the author in spite, hyperbole, snark, bitching and malice.

You may be great at identifying what’s wrong with a book. You may have the rarer skill of seeing how to make it right. But if you can’t convey those things to the author in a professional manner that keeps the author onside and engaged, you aren’t fit to be an editor. And if a publisher employs an editor who lacks that skill, I’m not sure where they get off claiming to be a publisher.

The problem is not just unprofessional editors and publishers, it’s inexperienced authors accidentally enabling them. If you’ve never had good editing, you may not know what it looks like, and you may not know how to draw the line between a tough, close edit and a horrible abusive experience. (Because, let’s face it, the first can feel like the second in the heat of the moment.)

Nobody likes taking criticism. Authors have been known to complain vociferously about the most carefully phrased editorial letters because they suggest any changes at all. So I am not saying that adverse criticism = horrible incompetent editor. Quite the reverse, in fact. An editor who scatters compliments like sunshine and daisies over a flawed MS may be a temporary joy, but she’s not doing her job either. What you need, what the publisher’s cut of the receipts buys you, is an editor who can identify problems, explain what you need to do, and convey that in a helpful, respectful manner.

Example time! Let us say you have a minor character, Trevor, of whom you are fond, and with whom you have been self-indulgent.

Terrible Editor: Trevor is a total waste of space. Are we supposed to like him, because he was a walking cliché and I felt like screaming whenever he turned up. There was no point in him being in the book anyway because he didn’t DO anything, he was just boring.

Bad Editor: I love Trevor! He’s so funny! I smiled whenever I saw him!

Useful Editor: You need to consider Trevor’s role. He takes a lot of page time but he doesn’t actually play a part in the plot. I’m afraid I think his role needs to be very substantially cut back to improve the pacing, eliminating the conversations in chapters 7, 9 and 10 altogether. I realise that’s going to hurt but if you read with an eye to structure, I think you’ll see he’s bringing the action to a halt without adding anything new to the otherwise tightly-constructed plot. Might you be able to use these conversations (which are very lively and enjoyable in themselves) as bonus features for the blog tour?

See?

So. Eight points for authors…

  1. Make sure your contract includes the following: A clause specifying that editing takes place in consultation with the author, and the author has the right of approval. A clause saying you will receive professional editing. A breach of contract clause.
  2. Abusive ‘editing’ is not professional. A professional editor will never insult your work or demand rewrites without guidance. A professional will be thinking about your feelings, not about venting her own. A professional works with you to help make the MS better.
  3. If you get an edit that is full of snark and spite, first have an experienced published author look at it to make sure you’re not overreacting. If she agrees that this is a hatchet job, go to the managing editor and say that you’re not happy and you don’t think the edit is appropriate or professional. Ask that you should be assigned a different editor who doesn’t hate the book.
  4. If the publisher’s response includes words like ‘extremely sorry’ and ‘reassign immediately’, great. If the publisher doesn’t seem bothered that they’ve employed a non-professionally-competent person, or fails to listen to you, consider very hard if these are people you want to work with again. (Hint: They aren’t.) The publisher accepted your MS; they should have faith in it.
  5. Don’t be scared to cite the contract clauses mentioned in point 1. That’s why you have clauses in your contract: to use them as needed. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you’ll be blacklisted by all publishers in your genre for being ‘difficult’, that’s hilariously untrue. To quote author/editor/publisher Aleks Voinov, “Enforcing an industry-wide blacklist would be akin to creating a global cat union.”
  6. If you haven’t got the contract clauses mentioned in point 1, stop signing crappy contracts. Have someone else look over the next one first.
  7. Remember that you are better off self-publishing than having an incompetent editor make a dog’s breakfast of a book that comes out under your name.
  8. See 7.

One for whoever it is doing this so-called ‘editing’:

  1. Being able to read and spell does not make you an editor. If you have been let loose on an author’s MS without track record, training or supervision, and you think you can just wander through it saying whatever you like, you need a humility check right now.

As for the publishers that don’t pay for actual editing but still take a nice big cut of your book’s receipts…I can’t even. Just stop signing contracts with these people. Please.

_____________________

KJ Charles is a freelance editor with twenty years’ professional experience, thank you, and an author. Her next book is The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, coming 16 June. 

 

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Voting’s Like a Jar of Jellybeans. The earwax-flavoured kind.

There is a UK General Election today (at the time of writing). I’m talking British politics, but the principle remains the same for anyone with a vote, including the US people with local elections coming up, because local elections matter too.

I saw yet another article recently on People Who Don’t Vote. People granted space in the national news to express their views on why they don’t want to express their views. So, that’s bewilderingly pointless.

Actually, there should be more articles on people who don’t participate in the basic requirements of society. Maybe People Who Don’t Put Their Rubbish in the Bin (“What difference does one crisp wrapper make?”) and People Who Don’t Say Thank You When Doors Are Held Open (“It’s pointless, it doesn’t change anything,”) and People Who Watch Other People Fall Over And Don’t Try to Help (“Well, I don’t feel it’s anything to do with me, you know?”). Perhaps even People Who Refuse Point Blank to Give Their Opinion While The Office Party is Being Planned, And Then Sulk Because They Don’t Want to Go Bowling. I’ve often wondered what that’s about.

Let’s look at these.

“What difference does one vote make?”

Very little. It’s not meant to. You aren’t the Patrician.

Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote. (Terry Pratchett)

The point isn’t that you vote and then the country is run to your specification. The point is that we all vote and the country is run to an aggregate of our opinion. It’s like those ‘guess how many jellybeans are in the jar’ things. If you guess, you will be horribly wrong. If ten people guess, the average of their guesses will be closer to the right answer. If a hundred people guess, their average estimate will be surprisingly accurate.

It is obviously not the case that all elections end with a ‘right’ answer. It is particularly not the case when you have an electoral system like First Past the Post, as Britain does, which pretty much guarantees an unrepresentative result in a multi-party system. Nevertheless, the system is based on everyone giving their opinion and an overall result emerging, and remember, however much you may think the system sucks, you live in it. The only thing not voting achieves is to give extra weight to the voices of people who do vote, and their interests may not be yours. Because if you’re one of the 40% of people who don’t bother to guess the number of jellybeans, the other 60% will skew the result.

“It’s pointless, it doesn’t change anything.”

In the last election, 80% of over 65s voted, and only 47% of 18-24s did. As a direct result, we have a government very interested in protecting pensions, and completely unbothered by introducing tuition fees for students.

The ruling party, whatever it is, helps the groups likely to keep them in power at the expense of the groups who won’t. That is what governments do, because they want to stay in power. If you don’t want any particular government to stay in power, your options are as follows:

  • Plot a coup, raise a revolutionary army, march on Westminster singing rousing songs, string them all up from lampposts, become Military Dictator of New Britain, get a fluffy white cat or maybe a chair made of swords.
  • Vote.

All voting sends a message. Voting for a candidate who is nearest to your views but doesn’t stand a chance sends a message of ‘I want more and valid choice’ (and if enough people do it we may get electoral reform). Turning up and drawing a penis over your ballot paper sends a message about problematic disengagement of people from the current system, because they count up the spoiled ballots. And not voting sends a message about who can be safely ignored by every single party. Oh look, it’s you.

Incidentally, for the record, there is not one single UK MP with an outright majority of eligible voters. If we all voted, there wouldn’t be a safe seat in the country. Just saying.

 “I don’t feel it’s anything to do with me, you know?”

Then you’re not paying attention. If you live in a building, or get sick, or get old, or have children, or are LGBT, or ever leave the country, or have a job, or don’t have a job, or pay tax, or buy things, or breathe air, then politics affects you, and pretending it doesn’t is, frankly, ridiculous.

“I don’t want to go bowling!”

Then you should have said so at the point we asked for your opinion, and we might have made a different decision. But you didn’t say. And now it’s too late.

***

Voting isn’t a special treat for a special flower, let alone a magic wand. But it shapes the world you live in, it takes half an hour once every couple of years, and UK voters don’t even need a polling card: if you’re on the electoral register, you can just turn up.

And then we can get back to the far more interesting business of talking about books.

_______________________

KJ Charles can’t stand bowling, which is why she votes.

When Publishers Fail: publishing and author service

So there’s this book, recently out, looks exactly my cup of tea, and a friend I trust recommended it wholeheartedly. Woop! I zoomed off to one-click, saw the publisher, and stopped.

Oh, I thought. It’s published by them. Meh. I’ll get the sample first.

I’ve abandoned several books from this publisher in the past because I’d found the editing unacceptably poor. I now hesitated, very seriously, over buying a book that I wanted–because the publisher was a significant strike against it.

And yes, I’m a nitpicking editor, but here’s something I read just today from the excellent romance book/food blogger Elisabeth Lane:

I recently closed my blog to unsolicited ARC submissions and I’m slowly working through a very small backlog of Netgalley advance titles. I don’t think I’ll be opening it back up any time soon. The reason is at least partially aesthetic. There are a lot of badly-written, badly-edited books out there. … I’m tired of feeling like I have to sort through a ton of chaff to get to the wheat […]

I had stopped enjoying myself. I’d read so many bad books in a row–books with no conflict, books with glimmers of a strong voice that wasn’t fully realized, books with dubious or incoherent themes and moral positions, books with cardboard characters that never move beyond archetypes and yes, books with typos, grammar errors, missing words and other mechanical defects in inexcusable quantities.

Now, if you’re self published and you decide not to use an editor, that’s your business decision. But if you’re with a publisher who doesn’t edit–if they make the business decision to put out your book in poor shape because they don’t know or care that it should be better, if their imprimatur is not a guarantee of anything like quality, if their editing is no better than you’d get from your mate who reads lots of books, if bloggers and readers are looking at your book and saying, Meh…remind me why you’re handing over 60% net receipts again?

Publishing is an author service industry. Publishers provide a set of services to make the book good, an imprimatur to tell people it’s good, a sales and marketing structure to get the book to readers; and they take all the financial risk for these things. In return for these services, the publisher gets a cut of the book’s revenues. When publishers fail to provide these services, when their imprint is no longer a guarantee of quality, the reason for authors to give them money disappears.

There are publishers that don’t pay for proofreading. There are those whose editorial fees are absurdly below professional rates, which makes you wonder who’s doing the work, and how fast they have to do it to eat. There are some that don’t pay editors at all and simply use people who do it ‘for love’, or, to put that in French, amateurs.  I’m well aware editing is a huge cost, of course, especially to small publishers. But if I go to a cake shop and ask for a cake, I don’t expect to be handed a bowl of raw flour, eggs and butter, on the grounds that ovens are just too expensive so they decided not to bake the damn thing. (For the avoidance of doubt: I am not talking about my own publishers, with whom I am extremely happy.)

Of course, it’s very easy to say, ‘Don’t go with a publisher that doesn’t edit properly!’ but let’s be honest, most aspiring authors would sign pretty much anything, with anyone, to get the first book published. (“Beelzebub Books, Inc? My name in blood? Sure!”) But as you develop a few books, a readership, a sales history, you can look at the deal again, as well as at what’s being offered to the reading public with your name on it. Because if the trad pub deal ceases to be worthwhile–if it doesn’t include good editing, cover design, marketing support, the halo effect of being with a respected publisher, a decent royalty split–authors can and should move to other publishers, or self pub, or a hybrid publishing strategy without a second’s hesitation. Once again: the publisher’s split of the receipts is their payment for services. If you’re not getting adequate service, why are you paying?

Don’t get me wrong: I love publishing. I believe in it as a good thing for authors and readers and the future of books. As an author, I would far rather be with a publisher, big or small, and work and succeed together. (That’s not to disrespect self publishers, it’s simply my personal preference.) As a reader, I want to be able to one-click a book with a blithe certainty that it will be properly edited and proofread simply because it carries a publisher’s imprimatur. But to make that work, publishers have to serve their authors properly, because if they don’t they will lose both authors and readers. Which is why a publisher that skimps on those obligations to its authors  is chipping away at its own future.

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ThinkOfEngland72webKJ Charles is a very happily published romance author with Samhain and, coming this summer, Loveswept. She’s also a freelance editor with twenty years’ publishing experience. Her latest book is Jackdaw, out now, and her novel Think of England just won Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll.

Confessions of an Irritable Romance Novelist

Someone wrote an article (‘Confessions of a Failed Romance Novelist’) for the National Post on how she tried to knock out a romance novel to make lots of money. If you are a romance reader/writer, you can save time by screaming and throwing something at the wall now, rather than reading it.

Edited highlights follow. Get your bingo cards out.

Comes from a position of ignorance and contempt:

“From what I gather the [typical romance novel] plots are simple and the characters’ emotional lives not terribly complex. Also, the sex or some sex act needs to happen way before the 100 page mark,” [my agent] wrote me.

[Note to author of article: Your agent is terrible. Get a new agent.]

Does no research before writing:

I attempted to revive [romance career after publishing the book] by borrowing some Harlequins. I wanted to surprise myself; maybe I would actually like the real thing. Maybe I would be able to imitate it.

Is better and more intellectual than dumbo romance readers:

I decided the world was ready for a book about love with many subplots, dealing in experiences more complicated than a sudden, early outburst of butterflies. …

[used to read Harlequin as a tween but] I read Lolita for the first time and my literary tastes were irrevocably ruined.

Feels compelled to make gratuitous ‘romance writers are fat and ugly’ snipe:

I put on my ugliest glasses, squished my face into my hand to affect a triple chin, and took a picture of myself [for the fake author persona].

Disdains the lively and committed community of readers, reviewers and writers:

I started befriending people like some crazy creep, initially by joining groups that dealt with romance writing and reviewing. In three weeks, I racked up more than 1,000 friends … I didn’t have the time to engage with other fake people. What I learned from my friend and from Facebook, the romance-novel writing community required a sense of mutuality: you review them and they review you.

[For the record, I am aware backscratching reviews happen. I have never been approached by anyone to request this. Maybe nobody likes me.]

So anyway, this book, written with contempt for and ignorance of the genre, didn’t sell. Shocker.

I used to edit at Harlequin Mills & Boon. Every editor had a teetering pile of romance slush submissions two or three feet high by her desk, not to mention the unclaimed five-foot mounds surrounding the photocopier. On Friday afternoons, when I felt too lazy to edit, I’d sit there and power through two feet of people’s hopes and dreams at a time. Now, with slush, what you most want is a brilliant, perfect book that you can carry in triumph to an editorial meeting. Second is a flawed yet excitingly redeemable MS. Third preference is something you can reject on sight, without further ado. Seriously, there is a reason we don’t send everyone a personal letter. The piles are big.

(‘Reject on sight’ may sound unfair, but you develop a knack. An agent was famously asked if he could really judge a MS based on just three chapters. He replied that you can tell if a MS is no good based on three chapters, often one chapter, sometimes the first page, occasionally the covering letter, and, in extreme cases, the envelope. This is 100% true, as any experienced slush pile reader will testify.)

I saw so many ‘knock it out for the money’ submissions in the slush pile. So many clichéd, spark-free, lifeless, lazy, dull, grating, cranked-out MSS that someone had the unmitigated gall to think ‘would do for Mills & Boon’, without knowing the trade, or the market, or the readership. With the very natural desire to make money by writing, but completely lacking the bit where the author wanted to write the book, or had any gift/inclination for doing so.

I loved those submissions. Adored them. I could drop in the preprinted rejection slip after reading one single paragraph, and that was another slush knocked off!

And that’s what I see when I read these ‘I tried to write a romance’ pieces. Authors who wouldn’t get a single full page of a MS read by a work-dodging editor on a Friday afternoon. I mean, seriously, if you’re going to be shallow and money-grubbing, at least do it well.

There is a mildly insightful line in this article:

But the work of creative writing is something else, it seems. I have to believe in it, non-cynically, otherwise who is possibly going to believe me?

This is true, if obvious. Romance is a genre powered by emotion. Authors can and should treat writing as a business. But the business of romance is to get endorphins flowing, hearts pounding, tears starting, pages turning. A romance author who can’t do that is as much use as a thriller writer who can’t kick off the adrenalin response, or a horror novelist who can’t pry into your limbic system and set off the shudders. And you cannot write real, convincing emotions if you’re knocking out a cynical exercise by numbers in a spirit of uninterested contempt.

So if you intend to sit down and write a bad book in a spirit of greed and ignorance, make it a hard SF or conspiracy techno-thriller, okay? It won’t be any easier or better, but I won’t ever know about it because I don’t read them, and that will save me a lot of irritation.

_________________________________

KJ Charles is a romance writer and freelance editor. Jackdaw is out on 17 February.

If you stop running, you fall.jackdaw small

Jonah Pastern is a magician, a liar, a windwalker, a professional thief…and for six months, he was the love of police constable Ben Spenser’s life. Until his betrayal left Ben jailed, ruined, alone, and looking for revenge.

Ben is determined to make Jonah pay. But he can’t seem to forget what they once shared, and Jonah refuses to let him. Soon Ben is entangled in Jonah’s chaotic existence all over again, and they’re running together—from the police, the justiciary, and some dangerous people with a lethal grudge against them.

Threatened on all sides by betrayals, secrets, and the laws of the land, can they find a way to live and love before the past catches up with them?

This story is set in the world of the Charm of Magpies series.

What’s Good For You: ‘detoxifying’ reading

I am annoyed, and I am disappointed.

Scholastic, the huge global children’s publisher who do, among other things, Harry Potter in the States, have a blog. And on their blog they had a post about doing a ‘literary cleanse’, which is what you’d call ‘throwing out books’ if you weren’t desperately hanging your monthly blog post on a New Year’s Resolution hook.

So this ‘literary cleanse’, in the way of overstretched metaphors, involves ‘detoxifying’ your life to make it ‘healthier’. And what genre of book do we find exemplified as the filthy junk poison that the author needs to eliminate? No, go on, you have one guess.

from this day forward I am officially strict in my literary screening process. I’ll think long and hard about what I want to read in the first place, and if it’s not good for me (ex: See’s Candy catalog, trashy romance novel), it’s out. (Source)

Now, you may argue that the author means only trashy romance novels and not the good ones, but let’s be honest: she doesn’t. Trashy is a word that gets attached to romance like brave to any celebrity who’s been slightly poorly, or renowned to curators being murdered in the Louvre. Romance novel=trashy romance novel. Anyone who cares about the genre wouldn’t have used this example because they’d be tired of being kicked in the teeth.

The author is of course entitled not to read romance, or to feel it’s bad for her, just as she is entitled to toss out casual dismissals of any genre she likes. I think it’s more meaningful to criticise a specific book than to dismiss a whole genre, but whatever, it’s a throwaway line in a throwaway post, who cares. That’s her point of view, fair enough. What bothers me is to find this kind of thing on a children’s publisher’s platform, and here’s why.

The thing about children’s publishing is, it cannot be worthy or didactic. We’ve been through that. Children need to read books that are the kind of thing they want to read, and that may not be what a well-meaning adult considers ‘good for you’. I hate Horrid Henry and the oeuvre of Jacqueline Wilson with every fibre of my being, but my kids go through them like maddened locusts, and every book improves their reading skills, vocabulary, reading fluency, joy in picking up a book.

Scholastic know this. You can tell they know this because they publish Rainbow Magic in the US. Brace for pink.

rainbow-magic-banner-1115528

Here is what Scholastic have to say about Rainbow Magic:

Rainbow Magic is a delightful way to boost literacy. The predictable series plotlines gently stretch reading skills, allowing children to develop their fluency and speed in a fun and familiar context.

Even the publisher says it’s predictable. Oh my God, is it predictable. We must have had fifty of these pass through our doors, and (aside from the first seven, which are actually good), every single one was identically plotted, repetitive to the point of brain death, and utterly unchallenging.

My daughter read and reread these things, her literary security blanket when she was coping with starting school. She  started to develop critical faculties off their pink-foiled backs (‘Why do the goblins always hide the stolen magical objects where Kirsty and Rachel live?’) and eventually got bored and moved on without regret. She is now seven with a reading age of 14, so I’m pretty sure they didn’t rot her brain. I never want to encounter Bertha the Barrel-Scraping Fairy again, but these books were worth every penny and every minute for her.

These books are fun and pleasurable for kids. Not for anyone else, sure, but that’s the point. Scholastic publish series after series of stuff that any tweedy literary critic would pick up using tongs because they know bloody well that there is a massive value in reading for pleasure. They know readers often need a sense of familiarity and security. They know that the book world is wider than the Times Literary Supplement would have you believe. They publish stuff that their readers want to read, not just to make money, but because the health of the entire book world depends on people learning to love stories and read voraciously.

So why the hell would a publisher that knows about the importance of fun, and familiarity, and story, and reading for pleasure, casually publish a swipe at an adult genre that offers the same thing?

Why can’t adults read for pleasure? What exactly makes romance (or fantasy, or YA, or implausible conspiracy thrillers) ‘trash’ as a genre? I’m not just defending the genre books that are brilliantly written and well executed here, legion though they are. Even the most routine, uninspired, ‘trashy’ series product can have value to readers who want that sort of book right then–just like Scholastic’s routine, uninspired Rainbow Magic series product does.

It’s book snobbery. It’s the didactic, dictatorial impulse that says ‘Take away Rainbow Magic and give that child The Water Babies!’ The urge to tell people what to read, the urge to dictate what’s ‘good for you’. The attitude that can’t simply say, ‘I will read something else,’ but has to frame it as ‘This stuff is junk and I look down on you for it.’ That isn’t how anyone who cares about reading should talk about other people’s books.

Let readers have the ‘joy of reading’, as the tagline on the Scholastic website has it, without sideswiping their tastes, whether they’re adults or children. Because if you ask me, a habit of patronising, belittling or casually sneering at other people’s pleasures is a lot more toxic than reading genre fiction can ever be, and probably more likely to turn people off reading at all. And I don’t want my book-gobbling children growing up with that.

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KJ Charles used to edit children’s books and now writes award-winning romance. Jackdaw is coming in February.

Why I Am Not An Ethical Author

The idea of an Ethical Author badge is floating round the internet again. Full write up here but the basic principle is that authors agree to abide by pledges as follows:

The Ethical Author Code

Guiding principle: Putting the reader first

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 when it comes to my writing life.

Courtesy

I behave with courtesy and respect toward readers, other authors, reviewers and industry professionals such as agents and publishers. If I find myself in disagreement, I focus on issues rather than airing grievances or complaints in the press or online, or engaging in personal attacks of any kind.

Aliases

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.

Reviewing and rating books

I do not review or rate my own or another author’s books in any way that misleads or deceives the reader. I am transparent about my relationships with other authors when reviewing their books.

I am transparent about any reciprocal reviewing arrangements, and avoid any practices that result in the reader being deceived.

Reacting to reviews

I do not react to any book review by harassing the reviewer, getting a third party to harass the reviewer, or making any form of intrusive contact with the reviewer. If I’ve been the subject of a personal attack in a review, I respond in a way that is consistent with professional behavior.

Book promotions

I do not promote my books by making false statements about, for example, their position on bestseller lists, or consent to anyone else promoting them for me in a misleading manner.

Plagiarism

I know that plagiarism is a serious matter, and I don’t intentionally try to pass off another writer’s words as my own.

Financial ethics

In my business dealings as an author, I make every effort to be accurate and prompt with payments and financial calculations. If I make a financial error, I remedy it as soon as it’s brought to my notice.

Responsibility

I take responsibility for how my books are sold and marketed. If I realize anyone is acting against the spirit or letter of this Code on my behalf, I will refer them to this Code and ask them to modify their behavior.

The principles laid out here seem very sensible. They seem very reasonable. They seem like a pretty basic 101 of being a grown-up who sells books.

I’m not signing this, any more than I’m signing a Motherhood Pledge.

Retaliation

I will not throttle, defenestrate or club my child over the head with a brick, even when provoked.

I don’t have to sign that. Nobody should have to sign that. It ought to be a given, and if it’s not, I doubt a badge will help.

Let us say you are the kind of person whose response to a bad review is to stalk the reviewer online, lie to get her home address, drive to her house. We’ll call you, off the top of my head, ‘Kathleen’. Does anyone really believe that Kathleen, who was happy to lie and stalk, would hesitate at breaking an internet pledge? Or that Kathleen, who wrote a self-congratulatory article in a national newspaper about the whole thing, would have the insight to see that she could not in conscience sign an Ethical Author pledge in the first place?

And it’s not just lack of insight. Does anyone believe that someone who is prepared to copy-paste someone else’s work, go through and change names, plonk a probably stolen cover image on it and sell it as their own would hesitate to claim an Ethical Author badge to which they aren’t entitled?

You probably remember the old Westerns, where the good guy had a white hat and the bad guy had a black hat. It frequently struck me, as a child, that the bad guy’s first act should have been to rob a hat shop, steal a white one, put it on, walk up to the actual good guy as he got off the train, and shoot him. This would have saved me a lot of time on Saturday afternoons. This badge idea is effectively giving away white hats, without any checking, registration, enforcement of standards or sanction for failure to meet them, and hoping only the good guys put them on.

Let’s not bother with practical questions like: how do you define ‘professional behaviour’, when professional author John Grisham is out there defending his paedophile friend because old white men shouldn’t have to go to prison, or Daniel Handler makes racist ‘jokes’ about black authors at a book award ceremony, or Anne Rice encourages her fans to go after negative reviewers, or when publishers put white people on the cover of books about black people so they sell more, or when Hachette and Amazon engage in a months-long spat that massively damages author income, or when…oh, I can’t be bothered, it’s too depressing.

Let’s not question how the list of things an ethical author should do apparently doesn’t include anything about what you write in your books. (‘I may write racist misogyny but I don’t plagiarise it and I pay my editor, so I’m ethical!’)

Let’s certainly not go into what actually constitutes ethical professional behaviour when you have to address polite fans nicely saying bigoted things, or people emailing you to say that they pirated your book and want to complain about a typo, or people who link you to one-star reviews they left you, or people who totally didn’t get your book and say something that is just so unfair

I feel mean having a go at something so patently well intentioned but we all know about the road to hell. And it is a road to hell here, because ethics are not lip service, a badge for your sidebar, but something you live in your acts. You have to think about them, apply them, act on them. If you want to spell them out to readers, do it in your own words. Put in the effort.

And of course you can put on a badge too, nothing wrong with that, if you’re absolutely sure that this whole thing won’t fall off a cliff because it’s totally unregulated. Go for it. But no amount of ethical badges will make Kathleen Hale et al into ethical authors. Behaving ethically is what does that. And your best means of persuading readers, bloggers and everyone else that you are a decent person is still simply to behave like one.

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KJ Charles is not one of Nature’s joiners. Since you ask, my reviews policy is here and the reasons why I have one at greater length here. The rest you can deduce for yourself by following me on Twitter @kj_charles.

Yes, I Write Romance.

One of the minor irritants of writing, editing or reading romance is that people who aren’t romance readers make jokes. Well, I say jokes. Usually jokes are defined as ‘things that are funny’, so we may need another word.

I can’t tell you the tedium of the unimaginative rote remark. I probably don’t have to. If you’re very tall, think of ‘How’s the weather up there?’ If you’re carrying a double bass on public transport, it’s doubtless ‘I bet you wish you played the flute!’ If you have a surname that lends itself to tiresome weak jokes and puns, you know the score all too well. (My real surname lends itself to puns and I write romance. This is why I need anger management classes.)

I edited for one of the most famous romance publishers in the world for five years. It got to the point where I refused to tell people my job at parties because the inevitable conversations were so deeply, profoundly, irritatingly, predictably dull.

Dull person: Romance novels?

Me: Yes, that’s right.

Dull person: Like Mills & Boon?

Me: Yes, that’s right.

Dull person: [bodice-ripper; ‘don’t they just give authors a plot and tell them to write it?’; all the same; ‘my granny reads them!’; Barbara Cartland; ‘don’t you want to write real books?’; 50 Shades of Grey; hahaha sex!]

I mean, I get it. Really. Romance is this totally silly genre which is about love and sex, something that no normal person is interested in at all. It’s completely trivial too – why would anyone take a genre seriously when it only makes up 17% of the entire US publishing market? Obviously any genre dominated by women as readers and writers is inherently laughable, because women. And I for one have never understood why you should be expected to look at good examples of something before dismissing it with contempt. I think it’s much better to look at something terrible published in 1974 and base all your theories on that.

Me: You make films?

Film person: Yes…

Me: I saw The Swarm! It was awful! Hahaha, you make films! It’s all hallucinatory giant bee sequences, dreadful dialogue, and random jump-cut nuclear explosions caused by bees, right?!*

* If you haven’t seen The Swarm, take a long weekend and stockpile beer.

I’ve had a lot of these conversations and have every expectation of more, so let’s just get some of it out of the way, shall we?

— Yes, I write romance. In which genres are your books published?

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, it has sex. I’m sorry you find sex so painful and unpleasant to think about. I understand there are some very good creams these days.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, many romance books are crap. Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap. I think Sturgeon was an optimist.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, they’re real books. You know what else is real? My royalty cheques.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, I think I can do something creative that I love and am really pretty good at, and make a living from it. I’m sorry, were you expecting a punchline?

— Yes, I write romance. No, you don’t have to respect that or be courteous about it. Then again, I don’t have to be courteous to you either. Your call.

And no, you don’t have to read my books. But – new rule – if you want to make snide remarks about them with impunity, you have to buy them. Show me a receipt and you can go to town on the hilarious subject of romance novels. As long as you’re aware that you have to pay me to listen to it.

 

Fed up of it? Join me in the comments!

 

Think of England is out from Samhain right now. The Magpie Lord is a Romantic Times Top Pick for September! (“The dialogue between the heroes is fun and intense… The building steam combusts into heat that sizzles right off the pages.”)