Four Points: On The Ethical Author Code And Amateurism


The Ethical Author Code

The Ethical Author Code is being promoted by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) based in the UK. There’s more about its launch at The FutureBook conference in London here. While no one at ALLi is pointing fingers in this effort, many observers feel that it’s a pivotal one in terms of the reputational status of many seriously dedicated writers and others in publishing.

ALLi founder Orna Ross has noted that many in the digitally-disrupted industry of publishing tend to automatically connect stories of authors behaving badly with self-publishing.

And the traditionally published author Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is outspoken in her support of the Code, has pointed out that there may be some basis for that. “In the past,” she writes, “publishers have tended to rein authors in. And in decades past, mountains of criticism and rejection have faced authors long before their books ever saw the light of day.”

Hyde is right to point out that many authors who self-publish and have no such disciplinary support from a publisher “are learning to hear criticism in public,” not easy.

And these truths do, in fact, lead some to think that the “problem people” are in the self-publishing sector.

There’s no doubt about it, some are, yes. But not all.

The Code is something that author Jane Steen was working up to when we wrote about the topic here in August, in Eight Issues in Author Ethics. Now facilitated by ALLi, it gives writers a chance to show their interest in ethical practice by displaying a badge on their sites.

No, there’s no policing mechanism, and certainly no guarantee that everyone who displays the #EthicalAuthor badge is conducting him- or herself ethically. But it’s a sign of the level of concern among many thinking, committed writers that this Code has been developed at all, even to elicit a simple, symbolic gesture toward what’s right and what isn’t.

While the leadership of one large US-based authors’ organization has communicated to me that they’re not interested in having their organization associated with the Code, their position on this is not as haphazardly disdainful as that might sound. That particular group is made up of seasoned veteran authors. They come to every issue these days with backgrounds primarily in traditional publishing and are learning self-publishing as a sort of second-life skill set to use in handling their backlists and some new work.

What they’re quietly trying to distance themselves from is the most uncomfortable element of the digital dynamic’s effect on the author corps — the most negative connotations of “amateurism.”

And what a difficult word and set of concepts that is for us in publishing: “amateurism” is something we don’t like to discuss, but need to.

Needless to say, a deeply professional, highly experienced author can be a complete creep. I’ve met them. You’ve met them. There are people at every level of every business who have that distinctive, negative impulse to get by, get past, get around everyone else — personal gain at all cost, by whatever means necessary, a focus on “Number One”… how easily the havoc wreaked by such people is unfairly applied to others who in no way deserve to be tarred with the same brush.

But as we start to learn more about the community psyche of a wide, diverse group of publishing people, our authors — and responses to the Ethical Author Code will reveal much more, of course — I think we’d do well to stiffen our resolve to look squarely at one effect of the digital dynamic: amateurism is one sweeping, potent evocation of what digital means in publishing.

The Digitally Enabled Amateur

My mother and her mother were both great fans of African violets. If they were alive now, as the digital dynamic puts tools of self-publishing into the hands of anyone who wants them, I cannot think that these two highly educated, endlessly energetic, and formidably creative women, mother and daughter, wouldn’t have seized on the idea of writing a book, maybe a series, on their experiences and joys in African violets.

So serious an interest was this for my grandmother that my grandfather built her a special hothouse attached to their home for the express purpose of raising and maintaining her plants under timer-driven grow-lights and amid automatic mistings and waterings.

But my mom and her mother would, in fact, for all their expertise in those violets, be amateurs in publishing.

It would be no insult to say that about them. Simply a fact. As smart as they were, they’d be the first to admit this. As industrious as they were, they’d be hell-bent to learn what they needed to know to escape the plight of the amateur, too, which is usually defined as this: Amateurs don’t know what they don’t know.

Today in publishing, we see wave after wave after wave of Internet-inspired would-be writers hurling themselves into efforts in self-publishing, without knowing what they don’t know. These are amateurs. That’s no aspersion, it’s simply the case.

Indeed, each of us was at some point an amateur in even our most accomplished realms.

There is nothing wrong with amateurism until it tries to deny itself, glorify itself, denigrate expertise and professionalism.

Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur (2007, Crown) was an early consideration of the effects of sudden digital enablement. In his introduction, Keen writes:

What happens, you might ask, when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule? The monkeys take over. Say goodbye to today’s experts and cultural gatekeepers — our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies, and Hollywood movie studios. In today’s cult of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show. With their infinite typewriters, they are authoring the future. And we may not like how it reads.

And now, seven years later, we still have (a) very little understanding of how to handle the impact of a vast influx of amateur talent (and sometimes not) on an industry, and (b) an abiding dislike of the topic.

We’re just plain squeamish when it comes to talking about this.

‘Amateurs Will Overrun Most Industries’

It was an odd entry in a series of more than 60 comments on a recent article I’d written at Writer Unboxed.

In answer to a supportive comment, I’d written this:

I agree that many of the newcomers inspired by digital capabilities to enter the fray think that writing is a simple paint-by-number thing. We are an industry overrun by amateurs. By way of comparison, imagine what would happen if the digital dynamic suddenly made it possible for everyone to design and produce cars. What would the auto industry look like then?

That was all it took to trigger a response from one reader who seemed to have a familiar kneejerk pro-amateur response at the ready.

“Amateurs will overrun most industries,” she wrote. And what a peculiar declaration.

  • Fortunately for all of us who travel, commercial jet manufacturing appears to be, as yet, not overrun by amateur engineers.
  • Most operations performed at most hospitals don’t appear to be the work of eager locals dropping in to do a little amateur gall bladder surgery after a long shift in their day jobs.
  • Folks who’ll truthfully tell you they’ve loved animals all their lives are not, in fact, ready to just step right into legitimate zookeeping positions without endangering the wild animals in their care.

There are any number of other examples, of course, of industries that I’m glad to say have not been overrun by amateurs and could hardly benefit from such an event.

But this respondent wasn’t finished. She went on to write:

Out of the chaos that is swirling around the publishing industry will come something amazing and new…But we can be fairly sure it won’t be coming from those who are now considered the professionals, although they will be reporting on it. So I say embrace the amateurs. 99.9% may be unsuccessful, but 0.1% will change the world.

This commenter was happy to dismiss “those who are now considered the professionals.” Nothing good would be coming from them.

Why would she think this? Where could she have come up with the idea that professionals aren’t able to lead us to bigger and better things?

How easily we can slip into such nonsense. And how unwise it is to let that happen.

Four Points On #EthicalAuthor And Amateurism

(1) The Ethical Author Code has been created by authors, for authors, about authors. No “industry gatekeepers” are at work here. No “legacy publishing” force is trying to impose its will on authors’ careers and conduct. This is about authors talking to each other, working with each other, standing up for each other.

(2) If The Ethical Author Code had been created and promulgated by industry professionals, there would be nothing wrong with that. There is no reason to think that professionals, rich in experience and exacting in good practice, are somehow blinded to aesthetic and creative advances. Quite the contrary.

(3) There also is no reason to automatically glorify or denigrate amateurism. It is, in fact, frequently costly and sometimes marked by the natural, understandable, but at times woeful mistakes of well-intended people who “don’t know what they don’t know.” While we want to welcome fine, engaged amateur talent inspired by the bracing potential of digital publishing, we can do no less than face the facts of their amateurism and encourage them to learn quickly and well what they need to know, as fully vested members of the industry.

(4) The more we can do to cool the emotional components of these discussions, the better. If you find yourself tensing up when you hear a mention of amateurism — or if you feel defensive and defiant as soon as someone mentions a corporate “gatekeeper” in the publishing establishment — that’s your cue to slow down, check what you can do to release those gut reactions: think past them.

The Bookseller’s Philip Jones ended on a great note in his essay, Output remixed this week when he wrote:

Ironically, a world in which everything is available, and anyone can publish, is one that reinforces the value of the professional. That problem is an opportunity.

Look at all these moments, such as the Ethical Author Code’s advent, as an opportunity to embrace the influx of new blood into publishing — and do it honestly.

It’s time to talk about amateurism, fairly and directly.