Unforced errors

Three stories of poor authorial behavior

Unforced errors
Image: U.S. Marine Corps

If you've paid any attention to the online sphere of book publishing over the course of the last couple of weeks, there's been a whole lot of drama. As a rule, I avoid highlighting the "authors/creators/people acting badly online" types of stories, but I think there's a bigger lesson to be learned between the three of them: it's far healthier to act well with your peers online than not.

Cait Corrain's sockpuppet reviews

It's never a good thing when the online book drama spills over into actual, mainstream news, but that's what happened with a debut author named Cait Corrain, whose book Crown of Starlight was due to hit stores next May.

By all accounts, it had earned some good buzz within the YA community, until it turned out that they had opened a whole bunch of accounts on GoodReads to leave a slew of negative reviews for a handful of other debut authors (who happened to be mostly authors of color). A bunch of other authors and reviewers noted that these sockpuppet accounts seemed to be boosting one another, and pretty quickly realized what was happening. Corrain first tried to blame a friend for the reviews, then admitted that it was their doing.

The consequences have been pretty swift: Corrain was dropped by their publisher and agent, and their book was pulled from the schedule. It seems pretty likely that their career as an author is over before it started. They apologized and say that they're checking into a treatment facility to recover, and hopefully, they'll find the help they need. Maybe they'll attempt to find another publisher or self-publish it, but folks within the publishing community have long memories for that. As one friend put it, it's like R.F. Kuang's novel Yellowface come to life.

There's been a lot of takes on this entire episode: from the optics to the apology to the pressures of a debut author, but one of the best that I've read is from Charlie Jane Anders on her fantastic newsletter Happy Dancing, in which she talks about the problems that allow this sort of thing to happen: Goodreads itself, and the mechanics of the reviews that go up on the site.

I don't think I've ever heard an author say that they like the site. I know I'm not a huge fan: the only reasons I use it is for the annual book challenge and to remember what I've got on my to-read list. Ratings are incredibly annoying when it comes to reviews, because everyone gravitates towards the ends of the spectrum. I can completely understand an author getting in over their head over the perceived completion that this environment fosters. Anders has some good suggestions for how to reform the system a bit more, and it's worth reading and thinking about if you're a reviewer or consumer. (Also, here's your reminder that if you have books you like, leave a review of them! The people who read it and hate it will certainly be doing that.)

Writing, reviews, and building bland worlds through meaningless numbers

Fanfic author's lawsuit backfires

If there's one tenet of fan fiction, it's that you never, ever try and profit off of your work. An author named Demetrious Polychron seems to have not learned that lesson: back in April, he filed a lawsuit against the Tolkien Estate, the Tolkien Trust, Amazon, Amazon Studios, John D. Payne, Patrick McKay, Simon Tolkien, Jennifer Salke, and Jeff Bezos for infringing on his copyright of his sequel to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the King, saying that the studio's streaming series Rings of Power had taken ideas from it.

Fan fiction is the lifeblood of fandom
Fan fiction’s strength isn’t based on its literary merits, but on the fans that it brings together

First of all, probably not, and second of all, suing a rights-holder for stealing ideas from a book in which you've technically stolen IP from said rightsholder is a baller move. Polychron has been ordered to destroy all of the copies of his books and pay Amazon and the Tolkiens legal fees.

I can't fathom what this guy was trying to accomplish, other than getting a court to order him to pay lots of money to the people he was suing. He'd have been better off buying 6,700 copies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (or 1,914 copies of the spiffy illustrated edition.)

And finally, the latest tempest-in-a-teapot comes from an author named Lauren Davis, who took issue with another author's (Marve Michael Anson) announcement of an upcoming book in which her main character has some special, sun-based powers. Davis made some vague claims about copyright infringement when she called Anson out. The two books don't really sound like they're all that similar, outside of some of the characters having some similar abilities and situations?

That doesn't strike me as the level to which you'd have actual copyright infringement, and according to the U.S. Copyright office, "copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner." Taking characters from Tolkien's legendarium and turning them into your own sequel book series is a big copyright violation. Happening to have similar tropes, character types, and other fixtures in a book isn't – you'd see big media owners stomping on any number of authors and creators for their works over perceived similarities. Even when there is a direct connection, like in the instance of E. L. James and her Fifty Shades of Grey novels (which originated as fanfiction for Stephanie Meyers' Twilight novels) or Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara (inspired somewhat by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings), there are still ways to "file off the serial numbers" and come up with an original work.

My guess is that this is an instance of an author getting a bee in her bonnet over a misunderstanding over what copyright law actually is, and after being Book Twitter's main character of the day, will figure the situation out somehow.

As I noted, I don't really like highlighting or engaging in these sorts of stories. Everyone has a bad day, and the mechanics of social media make it extremely easy for things to snowball quickly and badly. The internet can be utterly ruthless, and while there are people who say or do things that certainly deserve consequences for their behavior, there are others who've had their lives ruined over misunderstandings or even mistakes that they could have otherwise learned from.

What struck me about these three instances is how avoidable each of these situations could have been. Corrain could have decided not to open up multiple sockpuppet accounts to ding her perceived competition. Polychron went out of his way to poke Amazon's / Tolkien's lawyers, and Davis decided to approach an author out of the blue and threaten copyright infringement. None of these situations needed to happen, and did because of some pretty bad choices on their respective parts. These are all pretty dramatic instances, too. These aren't just spur-of-the-moment decisions: there was work involved, whether it's hiring lawyers or setting up accounts.

The thing that really gets me here is that the book world really isn't a zero-sum game. This isn't Highlander, where there can be only one: the authors that are working alongside you are to an extent some competition, but not really. They can be colleagues and friends and supporters who can boost and cheer you on. I can count a handful of authors who're in the same rough field as me: Aidan Moher (Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West), Ryan Britt (The Spice Must Flow: The Story of Dune from Cult Novels to Visionary Sci-Fi Movies and Phasers on Stun!: How the Making (And Remaking) of Star Trek Changed the World), and Adam Rowe (Worlds Beyond Time: Sci-Fi Art of the 1970s), all of whom are great people and who've written some excellent nonfiction books about the genre we all love. (I've also been saying that I'll interview them over their books and haven't, because I'm a bad and forgetful and overwhelmed person. Someday?) I can't imagine doing any of these things to them, not because the consequences would be bad, but because it's just not a great thing to do to people you like and admire – or anyone.

I've seen this sentiment echoed from a lot of other authors around the SF/F world. Surviving in the publishing world has always been a difficult endeavor without the worry that your fellow authors are out to cut your throat. It's better to be supportive and enthusiastic amongst your peers simply because it's a good thing to do. Communities are built on mutual support, and there's no faster way of getting drummed out of one by acting out and undermining those supports.

A couple of years ago, one Twitter user summed up the online experience nicely: "Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it."

Good words to live by.